171. Burnout

Unrealistic expectations and increasing workloads have been present in higher ed for a long time, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In this episode, Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark joins us to talk about the realities of burnout and the need for self-care.

Rebecca  is a Teaching and Learning Specialist for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech. Rebecca is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching, the co-editor of Redesigning Liberal Education: Innovative Design for a 21st Century Undergraduate Education, and is currently completing a new book on burnout and women faculty.

Show Notes

  • Project board with three columns: Backlog, Work in progress and done. The Done column is layers of stickynotes and the work in progress only has a few items.
    Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s current project board

Transcript

John: Unrealistic expectations and increasing workloads have been present in higher ed for a long time, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In this episode we talk about the realities of burnout and the need for self-care.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark. She is a Teaching and Learning Specialist for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech. Rebecca is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching, the co-editor of Redesigning Liberal Education: Innovative Design for a 21st Century Undergraduate Education, and is currently completing a new book on burnout and women faculty. Welcome, Rebecca.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Thank you so much for having me… big fan of the show.

John: Happy to have you here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Rebecca, are you drinking tea?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: I am. I take teaching and tea very seriously. So I’m drinking PG Tips from England this morning.

John: We have some of that in our office.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: It’s a favorite. [LAUGHTER]

John: I still have some Christmas tea with cinnamon.

Rebecca: Yum.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: mmm, sounds lovely.

Rebecca: And I’m on I think my last pot of my loose leaf Scottish breakfast tea.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Ooh.

Rebecca: I’ll have to move on to something else.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yum. I’m a big fan of Irish.

Rebecca: The Scottish was a discovery for me during the pandemic, and I’ve been a little obsessed.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: [LAUGHTER] I’ll have to try that

Rebecca: My grandmother’s from Scotland, so maybe it’s that. I don’t know.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, my grandmother’s from England. So I gravitate towards the English breakfast tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your work on faculty burnout. Perhaps we could begin by describing what burnout looks and feels like.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Sure. So the World Health Organization defined burnout recently as a workplace related syndrome characterized by unrelenting stress that is unmanageable, specifically in the workplace. So that’s the definition that we’re mostly working from right now. And burnout has three characteristics that you can be on the lookout for. First, there’s exhaustion, so that mental, intellectual, emotional, exhaustion, where it’s just difficult to get out of bed in the morning, because everything is so tiring. The second sign is cynicism, or depersonalization. There’s cynicism toward the people that you work with, towards the job that you’re doing. You stop being people really as individuals, and they seem more like kind of an amorphous group. And then the last one is this lack of a sense of meaning or accomplishment. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see the value of the work that you’re doing. We all kind of know what those three things feel like at the end of the semester. But this burnout, as we’re defining it, by the World Health Organization, is a sustained pace of unrelenting stress. And that looks different for everyone. And you can look for common signs like pulling away and isolating from the work context, unexplainable anger, an inability to concentrate or sustain thought to the level that you’re used to, and an inability to write for some folks. And that was one of my problems when I went through burnout. So those can be kind of heartbreaking things and not knowing what’s going on with that. And then if you don’t have a language for burnout, it can often feel like shame, because you can’t emotionally and intellectually do what you’ve always done. And the brain just doesn’t work that well under that kind of stress.

John: And during a pandemic, those things become much more serious. And a lot of it is people are trying to reach the standards they had set for themselves, but aren’t quite able to during the circumstances, and that gets really frustrating. So why do we set such high standards for ourselves and each other at any time, but during a pandemic, in particular?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Oh, it’s endemic to the culture of higher education. The people who are attracted to higher education often come from a kind of a similar personality type, not to say that that’s a total stereotype. But we all have kind of a predilection toward achieving and excellence and knowledge and lifelong learning. And those are wonderful things. But when they get taken to a certain extreme, it becomes really difficult to see past this kind of expectation escalation, every step has to be a little bigger than the last step. And that’s an expectation. It’s not necessarily just something that we put in our own head. So higher education culture really does push that on us in a lot of ways. Burnout, specifically, is really hard in, like I said, the caring work like health care and teaching. And we have to think about: “What are the positive rewards on that?” So sometimes burnout comes from not enough rewards, from not enough positive interactions. And those can be part of the stress, and we have to really think that workplaces cause burnout. The definition and the research that we see says it is very workplace specific. But that doesn’t necessarily mean if you move over to another job, that those kinds of things are going to go away, especially in higher education, because the culture, the expectation escalation, there is kind of an unrelenting pace, and there’s no room to just kind of fit and be content or rest. And one thing I do want to point out too is that burnout itself is not a mental health illness. It’s a syndrome associated with stress. So there’s more that you can do to manage burnout, before it gets bad if you can catch it early enough.

John: For faculty,referring to what you said earlier, one of the symptoms is perhaps dehumanizing your students and, as you said, treating your students as this amorphous blob, rather than as individuals. And I think we often hear some of that in some of our colleagues who’ve reached their limit by the end of the semester, but when that becomes persistent, it becomes I think, a more serious issue.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, that was definitely my problem when I went through my own severe burnout. I was a teacher’s teacher, right? I mean, That was all I wanted to do. My entire tenure case was built on teaching and scholarship of teaching and learning. So when I started to pull away from my students, when I started to feel very negatively about them and their concerns, I was a tenure track faculty member tenured for 12 years plus five years teaching undergraduates with graduate students. So at that point, you’ve kind of seen everything in a way it feels like,so the compassion fatigue starts to set in, because it becomes repetitive for you. It’s the same thing over and over again. And that’s exactly where students should be. Right? That’s their developmental age. Of course, they should be there. The compassion dries up, and the empathy starts to dry up. And that’s a pretty big sign to look for burnout.

Rebecca: How does this impact newer faculty or mid-career faculty differently than faculty that have been around for longer?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: In some ways, I don’t feel like, at this point, there is a big distinction. I think we can all be prone to it. I think we are all prone to it. I think we probably experience in different ways. And by the time I went through my burnout, I was relatively close to going up for full professor and had been successful and was pleased with my career. But it just wasn’t the same anymore. I couldn’t find joy in it anymore. I started having panic attacks just going to campus. Those are signals to look for. And I think we all go through ebbs and flows. Yes, it was more stressful as a junior faculty member, especially given the expectations of graduate students coming out these days. It’s crazy. And what graduate students need to do and be prepared to get those few rare tenure-track positions is exponentially bigger than what I had to do when I finished my PhD 14 years ago. And especially in the pandemic, those poor junior faculty are thinking about their tenure clock, they’re thinking about the tenure case, they might have caregiving responsibilities at home. When do you have time to write? This kind of unrelenting stress makes it really difficult to focus and difficult to think. And I think a lot of the folks who are being productive now, that’s amazing. It could be a coping mechanism that some of us don’t have or don’t have the luxury of. So I really do feel for junior faculty, especially when all of those things are so uncertain. What’s the clock look like? How do you account for the time and publication and presentations in your clock? And I think burnout can be kind of common right after receiving tenure for folks, because there’s a sudden, “what if” kind of that midlife crisis there too. But it depends on how your workplace is kind of playing out in a lot of ways and that the people that you’re engaging with, the activities that you’re doing, things that you are responsible for, that you feel like you can’t step away from. So I think we can all be prone to burnout at any point, if we’re not at least on the lookout for it.

