142. Pedagogies of Care: Equity and Inclusion

This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Cyndi Kernahan and Dr. Kevin Gannon join us to discuss what faculty can do to foster an inclusive and equitable class climate for all of our students.

Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the new Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and a Professor of History at Grandview University. He is the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto. Cyndi and Kevin are both participants in the Pedagogies of Care project, created by authors in the West Virginia University Press series on Teaching and Learning.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss what faculty can do to foster an inclusive and equitable class climate for all of our students.

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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.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guests today are Dr. Cyndi Kernihan and Dr. Kevin Gannon. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the new Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and a Professor of History at Grandview University. He is the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto. Cyndi and Kevin are both participants in the Pedagogies of Care project, created by authors in the West Virginia University Press series on Teaching and Learning. Welcome back, Cyndi and Kevin.

Cyndi: Thanks.

Kevin: Thank you. Great to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Kevin: Mine is no tea. I’m drinking Diet Pepsi in a large cup because I need my caffeine in bulk today. [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: I came prepared, I have apricot black tea.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.

Cyndi: It’s very good.

John: …and I have a Tea Forte Black Currant tea.

Rebecca: I’m rocking iced tea today because it’s 90 degrees. [LAUGHTER]

John: I’ve had many iced teas already earlier today. Is it that warm? [LAUGHTER] Okay, I knew it was getting a little warmer here. We’ve invited you here to talk primarily about your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Cyndi: Yeah, this collection was started by one of the authors in the West Virginia University Press series on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education that I know you all have had several episodes about. It’s edited by Jim Lang, there’s several contributors. And so we were all asked if we would like to contribute something that would then be provided during all of this time of pivoting to online and uncertainty as sort of a way to provide some quick educational development materials for folks.

Kevin: Yeah, the intent of it was to have it be open access, creative commons license, freely available. And in this time of pivot, there are so many resources out there about how to use this tool, how to do that tool, how to move on to Blackboard in 90 seconds or whatever that may be. But, the larger issue of “How do you do this in a way that acknowledges student needs and your own needs and how do you still keep the type of learning space that’s so important for student learning at least relatively intact, given all of the upheaval?” And that’s what I think the real strength of the collection is, this idea that we need to understand things like tools and techniques. But, we still need to be coming from a larger perspective of care, of empathy, of affirmation of the fact that our students are in just as much of uncharted territory as we are.

Rebecca: in this podcast that you share as part of this collection, and in your other work, you both focus on maintaining productive relationships in the classroom community. And although this is always important, it seems really important right now. Can you talk a little bit about some of the strategies that we can use to maintain productive classroom conversations, especially dealing with difficult issues?

Cyndi: Well, this is something I’ve thought a lot about and I know Kevin has too, because, especially right now, with all the protesting that’s happening, I know that there’s a lot of questions about how to address this or whether to address this in the classroom. So, maybe we can get at the when you should later, but I think having a good connection with your students is always really key. If you’re going to talk about difficult issues, it’s really important. I mean, that’s one of the things I’ve discovered in teaching this and one of the reasons why I want to write about it, because I feel like there wasn’t a lot of writing about the importance of having a good strong connection to your students. And part of that, I think, is about bringing an attitude of compassion as much as possible to your students and to the classroom, seeing them as people, developing a relationship with them, because then that’s going to engender the trust that you need to have those sorts of conversations. And that’s difficult to do. But it really does start on the first day with a lot of the really, I guess, sort of simple things that we think about when we think about a good classroom climate. So, introducing yourself to your students, making sure that they know who you are recognizing them as people and human beings as much as possible. There’s a lot of specific techniques that we could talk about that I have in terms of like how to do it, but I guess I would just say for now, one of the main ones that I keep coming back to is the focus on structure, so having the classroom discussions as structured as possible. There’s a lot of pieces to that. But that’s sort of the overall thing is like having a plan for how you’re going to do it, having a structure for how you’re going to do it. So that then that makes students comfortable to share things. You just sort of open things up to a broad “let’s talk about the protests, “you’re not going to get a lot of participation, because the students are not going to know what to do. They’re not going to know how to behave in that environment, and especially if you don’t have an existing relationship with them where everybody feels seen and valued, then I don’t think that’s necessarily going to work so well.

John: In both of your books, and in our past interviews with you, you talked about setting ground rules for discussions. That’s fairly easy to do and comfortable in a face-to-face environment. Will the same type of procedure work as well if people are starting classes in a remote setting?

Kevin: Yeah. And I think it becomes even more important in a remote setting. So, the things that Cyndi is talking about in terms of structure, in terms of expectations, in terms of an environment where it’s a known quantity of what the discussion is about, and what its purposes are, and have we been transparent with it… all of that is so much harder to do in an online environment (or mostly online environment), whether you’re talking synchronously or asynchronously. So, I think some of the things that are useful to do in an online environment… the discussion forums tend to be a real staple of online teaching. Discussion boards are sometimes where discussion goes to die, certainly in a learning management system. So, I think the first thing to think about is “What tools are we using to engage with students and are there ways that we can get away from just the simple discussion board? Can we do blogs? Can we do messaging apps like GroupMe, or something like that? Is there a Slack channel? Are there other sorts of interfaces where this will work for students?” I’m a big fan of the tool VoiceThread where students can record video and audio, but you need an institutional or a personal license for that, so that may not be an option for everybody. But I think the key to it is how are we building presence because in a face-to-face class, of course, there is the literal presence, the physical presence that we have with one another. In an online class, the research on it talks about… they frame it as social presence as one of the key facets of creating a community of inquiry in your online class. So, how are we building social presence, where we are real people with one another in this course? And so even if we’re discussing things asynchronously, we’re still discussing with people, not screens. And I think that’s a really important thing for us to be able to do. It takes a lot of effort, certainly in the first part of the course. One thing that I would certainly recommend instructors who are teaching remotely do is your first discussion with a class you know, a lot of times it’s an introductory post or something like that… consider having a discussion about discussions; ask your students what’s worked, what hasn’t. We all have experience with this now from the spring. So, this is a good way to kind of process some of that. What helps you learn? What helps you discuss? What gets in the way of that? What expectations do you have towards this space? How can we collaborate in setting those sorts of expectations for all of us? Those are really good ways to start in any class format. But, in an online format in particular, that’s a great way to start building that community and presence right away.

Rebecca: I’d like to circle back to the idea of structure a little bit more, because I think that a lot of faculty think they’re very structured. We all have a structure and it makes sense to us. [LAUGHTER] In a face-to-face classroom or something that’s synchronous, there’s the ability to improv. And it’s a performative kind of thing that happens that’s not as easy to do in an asynchronous environment, or just a different thing to do in an asynchronous environment. Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by structure and the kinds of things that really need to be in place?

Cyndi: Yeah, the examples that pop to my mind for structure, and I know there’s a lot that’s been written about this particularly in inclusive pedagogy too, so there’s a lot of ideas, but what I mean is that you first make sure students are looking at the content outside of the class, getting familiarity with it, writing their thoughts, either in a blog post or in comments or questions, that’s frequently what I do is have them write those first so that I can see them and that way, I have something to work with. I sort of know what they’re doing and then I have a structure when I come into the class of how I’m going to use that and they know how that’s going to be expected. So, they know I’m going to call on students based on what I’ve read. And even within that, you can also do… I know there’s a lot of good work that’s been done on something called inner teaching, and also reading group roles, where you give students very particular roles to play. And so in that way, you’re setting up the expectations of what they’ll be doing and how they can expect the class to feel every day. And so if you’ve done that, those are just a couple of ways you can do it. So the discussion comments ahead of time, or like I said, the very specific roles or posts that they make, so that then they know it’s not just going to be this open discussion, but there’s going to be that piece to it. So that’s one way in which I sort of think about structure.

Kevin: And in an online format, one of the things that might be useful to do is to think about the prompts that you use to start a discussion, sort of open-ended questions like “So. what do you think?” …you’ll get a wide variety of things, but it might not be the stuff that anyone’s looking for. It’s also worth considering what role students might be able to play in this so might students be taking a lead and be responsible for posting the prompt and sustaining the discussion for that particular week or that particular module. One of the things that’s useful to think about in that regard is working with students explicitly on like, “Hey, what makes this work? What’s a good question? What kind of questions do we really want to be asking here in terms of not just getting at particular content or answers, but in sustaining a conversation?” …and one little tweak I made, I use blogs as my principal form of discussion when I teach online, is when a student is writing their, what I call the lead author posts or the leader for that particular week, I encourage them to end their posts with a series of questions just like we might see at the end of a section in a textbook. So, we’ll have some thought questions, “What do you think about these things in your assessment? What might be the most important factor?” …etc, etc. And so they’ve written a post, they’ve started to elicit ideas, but then they’re providing that direct springboard for other students to jump into the conversation. And I found that to be a really useful way to get discussion started much more quickly in an online environment because they have that cue and that signpost, like, “Here are the specific things that I can start responding with.” And then the conversation can go from there.

Cyndi: Yeah, just one more thing, too. I was thinking like, do you do that in small groups? Because I was thinking that can be another structure piece too, especially online. I know, one of the complaints that I heard a lot in the spring was I have to read everybody’s posts, and they’re so long. And you know, I don’t know. And so it seems to me like having folks in groups, and we will certainly do that in the classroom face to face when we have them. So having those sort of breakout groups where they’re just responding to a few people seems like that might be a good structure piece to to transition to online.

Kevin: Yeah, coming from the small college environment, my classes are all 30 people or less, so it’s a little more manageable. But you’re right. In a larger group, that would be the strategy I would recommend is creating groups. And you might have those be consistent throughout the course or you might change them up. But that way, it’s not an overwhelming thing. And you’re not just clicking through discussion posts to respond because then you’re going to get the stuff that’s just sort of pro forma, almost resentful, replies. So keeping that cognitive load manageable, I think is a really important part of it.

John: You mentioned VoiceThread a few minutes ago, and I’ve used voice thread, I’m not using it right now, but I’m probably going to be switching over to Flipgrid. But one of the things that happened there is I had two discussions going each week one was done in VoiceThread one was in text. And one of the things I noticed, and students commented on this at the end of the term, too, is that when they were reading the text discussions in the other forum, they were hearing the voices of the people there. So it created much more of a sense of presence, you got more of a feel for the people, they were no longer just words on the screens, you already learned more about their personalities. And it made the discussions much more alive than the typical discussion board.

Kevin: Yeah, again, social presence, the degree to which the other people in the course are actual real human beings. And VoiceThread is a great tool for that because it adds exactly that, you hear the person, you see the person, you have that image associated in your head. We use Blackboard as our learning management system here and the threaded discussions… Instructors would come and “I just can’t sustain a discussion,” and I couldn’t and I’ve been teaching online for six, seven years now, and It finally dawned on me that if you look at the actual interface of those discussion boards, they don’t look a thing like what our students encounter when they engage online with other people. They actually look like, I’ll date myself here, but in the early 90s, when I was an undergraduate, the old BBS’s, with the sysmod and the thread, you know, that’s what a Blackboard threaded discussion looks like. That is ancient history for students, [LAUGHTER] in terms of how they’re engaging online. And so I moved to a WordPress blog, because it looks like Yelp, it looks like social media, it looks like things that they’re already used to engaging in. And so I do think one of the things we could do to create presence is add media, add video with a tool like VoiceThread. But even the interface itself is a place that looks like a place of engagement for our students. That’s a really important consideration, I think.

Rebecca: I use Slack for a similar reason, because it allows for asynchronous conversation, but it also has the ability to be immediate in a way that threaded discussions don’t feel that way. And you can @mention people… [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …like the things that students are used to being able to do.

Kevin: Yeah I have some colleagues here who run a graduate program in athletic training and it’s cohort based. In each cohort slack is the main tool they use throughout the program. And they’ve been super successful with it.

Rebecca: I wanted to follow up a little bit on the difference between the spring and the fall in that, in the spring, many faculty were in a face-to-face environment, and they had established relationships in person with students and then moved to an online environment, which is really different than if a group needs to start online and maybe move to face to face later or maybe stay online. So, can you talk a little bit about establishing that community when it might have to start remote especially for faculty who aren’t as familiar?

Cyndi: I have less experience with that. I have not taught a ton online but I think the social presence idea is super key. I mean, in the courses that I’ve taught online, I find that to be useful. So, using as much short video and voice as much as possible so that they get a sense of who you are as a person and asking them to do things that are personal and low stakes in terms of like just getting to know you. I know sometimes when I’ve taught, like having them post pictures of their dog or cat or things like that. I have not gotten outside of the LMS as much as it sounds like Kevin, you have, but it seems like using other tools that allow for, like you said, it to look more like what they’re used to seems like it would be a useful thing. One quick thing I would add that I’ve been thinking about a lot is, again, I teach about pretty difficult topics often, particularly when I teach about race and racism. And so something I’ve been thinking about a lot is like how to create that presence when I’ve never taught that class online until this last March when I suddenly was, but I was grateful that I had those established relationships. And I think going forward one thing that I’ve been doing the last couple semesters, especially for my students of color, and especially I think, given the environment now, I always reach out to sort of let them know that while I have a lot of expertise around racism, because I’m a white person I don’t have the same sort of lived experience that they have of race and racism, and I don’t expect them to answer exactly, but I just sort of say like, “I want you to know that I recognize this,” so that you see this. And I’m thinking that that’s going to be especially important teaching in this format going forward over the next year, I’m gonna want to make sure that I’m definitely reaching out to students, particularly students of color to let them know that, because I know that that’s an important piece of making them feel a part of the community. And I’m going to be trying to develop as many other techniques as possible, because particularly in that class, and in a lot of what I teach, I think it’s just going to be super important to develop that sense of belonging and compassion. And that’s going to be harder to do, in some ways, without being able to see them so often.

Kevin: I would echo Cyndi’s emphasis on the idea of presence and ways that people can be seen for themselves and students can be seen for themselves as opposed to just sort of avatar pictures or even generic avatar images. Sean Michael Morris has a great thing that I’ve seen him write a bunch in his work on online in critical digital pedagogy where he says we need to be teaching through the screen, not to the screen, and such a simple way to put it, but I think that’s really the difference. So one practical tip on that line is video is great… short, quick, they don’t have to be super fancy produced. I record intro videos with my phone in selfie mode. And in fact, having them a little rough around the edges actually, I think, kind of helps in terms of being authentic. Someone who I think is really good at this and has a lot of good ways to get started with videos in online teaching is Mike Wesch, W.E.S.C.H. And a lot of people have heard of him. He’s been doing a lot of stuff since our online pivot. But I really like his approach to the use of videos. And I really like the way that he talks about if you haven’t done this sort of stuff before how you might get started, and what you might think about doing and de-complicating it for us. So, a Google search will bring up his website and he’s got some great resources and materials there. And I’ve spent a lot of my faculty colleagues look in there who have had questions about effective use of videos. But again, to what degree are we real people in an online learning space? Anything that we can do to raise that. And regular communication is so important too as Cyndi talks about, whether it’s with individual students or the whole class, you know, check it In emails. It requires a lot more monitoring maybe in terms of are people in the space and, not… you don’t want to turn into like a surveillance tech or anything like that. But, by the same token, it’s very easy for students to drift away in a class that’s mostly online, and we need to be really cognizant of that.

John: One of the factors there that makes a difference is economic inequalities, where students in low-income households may not have the same access to high speed WiFi, to computers, and other tools. What can we do to try to maintain an equitable and inclusive environment when students have very different resources for connecting to classes?

Cyndi: Yeah, this is so challenging. I think one thing is just to know for sure that that is a problem. And so I know a lot of us in March did little surveys to find out where the students’ at, what sort of access do they have? Are there any issues that we need to be aware of? I know on our campus, there was so much concern that students not having access wouldn’t even know because they wouldn’t be getting an email, that we sent out postcards to every student just in case, to try to make sure that we caught all of them. So, those are some things. I think also really pushing your institution as much as possible to provide resources because a lot of this, it’s so upsetting because it’s so disempowering, or at least that’s how I’ve experienced it, because I know that there are students who have very simple needs. I was talking to one student on the phone, one of my advisees, I was doing advising over the phone in March or April, and we have a fair number of rural students from Western Wisconsin, and she was talking about living in a house where there were mice that would chew through the cord so that then their WiFi, you know, they would lose it. And it’s just like, “Oh, that’s such a terrible problem that I don’t know how to fix.” Like, “I don’t know how to fix that.” And so like really pushing our institutions to provide as much as possible to those students to find out who they are, to make sure that we’re providing them with a laptop, at least something loaner, some sort of hotspot, maybe, that they can use for WiFi. I know lots of campuses did that. We tried to do that. But really pushing administration in our campuses to remember those students and to help them, because at the faculty level, it can be really difficult to solve some of those problems. I mean, sometimes you can, but it can be difficult if there are those sort of material problems.

Kevin: Yeah, at a small school like mine, it’s easier to do those sorts of things. Because most of us know the students well, and it’s easier to communicate and you know, touch base with one another. But at larger institutions, this is imperative, right? Because oftentimes, it’s going to be the faculty member who’s probably most aware of where the lack of access or spots are in our own particular course. So, what’s the communication channel to try to get those things resolved? So, every institution, their faculty need to know who do I approach to help problem solve this? What’s the protocol? How are we going to figure this out? So many institutions got access to CARES Act money, for example. So, emergency grants to students, little Chromebooks and things like that, but we can’t guide those resources efficiently if we don’t know where they need to go. So, “What’s the communication plan?” is the biggest one and then as Cyndi points out, how are we finding this from our students? So, a quick survey about, not just access, but availability, like there’s a difference between access to WiFi and ready availability of WiFi. If the public library is still closed, does this person still have access, right? [LAUGHTER] Or is it still available? So details we can get in terms of where you’re at right now? Do you have steady access to internet? What’s the connection like rate it from zero to 10, with zero being the mice have chewed the cords and 10 being I can stream three things at once, right? …and try to get as much of a sense as we can, because then that informs the choices that we make. There’s a lot of online practitioners right now who are saying in the stuff we’re designing online, make it so students can do it on a phone. And I’m a big proponent of that. If we’re going to be moving into remote instruction, this is not what most students signed up for. And so we need to make sure that they can still access. So, don’t have students uploading and downloading large video files, for example, be conscious of how we might be forcing students to use parts of their data plan. So, streaming things might work but what platform are they streaming it through? Was it something thing that has a good mobile app, for example? If you’re using Zoom, is that a good mobile app as opposed to Skype? And then reach out to your colleagues, if you’re not quite sure what the answers to those things are, because those are important considerations in those sort of routine choices we make in creating learning spaces, especially if we’re in for a remote fall.

Rebecca: I think along those same lines, and those same surveys asking about that availability in terms of caretaking jobs like actual time, because they might have signed up for a class at a specific time, but that might not actually be their availability. There’s, I think, a lot of assumptions that faculty might make that we shouldn’t be making.

Kevin: Right. I think one of the things that folks really struggled with this spring was the expectation that we could just continue classes synchronously as normal. And I think, very quickly, a lot of folks learned that that is not the case. And if we end up this fall with maybe some in person, but some online, and I think that’s the best-case scenario. For the students who are online, we can’t expect synchronous, we just can’t if they’re not on campus. So we need to be thinking really hard about what the pathways to learning are and are those equitable are those inclusive… the equivalency of an in-person versus online synchronous versus asynchronous. Those are some really important decisions that need to be made. And they need to be made from a, I think, planning for the worst as opposed to the sort of magical thinking that everything will go away. It will be normal in August because I don’t think it’s responsible for us to approach our planning that way. He said pessimistically… [LAUGHTER]

John: Realistically.

Cyndi: Yeah, realistically. Yeah, I feel like that synchronous/asynchronous is such a challenge too in terms of thinking about our own classes. I mean, it seems like, yeah, that is difficult, I think sometimes to get folks to understand from an equity perspective, that really, if you are online, even if you have to suddenly pivot to it, or you’d plan for this, but then it’s going to be mostly online, which is, like Kevin said, I think probably most likely, just really understanding and helping your colleagues to understand that that really does need to be asynchronous. And I know that’s really hard for people. I think there’s a lot of maybe grief is the right word around sort of like having to give that up. And there’s also a lot of focus on “Well, if we just get the right cameras, and if we get the right kind of technology, then somehow we can still do it synchronously.” But all of that assumes, first of all, that the students can like download or have all the bandwidth for that to be able to, like livestream that or whatever. But it also assumes that they can be available during those times. And I have a lot of fear because, just because it’s on the schedule, let’s say right now, like we’re registering new students right now, I’m doing that all day tomorrow. So, there’s this expectation that somehow they should be able to do that without really thinking through what it’s like for those students. So, I feel like that synchronous, asynchronous is a real thing that a lot of us need to focus on and help other people understand better.

Kevin: And even with the synchronous piece too, not to say we could never do synchronous stuff, but I think when we’re requiring students, if you’re needing participation, you might want to rethink that as a strategy. And then, what kind of opportunities might be available for students? Are there different windows of time where they could drop in, as opposed to only at Monday from 1:00 to 1:50 and that’s more work on the faculty side, plain and simple, but if you want to preserve that part of a course then you have to put in the extra work to make sure that it’s accessible for all your students. And I think in some cases, that’s a perfectly appropriate strategy. And for schools like mine that are doing the HyFlex model of preparation, there is a synchronous element to it. But it’s heavily modified from what our usual expectations are. So, I think we need to really think through that clearly, before we start making design choices.

John: So, the HyFlex model can be pretty challenging for faculty, because basically, you’re developing the equivalent of two courses… where you’re developing some activities that are synchronous, and then equivalent activities that are asynchronous. How are faculty reacting to that? I know we’ve done a series of workshops here, and that was not a concept that appealed to all faculty at this point, having come right off of this spring semester.

Kevin: And that’s the thing there is that sort of sticker shock to it, where you look at it, and you say, “Oh, this is a lot.” …and it is. And so what I think what administration needs to do is to acknowledge it and affirm that effort. Are there ways that you can support that faculty or even if you can’t be handing out money left and right are there ways that small stipends can be given? What kind of faculty development support are you giving faculty? How are you going to help guide and mentor them through that? I think one of the things about the HyFlex model that is appealing is one of its core principles is the idea of reusability, that there are learning activities and artifacts that could be used across these different modes. And I think that’s something that we could really take advantage of. One of the things that I think could work really well is that the students who are attending asynchronously online doing equivalent learning activities, might those activities be leading a discussion online that involves the whole class. So, the whole class is still participating, but there’s a little bit of a level up in terms of the effort and the direction that’s coming from students on the asynchronous side. So, they’re doing equivalencies, you’re still building community, you don’t have students who are in separate tracks and never meeting. The HyFlex model to me seems to be most effective when we’re able to braid these things together as much as we can. But, you’re right. It’s not like you’re designing three separate courses, but it’s certainly more than designing one course. It’s somewhere in between there. And what that means is work, plain and simple, and I think administration, the people who are cutting the checks, need to realize the scope of effort that goes into that, in particular with what we’re asking our part-time colleagues to do in terms of preparing for the fall, because I think it’s a perfectly reasonable response for an adjunct faculty member to say, at the same rate of pay as a normal semester course, that I can’t do that for this. And so what are we going to have in place, because a lot of times in institutions, it is our adjunct colleagues who are teaching our hundred-level courses or courses that really intersect with a large number of students. And if you’re not supporting adjunct faculty anyway, you’re doing it wrong. But certainly in this process of HyFlex, we really need to be paying attention and directing resources to that group in particular.

