139. Pedagogies of Care: Digital Reading

This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Jenae Cohn joins us to discuss concerns about, and the affordances that are associated with, reading in a digital environment. Jenae is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom, which will be released by West Virginia University Press as part of the superb series edited by James Lang.

Show Notes

  • Cohn, Jenae (2021, forthcoming). Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.
  • Carillo, E. C. (2017). A writer’s guide to mindful reading. WAC Clearinghouse.
  • Pedagogies of Care (Sneak Peek) – video trailer –  website
  • Plato (360 BCE). Phaedras
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Mueller, D. N. (2009). Digital underlife in the networked writing classroom. Computers and Composition, 26(4), 240-250.
  • Smale, M. A., & Regaldo, M. (2017). Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier to Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Smale, M. A. (2020). “It’s a lot to take in”—Undergraduate Experiences with Assigned Reading”. CUNY Academic Works, 1–10.
  • Lang, James (2020, forthcoming). Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Basic Books.
  • Hypothesis
  • PowerNotes
  • Perusall
  • PowerNotes
  • VoiceThread

Transcript

John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss concerns about, and the affordances that are associated with, reading in a digital environment.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Jenae Cohn. She is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom, which will be released by West Virginia University Press as part of the superb series edited by James Lang. Welcome, Jenae.

John: Welcome.

Jenae: Thank you for having me.

John: Our teas today are:

Jenae: I have got a white and green tea blend with jasmine today. It’s really delicious.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I have Scottish afternoon tea

John: That’s a little bit stronger, isn’t it?

Rebecca: I like it. It’s good.

John: And I am still drinking English Breakfast tea.

Jenae: A black tea crew. I respect that in the afternoon… a little pick me up.

John: And it’s grading time here so I need the extra caffeine.

Jenae: Yeah, I get that. Makes sense.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your book, Skim, Dive, and Surface. Could you tell us what motivated your work on this topic?

Jenae: Absolutely. I have always found great solace and inspiration in reading. I’ve considered myself a reader for my entire life, and I noticed as a reader when I was in college that I largely depended on tried and true techniques for remembering content from reading: from highlighting and note taking in the margins to drawing little doodles and scribbles. And when I transitioned to graduate school, when I was getting my PhD, I was reading longer, more complex texts. And at that point, I really didn’t have the resources to be printing everything out hundreds of pages of reading a week, to do those techniques that had served me so well as a college student. So I think at that point forward, I started thinking a lot about how does our media, how do our spaces for reading, shape what we’re able to glean from a reading and how we’re able to orient ourselves to the really critical task of reading and being readers. And this became even a more acute kind of question for me when I started teaching first-year composition, and I saw my own students struggling in the same way that I was struggling as a graduate student with trying to get through really new and challenging complicated texts that were changing our orientation, not only to reading texts, but just being readers. And so I kept mulling over this for years and years, and my research kept dancing around it. And then by the time I got to my job at Stanford, it really struck me that it was the time to start writing a book that would help people recognize and see these real distinctions, but not from a language of a deficit model, and not from the language that was kind of coming out the 2016 moment that Google made us stupid, or that smartphones are bad for our brain, like those dialogues are still happening, much to my great dismay, but to actually provide sort of a more open and inclusive and, I think, kind of compassionate take on the possibilities of reading across spaces and finding promise and hope for readers to be more flexible in different ways of reading, especially when it comes to academic context.

Rebecca: I find your work really exciting because I was always an avid reader, even when I was young, but when reading academic texts, it’s a really different kind of reading, like reading fiction is really different than reading an academic text. And I remember when I was in sixth grade, I had an intervention because I was struggling with our Global Studies class because I had really poor reading comprehension on the topic. And I was lucky that a family friend happened to be the reading specialist and helped me out. But otherwise, no one had taught me how to read those kinds of texts, and I really struggled.

Jenae: Oh my gosh, I love that story, Rebecca, because it really speaks to how your context can shape your behaviors and how you approach that task. And I love that you’ve even worked with a reading specialist. I think we take for granted that if you can read in one space, you can read in another space. You are an avid reader and able to really dive into fiction, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily could read those more technical texts or texts that were speaking to different audiences and engaging with different purposes and it’s easy to take for granted, especially at the college level, that the students will have sort of equal proficiencies if they’re able to like technically read, but we know when we get to higher ed context, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Rebecca: So, like me, I think a lot of students don’t get training on how to read academic texts or critical texts when they’re in K-12. So what do you recommend? Or how do we help students transition to college reading?

Jenae: I think there’s a few ways we can begin. First, I think that what college instructors can really do is help demystify the purposes of reading. I think that a lot of instructors, and I’ve done this myself, assume that just if you say, “Okay, read chapter one of this book,” everyone will understand what the purpose is of reading chapter one of the book, but that’s not necessarily so, especially since in different contexts and disciplines those purposes for engaging with a particular chapter article might be really different. And I think as instructors too, we want to think about what we want students to get out of the reading. Do we want students to be reading for content? Are we trying to help them understand a particular concept and how that concept might be in dialogue with something from an in-class discussion or a lecture, or something else, or we want the students to read what we call reading rhetorically, or I want them to read to understand the strategies an author’s using to communicate a claim. So in writing classes in particular, rhetorical reading might happen when we’re trying to understand a particular historical context or moment that might be shaping how an author might be orienting to a topic, to kind of understand the context around that reading, or understand the writer’s writerly moves. So someone who’s also trying to read to understand a written genre might be another thing we need to help students understand when it comes to purpose. So, in the sciences, you might have students read a scientific article to understand: “This is standard format in the scientific article structure: the introduction, methods, description, results.” There’s always sort of a standard pattern to that. That’s all to say, I think just making our purposes clear is Thing number one, Thing number two, that I think instructors could do to help students really develop a stronger sense of being a reader, is to also help them understand different approaches to note take, and to think about how they glean important pieces of information from a context. And different students will do this in different ways. So I certainly wouldn’t recommend a prescriptive, like note-taking model that everyone has to do. I think that it over determines a certain kind of thought process. But there can be a moment, and I think a lot of instructors don’t think of themselves as having to teach academic skills, but it can be really valuable to make explicit: “Here’s the skill you’ll need to develop to do this work.” And to have an open discussion with students: What do you do? Why do you do these kinds of behaviors? How does this help you learn? And to make that really explicit. These are just starting points. The real expert on academic reading proper, I would point you to Ellen Carrillo, she has a great book for college students called Mindful Reading. Ellen Carrillo’s work about really bridging students to academic reading skills is like the best place to start for instructors who want to start at the foundation of what it means to help students read. I cite her a lot in my book because I think her work is really quite foundational to this thinking,

John: As you noted, the type of reading skills vary quite a bit by your discipline. Reading a chemistry article is very different than reading a math paper or reading a novel or reading poetry. Should each discipline include something about teaching students, what’s important in reading in that discipline early in a student’s career?

Jenae: Oh, I think that would be tremendously helpful if, in an intro course, that was a part of the unit. It would help students recognize what it means to be a professional in that discipline too, which can also help students I think, from the level of choosing a major and deciding what academic conversations they want to remain a part of in terms of their career. I think that many students, and I know I was this way in college, don’t tend to see the subjects as communities. We call these discourse communities: mathematicians, chemists, compositions, they’re all part of different discourse, communities that have different goals and functions and ways of communicating and behaving. So the more visible we can make those sorts of tacit understandings of how people communicate, the more we can demystify a bit of a hidden curriculum around how disciplinarity, how intellectual thought, operates. And I think that can be really exciting for students to see “Oh, people who are in math and chemistry, they have a way of talking. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid. [LAUGHTER] It doesn’t mean that I can’t get it. It just means that it’s a community that I don’t know yet, and that I want to understand better through accessing and unpacking what it means to be a reader or a writer in that space.”

John: You need to know the language of the discipline to some extent to be able to participate in the conversation.

Jenae: Exactly. That’s a great way to sum it up. I was like the “too long, didn’t read” version of what I just said.

Rebecca: I think another space where you’re switching contexts is between the physical environment and the virtual environment, which many of us are experiencing maybe more intensely now [LAUGHTER] than we had in the past. I know that while I was on sabbatical, doing research, I found myself doing a lot more reading online in digital format than I ever had before, because our physical library was closed. [LAUGHTER]

Jenae: Yeah, how was that for you?

Rebecca: At first, I was really resistant and I read every single physical book that I had first. So, I could take notes in the margins and things that I was used to and accustomed to doing. But I’ve recently read a couple of texts on my Kindle and really love that I can highlight and take notes there and then end up with a digital file that’s searchable. It’s actually way more useful, but I had never really been forced into trying a new way of reading.

Jenae: Fabulous.

Rebecca: So, I think it’s interesting to start thinking about how do we help students take advantage of some of the affordances that a digital environment actually has, rather than just the resistance. And one of that, for me, is like moving from reading from my computer to a Kindle, which has the e-paper, which is a little better in my eyes and it’s a little more comfortable of a reading environment, but then taking advantage of those tools and techniques that are built into some of the software that’s available.

Jenae: Absolutely. You’ve pointed out several really great affordances to digital reading, where you’re able to archive your notes in a particular space, organize them, create certain kinds of like topical categories for the notes that you’ve got from your Kindle. So, you’re already opening up so many of the wide world of possibilities, especially when it comes to academic reading, in your own experience of having the library closed up for you. So, I really enjoyed hearing your thought process around that.

John: But if students haven’t done much academic work prior to coming to college with e-texts, the skills that they had, as you mentioned in the intro to your book, in terms of dog-earing the pages and using highlighters and so forth, might not translate as easily unless they’ve perhaps learn to adapt with those. Rebecca talked about the ability to take notes and index them, but students don’t always know how to do that. And one thing that complicates it a little bit is they may get their books in different formats, some may be on a Kindle, some may be in Blackboard or Canvas or some other learning management system, and others may be PDFs. So how do we help students with that transition?

Rebecca: And also maybe faculty? Because sometimes I think that’s a barrier, too. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think that’s probably a more common barrier… we’ve had some people give us all sorts of interesting explanations of why books are better, most of them based on neuromyths that have been debunked for decades. But there is this perception that the tangible nature of a book makes it better in some way. Just as, you know, the book was seen as being bad when it was first introduced, because it weakened the need for people to develop their memories. I think people feel the same way about electronic texts. So how do we get past those barriers on the part of faculty and students?