Rebecca: One of the things that you hinted at and that we’ve talked about on a previous podcast related to the pandemic is some of the particular challenges that affect women or faculty of color or contingent faculty who may have some of those additional caregiving responsibilities or other things that are happening if they’re working from home.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Right. And we know from higher education research that women, faculty of color, and contingent faculty, especially, tend to teach larger numbers of students. So they’re already doing significantly more emotional labor on our campuses than we might know. Because it’s hidden, it’s silent. And these populations are often called to do more significant service, more significant mentoring. So more time means more and more potential for secondary traumas on top of all the quote unquote normal workload, and whatever might be going on for them at home as well. It could be childcare, it could be eldercare, it could be a number of different things that they didn’t expect, or they didn’t have on their plates necessarily during work hours. So it’s going to impact time, it’s going to impact attention, the ability to research and write, and it’s just a heavy emotional load. Faculty, for the most part, are not trained counselors. We don’t have that skill set, necessarily. And we shouldn’t be asked, necessarily, to be counselors. But we need some skills to help our students as we’re all going through this unrelenting trauma right now, it’s impacting all of us. So we have to build up our own mental health and our own resilience to be able to help our students work through what they’re going through. And as a woman faculty member, faculty of color, we work with more students, and we see more students and students may be more comfortable talking to us about the struggles that they’re having. So how do we engage with them and point them to the resources that they need? We can be empathetic, but if you’re not a trained counselor, how do we connect them with the resources that are going to help them? And I think one blessing right now is that student mental health had been an issue that was gaining a lot of attention and a lot of traction in higher ed, so there are much better systems in place at many institutions for student mental health, as resources are available. So if we know what those are, we can direct our students to them, and we can ask them for help in helping our students. But we can’t help others if we aren’t helping ourselves. How do we take care of ourselves so that we can take care of our students as well, whatever that means for you?

John: What are some strategies that faculty could use to help mitigate burnout, to make it less likely, or at least reduce its impact?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: There’s a lot of things we can think about. And depending on how far down the scale you are in burnout therapy might be the best option. And that’s something to talk to your mental health care provider about. Most institutions have EAPs that might offer you some initial conversations with a mental health professional or a coach. So you could take advantage of that to kind of see where you are. Another point of, I don’t want to say diagnosis, but another point of maybe a way to kind of see where you are on a scale is to check out the Maslach Burnout I Inventory. Christina Maslach. It’s kind of the grande dame of burnout research. And she and her colleagues have one of the most validated scales for burnout right now, and inventories. So if you Google that, there’s a $15 version for educators, and that’ll show you where you are on those three dimensions of burnout, so you have a sense of what the challenges are, so that you can direct your attention to those specifically. When I took it, I was almost off the charts. So I waited way too long, because I didn’t have a language for what was happening to me. And I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk about it, because it was shameful. I couldn’t think straight anymore. I couldn’t decide what to eat for lunch, I had a panic attack when I got near campus. So if you’re a kind of a hard charging academic, and those things start happening to you, you start questioning “What is going on?” And how do you not display that weakness to other people. So the first thing after therapy, if that’s what you need in diagnosis, is connection. And that’s one of the earliest things that’s going to go, because you do start to isolate yourself. But once I started talking about my burnout, people came out of the woodwork, which is both good, because people are talking about it, and both terrible, because there are so many folks who have told me their stories, and they’re just sad… not just that their mental health, but their physical health has been impacted by burnout. So I think we can do a lot of things. Connection is the first thing and that might be talking to a trusted circle of folks around you that may or may not be in higher education, reaching out to folks in your counseling centers if those are available, reaching out to your centers for teaching and learning and faculty development, they might have coaching opportunities for you or, I know that my institution, we’re talking about how we can develop some programming for our faculty that they can come into and get a conversation and see that they’re not alone, which is a big part of starting recovery, honestly. So some of the things that I do recommend are redefining what your sense of productivity is. We talked a little earlier about that sense of expectation escalation. Once you’ve written a paper in this journal, you need to get into a better journal, you need to get into another better journal, then you need to get a book contract. And once that book is out, everything else needs to be a book with a better publisher. It’s almost never ending. When do we be content? I talked to one faculty member who was at an institution where the administration felt like there weren’t enough women in full professorships. So they wanted to hold events to convince women to go up for full professor. But many of the women at that institution were content where they were, and they had fulfilling careers. They had fulfilling family lives. They were happy at that thought in their career, which is sometimes kind of rare, I think, you know, to feel that kind of contentedness. So why push that just for kind of a sense of it almost feels like kind of a performativity of that. So rethink what productivity means. The uncertainty seems never ending. Now that the vaccines are out, I think maybe we have some hope that there’s an end in sight. But that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to write right now or do your research, especially if you’re doing research with people that you can’t interact with right now, whether that’s colleagues or contributors or a population that you study, right? It’s difficult. So what can you do now? and what is reasonable? And I think there needs to be transparency with administration at this point. They need to be having conversations about what’s reasonable right now, when we’re going through this. Not that this year is a total waste by any stretch. But we need to temper expectations for what productivity means and what we can realistically do right now. Some other options are setting some boundaries for yourself. Self care is a buzzword, we all talk about self care, the need to take care of myself, but we often think of it in a very superficial way: I’m going to get a massage, I’m going to get a pedicure, I’m going to go fishing for the weekend. And those are wonderful things, but they don’t necessarily take care of you in the long run. They don’t necessarily take care of your mental health in the long run. So setting boundaries is one of the key ways that you can take care of yourself. Brene Brown talks a lot about boundary setting and how to hold those boundaries. So that’s a resource to look into. But if we set boundaries for ourselves, we can model that for others, as well, right? We can’t start changing the culture of productivity until we all start thinking about what we’re doing and how we do it. And how we model those things for folks who are upcoming,

Rebecca: Sometimes setting boundaries can be difficult, at least initially. But I’ve discovered, and I think others will discover this too, that if you start small, it becomes a habit, and you can make bigger boundaries. And it really does help to have those boundaries, either in time or expectation boundaries in terms of how fast to respond to students. And once you have the boundaries set and you are okay with them, it’s pretty easy for other people to respect them, but you have to respect them yourself.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes, absolutely, it’s like sending that time aside in your calendar or really committing to not checking email after 5pm and those kinds of things that we just kind of take for granted.

Rebecca: It’s so hard.

REBECCA P. It really is.

John:…and sharing those with your students can be helpful too, so that they know they should not expect a response at 2am or at 6am. Because otherwise, they might feel neglected if they don’t get an immediate response. But if they know that there are certain times when you will not be responding, they’re much more willing to accept it.

Rebecca: Or even sharing that your response time is at a weird time I respond at 5am. Because I have a small child. And that’s when I can.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, whatever boundary works for you.

John: I do have to say, our administration has been really good about this. Our Provost, at the end of his email, has a message saying he does not expect responses out of work hours or over weekends, I don’t remember the exact wording, but basically, he’s letting us know that we don’t have to respond right away. He’s writing to us when he has a free moment. But he expects us to do it when we have time during our regular work time. The Dean of Arts and Sciences has been wonderful in working with faculty and encouraging them to take breaks to do other things, to get away. And that’s been really helpful for faculty here.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: One thing that I think people can find helpful too, is hobbies. And I think sometimes when we’re kind of in the ruts and the hustle and the bustle, we let those things go by the wayside. But if you have a hobby or a pastime, that is kind of encompassing, and that helps turn your brain around… I ride horses, my husband has motorcycles… so, those are things that you have to focus on, you don’t want to not be mentally present if you’re on a horse, right? [LAUGHTER] …that’s not some place you want to be. So hobbies, whether it’s painting or music or garage science, whatever it is that makes you turn the brain off and think about things in a very different way, can be extremely helpful for your mental health as well.