John: One of the things you mentioned is an argument I’ve tried to make to faculty here, which is to focus your time on activities that can work in any modality and have most of the graded work done asynchronously, so you don’t have to spend as much time creating completely separate assignments and then create things that support instruction in any way and then you’ll have them if things get back to normal in semester or two or three or four. And that seemed to help a little bit, but people were still not entirely convinced.

Kevin: The one thing about the HyFlex model too is if we do have to go fully remote in October or whatnot, if you’ve already created that pathway, that’s going to be a lot easier to do than it was in the spring. And I think one of the things that I really saw in the spring that kind of gladdened me was there was a lot of extending of compassionate grace to faculty and to students, that we’re all figuring this out together. I don’t think that’s going to be the same case for the fall, there is going to be this like, “Okay, y’all had some time to think about this.” If there is this sort of pivot that has to happen, hopefully, we’re a little bit better prepared. And so John, I think your ideas about the way to structure those assignments and to have them asynchronously and have those things that work across modalities. Those are some of the key strategies to that kind of preparation.

Rebecca: I think we talked a little bit earlier about the ongoing protests related to George Floyd’s death and the unrest related to that in addition to COVID-19. And so faculty are feeling concerned about that and wanting to make sure that they’re addressing all kinds of inequities, not just the ones that bubbled up from COVID-19, despite the fact that those are the same inequities that existed before COVID-19… they just became more visible. Can you talk a little bit about ways that faculty might better prepare themselves for dealing with these kinds of issues and these kinds of conversations in the fall? We’re getting a lot of questions, especially from white faculty, about not feeling prepared to address issues of racism, for example.

Cyndi: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of like, a lot of people are putting out statements, for example. So, institutions are putting out statements often coming from Chancellors and Presidents. And I’ve been thinking more about, rather than doing things like that, actually doing the work of trying to make your classes as inclusive as possible. I think sort of a cliched way to put it, but what matters is what you do, not really what you say. So, I keep thinking about a couple things. There’s like two pieces to this in my mind. There’s like the inclusive pedagogy piece of it, which is the work that may not be the talking about difficult ideas, but you’re addressing the actual inequity, right. And so really thinking about, and there’s a lot of good guides on inclusive pedagogy. I know Kevin’s written about this Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan had a great advice guide in The Chronicle and their book will be coming out soon-ish, I think… not sure exactly when, but they have a lot of good ideas and have written a lot about it. But actually doing that work and really thinking about your class in terms of being as inclusive as possible. Because, when you’re doing that, then you are doing that equity work, whether or not you’re making a statement about it. So, that’s one thing. I think the other thing too is that if you do want to talk about it sort of being as prepared as possible, and this gets back to this idea of structure, but it really doesn’t go well. If you don’t know a lot about these issues from your discipline’s perspective, I think it’s a good idea to find out. So, let’s say you teach a course where traditionally you don’t think these issues would come up. I have a good friend who works here who’s a mathematician who talks a lot about the idea of math and white privilege, which is really a foreign concept to a lot of folks, but like he’s done the work to understand that even though it’s not his specialty area, and he talks about it in class, and it’s hugely helpful for those students. In addition, you could also just look at your field overall, in terms of, and I know, Kevin, I’ve heard you talk about this, like looking at who are your textbook authors and then just making that visible to your students like, “Here’s who these authors are. Here’s how this field has been inequitable. Here are some ways to think about this field overall and look at the resources that I’m sharing with you where I’m trying intentionally to be equitable.” So, really just doing the work less about statements and more about actually doing that work of trying to find ways to bring it in that are relevant and understanding it really well before you try to talk about it. Because when you know it, and you have a plan for how you’re going to talk about it, and a plan for helping students make sense of it, like this is why I’m talking about this, this is why this matters in this particular field, you’re going to be a lot better off than if, say, you just sort of wanted to open it up and ask people to talk about their feelings about it. You could do that. But I think you have to do that in a context where you’ve already done a lot of work to prepare them for that. So, I think it takes some effort to get ready for that but it’s certainly doable and definitely worth it because it helps those students to feel seen and to feel a part of the class in ways that they probably usually don’t.

Kevin: And in terms of the work that we need to do as faculty members as well, now is not the time, for example, to email one of your black colleagues and say, “Help me learn about anti-racist work.”

Cyndi: No, no, no.

Kevin: That’s sort of let’s put that out there. I’m a white man. For those of us who identify as white, there is an onus on us to do the sort of work to interrogate, not just inequities, but whiteness and how whiteness works at the university. And so the questions we need to be thinking about already are certainly heightened now. Does our faculty and staff at our institution, does it look like our student body? The answer to that is probably no. So, what’s being done about that? How are we addressing that as an institution? What am I doing in the classroom to promote a sense of belonging for all of my students? Belonging is key. And again, in an online or mostly online environment, it becomes even more important. How do I belong in this class as a learner? Am I seeing ways that I can personally connect with the course material the instructor, my peers in the classroom. So, how do we foster that sense of genuine belonging and welcome. That doesn’t mean that you do the equivalent of sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya for the first class. But, it does mean students are not just brains on sticks. [LAUGHTER] And students are coming to us just like as we’re coming into this work, it’s been a hell of a few years. Our bandwidth is weird, our attention spans are weird. There’s anxiety, there’s ambient stress. So, let’s recognize that and acknowledge that for our students when we think about the choices that we make when we’re designing our learning spaces. Even if we may not think our material is political, or has to do with race, the lives that our students are living are political and have to do with race, for example, and they are not coming to us from a vacuum. And I swear we didn’t pre-plan this, but I will promote Cyndi’s book in this regard. It’s been super useful. And again, for those of us who are white, I found it really helpful and thinking about the ways as a historian that I’m approaching the subject with my students, but also as a faculty developer and working with colleagues too. It’s a great book full of concrete suggestions about how to do this kind of work, especially if it’s not a type of work that you’ve been doing or felt like you’ve been asked to do before. So, that’s one good starting point.

Cyndi: Thanks!

John: And I’d like to throw in that we regularly promote both of your books with our faculty because they really do a nice job talking about creating an inclusive environment in classes, which is something we all have to worry about.

Kevin: Yeah, it’s a teaching and learning conversation. Do all our students have the equitable opportunities to accomplish the goals for the course? If I create course goals, these course outcomes, Dee Fink calls them the significant learning experience, if not all of my students have the opportunity to get the same significance in the learning experience, then that’s a problem. We are breaking promises that we made to students when we admitted them to our institution. So, yeah, it’s all of our work to do

Rebecca: To follow up on something that Kevin said about this isn’t the time to reach out to our faculty of color for advice. Instead, I’d like to recommend, if it’s a topic that you don’t have a lot of practice talking about, is to work with a few colleagues who also need to practice, and practice with each other. Open up the conversation and give yourself the opportunity to practice before you’re practicing in front of all your students.

Cyndi: And there’s so many resources like that’s one of the things in this moment. Like there’s tons of lists of books going around. Right. And really good podcasts. I mean, I certainly have no shortage of recommendations. I’m sure Kevin does, too. There’s lots of stuff out there where you don’t need to ask people individually, you can read about people’s lives, you can read about their experiences and take them seriously. And the more you do that, and the more you listen in that way, the more prepared you’re going to be. But, I love the idea of practicing too. Let’s practice talking about these awkward topics. It’s an excellent suggestion.

Rebecca: We want our students to practice, right? So, we might as well practice, too. [LAUGHTER]

John: One topic that came up in our earlier podcast with Kevin was the notion of decolonizing your syllabus and one of the issues when we address that idea with many faculty is that there may not be many voices from other groups. One of the questions that comes up often is, might it be effective just to address the systematic exclusion of those other voices in the classroom, to at least address the issue and recognize that it’s a problem.

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. getting students to critically interrogate the silences in our disciplines at our fields, I think is really important decolonization work. And it’s an easier thing to do in a discipline like history where you can sort of trace who got to write the history when, but I think it gives us a chance to talk about what are ways of knowing what type of knowledge claims are valued? …the western emphasis on so-called rational objectivity? That’s a very culturally specific product. And so if that’s the dominant paradigm in let’s say, a math course, then what does that mean? Is that the only path? And when we think that we’re learning something that’s true with a capital T, objective with a capital O, chances are it isn’t. And if there aren’t other perspectives, then yes, absolutely, let’s have those conversations about why that’s the case. I think sometimes the silences are more powerful of a learning tool than anything else and getting students to look for those silences, to look for those spaces, and understand that they’re there, that by their absence is a really effective way to get at some of this larger work.

Cyndi: Yeah, that’s part of what I meant about bringing it into classes where you might not think it fits or whatever, because you don’t normally talk about it. But, you can look at the field in a meta way and say, like, who’s in this field and who’s not who’s being published and who’s not. And over the weekend, there was a great series of tweets, I forget the hash tag on it, but it was like, people were comparing their book advances, you guys might have seen this. And so it was like this comparison of white authors and black authors. And you know, the discrepancies were very large. And usually people don’t talk about what their book advances are. And so this might be a way let’s say, if you’re teaching literature, where you could show like here, look at this field, look at whose voices are being heard, who’s being published, in a meta way. And again, what that does, and the research is pretty clear on this, is by pointing out those discrepancies, you’re often validating the students of color in your class who know that there’s this discrimination there, but they maybe don’t have the data or the information and then by providing it, you’re validating that experience for them and helping them to feel seen and belong in the class. So yeah, that can be super useful.

Rebecca: I think it’s also sometimes faculty don’t know how to find out about other scholars in their field. And I think that at one point, I felt that way, too. I didn’t know who they were, they weren’t in my community, because I wasn’t including them in my community, right? [LAUGHTER] And my community wasn’t including, but finding a couple of voices, you only need a couple, follow them on social media, and then follow the people who respond. All of a sudden your social network and the people that you follow and the voices that you hear expand greatly, and it can really help in terms of just knowing what’s going on in a bigger picture. Something as simple as that can actually expand your knowledge really quickly.

Kevin: Yeah. What are you consuming in terms of your intellectual work? And asking yourself that question, and then what am I consuming and where am I getting it from? And what is the production of that intellectual work look like? Then making changes accordingly. As white scholars, it’s very easy for us. In fact, almost always, we default into communities of white scholars, given the structures of inequity that are in place. This isn’t something that will happen by accident. It’s the diversification of our intellectual work and our intellectual world, the consumption of knowledge and the production of knowledge. We have to make the mindful effort to do that. It’s not something that’s just going to happen because social media is a thing. It’s how we’re using these platforms and tools, it’s so important.

John: One of the things you emphasize in your Pedagogies of Care project is that it’s more important to focus on learners rather than content. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: The mantra that I always use is covering content is what instructors do, not what students do. So, if your strategy is revolving around, I’m going to cover X. Okay, great. I know what you’re gonna do in this course, but what are your students going to do? And when we think about it that way, then we start asking some of the questions that’ll lead us to, I think, more effective choices.

Cyndi: Yeah, that’s what I love so much about your book. Kevin, and what was so great about it was like, I already felt like I was focused a lot on the relationship because I don’t think a lot of learning can happen without the relationships, but your book really helps to like flip that lens to think about that piece of it… like, what are the students doing? Because if it’s just about content, it gets into that classrooms of death concept that you talk about really nicely in the first chapter. Because, yeah, it’s not there.

Kevin: Yeah. And it’s not to say that content isn’t important…

CYNDI… Oh, yeah.

Kevin: …that we should just get rid of, but everything in a balance. And right now, a lot of the classes that we teach don’t have that balance. And it comes down to what do we want our students to be able to get out of these courses? They’re not going to remember all the content within a year. So, that seems like an enormous waste of time, if that’s our exclusive focus.

Rebecca: I think one lesson that I’ve noticed faculty have taken away from this spring. And of course, I’ve been mostly an innocent bystander, because I was on sabbatical, is that faculty were slashing content as a way to pivot and recognizing that maybe all this isn’t necessary… so that you can focus on some of these bigger ideas, like the way that a discipline works, or ways that we connect or work together as scholars in a particular field.

Kevin: Yeah, and nothing exploded… [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: Right.

Kevin: You know, the world didn;t end. Although it does seem like it did end on some days. [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: A little bit.

Kevin: But, all of a sudden we realize what’s been possible that we had thought wasn’t the case. And I think those are really important lessons for us to take from this spring going forward.

Rebecca: I think the language that you use in your book, Kevin is about being an ally for students, can you talk a little bit more about ways that we can be better allies and what we shouldn’t be doing?

Kevin: So, I’ll use an example actually, from a conversation that probably happened in a lot of places this past spring with our online pivot, and it certainly happened at my institution, and that comes with online proctoring for exams. All of a sudden, as students are taking tests online, we need to proctor them, and if you look at the way that these proctoring services work, Shea Swauger wrote a really good critique of that in Hybrid Pedagogy several weeks ago, but this is surveillance tech. This is really kind of creepy stuff, and just objectively speaking, and it costs a lot of money for resource-poor institutions like mine, this is a significant investment if we’re going to do these things. And I think what happens as we immediately went into this place where we assumed that given any opportunity to game the system, that that’s exactly what students would do; that that would be their default reaction. I think if you look a lot of the rhetoric about, well, how do we make sure they’re not cheating? And how do we make sure that we’re fair to everybody? And how do we prevent this? And how do we prevent that? That’s an adversarial position, we’re assuming that our students are adversaries by default, and they know that. They hear us when we treat them like that. And students want the same things that we want out of our courses. They want meaningful learning, they want the course to be a good experience, they want to get something out of it, even if it’s a course they’re taking to check a box as they see it. Students want their courses to not suck, as opposed to suck, and I want my courses to not suck as opposed to suck. So, we have a confluence of goals. So, I think we need to be really careful about the narrative that we construct of students because it is very easy to default into this adversarial outlook. And as we’re really grappling with all sorts of sort of new questions and materials and tools in online teaching and learning, this is a real problem. So, we need to really think about the choices that we’re making institutionally as well as in our own class at what those choices are saying, either implicitly or explicitly, to our students.

Rebecca: The first prompt of the semester: How do we all make this not suck?

Kevin: Yeah.

John: We should have said that explicitly in that workshop we gave to faculty for the last couple of weeks. [LAUGHTER] It’s really good advice.

Kevin: I mean, I hate to use all sorts of technical language there, but sometimes you gotta chime in. [LAUGHTER]

John: We always end with the question: What’s next? …which is something we’re all thinking about these days.

Cyndi: I think two things for me. One is, like I said, I really want to make sure that I’m teaching about racism and prejudice online as strongly as possible, because that is new and I’m going to be doing that again. So, that I think is going to be one focus. The other focus is going to be the brand new Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning that we have at River Falls, which I’m very excited about. But boy, the timing is strange. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Impeccable, really.

Cyndi: It’s amazing. So, I accepted that position, like at the very end of February, beginning of March. And then of course, the world sort of changed and upended and ended and so figuring out how to help my campus instructors as much as possible. So, that’s gonna keep me busy.

Kevin: Yeah, about the same for me, we’re working a lot of intensive training this summer in particular with HyFlex course design and teaching as well as everything, sort of the nuts and bolts of here’s how to use this particular tool to the larger kind of bigger sessions on things like course design and integrated course design and things like that. So, I’m getting good at a lot of tools that I had sort of known about, but hadn’t used before, because I’m field testing a lot of things for faculty and making tutorial videos. So, that’s what’s next is the next module in this training I’m building. But also, I’m currently teaching a course on teaching African-American History online. And so that course is in a much different place now than it was even when it started earlier in the summer. It is the first time my institution has offered a course in African-American history. Our curriculum needs to be decolonized in many ways. And so what’s next for me is building on what so far has been a really, I think, kind of powerful set of experiences with the students who are enrolled in this class and thinking about how we take that work and sustain it as opposed to have it just be a summer course that goes away.

Rebecca: No shortage of big tall demands. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: None whatsoever and it definitely keeps me off the streets and out of trouble.

John: Well, thank you both. The last time we talked to each of you things were a little more calm. I think Kevin was the last podcast we had when this was just getting underway, and before most campuses closed, and it’s nice to follow you and to see how things are going and all the great things that you’re doing and thank you for your wonderful work.

Cyndi: Thank you.

Kevin: and thanks for having us.

Rebecca: Thanks for having us.

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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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138. Pedagogies of Care: UDL

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many reflections on the future of higher education and what we value and prioritize as educators. This week we begin a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Thomas J. Tobin joins us to discuss how the adoption of Universal Design for Learning principles can increase student motivation, engagement, and success. Tom is the author of Reach Everyone Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education and several other works related to teaching and learning. He is one of the contributors to the Pedagogies of Care project from the authors in the West Virginia University Press Teaching and Learning book series.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many reflections on the future of higher education and what we value and prioritize as educators. This week we begin a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss how the adoption of Universal Design for Learning principles can increase student motivation, engagement, and success.

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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&helliip;

John: &helliip;and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Thomas J. Tobin. Tom is the author of Reach Everyone Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education and several other works related to teaching and learning. He is one of the contributors to the Pedagogies of Care project from the authors in the West Virginia University Press Teaching and Learning book series. Welcome, Tom.

John: Welcome, Tom.

Tom: Thanks. I’m glad to be here, and thank you for inviting me.

John: Our teas today are:

Tom: I’m drinking decaf black tea as always, nothing added, nothing, taken away.

Rebecca: Sounds perfect. I’m drinking strawberry grapefruit green tea today.

John: And I’m drinking a peppermint tea. I’ve had a lot of caffeine today, so I’m watering it down a little bit. [LAUGHTER] We’ve invited you here to talk primarily about your work with the Pedagogies of Care project as well as your work with Universal Design for Learning. Could you tell us about how this project came together?

Tom: I’m one of the authors in the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning and it started with an idea from Jim Lang at Assumption College. He wanted to put together a series of books that wasn’t so much “Here’s all the research and all the bona fides and all the scholarship on teaching and learning topics. He wanted books that talked directly to practitioners about what those best practices are, in a way that’s easily digestible and practical and implementable. My co-author Kirsten Behling and I, we wrote the book Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education for the series. Jim is the editor of the whole series. We’ve got lots of other folks in the series. Michelle Miller is coming up. Josh Eyler just published. Sarah Rose Cavanagh. Kevin Gannon. A lot of the people that you see on academic Twitter. The public intellectuals among us are published in this series and that’s a credit to Derek Chrisoff, the series editor. A number of us who are or will be published in that series in the future, we were part of the emergency response teams at our colleges and universities when the COVID-19 pandemic came up. And we found that whether we were reading in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside HigherEd, Edsurge, we were reading a lot of, “Well, this is the time when we should be evaluating online teaching because now everyone’s teaching online” or “We should be guarding the ivory tower and defending against these rings of cheating students.” And almost everyone in the series thought these are reactionary takes that are getting published out there. And it’s almost the opposite of how we would advise people to go. So a few of us got out our trusty keyboards and we wrote response articles. I responded to a couple of pieces in The Chronicle. Michelle Miller in Inside Higher Ed. Derek Bruff went over onto Edsurge. And we wrote our responses up and people said, “Oh, this is really humane. This treats students like co-learners in the process Instead of adversaries. What else do you have? Do you have more?” And the answer was, “Well, Perhaps we should have more.” And Tori Mondelli from the University of Missouri, asked, “Why not envision and help to shape what the new normal of colleges and universities and higher education could look like post pandemic, if we’re just going back to the way things were, that’s an opportunity missed.” And so we decided to put together this Pedagogies of Care collection from all of the authors and soon-to-be authors in the WVU Press series. So a lot of things went into it. So it was conversations on the POD network open discussion group topic, Josh Eyler was especially active over there, academic Twitter, Kevin Gannon, Viji Sathy, Kelly Hogan from the University of North Carolina. We’ve been voices out there that people trust. We’ve been doing the research, we’ve been listening to our colleagues. And what we’re doing with this Pedagogies of Care Collection, is we’re trying to create a unified voice for what colleges and universities could look like, with the understanding that we have a huge budget crisis, that we only have so much in terms of people, money, and time to be able to implement things. So this isn’t really a rose-colored glasses utopian vision. But it’s a practical look at what we can actually accomplish if we’re working together, thinking together, and thinking in terms of student success.

John: In terms of the contributions, I understand it’s going to be a mix of different types of inputs. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Tom: Of course. As the Universal Design for Learning thinker among the group, we’ve got a few of us who are also fans of that idea, the initial prompt to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t “Please write an essay,” although I totally wrote an essay, but it was “Please respond in the way that you feel represents your ideas best.” And so for example, Cyndi Kernahan and Kevin Gannon decided that they wanted to, even though they wrote two different books, they wanted to get together and create a video podcast. For example, Sarah Rose Cavanagh decided that she wanted to put together an audio podcast along with a bunch of reference resources and handouts that people could take away. Jessamyn Neuhaus, the author of Geeky Pedagogy, she decided that she wanted to do a video log of different pieces of advice that she had collected and created. And a lot of folks went in lots of different creative ways. So the prompt was: respond how you like, and we got a really varied bunch of contributions from everybody. And we’re in the process of editing that right now as we’re recording this interview, and we hope that that’ll be coming out soon.

Rebecca: Sounds like a very caring way to address everybody’s needs during COVID-19, including all the authors’. [LAUGHTER]

Tom: Well, absolutely. And the flexibility is almost the key here is that we’re trying to model, in our advice, the kinds of strategies that we’re asking people to adopt, and really the overarching idea is that students are coming to us from lots of varied circumstances. One of the things that the pandemic has done for everyone is shown that everybody has barriers to learning. And whether those barriers have to do with disability, whether those barriers just have to do with time&helliip; people are working, they have family responsibilities, their kids are home from school and they’re taking care of them. All different kinds of barriers. And if there are ways that we can address those barriers, help to minimize them, help to lower them, and help to reach out to our students as human beings first, that’s going to actually make our lives as instructors and support staffers, smoother, easier, and it’s going to mean that we’re not as bureaucratic about things as we might have been previously. We’d thought about a number of different titles for the collection, you know, “The road back from COVID-19,” and we didn’t really want to focus everything on the virus. We wanted to focus on the interpersonal dynamics, on the interactions, on the caring that we saw people engaging in, that emotional and affective labor that really marks the best teachers and instructors. And so I think it was Tori Mondelli who came up with the title of Pedagogies of Care, because that was the thread that ran through all of our approaches to this collection and to how we wanted to work with our colleagues at our individual institutions.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve appreciated about the conversations I’ve observed on Twitter and other spaces is how much the focus has been on humans: students as humans, faculty as humans, and that faculty and staff have barriers just like students do. And that’s something that hasn’t really been highlighted in the past in a lot of conversation about disability or universal design or any of these things that tend to be very student driven. And so it’s nice that the conversation has actually widened to be more inclusive.