Jenae: Right. Wow. Lots of good questions nested in that one question. And I will say that in the first part of the book, I talk about history, affect, and neuroscience as kind of categories of ways that instructors, in particular, might find their own resistances or anxieties, as I put it, reflected. John, when you mentioned that people once worried that the book was going to destroy memory. And Socrates and Plato had a famous dialogue about this in the Phaedrus. Right, that’s like an anxiety that’s just been really… there’s historical echoes actually all around the world that I detail in the book. That was a really fun section to write because I love history, too. But anyway, I’ll get to your question here, which is how do we help students make this transition? And again, I think we have to unpack that in a few different ways. And one is sort of starting with meeting both students and faculty where they are, engaging, I think, in some dialogue around “Why do you like a paper book? Why do you like to use a physical highlighter? Why do you like to doodle in the margins?” We’ll learn interesting things, and in the book, I do a little bit of a lit review of some major surveys that have been done around faculty and student perceptions of reading on paper and reading on screen and I’ll offer the really like two-minute gloss version of that, which is that the stated reasons these surveys have found is that, for both students and instructors alike, it is familiar. And there’s a perception that it’s better for their memory and attention. And you’re right, John, too, that some of that comes from neuromyths. Some of it just comes from feeling. A lot of the surveys are about, again, to the affect point, “I like the way the book feels in my hand.” “I like the weight of the book.” People, and this is my favorite, would even say things like “I like the smell of the pages.” And that’s all about feeling, that’s about emotions and the cognitive work are tied, of course. And I actually thought really distinctly of Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s work about this, that we can’t unpack the emotions from the learning itself. So all that’s important. So I say you have to start the dialogue there with your own local community and there might be some echoes of that national conversation. And so recognizing why you feel those ways might also help you to see how those feelings or how those perceptions translate into lived experience. A lot of the studies on moving students from print to digital environments are also focused on the memory and retention. And studies have mostly found that students do tend to remember more when they read on paper, but it’s because they don’t actually have strategies for reading in digital spaces. So, something else we might do is, to return to the earlier part of the conversation in some ways, at least, make explicit that there are strategies they’re using in the first place: “Wow, you really like to use the highlighter? What are you doing when you use the highlighter? Oh, you’re pointing out the most important parts of the section? Why is it important to find the most important parts of the section? How are you doing that? What do you do with that information?” Once you find those most important parts, then once you isolate out those skills and what you’re doing with them, we can think about: A. not just how you replicate that in a digital environment, but what a digital environment does differently. So, this is also, I think, part of the conversation needs to include making explicit what the affordances are of a digital environment beyond the fact of it being on a screen, recognizing that paper is a technology. And just as much as that laptops’ are a technology, your Kindle’s a technology. The other technology that I’ll throw in where I think students are doing a bunch of reading these days as their smartphones, I’ve had instructors tell me, “Wow, I’m so horrified that my students are doing all the reading on their phone,” and my response is “Well, especially now on this COVID-19 moment, our students might not have access to laptops that work that are as fast as their 5G network on their phones.” So, I think now more than ever, we have to be really accommodating in thinking about where mobile, and where the affordances of mobile, fit in… What kinds of applications and tools are available across these spaces to, again, both replicate the great labor and thinking around print, but that also take advantage of the easy abilities to link content and connect content across different spaces, the ability to curate and create collections of information across different spaces, and that ability to tag and sort different sets of ideas to see relationships and connections between ideas. This is just sort of the tip of the iceberg in terms of possibilities. I will say I recognize the constraints, I think, of digital environments. We can’t ignore things like screen fatigue. Rebecca, you talked about getting tired, your eyes getting tired reading on a screen, I feel that too. The blue light that emits from screens is really exhausting for our brains. I think probably everyone’s experiencing this even more in our move to living on the internet and our COVID-19 moment. So, I think part of this is also figuring out what are the strategies for avoiding fatigue. And in some ways, this can be good for our learning too. It might inspire us to take more breaks, to work in shorter and more concentrated bursts of time and to recognize and have a clear purpose in mind by working within those shorter bursts of time as well.

John: We’ve just been talking about faculty resistance to reading on mobile devices. But, faculty also often seem to have a resistance, back in the days, a long time ago, when we used to be in the classroom at times. There used to be this resistance to students using mobile devices in the classroom. Would you like to talk a little bit about how students, perhaps, might be using mobile devices in ways that may not be as negative as faculty might expect them to be.

Jenae: Yeah. Isn’t it funny how like mobile bans and laptop bans feel like that was so long ago at this moment of recording? Yeah, there’s a big chapter actually in the book about laptop and mobile device bans, because I think that context might come back again. We’ll see. So anyway, yes, there are number of, I think, productive things students are doing with mobile phones in class. One is that students might be using mobile as really their faster internet connection. I will say that mobile networks tend to be a bit more reliable than even if you are face to face. On-campus Wi Fi networks can be very unreliable. And it can certainly be more reliable than students’ home networks. But in the context of class itself, it might actually give students a more stable connection, which can mean greater access. From a learning and engagement perspective too, what students also might get from mobile that I think is really exciting, is the ability to do really flexible note taking and archiving of work. So mobile apps have the real benefit of being able to use your finger or a stylus to actually draw and annotate and nimbly really respond and react in real time. I actually have an activity in the book where I even suggest that instructors create an assignment where they think of students working through their reading as they might create like an Instagram or Snapchat story, where they can take quick screenshots with like emoji reactions from different parts of the book as a way to engage with it. So I think that our students have found really creative ways to engage. They might not realize that those are creative ways to engage. There’s actually a lot of literature that shows that sometimes students get a little uncomfortable when instructors try to like make their class like “My class is cool, it’s like Facebook for learning.” So I don’t know if I would go that direction. But rather, it’s really saying, “Hey, here are tools you can use to do the things that are really good for your learning,” rather than saying, “Learning is just like Facebook,” which makes some students feel a little bit like their lives are getting too uncomfortably blurred. I’ll say one last thing about the mobile phones in class, which is that for many students who are either working from home or staying connected to the family, it’s important to recognize that students might be needing to connect with people outside the classroom during class. That might seem like a distraction, but for many students, if they are caretakers, for example, they might need to be reading off of their phone, to also be checking to see “Okay, does my parent need me right now? Does my sibling need me right now? Does someone else I’m caring about really need me to stay connected and engaged during class?” Some people refer to these behaviors as being part of the digital underlife. Derek Mueller has a great essay about this concept that I think is really valuable. Maura Smale, I should say, and Mariana Regaldo have done really great work on how students are thinking about mobile as sort of lifelines to the world outside. So, I think that the benefits to mobile happen both at the learning level, but also the access and connection and inclusion level. And I don’t know, man, I don’t think we need policing of how our students are engaging with devices in class, as part of the work of showing compassion, I think, towards our students, is trusting and recognizing good intent. And if students don’t want to engage, they just want to disconnect, even if you ban the devices, maybe they’ll doodle and zone out.[LAUGHTER] So, like there are lots of ways to be distracted and the device is sort of a red herring in a way for that, in my opinion.

John: I found many ways to be distracted as a student long before there were cell phones. So, I fully agree with that. And it can also be a good indicator, if the instructor is walking around and sees a lot of students doing things that aren’t related to the class, that maybe there’s not as much engagement there as you might like.

Jenae: Yeah, exactly.

John: One of the differences between an e-text and a book is that generally the book doesn’t have pop-up messages that might interrupt your focus and attention. Most mobile devices, though, do. What can we do to help students perhaps better manage the distractions that they deal with when they’re reading on a mobile device?

Jenae: So this is tricky, because our brains respond to novelty. And of course, mobile phones have been designed to be addictive. [LAUGHTER] With all those pop-up notifications and things that fire off our endorphins. There’s a concrete tip, right, like encourage students to disable notifications for certain kinds of apps. Not all of our students know how to do that. I think, there is often assumptions too about a traditional college-aged student, or I’ll put traditional scare quotes in the air that our students between 18 and 21 know everything about all digital devices, because they are… and I just love this expression… digital natives… not a real thing… it doesn’t exist. [LAUGHTER] Because even if you’re born when technology’s invented, it doesn’t mean that you are adept at it in every single context and environment. So, I think offering some explicit, just tactical, infrastructure advice around that. The other thing that’s not a technical piece, that’s a cognitive piece, again, to help students recognize their purpose in reading too. So when you veer away to check a notification from your reading, why? Is it because you’re bored? Is it because the text is confusing? Is it because you simply just want to read the notification? Just recognizing and making clear what your intentions are as you’re reading can also be a way of managing attention. The other thing I’ll add around distraction, I think it’s important to recognize that attention does not look the same for every student, either. There are some students who I think actually read really well when they’re multitasking, so to speak. The example I go to is when teaching composition I always have students who work with like 5000, tabs open, approximate number, and they’ll often sort of flip between those tabs, and as an instructor I often asked about students; workflow, cause that’s just of interest to me. And many students will share that they’re looking at Wikipedia for an encyclopedic explanation of something they’ve read, or they’re looking up a word in the dictionary, or they’re looking for an image that illustrates something the book described. So sometimes that ability to kind of flip between different things might look like distraction. It might look like it’s not on task when, in fact, it very much could be tied into the task. Of course, those tabs could also be, you know, the latest TikTok stream, or whatever students are watching right now, which of course, can divert attention and isn’t particularly good for memory. But, I think that mindfulness about why they’re reading and why they might click a notification, just making that explicit, right. And rather than just being some sort of a punishment for the sake of being a punishment, or a better way to put this is rather than just sort of deriding the action as a given… really unpacking the assumption that distractions always bad, and thinking through what does it really mean to be distracted? And I suspect Jim Lang’s newest book on Teaching Distracted Minds is actually going to be a really helpful complement to some of this conversation, too. So I think that’s another text I’m really looking forward to reading as part of this conversation as well.

John: We are too and we’ve actually scheduled an interview with him in a few months when it’s closer to coming out to talk about that book.

Jenae: Oh, fabulous.