Rebecca: And fun.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes. [LAUGHTER] Let yourself have fun.

Rebecca: Imagine that.

REBECCA P.: I’m a terrible horseback rider, I’m never gonna compete. [LAUGHTER] But, it’s fun. So, let yourself have that. When you see competition everywhere. I mean, that’s a feature of higher education as well, because there’s always someone who’s a little bit better than you doing a little bit more than you, that becomes the bar. And going back to that idea of how can we be content where we are. Striving is good lifelong learning is good, but when it becomes this unrelenting pursuit without a purpose behind it, that’s when we need to stop and think because burnout can be close behind that.

John: You’ve also suggested in some of your writing that during a pandemic, we should accept some degree of mediocrity in our work. That we can’t expect to deliver our courses in the same way we’re used to, or necessarily at a very high level of quality. I think that’s a very helpful suggestion.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: John, I get kind of in trouble for using the word mediocrity. But as academics know, our standards are very high, whether that’s in your research or your teaching and service. Really, what I’m arguing is, take a step back, or take two steps back. We are not in a place as a society where we can have really deep thoughts, for many of us. And the more we beat ourselves up for that, the worse it’s going to get. And the worst burnout is going to chase you. In addition to all the trauma that we’re getting from the pandemic, and all the social injustice in the world. Really what I mean is taking a couple steps back, you can still be rigorous, you can still do good courses, your students can still learn in whatever context, if you are flexible in ways that you might not have been before. I think common humanity is really important. We may be seeing the humanity of our students in very different ways. And they’re seeing our humanity in very different ways now, and that’s a good thing. Because they know that we’re not robots, and they’re not alone in the things that they’re feeling and that we’re concerned, we’re struggling, we are experiencing the burnout that they may be experiencing as well. So if we can be human with them, if we can lower some of our standards. And again, that sounds bad, you don’t want to lower your standards, but you can get there in different ways. There might be different ways than high stakes exams, for example, which we know are already very complicated emotionally and intellectually when you’re doing them in a fully remote course, for example. There’s a lot of things there to consider. So how can we help our students learn in ways that are productive, maybe a little bit more fun, but still focus on the learning and the learning objectives, rather than what you have always done in the past. And your students will appreciate that too.

John: And that’s not a bad strategy under any circumstances, but especially during this pandemic. But just as faculty are experiencing burnout, so are many of our students. I know a lot of students sort of faded away. And we heard the story from many of our colleagues this past fall, that students were getting burnt out from all the hours they were spending in Zoom. And what they felt was an increase in the amount of work demanded from them, which may or may not have been the case, but certainly it felt that way to them. What can we do to help our students avoid burnout? You’ve suggested that a little bit by doing some things that are a little more engaging, and perhaps more fun ways than just taking high-stakes exams. Not that there’s much that could be more fun than that. [LAUGHTER] But what can we do to help our students get through this, perhaps, while still meeting those learning objectives?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Well, I think the first thing we can do is listen to them. So I have a lot of colleagues to our maybe weekly doing very short check-ins with their students maybe via Canvas survey or Qualtrics. Just, “How are you doing?” “Where are you in this unit?” “What’s still unclear to you?” …those kinds of things. So they’re checking in on their students’ stresses regularly. And these aren’t long surveys by any stretch. You can do more active learning with your students. I think one of the reasons that students might be feeling like there’s more work is that when we’re switching to more lower-stakes assignments, and more of those, it seems like more work, because you now have 10 homeworks, instead of two giant tests. So it feels like more work. So I think part of it is really looking honestly at what you’re asking your students to do. And is it comparable? …because it should be comparable, or even maybe a little less. But if you have other opportunities for them to engage, whether it’s in the hybrid environment, or in a remote environment, that there are different ways for them to engage the material, to engage with you. And explain why you’re doing things the way you’re doing them. Why is this a great project? Why are you doing these smaller quizzes instead of the big test? And focus on the learning aspects of those not the “I’m not doing big tests, because cheating is rampant…” That’s not going to help anyone. [LAUGHTER] So I’m doing this because it’ll help you learn over time, and it’ll help me see how you’re doing and check in with you, and we’re all going to get to where we were going, we’re just going to get there maybe differently than we would if we were all face to face all the time.

Rebecca: One of the things that I started noticing or that students were disclosing to me is that having more asynchronous opportunities was feeling like more work because they weren’t used to having to manage their time. So, although maybe the same amount of time was being spent on task, it wasn’t being curated in the same way, they might come into the classroom and do some active learning during class time. And maybe we were expecting them to do something similar outside of class on their own, but now that just felt like crazy big ask.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: And when you move big class discussions to a discussion board, suddenly they have to write things instead of have a conversation. So that does feel like more work. And in some ways it is, especially when it’s asynchronous, because then it’s over time, you have to keep going back to this discussion, rather than having it in class for an hour. So I think we just have to think about some of the realities associated with this. And I think we have to be listening to the folks who are experts in online education. It’s a different medium, there’s a lot of different pedagogical challenges and opportunities. But that’s another faculty stressor right now is many of us are completely pushing and flipping and hybridizing in ways that we never expected to be doing. So it’s another case of common humanity, right? So you can tell your students that this is unusual for you, you’re learning along with them in that sense. So that feedback from them is really helpful to make sure that they’re learning the way you want them to be learning and working toward the course objectives. But still in a fair and consistent way with the learning objectives.

Rebecca: Noticing behind you that you’re practicing what you preach with a backlog and works in progress and done….it looks like an agile project board. [LAUGHTER]

REBECCA P.: It is.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how some of the strategies in Agile Faculty might help in addressing burnout?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Sure. I think when you distill Agile Faculty and process down to its core, it’s about prioritizing and breaking things down into small chunks of work. I mean, that’s at the basic. You can layer the other things on top of it and the processes and the meetings. But I think visualizing the work, breaking down the work into small doable chunks, the example that I like to use as if you write literature review on your to do list, it’s gonna stay there for a month. And it’s gonna haunt you. Because there are a million little things you need to do to write a lit review. But if you break those down, and you visualize them, like the board behind me (and I can send everybody an image of that for the show notes, if that’s helpful), when you break them down and you see them, it doesn’t feel like you need eight hours of totally open time to do this thing. This thing might take an hour, this thing might take a half an hour, and it builds up over time, and you can see that. And seeing that visual progress is a wonderful psychological boost, especially if you use a physical board. I would love to do a study about what psychologically happens to people when they move sticky notes on a board. My students regularly cheer when they move something into the done column. They feel that success. So breaking things down as small as you can, realistically, of course, and then prioritizing what you can do now, and then just working consistently on small chunks when you have time.

John: And you also mentioned that there are a number of apps available for those people who are working on activities and groups. Could you share some of the apps that people might use for collaborative work online during this time?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, I mean, you always have Google Suites… that’s helpful. Trello is a board software that I know people use, that you can set up lanes and things like you can on a board, if you need to do that digitally. Padlet might be another thing that you might be able to use. I love Mentimeter, so I’m trying to think if there’s a connection to Mentimeter, but I’m not sure that there is. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think that there is.