Tom: Yeah, and this is the myth of the faculty super person, right? The students can have all these challenges but faculty members have got it together, right? We are super and awesome and always good and always on and always perfect, which is baloney. We’re human beings as well. And it’s actually how I got started in the field. Dial back 23 years, it’s 1997, and I’m at a two-year college in Pennsylvania. I’m a 27 year old kid with just about almost have my doctorate. And I’m tasked with creating online courses for this community college. I help them adopt Blackboard version one. That’s how long ago that was. Your listeners can’t see me, but all this gray hair, I earned it. And one of my business faculty members came to me, Marty, and he says, “I would like to teach online, not because I think it’s the next world beating thing or the thing that’s the best for me. But I see the handwriting on the wall. We’re moving in this direction. And I want to know how to do it.” And I said, “Sure, I’ll help you.” The only problem, Marty in his 40s, had gone blind due to complications from undiagnosed and so untreated diabetes. Now that meant that he didn’t, and I’ll put air quotes here, he didn’t know how to be a blind person. He didn’t walk with a cane. He didn’t touch type&helliip; couldn’t read Braille. And so I said, “Oh, the literature will save me.” And I went back to the literature and there was no literature. And so, by good grace and good luck, I got connected with Norm Coombs at Rochester Institute of Technology. Norm is a faculty member who has been blind since birth. He was a great big advocate for the rights of faculty members and instructors who have disabilities. And his advice was essentially “Good luck, kid.” But along the way, he also turned me on to a lot of different ways that I could help Marty, and we did actually get him to teach his business courses online. This is in the days before JAWS and screen readers, and we ended up getting some graduate students from a local university and using them as Marty’s eyes and ears. He memorized what the Blackboard interface, the LMS interface, looked like. And when his students would send him things or put discussion messages on the posts, the graduate students would read them out loud and Marty would say, “Here’s my feedback. Here’s the grade,” and the graduate students would put those things in there. It was wildly successful for about the three semesters before we realized we were violating FERPA privacy laws about eight different ways and we had to stop. It was that failure, though, that really caused me&helliip; and to your point, Rebecca&helliip; it caused me to look around and start seeing people who we weren’t serving well, or maybe not at all. People with those military deployments, those weird work shifts, the family responsibilities, the people who weren’t even in our classrooms because they couldn’t get there. And if I had my way I would teach all of my courses face to face. But that means that I’m leaving out a big number of people whom we could otherwise be serving well, and so I’ve been an advocate for using technology to lower barriers for years and years and years. So, thank you for letting me take off on a little bit of a side note there, but it’s actually the absence of scholarship and research about instructors who have various barriers. And it’s not just disability barriers. It’s instructors who are single parents, folks who are the adjuncts among us, contingent faculty members who are trying to put a life together by moving from among four or five different institutions. These are all barriers that we should be talking more about and surfacing. And that kind of advocating on behalf of, and trying to bring visibility to, a lot of people who aren’t really visible right now, that’s one of those driving impetus behind the Pedagogies of Care collection.

John: The timing of this seems very appropriate because as you suggested before, many of these barriers became much more visible both in faculties own lives and also being on a college campus makes it easier for those barriers to be invisible, that we don’t observe different socioeconomic differences in quite the same way because we’re in the same environment. Students on college campuses at least appear to have equal access to technology through computer labs and college provided WiFi. But there’s a lot of hidden barriers there, as you’ve talked about in many different ways, but I think now is a really good time to be providing these resources because people are thinking about them in ways that many faculty have been able to avoid.

Tom: You bring up a good point because it’s really easy to sort of hide inside the ivory tower, because you see students only in controlled circumstances. And with the pandemic, now everybody’s teaching remotely using Zoom and other remote instruction tools like that. And when you start seeing into students’ living rooms, and seeing how other people live, it’s kind of eye opening in a literal sense. And it also means that we’re at a moment where people are going in one of two different directions that I’m seeing. They’re either going in the direction of compassion, and understanding, you know, that my students are human beings just like I am and our goal for this course is to get them from “I don’t know yet” to “now I know.” But the other direction is also pretty prevalent where you’ve got instructors saying “Now is the time where I really need to tighten up and get hard and maintain my standards, because I’m in a situation that’s way beyond my control and unlike something that I’ve ever seen before,” and both of those are very natural reactions to a situation where you’re in unfamiliar territory. So, in this Pedagogies of Care collection, one of the aims of all of it is to help to show that that road of compassion is one that actually solves more problems for us as instructors. One of the biggest challenges that we’ve had as instructional designers and public thinkers for years is that we have the data to show that the best way to ensure academic integrity is actually to build a culture of academic honesty in your class, not setting up panoptical surveillance of your students and assuming that they’re cheating. But why do people still use those other methods of surveillance? Because there’s the promise of, there’s the illusion of, control. There’s the illusion of “I’ve got this all set,” and you’ve both been teaching for a while and so have I. If I go back to when I was first an instructor, I was the worst professor in the world because I had a legal pad filled with reminders to myself: “tell this story,” “make sure they understand this concept,” “do these things.” And I was so focused on the content itself, that I forgot to actually interact with my students. [LAUGHTER] It was just a big lecture, it was a bunch of information presentation. And I can’t tell you how many of the same questions that we all struggled with, when online teaching was brand new back in 1997 and 98. they’re coming right back up again, from people who didn’t think they had to pay attention to technology-mediated instruction, and now everyone must. So that’s one of the things that we want to address in the collection as well. So, I appreciate where you’re going with your thinking process there.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about UDL and what it is, and how faculty might start thinking about universal design for learning, moving into the fall?

Tom: Yeah, absolutely. There’s four different ways that I talk about UDL a lot, and one of them is the least helpful for most instructors. And that’s the neuroscience behind it. When we learn anything, and it sticks, we have to activate three different chemical pathways in our brains. So there’s the acetylcholine uptake pathway through the hippocampus, there’s the norepinephrine cycle through the frontal cortex. And then we have to stimulate the amygdala in order to reduce fear response and actually put things into long-term memory. If you go around telling people that their eyes glaze over or they run away, so I usually don’t start there. What I usually do is, the folks at CAST, C_A_S_T, the Center for Advanced Specialized Technology in Boston, they are the neuroscientists who figured out in the early 1990s that those three brain networks correspond to: the how, the why, and the what of learning. So they figured out that if you design learning interactions, to give people a “Why,” “Why am I learning this,” right? So if a pipe underneath your sink breaks at eight o’clock at night, it’s just around dinnertime, and there’s water gushing out, what’s the first thing you need to do? You need to turn off the water. If you don’t know where that shutoff valve is, you have to figure that out. Most people these days, they would turn on their phones if they don’t know, and they say “Where’s the shutoff valve?” Usually under a sink. But having that “why,” having a reason to learn something is the reason that we stay engaged. And if you can give people more than one way to stay engaged, that’s what the folks in CAST talk about multiple means of engagement, then having the choice that leads everybody to the same goal means that people feel that they can have a measure of control, have a measure of agency in their learning. So that’s one of the three principles. The next one is the “what” of learning. You need to have some content to learn, some information. And so if you’re teaching a microbiology course and you’re talking about the cellular energy transfer process, you might be talking about meiosis and mitosis. Well, people have to be able to experience what that looks like, or see a description of how that process works in meiosis and mitosis and the difference between the two of them. So, you have to have multiple ways of taking in the information. So, perhaps that microbiology Professor might have a video animation that the textbook publisher provided, and might also have a text-based description of each of those processes as well. So, students can use one, both, or make a choice about where they’re going to get the information and how. So, that’s multiple means of representing information. And the third part of universal design for learning, and this is the part that no one’s using yet, and it’s most powerful, is multiple means of action and expression. When we learn anything, we have to have a way to show what we know with which we are comfortable. And the way that we’ve been failing folks, that we’ve been letting them down, is asking everybody to demonstrate their skills in exactly the same way. Mark in the bubble sheets on this final examination. Write out your thoughts on the exam and tell us what you know, when a demonstration might be something that would be equally valid to show that someone has internalized the concepts for your course, but is not necessarily a written format. So, we’ve got multiple means of staying engaged, multiple means of representing information, and multiple means of action and expression – that’s allowing students to write out the traditional three-page essay, or it’s allowing students the choice to take out their phones and take the selfie camera and put it to good use and narrate what they would have said in an essay as though they were doing a news report. So long as you can grade both of those according to the same criteria, you have the same learning objectives, the same demonstration of skills, then give students the choices there. So, those three principles: multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representing information, multiple means of action and expression come together into universal design for learning. And you know what? That was a long explanation. And people’s eyes… well, they still kind of glaze over when you talk like that. So I and Kirsten, in the book, try to simplify it even further. And at its root… this isn’t the whole thing, but it’s a wonderful place to start&helliip; Universal Design for Learning is really just “plus one” thinking. Think about all the interactions that your students have. The interactions that they have with the materials, yes, but also the interactions that they have with one another, that they have with you as the instructor, with support staffers at your college or your university, and with the wider world when you ask them to go out and talk to people in the field. All those interactions. If there’s one way for it to happen now, make one more way. And that is a very UDL approach to things and then you can start getting into the details of the three different principles and how to apply them. But that’s a quick overview of UDL. And what I love about universal design for learning is that it is a mindset. It’s a framework. It’s not a set of practices that you do, it’s a way of thinking about the interactions that you create. So if you’re a fan of active learning, or the flipped classroom model, or any other specific way of teaching, you don’t have to change what you do, or how you do it. You just have to think in terms of being more inclusive and doing that “plus one” thinking.

Rebecca: How common are these UDL practices in higher education right now?

Tom: Ah, not common enough. The data that we have suggests that it’s about 10% of college courses that actually use any kind of inclusive design methods, including UDL. And we would love for that number to be higher. Because Universal Design for Learning&helliip; Yes, it does require work up front… it’s work that pays you back, many, many fold. So, when we’re thinking about Universal Design for Learning, that’s actually the hardest part of the conversation to have with a lot of college and university instructors. Because they say “Do I have to do absolutely everything and set everything up ahead of time?” And the answer is largely “Yes, there is work involved.” And once you design those choices for your students, you can start in three different ways. One: where are the pinch points in your course? Where do you… that microbiology professor&helliip; where do your students always get the concept of mitosis and meiosis confused and they send you the same email 700 times every time you teach the course? That’s a wonderful place to start doing some plus one thinking. Where do your students get things wrong on tests and quizzes, everybody, and you end up having to reteach, again&helliip; a good place to start doing some choices, or to give them information in more than one format to help reduce that reteaching load. And where do your students say, “Hey, Professor John, Professor Rebecca, that was a great lecture, but I still don’t get it.” And when they’re confused, that’s another good place to give them more options for engagement, more options for how they take in information. And if people start there, it doesn’t have to be “Oh, I have 30 half-minute videos in my course. And now I have to caption all of them.” It’s just looking for those pinch points, starting small and starting in the places where you already have identified things aren’t going the way that you wanted them to go. So, how common is UDL in higher education? Ah, right about 10% adoption right now. That number is climbing. It was a buzzword in higher ed, maybe a couple years ago, 2015, 2016. And I’d like to advocate that it not be a buzzword. It’s not like, you know, “my President went away to some leadership conference, and every year that person comes back with a new thing that we’re all going to try, and UDL was one of those new things.” [LAUGHTER] Instead, I’d like to say that Universal Design for Learning is one of those toolkit issues that everybody should have in their panoply of strategies that they’re going to use when they’re designing and when they’re teaching, because it helps with persistence, retention, and satisfaction for our students. Students who have choices and feel that their instructor is helping them to move through their own education with a sense of agency. We’ve got 35 years of data that show that students who have that feeling, they stick around better, so more students who are there on day one are there to take the exam. They retain better. More students who are with us this semester will come back next semester, and they’re more satisfied with their experience, they’re more likely to tell their friends, “Hey, come to this college or this university.” So, the idea of how common is UDL? We haven’t had as much of a head start, as the folks in K-12 have, it’s only really been a big thing in higher education for the past four or five years. But, we’re getting there. So I’m happy to be an evangelist for it. And I’m really grateful to see how people are applying it in small ways and then moving from those small beginnings into larger and larger iterations as word spreads. You’d be surprised, you’d be absolutely surprised. One person in a faculty meeting says, “Hey, you know, I made this one change. And now I don’t have to reteach the hard concept in our field every semester.” And then that person just sits back and is quiet. And everyone else in the faculty meeting goes, “What did you do? How can we get in on that? Help us, please.” And then UDL takes root. So, there are some good things coming out of it.

Rebecca: Tom, what do you think the biggest barrier is for faculty to get started with UDL?

Tom: The biggest barrier is really the investment of time and effort, as well as misunderstandings about what it is. So imagine for a minute&helliip; I’ll ask you and John a quick question. You both teach at SUNY Oswego. When was the last time that you had an accommodation paperwork from a student with a disability barrier?

John: I get them every semester.

Rebecca: I get them less often.

Tom: Ok.

Rebecca: But, I also teach in the arts.

John: I usually teach three to four hundred students at a time. [LAUGHTER]

Tom: Ah yes, but you’re both familiar with that paperwork, right?

Rebecca: Definitely.

John: Yes.

Tom: So, it’s usually “give this student extra time on a test” or “set up some individual accommodation for the student” that is different from how you treat all the other students. Because our disability services areas are often understaffed and overworked, that Disability Services paperwork often comes to you like in week two of the semester. And it’s almost always a surprise, right? And you think, “you know, I did all of my prep for this course. And now here’s this paperwork that says, I have to do all this extra work just for this one student.” Now, I’ll be charitable, I don’t think either of you, or any of your listeners hold that kind of mindset. But there’s a lot of people who say, “You know what? I’m mad about this. Is this student faking a disability? Is this a real thing?” I hear these kinds of questions from people and it kind of breaks my heart because the answer is these students are struggling and they’re trying to get a level playing field and they’re doing their best to be good students in your class. And that mindset of “Well, this accommodation paperwork is just a thorn in my side or it’s extra work,” that’s what people think about when we all say, accessibility. So, if I come to you and I say Universal Design for Learning, it’s easy to make the mental mistake of thinking, “Oh, that must be about students with disabilities and that accessibility paperwork, that’s a bunch of work” and it makes me kind of frustrated, and the emotions that come up for a lot of people are negative ones. Now Universal Design for Learning has nothing to do with accommodations, individually. It really has nothing to do with Disability Services. It’s all about constructing interactions so that we are reducing the effort and work that’s needed to engage in the conversation in the first place for students. Universal Design for Learning has the good benefit of reducing the need for individual accommodations. Fewer of your students will need that piece of paper to come to you and say treat me differently. It doesn’t mean we’ll ever get rid of the need for those accommodations, but it does help to reduce them quite significantly. Because, if you’re giving people information in more than one way, if you’re helping them stay engaged in more than one way, and you’re giving them options for how they demonstrate their skills in more than one way, then, by definition, fewer people are going to have to say, “You know what? I can’t write that essay because I have a physical disability barrier, or I can’t do this project because I have this time crunch and I have personal family care obligations, so please treat me differently.” But that’s the biggest barrier is people mistake UDL with disability accommodations. And so when I talk about Universal Design for Learning, I actually don’t&helliip; I know there’s lots of people listening, but don’t hate me on this one&helliip; I don’t talk about people with disability, not first, and not only. What I talk about is mobile devices. Absolutely everybody in college and university has a smartphone, just about. Now granted, there are lots of people who don’t, but the latest Pew Research and Pearson Research surveys show that between 90 and 95% of college and university students have smartphones. Does that mean that they all prefer to work on their smartphones? No. Katie Linder at Kansas State University now, when she was with Oregon State University, they did a huge nationwide survey in the United States and Canada, and found that by and large college students prefer to learn using their laptops or desktop devices. But, oftentimes they don’t have those or they don’t have access to those. So, they’re trying to learn using their mobile devices. With the COVID-19 pandemic, everybody got thrown into that same situation where everybody needed to be remote. And it was “Let’s be remote students with whatever devices and whatever connectivity we have at the moment.” So, the challenge there is with Universal Design for Learning, when I talk about students and their mobile devices everybody understands that, everybody knows how students are tied to their mobile devices. And it applies to everybody in the course. it’s not “Oh, this is just for those students over there, that small percentage of our population with disability barriers.” No, Universal Design for Learning is design that helps absolutely everyone in the class to lower access barriers, rather than just accessibility barriers. And in fact, I chop the end of the word off when I’m talking to people. I seldom talk about “accessibility” anymore, and talk just in terms of “access.” And that is what helps to address that main barrier, Rebecca, that you talked about.

John: For someone who wants to get started, what would be a relatively easy way of providing the thing that’s missing most, the multiple means of expression?

Tom: So, for example, when we talk about multiple means of action and expression, this can be as easy as helping people with drafting content. So, if I’m teaching a chemistry lab, and I would like for my students to understand how to mix reagents safely, I might create a video that shows how to mix these two chemicals together in order to create a component for a chemical experiment, and if my students are remote or they’re at home, they might not be able to do that process themselves. But, I still want to know that they know the process well. And in a single-stream course, I would say, “Please write up five paragraphs where you go through the five steps of this process and send it to me, and I’ll grade it based on how well you’re following the safety protocol and how you’re well you understand the process of mixing reagents.” In UDL, a plus one way to do that is to use the same criteria, you still want to see those five steps. But you might ask your students to take the choice: write it out in a word processing document, or do an audio podcast where you walk people through the process and describe all the steps of the process in that audio file. You’ll notice two things in that sort of first way of doing multiple means of expression. First, we’re using the same grading criteria or the same learning objectives for the activities. So that the instructor can give a grade or give feedback in the same way regardless of how the students choose to perform that activity. Second, and this is the fun part, the students still get to demonstrate their knowledge, but they choose how they do it. And both of the choices lead them to the same goal. You’re not giving choice just for the sake of choice, but the choice actually helps students to demonstrate needed knowledge or information so that they can move on to whatever is next. I teach English Composition courses. And it’s really difficult to ask students to demonstrate APA format in any way other than doing a word processed file. I cannot tell whether someone has Times New Roman 12 point font, double-spaced one-inch margins, all those things, unless there’s a word processed document. For those of you who really didn’t like English composition, I’m very sorry if that was just traumatic for you. [LAUGHTER] But, in that case, the format is the requirement. So I don’t give my students a choice. I say “On your final essay, you have to demonstrate that you know APA format by writing it correctly in APA.” Does that mean that my students don’t have any choices as they’re writing? No. When they’re drafting, when I’m not concerned about their APA format, but I am concerned about them being able to structure things with a thesis statement, giving details, evidence and examples, following a rhetorical mode. In those instances&helliip; writing instructors don’t hate me here&helliip;I don’t care whether they write that in a word processed format. What I care about is “Can they state a thesis statement? Can they demonstrate those details, evidence, and examples?” So, I give my students the choice between writing it in Microsoft Word or turning on the camera on their phone and just talking to me about how they want to compose a particular paragraph or a section of their writing. All the while knowing that the final product does have to be a word processed document. So, multiple means of action and expression can be something small, it can be a draft. But, wherever you have an opportunity to give students those options and choices that all lead to the same outcome, and you can grade them the same way, do so. Your students are going to feel like they have more of a choice. Like they have more control, like they have more agency in your class. They’re likely to stick with you better. And it’s an engagement strategy, par excellence. So, thanks for the question. It’s a really good one.

John: I’ve been teaching at this program for middle school and high school students at Duke for about 30 some years now. Unfortunately, I’m not doing it this summer. I used to have a final project, a capstone project at the end of the course, it was basically a college-level course in micro and macro economics. I had them do a policy debate at the end. And then after reading a little bit about Universal Design, I gave them a choice and said “Here are some options, but basically you can find whatever way works for you. If you want to write a song, you can do that. If you want to make a video. you can do that.” I even threw in the option, since at the time I had just seen some of the YouTube videos on dance your PhD, I said if you want to do an interpretive dance illustrating the concept, you can do it. But these are the things you need to achieve. And it was so much more fun.

Tom: They lit right up, didn’t they?

John: They did. And the quality of the work and their engagement was so dramatically higher. And it was so much more fun for me too to watch what they were doing. The additional creativity that that unleashed was really amazing.

Tom: But, and that’s actually one of the joys of Universal Design for Learning when it’s done well, is that you can start with that plus one mentality. And that’s actually speaking from a position of control, where I don’t want to give people lots of lots of choices, because then I’ve got to grade lots and lots of things. And so starting out small with that plus one mentality is a way to dip your toe into the water of Universal Design for Learning. But really, the goal of UDL is to create expert learners rather than expert students. We in the K-12 and higher education system have so structured things that we have created students who know how to take a test, rather than students who know how to do an inquiry and how to explore and learn on their own. The goal for Universal Design for Learning is creating those expert learning strategies. And think about it. John, what’s the hobby that you’ve enjoyed over your lifetime?

John: Music, I suppose, is probably the longest one.

Tom: What instruments do you play?

John: Mostly keyboard but also bass and guitar. At one point, I played drums back in high school.

Tom: Oh, fantastic. Rebecca, how about you?

Rebecca: I embroider.

Tom: Ooh, embroidery. So, hand eye coordination, those skills, that takes a lot of concentration and effort. That’s awesome. And when you were learning those hobbies, who graded you? What tests did you have to take to prove that you could move from one level to the next?

Rebecca: Nobody.

Tom: Nobody, right? And if someone tried to do it, you’d laugh at them. Because when you’re into something because you’re engaged with it, when you’re into something because you have a choice or you get to go and have some control or agency over it, it becomes rewarding. It becomes, dare I say it, fun, sometimes. And I don’t mean to say that every single college course that people take should be an exercise in fun. It should, though, offer a way for people to catch fire, to light up, to understand, to bring a little bit of themselves into the scholarship, and the research, and the curiosity that they’re expressing. And that’s what Universal Design for Learning is really about. And it actually brings me back into the Pedagogies of Care collection. The academic climate that we envision in the Pedagogies of Care collection is one that is more open, more equitable, and more just. It reaches more people who want to learn. It provides them with choices, voices, and agency in how they take a path through our colleges and universities. Now, at the same time, we’re all helping to keep the lights on at our individual institutions. We’re now in a time of catastrophic budget shortfalls. We need collectively to be thinking about the best ways that we should be serving students, to bring them in and keep them coming back. One of the things that we haven’t been able to really figure out in higher education is something called the freshmen cliff. And I imagine that some of your listeners are familiar with it. But what it means is, if at my university, if we bring in 2000 freshmen, we’re probably only going to get about 1400 of them back as sophomores. The number one reason why those 600 students dropped out among them, it’s financial, and we really can’t touch that with our instruction. But the number two reason is time. And we can definitely touch that with our instruction, with our design, with the way that we teach our courses. We can help students to manage and juggle among lots of competing priorities. School is usually down toward the bottom of the list if caring for your family, going to work, and putting food on the table are top of the list. And that freshmen cliff&helliip; If we can keep more of those students who are freshmen to become sophomores, that actually costs us less in terms of dollars, in terms of resources, in terms of time, in terms of people. For every $10 that we spend bringing a freshmen into our institutions, we usually only spend about $2 on upkeep and maintenance supporting that student in the next years. But every time a student drops out, and we have to go find another one, that’s another 10 bucks. So in terms of just keeping the lights on, being sensitive to our budget crises, that Universal Design for Learning helps more of our students, and all of the caring ideas in the Pedagogies of Care collection help more of our students stick with us, feel valued, and move through their education with us in a way that they feel they have some control and agency. And of course, Universal Design for Learning helps us to address exactly that. It’s a tool that helps us reach more broadly, teach more inclusively, increase students’ persistence, retention, and satisfaction. We’ve got 30 years of data to show that engaged and active students who feel that they have choices and a say in their programs of study, stick with us in higher numbers. So, it’s not just that we have our rose-colored glasses on. I’m talking to you: Presidents, Provosts, Chancellors right now, these are mission-critical efforts. While our collection speaks most directly to individual instructors and designers, the issues for which we advocate are those ones at the C-suite level. We’re trying to create a new normal at colleges and universities in order to find and serve new populations of students and then keep them with us better than we’ve done in the past.