John: We’re very much looking forward to it, and I think many faculty will be.

Jenae: Super relevant.

Rebecca: I think related to some of the distraction stuff that you’re talking about to is format, and that digital texts come in different formats. And the idea that students are not digital natives, that they don’t just somehow magically know how to use technology unless we’re showing them how to use it. I found that showing students how to take advantage of accessibility features and alternative formats and the ability to make their text reflow, and things like that, has really opened doors for students because they just didn’t even know that those features were available to them and really changed how they experienced texts or other media on their devices, because they could really change how they could actually consume it or interact with it.

Jenae: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought up accessibility features. Because, you’re right, that text to speech features, screen reading features, even the visual accessibility features that are part of digital technologies… even just understanding where the alt text is… and where, like, image descriptions might be, makes a difference for all learners. This is of course part of a universal design for learning philosophy, that when students are aware, to your point, Rebecca, of the technologies available to them, it’s all students who benefit from that because it gives them multiple models for engaging with those ideas. It gives them multiple models for potentially representing ideas themselves. And so the book really actually deals with UDL philosophies, at its core. I almost had an entire chapter dedicated to UDL. And then as I was revising it, it’s like, I can’t even have just one chapter. This has to be strung into every chapter in this book. And to me, that’s the most compelling reason to encourage students to read in digital spaces, the most compelling reason to encourage faculty to overcome, I think, sometimes resistant perspectives about what digital reading doesn’t offer is, think about the range of students you’re seeing, their ranges of circumstances, their ranges of thinking about the world. And when you open up all these new possibilities for reading in digital spaces, you get to include so many more people who maybe never thought of themselves as readers, right? Who weren’t those avid readers reading their paperback books in the bathtub at three in the morning. That was me. It might be just a different group that you get to bring into the fold and who get to maybe experience reading as they might have never thought of reading before. I found like a million think pieces that were like “Are audio books real books?” Does it mean something to read an audio book, and I did a little bit of like a forehead slap. “Of course, reading an audio book is reading a book. It’s still reading.” But when we disparage based on media, we just exclude so many potential people we could just bring into the fold of being readers and finding people who want to be excited about reading.

John: So besides the accessibility and the UDL nature of this, there’s also some advantages, I think in terms of perhaps the cost of digital readings. College textbooks have grown in price fairly dramatically over the last 30 or 40 years to become a much larger share of college costs. So, by encouraging that, aren’t we also perhaps making education at least a little bit more affordable?

Jenae: I hope so. And certainly the OER movement is really tied to these conversations about accessibility. So, yes, I think that the more we can point students to digital resources that might reduce those kinds of costs, we respond to a major faculty concern. Surveys from EDUCAUSE and the Babson survey group actually suggest that one of faculty members’ major concerns is this very question of affordability. So, if we could be more open minded about the ways that we teach certain academic skills, we kind of kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. We manage to kind of help solve the affordability piece, while also expanding out accessibility options. And I think OERs could be even more powerful as a resource, if we help students understand how to leverage them beyond the ways that they might just read a website, which if you look to research and usability studies and user experience, a lot of people read websites in what’s been called like an L-formation, like the eyes sort of scan only a portion of the page. It’s not really reading in depth. And that’s because people have certain behaviors or attitudes about what they’re trying to find on a website. And you can spend hours and hours thinking about the user experience of website and where you place the pieces to draw attention to the most important pieces of information. And so that’s a matter of training, right? We know that website genres invite certain kinds of reading. So, if we open it up to students, we say, “Hey, you’re going to be doing all your reading online in this OER, that’s a more affordable option. How will you identify the important pieces? What’s going to be your behavior through this text? This isn’t just like reading the website for the news. It isn’t just like going on your Twitter feed. This operates in a very different way. Here’s how we can leverage that and not just sort of feel like we’re following the same patterns we do with other pieces of kind of flattened out web content. So, I deviated a little from your affordability question, but it got me thinking about the UX side as well.

Rebecca: I think one of the exciting things that you discuss in your book, but also capture in the infographic that you are including in the Pedagogies of Care project are some really interesting ways that students can read in a digital environment that allows us to make connections and interact with other people and other texts. Can you talk about some of the ways that we can use digital texts that people don’t always think about.

Jenae: Sure. So, I have a framework that’s at the core of the book. I don’t call it the five C’s for digital read, I call this the digital reading framework, but it is the five C words. So, some of the strategies include connection, curation, contextualization, creation, and what I call contemplation. And so some things people might not think about is when I think especially with connection and curation. We’ll start with curation, that’s actually the first item in the framework. Reading is always an act of curation in many ways. When you take a text, unless it’s just something you’re reading for fun. I should say reading is always an act of curation in an academic or a learning context, because you’re trying to sort of parse out what pieces of information or what examples are the best examples to help me make a claim, remember an idea, draw a conclusion, whatever the case might be. And so with a digital text, what you can do is you can make that curation process visible by… and this is simple… this isn’t even high tech: copying and pasting parts of your text into a taxonomy of your own design that helps you to see “Oh, right, this collection of quotes is really about this topic that I’m learning about in my class.” “Oh, wow, this text A and text B are both speaking to content area one.” You can really bridge that much more easily than on paper when you might have to, you know, an old school technique would be to make like note cards, where you write down the quotes and their different paper books that correspond to these topics. It’s a great strategy, but pretty cumbersome and time consuming, and difficult to manage if you don’t have access to print books, like the moment we’re in right now. So, that might be one strategy that is exciting, I think, for a digital environment, especially. I’ll point to creation as another example. So one of the benefits of being in a digital environment is you can really manipulate text easily. And that goes to everything from modifying fonts, especially if you’re just reading something off of like, an HTML regular old website. You could copy and paste that text into any word processor, you could change the font colors, shapes, sizes, to create different kinds of taxonomies. and customize that more, even in text like a PDF document that you can’t customize the design of text itself, you can still lift parts of that text, you can convert it into different file forms to modify the appearance as well and create something new for you a different kind of map, that’s not just limited to highlighting and doodles, but is actually dealing with and manipulating the words themselves. You can’t lift words out of a print book. So it’s kind of cool to think about what could you do if you could take these words. In the creation chapter I give an example of an activity where you could even create like a visualization of the text itself or create like an audio guide through your text, or maybe you lift those words and create word clouds or mind maps to see relationships between ideas that way. I’m sort of riffing abstractly here because I think you would do this differently depending on different concrete disciplines and contexts. But I think that the framework itself offers lots of different options that I point out the creation and creation categories in particular because in many ways it is the most unique for the digital context and might be the most surprising to people who might think of reading as just a process of underlining, and maybe leaving notes in the margin. There’s a lot more ways to think about and play with the ideas you get from text than just like “This idea is cool” or like “I have a question here.” You could expand a lot more and do a lot more and do a lot more to make text dynamic, I think.

John: One of the things I’ve been using in a couple of my classes for the last couple years is Hypothesis, where I have digital versions of some readings, generally working papers and studies, within the LMS. And then students go through and annotate it and tag it, which kind of forces them, I think, to analyze things a little bit more deeply. And they can comment on each other’s and so forth. And it’s been a really useful tool, which wouldn’t work very well with a physical text.

Jenae: Yes, I love the collaborative component of a tool like Hypothesis, too. It makes reading social, which is something we also lose out on sometimes, unless you go to a used bookstore and you find like the treasure of a book that has someone else’s old annotations. That’s like one of my favorite things of all time. I miss used bookstores in our COVID-19 moment, I have to say. But, Hypothesis, it’s like getting to uncover that treasure of seeing how someone else thought of something, to make it clear that no one text exists in isolation, that you always necessarily need to have text together. I always feel reluctant to cite myself, but I’ll do it since I’m talking about my book in this podcast, anyway. I actually wrote a book chapter all about social annotation in an edited collection about marginalia, that I think speaks to exactly what tools like Hypothesis do. There’s actually a ton of great tools on the market now that do similar things. Perusall is also really good for doing what Hypothesis does. It’s a bit more of a closed system than Hypothesis. It doesn’t exist on the open web, it kind of locks it into a class community. I think there are pros and cons to that. PowerNotes is also a really cool tool that’s new on the market, where students can also collaboratively comment on each other’s. It’s not annotations tied directly to the text, but you comment on annotations in an outline view. So, it kind of privileges how students are rearranging ideas and building them into a topically formed outline. In the book, I have an appendix of tools that will be current as of the writing. Unfortunately, in any book about technology, the instant you publish it, some of it’s obsolete. So I tried really hard in the book not to get too tied to particular tools, because I wanted the concepts to be sort of translatable, because the sort of secret to this book is it’s about digital reading. But really, it’s more about having an expansive attitude to what it means to be a reader in the first place. And it happens to be responding to digital media as the technology that is most prevalent and most centrally part of our lives right now. But I think it’s really valuable to talk about particular tools to make this more concrete. That’s why there are tools in that appendix. And John, I love that you’re using Hypothesis. Have you tried out that too, Rebecca, or other kinds of annotation tools like that?

Rebecca: I haven’t, but I’m looking for an option that will allow us to also comment on images and layout.

Jenae: Yes.

Rebecca: So there’s some limitations to Hypothesis in the ways that I would want my students to use it. So, I haven’t quite found the best solution yet for what I’m hoping I can get in place for the fall?

Jenae: Yeah, I really would like to see a tool that does better image annotation too.

John: That might be an interesting application of VoiceThread, for example, where students can put the image on the screen and either put text notes to it or annotate the image directly, or just talk over it.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s really like Hypothesis and VoiceThread need to like talk to each other and make a tool that combines some of the features of both, [LAUGHTER] because I like the fact that you can go to an actual web page and interact with something in that space where it was designed, because the design piece of it is actually important to me, and it’s dynamic nature, rather than just taking screenshots. So, that’s where I’m finding limitations in the tools currently.