John: Jamboard, maybe?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, probably. Anything that kind of looks like a digital whiteboard, and those kinds of things,where you can put squares or sticky notes and things like that you can use. I’m a big proponent of a physical board, but that’s completely unrealistic right now. So something like Trello doesn’t have a huge learning curve. Padlet does not have a huge learning curve. So those are software’s that are available free that students can use, and that you can use with your research teams. And the nice thing about the boards as well when they’re digital, especially for student teams, for research teams, too, is that when you, as a faculty member, have access to those, you can keep track about what students are accomplishing, and not in a surveillance way but in a learning way. Okay, they seem stuck here. This thing hasn’t moved for a while. So I’m gonna have a conversation with this group. Or, most of the group seems stuck in this particular piece of the assignment, so let’s have a conversation about that. So it opens up opportunities for just-in-time learning as well, when you can physically see their progress.

Rebecca: I’ve used Trello with students and they had no problem catching on to how to use it, you can also make templates to get them started, so if they’ve never done any project management like that before, you can get them going pretty easily, which can be really helpful too. And they really appreciated learning how to manage their time. And this is a way to manage their time, just like faculty sometimes need to learn how to manage their time.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, I frequently talk to faculty who, it kind of occurs to them, when they attend one of my workshops that they just assume that their students knew how to collaborate. They teach students how to write a lab report, they teach students how to give a good speech, those kinds of things. We don’t teach them necessarily how to manage their time or to collaborate successfully, and even just spending a little time on that could pay huge learning dividends for the students. So we need to think about some of the things that we take for granted.

John: Are there any other topics that you’d like to address that we haven’t addressed yet?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, I think I would like to just remind people that we need to normalize burnout through having the conversations about it, that this is not something that shameful, especially now we’re all struggling. And it’s not even creeping up on us anymore. It’s there, and it’s present. And it’s something that you can recognize, it is something that you can deal with the signs of. And across that spectrum, there’s a variety of ways to do that, but I think we need to normalize the conversation, but we need to change the culture that makes it normal. This is a cultural issue. Workplaces lead to burnout. Yes, as members of that culture, we perpetuate it, but it’s not going to change unless we really start arguing against it…modeling different things for junior faculty, for our graduate students, for our undergraduate students, and make those changes that live up to the values of lifelong learning and the pursuit of knowledge in ways that don’t become so competition based and kind of so capitalistic that we don’t lose track of the real reason and the purpose that we’re there.

Rebecca: Yeah, this is so important, and I think right now, during the pandemic, people are a little more willing to start to shift the culture. And so, although we don’t want to always say that there’s a silver lining with a pandemic, it’s one of those places where it’s a strategic time to start making change.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking “What’s next?” But that sounds very, very, very perpetuating of such a culture, it could be fun. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Well, I’m looking forward to a quiet Christmas with my husband and Zooming with my family as much as possible.over the break, I will be working on the burnout book, and I’m starting my own podcast. So, I’m playing with that, which is a lot of fun. So that’s what I’ll be doing, hopefully reading some books and trying to set boundaries for when I do work and when I let myself relax.

John: Could you ell us a little bit about this podcast?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Sure. I’m calling it The Agile Academic, it’s a podcast for women in higher education, and it’s going to be an interview show. I’m gonna launch it in January. And really, it’s just an excuse for me to talk to really cool women in higher education and around the higher education space. I think, again, one of the silver linings that we hate to call silver linings, is I feel like I have reached out to talk to more people than I ever would have without this, to have conversations with people I admire that I follow on Twitter that I would love to just have a conversation with. I was enjoying not so much that I said, “Why don’t we record these and let other people kind of peek into these conversations?” So the first season will be out in mid-January, and I’m really excited about it. It’s a lot of fun.

Rebecca: Sounds really exciting.

John: Have you set up a site yet?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, for right now, if you just send them to RebeccaPopeRuark.com, that’ll get them to the main site. And then there’s a tab right now that says “Listen to Me”, which is kind of selected stuff. And I’ll put the podcasts on there, too.

Rebecca: I look forward to listening to that.

John: I am too. And we started the podcast, mostly to do some professional development. But one of the things I think I’ve enjoyed the most. And I think Rebecca has too, is the ability to do exactly that, to talk to some of the people we admire the most and who are doing some really interesting work that we’d like to learn more about.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: I wanted to do one for a long time. But I realized very quickly that I don’t like talking to myself, you know? [LAUGHTER] And if you’re gonna write a script, I’m a writer. So by the time I have a script, that’s like six blog posts, so, why should I record it? Yeah. So I’m excited with the interviews and talking to some great ladies.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing some really good advice. I hope the conversation about burnout really does open up and that more people have the conversation, see it as normal, and that we start to really shift that culture.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

John: Thank you. We’re looking forward to your new book. And I think we both really appreciated your past work. Rebecca has actually used some of this in her classes.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Oh, great, great. I hope it works well for you.

Rebecca: Definitely.

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

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

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170. Preparing for Spring 2021

The global pandemic forced many faculty to rapidly transition to new teaching modalities during the spring and summer of 2020, substantially increasing faculty workloads. In this episode, Dr. Carmen Macharaschwili joins us to explore some strategies that faculty might use to prepare for and manage the challenges of the spring 2021 semester.  Carmen has over 20 years of experience as an online instructor and researcher. She is also a Director of Academic Programs at the Association of College and University Educators, or ACUE.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The global pandemic forced many faculty to rapidly transition to new teaching modalities during the spring and summer of 2020, substantially increasing faculty workloads. In this episode, we explore some strategies that faculty might use to prepare for and manage the challenges of the spring 2021 semester.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Carmen Macharaschwili. Carmen has over 20 years of experience as an online instructor and researcher. She is also a Director of Academic Programs at the Association of College and University Educators, or ACUE. Welcome, Carmen.

Carmen: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

John: Our teas today are:

Carmen: Green tea.

Rebecca: Yum, I have Red Sun tea.

John: And I have Egyptian Licorice, an herbal tea today, because I’ve already had five or six cups of black tea, and I’d like to be able to get some sleep tonight. This was a gift actually. And it has a mix of licorice, cinnamon, orange peel, and a bunch of other things in it.

Rebecca: That’s a new one for you, John

John: It is. It even has black pepper and cloves.

Rebecca: It’s a debut tea, first time on this podcast.

John: It’s tasty. Actually. I think I’ve had it one time before.

Carmen: It sounds delicious.

John: It’s a Yogi tea. It was given to me by our former graduate student.

Rebecca: Oh, I know the one.

Carmen: That particular flavor sounds like it would be good with a little hot toddy whiskey in it as well.

John: It probably would. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Now you’re talking… now you’re talking 2020. [LAUGHTER]

John: And we’re recording this near the end of 2020. It’ll be released in early 2021.

Rebecca: That year will come. [LAUGHTER] So we’ve invited you here today to discuss how faculty should prepare for the uncertainties associated with another semester of teaching during the pandemic. As we all know, the workload is insane, and just not manageable or sustainable. Faculty were able to spend some time in the summer learning new tools and techniques, but that level of preparation and acting in crisis mode just can’t continue. So what can faculty do to start restoring some energy this spring.

Carmen: So I’ve been talking to a lot of faculty across the nation, and all of them are saying we are exhausted. So I think this is a common theme. And the thing I have been saying to everyone is make sure that you rest over break. So whenever this podcast is released, if you’re still on break, please give yourself some time to rest. And please plan on regular rest throughout the next semester, because we are all exhausted. And I was listening to another podcast about the American culture and how we have this culture where we reward people for working longer hours and working over the holidays, and how that’s just ridiculous. We are just way too focused on work sometimes. And in this podcast, they said that the way to get Americans to take a break is to tell them that they’re more productive if they do so. So I’m here to tell you, if you take a break, you will be more productive, and it will get done… and the research backs that. So that’s my number one. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: John, did you hear that? [LAUGHTER] John, if you take a break, you’re more productive.