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

Tom: So the what’s next for me is I’m doing research on a book that addresses a problem that I’ve seen in terms of quality and it gets a little bit outside of my usual wheelhouse. We’ve all been to academic conferences where somebody who is talking to us about the latest way of keeping students engaged is standing there reading from a script and using a bunch of bullet points on a PowerPoint slide and reading them directly to us verbatim. Oh, my goodness, if I have to sit through one more of those. But that frustration is what is causing my new research in what are the real bare bones of how to give a good presentation? How do you present information? And it’s not just for people at conferences, it’s for instructors in the classroom. It’s for people who are doing research and grants. It’s for presidents, Provost, and Deans who need to share information with the people who are under their direct reports. So, I’m working on that book and it’s been lots and lots of fun doing the research. I’ve taken a bunch of photographs at conferences over the past couple of years here. And if you see me taking a photograph of your slides, it means one of two things: you are a rock star, or goodness, you need help. And it’s gonna be a fun book, I’ve been repurposing a lot of these things. I’ve been reading up on the literature of how to present information. And you can tell I’m an advocate for it. I did a little stint of radio voiceover when I lived in Chicago and really just fell in love with it. And I’m a big believer in communicating information in a simple way, that then helps people to get fired up and want to learn more about the details and the complexities behind it. So, I’m really grateful to be here on the Tea for Teaching podcast. And I hope that your listeners have enjoyed it. If you’d like to reach out to me, my website is just my name, ThomasJTobin.com. And I’d be happy to talk with you about whatever we’ve talked about here on the podcast or any other technology mediated teaching issues. So, thank you again for having me on.

John: Thank you. This has been fascinating, and we’ve long had you on a list of guests that we wanted to invite and this provided a nice convenient reason.

Tom: Splendid, awesome deal.

Rebecca: Yeah, we’re looking forward to seeing the Pedagogies of Care when it comes out.

Tom: We’re hoping that this will come out close to when the collection comes out as well.

Rebecca: Excellent. Thanks 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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131. Trauma-informed Pedagogy

The global COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in serious disruptions in everyone’s lives. Traumatic experiences reduce our ability to focus, to learn, and to be productive. While this has always been true, it is an issue that has often been ignored by higher ed faculty. In this episode, Karen Costa joins us to discuss how trauma-informed pedagogy can be used to help our students on their educational journey in stressful times.

Karen is an adjunct faculty member teaching college success strategies to online students and a faculty professional development facilitator at Faculty Guild. She is a staff writer for Women in Higher Education. She writes regularly about higher education, and her new book 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos was just released by Stylus Publishing. In addition to her education degrees, Karen holds a professional certification in Trauma and Resilience from Florida State University and will complete her certificate in Neuroscience Learning and Online Instruction from Drexel this spring. She’s also a certified yoga teacher. Karen has been working to support diverse learners with trauma-aware practices since 2002.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The global COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in serious disruptions in everyone’s lives. Traumatic experiences reduce our ability to focus, to learn, and to be productive. While this has always been true, it is an issue that has often been ignored by higher ed faculty. In this episode, we examine how trauma-informed pedagogy can be used to help our students on their educational journey in stressful times.

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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: Our guest today is Karen Costa. Karen is an adjunct faculty member teaching college success strategies to online students and a faculty professional development facilitator at Faculty Guild. She is a staff writer for Women in Higher Education. She writes regularly about higher education, and her new book 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos was just released by Stylus Publishing, and I just got my copy a couple of days ago. In addition to her education degrees, Karen holds a professional certification in Trauma and Resilience from Florida State University and will complete her certificate in Neuroscience Learning and Online Instruction from Drexel this spring. She’s also a certified yoga teacher. Karen has been working to support diverse learners with trauma aware practices since 2002. Welcome back, Karen.

Karen: Thank you both for having me back. I didn’t expect to be back quite so soon, but I’m happy to be here.

John: There have been lots of things happening that people haven’t expected recently.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Karen: I have a big bottle of water next to me because hydration is one of my healthy practices these days for mind and body, and I have been getting a little tickle in my throat, which is not ideal for podcast interviews. So I’m going with the old fashioned option today.

John: And I am drinking honey green iced tea.

Rebecca: And I’m sticking with my nice and comforting English afternoon tea.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss trauma-informed teaching. In a recent podcast Josh Eyler talked about trauma-informed teaching and he referred to you, so we thought it would be good to have you back to talk about it. Could you tell us a little bit about this approach and why it’s important, especially right now?

Karen: Sure. So I do want to start by just reminding listeners that talking about trauma, learning about trauma, can bring up some feelings, which is a very normal reaction to that. So I just want to remind people, if you notice that, that it’s okay to take a rain check on listening and engaging in this conversation. I also do recommend that even if you feel okay to engage with a discussion about trauma that it’s recommended that you do so in small doses, especially during these very challenging times. And I do think, we talked in the show notes, we’re going to make sure that we share additional resources for folks who might need some support during this challenging time. I’ve got some great links for folks if they would like to check out resources, but just a reminder, it’s very normal to have some of our own emotional experiences come up during this conversation. So I wanted to make sure that that was really clear as we get started. Also, thanks to Josh for giving me a shout out and connecting us, he’s wonderful and he’s doing a lot of great advocacy work, and I look forward to his tweets every day, very grateful for Twitter for keeping us all connected. So, why should we be learning about trauma in the context of higher education and pedagogy in this remote teaching, emergency teaching movement? Well, hopefully, we should have been engaging with it already, we know that trauma is not new. Most of our students, most of our faculty, most of our staff do have trauma histories to varying degrees, and those trauma histories do impact not only our relationships with students or colleagues, but they also impact how we learn, which is how I come to this conversation. So, my interest is in trauma, toxic stress, general stress, and how those all impact teaching and learning in higher education, specifically in the online learning environment, though I’m obviously engaged in that conversation across higher ed. We are all suddenly online now, so that’s where my interest comes in, so helping faculty and staff to utilize our knowledge about trauma and its impacts on the body and the mind and the brain to look at how students are learning and then look at how we’re teaching.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how it impacts students’ ability to learn?

Karen: Let me back up a bit and let me define trauma for us. And there’s varying definitions, of course, if you ask 10 different people who work with trauma for their definitions of trauma, you’re going to get 10 definitions. I have some notes next to me because my brain is not quite working the way I want it to these days. One of the places that I refer to is the SAMHSA definition which talks about trauma resulting from an event, or a series of events, or a set of circumstances, an adverse experience that has significant negative results in terms of an individual’s functioning across the various areas, mental, physical, social, emotional, all of those areas. In other words, trauma is when something really bad happens and it impacts us in a negative way. Another definition that is pretty straightforward, one of the foremost researchers in the trauma field is Bessel Van Der Kolk. He wrote a book called The Body Keeps the Score. His short version is trauma is unbearable and intolerable, so when something really challenging happens to us and we have persistent effects from that experience. It’s also important to bring up toxic stress and stress, I think, which are very much related to trauma. So toxic stress is when we sort of reach that point where we’re beyond our healthy limits of stress, we’re going into that area where it’s starting to have significant negative effects in our lives, and then there’s just run-of-the-mill stress that we all experience every day. So, just a few definitions that might help folks and those are not new, those have been around as long as we have, they were here with us before this COVID-19 crisis, and trauma, toxic stress, and stress will continue with us. In terms of how they impact learning, things that we might experience would be difficulty concentrating. I’m sure some folks who are listening to this have experienced that in the past two weeks, certainly before, but very much so in the past two weeks. A disinterest in things that might have previously excited us or interested us, a feeling like we sort of can’t mentally organize it all, that there’s just things swimming in our brain and we can’t really get a hold on it, difficulty making decisions, delaying gratification are all pretty common impacts of trauma on the learning experience… executive function skills I should say. Sometimes you see these referred to as soft skills, which I don’t love that term, but I have to use it because it’s what most people use. Our ability to communicate with people, to maintain relationships can be impacted, our time management, think about things like test taking, which require really intensive focus and our higher-order thinking skills. All of those we know are disrupted when we experience trauma or toxic stress.

Rebecca: What are things that faculty can do to help students learn and mitigate some of that stress, or at least manage things so that they can feel like they can move forward? I know a lot of faculty will also say like, “I’m not a trained psychologist, so this isn’t for me, and I don’t really want to know that my students have had trauma or know their stories and I want to keep this professional distance away from them.” Can you talk through a little bit about the relationship between faculty and students related to trauma, and then also, what are some things that faculty can do to help students when they’re experiencing trauma? [LAUGHTER]

Karen: There’s so much in that question. I’m going to try to tease that out, it was such a great question. We know that most students in your class have a trauma history, we know that. Public health research shows us that around 70% of people have trauma histories, and with what we’re going through now, which I’m looking at as a global trauma that we’re all experiencing to varying degrees, certainly, but at the same time, we can assume that this is impacting all of your students. So first of all, it’s not appropriate for us to expect our students to disclose their trauma to us but whether or not they do, we can absolutely safely assume that the majority of students in your class have a trauma history that is impacting their ability to learn. What’s interesting is that we sometimes don’t go to the next step, which is that this is also true for our educators. So when you get your college diploma you don’t lose your trauma history. The research on rates of trauma in our population holds true across educational levels. So most of our educators also experience trauma. So I do hear that idea of “I don’t want to know about this,” or “I shouldn’t have to deal with this.” This is the reality, this is part of the human condition. So I think it’s important that people know that whether or not you want to deal with it, that it is there. That said, I think the really important thing is to remember something called scope of practice, and this is not a phrase I hear often used in education, but you hear it in social work, in the counseling field, in the medical field. An example of that was something I learned about as a yoga teacher. So just an example, I would have students come to me and say, “Karen, I have a stomach issue. What should I do?” It would not be appropriate for me as a yoga teacher to say, “Oh, you should try this medicine,” or “Have you taken this?” or “Have you done this?” Absolutely outside of my scope of practice as a yoga teacher. Would it be appropriate for me to say “Keep coming to class, keep taking care of yourself, keep your practice up, and listen to your body, and talk to your doctor?” Sure, that is within my scope of practice as a yoga teacher. So absolutely, it is outside of your scope of practice as an educator to offer counseling to your students, to inquire about their trauma histories, to offer any sort of medical or mental health advice, it is appropriate for us to refer. So posting links and resources to internal or external mental health resources and hotlines is absolutely within our scope of practice. Empathy is in everybody’s scope of practice, so that is a great place to start. We can all practice empathy, we can recognize that everyone is coming to this with a lot of challenges and previous challenges as well, not just the new ones that we’re all facing, so we can all practice empathy. An example of something that an educator could do would be, what I’m recommending, is to balance structure with flexibility, so having very, very flexible deadlines. I’m keeping deadlines, but I’m being very flexible with them, and I’m letting students know, “Hey, if this isn’t working for you let me know.” Some students need the structure, and they appreciate the structure and it’s a nice distraction, but I’ve got students emailing me that their kids are sick, or their parents are sick, or they just lost their job. So letting them know, “Hey, take a few days off, and let’s talk on Wednesday. How about nine o’clock? Can we exchange an email or a phone call then?” is absolutely within my scope of practice and balancing structure with flexibility is a trauma-aware teaching practice, I don’t need to be a counselor to do that. So that’s just one example of very many that are being shared. To me, that’s been my guiding paradigm recently. Certainly things change by the hour but balancing structure with flexibility is helping me do what I feel is the best job to keep students on track toward their goals, to be present, to give them a distraction and a focus, but also to honor that they have other survival issues at play right now. Deadlines are not always appropriate in those instances.

John: Would it be helpful to bring up the current circumstances in our class either as it connects to our content areas or just to give students a chance to talk about it with their peers and with their instructors?

Karen: Yes, 110% is my answer on that one. So we also have some good data that a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose is really important to our mental and physical health. So I think within an appropriate context without overloading students, focusing on what we can control rather than what we can’t, is a really appropriate way to discuss this challenge. So perhaps sharing with students one small thing that you’ve done to support people in your community would be an appropriate example of that, sharing a resource for ways that they can contribute, reminding students that the act of staying home and flattening the curve is a contribution, though it can feel small and insignificant at times, it does make a difference, so that they have a sense of meaning and purpose and contribution. For those of us that have the luxury of staying home, one of the things I’ve noticed personally is there is that sense of a lack of purpose and a lack of focus. I was just tweeting about how much I love my students and my faculty that I work with, and when I have those moments of challenge, without pushing myself beyond my limits, to just see how I can help them… so how I can help somebody else really does give me a little boost. So I think it’s appropriate to talk to students about what’s going on in terms of helping them see that they can serve a greater good. And, certainly within the context of our subject areas or content areas, it makes a lot of sense to me. If you teach journalism, for example, my neighbor teaches journalism at a community college. Hi, Sue. How could you not be talking about the coverage of the crisis in the media right now as part of your class? I also do think we need to give students breaks from it though, and not overload them too much, because we’re all a bit overloaded. Most of the mental health professionals that I’m hearing from are encouraging people to be mindful and to limit their consumption. So if students are trying to do that, and they come into our class and we’re overloading them, that would be problematic, but I think gently, mindfully, making sure students know they can take breaks as needed from that content makes a lot of sense.

John: In my seminar class we were talking about, some other issues were scheduled for discussion, but somehow that discussion got shifted over to talking about the economic consequences of this and what types of adjustment policies might be helpful and possible paths for getting through this and resolving it. And we were doing some face-to-face discussions as well as some online ones, and students opened up quite a bit about it, and it seemed to be really productive, and they seemed to really enjoy that opportunity to connect with each other.

Karen: That makes a lot of sense. The other thing that comes to mind is a future orientation, looking toward the future with hope and possibility even though things are extremely challenging and dire and dark right now, remembering that there is hope in the future and having that mindset of looking forward and “What can I do to make things better in the future?” does seem to have positive effects on our mental health and our ability to move forward and take action in our daily lives. So there’s a lot of good research to support that. I love that idea of students being able to engage in that way, with that future orientation. The other thing I’ll add, though, is that I’ve reminded folks, if you have time with your students and you use all that time to talk about “Where are people finding toilet paper?” and “What are you doing with your kids?” and “How are you just moving throughout the day or taking walks in your neighborhood?” I had a friend do that, and she said, “I hope I did okay,” and I said, “You did perfect.” So talking about the crisis in the context of just getting through the day is okay, too. I think, really let the students kind of guide that conversation and see what they need, and then let them take the lead on that a bit makes a lot of sense.

John: That did become a non-trivial portion of those conversations.

Karen: Yeah.

Rebecca: I think an interesting conversation that bubbled up in the pandemic pedagogy Facebook group was about having students do reflections of their COVID-19 experience, but then some faculty really pushing back on that and saying, “Yeah, that’s really good. Some students might really need that, but some students might really need an escape from it as well, and so pushing it or requiring an engagement in that conversation could also be really problematic.” What are your thoughts on that, Karen?

Karen: Yes, it is problematic to require that, that’s my feeling. This is, for many folks, a trauma and we’re all experiencing that to varying degrees. We all come to this with different amounts of privilege, with different protective factors in our lives, but I can’t think of a context where I would require someone to talk about their trauma, that would need to be up to them. I’m certainly writing about it. I write in my journal every day. I had a journaling practice before and journaling is a positive coping mechanism, and we have data that that works really well, but it’s not really somebody else’s place to require that. I would probably give students a choice, let them know that you can talk about this, but here are some other options that are not related to the crisis that you could talk about as well. Choice is always good in our assignments, I think so, and that certainly holds true in this situation as well. I wouldn’t force that conversation. That could certainly cause some additional stress in an already very stressful time.

Rebecca: What are some things that faculty can do, thinking forward to the fall, in being trauma aware in their practices, given that there might be some space for some folks in their relationship to the pandemic, but then for others , it might still be really very prime key thing that they’re still really dealing with?

Karen: I don’t know enough at this point to know what the fall is going to bring. The words that I’m using with faculty and in my own work is, number one, prioritize caring and support above all else, and number two, focus on being adaptable to whatever comes. I can imagine a scenario where we’re brought back out into the world for a couple weeks, and then we go back home for a couple weeks, so I think the ability to adapt is going to be really important. I shared a blog post today from my friend Janice Carello. She’s been writing about trauma-informed pedagogy for years. She’s brilliant, and a real gift to this field in higher education, and one of the things she shared was write everything down. So I just think of that as an example of how we can prepare for this possibility of things changing on the dime throughout the fall and possibly longer, is just being really clear in our communications with students, with our colleagues, and with ourselves by writing everything down, recognizing that our brains aren’t going to quite hold information as well as they used to, and just little things like that, I think. There’s so much outside of our control. We are not, as individuals, able to always do much to make an impact on something of this size, but I can make sure that I’m putting communications to students in writing. So I would encourage people to just look at those seemingly small choices in how they communicate with students, how they plan their courses, how they manage their time and communicate with colleagues and to plan for the possibility of things changing on the dime and, of course, again to prioritize caring and support above all else.

John: Following up on Rebecca’s question, though, when we do come back in the fall, there’s going to be a lot of people who will have lost family members, who will have lost friends, and will be facing potentially a much more uncertain economic future, and so I think this issue of trauma is one that we probably always should be paying more attention to, but it’s going to be something that’s going to be affecting, I suspect, a very large share of our students, as well as many faculty in the fall.

Karen: Yeah, I’ve been talking about that, and it’s tough to wrap my head around, and to really engage with that, because we’ve always had that in higher education. We’ve had students who have lost multiple family members during their college education. We’ve had students who live with poverty and racism, this is not new. What’s new is that we can no longer deny that in the same way that we were before, but I think a lot of us were begging higher education to notice that and to take it seriously and to adapt our teaching and our advising and our institutions to become more trauma aware, and eventually to become trauma-informed, and there was resistance to that, and now, I don’t know if that resistance will continue. I don’t know if people will realize how widespread this is, because of this challenge. It’s a little tough to wrap my head around that, but number one, I would say K through 12 is quite a bit ahead of us in higher education. So for those in higher education who are ready to look at this in a meaningful way, K through 12 has done a bit more work than higher ed has done and we have a lot of models and tools that we can use. So you’ve heard me use the terms trauma aware and trauma informed. One of the models out there, it’s called the Missouri Model. It has four stages that an organization can move through to ultimately become a trauma-informed organization. The first step is to become trauma aware, and that’s kind of how I’ve been engaging with people lately, which is just to start talking about trauma, to recognize what it is and to recognize that it is widespread, that most students and most faculty have experienced trauma and to talk about what that does to our minds and our brains and our bodies and how it might impact learning. So that’s how I’ve been engaging with people. And I expect that because of the widespread nature of this crisis, most institutions will hopefully start to develop more trauma awareness in the coming months, which will ultimately lead to more sustained widespread solutions down the road.

John: I’m hoping that this does make all of us a bit more aware of those issues. For those faculty who are interested in learning more about the impacts of trauma and dealing with their students’ trauma, what resources would you suggest to help them learn more?

Karen: As I mentioned, K through 12 is a little bit ahead of us in higher ed, so we’ve got some great content out there in that K through 12 world. I follow a heck of a lot of K through 12 educators on social media and learn so much from them. So I would encourage folks to really recognize and respect the expertise of our K through 12 educators, folks who have already been doing this work. I don’t want to imply that this hasn’t been happening in higher ed, but it happens in pockets. So we see things like a school of social work within a college or university will have really developed a lot of trauma awareness and maybe even advanced to some trauma-informed practices across that department or that division, but it kind of remains within that pocket. Most institutions probably have some pockets of this going on. Find those people who are doing that work and who’ve been asking for folks to take it seriously for years. This is for all of us. One of the things that I talk about is how we sometimes say “Oh, trauma, stress, anxiety, that’s for Karen in room 312. She’s the college counselor.” That’s how we’ve sometimes approached it. This is not the sole responsibility of the college counselor, the one that maybe we have for 6000 students. She’s already being asked to do far too much with too little. This is the responsibility of all of us. It’s a human issue, it’s a pedagogical issue. This is something that a Vice President of Academic Affairs, deans, faculty, academic advisors should all be educated about and bringing to their staff and their team and educating folks about and learning more about. The other resource I’ll mention is I know we’re higher educators, we like to read. I mentioned before, I’ll remind folks again, The Body Keeps the Score. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, he’s out of the trauma center in Boston. He has done some groundbreaking work in this area. It’s a very intense read, know that going in, don’t read it in one sitting, but it really gives a good overview of trauma and its impact on people and how they can learn and grow. And the other thing I haven’t mentioned, I’m realizing now that I usually mention up front but my brain isn’t on full capacity, is what Dr. Van Der Kolk does. He’s so good at talking about resilience, and when we talk about trauma, we always do want to make sure that people’s resilience is part of that conversation. I was just listening to him earlier on a podcast, he talks about how trauma really brings out the best of us and the worst of us. It’s important to remember that people are extraordinarily resilient, and that people who’ve experienced trauma have so many assets and so many skills and so much brilliance. Trauma is treatable. There are countless resources out there that will help people through this. As we talk about this idea of widespread trauma and coming back to campus in the fall having gone through this, whatever that looks like, it’s important to remember that resilience should always be part of that conversation.

John: One of the things I’ve been in getting lots of emails from faculty is questions about how to deal with things like students submitting their work an hour or two late or something similar, and I’ve never had to send out so many emails just suggesting maybe this is a good time to give students the benefit of the doubt. It’s a difficult adjustment for many faculty, perhaps, being a little more compassionate and it’s something that we should be doing all the time.