Jenae: VoiceThread is a great recommendation though, John for engaging with multimedia. I love that students too can comment with either text or audio or video. And this conversation’s really speaking to the importance of space and making options and opportunities available. And to Rebecca’s point about limitations, it’s also important from the instructor side to know… Rebecca, it sounds like you have a really clear sense of purpose, what you want your students to do. It sounds like you have that too, John, and that’s where we really want people to begin… this is my technologist side speaking… we want people to begin with their own pedagogical purpose, with their goals, before they start selecting tools. That’s the danger in this conversation about digital reading is that we start first with foregrounding the tool and don’t think about the why. So I always like to begin with that purpose piece. It’s important to go down the features rabbit hole, because part of how we shape the environment. But, we also don’t want ta decision to adopt novel things for the sake of adopting novel things.

Rebecca: I think the foundation of compassion in the work that you’re doing is really important too, because it really is a very inclusive perspective in who’s involved in reading, why we’re reading, and it’s against the deficit model. I really appreciate the idea that there’s like a future of reading that’s exciting and new, and we can all be a part of it, that really supports this moment today. And I’d like to hear a little bit more about some of the compassion pieces of your work if you would be willing to share them.

Jenae: Sure. So, I’d say put up like the UDL piece that kind of gets strung throughout. This compassion piece to me gets threaded throughout the book in the same way that I think my work on UDL, or grappling with UDL, gets threaded across the book, because I think a student-centered philosophy is inherently compassionate. If you’re thinking about who’s going to be a part of your learning experience on the other end, and recognize that students are really bringing good intent into the classroom… when you start from that space and saying, students are the ones experiencing this learning. And for the most part, we have to trust our students to want to come and and have agency in their learning experience. I think something that’s important when you center compassion is recognizing, too, that not every student is like you. I know for me as a really enthusiastic reader, it’s easy occasionally to feel disheartened when students don’t like to read, or don’t want to read, or don’t do the reading. At the end of my book, in my conclusion, I talked about hearing lots of hallway conversations as an instructor about “Oh, I’m so upset. My students never do the reading. They don’t like to do the readings.” and that can feel sad because we want people to feel as excited about what we assigned to them as we feel about it. A third thread in the book then is sort of saying, “Hey, when you can open up your practices, you also help students come at reading where they are.” a student-centered design philosophy says, “You’re going to find your own enthusiastic pathway in here.” And we also need to recognize as part of the compassionate philosophy, also a forgiveness side of like, “If you don’t like this, this isn’t what you like, that’s cool, too.” I was never a strong STEM student. And so I remember in college, I never put very much time… I took like the dinosaurs class for my science class, which I thought be like the easy science option. It was not. I’ll just say that. That was like one of the hardest classes I took in college was the class on dinosaurs. We had to identify dinosaur bone structures. [LAUGHTER] That was really tough, but I can still tell you the different kinds of dinosaur hips, just saying, if you ever want to know, that the dinosaurs have two different kinds of hips. So, I learned things but that’s not to say that like I did the bare minimum in the dinosaurs class to learn the dinosaur bone structures. And I think that we have to accept that our students like that our classes might not be the class, this might not be their major, this might not be what they’re passionate about. So, the more options that we give, to helping them kind of get into this, the more we can again, recognize, see, appreciate, where they are at different moments. One last thing I’ll say about compassionate courses in our current moment, where we’re all sort of forced to be remote, this compassion is even more important. So, I see understanding the possibilities of digital reading as yet another way to include students who might not have preferred to read on screen, but who find they’re forced to because they don’t have access to printers to make paper copies of their readings, they don’t have access to the library, because every library everywhere is closed. And so, a part of this is saying, “Hey, you can still get what you need. Do what is motivating you right now, even if you don’t have access to these materials, rather than kind of falling back to this model of ‘being online is deficient.’ ‘Reading digitally is deficient,’” and saying “Look, it doesn’t have to be, and it might not still be your preference.” I mean, I think lots of students at this moment are going to appreciate face-to-face instruction even more. Many might find a lot to love about remote learning, it’s going to be a range. But again, the more options we can give, the more we show compassion to the different circumstances and needs that might be shaping our student experiences. So, kind of a long answer to that question, but there’s a lot to unpack there too. I think.

John: We always end with the question, what’s next?

Jenae: So a few things are next, given that the book will not be out until sometime in early 2021, I am designing right now as workshops and webinars around components of the book that I’m hoping will make certain pieces sort of portable and accessible in the meantime, since as at the time of recording, a lot of colleges are deciding about remote learning options, hybrid learning options, HyFlex learning options, so I’m hoping to tie in some conversation about digital reading with designing in different course models and how we could design learning activities around reading and writing that might be aligned with some online course design work. So I’m really, really excited about thinking through those possibilities. Another component, and I don’t know if this is a piece of writing yet, or something else. But a big piece of the book that I had to cut was about how digital reading operates in the service of developing digital literacy. I’m really interested in thinking about how, in our moment of being more connected and more remote, how colleges can better support students in acquiring digital literacies of various kinds, whether this is using different kinds of software applications for learning, or whether this is just becoming sort of more aware and critical of the infrastructures and tools that shape our reading experiences. I have a chapter in the book that’s all about kind of the dark underbelly of EdTech and the ways in which, even with adopting new tools, we need to be mindful of the lifespan of digital archives as in things that are on the web live forever. [LAUGHTER] And there’s still a lot more awareness raising we need to do and questioning we need to do of people who design EdTech solutions to make sure that we’re remaining cognizant of student safety and privacy. And as instructors, we need to know how to ask good questions about data collection, even around work like reading that might feel like it’s sort of innocuous and not terribly invasive. It still could be, depending on what students are reading or what they’re commenting on. So, I do think that there’s more work, I would like to do that interrogates how we help students become more aware and more critical of the infrastructures in which texts are available to them. And on the instructor end, I’d like to help think about how instructors themselves might develop the literacies to also be able to question and adopt ethical solutions for reading as well.

John: I’m really looking forward to reading your book, and I’ll put it on pre-order as soon as it’s listed somewhere. And we will share a link to your infographic and any other things you referred to in our show notes.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m looking forward to reading your work and also your new work that you’re thinking about and ruminating over and also the workshops and things that you might do related to your book prior to your book coming out. Thanks so much for joining us.

Jenae: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

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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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135. E-tivities

As we begin to plan our fall semester classes, most of us don’t know whether we will be teaching in a face-to-face or a remote environment during part or all of the semester. This makes the course development process more challenging. In this episode, Dr. Darina Slattery joins us to discuss how e-tivities may be used to help support student learning in any course modality.

Darina is the Head of Technical Communication and Instructional Design at the University of Limerick. She is also the Vice President of the IEEE Professional Communication Society.

Transcript

John: As we begin to plan our fall semester classes, most of us don’t know whether we will be teaching in a face-to-face or a remote environment during part or all of the fall semester. This makes the course development process more challenging. In this episode, we discuss how e-tivities may be used to help support student learning in any course modality.

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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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John: We should note that we recorded this podcast in early March before most campuses closed in response to the global pandemic. The content of this discussion, though, is at least as important now as it was at the time of the recording.

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Darina Slattery. Darina is the Head of Technical Communication and Instructional Design at the University of Limerick. She is also the Vice President of the IEEE Professional Communication Society. Welcome, Darina.

John: It’s good to talk to you again.

Darina: Thank you very much John and Rebecca.

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

Darina: Not at this minute, but I do drink a lot of tea, just regular Irish tea.

John: You know, we should have done that.

Rebecca: I considered it this morning. And I was like, “Oh, I’m making a mortal sin this morning by choosing something very different.” But I have black currant tea today.

Darina: Oh, very nice. [LAUGHTER] I don’t drink coffee at all, even though most people here do but I just drink a lot of tea instead. We do too.

Darina: Okay.

Rebecca: …all day long.

Darina: Very good.

John: And I have an apple spice chai tea today.

Darina: Oh, I’ve never tried that.

Rebecca: That’s unusual.

John: This is my first time trying it.

Darina: Good luck. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Is it good?

John: I’ll know more… I just made it.

Rebecca: So, we invited you here today to discuss e-tivities. Can you explain to our listeners what is meant by an e-tivity.

Darina: Okay, so an e-tivity, basically, is a structured e-tivity that’s typically hosted on a discussion forum. So e-tivity is just really short for electronic e-tivity. But specifically, the concept of e-tivity came from Gilly Salmon. So, Gilly Salmon is famous for her work on the five stages that learners go through for teaching online. And she’s famous for coming up with this structure. It’s a very simple structure, but it’s a very useful one. So typically, e-tivities, as I said, they’re hosted in a discussion forum, but they don’t always have to be about discussion topics; an e-tivity can require a student to do anything. So, typically, an e-tivity… it’s instructions, and it starts off usually with some kind of a spark. So, the spark could be like a controversial statement that you want students to debate. It could be a relevant or a thought-provoking image, or it could even be a link to a YouTube case study or something. So, something that you just want to get them going with whatever the e-tivity is about. And then the second component then is the purpose. So that’s just essentially where you state the objective of the e-tivity. Then you’ve got the task, and this is the hardest part to write for an e-tivity. It’s where you give step-by-step instructions to students about what you want them to do, where you want them to do it, how, when, you might have a word count, what the deadline is. There could be multiple parts to the task. And then the fourth typical component is a respond section. And the term is a bit misleading, because it suggests that you don’t have to respond to the task. You do. But the respond part means respond to one of your peers based on what they submitted for the task. So, I wouldn’t always have that part. I don’t always have the collaborative element, even though all students can see each other’s responses because it’s posted or stored in the forum. So that’s essentially what it is. It’s just a very organized e-tivity that has certain components. And students very quickly then kind of become familiar with what an e-tivity looks like, and what’s expected of them.

John: And so you state explicitly the purpose so they see the motivation, then, as part of that?

Darina: Yes, in my case, not everybody does this, but I always grade my e-tivities as well. So, it’s always aligned with the objectives of the module. And they’re going to get grades for it as well. And it’s aligned, you know, aligned with the content that you’re teaching… the classes as well.

Rebecca: Can you give an example of an e-tivity?