John: I’ve heard rumors to that effect, and someday I hope to actually try that. [LAUGHTER] It has been a really challenging fall for everyone. And one of the things that made it much worse, and is likely to occur again in the spring, is that many colleges eliminated any breaks during the semester to keep students on campus so they wouldn’t spread the virus back and forth between their homes and their college communities. So planning in time for those breaks, I think, is going to be really important.

Carmen: Exactly. And it can be as little as… like my break I take every day as I walk my dog. It’s 15, 20 minutes, but I do it when I’m feeling very overwhelmed. And then when I get back, I have a clear head and I can go. so it doesn’t have to be like an extended vacation because we’re not going anywhere these days anyway, right? But just giving yourself some time where you’re able to just breathe and not think about all of these overwhelming things, I think is really, really important.

Rebecca: I went back to reading some fiction, which I have not done in like nine months. And it was really restorative. I read one book and I was like, “I feel human again.” I was doing that while I was grading. And that really, really helped. It also put me in a much better mood when I was looking at that student work.

Carmen: Which your students thank you for. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m sure they are. Yeah.[LAUGHTER]

Carmen: Yeah, ”restorative” is a great word, we need to remember that. I also think it’s a really good time to reflect. We went from the emergency teaching. And then we had the summer boot camps. I think it’s hilarious that a lot of people called them boot camps because that’s what they were: “Hurry up and figure out how to learn how to teach online.” And then we had fall and it was “Boom, boom, boom.” But now we know a lot of things. So from that we know what works, what doesn’t work. And so to stop and reflect before we go into the spring semester: What went well? What was frustrating? What feedback did you get from students? Reflect is a central part of our ACUE courses as we ask all faculty, when they try new things in the classroom, it’s really, really essential that you stop and reflect upon them and then make some better decisions from what you’re going to do next from your reflection.

John: We now have a second set of faculty who are just ending the second ACUE course, and one of the things we’ve appreciated at the teaching center is that we’ve given workshops on many things that are discussed in the ACUE course for many years and some people would attend those workshops year after year after year, because each time they intended to try it. The nice thing about ACUE, and also, to a large extent, one, I hate to say nice thing, about this whole pandemic is people were forced to try things that they had considered many times before, but never quite got around to because it’s always easy just to fall into patterns of doing the same thing. With the ACUE program, faculty have to implement things and then reflect on them. And once they get past that barrier of trying something the first time, it becomes so much easier to do it in the future. So we really appreciate that aspect of the ACUE program.

Carmen: Exactly. Me too. We know that that’s what research shows works. But if you’re not in ACUE you can do this as well. And again, you’ll be more productive, you’ll feel more confident in what you’re trying to implement, if you just take that moment to reflect upon how things have been going up until this point.

John: And if things worked, keep doing them. If things didn’t work, either revise it or,perhaps, stop.

Carmen: Exactly. That’s the other thing that we offer, as a best practice is the stop-start-continue survey in the middle of your course. What would you like me to stop doing, continue doing, start doing to make this course better. And I think that, when students say stop, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop, it means that maybe you can give them an explanation about why it’s important. But there might be some things that you do need to stop doing and reconsider. And the students could have some great input into that as well and help you.

John: I know, in one of my classes, I had some similar type surveys, and one of the things students kept asking was to stop using all these graphs, which is just something I couldn’t do. So I had to, though, help motivate it and explain why it’s really essential if they’re going to understand this and be able to apply these concepts that they understand the relationships that are captured in the graphs. I didn’t entirely convince all of them because that advice kept coming up from a couple students all through the term. But it is important to let students know you’re not doing this just to torture them, that it is an essential component of the learning objectives for the course.

Carmen: Exactly. And it can be very motivating, too, when they receive that explanation. And then they say, “Oh, okay, now I understand why I do this.” And maybe then they’ll be more likely to do it.

Rebecca: I think one thing that was nested in what you were talking about, in terms of reflection, based on some of your work that I’ve read, is that it’s not just about what’s good for students and student learning, but also what’s good for the instructor too, and being able to maintain the ability of getting feedback back in time, and all of those sorts of organizational things that might need to occur as well.

Carmen: Exactly. So that’s really important that one, we take it easy on ourselves. And I think we’ve kind of figured out that from emergency to establishing online learning to now that we’re not going to be able to use all the bells and whistles that are in our LMS, we’re not going to be able to do all of these high tech things. And other things I’ve been hearing from faculty is, guess what? Just because your students might be younger, that doesn’t mean that they’re tech savvy either. So let’s take it easy on ourselves and on our students and keep things simple. Evaluate what needs to be known in your course, rather than what’s nice to know. So there might be a lot of things you did in your classroom environment that you’re not able to do as much online, maybe it’s fewer readings, maybe it’s shorter lectures. But that’s okay, make sure that you’re looking at what your learning outcomes are… getting those across first. And then if you can add some fun things in: readings, podcasts, whatever, or bells and whistles, you can do that later. You don’t have to try and do everything perfectly right now.

John: One of the things that’s come across in lots of surveys of students is a feeling that they’re being asked to do a lot more work. Some of it may be the trauma that they’re dealing with that just makes the burden seem more, but some of it is that faculty in face-to-face classes would often ask students to do the reading and then assume they actually had. But as they’ve moved to either synchronous or asynchronous online, they put in more measures to assess students learning, which is actually forcing students to do reading that they might not always have done before. But that issue of increasing workload is something that I think has been a challenge for students and students routinely report that that’s a bit of a barrier. And there might be some issues there in terms of the cognitive load w e’re demanding of students in our classes, when we’re actually requiring them to do all the things in the past we had just kind of hoped or assumed that they were doing.

Carmen: I’m so glad you brought that up. Because I think about this all the time, especially now. It was about 15 years ago, I was part of a faculty program that was one of the first to go online at that institution. And we didn’t need to go online. it was this “We’re going to try going online.” And our immediate gut reaction was “It’s not the same as classroom, so we have to make sure that we justify the online environment. And we threw all of this work at our students, thinking that it was making up for the fact that we weren’t with them face to face. And I’ll never forget one of my students actually called me and asked me to go out for coffee with her. And she sat me down and she said, “You have got to stop.” She said, “We are all overwhelmed. Some of us are in tears. This program is overwhelming us.” And it really made us stop and have a meeting and think about, “Okay, what’s really important and what are we doing, and how are we trying to overcompensate.” And that student is now my boss. So, she was very wise to stop me, and she’s fantastic as a leader, but I was so grateful to her for stopping me and asking me to talk to the program group.

John: That’s another reason why it’s important to get that feedback, we can find out that sort of reaction because students might not always invite you out for coffee, especially during COVID.

Carmen: No, especially not now. [LAUGHTER] We don’t get to see them. But yes, we have to figure out what is working for them, what is not, and be flexible. I’m really excited about the fact that the silver lining in this whole situation is that we’re giving greater attention to our students than we ever have before. We’re forced to interact with them in a different way. And I think we are getting a lot of realizations about what’s going on in their home life, what other responsibilities they have, what their technology situation is… that maybe when we saw them every day, it was a lot easier to have more small-talk conversations, and now, when we actually get together, the things get a little bit more meaningful in our discussions. And we’re able to assess and guide them through how to learn online, where when we’re in the face-to-face classroom, we just have this assumption that this is the way we do things. So we’re all in this together. And I think it’s really important to also communicate with our students what our situations are, they appreciate that. In the ACUE course… again, sorry, this is my world… I get it all the time from faculty, they say, “I don’t feel comfortable telling my students that I don’t know this, or I’m not sure about that. Or that I’m taking a course to help me become a better teacher, I want them to think I already know what I’m doing.” But when they do, when they say I’m taking a course to help me to help you, their student evaluations go sky high, I hear it again and again and again. The students really appreciate that. And what you’re doing for them is you’re modeling this lifelong learning. If you think about it, right now, we’re teaching students who two or three or four years from now, the world’s already changed really quickly this year, and they might be in a world that we don’t even know what the jobs will be like, what new careers will be available. So we have to teach them this lifelong learning process, and how to switch and be flexible. And if we can model that for them, we’re setting them up for life.