Karen: Yeah, I do want to speak to that and I’ll be transparent and I’m noticing all kinds of emotions coming up in myself there. I like to think of myself as a very big advocate of faculty success. I see faculty and student success as interdependent. I do want to recognize that the faculty that I work with are hardworking, creative, empathetic, and I was just talking to some faculty earlier today… what they’re doing for their students is so inspirational, so powerful. They’re just going above and beyond. I know that there are some faculty who do have a more rigid approach, and if I want faculty to give students the benefit of the doubt, I feel like I have to give faculty the benefit of the doubt too. And I think sometimes we teach how we were taught, and that is just kind of our instinct. I was held to these really tough standards, so I’m going to do that for my students. I’ve also heard this idea, “I’m preparing students for the real world.” This is the real world… right now. This is the real world that we’re living in, with people getting really sick, with our students out there working on the frontlines and just really struggling, people at home with their kids while working, all kinds of things, this is the real world. And I have not ever seen any data that shows that holding students to a rigid deadline improves student success in learning. If anybody sees that please feel free to share it to me, but every ounce of research and data that I know of shows that flexibility within structure works really well for student success in learning, particularly recognizing that, again, most of our students, and just as we do, experience trauma, toxic stress that can impact our ability to learn. So, I know people struggle with that and say, “Well, aren’t I teaching them a bad habit?” I have been utilizing that strategy with first-generation first year students for the past 15 years. What I have found is that students still get it to me, they still have a positive learning experience. When appropriate, I’ll remind students and say, “Next week, I want you to try to meet that deadline.” Am I doing that now? No, but I have in the past, but I always err on the side of flexibility, and it has served me and my students very well. I don’t feel like my students have taken advantage of that. I think it’s built trust in our classroom and not everybody learns at the same pace. At the same time, I want to recognize also that I think sometimes faculty feel that’s going to make more work for them to have things coming in at varying deadlines. Faculty are bombarded and overloaded. So then cut the amount of content down. I’ve mentioned Janice Carello earlier, one of her recommendations is cut the content in half, if that’s what you need to do right now to simplify things for yourself and your students. I’d rather faculty do that. I think that’s a smarter practice in terms of teaching and learning than to hold students to rigid deadlines.

John: What would you suggest for faculty experiencing trauma and just dealing with the everyday stress? What techniques might be helpful in helping us all get through this?

Karen: Hopefully, one of the things I’ve already conveyed is that any conversation about trauma-aware practices in higher education needs to recognize faculty and staff as part of that equation. So, sometimes I hear us talk about student trauma and stress, but then it’s like, apparently, we’re all magically immune to it. That’s just not the case. So a good place to start is for educators, administrators, leaders to recognize that faculty, just like students, have already experienced trauma before this and are experiencing trauma and likely toxic stress now, and to name that and to begin to get educated about that. In terms of individual faculty, again, let’s focus on resilience, let’s focus on what we call protective factors. So, one of the things that’s really interesting in the research on trauma is that one caring adult can make a difference in the life of a child who’s experienced trauma. One caring adult can make a difference. So we do look at things like protective factors, so community support, a caring adult who reaches out, those are really important. What’s interesting that I’ve noticed about those protective factors is that they often come from another person, so I think our connections are really important. We’re hearing people talk about physical distancing versus social distancing. So, making sure that you talk to a few people each day, whether it’s over the phone or over text or in Animal Crossing on your Nintendo Switch, on Twitter, whatever the case may be, I do think hearing someone’s voice can make a difference for me, but just finding some way to connect. Loneliness, there’s a lot of data about the negative impacts of loneliness that was before this, and now we’re all being asked to stay home. That’s obviously creating some additional challenges there. So I would say it’s really important to connect with somebody else, whether it’s a friend, family member, and to stay connected on a daily basis. That goes on my to do list every morning, text my niece, text my nephews, call this person, those are priorities. Other things that I’m doing, movement is really important, I try to stay away from the word exercise because it brings up a lot of junk for people, [LAUGHTER] because a lot of junk has been shoved down our throats about what exercise should be. So, I encourage people to embrace movement, even if that’s pacing in your house. In the book that I mentioned before, The Body Keeps the Score, movement and bodywork is really an important part of managing trauma, so anything that you can do to move. I am getting out in my neighborhood, I’m able to safely walk in my neighborhood and maintain that physical distancing. That does a lot to help me, so movement is really important. Hydration is important. For me, reading is a great option, and again, connecting is just the number on e for me right now to keep myself grounded, and remember that we’re all in this together. But those social connections are incredibly important when dealing with stress.

John: A lot of students and faculty both have reported that they’ve been having Zoom gatherings, social hours, happy hours, and so forth, and also, I think, Netflix Party, the plugin for Chrome is getting a lot of action too, where people watch movies together from wherever they are, and then they chat with each other as if they were in the same place.

Karen: I haven’t heard of the Netflix one, so I’m gonna have to check that out.

John: It’s just a Chrome plugin.

Karen: That’s very cool.

John: My students talked about it, and some faculty talked about that in an informal gathering we had just yesterday.

Karen: And that’s a great example of one of my favorite reminders, which is that students know things, and we can ask them [LAUGHTER] and they will tell us things that we don’t know, so we all just learned something there as well.

Rebecca: It seems like likewise, it might also be important to remember, you know, as you’re saying that students know things… hey, Ada, [LAUGHTER] Just one second. Can you hang on for just one second?

ADA: No!

Rebecca: No? Well, I guess Ada will be on this podcast. [LAUGHTER]

John: And that was our guest host Ada Mushtare joining us for the first time on one of our podcast recordings, and now we return to our regularly scheduled podcast.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that students have been really understanding of the circumstances that faculty can be in. When I’ve talked to other faculty, they’ve talked about how the students have been asking how they’re doing. And I know in my own case, I’ve fallen, in one class, a couple weeks behind in grading, and I said, I’ve been doing eight to 10 hours of faculty meetings every day trying to help people move online, and they’ve been really understanding about all of that in ways that surprised me, because I’d be disappointed if my instructor had fallen that far behind in grading. So in general, I think in some ways, this may have helped both students and faculty connect in ways that they might not otherwise have done.

Karen: What I would classify that conversation under is this idea of humanizing learning. So Michelle Pacansky-Brock is an amazing educator, she has kind of taken the lead on this humanizing online learning movement, and we sometimes also talk about it as humanizing higher education in general. This idea that we can appropriately reveal challenges, failures, interests to our students as a way to build a sense of connection between students and faculty, again, is not new, and many of us have been doing that for a long time, and I think because of this challenge, maybe because more folks are working from home and might have kids running around and pets running around, and not really as much of a choice about distinguishing the personal from the professional, that maybe they are diving into that humanizing teaching and learning movement, and I am glad about that. We know, particularly in the online learning environment, that that can have some really positive effects on teaching and learning. What I would remind people is that we find that when we can build those connections with our students, they’re more likely to persist and to succeed, so find whatever way you’re comfortable with to do that. I don’t think it’s appropriate to reveal the depths of your soul, perhaps, but could you remind students that you’re feeling anxious? Absolutely. Could you let students know that you’re worried about a sick family member? Absolutely. Could you let students know you’re challenged by having kids at home? Absolutely. Do what’s comfortable for you. I always tell folks, if even that makes you nervous, some faculty feel more comfortable just engaging around their content area. So, I tell folks, this is a chance to maybe talk about why you got into your field of study and perhaps how this crisis is causing you to reflect on that choice and what you love about your discipline. That’s an okay place to start too, for some faculty that’s what they’re comfortable with. But, certainly if you’re open to sharing more details, sharing more challenges, I send regular emails to my students. This morning I said, “We’re all still here, we’re hunkered down. We’re saying home. We’re really thinking about those health care workers and frontline workers and we’re so grateful for them.” And then I moved on to some course topics, but it was an appropriate sharing about challenges we’re facing without getting too in depth and it is one of the ways that I connect with my students.

John: Is there any other advice you’d like to share with our listeners?

Karen: I think I just want to emphasize again, the importance of hope, something that we grasp for when we’re desperate, but hope is really a powerful cognitive strategy. The work of Martin Seligman, he writes about something called the Hope Circuit, which is the idea that in the face of just devastating impossible circumstances, if we can find a way to look toward the future with any little bit of hope, that it can help us get through those challenges. So I would just emphasize to people that, for me, hope is a really important research-based strategy that I try to apply in my life. One of the things I’ve been doing at night when I fall asleep, I was perseverating, about all of the scary stuff, and I was projecting into some really dark places and one of the things that I’ve been doing is tried to at that point in my day, to think about a hopeful future and what’s it gonna be like to hug loved ones again, and get to go to a bookstore or the library, which are two of my favorite things to do? And that is one of my practices, and certainly do I go into those other places at other times? Absolutely. But I just want to remind people, I think we can respect and honor the challenges that we’re facing, and also remember hope and resilience, and keep practicing those as well.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: Apparently, you should talk all the time because Ada is incredibly attentive to you, Karen. [LAUGHTER]

Karen: Oh, hi, honey! [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: She’s listening to you.

Karen: Oh, I love that.

John: And until you can go to the bookstore, [LAUGHTER] you can order 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos. It’s a wonderful book, and for those who are creating videos, either for the first time, or who’d like to do it more efficiently, it’s a really great resource and you can get that from Amazon or directly from the publisher. In fact, there’s a discount code that we’ll list in the show notes as well.

Karen: Great. Thank you.

John: Also, we just discovered we had a mutual friend in common, Leighanne Penna, who I worked with at Duke many years ago, and you went to grad school with.

Karen: Leighanne and I were at UMass Amherst back in 2004 together, and we recently reconnected. She’s in Greece, and I’m going to help her campus do some work with transitioning from land-based to online education. It’s really interesting. They’ve made that shift, and now they’re interested in helping faculty develop those emotional connections online, which I’m really excited about, and I hope others will recognize the importance of doing that as well. But it was great to reconnect with her and to find out about that small-world connection.

John: We always end with the question, “What’s next?” which I think is a question we all have in mind these days.

Karen: So, what’s next for me is [LAUGHTER] some puzzles, watching the Masked Singer with my 11 year old and my husband who are home with me, walking my dog, those are part of my daily routine. And in terms of higher ed, I’m hoping to continue to do more to share this message of the importance of becoming trauma aware in our teaching, whether it’s online or possibly land- based in the future, and just reminding folks that empathy is within all of our scope of practice, no matter what our background and expertise, we can always practice empathy, and hoping to help as many folks as possible. That’s something I enjoy doing, it helps me to stay well, and hoping to just keep serving in whatever way I can.

Rebecca: Thanks so much for taking us on a journey from trauma all the way to hope. [LAUGHTER] It was a really nice conversation.

Karen: Oh, well, yeah, I appreciate that. And it is tough to talk about sometimes. And I know I think that’s one of the reasons that we avoid it, and I have a lot of empathy for folks that sometimes they’re just not ready to come to that conversation, but it is important. I think, that those of us who are ready and prepared to engage in that conversation and to start educating others.

John: Thanks again, especially for joining us on such short notice and it was great to talk to you again.

Karen: Thanks, everyone.

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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 Savannah Norton.

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130. Radical Hope

Faculty enter teaching careers with the hope of shaping a better future for our students and our society. In this episode, Dr. Kevin Gannon joins us discuss what faculty can do to build a positive and inclusive learning community that empowers and motivates students. Kevin, also known as the Tattooed Professor, is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which has recently been released by West Virginia University Press.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Faculty enter teaching careers with the hope of shaping a better future for our students and our society. In this episode, we discuss what faculty can do to build a positive and inclusive learning community that empowers and motivates students.

While this podcast was recorded before the global pandemic resulted in a shift to remote instruction, the message seems especially timely.

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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: Our guest today is Dr. Kevin Gannon, also known as the Tattooed Professor. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which has recently been released by West Virginia University Press. Welcome, Kevin.

Kevin: Thanks. Great to be here with you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Kevin: I am actually drinking water right now, but I am brewing up some Japanese green tea as we speak.

Rebecca: Excellent.

John: And I am drinking a peppermint, spearmint, and tarragon blend.

Rebecca: I have now resorted back to my English afternoon. I’m like about three or four cups in today, so I’m back to my old habits. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: So you’re ready to go, then, is what you’re saying.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m ready to go. [LAUGHTER]

John: We recorded one earlier today and she was off on a different tea, so.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about Radical Hope. Could you talk a little bit about the origin of this project?

Kevin: Sure. So the book actually started as a blog post I wrote back in the summer of 2016, back when we all had so much hope and optimism, right? [LAUGHTER] So it took me a lot longer to write it into a book than I thought it would. The first draft of the manuscript was actually really angry. [LAUGHTER] And as Jim Lang, my editor, pointed out, we’re not titling the book Radical Anger. We’re titling it Radical Hope. [LAUGHTER] So people would ask me, “So what’s it like to be writing a book on hope?” And I’d say, “Well, it’s interesting,” and “How’s the book coming?” …and… “Well, it’s interesting,” but that’s where it got its origin, and the blog post was written, I started the blog I think in 2014, even, I was trying to jump start my own writing practice. So, I figured having a platform to kind of put stuff out there in a less formal sort of way and try to develop ideas and if one or two people read them great, but it was mostly for me. And this post came after a particularly interesting semester, and interesting euphemistically speaking, where I was really trying to kind of make sense of some struggles that I had personally in the classroom with my students, but also just kind of the higher ed landscape in general, and I really felt like writing some, kind of clarifying my values and my approach, would be a really useful reflective exercise, and so that’s what the post came out of. And it seemed to resonate with a lot of folks, and Jim invited me to turn it into a book and longer than expected later, here we are.

John: Even though we’re in fairly challenging times right now, teaching, as you note, is an act of radical hope. Could you elaborate on that concept just a little bit?

Kevin: Absolutely, so I’m using the word radical in its sort of literal sense, like root level, fundamental, pervasive. It’s an ethic, I think, that informs or can inform, and I would argue, should inform every sort of nook and cranny of our practice. So if you really think about it, what we’re doing on the everyday basis, the seemingly routine choices we make, “Here are the textbooks I will select, here’s how I’m going to run this particular class on this particular day.” Putting the work and the effort into doing those things is an assertion of hope, because otherwise we wouldn’t be doing those things, or we’d be doing them very poorly, or we’d be doing them and bitching and moaning about it the whole time too… which you see… but I would suggest the acknowledging that we are taking a stance with our teaching practices, whether we realize it or not. And I think it’s a lot more useful to realize that, to acknowledge it, to own it, and to be proud of the stance that we’re taking.

John: We’ve all seen those faculty who are often posting on Twitter, who are often posting comments on Facebook dealing with students, but they’re still in the classroom, and they’re still trying to make a difference, even if they don’t always display that hope. I think most of us have that hope. But one of the things you talk about in your book in the chapter on “Classrooms of Death” is the inspiration you found from the work of a 19th century Danish philosopher. Could you tell us a little bit about his critique of the educational system in Europe during that time?

Kevin: Sure. It’s Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig who I had no idea about, even as a historian of the 19th century, until I started working here at Grand View, which was founded by Danish Lutherans and we are the sole remaining Danish Lutheran college in the country, so there’s your niche higher ed market for the day. [LAUGHTER] It’s interesting that ethics suffuses a lot of the identity, I think, here in terms of access, in terms of looking at things democratically and what Grundtvig basically argued is he looked at the classical model of elite centered higher education in 19th century Europe that was built along the lines that we see in places like Harvard in the United States, so it was sort of a finishing school for the gentlemen of society, where you would learn things like Latin, and rhetoric and ranks would be assigned and all those sorts of things. And so that’s what Grundtvig called, in his sort of characteristically blunt way, Schools of Death. So I adopted the title from that for the chapter, even though it’s perhaps the most heavy metal chapter title ever, which I’m proud of. [LAUGHTER] It was like “You wrote a book on hope, but chapter one is called Classrooms of Death,” and I was like, “Well read the chapter, you’ll understand.” And so what Grundtvig does is he posits what he calls a life affirming vision of education, which is what we now know as the Danish folk school model, and it’s a mind-body-spirit model, it’s holistic, but what it really does is Grundtvig sees education as something that should enliven and awaken, as opposed to just sort of stultify and further ossify structures, in particular sort of this elite structure that was already in place. So that really appeals to me, and I think that if we’re looking for an ethic to think about our own institutions and the purpose of higher ed, we could do a lot worse than that.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting when you’re talking about the idea of awakening students or awakening the community of learning, that a lot of faculty talk about trying to be neutral in the way they deliver content.

Kevin: So I’m trained as a historian, right? And so we, in our field, talk about this a lot. We have to be objective. Well, what is objectivity? That’s not a neutral term. In fact, Thomas Haskell, a social and cultural historian who wrote a great book called Objectivity is Not Neutrality that gets at this concept too, but this idea that there’s some sort of objective set of things out there, and if I present them objectively enough that all of my students will learn them thoroughly. Again, every choice we make, whether we realize we’re making it or not, is still a choice. And in that sense, education is eminently political, and if we try to ignore that and disregard it, we actually, I think, do more damage to it because then we make unthinking decisions. We don’t think about, necessarily, the consequences of the long-term effects of the decisions that we make. I think it’s much better to sort of acknowledge that, yes, we are on eminently political terrain, it is shaped by politics and identity and difference, and our students are not coming to us from a vacuum. They are coming to us from structures of inequality from a larger society, where all of these things are embedded. So we can’t pretend that our classrooms, whether they’re fully on ground or online, or whatever learning space it is, we can’t pretend that they’re somehow hermetically sealed from the rest of our students’ experiences. I don’t think it serves any of us well, them or us.

Rebecca: Wait, do you think we’re all people then and have emotions? [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Yeah, I know that sounds like a radical concept, but one of the phrases that I heard of originally from Jelani Cobb was this idea that we are full and complicated human beings, and I just love the way that that’s phrased, full and complicated. It’s messy. We are complicated people. We are the products of an intersection of a kaleidoscope of experiences and identities, and that shapes the way we teach, that shapes the way that students learn, that shapes the spaces that we’re in, and I think we miss a real opportunity if we choose to not think about that as we create learning spaces and practice within them.

John: So when faculty try to be neutral and try to present content to students, what are they missing in terms of dealing with the actual students in the room rather than the ones they imagine to be in the room?

Rebecca: Or perhaps themselves. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Right.

John: …which are usually little clones of their own past.

Kevin: One of the things that I tell colleagues a lot is, and I struggled with this earlier in my career, is when I was a young history major undergrad, I loved my history classes. I was in front, I was taking notes, I thought the lectures were witty and erudite, but now I am teaching classes with all of those students who were sitting behind me in those undergraduate classes who felt a little differently. So how am I teaching those students, they are not learning history, and they are not connecting necessarily in the same ways that resonated with my experience. And so in thinking about that, we know that students learn better and that learning is more effective and meaningful when there is that connection, there is that relevance to the student experience. And so we want students to be motivated, and a big part of that is avoiding demotivation, and I know that sounds like an obvious point, but there are things that can happen that will immediately turn off that switch for students. So I’ll give you one example of a way that the sort of aspect of neutrality could actually really damage the learning experience. At my institution, recently, a student came to me, an African-American male student, one of two African-American men in the class, 27 people in the class total, so the rest of the students were white. We are in Iowa, which you may have heard is a white state predominantly, and a discussion about the Confederate flag came up. And actually there’s a house about two blocks from our campus that flies the Confederate flag on a 20-foot tall metal flagpole in the front yard. So it’s something that our students see and notice, and this discussion came up and it turned into, very quickly, some white students say, “Well, it’s just a symbol of history. It’s a symbol of heritage. Basically, you can separate it from the defense of slavery, why don’t people get over that?” And these two Black students in the class were like, “Y’all really need to understand that this means something different to us,” and the instructor, in that case, completely unplugged, disengaged, let the students argue it out for themselves, and I think what that thought process was is, “Well, here is the marketplace of ideas. We’ll throw all the ideas out there and the best one will win.” And what it turned into was here are two Black students at a predominantly white institution being forced to basically argue for their basic humanity in a class of 25 white students and do that work by themselves. And so while the idea may have been that the instructor is not going to be an arbiter or shift things one way or the other, what you really have in that situation was something extraordinarily damaging, so when the student came to see me right after that class, they were in a place that it pains me that any student enrolled in one of our colleges or universities would be at the emotional place where that student was after that class.

Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting example, I had a situation one time when I was teaching, I teach art and design classes, and I had a critique class for graduate students with an international student that was using the Confederate flag as a symbol, but really didn’t understand the history. I pushed against that, “You really need to understand the history of the symbol and what it means and there’s a lot of different interpretations,” and the white students in the class just like “Ah, free speech, free speech.”

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: So I think it’s worth addressing that part of those kinds of conversations too, when a faculty member is trying to facilitate something and point out different identities and different perspectives, pushing against the dominant messaging that’s happening in the room when people are piling on, and that’s, I think, exactly why faculty try to move to the neutral zone, right, like, I don’t want to be here.

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: It’s certainly not comfortable.

Kevin: Yeah, it’s very much an avoidance mechanism. In conversations like that, I think it’s a natural reaction. If an off- ramp appears, I’m going to take it, but that’s not our job. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, boy, did I want to disappear. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Yeah, and I get it, as a historian, again, of the Civil War Era. I’ve been in the class where the one white student will say, “Well, why don’t Black people just get over slavery, it was 150 years ago for crying out loud,” and then feeling all the oxygen immediately sucked out of the room as we all look at this sort of figurative hand grenade that’s been rolled into the middle of the class. At that point, I was certainly reconsidering my choice of locations for the day. But I think it’s a really important thing for, in particular, our white students to learn that free speech doesn’t mean that basic humanity, dignity, and civil rights are open to debate, right, just as I would not hire a flat earther to teach a geography class. There are certain things that are not part of that discourse, because an idea that there is, for example, biologically distinct categories of race, of which some are inferior and some are superior, that’s not true. And so I’m not bringing a flat earther to teach geography and I’m not going to re-litigate racist pseudoscience in a history classroom, and I think that we have to get over this idea that if I retreat into some sort of clinical objectivity, that that’s going to fix everything, because it doesn’t, and our students see that. We say that we want our classrooms to include all our students, for all of our students to feel like they belong. We want our students to take risks. We want our students to not be afraid to fail, that if we haven’t created a space where every student genuinely feels that we mean what we say with that, then that’s a real problem.

Rebecca: I think it also means that we need to be willing to do all the things that we ask our students to do, too.

Kevin: Yeah, what a radical concept.

Rebecca: I know, there’s so much radicalness happening in this conversation.

Kevin: Very on brand, yes.

Rebecca: I think many faculty try not to take risks because you don’t want a mutiny in your class, it takes a little bit of bravery to do that, but I think if we’re not modeling that, and modeling failure, and modeling the ability to learn from that failure, then I don’t know how we can possibly ask our students to take those same risks.

Kevin: Yeah, especially if they see us actively avoiding taking those risks. I think students have a pretty finely calibrated BS detector, and so if we say that our values are one thing, and then when we have the chance to put those into action, and we decline to take that opportunity, that gets noticed. You’re absolutely right, that I can’t ask my students to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself in the classroom. And so what are some of the ways that we could model that effectively for our students, and of course, that’s going to look different. As a tenured white male professor, that’s going to look different for me to model failure than it would be foran early career faculty of color, for example, but I think that there are ways that we could do that in ways that are appropriate for our own context and for our individual class and student contexts, where we could model that yes, not everything goes perfectly the first time, learning is messy, learning is complicated. We’re going to struggle with some things, we’re going to problematize students’ prior assumptions that we have to create a sort of net underneath that when they feel that precarity for the first time, so it’s a structured discomfort rather than a throw ‘em to the wolves kind of discomfort. That’s really important, I think.