Darina: Yes, I can give you lots of examples, actually. I’m just trying to think of some of the more useful ones. So, one that’s particularly useful that I use at the very start of my courses. So, the students I teach are online and on campus. So, I have both groups taking the same courses at the same time. So rather than have kind of one method of teaching one group and a different method for the on campus, I have them all accessing the same lecture materials and podcasts and so on. But also the way they engage is through e-tivities. So, whether they’re physically in the room in front of me or online, they’re all doing the same e-tivities. We have a program that teaches them about technical communication and e-learning. And a lot of the students in the program would be from very different backgrounds, they wouldn’t have any prior background in writing or teaching or anything like that. And for many of them as well, they’re mature students or postgraduate students, so they might not have ever used virtual learning environments before. So in the very first week of their program, I give them an e-tivity which asks them to do a learning style survey. Now I know there’s a lot of controversy about learning styles, and I’m not going to argue either way about that for now. But the purpose of it really is to get them into the VLE, to find an e-tivity in the right place and to respond in the right place. And it just happens to be an e-tivity that’s highly relevant to instructional design students, but it’s one that can be done by anybody. So they follow the instructions, the e-tivity, they go and do the learning style survey, they review the results. And then they have to write a small passage in the forum about whether or not they agree with the findings. So if it says that they’re a visual learner, and they don’t think they are, or they prefer text or whatever, they just have a bit of discussion about that. So it’s a really good way to engage them with the VLE very quickly. So by Friday of week one, they kind of know how we’re going to teach how we’re going to run the module. So it’s really very much of a kind of an icebreaker e-tivity. But then I have more elaborate ones then. So, my students have to design and develop an e-learning course. And so, in the instructional design course that they take with me, they have to propose a topic that they would like to develop. So it could be something that they’re personally interested in or something they know from industry that it’s needed. So they have to propose a topic, outline the characteristics of the audience, do an audience analysis (or a preliminary audience analysis), talk about what technology the audience might have, and then also provide some peer feedback to other people. Because it’s all in the forum, they can see each other’s contributions. And then they can decide, “Oh, I know a bit about what Mary proposed there, I got to give her some resources that might help her” or “John has said he wants to develop a course about safe cycling in the city. I have this brilliant book that he should have a look at,” and so on. So it’s a way of kind of structuring the tasks you might get them to do in a face-to-face tutorial, but it’s just that they read the instructions in the e-tivity in the forum, and that’s where they also reply, and everybody else can see the reply as well. So because it’s asynchronous as well, it’s really helpful because the quality of their answers tend to be better than they might be in a face-to-face classroom, for example. They’ve had a bit of time to consider them.

Rebecca: WEe were talking before we started this particular interview about COVID-19 and people moving to online learning and things like that. An e-tivity seems like an opportunity to transition quickly to online, potentially.

Darina: Yes.

Rebecca: Are there tips for doing an e-tivity for the first time? Maybe things that faculty might not think about the first time out that we could help them think about the first time out? [LAUGHTER]

Darina: Yeah, well, certainly, I mean, I think the most important thing about the e-tivities is to know what the core components are. And like, I wouldn’t always have, for example, a spark from my e-tivity, I might just state the purpose of it. And then I put most of my effort into giving the step-by-step instructions. And what I often find is that my colleagues… in their head, they know what they want the student to do, or they know what the end product will look like. But when you actually have to write out the instructions, and you’re not physically present with the students, you suddenly realize, “Oh, I have to specify that and I have to specify that” and “Oh, I better tell them where do they reply to this message or do they reply in a different forum.” That’s really, for most people where the challenge is, that they don’t realize how much extra guidance they normally give face to face, or students email them, and they give them a bit more information, or the students stopped them in the corridor, and it gives them a bit more information. In an e-tivity, the work goes into being as clear as possible. And if you’re really clear, I guarantee you students will do the right thing in the right place. If you’re not clear, their answers could end up anywhere. They could end up being emailed to you, they could end up in the wrong forum, or whatever. So really, it’s about putting the effort into the task and having kind of a manageable task. Because I know when I think back to my early days of doing e-tivities, I had an e-tivity nearly every week, for example, you know. But they might need at least a week to do the tivity and to read around the topic before they can give a good answer. So over the years, I’ve kind of cut back and I’ve just kept the most critical e-tivities and I’ve spread them out a little bit more as well. What I really like about e-tivities is that anybody who’s moving into online, they almost definitely will have access to a forum in their VLE. And if you have access to a forum, then the only thing you have to do… there’s no technology to be installed or anything of that… is you just have to put some careful thought into what you want the students to do, where, why, when, and so on. So if there’s multiple parts, just think carefully about the dates of those, that if Part B is dependent on Part A being completed, you have to give enough time in between them. And bearing in mind that online students probably have other commitments during the day and so on. So it’s a great way to get your students engaging online without it being a technical challenge for you as an instructor. It’s really more of a kind of Instructional Design Challenge, really.

John: Going back a little bit to that first example you use. I’m a little concerned because we’ve had a number of podcasts where people have talked about learning styles as a myth. I’m wondering, should we maybe address that argument just a little bit

Darina: In terms of learning styles, what I do with the students, I want them to be aware of the challenges and the issues and the critiques of learning styles as well. So when I asked them to do the survey, I also give them links to some article about the issues with learning styles. And I make it very clear to them that I’m not pushing learning styles or insisting that they have to believe the results that come back. It’s an icebreaker activity, that it’s an activity that will get them at the very least to stop and think about how they think they learn. So even if they strongly disagree with the results, that’s fine. And I want them to actually say that it, you know what I mean? It’s not a mark for “Do you agree with this? And if you don’t, I have a problem with you.” And it’s very much about stop and think about how you’d like to learn, okay, and I’m giving you an e-tivity that just happens to be relevant to your study as well.

Rebecca: What I like about your icebreaker in this way is that it encourages students immediately not to have to be on the agree train, right? … like agree with everything the faculty has to say all the time. And that would seem like it gives them permission right from the first activity to disagree or have different perspectives, which I could imagine would be a really important thing to set up at the beginning of an online course.

Darina: It is, because we often say this to students, but most of the time they look at us as “Well, you’re the expert. And if I disagree with you it might affect my grades” and stuff like that. And they don’t realize maybe that you don’t mind if they disagree, and if they have a valid reason for disagreeing that that’s extremely valid. And so yeah, I do like that aspect of it, because it kind of sets the stage for even just making them a bit more critical of what they read. So like, MOOCs were all the rage of 2011, they were the worst thing ever in 2012. Now they’re back in, and then they’re gone again. And I need my students to think like that about, you know, whatever the latest trend is, might not even exist tomorrow. And the same goes for theories. You know, anytime somebody comes up with a new theory, it’s going to take a bit of time before people evaluate that theory and determine whether it’s really valid or not, and that that’s okay. Because they wouldn’t really be thinking like that when they come into our program. You know, they’ve probably been away from education for a long time. And in my experience in undergraduate programs, they don’t do a lot of critical thinking. So, this is the start of that, even if they’re not as aware as I am of why I’m doing it, you know. I’m trying to emphasize it anyway.

John: You’ve used the term VLE several times. Could you explain to our listeners what that means, because that term isn’t as commonly used in the U.S.

Darina: Virtual Learning Environment… sorry. I actually say LMS quite a lot. When I say LMS, other people say “What’s an LMS?” So VLE (virtual learning environment) or LMS (learning management system) are the same thing. Yes.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about advantages of e-tivities over other strategies to use in online learning.

Darina: Yeah, of course. Well, one of the major draws for faculty is when I say to them, there’s no technical skill required. It doesn’t require you to have a more supercomputer to be able to install something. You don’t have to go out and buy any new equipment. If you have access to a VLE, you’ll have access to a forum. So it’s a simple, inexpensive way of engaging your students. One of the things that people often say to me is, you know, “That’s fine for you. You teach tech writing or instructional design. Of course, you can do that kind of stuff. I teach artificial intelligence or maths or science or whatever, how would I do an e-tivity for that?” if you can give students a piece of instruction about your topic, it can be turned into an e-tivity. Over the years I’ve tried to collate some activities from different disciplines, and I put them up on my website. The science engineering people are a bit slower to engage in professional development for teaching in general, but those who do, I have like supply chain management with a new masters in artificial intelligence. They’re using all e-tivities to engage their students, and their students are industry professionals working in AI and they are really loving the engagement with the e-tivities. I have colleagues who teach languages using it, management marketing are using it. It’s really about what do you want the students to do? Ask them to do it. And the important thing about an e-tivity is, the student’s response doesn’t have to be a text-based response in the forum. You put the e-tivity in the forum, they get used to going there for them. But sometimes the e-tivity will require them to go somewhere else and do something. So the e-tivity could say, go away and interview an expert in your field and come back and upload a file or tell us what you learned from that interview. Or I have an e-tivity, for example, that gets them to set up a Twitter account and then engage on Twitter for the rest of the semester. So they’re not actually using the forum every week to engage, the forum just tells them how to do it. They reply with their Twitter handle, but thereafter they’re actually engaging via Twitter. So they start off on the forum, but they end up somewhere else. It’s very important that you just think about that. That’s just kind of a house or home for the task, but the task itself does not have to be discussion based or forum based. And then I think you get a bit more buy-in from technical type subjects who say, “Okay, yeah, maybe I could see a way that we could use this.”

John: To put this in context. you mentioned that you were using this for students who are both online and face to face. Could you tell us just a little bit about your course in terms of the structure?

Darina: Yes, of course. So the students they’re all studying how to become technical writers, instructional designers, or e-learning content developers. So initially, the program was only available on campus, and towards the latter years, I was using e-tivities with the on-campus students. And then when I moved it online as well, it meant it was actually not so difficult for me because the e-tivities ported very well to the online students. Now we just have students, some of them physically come into my class and they attend lectures. They can download the podcasts afterwards, if they want to, the online students access the slides and the podcasts afterwards, but they all engage together in the discussion forums.

John: That sounds a lot like a HyFlex course where students are getting the same content and they can attend in person or remotely either synchronously or asynchronously,

Darina: Yes, it is. And it started off as being on campus only. I’ve read a little bit about your HyFlex and it wasn’t a term I was aware of, or I wasn’t familiar with that. A lot of my colleagues here in UL, because we are traditional on-campus institution, they tend to create a different version for the online students. But the way I see it is that you can end up with different learning outcomes if you’re giving different types of assignments to students, and so on. And if you’re smart about it, one activity can engage both groups. And it also increases the audience. It means that the on-campus students who might not have much experience actually get to engage with the online students who might have lots of experience. They wouldn’t otherwise interact with them, you know, they tend to interact with the other students in the classroom with them. So it kind of creates a bigger audience with a more varied skill set if they’re all engaging in the same e-tivities.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what the experience in the classroom is like when you’re using e-tivities for a face-to-face class? I understand that they’re all doing the same e-tivity as where they engage with each other, but what’s there in-class experience like?