Rebecca: When you were talking about their home lives and getting a little window into that, one of the things that students talk to me about is that, at home, their parents are treating their school lives differently than they would when they’re at school. So, as an academic, in a non-academic family, people think I don’t do anything during winter and summer breaks, that I’m just on vacation. Not true, right? But I think the same thing is happening to our students when they’re at home trying to learn and it’s something that people might not realize is happening to our students.

Carmen: I’ve had that same conversation with my family, they say ”Well, you’re not teaching right now. So what are you doing?” Well, all of the work comes before I actually am teaching, and after. Same with students, if you’re not actually physically in a classroom, there’s all of the work that still needs to be done. So I recommend for everyone to try and make sure you communicate with family, but also schedule a time on your calendar where you say, “I’m shutting the door,” or “this is my space right now,” like, before this podcast, I just told everybody to get off the internet and please leave me alone for an hour. We’re all living together in these smaller spaces, and nobody’s going anywhere, so we really need to communicate. And that could be especially difficult for first-generation students whose parents did not have the same college experience… really communicating to them why this is important, and what will come of the time that you give me now.

Rebecca: even coaching our students a little bit on some of the things that they might want to have conversations with their families about could be really helpful in developing a more supportive environment if they’re learning from home.

Carmen: Yes, that’s a great suggestion. And I think I heard, maybe it was on one of your podcasts, somebody saying that even creating assignments that involve asking the family questions, or something that’s going on that’s relevant to life right now, could also be helpful for students and families to understand

John: In an article you had in OpenStax, one of the things you mentioned was the issue of faculty trying to use every possible tool and overloading students. But you mentioned another type of problem, and this is something that is common when many people first start moving online, is they try to replicate what they were doing in a face-to-face class in an online class. They’ll spend a lot of time in really long, tedious, boring lectures and there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone talk on Zoom for an hour to an hour and a half. How can we help convince faculty that perhaps they do need to try some alternative approaches other than taking the ACUE course because we can’t get everybody into it?

Carmen: I liked that you brought this up because I will never forget. I even looked up this podcast… you can tell I listen to podcasts a lot. But NPR did a podcast in 2011, where there was a whole series of professors, physics professors, business professors, statistics professors saying, “We have to stop this large-lecture format, because you might be the most charismatic, wonderful lecture in the world, but unless students get a pause to think about what you’re talking about, maybe take some notes, talk to a friend next to them, or do something with that information, they might have really enjoyed your lecture, but they’re not going to retain as much of it as you would like.” And this particular person on the podcast said that at MIT, students were having competitions to see how many lectures they could miss and still find the information that they needed online… which is terrible, right? Like, this is not what we want. But students are smart, and they know that they can find the shortcuts, and then they’re losing a lot from you, the expert. So yes, we need to really think about what information we’re giving them, what amount of time we’re spending. So, for example, we can still do our lecture, but let’s chunk it into 10-minute periods, maybe stop and give them something that they should take notes on or reflect upon. Whether you’re synchronous or asynchronous, you could have them right in the chat room, the forum, or in a Zoom Breakout Room, discuss what they have just learned. There are many, many ways that we can give the information to students in bite-sized chunks. I’ve also seen research that says that our current generation of students are less likely to read emails, because they’re too long. Now this is crazy, because to me, emails aren’t very long unless you write a really, really long one. But really, the research shows that there are accustomed to sound bites and tweets. And so while we might want to train them to be able to sustain longer periods of reading than a tweet, we definitely need to take into account that that’s how we’re going to be able to communicate best with them is maybe give them something shorter to then engage into something deeper. So, we need to remember that. And I’m sorry, I think I’m even guilty of that. I think we’re so accustomed to the quick click on this, click on that, short read here, short headline there,that I don’t know how many people these days sit down and read a newspaper anymore. I think it’s all on our phones now.

John: It’s been a long time since I’ve physically held a newspaper in my hand, probably 15 years now. So it’s been a while. But even moving from tweets to Instagram to TikTok we see a similar reduction in the amount of time required to communicate and take in information.

Carmen: And can we train our students to do this? Yes, absolutely. But we just have to be aware that this is the reality of the situation. I even read something that the movies that we watch… they make me dizzy sometimes… but they’re made for the younger generation whose brains are already being formed differently. And they see a lot more in those rapid sequences than I can, just because I’m older than they are.

John: Actually movies provide sort of a counter argument to this shorter attention span, because students are perfectly willing to spend an hour and a half or two hours watching a movie and absorbing every second of it, because it’s created to be engaging. And if we could do some of that same type of thing in the classroom to create that same sort of engagement, not by lecturing at them, perhaps, but by getting them more involved with the narrative or with the story of what you’re trying to convey to them. And I should note, that’s one of the themes in Jim Lang’s book Distracted.

Carmen: That’s my book club book. Yes, I can’t wait to read it.

John: In fact, we’re going to be doing a book club reading group on our campus together with SUNY Plattsburgh this coming spring. So we’re looking forward to working with a group of faculty going through that.

Rebecca: One of the other things I wanted to circle back to that you mentioned too, Carmen, was these pauses to do the quizzing and whatever. It’s interesting that I cut back a little bit of the smaller assignments in my class as I was trying to reduce some workload and thinking about what’s necessary and what’s not, and you know what? My students asked for more of them.

Carmen: And why is that?

Rebecca: They wanted more because they wanted to be held accountable for the content in the videos or readings and stuff, and by having little practice assignments and things. I still had some of those, but they just wanted more, because they were helpful. So we sometimes think about workload and trying to balance what’s important or not. And asking the students can be really helpful because they asked, “Hey, can we have more of those little exercises?” I’ve even had them ask for like a quiz. It’s bizarre. You don’t think of students as asking for these kinds of things. But when they have a taste of a little bit of it, and they see that it helps them succeed, they want more.

Carmen: I think that that’s true on a lot of things. One story I like to share with my students. And this is a good place for faculty to start when they’re thinking about how to minimize the workload. Start with the learning outcomes. And if you’re super clear about what you want your students to know and be able to do when they leave your course, that will help. But the way I often start my class is I put the outcomes up or pass them out or put them up on the screen and say “Let’s look at these together, and I’d like to know what you think they mean.” And before they even see what the assignments are, “And how do you think you’re going to be able to show me that you’ve accomplished these learning outcomes?” And they often come up with much more challenging assignments than I would have ever assigned them and creative ways of doing these things. But I’m often astounded. I said, “Really, you want to do that much work?” [LAUGHTER] Because they often come up with things that are more challenging. We would think that they would try and find the easy way out. But no, they want to find what’s going to work. So yeah, they often rise above our expectations. I think.

Rebecca: Maybe it helps that a lot of my little exercises or challenges are like games, but still its a practice opportunity, and that’s really what they were looking for… something that was low-stakes practice, a little competitive, so they could have some fun and learn the material.