John: One of the things you suggest is that faculty should work to building equity rather than equality into their instruction. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Absolutely. Yeah, so equity and equality are related concepts, but they’re not complete synonyms. And I think sometimes we get so focused on the equality part in terms of “I am going to be fair, so here are the expectations that I have of all of my students and here’s my attendance policy for all of my students,” and etc, etc and I don’t think that we’re flexible enough if we stick to that approach. What equity means is that every student has an equal opportunity. An equitable space is one where students can learn and succeed, and I will help them connect to or provide the resources with which they can do so, and of course that’s going to look different for students depending upon their prior academic experience, depending on their experience with the subject, all those sorts of variables that go in, and we don’t treat students equally now anyway, even if we say we do. Some students come to office hours and some don’t. Some students we work a little bit harder with outside of class and some we don’t, depending upon needs. We try to engineer discussions all the time. If there’s that one student who’s always raising their hand, sometimes we look somewhere else first. So we do this sort of engineering already. I think what’s useful is to acknowledge the fact that equity involves us thinking in a lot more nuanced and flexible way than just laying down a consistent policy in the name of fairness and then handcuffing ourselves to that.

John: And students come in with really diverse needs, but you suggest as part of this work towards equity, we have to be careful to avoid a deficit model. Could you talk a little bit about that and why that could be damaging?

Kevin: Yeah, so this is one of the things that I personally struggle with the most, I work with at risk students here at my institution, I teach some college success courses and some credit recovery courses, and even the label “at-risk,” like all of a sudden, what I am now doing is I’m categorizing students in terms of something they’re missing, and so when we work with students and think about things like developmental level courses, for example, what we’ve done is we tell the story really well of what our students can’t do. They can’t read, they can’t write, they can’t… And it’s very easy to sort of tell ourselves the story of “Well, this is how they are and this is the hand I’ve been dealt.” We don’t really talk all the time about what our students can do, even the ones that we would say are academically unprepared or that come from under resourced school districts. What are the strengths that they bring to class? Some of our students have had to navigate really difficult academic terrain, and now they’re in our classrooms. That ability to navigate difficult terrain is a real asset. So how can we make use of that instead of talking about whether all of their writing is grammatically and mechanically correct, but I really struggled because it is very easy to type. We want to help students, some students are going to need more assistance than others, how do I not see those students solely through the lens of what they’re lacking? Social workers would call this a strengths-based approach. I have colleagues in our social work department who really helped me think of this in some interesting and, I think, productive ways. So thinking about in terms like that, because if you think about it pervades a lot of our discours as faculty. Don’t we always say like, “Oh, today’s students can’t do this, like the previous, you know….” And we’ve been doing this for every generation of students, like “They’re always on their smartphones, so they can’t read a book, they don’t have the attention.” So it’s very easy for us to fall into these narratives. We’ve already told ourselves a story about our students before we’ve even actually worked with them.

John: You tell a really interesting story, a really moving story, about a student who stopped showing up for class after starting in class doing really well. Could you share that?

Kevin: Yeah, it’s one of the more obviously memorable things that’s happened. This was actually very early in my teaching career while I was doing my doctorate. I did my PhD at South Carolina, but I was living in Texas at the time, and I was a lecturer, an adjunct faculty member at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. So this is just a couple of years into teaching anything more than just one class a semester, and so I’ve tried to find my way and figure all this out and I’m teaching this survey course, it’s got about 45 students in it, and again, yeah, there’s a student who’s a little bit older, her friends were taking it together, the kind of mid 20s working students, but were taking classes to finish up a degree, started out really strongly and then just kind of disappeared and missed the first exam, didn’t come back for another week, and then it was two weeks, and so I’m asking her friend, like, “Where is so and so, she’s really in danger of failing the class, I need to connect with her so we can talk about what she could do to catch up.” And her friend was very vague, said “Well, she’s been going through some stuff, but she’s going to call you, she’s going to email you.” And that didn’t happen again for another little bit, and so I at that point, I just said, “Well, you know, so she’s gonna fail the class,” that narrative that goes through my head, like “I’ve given her all these chances, and she hasn’t taken me up on any of these opportunities, and hey, you know, that’s on her. Sometimes decisions have consequences.” And so I’ve told myself the story, that she’s just sort of blowing off the class and blowing me off and making these poor choices. Well early the next week, she does come to my office before class. And as I talk about in the book, I remember the scene so vividly because she looked awful, not just sick, but just, like, awful. And what she told me was that she’s coming off a heroin addiction, and she goes to the methadone clinic and the only times the clinic is open are the same mornings that we have this class, and sometimes she comes out of the clinic and feels so physically awful that she literally cannot come to campus or class. And so at that point, I’m sitting there and as soon as she started talking, I knew like, “Okay, my assumptions are about to be proven completely incorrect, right?” And then the story, I didn’t know what to say at first, and I was just kind of stunned. What happened was, we did have a conversation about “Okay, what could work for you? How could we work around this if you want to stay in the class,” and she was in a program that had very tight sequencing, so this class this semester was really important. So we came up with some ways that she could make up the work but also continue on so she didn’t fall further behind. We did a little supplemental instruction and she got a “B” in the class. She stayed in school, she ended up graduating, I think, a year and a half or so later. And what that really taught me was, again, this power of narratives, because we’ve all had students who kind of ghost us. It’s really frustrating, and then we start thinking about “These students have made really poor choices, and they can’t do this. Maybe college isn’t for them right now.” But here I have, you know, a student coming off a heroin addiction, which I have not done that personally, but I understand is really, really difficult physically, mentally, emotionally. I have some experience in other areas of substance abuse, but not that and needs the opportunity. And if I had shut down before she had the chance to visit, what would have happened at that point, like if I just said no, and that this was a required core class for her curriculum, what path happens after that, so who am I to say no, you have to stop when you are willing to make the effort. This whole myth of the entitled student, well here was a student that was literally at the lowest point in her life, probably, still trying to do this thing academically, and to me that was amazing. So who am I to not provide that opportunity and resources and that process that semester was an eye opener for me then, but I think really has shaped the way that I approach those sorts of “life happens” kind of moments with students ever since.

John: But you already created an environment where she felt comfortable talking to you. Not all faculty would have done that.

Kevin: Yeah, and I don’t know exactly what I did to do that, but I’m very mindful of trying to do that now for exactly that reason.

Rebecca: I think we all have students who have, not that narrative, but narratives that are powerful like that, that demonstrate they were making really good life choices, actually, at the moment, even though we were judging and thinking that perhaps they weren’t great life choices.

Kevin: Yeah, exactly. The proper choice for that student at that point was not to make History 1321 her first priority, so, yeah.

Rebecca: That was a good choice.

Kevin: Exactly.

Rebecca: I’m really involved in accessibility and universal design for learning and spaces like that and inclusive pedagogy. And we’ve been really, as a team on campus, been thinking about ways to set up our classes so that it actually predicts that those kinds of things will happen, that we are setting our classes up from the start to accommodate those students.

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely.

Rebecca: And make them successful. Can you offer some tips about strategies that we can use, just so our classes are structured from the beginning without having to make exceptions, that it’s actually just open in that way?

Kevin: Yeah, it’s this idea of universal design for learning, that some of the things that we do think of them in terms of accommodations for a student with a documented disability. In this West Virginia series that I’m in, Tom Tobin and Kirsten Behling’s book, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone, is a fantastic overview of this idea of universal design. I think the best place to get started, and the way that I’ve really been able to think about this, is looking at the accommodations requests that we’ve gotten from a disability service office and the student brings in the form and “I need time and a half on an exam.” The first question to ask is, “Would this be an accommodation that would benefit learning for everybody, not just this particular student?” And so we get beyond this idea of one accommodation for one student at one time, and then we start thinking about, as you say, “How can I create a space that minimizes the need for those accommodations?” Because it’s already baked into the cake. In my experience, an accommodation request for time and a half on an exam got me thinking about “Why am I offering exams? Why do I have them as time limits? What am I really trying to assess here? And how might that shape the format of my exams?” And so now my exams are take-home, and there’s a different set of criteria and a process that we use, and they’re still summative assessments, but now, no one needs to make an accommodation request for time and a half or a different classroom. And so that’s, I think, one sort of practical example that people can use is when you get a request, ask yourself, “Is this something that would work for everybody?” And most likely, the answer will be yes, and then it’s “Okay, how do I operationalize that?”

Rebecca: I was talking to a group of faculty too about big groups of students being absent with the flu or COVID-19, or whatever it might be at anytime, and also just making it so that if a student has to miss a class because we don’t want them in our class if they’re sick, I don’t want to get sick. Everyone else in the room doesn’t want to get sick, how can we make sure that they can get that content or that experience in a different way?

Kevin: Exactly. So one of the other requests for accommodations that I would get a lot was students who wanted to record lectures, or discussions, or whatever happened to be going on in class. And of course, my thought was, “Well, this might be something that benefits everybody.” So when we do that we put it on our LMS, we have the audio file, you can stream it. And in my city, we don’t do public transit really well, it takes you an hour and a half to get anywhere on the bus, and so if you’re riding the bus from across town, maybe you want to listen to what you missed in class. We have a lot of student athletes who travel, well here’s a way to catch up on actually what happened in class rather than just a recap of it. So we’ve got tools at our disposal and some practices that we’re already doing individually. A lot of this is just thinking about how might we scale that out to work best for all of our students.

John: I’ve recorded nearly all of my classes for about five or six years now, and one of the things that surprised me was how students who had English as a second language would play back things multiple times and also slow down the pace so that they were more comfortable, until they get up to speed so that they got used to the technical terms in the class, and that was something I hadn’t really considered when I started doing that.

Kevin: Yeah, that’s a great point. Yeah.

John: You talk in your book a little bit about creating an inclusive environment in the classroom. Could you talk a little bit about what general strategies faculty should focus on to start towards a more inclusive environment?

Kevin: Well, I think it starts with this idea of universal design. How are we making learning the most accessible for all of our students even before we’ve met them, right? So what learning spaces are we creating? And again, back to this larger idea of thinking about the choices that we’re making. So at my institution, when I started here at Grand View in 2004, our student body was something like 92% white. Now we are 65% white, so in terms of race and ethnicity, my campus is diversified in its student body extraordinarily. And so how am I thinking about that when I’m choosing course materials, when I’m framing assignments, so sometimes it’s simply, “Who are the authors of my textbooks? What do they look like? Where do they come from? What’s their story?” Students who are taking my course, if I tell them that “When you take a history course you are a historian, right? We are involved in doing history. You can create knowledge in this field.” If I’m telling students that they can be knowledge creators in my field, do they see examples of people like them who are knowledge creators in the field? Because otherwise, my words don’t rain quite as true. So creating inclusive spaces in many ways a product of design, and then how do we put that design into practice? So being mindful, we know from the research that male students get called on in discussions much more than female students, male students interrupt more. So how am I framing? How am I having a conversation with students about expectations for when we’re working together in discussion in that seminar setting? How do we think about what people need in the classroom in terms of supportive materials, whether it’s recording or whether taking notes in a certain medium or not? How’s that going to work best for everybody? I think inviting students into that process early on, having them be collaborators and co-creating some elements of the learning space in a way that it’s not just the class discussion, but maybe have them do some writing and reflection about what has worked for them in terms of their learning in their academic career, and what are the things that have gotten in the way of their learning, and then looking through those results, and then coming back and debriefing the class the next time, like, “Here’s what you all told me, here are some of the things that I heard a lot, here are some of the things that maybe we should put on our radar screens for this discussion and then go from there.” So paying attention to the space we’re creating, whether it’s an on ground or an online course, the decisions we’re making about what’s going to furnish that space in terms of course materials, and then bringing student voices in and setting that idea of collaboration and all of our responsibility for making sure that that learning space is inclusive throughout the duration of the course.

Rebecca: When you’re talking about collaboration, I know you’re not just talking about students collaborating with each other, but also students collaborating with the faculty and thinking about the group as allies rather than adversaries. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Yeah. So that’s my mantra, that so often we see students as adversaries, and they should be seen as our allies. And I think a lot of that is it is difficult to be a practitioner in higher ed right now, and especially if you’re a precariously employed faculty member and you’re teaching at three different campuses, and it’s eight courses and you’re stressed through the roof, who do you see the most? Your students. So for us, a lot of times students become the target of convenience, or the free floating stress and anxiety that we have rests there first, because that’s the easiest landing spot. I think it’s really easy for us to get into that place, and I think we need to be super mindful not to do so because the students are the ones that are in these spaces with us. So thinking about “What are the stories that we’re telling ourselves about students? What are the stories that students have been told about themselves?” So we know math anxiety is a thing. So many of our students have been told “You can’t do math,” that total fixed mindset, and that does a lot of damage, in my colleagues in the math and computer science department here, is true across the country. You know, that’s a big problem in terms of a barrier to learning. I think one of the most powerful ways to address it is to get students to see themselves as active participants in creating their knowledge. So how can we do things where we collaborate with them maybe to create course expectations or how are discussions going to work? How are we going to work if it’s an online class? What are the expectations we’re going to hold each other to in these interactions? Thinking about maybe assignment choice, I’ve got particular learning outcomes, can I let the students fashion a way in which they’ll demonstrate those outcomes? Maybe it doesn’t have to be a traditional research paper, it could be a number of other things. I talk in the book about un-essays, which I think is a really interesting and fun concept and has being used really well in history, for example. Students collaborating means students taking ownership of their learning as well, and that’s what we all say we want, so I think we need to be able to create spaces for our students to do that. Now, it’ll look different in a larger survey-level class than it might an upper=level seminar, but I think there’s the space to do that no matter what the class context, and I think it’s a really important thing to have student voices help shape the environment in which after all, they’re going to be learning in.

Rebecca: As a designer, a topic that comes up often is designing for people without including them.

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: So we want to design with, and not for, and so…

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: …you’re essentially describing that exact process, where you’re inviting students in to help design the experience..

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …rather than just designing it for them by making a lot of assumptions about them.

Kevin: Yeah, and sometimes I use the metaphor of a house. But if we take a learning space, of course, I’ve built this house, do I have to furnish it and put in the carpets and paint the walls and do all that before anybody else comes in, or is that a process we can all do together? And maybe we decide we want to knock out a wall and add on something. Are there ways that we could do that? Because again, if this is the structure, in which we’re all going to be occupying throughout the duration of the course, is it a structure that works for everybody, that promotes rather than puts barriers in front of learning?

John: One of the things you talk about in terms of this collaborative approach is how to deal with issues such as distractions in the classroom from laptops and mobile devices. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Yeah, the great laptop debates. As I’m sure everybody’s aware, this has been something that sort of lights social media on fire among educators about every six months or so. And my position is, as I titled a post on it, “Let’s Ban the Technology Ban.” Again, back to this idea of you know, are we handcuffing ourselves to overly rigid policies that aren’t going to work for all of our students? I don’t have a “no-laptop, no-cell phone” policy. That said, if a student is on doing their fantasy baseball team, that’s a problem. I invite students to collaborate when we set up class expectations, like “What’s going to help you learn? What do we want to hold each other accountable for in this class?” And it’s funny, because I’ll ask if they don’t bring it up, like “Okay, what about cell phones and laptops?” A lot of them share prior experiences like, “Oh, I didn’t know we were allowed to have those in class.” So it’s like, well, we have this thing called the internet, which could be a really useful resource at times, so why would we cut ourselves off from it, but then I show a quick summary of some of the research that talks about how technology use that’s not on task actually distracts people around that individual student just as much as it does the original student, and that reframes the conversation completely. Because now it’s not this “Well if I want to check out and go on ESPN or whatever, that’s a choice I make and I’ll suffer the consequences.” It’s “No, now you’re stealing time from classmates around you who didn’t get to make that choice,” and so if we’re going to be accountable to one another, what does that do in terms of thinking about about what we’re going to do and not do and what kind of environment are we going to create? The conversation that comes out of that is really interesting. So it’s this idea of laptops and phones, but not doing off-task stuff when we’re supposed to be doing on- n task stuff, and respecting other people’s attention. Because when you have conversations like this, and you ask students, “What are the things that we want to do to create this space?” The first thing that comes to their mind is respect. Well, what does that mean? So a part of this is we’re not going to steal somebody else’s time and attention, the resources that they have to bear for learning. So then when, and it’s not if but when, somebody’s doing their fantasy baseball team, I don’t have to be the cop. I’m not the bad guy. I just remind them of something that we all committed to earlier in the semester. And so it takes a lot of the kind of drama and distraction out of those reminders, and it becomes a nudge rather than cell phone cop and I’m much more comfortable with that because then it doesn’t create this sort of dramatic power imbalance in a classroom where we’re trying to flatten things out.

John: And you also say it could be used by the instructor, I believe, as a signal of when students are losing focus. When you have an activity that may not be so engaging, if you notice many of your students are distracted, something’s not working.

Kevin: Exactly, right? So you hear people complain, like “All of my students are on Facebook during class.” My first response, it sounds snarky, but it was like, “Doesn’t that sound like a you problem? Why are they all on Facebook?” It’s not that we need to be up there, one man or one woman entertainment, but it’s like, if I look out and see all of that, the first question I’m gonna ask is, “Alright, what’s the common denominator in all of this?” And then, “Where are we going to go to fix it?”

Rebecca: And it’s funny, a lot of times, especially if you’re doing group work or something, it’s because the students need a little more structure. They’re not sure what to do nex. Often, they might need just a little more instruction, because maybe they’ve never done a task before, or they’re intimidated by it, or they’re not really sure where to start, or they’re stuck and they don’t know how to move forward.

Kevin: Yeah, I totally agree. I think group work gets such a bad rap because it so often sucks, but I think a lot of that is due to the fact that we sort of assume that students know how to do group work, and I’ve been on enough faculty committees to know that not a lot of us know how to do effective group work, much less our students. So what kind of structure are we providing? I’m a big fan of Mary-Ann Winkelmes and the TILT framework, the Transparency in Learning and Teaching that asks us to be really explicit about not just the goals, but the actual tangible steps that need to be done, and then, what does excellence look like in this task? How are you going to know if you’re doing this right? And that’s really reshaped my approach to group work in terms of providing that next step. Once you do this, here are some of the things to think about, once you answer this question, here are some of the ways that you might think about representing the knowledge or reporting this back out to the class, because otherwise, “Let’s get into groups. Let’s work on this.” Well what does that mean, right? And so after a few minutes, you’ll start to see that drift. So in this case, I think structure and not handcuffing people to anything, but providing steps and options and some sort of direction for students to take their efforts is, I think, really useful.

John: And building in these expectations, one of the places where we all should start with our course is the syllabus, and you have a chapter on “Building a Syllabus Worth Reading.” Could you talk a little bit about some of the key things to put in a syllabus to make it worth reading?

Kevin: I am a syllabus dork, syllabi fascinate me. I love to look at what people are doing, how they’re thinking about and conceiving of their class, their field. I mean, I’ve sought counseling for it, but yeah, I am an unabashed syllabus dork and I think a lot about syllabi. And we certainly all had our share, in our own academic career, of syllabi that we got and just sort of disappeared into the ether. It was something that I would never use for the rest of the semester. So I think we’d lose an opportunity when we approach the syllabus. The common metaphor is that the syllabus is a contract, and there’s this urban legend that there are actually court cases and judicial precedent that has defined it as such, and that’s not true. That’s not true at all. The syllabus has never been interpreted legally as the same way that one would interpret a business contract, for example. I think if we approach syllabi as, in many ways, this might be the first at least formal interaction the student has with us or our course. So what’s that first impression going to be like? Is it going to be like reading the rider to an insurance contract for my car, or is it going to be an invitation? Ken Bain talks a lot about the promising syllabus, which I think is a really useful way to think about it, because with any course we’re promising our students something, “You will be different as a result of this course. When you get to point B, you’re going to look back at point A, and say I am different in these ways.” So my syllabus should be able to answer the question, “Well, how am I going to be different? What’s that going to look like, and how am I going to get there?” And there are a number of ways to do that, where you can actually say things in interesting ways as opposed to legalese, it’s okay to use first person rather than the “instructor will” and the “students will” it’s “I will” and “y’all will” or “you will” if you don’t want to as colloquial as “y’all,” it’s okay to put in some pictures. It’s okay to think about design a little bit. It’s okay to have it to be just visually appealing. One of the things we really struggle with is of course, institutional bloat in terms of policies, right? …like, “Here are six pages of stuff that you got to put into your syllabus.” Well, are there ways you can offload that? Put it in your LMS and then put a link in the syllabus. “Hey, there’s other stuff that you should read too. Here it is, but I’m not putting six pages of “Thou shalt not” in a syllabus that’s supposed to promise you what the great parts about this learning experience would be.” What is our syllabus saying to our students? What are we telling them? The syllabus tells our students, “Here’s what I think about you, and here’s what I think about this class.” And so if we have two pages about what academic dishonesty is, and what plagiarism is, and what horrible fate will await you if you do it, heaven forbid if you do it again, what I’m telling my students, right there is, I am spending so much time on this because I expect you to cheat. Is that what I really want to tell my students? In my case, the answer is no, and so, there are other ways to get at that sort of academic integrity thing talking about collaborative expectations and accountability, and we’ll talk about this together, why these things are important, and then I’m not giving them a litany of things, “Do this and you will have X consequences,” and the syllabus should provide what the students need. “How am I going to know if I’m doing well in this class? What’s important to you in this class? What’s important to the instructor, and when am I going to be expected to do things?” I mean, we ought to have a calendar in there and it ought to be pretty clear. We ask our students to plan ahead for a whole semester, we should too, even if things change, and we should note that like, “Hey, things will probably change, but here’s how I’m going to communicate that if they do.” …so taking the steps and paying attention to those details, so our students know I have put thought and care into this initial go at a learning space for us.

Rebecca: We’ve been talking a lot about what to have in the syllabi, but if students’ expectations have been that it’s just a disposable document, because that’s what their experience has been in the past, how do we convince them that the one that we’ve created, that we’ve taken so much care to set the tone for, is worth the effort to engage with?

Kevin: That’s a great question. The first answer to that is, what is the first impression of this? Is it a visually compelling document to look at? And again, that doesn’t mean we all have to be graphic designers, but is this a photocopy of a photocopy? Am I just copying and pasting it from last semester and I forgot to change a couple of the dates? Students will put as much effort into the syllabus as I put into the syllabus. There are some tips and tricks, you can hide easter eggs in there. “Hey, if you’re reading this section, send me an email with a picture of a dinosaur,” or something like that. Some people do syllabus quizzes. An interesting thing that I have some colleagues who do is the first day of class, they divide students up into a group and each of them tackles a part of the syllabus and comes up with if there’s any further questions from having gone through that section. And so it’s sort of a way to assess as well as having students in the syllabus. And it’s also something that should live throughout the semester, we should be referring to it frequently. There should be links to materials in there, are there other course materials that we might embed in the syllabus? Is it a place where, if students lose a paper copy, that they can go into the LMS and get a copy of it, for example. Having a calendar, a good course calendar in there, keeps them reiterating back into it as well. And I think too, again, the first day of class is a real opportunity. We have a tradition here, the students call it syllabus day, where “I come to class, the instructor hands out the syllabus, we’re out after 10 minutes.” And so I had a student come in once, like, “Are you gonna keep us the whole class?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, that’s kind of the plan,” and the look of disappointment on their faces. [LAUGHTER]

John: I get that all the time.