Darina: The e-tivity doesn’t really impact the in-class experience. For some reason, when we set up the program, as I said, it was on campus only. And when we moved it online, we thought that almost everybody would want to be online, and that we wouldn’t have a need for on-campus lectures and so on. But most years, it’s about 50-50. It can vary a little bit, but some students still actually want to come in and have the lecture, a formal lecture, and other students can’t avail of that for whatever reason. So, the on-campus experience is very much students coming in and listening to a traditional lecture and asking questions and me answering them. We don’t tend to work on the e-tivities during the class time, because I would have to repurpose that engagement then and try and create another version of that for the online students. So, the on-campus delivery is the lecture. The online engagement of the class is really what happens through e-tivities. And it’s kind of irrelevant whether you are an online or an on-campus student then. That’s the kind of way that works for me anyway, and for my students.

John: And you mentioned that the online students listen to podcasts. So do you record the class presentations and share them as podcasts with the class?

Darina: No is the answer for the majority of times, though I have played around with different versions. It would obviously be a lot easier for me in one way if I just recorded the live lecture and posted it afterwards. But I often find I spend just as long editing this or thinking, “Oh, I didn’t really explain that very well, I’ll re-record it and so on. And that I’ve usually spent just as long editing afterwards as I have giving the session, and then I end up saying, I should have just done a proper separate podcast. So my default setting now is I give my live lecture, and then I come and do a podcast of the same lecture, but it’s just cleaner, I’m speaking better. Everybody has access to it, though, so it’s not like the online students only get that; everybody has it. So, if they do miss a lecture, for whatever reason, they can still get the podcast afterwards. And for some reason, students still come to class… not this week, it’s student fun week. But normally, I still get students coming to class and sometimes I do wonder why they’re coming to class when there is an alternative, they can still get the same material another way. But, some students, they like the fact that they have a dedicated time when they come and they focus on instructional design or e-learning, or whatever. And of course, sometimes I do group work during the lectures and so on. But I have to factor in that every way that I interact with the on-campus students, I have to be able to try and replicate that afterwards for the online. So, that’s why most of the interaction happens through the e-tivities. But, sometimes you do have to create supplementary materials because you did a group work exercise in class or whatever, you know?

Rebecca: I like the idea of doing the podcast afterwards, because then you know what questions were asked [LAUGHTER] and you can address all of those when you go to record.

Darina: …and quite often, it’s I think, I really didn’t explain that as well as I could have or I stumbled on that, or they didn’t seem to get it when I said in class. I’m going to explain it more clearly now in the podcast, and at least I know that everybody has access to that. So, I’m not giving a better version to the online students. They all have access. So, that works for me, even though it does feel like I’m double teaching sometimes.

Rebecca: Dress rehearsal and the final performance?

Darina: Yes, exactly. [LAUGHTER]

John: When I first started teaching online, I did the same thing. I was teaching a face-to-face class and an online class and I recorded videos for all of the online students, which I then shared with the face-to-face students…

Darina: Great

John: …and an hour and 20 minute class became maybe two or three 10-minute videos because you could do it more concisely and a more focused presentation.

Darina: But the few times I have recorded the live sessions, maybe due to, you know, being under pressure at work, or whatever reason, they’ve complained. They get used to the higher quality podcast, and then they say, “Oh, I could hear somebody going in and out the door,” or “I couldn’t hear the questions they were asking.” So, if you go down that path of recording separate podcasts, you can’t really go back to recording a live session, because they’ll find them not sufficiently clear. So, it’s fine if you start with that. They won’t notice. They’ll be just thrilled to have access to the lecture materials, but it’s whatever kind of standard you set you kind of have to maintain it then, so. [LAUGHTER] But, it would be easier on me if I didn’t have to go and do it again, in lots of ways.[LAUGHTER]

John: We had a really similar experience when we first started the podcast. We created the intro, a very short introduction to the podcast, and we showed it to our advisory board that advises the teaching center. And one of the people there said, I think it was intended as a compliment that “It sounds so professional. It doesn’t sound like you at all.” [LAUGHTER]

Darina: Oh, definitely. My children said that to me, too. You sound weird in the podcast. I’m like, I’m just talking more slowly and I’m thinking about what I’m saying, rather than talking super fast in class, maybe, whatever. Yeah. I do pauses when I’m recording it. And I do go back and say that wasn’t good enough or your voice is a bit weak there, you know what I mean. So it is a better quality production. I would be very keen to emphasize to my colleagues and you don’t want to create a situation where you then give yourself five hours of editing work after every lecture, either. Your live lectures are not perfect, and it’s fine. But there’s nothing wrong with doing a little bit of editing, but I wouldn’t waste too much time on it either or you’ll just never upload it. That’s the other danger.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the role of the instructor in the e-tivity. You talked about designing it and writing the instructions, but what happens afterwards? Can you describe that a little bit.?

Darina: Yes. So, as I said, in my case, all the e-tivities are graded. The first one, the icebreaker one this year, I decided not to give marks for it, because everybody was going to get full marks and it was kind of a bit too easy.[LAUGHTER] So I decided to only give marks if they didn’t do, which, which made them all do it. And the purpose of that was to get them to engage quickly. But, for all the other e-tivities, there are marks going forward. So it’s a couple of percent maybe for each part, it does involve me copying and pasting the forum based messages into a Word document and reading through them and annotating with little comments and then sharing it back with each individual student. So the feedback only goes back to the individual student, even though they’ve all seen each other’s submissions, say, right. So it’ll be a mixture then of quantitative and qualitative techniques. So, I might look at like, have they stuck to the word count I suggested. So they tend to be relatively short answers, you know, like 300 words max or something like that. So, have they adhered to that? Have they answered the question I asked, have they got some citations to relevant literature in the part where they have to respond to somebody else? Have they given them some useful suggestions? Are they just saying, “Oh, that’s a wonderful idea, Mary?” So the qualitative part takes a little bit more time. They are time consuming. My classes could be 20 to 35 students having two or three e-tivities in a semester is still plenty of work. I feel like I’m kind of grading all the time. But they really do engage them. And they have activities to do from early on, rather than than just every week logging in, listening to a podcast, reading all the readings, and then having a big assignment at the end. It does require them to do things more often. And as I said, I’m relying mostly on asynchronous interaction. So it has to be highly structured that they’re not wondering what they have to do. That’s why I mentioned thinking carefully about the task and what is actually manageable. I mean, just because I can do it in an hour this evening, they don’t know anything about the topic that you’ve just set them so they have to read all the readings, maybe listen to your podcasts, look at your slides, read what other people have said to get a feel for it, and then post their 300 words. So that could be a four-hour task for them. So, it’s a little bit of a trial and error thing, that the first time you issue an e-tivity you think it’s very doable, and you might realize it takes them way more time than you thought. And that’s why over the years I’ve pared back to the most essential e-tivities that I really just do not want to drop that I know engage them enough that it’s not just logging in and listening to a podcast every week. It’s important to engage them as well.

John: You mentioned that the students reply to each other’s contributions. Do you also reply to those? Or do you wait until the end to provide feedback?

Darina: Usually, I wait until the end. Now in the ideal world, when we’re teaching online, we would have tutors available to help us with this. I don’t have any tutors, so everything, all the VLE work, everything, you know, uploading materials, and all podcasting, and everything else is all done by me… possibly the same for you. But I have colleagues in other departments in my university who have education technologists who do a lot of that and who do a lot of the tedious things like downloading people’s forum postings, or saving them in documents and all that kind of thing. If I didn’t have to spend so much time on those kinds of things, I would probably engage more frequently with their contributions. But, there’s a relatively short time between when the e-tivity appears and when you have to contribute something and there may be two or three parts to it. So part A and part B might be due at the same day. And then Part C might be read over what other people said in A and B and give some of them feedback. Because I try and align them with one another, I do return the feedback for one e-tivity before the next e-tivity is due because it usually has a knock on effect on what they do the second time around. But I do find it’s very demanding on me. And every year I say I shouldn’t do this, even though it’s a good outcome for the students. So, that’s something you have to factor in as well is that if something is issued in week five, and due in week six, and then another one due in week seven, are you going to issue another one in week seven? They’re immediately going to be asking you “Well, how did I do and the last one I submitted last week.” So, you have to have factored in some grading time into your week six or seven schedule. So that’s just something else to kind of watch there. So yes, to answer your question, when they propose an e-learning course topic and they give me some details and the typical audience, I will give them feedback on that before the next e-tivity, which is to write the tasks they might teach in the course. So I might say to them “Well your topic is, too. broad” or “Have you looked at what other e-learning courses exist on that topic?” or “Have you thought about this and that?” That should impact the kind of tasks they write in the next e-tivity. So, it is important to get them feedback in between.

Rebecca: I also wondered if you could talk a little bit about how e-tivities fit into other coursework that students are doing, or are students just doing the e-tivities as part of your classes?