Carmen: Exactly. And speaking of fun, I think the thing that we’re all missing terribly right now is the social aspect of school, even just the little looks that you get in the classroom or chatting after you’re trying to go back to your class. And so I also think that we need to maybe incorporate more social opportunities around the learning. And one thing that I like to do in my class is assign buddies, or have people sign up for one or two people that they agree to meet with, and I leave it completely up to them how they want to meet. If they would rather just do a phone call, that’s great. A phone call. I mean, we don’t do that anymore. We text all the time, but we want them to connect, so please phone call, FaceTime, Zoom, whatever. If you’re in school, if you need to meet six feet apart (of course), just have a conversation about the topic. And it doesn’t all have to be on the computer screen, I think it’s really important that we give them those opportunities.

John: And the devices that you have in your pocket can be used apparently to make outgoing phone calls. They’re not just for the spam calls coming in. {LAUGHTER] My mother reminds me of that, because she’s the one who I’m most likely to talk to on the phone these days, because it’s so rare that we actually make phone calls. But that sense of personal connection, it can be useful.

Carmen: And you can hold them accountable by asking one person in the group to summarize what they talked about in the forum, and that way, not everybody has to post every week in the forum. So there can be ways that you can do both things. Also, I did some research, my dissertation was actually about the different ways of engaging socially in the classroom in an online environment. And I found that when you are doing problem solving, creating something, or processing, that speaking to another person is the most valuable thing you can do. When you are doing an activity that you’re trying to understand some content or reflect upon some content, writing is the most appropriate way to address that. So when you’re planning your spring course, you should think about: “Am I asking them to really do some problem solving and big picture thinking?” Maybe this is the assignment where I asked them to buddy up. And also give them timelines. I was laughing with somebody just this morning about this, where they said, “Oh, I always plan this big assignment at the end, and they always do it the night before. And they’re asking for extensions. And I never thought that maybe I should give them: ‘You should have X done by this time, you should talk to your group at this time, and so on and so forth.” Everybody assumes that students know how to go to school. But really, I know you did a podcast about time management. Faculty who are at the highest level do not know how to time manage. So why do we expect our students to do this? We need to help them along, especially now where we’re in our house all day long.

John: You mentioned assigning people to teams or as buddies, and I thought it was worth talking about that. Because one thing that some faculty will do is just let people self-form groups. But there is some advantage, I think, to you doing the assignment. Could you talk a little bit about why it’s helpful to have the instructor create the buddy pairs or the groups?
.,

Carmen: Well, the most obvious reason, I think, is that if students don’t already know each other, it might just be a very awkward feeling situation to just start calling up somebody and talking to someone you don’t know. Another tip that is in our course that I learned this year from an instructor demonstrating it, is she uses her introduction forum to see when people make introductions, who are the people that are replying the most? Who are the people that are really just replying once? So in a normal classroom, it would be like who are the talkative ones and who are the quieter one. And then she forms those groups so that all of the talkative people aren’t in the same group. She balances it. So that’s another thing that you can do to make sure that you are assigning groups that are appropriate. The other way you could do it is maybe by topic. So you could have them tell you which topic or what their skills are. For example, if it’s a group project, if somebody says, “I’m really good at graphic design” or something like that, you can make sure one of those is in each group. So there’s many ways that you can do it, where you’re teaching students beyond “this is a person I like” but really how to work. All of us, when we get real jobs, we have to learn how to work with all sorts of people.

John: When I’m teaching an econometrics class, which is an applied statistics course, one of the things I do in creating groups is I ask students to list how many prior math and statistics courses they have, and just sort it so that there’s an even mix of the people with the most experience across all the groups. Because when students are allowed to self-form the groups, there are some students who may not know anyone and they would feel left out. And then there’s the students who know each other, and they may tend to socialize a little bit more in the group. And when the group is formed for a specific purpose, and they know it’s for that purpose, they’re more likely to focus on that, rather than they see it as being just a chance to chat with their friends.

Carmen: Exactly. And that brought to mind too, timezone needs to be taken into account. Because if everyone went home to work online from home, there might be different timezone issues that you need to take into account when assigning groups.

John: And going a little bit further, people have different schedules. There are some people who are early risers who really like to do all their classwork in the morning, especially if they have childcare responsibilities, or other home responsibilities. So somehow getting information on who would prefer to work early morning, who would prefer to work in the late afternoon or early evening, and who would rather work in the middle of the night or late at night. And that’s another useful criteria to either let students self select to some extent, or for you to use as a criteria in matching.

Carmen: Exactly. Jobs, children, pets, everything… we have to take into account. Communication is the bottom line, I think, in giving them that opportunity to collaborate.

Rebecca: Students often complain about group work initially. But what I’ve discovered, and it was even more true this semester with students being online, is that they really appreciated that little learning community… that they worked on a project together, they socialized, they got to know each other really well, and really indicated that that was one of their favorite parts of the class, which is funny, because it’s usually the thing, they grumble about the most at the beginning,

John: I had the same experience. This is the first time when I’ve had group work in a class without a single complaint. And in fact, when I asked students to rate what things they found most useful, nearly all of them said they really appreciated the chance to interact with other students in the class, because that’s something they’ve been really missing during the pandemic.

Carmen: It’s funny that you say that because much like everything else we’re talking about, same is true for the faculty who are in our course. The faculty say “I don’t have time to do these synchronous discussions.” And so we make them optional. And then at the end of class survey, they all say “We wish we had more opportunities to get together synchronously and talk to each other.” It’s true for faculty as well.

Rebecca: One of the things that you brought up earlier was talking on the phone, which led me to think a lot about my own needs to be off screen a bit more. And students have also said we are Zoomed and screened out. And of course, I teach web design. So like a lot of it’s already on the screen without having Zoom and stuff there too, it’s a lot of time on the screen. So I built in some assignments this semester that intentionally got people off screen, like listening to podcasts and things like that. Do you have any advice for how to balance screen time for faculty and for students moving into the spring,

Carmen: I love that idea of giving other options that are not on the screen. But I also think that we read a lot on the screen as well even if we’re not on a video. And what I often use is text-to-talk software. So if I have papers to read, articles to read, anything digital, a website, I can click on my browser on a space called add to Capti Voice. Capti Voice is, the one I use, but there are many options. And it will take anything that I need to read on the screen and put it into voice. And so I listen to things when I’m folding laundry, walking the dog. I might stop and take notes if I need to about how to respond when I get back to my computer. But it gives me a nice break from the computer, I often recommend it to students as well. And when we’re not in a pandemic, I used to use it all the time for my commute. So I could listen to things while I was driving. And then when I got to class, I was ready to go. So that’s one thing I recommend. You can do this with YouTube, too. You can play a YouTube on your phone and just stick your headphones in and listen to it instead of watching it, if it’s that kind of a YouTube. So a TED talk, that kind of thing. So yes, giving those options, letting students know about the text-to-talk options, and using them yourself can really rest your eyes from the screen.

REBECCA. One assignment that I give that’s been really popular in my web design class is learning the assistive technology on your device. So students have learned how to increase the font size or use speech-to-text and text-to-speech or discovering that you can use the Acrobat Reader app and it will read to you or use iBooks or whatever it is, depending on your device. And I’ve checked in with them at the end of the semester. And they’ll say, “Yeah, I found that one thing and I’m still using it.”