Rebecca: Yeah, me too.

Kevin: What have we conditioned them to do?

John: I wouldn’t want to cheat you out of this discussion, this is where we’re inviting you to this class, yeah.

Kevin: Right, exactly, and it’s such an opportunity, and so a way to squander that opportunity is to read the syllabus for 20 minutes for the first part of that class. So how are we using the first day of class to pique interest in the course, and maybe looking at the syllabus doesn’t come until the second day, or later in the first day, like “I want to highlight a couple of things, and then next session, we’re going to talk about these couple of things, so be ready for that.” If we treat it as sort of a routine, “Okay, here’s a syllabus,” then they’re going to treat it that way, too.

John: We should note that you have some wonderful examples of syllabi on your blog, and we’ll share a link to those in the show notes.

Kevin: Oh, thank you.

John: We should also note that you’re wearing a T-shirt that says “Decolonize your Syllabus.”

Kevin: That’s right, yes. Today, and that is courtesy of Yvette DeChavez who directs a writing center at a university in Austin, Texas, and I bought it off her website and I can send you the link if you want to include it in show notes. She does a lot of great work, she was the one who introduced me to this concept of decolonize your syllabus and again, thinking about the choices we make, and what those say to students, I find it really important and fascinating work. And it’s a great t-shirt too, so everybody wins.

John: So we always end with a question, what are you doing next? [LAUGHTER] What’s the next blog post that’ll evolve into a book?

Kevin: I need to update the blog, so that’s a good nudge in that direction. Actually, my current book project is I’m working on a textbook for the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction Era, and the textbook was conceived as “I really don’t like any of the textbooks in the field, so I’m going to write my own, dammit,” and it took me about 10 years to get to that point. So it’s actually going to be a textbook framed through a continental history approach, which in the Civil War is often missing, and it’s going to be framed through settler colonial theory. And one of the things I’m doing with it, that so far the editor is okay with, is putting all the cards on the table up front. A lot of textbooks are based in a theoretical approach. Very few of them will tell you about it, I’m going to tell you about it right here. So, inviting the students in to those choices right away and talking about “Well, what is settler colonial theory? How does it provide a really powerful explanatory lens for what we’re going to be looking at?” and sort of demystifying that process. I’m excited, and I think it’ll be a little bit of a different textbook, it’ll certainly approach the period differently, if it turns out the way that I hope, maybe it’ll start some interesting conversations and help instructors who, like me, were frustrated with some of the extant stuff out there for teaching a course that’s offered across most colleges and universities.

Rebecca: Sounds like an exciting adventure, but the writing process is never done. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Right? What’s the old joke? I like writing, but even more I like having written. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, it’s always so much easier in retrospect.

Kevin: Right? I do want to make sure that I really take the time to enjoy this book being out and the conversations that are surrounding it. I’m fortunate to have been invited to several places to talk about things in the book, to explore a lot of these things differently. I love going to other campuses and doing that. So, that’s the immediate next steps, are to continue the conversations that hopefully the book has started and see how they resonate with various people in different institutional contexts. I’m really excited for that.

John: I really enjoyed reading this. I read the PDF version because my print copy is not coming until later today.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a really fun conversation.

Kevin: Thanks, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for having me with you, I 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. Editing assistance provided by Savannah Norton.

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128. Cultural Acclimation

International students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities often face a multitude of challenges related to cultural differences and language barriers. These challenges can have an adverse impact on their academic performance during their adjustment process. In this episode, Don Donelsen joins us to discuss how the graduate business program at the University of Miami is working to ease this transition.

Don is a lecturer in the Miami Herbert Business School at the University of Miami. He is a recipient of a Spring 2016 University of Miami Excellence in Teaching Award.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: International students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities often face a multitude of challenges related to cultural differences and language barriers. These challenges can have an adverse impact on their academic performance during their adjustment process. In this episode, we discuss how one graduate program is working to ease this transition.

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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, 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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Fiona: My name is Fiona Coll. I teach in the Department of English and Creative Writing here at SUNY Oswego and this is my turn to sit in as a guest host.

John: We should note that this podcast was recorded in the third week of February 2020. Many of the plans that are discussed here have been altered as a result of the nationwide shutdown of institutions of higher education since the onset of the global pandemic.

Our guest today is Don Donelson. Don is a lecturer in the Miami Herbert Business School at the University of Miami. He is a recipient of a Spring 2016 University of Miami Excellence in Teaching Award. Welcome, Don.

Don: Hi. Glad to be on.

Fiona: Today’s teas are… sweet cinnamon spice.

John: Are you drinking tea?

Don: I’m not drinking tea, but I do actually have a gift from a former student.

Fiona: Oh.

Don: I was told it was Chinese tea, but then other Chinese students said this is not Chinese.

Fiona: [LAUGHTER] Well, you can say we’re drinking tea and you’re looking at tea. I guess that counts.

Don: I am looking at Green tea.

John: And I am drinking a ginger tea. We’ve invited you here to discuss a program that you have proposed and are working on at your institution to help students from China adjust to cultural differences in how classes in the U.S. are taught. What prompted your interest in this issue?

Don: We’ve had a large influx of Chinese students at the University. That’s probably the main impetus on what prompted this. I asked our institutional people for some data, and just in the graduate business program, we had our Chinese population double just in the last year. So we’re up to about 400 and something in the graduate business program, and undergrads, we have about 1500. And we’re not a large school, that’s about 15% or so of the entire population. So I’ve seen noticeable increases in Chinese students in classrooms, especially in the STEM specialized master’s programs, which they’re very attracted to, for some visa reasons, and perhaps other reasons. And so I actually had a section, there were 16 students, 15 of whom were from China, not by design, just this is how many Chinese students we have and sometimes that’s how it worked out. And I started noticing some differences in how the Chinese students were interacting in that class when they were mostly surrounded by their peers from China than the Chinese students who in the past there was one or two Chinese students in a section of 19 or 20, but now there’s four or five. This semester, actually, I have more than half in every single section from China. And so I started noticing that in that one section, it was all Chinese students except for one from South America, the interactions were a bit different. And then discussions with colleagues, how to improve teaching… The courses that I teach are classes on critical thinking, and problem solving and communication. And so the class participation is an enormous component of the class, we teach critical thinking by forcing people to do critical thinking. And so the trope, I guess you might say, not just the Chinese students, but a lot of international students in general, is that their language barriers are most pronounced in a class like that, and they participate less in class discussion, and they have difficulties with communication. Most of them, in my experience, have been difficulties that only they perceive, difficulties that aren’t actually barriers. But all of those issues I found true with the Chinese students but amplified to a much greater degree, and that’s the general consensus among colleagues. And so, as the numbers started to grow, we actually created a course, a different numbered course from the core course that I teach in the graduate program, exclusively for non-native English speakers, because putting them on the same curve is really problematic to their grades when there’s a heavy written component. But at the same time, we have academic standards that matter, I can’t just give them a separate session, so we created a separate course. And so it’s different numbered, and it’s essentially the same course title except for non-native English speakers. And so as I had the accidental almost all Chinese student class last semester, I said, “Hey, I should probably take advantage of this opportunity to test run in the spring semester,” which is now, when I’m going to have by design a class of all Chinese students. So I started really trying to identify “Why would they participate when they did participate? Why didn’t they participate?” Trying to break down what it was that caused these issues that most faculty here observe with their reticence to participate and lack of comfort with speaking up.

Fiona: Can you talk a little more about the general differences between classroom interactions that you’ve observed in students from China as opposed to perhaps students who are mostly American?

Don: So it’s actually changing now, because of some of the stuff we’re doing. Where we were at to begin all this was they pretty much do not participate in class discussions. It’s very rare that they do. If you go full Socratic method and just start calling on people, some of them will participate when called on, but it’s clear that they’re uncomfortable with it, they don’t quite know what to do, and some will just refuse, even when called on. There will just be a minute or two of silence while they try to think of something or they kind of punt. And so with class participation in most of our courses in the graduate program is 20 to 30% of the grade, it’s a significant problem that inhibits their success.

Fiona: And I think you’re suggesting that there are multiple factors involved in this reticence. So, it’s not simply a language-based issue, but also a cultural issue that expectations around classroom culture differ so much that students really do feel unable to participate in a culture that feels so different from the one they’ve just come from.

Don: Exactly. So I started talking to students, one of the things I noted that was interesting was they’re very comfortable speaking after class, one-on-one, very frequent after class. And as I started having more Chinese students in my classes, it began to be a problem, actually, because I didn’t have enough time in between classes to field all of their questions. And so I thought that was interesting. And then in the few instances in which they had to give presentations, so an assigned presentation, like a stock pitch or something, they did remarkably well, mostly. And in fact, if I went and correlated my grades based on nationality, I strongly suspect it would be zero on the presentations, whereas on class participation it was a very strong correlation, so that got me curious. And I started asking them, “Why are you comfortable speaking to me outside of class?” which I’m very appreciative of. The Chinese students in particular here, some of them… I could put a cot in my office because of how frequently they would come to my office hours. And so it was clear to me that it wasn’t an unwillingness or a lack of care, which made me even more curious because some faculty misinterpret their classroom behavior as an unwillingness or lack of care. And so I started engaging and asking questions about participation, and the conversation just kind of grew, and I learned that the way that they do education in China, and there was some various experiences described, but pretty much all of them described an educational environment that they were brought up in, in which there is no mandatory participation as part of the grade. When participation is expected in class it is almost always in the form of a show of hands, and in no instance did any student describe a situation in which they had an open class environment where they would, without being prompted, speak up and make a point or something. In fact, the word that was consistently used by students, when I asked them what they think about speaking up in class, is “rude.” They think it’s rude. They look down, because looking up at someone is considered to be a sign of disrespect in many aspects of their culture. And so some faculty misinterpret it as they’re disengaged or they’re on their cell phone, but they’re actually fully engaged. They just think that that’s what the expectations are. So they think it’s rude to interrupt the class, they think it’s disrespectful to make eye contact. And so there’s a signaling problem, essentially, the normal ways that we would evaluate students to assess understanding, to assess engagement, don’t really work well without some explicit addressessing of these issues with the Chinese students. In addition, one major cause that we found was that their education is, perhaps not surprising to some people, but their education is designed around the idea that there are black and white answers to everything, there is very little gray area, their evaluation metrics appear to be almost exclusively objective, multiple choice, or true and false. Even in their English language classes it’s objective metrics… which of course, we all know the English language, for good or for bad, there are no objectively correct things, but they believe that there is a single correct way to make a statement in English, and so that causes a lot of hesitation in class because some students, they want to participate, but they spend time trying to figure out the right way for me to say this. Some other issues related to these issues with they’ve been taught that everything’s black and white… and even the English language is… they fear embarrassment if they mispronounce a word. They tend to be self conscious of their accent in ways that I don’t find as common with Latin American students or Indian students, who also are prone to having some self conscious issues with accents and like but not to the same degree as to Chinese students. I think it’s because they think there is one way to say it. And so there is a fear of embarrassment wherein it’s hard for them to grasp that they can’t be embarrassed because there’s really no bad answer when we’re having a Socratic discussion. And so fear of embarrassment was a contributor to these issues as well and a lack of specific directions. And so one thing that I found most startling, as I was going through these informal focus groups with Chinese students, is the number of them who could not articulate what class participation means in any way that aligns with what we know class participation to mean. Many of them thought that class participation simply meant showing up and that they would get their points from that. About half of them actually had no idea that their grade would be impacted by class participation, and the frequency and quality of that participation. I spoke with one second-year MBA student who I’d had in class last year for some insights from him, and he expressed that he was in that path, and he had no idea that class participation points mattered. And it pretty much put him in the bottom quarter of the class for his first semester, and then he eventually figured it out, and now he’s in the top quarter of the class, but that was just very upsetting to me. That was the point at which I said, “Okay, we are failing these students. It is not incumbent on them. We are not putting them in a position to succeed.” And that was the real fuel to the fire… to actually do some programming and create some initiatives to try and prepare these students for success better.

Fiona: There is so much about academic culture that feels straightforward and self explanatory until an experience just like this, when you realize how much of what we expect goes unexpressed, or unexplained, or is invisible in one way or another. So how did you begin tackling this enormous and multifaceted issue?

Don: I just made a checklist of all the things that we identified as causing these problems, and it was clear to me that we needed to be active. This was a significant enough problem with deep roots that it wasn’t as simple as just changing the way that we introduce our syllabus, and adding a five-minute spiel or something, it was much deeper than this. And so I proposed that we need to teach them how to be a student in an American classroom, especially in a program that requires Socratic discussion in most classes and is going to be 20 to 30% of their grade. So I proposed that we add a course to the orientation program that we have on how to be a student.

Fiona: And how detailed do you get in terms of approaching this from a metacognitive perspective? You explain to students the larger purpose of this kind of Socratic discussion, or do you simply dive in and have them start practicing? What approach are you imagining taking?

Don: My thoughts were kind of a two-half approach, wherein we first start off by teaching them what the expectations are. And so, exactly as you said, explaining to them things like “we value wrong answers.” John and I taught for many years at the Duke TIP program, and those students… very, very academically gifted… are younger, and so they can be very intimidated by Socratic discussion. And so I would always tell them that our jobs would actually be very boring if, every time we asked a question, the first student who answered gave a perfect and correct answer, and I don’t think that students would learn very much if that was the case. And so the idea is that we’re going to have discussions like that, kind of half teaching and half selling the importance and value to them in participating, accepting that there isn’t really wrong and right answers, we are moving a discussion forward. And when they successfully complete our program in a year or two, they’re going to be holders of a master’s degree in business and going to work in the business world, in which it will be expected that they put forward ideas that they don’t even think are necessarily going to work. Jeff Bezos at Amazon demands people put forward any idea they have, whether they think it’s going to work or not, and so we’re going to use case studies like that, a company they know, Amazon, a person they know, Jeff Bezos, and say, “This is who makes it to Vice President at Amazon, the person who’s willing to speak up in class and give a wrong answer.” So we’re going to educate and sell, really, participation and show them how to do it with some modeling. And so ideally, we will get some second-year grad students in their cohort who, through faculty recommendations, can be good role models and we’ll do some roleplay interacting with those students and demonstrate “Here’s what it looks like after extolling the virtues of it and demonstrating how we want to do it,” and then have them actually just do it, a mock class, and after that we would slowly morph from lecture into Socratic discussion.

John: And you’re planning to start this off with some type of bootcamp at the start of their year when they arrive, correct?

Don: So that’s actually complicated because we have lots of different programs. In business academia there’s been a seismic shift… really, like two years. It’s kind of startling, but there’s a major shift away from MBA degrees and a major shift towards specialized master’s programs. And so we went from having the MBA as our bread and butter, that was our main graduate degree program with I think we have like eight or nine specialized master’s programs now. And so there’s some logistics that have to be worked out because, you know, some of them have their own schedules, and there’s some departmental autonomy. Some of them are coming in July, some are coming in August. So they have a boot camp and then orientation, so those are separate. The idea is that as part of that boot camp, there will be a mandatory required course that is communicated to them, and it’s probably going to be two sessions. So I mentioned you haveb two halves, we’re thinking the best version of this would be overnight with a break in between those two halves with a case to go home with and prepare for this Socratic discussion.

Fiona: I’m wondering how you might incentivize an openness to failure or to wrong answers. Let’s say you’re not Jeff Bezos, don’t have someone’s employment in your hands. Have you experimented with, or thought about, or planned for ways to not just encourage students to take these sorts of risks in the classroom, but to actively acknowledge and perhaps even reward that sort of wrongful, rightful risk taking?

Don: Right, so, yes, and a couple of things I already tried out this semester with that all-Chinese section that I mentioned, I started off that class by saying “Nǐ hǎo, huānyíng lái dào wǒ bān,” which is a surely butchered way of saying “Hello, welcome to my class.” And then I asked them how many of them think I’m stupid because I butchered this phrase in Chinese, and, of course, none of them said that, and I said, “Well, that’s because you have context, and so the same thing is true for you all.” If there’s a student who’s born in Washington, DC, and has lived their entire life in the United States, and now they’re in a master’s program and they’re making grammar mistakes, I should rightfully judge them as having a lack of effort or some kind of problem. But for someone who is not a native English speaker, inductive reasoning does not allow the same kind of leap, and it would be illogical to assess someone on a personal level because they mispronounce a word or something. And so I said, “Just as you did not think lowly of me, or assess me to be incompetent or something because I butchered this Chinese greeting, you will receive the same benefits in your interactions with people.” And so they all laughed, there was a lot of laughter, and I think that kind of worked a decent amount, and then, and this might be unpalatable to some faculty members, but I have found with the Chinese students, they are extremely conscious of the opinions that their professors and peers have of them. And so it is very important to pat them on the back, especially early on. And so I started off with a low-stakes presentation, you know, one minute, because again, I found that when they’re provided with directions, and it’s required, and there’s a grade, they knock it out of the park, and then intentionally pointing out to good things that making them feel kind of safe, and that they’re not going to be embarrassed. Someone will mess something up, they’ll mispronounce a word or something and we’ll point out that it didn’t matter, and no one laughed at them, and that sort of thing. And so I found that doing that early on has helped in this section. And then in addition to that, the other main incentive that we’re playing with is changing class participation grades to more periodic updates, rather than what we typically do, which is just one of the last things that’s entered into our Excel spreadsheet probably after we’ve already gone on spring break, and because the updating of it in the feedback. And, John, I’m sure some of the other episodes I listened to that coincides with the importance of feedback on making better choices, and so not making it a surprise.

John: Letting students know that their lack of adjustment to American culture is actually harming their grades early on makes it much easier to adjust than when they find that out after the fact. So this will require some adjustments, not just from the students to adjust to American institutions, but also from faculty.

Don: Absolutely. If you’re a faculty member at an institution that wants to be a global institution, you have to think globally, and you can’t just expect every student to show up in your classroom Americanized. I think it’s kind of silly thinking really to just demand that the students Americanize themselves or westernize themselves and sink or swim because we’re not setting them up to have good outcomes, and that’s what we’re here to do.

John: We face some similar issues here. We’ve tried to focus on working on faculty to change the way they teach classes, but that only reaches the faculty who actually attend those workshops and students need to adjust to a wide range. And so I think there’s a lot of merit to this approach of working with students to help them get acclimated, especially perhaps in a business school where many of the students may want to go and work in firms where that type of participation and that type of activity is expected. So it’s also partly an introduction to American culture, as well as just American educational systems, which in a master’s program in business, would seem to be really appropriate.

Don: Absolutely. One of the drivers of the growth in specialized master’s programs for international students is STEM degrees get an automatic two-year work visa, which is very attractive. And so it’s pretty clear that, especially in those STEM credentialed degree programs, that their goal is to take advantage of that automatic to get employment, and it will impact them very quickly if they don’t acclimate to the classroom environment, which as you said, we do model business environments. And so I tell my students that we’re going to behave as though we’re in a consultancy meeting in class. You’re absolutely right. It’s beyond just a procedure for how to get grades, it is training for bigger things beyond the classroom.

Fiona: You mentioned that this program is focusing on masters level students, but the university also has a large number of undergraduate students. Do you think that this is a model that could be expanded to address that slightly different student population?

Don: I think so. Logistics would be an issue, of course, we’d probably have to recruit more help. But scaling aside, I don’t see much difference at all. I do teach a handful of undergrad sections every once in a while and the issues thinking back are identical.

Fiona: I have a slightly random question. Do students from China come to America with a pre-existing idea of what college is going to be like, what graduate study might be like? Is there any access they have to set up any horizon of expectations for them?

Don: This is not information that I got from our focus groups, but my observations, I strongly suspect that it’s something they don’t even think about. It’s kind of like you don’t know what you don’t know, and they’re startled to find that it’s not just what they have been doing for the last 12-15 years of education.

John: When they’ve been adjusting to a school system for over a decade, it’s pretty easy to base your expectations on what you’ve observed in the past.

Don: Right.

Fiona: I, too, interact with international students in a slightly different context, in an English literature department.

Don: Oh, that’s got to be tough.

Fiona: And many of the issues, especially that black and white thinking you’re describing, are amplified in my discipline, but I always do ask them partially by way of getting them to think about their own expectations, you know, “What were you imagining this class might look like?” And often they do have some sort of pop cultural version of what school might be like that emerges in a fascinating way. They have particular reasons for wanting to come to America in the first place to study, so I was just curious as to whether or not you had any insight into that version of things for Masters of Business students?

Don: No, I think they just value an American degree in business. Some of them do come from American undergrad institutions, and those students generally have already acclimated, but most of them are coming straight from China. Many of them, the day before orientation was their first day ever in the United States. That’s really scary, and so they show up at the airport and realize that they’re not nearly as good at speaking English as they were led to believe. And so I think there’s a lot of just very understandable ignorance of what they don’t know. We’re using a lot of social media, and we’re encouraging a lot of social media use, our Chinese students to communicate with their peers back in China, both as we find it’s a very good recruitment tool, and also to help with that kind of expectation.

Fiona: One of the other things I hear from the students I interact with who have come from China is their shock at how quickly Americans speak English, how fast professors speak in the classroom, and that’s a tougher one to handle in a boot camp class, I suppose. And I find myself simply trying to reassure them that they will be surprised at how quickly they adjust and they just need to give it some time and some practice, but it’s a very real source of anxiety for them in those first weeks of the semester.

Don: Yes, absolutely. And I’m glad you mentioned that because that is such a common… I mentioned before that students frequently will come up to me after class to engage and the mode interaction is asking for clarification on something that was said an hour prior in the middle of class that they didn’t understand. And in some cases, that’s fine. I can clarify, and it works, but in some cases, it’s like, “Okay, well, everything after that for the last hour, you didn’t get either if you didn’t understand that, and that’s really disappointing as well.” And so I make it a point, whether it’s an all Chinese class or not, I tell them that I want them to stop me if I’m speaking too fast, or I say something they don’t understand, that I want them to stop me and let me know that, and that I don’t think it’s rude. And in fact, I would be very upset to later learn that I wasn’t communicating effectively enough for them to gain understanding, and so that has helped a lot. It usually takes more than once of saying that for it to set in, but by the second or third class this semester, I’ve had pretty much every class someone stopped me and said, “I didn’t understand that” or, “my translator is not registering that word. What is that?” But yes, that’s an enormous issue.

John: Is lecture capture used there at all?

Don: I don’t use it.

John: Many of us use it. And I know in my econometrics class, before I flipped the class, I used to do some interactive lectures, and one of the things that mostly Korean students and occasionally Japanese or Chinese students noted was that if there were parts they didn’t understand that well, they could go back and play it back at half speed to make it easier to understand things, and that’s a nice accessibility feature for anyone who’s not a native English speaker. Another option might be to let students record things too, and then they could go back and play it back at a reduced speed until their understanding was able to keep up with the actual rate at which we speak.

Don: Interesting that you mention that because one thing that came from the Chinese students themselves in these focus groups was a pretty surprising number of them who said that we should ban electronic devices completely, because they said that they’re… so much more than American culture… they’re wed to their electronic devices. And they pretty much admitted that you are going to have some engagement issues unless you just forbid the electronic devices.