Darina: No. So, for example, the one where they propose the topic for an e-learning course, and the audience requirements and so on, and then later on, they propose some tasks that they would like to teach in that course. Let’s say it’s on safe cycling in the city. They would have to identify certain tasks that the learner would need to be able to do, you know, like pick appropriate equipment or clothing to wear when they’re cycling and buy the right lights for their bicycle or whatever it might be. So, they’d have to outline the tasks they would teach. The main assignment then for that module would be to develop a podcast that teaches the learner how to do one or more of those tasks. So, it could be a podcast on buying the right equipment for your bicycle or whatever. So, there’s an instructional design process integrated those e-tivities. And the same then for the other group where they have to work in a team. They’re only online students in another course I teach. They’re only online students, they have to develop an e-learning course as a group. So, they have to form a team, first of all. They don’t know each other, they’ve never met, they only have the forums to really interact. So they have to find other like-minded people via the forums, pick a topic, decide who’s going to do what, who is going to be the instructional designer, the editor, the writers, whatever, they have to identify what sources they’re going to use for the course they’re going to develop. These are all e-tivities, by the way, these are all different parts of e-tivities, and they have to come up with some sample interface designs. So, that might be only seven weeks into the term, they will have done all that. And I find the e-tivity’s really good for group work where I don’t know about you, but in my experience, when you ask students to get in groups or to form groups themselves, they could spend five weeks trying to find teammates, whereas if you give them a structured e-tivity where it says: By week two, you have to have found three other team members. By week three, you have to have decided who’s doing what. It’s a really great way of organizing them online because they’ve small, relatively easy deliverables, but they’re due and there’s marks going for them. Whereas if there’s kind of a, you have to have an e-learning course developed by week 12, they’ve 12 weeks to get their act together or, you know, they’ll manage it somehow. So it’s a very good way of organizing them, particularly when you’re talking about online students, because they have other commitments. So, all those small e-tivities all feed into the final project, which is to actually produce an e-learning course, based on all the submissions.

John: I have a question about that process of forming groups. I assigned a podcast assignment last term, I strongly encourage them to do it in groups of two or three, and there were only two pairs. I allowed them to do them individually, and most people did that, which meant a bit more work for them, and a whole lot more work for me.[LAUGHTER]

Darina: Yup.

John: Do you use a discussion forum to get students to form the groups or is there some type of prompt that you’ve used to get students to effectively form those groups?

Darina: I know I sound like a broken record, now. But it’s actually the e-tivity. So the e-tivity is: use this particular forum by Friday of week one, you have to identify a group. I have a dedicated space for finding people. But that’s not where they respond with their team members. They respond to the e-tivity with their team members. I’m really amazed how this works, but it really does work. So you’ll have: “Hi, I’m John. I live in Dublin. I prefer to have somebody who lives near me in case we need to meet, but I’m happy to work with anyone. I’m thinking we could develop a course about safe cycling.” And then you’ll get some elsel say, “Yeah, I love cycling, too. I might go with you.” And that just happens in that casual forum space. But then once you’ve got four people who agree, straightaway, then they reply to the e-tivity with: “Here’s our group” and they list the four members and that’s it. That’s all I grade is the four names… have they got four names, rather than worrying about who’s interacting with who and how they finally got to that destination

Rebecca: In your e-tivity, then, do you describe to the students: “Use this finding-like forum to find each other and then report back?”

Darina: Yes, it’s very prescriptive. [LAUGHTER] It’s like you need to spell it out and Ieven give them links to: these are some of the challenges you will encounter as a team, you know, that kind of the forming, storming, stages and the characteristics of a good team, the kinds of things to watch out for. So, I just alert them to, these are likely things are going to happen your group this semester while you’re doing loads of other assignments at the same time and working and whatever else. So, they’re alert to it, they can choose whether or not they want to read those, but at least they know that there are possible challenges coming… but definitely breaking up those stages into smaller stages where they get 2% for finding a team, and they get 3% for dividing up the roles and agreeing on them by week three. It definitely works. It’s surprisingly productive.

John: I had tried that. I put together a discussion forum for them to find partners and to select their topics, but I didn’t make it mandatory that they had to, and so that discussion forum was used by one person [LAUGHTER] who suggested a topic and no one else responded and I should have probably started the assignment by requiring teams.

Darina: Yeah, well over the years I’ve tried the technique of “Wouldn’t it be great if students did these things voluntarily?” …and then always disappointed that only the really good students did it voluntarily. So, I pretty much tend to have 10 to 20% of every course is e-tivities. And the other 80% is for the bigger assignment, whether it’s a podcast or an e-learning course, or an e-portfolio, or whatever.

Rebecca: I think that scaffolding is something that students really want. And I think a lot of times when it’s just in a final project assignment…

Darina: Yeah.

Rebecca: …that like you should do this by this date. And this by this date, even though it’s scaffolded, in the way that you thought about it or designed it, the students don’t treat it like it’s scaffolded. [LAUGHTER]

Darina: No, [LAUGHTER] I’m sure you’ve had the same experience, where you write a seven-page document that clearly specifies all the things you want them to do and when and they’ll still not do things on those deadlines. So. this is the way of like, “Look, this is simple. Four people agree with each other by a certain date.” And it’s great because they’re doing interface designs in a group by week five or six when they would still be messing about and trying to find people to merge with. And then if I see there’s somebody leftover, who doesn’t have a team, I’ll say: “Well, this group only has three, you can go with them” or whatever, but they tend to get themselves sorted. Now I did use it with undergraduates, the final-year undergraduates and it worked with them as well. And they were on-campus students, but it mightn’t be as useful for maybe first years or second years or freshmen or whatever, but it certainly did work for more senior undergraduates.

John: Mine were freshmen, but I didn’t provide that requirement…

Rebecca: …that extra step… [LAUGHTER]

John: Next time I may do that, though, because many of them were very, very good, but the ones that were jointly done, were, in general,quite a bit better.

Darina: I find if I give students a choice about working together or on their own, they tend to pick on their own as well. And I think to be honest, if I was asked if it was an assignment, and it’s been graded, I would say, you know what, I think at least I don’t want to be cross at anyone else for not engaging. I’m just going to do this by myself. I won’t have to rely on anyone else. I know. It’s not how we work in the real world. But when there are marks at stake, you kind of want to have full responsibility for what you hand up. So I find it very hard to get people to voluntarily engage in groups.

Rebecca: How do you manage when you’re doing e-tivities that are collaborative? The question always comes up like does everyone get the same grade? Do people get different grades?

Darina: Well, bear in mind, now that there’s a very small number of marks going for each of these parts. So like if there’s 2% going for somebody in your group, the designated Team Leader uploading four names and your team, by Friday, they’ll all get the 2%. It’s simple. It takes me one minute to grade that. When it comes to maybe an interface design that’s proposed as a group, then they’ll all get the same marks, unless, and I’ll always have that disclaimer in there, that unless the rest of the group contact me to say that somebody is not engaging, then I’ll deal with it separately. I’ve done a lot of research on virtual teams and those kinds of challenges. The default is that they’ll all get the same mark unless they speak up about it. So if you don’t hear about it, then the onus is on you to accept that all your team members will get the same mark. If they were worth 30% each or something I think people might be a little bit more precious about “Well, I actually did more work than they did,” but they’re sufficiently small that if you’re not pulling your weight for an e-tivity, you’re probably not going to do very well on the big assignment either.

John: How have students responded to the use of e-tivities?

Darina: At no point have I asked students like, “Do you like e-tivities versus something else?” They just come in, they’re immersed in the e-tivities. Not all my colleagues use them now, so they don’t have them in every course that they’re studying. But the way I see it is, I mean, obviously, we get our courses evaluated every year, and there’s never anything they could have said about e-tivities. A lot of people would comment on how they liked the clear instructions, and they like how things are organized, and they know where to go and so on. I think the thing that speaks loudest for me is how people do the right thing in the right place, and that they don’t post their answer in the wrong place. And I think that says a lot about how clear my e-tivities are… that they’re not left wondering. So, I’ve seen e-tivities, written by other people, where I’m thinking, do I click reply here? Or do I have to email it? What’s the deadline? Or do I have to collaborate before I respond and so on. If they’re very clear, if you put all that work into refining them, and I intend to refine them every year, if I find a lot of questions about an e-tivity this year that I’ve issued several times before, I will make a note: “next year, make sure you explain this clearer” or whatever, you know, in my Word document. Something that’s very obvious to me some years just isn’t as obvious to my students. So, just keep refining them. And that’s one of the great things about them is it’s like a good assignment. You can reuse it every year. And each year, it should be even more perfect than the previous year.

John: Would you mind if we share a link to your collection of e-tivities on the show notes?

Darina: Yes, of course. And I have in addition to a list of links to e-tivities, I have a very long list of resources that people might use for teaching and learning, like blogging tools, collaborative authoring tools, rubrics for teaching online and so on. So, just one of the things in there is a list of some e-tivities by my colleagues. I’m trying to get more people on board to using e-tivities. But, as I get good e-tivities from colleagues, I add them. It’s not a huge collection of them, but it gives you a flavor for how different disciplines can use them.

Rebecca: Wonderful. We always end our wrap up by asking what’s next? ‘

Darina: Well, I suppose one of the things I do kind of in addition to my day job as a faculty member is I do a lot of professional development workshops kind of voluntarily with my colleagues. So trying to help them either just use technology more in their day-to-day teaching, or even to develop online programs as well. And in that, then, I try and encourage them to use e-tivities. You know, this is a really good tool. This is how I teach online all the time, it’s not some elaborate software system you have to install or anything like that. So that’s where the collection of activities we’re just talking about has come from… those workshops where people start developing their own e-tivities in class, they refine them every year, and then they find them really useful. So that that’s where the collection is coming from… doing a lot of professional development in the area and now with the talks. As we were talking earlier about the possible closures of universities and so on, I probably will have a lot more people using e-tivities in the next few weeks, then maybe we originally planned. So I’m going to continue my work with the professional development. I mean, we’re not trying to convert everybody into online, we just want to show them good ways of using technology that might make things they’re doing at the moment more user friendly, enjoyable, less time consuming, and so on. So it’s about appropriate use of technology rather than moving everything into the online space. Not everything should be delivered that way, not everything can be delivered that way, but a lot of things can. My focus in the next while will be on just making people more aware of what can be done, rather than focusing on specific tools and getting anxious about hardware and software and things like that.

Rebecca: Great.

John: Thank you. This has been wonderful.

Darina: Thank you very much John and Rebecca. I really enjoyed it.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you so much.

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

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.

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96. Inclusive Pedagogy

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.

Show Notes

Transcript

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.

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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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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.

Rebecca: Yum!

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.

Amer: Yeah.

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.

Rebecca: Yeah.

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.

[MUSIC]

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

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

92. Diverse Classrooms

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

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

John: Welcome.

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

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

John: Our teas today are…

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

Rebecca: Wow, yummy.

John: That’s impressive.

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

Rebecca: That is a true rebel.

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

Rebecca: Again, yeah… [LAUGHTER]

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

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

John: And I have ginger peach black tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: And you’re running that on edX.