Carmen: Exactly. And then there’s also… these are some little cheats that I do. Like if I know for example, I was in a book club and I hadn’t read up to the point where I needed to. I listened to a podcast that was an interview with the author instead. And I was ready to at least be able to contribute to the discussion after listening to that. So yeah, assistive technology can do things for all of us. And just also our local library. Big surprise. You can download audiobooks that way. And you could commit time to listening to them every day. And another thing I wanted to share was that I noticed that personally, I read very quickly. So when I’m forced to listen to a document, instead of reading it, I get every single word. And there’s no way of going through that without listening to all the words. So sometimes I get actually more out of it. Another thing, Mike Wesch, who’s frequently featured the ACUE webinars, he told me that he’s something like a platinum member on Kindle, because he listens to books while he walks and runs everywhere, and he does it at double or triple speed sometimes. So you can also get more

Rebecca: That sounds like John. [LAUGHTER]

Carmen: Yeah?

John: I probably have lost some of those advantages of listening to every word because for so many podcasts, the hosts speak very, very slowly. And there’s so many podcasts, I want to listen to, that I first ramped it up to one and a half times, and then double time, I don’t have an app that will let me play it at triple speed. But double speed is my standard listening mode.

Rebecca: My brain can’t handle that.

Carmen: Mine either. But whatever works. and it also depends. If this is something that you need to do a close read on, of course, this technique’s not going to work for you. But if it’s something that you just need to know, I used to do it when I was a grad student, I had a commute to school, and I would have the gist, I would be ready for discussion just by listening to what I needed to listen to. And then I would get a lot more out of the conversation when I was in class.

John: And it’s a way of making us more efficient in our use of time, to free up more time for other things.

Carmen: Exactly. Or you can fold your laundry while you’re listening and then you’re killing two birds with one stone.[LAUGHTER]

John: This year, many people are teaching in an environment that they’re not used to, in which some of the students are in person and some of the students are remote. Do you have any suggestions on how faculty can handle classes effectively when some students are present in the classroom, while others are attending remotely?

Carmen: I did a research that I’ve been dying to get out into the world. I wrote this up many years ago. And it was a book chapter and one of those great big anthologies that I don’t think a lot of people are going to go pick up at the library. But I think it’s really, really relevant right now. And so I put a post on my LinkedIn page about it. And it’s about the hybrid classroom. So when I was a grad student, and I was commuting to school, it was a three-hour commute. So it was a big deal. And there was one time where there was a snowstorm. And I just did not make it to my class. And the professor suggested that… at the time, Skype was big. Now Zoom is the big thing… that I Skype into class, and I had my colleague, Linda Skidmore Coggins, who helped me write this book chapter, she was my Skype buddy, or you could have a Zoom, buddy. So there was a person that was face to face in the classroom whileI was attending class from afar. And I know a lot of professors are trying to figure out how, if you have students that are meeting Mondays and Wednesdays and then Tuesdays and Thursdays, or if there’s some people that simply can’t be in the classroom with others because of health issues, how to manage all of this. And what I would like to say is, I don’t think that the professor should have to manage it, I think you can assign somebody in the class that’s in charge of their buddy. They make sure that they are receiving whatever you’re looking at that the professor is showing you: the PowerPoint, the documents. If you’re doing group work, they used to carry my little head to the group and I would be on the screen, but I could see everyone in the group and talk to them from afar. And I really felt like I was part of the class. And if the professor was putting something up on the big screen, my colleague would turn her computer so I was also facing the screen. If it was my turn to present something they put me up on the screen. And we found that it really worked so well that the Professor, Dr. Larry Mikulecky, at IU (a little shout out there). He said “You should write this down. This has been a really, really interesting experience. And I think it’s relevant right now, when we’re trying to figure out how can I hold my students accountable, who are not in the room with me, and also manage all of the screens and all of the information while you hold your student accountable for that. The conversations get richer, there’s a social aspect, which is motivating and my colleague said that she would listen more carefully to what was going on in the classroom because she knew she had to tell me what was going on. So there were all these benefits that we found from having this buddy in the classroom. And sometimes I would have different buddies, but I used to do it when I was doing presentations that somebody couldn’t attend, I would say, “Hey, do you know anybody here that could Zoom you in?” And we would do it that way. So I just wanted to bring that up, because I think it’s very, very effective. And I think it takes the onus off the professor for trying to be in charge of everyone who’s not in the room with them.

Rebecca: It would be really important for times where a student may need to be in quarantine or something and just having that set up from the start, like these are buddies, preferably people who don’t generally hang out because otherwise they’re all going to be in quarantine together, {LAUGHTER] preemptively planned for that, and then they have a backup plan. So if they aren’t able to come to class, but they’re in a face-to-face class, they have some sort of backup plan in place from the very beginning.

John: I was teaching in Duke in the summer of 2009 during the swine flu epidemic, and it was in a program where a quarter of the kids ended up getting infected at one point or another, so there was a different group there every time and back then, it was before Zoom, because it was 2009, I was using Skype, but I had some extra computers with me. And so when a student was out, I’d assign someone in the group to work with the computer, they did a lot of group work, and that person would just be right there. And I tapped them into a mixer into the sound system in the class during other parts of the class. And every now and then you’d just hear the voice booming in through this loudspeaker in the class, just as is happening now. And ever since then, I’ve been using it whenever someone was out sick if they had a presentation, or some group work that they couldn’t really get out of. And students would often say, “Well, I can’t be there.” I said, “Well, yeah, you can. You have a phone, right? Or you have a laptop? You can be there, you can share your screen, you can do your presentation from where you are, people can ask you questions, you can respond. So this is something that has benefits far beyond just the current pandemic.

Carmen: Exactly. I hope we can put in the show notes. I’ve typed up the how-to directions on how to do this, just to make it as easy as possible.

John: We’ll definitely include that in the show notes.

Rebecca: Easy is what we all want.

Carmen: …what we all need.

Rebecca: You’ve had a lot of really rich tips and tricks. Do you have any other advice you want to make sure the faculty have?

Carmen: One of the things I wrote in my OpenStax article that I think is really important is: “Be kind.” Just be kind to yourself and others, especially to yourself, and give yourself a break. We’re not going to replicate what it was.

John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Carmen: I’m excited about what’s next. Because we’re never going to go back to exactly the way it was. So there are all these new things that we’ve been learning and doing. And this practice of being kind to ourselves, narrowing down what we’re presenting, giving flexibility, checking in with students to see what their personal situations are, I think those things are going to carry on into the future. But we need to make sure that we’re just very intentional, that we’re practicing them now. And that they become part of our daily life.

Rebecca: We all need a little bit more kindness in our world That’s for sure.

Carmen: I just think it’s so important. For the past twenty years, we’ve been researching online education and back when I started this work, we were trying to convince people that it was something that was viable and that was effective and here we are all in this situation. So, we’ve speeded up what a lot of higher ed experts have been asking for for many years, like please use your LMS, please use the online option, please minimize 90-minute lectures or 60-minute lectures and use more active learning. And so I think that it’s very exciting that we have this opportunity to try these things. We’re forced to try these things. It’s accelerated the change that a lot of hiring experts have been calling for.

John: That’s a nice positive note, I think, to end on. Thank you. This was fascinating, and it’s going to be very helpful to a lot of people.

Carmen: Thank you so much.

Rebecca: I appreciate the very actionable and easy things to implement. None of these are hard. You just need to commit to them.

Carmen: There’s enough that’s hard right now. We need to make things easy.

Rebecca: Thanks so much.

Carmen: It’s such an honor to meet you both because your podcasts have helped me a lot. So, thank you.

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

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

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