Melina: That’s correct.

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

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

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

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

Mathew: graduate students

Melina: …graduate students…

Mathew: and undergraduates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mathew: Sure. Melina loves this question. Yeah.

Melina: So we did some interviews to explore…

Mathew: … just that…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mathew: Yeah, that’s exactly our goals

Rebecca: How incredibly meta. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

Rebecca: So when can we start taking this class?

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mathew: Yeah.

Rebecca: …it looks like a tomato.

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

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

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

Rebecca: So you’re human then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Oh look, reflection comes back again.

Mathew: Absolutely. [LAUGHTER] Absolutely.

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

Melina: Thank you

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

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

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

Melina: We can interview you for your own podcast.

John: Yeah,that would be a nice twist…

Rebecca: That would be fun.

Mathew: That would be fun, yeah.

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

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

90. Blackish Mirror

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

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

Mya: Hello.

Ajsa: Hello there.

John: Our teas today are….

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

John: Okay.

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

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

John: And I have blackberry green tea.

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

Ajsa: Of course.

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

Rebecca: Like whitewashed

Ajsa: Yeah…

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

Ajsa: the norm…

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

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

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

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

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

Ajsa: Yeah

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

Ajsa: Yeah.

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

Ajsa: We had check-ins.

Mya: We had regular check-ins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ajsa: Yeah.

Mya: …happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ajsa: …comfortable, yeah…

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

Ajsa: “I am that girl.”

Mya: …”that is me.”

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

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

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

Mya: Yes, actually.

Ajsa: Yeah, I did.

Mya: Yeah, that happened a lot.

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

Mya: Yeah, I agree.

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

Mya: I think it absolutely helped.

Ajsa: It did.

Mya: Yes.

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

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

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

Rebecca: So a key learning point was listening?

Ajsa: Yeah.

Mya: Active listening.

Ajsa: Active Listening.

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

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

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

John: What would you do differently?

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

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

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

Ajsa: Um hmm.

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

Ajsa: Cooper…

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

Ajsa: Yeah.

MYSA: …just to let you know.

John: …unless you choose to stay….

Mya: Unless you stay? That’s true.

John: Which many of us have done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Big smiles on my side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: It also saved on the budget too

Mya: It did. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

Ajsa: course objectives

Mya: …course objectives are.

Rebecca: I just heard a student say course objectives

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

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

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

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

Mya: Aww.

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

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

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

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

Ajsa: We’re so lovable, yeah.

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

Ajsa: Student leaders… the whole aspect.

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

Ajsa: …how sexualized they are.

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

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

Ajsa: That’s what I was thinking about.

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

Ajsa: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Great.

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

Mya: Thank you.

Ajsa: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you so much.

[MUSIC]

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

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

85. Small-Group Discussions

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

Dakin: Hi. Good to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Dakin: Yes, I am drinking Sleepytime Vanilla today.

Rebecca: That sounds yummy.

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

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

John: Okay.

Dakin: Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakin: Yeah, very much so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Earlier you mentioned that light grading be used. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Dakin: I think that’s the hardest thing for faculty to do is light grading. Faculty members really want to mark everything. If they see something wrong, they will mark it. And I must admit, myself, when I’m posting to Facebook and somebody writes something and spells it incorrectly, I have to respond. It’s annoying, but I have to do it, and it’s the same way with grading. People will try to grade everything and they will eat up their lives giving these huge responses back that the students really aren’t going to listen to. Nobody has time to make all those corrections. So the smartest guy I ever saw was Bob Ferrell, who was a professor of history. And Bob was highly published—he had 50 plus books—and he still had a line out the door of students that he talked to every day and that was highly admirable as far as I was concerned. And so I wanted to find out how he did this, and what he did is… I took a readings class with him and I handed in a paper a week, and we worked through that. And every paper, the first time he got it, he marked it up pretty heavily to show, “You need to work on your grammar and I’m watching you.” But after that, every week, it was three things. He’d mark… circle one, flip a couple pages, circle another, flip a couple pages, circle another, “There you go,” out the door, you’re done. And so for me it felt like, “Oh, I only have three things to change. This is great, I’m really close to getting that top grade.” And next week it would be another three. And next week it would be another three, and so on. So, he was doing light grading, he was giving me feedback—feedback that was useful to me—feedback that was moderately challenging. I didn’t feel at sea, I felt I could do it. Great. And so I would do it. And that’s the way I come to this. The way I implement it is, say if I’m in a freshman class, I will have the students writing say 1000 words response every week, which for a freshman class seems like a lot, but I want them to work and I want to hear their voice. I will tell them not to use any quotations, I want to hear their voice, I don’t want to hear somebody else’s. I want to hear them thinking, and if they don’t agree with the text, argue with it—that’s fine. If you don’t agree with me, argue. That’s what you should be doing. You’re trying to construct your ability to speak and write. So, when they do that, they then turn these pieces in, and I grade them but I grade them lightly, which means I’ve got now 40,000 word essays I’m supposed to be grading, that will take me about 40 minutes. I spend about a minute on each. I just kind of flip through it, I can tell if somebody’s done the reading or not, I can tell if there’s a major issue or not, and then I write down my responses but I don’t give them to the students. I just give the students grades. And when I get to the class, I’ll do a group grade. So at the beginning of the class, I will then do a couple things. One, I will celebrate some people, and I’ll talk about that in a minute, but I also make corrections. I’ll do grammatical corrections, will say “Here’s the five grammatical errors of the week,” and by about mid semester, I’m still showing some of those grammatical errors up on the board and the girl who’s done it says, “Oh my God, it’s me again!” So they get it and they’re trying to reduce them and that’s fine. The other thing is I talk about misconceptions. Say somebody has a misconception about a particular piece, I’ll say, “A couple people had a misconception about X.” Now it’s not a couple people, it’s Joe. It’s always Joe. Joe’s in the back room, Joe never does the reading, Joe’s having trouble. But Joe knows he’s not doing the reading and Joe knows he’s not getting a good grade, he doesn’t need to have his name called out in front of the class. So I say, “A couple people had this issue.” I talk about that and address it. And then the next part, the celebration. So, in order to make them feel better about what just happened, I then say “Now then, I wanted to talk about some of the great things that were done this week. So first of all, Jenny had this fantastic response, it was just so meaningful. I want to share it with you, because I think it’s really worthwhile listening to. And Bob said something that no one has ever said in this class before and so I think it’s important to address that.” And then maybe I talked about Jim, “Jim really did a very deep reading of the text, he brought up some serious issues that I did not bring up myself, and I think we need to explore those today. So that’s part of our discussion today, it will be based on what Jim has talked about.” So that’s the celebration, but every week, it’s a different three. It’s never the same three, it’s never always the A students. Over the course of semester, I find a way to celebrate each and every student in that class, including Joe. And Joe is hard. Joe’s really hard. So I’m always watching every week to see what Joe is talking about and if Joe says something good it’s like, “Yes, I can now celebrate Joe! Good. Check.” I’m celebrating. And that’s the way light grading works for me, it allows me to spend more time interacting with students, less time interacting with their work.

Rebecca: I’m sure we can all take advice on reducing grading, right? [LAUGHTER]

John: When we talk to faculty about using group discussions in class, one thing they often raise is a question of when students are teaching each other—in general with peer discussion or peer activities—there’s a concern that perhaps it may reinforce misinformation. How can you be sure that that doesn’t happen with small-group activities?

Dakin: Well, I don’t think you can be sure it doesn’t happen, but you can certainly set up a system to check for that and make sure it’s not happening or that if it’s happening, you’re correcting it. So the way to do that would be use some ungraded assessments, those classroom assessment techniques from Angelo and Cross. In the large group during the debriefing, some of those may come to light again, and you can then use lecture to correct those misconceptions once they become apparent. I agree that small-group work builds confidence, but it can really be like the blind leading the blind sometimes, especially if the students haven’t been doing the preparatory homework, and especially if the groups aren’t randomized.

John: And if you do that sort of pretesting, where you’re getting the initial feedback, you can tell what those misperceptions are, so that you can be prepared to address them during the class, which should help reduce that issue.

Dakin: Sometimes… yeah. I have to know which questions to ask, and often I don’t. So it’s that ungraded assessment where they toss back an answer that completely takes me by surprise. Oh, I am so surprised. Now I know what your misconception is. But I couldn’t have guessed at it.

Rebecca: I think that’s important to remember too, that [when] you’ve been teaching for a long time, the misperceptions that you might have come across five years ago are really different than the misperceptions that you might experience this year, because the experiences of our students change and the group of students change, and all of that influences prior knowledge and prior experience that influences how they might interpret material.

Dakin: That is so important. Over the 30 some odd years I’ve been teaching, my students have changed a lot, not only in their content knowledge and what they know and what they’ve experienced, but also how they think and how they behave. And again, that’s the strength of using small group work, because you get to see how they think and how they behave. And they’re not just sitting there in rows in front of you and you imagine that’s the same class you were teaching in 1987. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Dakin: I’m collecting all these protocols for my own use and also to help others, so it’d be great if people listening to this podcast could send me some new ideas, send me some more protocols, so I can share those out. The way to do that is to send them at teaching@cortland.edu. That’s our email address. In the meantime, we’ve got a new Institute for College Teaching down here, we finished up a faculty needs survey. We’ve got our advisory committee in place, and we’re just about to start setting up priorities for next year. So, there’s a lot happening, I just don’t know what it is yet.

John: Because you’ve just taken over that position fairly recently, right?

Dakin: Two months ago.

Rebecca: Oh, the surprises you might find, right? [LAUGHTER]

Dakin: I have been very pleasantly surprised so far. I have found a lot of really skilled and dedicated faculty, and I’ve just really been enjoying talking to them. I know I enjoy this because it’s a challenge, and I love a challenge. And they are so well-educated already. It makes me work very hard.

Rebecca: Which means you’ll never be bored, right?

Dakin: Exactly, and that that’s why it’s so important to me.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been really interesting, and I think will help faculty as they plan for their next teaching adventure.

John: Thank you and we will share some of the resources that you’ve provided in the show notes as well.

Dakin: Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much.

[MUSIC]

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

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

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