Fiona: It’s interesting that they can recognize [LAUGHTER] a certain sort of problem and are asking for help, I suppose.

Don: Well, they asked for help after the semester was done, and they made me promise to not name them if I implemented a ban. So there was some strategy involved, so that’s critical thinking.

John: But there is also the capability of a recorder which would not be that much fun to interact with. So…

Don: Right.

John: …there are devices that could work that would not be distracting.

Fiona: I’m really struck by the way in which you’re paying attention to a very specific cultural group here and you’re adjusting to very specific problems that that group has. You mentioned your checklist of things you know are happening and your desire to find the source of those things, but I can’t help but think that the adjustments you’re making are, in fact, adjustments that might benefit all sorts of students, all sorts of students for whom academic norms are a little bit hard to penetrate, or to understand, students who might have cognitive differences and struggle in discussion situations in particular. And so your particular intervention here seems to open out into a larger issue of what inclusive teaching might look like.

Don: Absolutely, and I’ve actually had that same thought. We’re singling out Chinese students, but boot camp, is there a problem with that? And is there some perception bias on our end that we don’t recognize these same issues with some other groups? But I think it’s very institutional, it’s not just culture by culture, it’s institution by institution. What we ended up finding is, because of our very, very heavy South American roots, our Latin American students are non-native English speakers who are native Spanish speakers, I think they feel more comfortable here than they might in many other institutions, and so you could have these same exact kinds of problems rearing their head, even maybe 100 miles north of here at another institution where there’s not a critical mass and those kinds of deep connections. We even offer some of our core courses in Spanish, and so I think they feel very comfortable. But it struck us that it wouldn’t take many changes in our circumstances for them to be in the same boat, perhaps, as we found the Chinese students. So you’re absolutely right.

Fiona: We do usually finish up by asking “What’s next?”

Don: What’s next is interesting, because the virus issues and so we are probably facing deferment of admissions to Spring 2020. And so what’s immediately next is adjusting on the fly as those things develop. But as far as the specific issue with helping students acclimate, where I would like to go next is just keep learning, keep having these discussions with students. So I had 20 something odd students participate in a pretty lengthy focus group session with me, that’s not enough, and so keep learning, start implementing some evaluation methods on ourselves. As John mentioned, sometimes it’s difficult to get faculty to cooperate with things but ideally, we would mandate standard language on class participation in all graduate syllabi, we would mandate periodic updating of their score on that. And we would even add in our reporting metrics, how the scores are changing in those classes that are doing that. Are they improving after we give them the first update, and so learning more about the students and the issues that they face so that we can better serve them I think is what’s next and really probably what always should be next.

Fiona: That’s great.

John: Sounds really good.

Fiona: Good luck with all of it.

Don: Thank you.

Fiona: Sounds like a very worthy intervention.

John: Thank you, Don. It’s always good talking to you.

Don: Thanks for having me, 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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105. Globalizing Classes

Improvements in communication and information technology have resulted in an increasingly interconnected global economy. In this episode, Dr. Blase Scarnati joins us to discuss ways in which our classes can be modified to help prepare our students to productively participate in this global environment. Blase is a Professor of Musicology and the Director of Global Learning in the Center for International Education at Northern Arizona University.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Improvements in communication and information technology have resulted in an increasingly interconnected global economy. In this episode, we discuss ways in which our classes can be modified to help prepare our students to productively participate in this global 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: Today our guest is Dr. Blase Scarnati. Blase is a Professor of Musicology and the Director of Global Learning in the Center for International Education at Northern Arizona University. Welcome back, Blase.

Blase: Thank you. Really glad to be back with you both.

John: We’re glad to have you here again.

Our teas today are:

Blase: I’m drinking my everyday green tea. Chinesegreen tea Dragonwell Long Jing.

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: I have English Breakfast tea.

John: I have a pure peppermint tea. So, something plain.

We’ve invited you back to talk about your work with global learning. Could you tell us first a little bit about your role as a Director of Global Learning at the Center for International Education at NAU.

Blase: Primarily I work with faculty and departments, especially through our Global Learning Initiative, and the Global Learning Initiative (or GLI) is an across-the-curriculum global education initiative sited in all undergraduate programs and our liberal education program…also explicitly uses co-curricular experiences such as residence hall programming, department activities, community engagement, and so forth. And GLI established three interconnected and interdependent ideas that were all based and drawn upon long-standing campus values that were articulated as university-level thematic student learning outcomes around diversity education, global engagement, and sustainability. And so we kind of approached what global education can be in a very innovative way rather than just, like many institutions, privileging study-abroad-based experiences. We really broadened it out, and really defined it as diversity education, global engagement, and sustainability. And through that, when we were working to implement them at the department level, we really were asking departments not just to kind of hook up, to reach up, to those University outcomes, but rather recast them through the discourse in the discipline, so that departments truly would own those outcomes rather than just attend to them. We went about this after a lot of campus conversation for several years and it was adopted in 2010 by our faculty senate. Then we began to work with departments to implement and develop ways for them to think through…to create department- and program-level outcomes around those three thematic university level ones. And we used a backward design process: developing the outcomes, developing assessment strategies, and then determining sort of scaffolded learning experiences across the major curriculum. And especially with emphasis on reimagining courses; not just tossing courses out or adding courses, specifically. So how can you really get to the nub of modifying and internationalizing your particular courses. In 2012, GLI contributed significantly towards NAU earning the prestigious Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization awarded by NAFSA. And more recently, we’ve been shifting away from working with departments and program curricula and focusing on individual faculty and their courses. And we do everything from individual consultations and dialogues about individual courses. But, most excitingly, we’ve organized a lot of large-scale frameworks that we’re calling collaboratives that bring together faculty, undergraduate, graduate students, particular programs, community members, all to kind of begin to think through how different courses different programs can really more deeply internationalize their efforts. Jean Paul Lederach, the great peace organizer and theorist has talked about large, flat, flexible, democratic platforms. And that’s what we’re really trying to pursue because, if you have a chance to listen to my other podcast with you all, we’re really focused on a lot of strategies that are based in community organizing theory and practice and that’s been my driving approach.

Rebecca: I have a question, Blase, based on some of the things that you’ve already mentioned. Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of learning outcomes that you were using for backwards design related to individual faculty. I think sometimes we have an image of what that might mean, but might have difficulty applying it to different kinds of disciplines.

Blase: Sure, the university level outcomes are really quite broad based. And they were rather intersectional in the sense that sustainability was also leaning into diverse spaces. We’re talking about sustainable communities and so forth and cultures with an idea that it can accommodate…if we built these really large boxes that lean almost into one another like Venn diagrams, then that would offer kind of the maximal amount of space for programs and departments to dialogue and think through them. And really, the individual departments…It was quite quite diverse. Some were very, very specific and targeted about really hard skills that they might need that would help them establish careers…be hired out in post baccalaureate efforts…and others were a lot broader. In the humanities, for example, they were much more expansive, and it was really quite diverse. So all ultimately address skills and competencies, but they were framed very, very differently. And the key point for us was that they were really rooted in disciplinary discourse. So, they were truly real and meaningful for faculty in the department so they could use them as tools to help their program move and prepare their students to succeed in the world that their discipline works with students to place them successfully in.

Rebecca: You do Musicology, right? So are you in the music department at your school?

Blase: Yeah, I’m a professor of musicology…music history. I do work with critical improvisation studies, popular traditions. I teach courses in reggae and country music, and jazz…and yeah, and in music. we’ve approached them in sort of interesting ways: sustainability comes about through…for example, my wife is an oboist and between global learning and lots of pressures with urban expansion in Africa, the wood that they source for that particular instrument has become quite scarce and rare. And there’s also lots of issues about appropriating other cultures’ resources and so forth. So, that’s really driven a lot of internal dialogue about what are we doing, how can we do it and what other alternatives might be available? Initially, of course, they went to oil-based solutions, you know, looking at polymers, but then they’ve been exploring other kind of sustainable woods and just ways to go about and reimagining and still achieving really high levels of performance and expressiveness, using an instrument that will allow them to do that. But again, with alternatives and there’s been real efflorescence in the oboe world around having lots of different woods being used and explored. And our theater colleagues were looking also at green ways to save energy: reusing, using non-toxic paints in their flats and their staging. So there’s been a lot of different ways. And some of its quite strategic and often overlaps with other ways in terms of economic efficiency, given tight budgets and so forth. But at the end of the day, that’s the reality. For example, we make and create and help to enable students to be effective performers and music educators, they’re dealing with audiences and the world and they have to come to terms with that. Within that is what I can contribute about uncovering lots of issues about how does music function in and as culture? And what are the resonance around whose music is being played? How’s that identified? How is it commodified? Who owns that music? Who can speak for it? And it’s a quite fraught history in the US and and European traditions vis a vis world music. But this can help unpack a lot of social justice focused issues within disciplines. Many pursue them overtly. Some that’s kind of bubbling a bit more in the background. So in music it’s been, in spite of popular culture’s music, quite forward art traditions and so forth. It’s more akin to museum systems in the visual plastic arts. So it’s a little bit quite contested in some ways, a bit behind some other areas. So it’s been useful to help disciplines turn over the field a bit and help to move themselves in productive directions.

John: What other types of experiences have been used on other departments to try to reach this goal?

Blase: Well, when the department itself has embraced the institutional imperatives of the wind filling the sail as one where one has to complete it, it’s baked into the program reviews that occur every six years internally, and so forth. And, at the same time, what’s also driven a lot of it is student demand. Just one example… our Department of Philosophy went through this process…and all dear friends, but it was a bit pro forma. And, you know, it wasn’t necessarily the deepest engagement compared to some other departments. But a couple years later, they came back in and wanted to re-examine and reestablish new outcomes for their program to really deepen their practice and their thinking. The discipline had changed, and there was a huge student demand. Once they started opening opportunities in courses and uncovering these issues, like linking it more close to the bone of what’s gone on in philosophy courses, then students were really driving that change. So, really, to kind of get to the nub of the matter when you start talking with a colleague, and they’re saying, “Well, how can I do this in my class?” And that’s always a very, very interesting conversation because in some ways, it can be challenging because they may be frustrated, they see where things are…the state of the world. They’re driven by their own passions and values, their disciplines also, and sometimes bringing that to bear within a curriculum that they may have inherited from someone else in the department over the years, or a particular course, then how do they go about working their way through that? And that can be a very, very rich conversation.

Rebecca: It sounds like that’s the conversation we should have. So, Blase, how can I globalize my classes? [LAUGHTER]

Blase: From my perspective, there are two ways to go about globalizing your course. First off, there’s no need to scrap it, throw it away and start over. No one’s talking about doing that. There are two approaches. One is to work within the existing outcomes for the course. And the second is designing additional outcomes for your course that specifically address why your students should be globalizing their work. That might be a formal outcome that you place if you have the latitude to add that to your course or an informal one that can help you frame your thinking. So in the first one…working within the existing outcomes. We would have a conversation and frequently would just…first off, get off campus…go someplace and have coffee. You kind of break down the routine of this is me in my role, you as a faculty member in your role…I mean, I’m a faculty member too, but I come to them within this other frame…and get someplace where you can begin to think and imagine and begin to talk about what have they always really wanted to do in the course around some of these issues. So, how can you take those outcomes and find ways of moving the learning and moving and modifying learning experiences…projects…what you do…what you read…what you think about…what you discuss in the class… so that it has a more global dimension. And some of that can be shifting readings, shifting the locus of activity or thinking through a problem and where it’s sited, and then helping your students that may not have a lot of experience in that discipline, thinking about those things. So, helping them understand how you really think and work within that discipline with these issues. So the first one is the easy one: where can you substitute? Where can you supplement? Where can you modify? What can you change? The second one, it kind of gets at things at a deeper level and probably something that’s more impactful. So, if you design your own courses’ outcomes, you’re really going to have to think through: Why are you doing this? What will it enable your students to do? To what purpose? …and, given the restrictions you might have, that might be just lurking in the background, helping you make decisions about what you want to alter. What new sorts of ways of doing and knowing that you want to explore with your students, up to you just add it as another outcome and discuss it with your students as you walk through the learning outcomes in the first day when you go through the syllabus quickly and begin to consider what are we going to be doing in this class and why?

John: When faculty have bought into this, how have they responded?

Blase: Most are really, really enthusiastic and people tend to seek this out if they are aligned to the overall goals of the project. In the early days, sometimes we had reluctant departments or departments that there wasn’t a working consensus to move forward in any particular direction. And those were more difficult conversations. These days generally working with individuals or departments that they’re highly aligned with this. So it’s a matter of what more can we do? How can we do that? And the restrictions aren’t about globalizing the course or trying to internationalize different activities or projects. But, often it’s how can we do this with little to no additional economic support? So we can’t buy resources…we can’t send our students necessarily independently out. And then how can we expand where our curriculum is, and I can introduce them to colleagues in the Center for International Education and we operate not by using a service where our students pay and go abroad using a services infrastructure. Like many places anymore, we have individual departments…have reciprocal agreements with other universities that our students would go and take a range of courses in the study abroad experience and they would come back. They would transfer right in. Students are not going to be missing any time in their progression towards a degree. They pay our own internal tuition. So their scholarships and financial aid cover those expenses. We also have a very generous level of support for travel for those students in need, especially in economically challenged groups. So, there’s a lot of infrastructure that the department or the individual faculty member may not have. But we can begin to put people together in a broader network to help them as an individual faculty member achieve aspirations or collectively as a program, or our whole department. Oftentimes, it’s frequently very, very exciting because, if you kind of are talking at that level of what have you all wanted to do, then let’s figure out a way to make that happen. That’s a very catalytic encounter and a catalytic discussion because it’s full of possibilities. I always try to shift the conversation to what else is possible? What have you never had a chance to do? Don’t worry about the 1001 reasons not to do it, they’re always there. But let’s figure out what that is, then we’ll go and figure out ways to remove the barriers or to provide the resources if we can. So, it’s usually a very satisfying work. And it’s usually a very uplifting conversation, because people take that energy inside and really begin to spin it. So, they’re lit up, and how excited they are infects others in their networks and groups and it can kind of feed off of one another. And much like we were talking about earlier conversation, if you get enough activity going, and you begin to saturate the airspace as much as you have the latitude to do, you can create a locus of gravity that starts to pull others in. And that’s just based upon your active network of folks that are collaborating together.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some specific examples that you think are really powerful implementations of globalization of a class or a curriculum?

Blase: Sure. One early example that I use to open up conversation with departments because I usually would go in into a department meeting and here’s what this project GLI is all about. And then “How do you do it?” That’s the next question. One really great example was out of our civil engineering department, we have a big school of engineering of civil, electrical, and so forth. And they often have core courses that all of the different threads within civil engineering would take together and one of those courses had a bridge building project. So, it had two major components. One was you need to design the bridge. So, you need to do the mathematics…the engineering of a bridge that will span a particular distance…that will carry a particular load…and then the materials and construction management side of that. So, then how do you actually actually create that bridge. So, it was actually a semester-long project, and it was quite complex. On the surface, that sounds fairly easy, but it is very real world, because that’s what these students would do when they leave. And they would join a construction corporation and they would be building bridges and other types of projects. So, engineering wanted to globalize that project. They thought this was one place where they could really make an impact. The faculty sited the bridge building project in Kenya. And that’s a country where we have a lot of reciprocal programs and our engineering students are working and taking courses and working in programs there. So, it still addressed the very technical side of what was needed in the course. So they still design and engineer a bridge that carries load…that spans a particular distance. But now that it moved the construction and the materials management into an international frame, and in a particular country, where there are infrastructure issues. How do you ship and transport or source locally materials. And again, that actually aligns absolutely with what their students need because their graduates are getting hired by major international corporations that build projects all over the world. So, that actually gave them a richer set of tools that came out of that learning experience. So, they accomplished everything they needed. Plus, they were able to internationalize it in a way that helps students develop tools that were even more necessary, and actually more salient to their success in the future. I think that’s a very, very quick, powerful little story that gets a “How can you take something and make some changes to it, that actually brings more to it?” So it doesn’t just globalize, but it actually opens up a set of possibilities and experiences that are multiplied. So, it’s not just here’s one way that we can do this to globalize this learning experience. But then, how can we, at the level of outcomes truly, how can we develop a richer set of tools that our students can use to succeed as they go out and seek to build a richer life?

Oftentimes inertia and perhaps a department, for example, or group of faculty, they may think it’s a good idea, but they don’t see a ready quick access point. Civil Engineering, they saw it almost immediately. And they said, “Well, we can do this.” And then it led to “Well, what if we do more of this? How about if we went here, as opposed to there…just so they move down the road pretty rapidly. For example, with Physics and Astronomy, we had a chair that was actually part of our planning group that helped design the whole Global Learning Initiative. And she was very, very interested in wanting to help move the department in this direction. And they were quite split. And it wasn’t just the astronomers versus the physicists, but it was actually a more generational split and that was just peculiar to their department at the time. So, there were a lot of very senior gray lions that really didn’t want to go in this direction. They thought it was counterproductive. They thought it was beside the point. And so that opened a lot in a very long conversation. And over five years or so, there was some change, retirements and so forth. And younger faculty and then the rising senior faculty began to have conversations about what it can be within their context between physics and astronomy. And we’re lucky we’re adjacent to a number of indigenous nations, the Navajo Nation, which is as large as all of New England for goodness sake. Within that’s the Hopi reservation downstate, various Apache groups, and it’s a very rich international space that way. So colleagues in Physics and Astronomy started working with colleagues in the community college system on the Navajo reservation. And so they started bringing in traditional knowledge holders. So, within astronomy, they started offering courses around indigenous cosmologies. So, they were actually helping their students to think in very different international ways using different frames for how do you conceive the founding of the cosmos, and the workings of all that is out there. Even the most rigorous, focused astronomer that is working in radio astronomy, or some other variation of across their wide range of disciplinary practices, then they’re beginning to open up what’s possible, how and what does it mean to be talking about these things? And when I know that I’m talking about it through my contemporary U.S. international sort of frame, that’s one frame. And there are other ways that might be useful to think about the facts, the activities that we do, and what the information we receive. And then what does it mean to put it together in an argument and an explanation. And by thinking through other cultural dimensions that expands their abilities to do that imaginatively, creatively. I come out of the arts, so I’m kind of hard wired to want to do things very improvisatory creative ways. And from my perspective, the more we can all think about, how can we be catalytic and creative in our own disciplinary work? I think that’s the exciting place because it shifts you, not from the core to the periphery, but oftentimes to willfully and intentionally walk to that edge, where your discipline is interacting with all these other disciplines. And that’s a very fruitful and very exciting place to be, because that’s where new knowledge can come about really quickly, as you begin to fuse and think differently and expanding what’s assumed. For me, that’s personally and intellectually this very, very exciting work. And believe me, I can’t follow the details of my colleagues in physics and astronomy when they start unpacking things, but I can get and be really lit up by the direction that they’re going, and their excitement and what they’re seeing as possibilities. Because once colleagues find that this is a fruitful path, then that leads much like we found with physics and astronomy, and certainly the example from engineering, that leads to “what else is possible?” So, you just keep opening and opening and opening. And that’s where we all want to be, especially in a time when most or institutions are getting squeezed in terms of economics. That’s a very empowering place to be.

Rebecca: You’ve mentioned this is a fruitful place for new knowledge. That seems like a good transition to thinking through the lens of students and seeing the world in a different way.

Blase: Yeah.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the student impact that you’ve seen, or maybe even a specific student or a specific story that might help us envision how this plays out?

Blase: I work with faculty who work with the students, but I just get that energy and how they’re able to create new things. And then especially as I see colleagues being able to morph and continually transform what their course is, so that it’s not just, we take something static, we’re going to do some window dressing, and job done, and that’s good for another 20 years. But, once you start moving the pieces, that energy, that motion, that kinetic sense just keeps going and flowing, and students are really excited about it. And what I hear are those more collective pressures to do more. And we have some assessment too: that we had over 80% of our undergraduate programs in just three years out of 91 of the programs at the time, complete the program level GLI process that comes with outcomes assessments and a curricular map of learning experiences. Study abroad, because what we did was we talked to study abroad and asked the departments to position a semester in the program in their sequence of courses where students could go abroad, take courses at institutions that they have confidence in courses that they’re taking, and come back so they’re not losing any time towards the degree. And we saw 136% increase in the number of students going abroad over eight years between 2011 and 2018. And also those students that went abroad, I owe this all from my colleague, Angelina Palumbo, the Director of Education Abroad here in the center. But students that go abroad also have a 87% graduation rate, which is about more than 10% higher than our average graduation rate, which is not bad, but still, that’s quite impactful. Everything from the example when I was talking about colleagues in philosophy, where once they started opening up some of these issues and giving voice to them, their students were asking for more. That’s sort of the level that I encounter.

John: Was the expansion in study abroad programs due to the global initiative.

Blase: Well, I mean, you know, it’s kind of a chicken and the egg thing. We had a new senior international officer (using the jargon, SIOs), Harvey Charles, who was a really, really innovative colleague. He was our SIO. I was working with him. We brought a whole bunch of people together. Basically, he established a presidential task force to help to internationalize the campus. The President was behind that. And working with Harvey, we brought from two or three of us that were focused on curriculum. Out of that task force, we invited 40 colleagues to come together to draft this Global Learning Initiative. And part of that was a concerted effort to expand study abroad. But what had been holding it back was the very things that we were able to address through the curricular side of GLI, that there was many programs didn’t have a targeted semester where their students could study abroad without falling behind. They didn’t have any particular countries or institutions that they had reciprocal relationships and confidence in their curricula. So, it was all at the same time, everything coming together. But the details of how many positions were added it actually tripled the number of positions working in education abroad. But again, that was in response to the huge increase of number of students that were going from our campus. And then also they were busy recruiting international students. We have a couple of thousand international students on campus. And that’s other parts of the infrastructure within the center that GLI wasn’t directly related to or focused upon.

Rebecca: You talked a little bit about economic barriers being a barrier for faculty and making change. Did you come across any other barriers other than maybe you talked about generational differences too?

Blase: Yeah.

Rebecca: Were those main barriers or did you see faculty coming up against some other barriers that they had overcome?

Blase: Some disciplines are just really deep…their disciplinary ways of thinking and knowing they’re highly aligned, right? They’re there…sociology, politics, and international affairs. There really wasn’t much of a discussion in terms of, they’re already doing a great deal of it, then let’s maybe see what else is possible. For a lot of other individual faculty, when we talk to them, or programs that are thinking about picking it back up…it’s kind of a reluctance either, like we’ve talked about before, I’m not sure how to go about moving and making further change, and/or this is a time when everybody is really stressed. On our campus, we’ve lost 60% of state funding in a decade, which is a radical truncation of our support. We’ve shifted to pretty much tuition-based funding, and that’s created enormous pressures…that level of tenure density has plummeted. So, there are a lot of lecturers and a plurality that’s a one-year non-tenured position here on our campus. It’s created a lot of internal pressures and schisms and issues and many faculty don’t have the additional emotional capacity to want to willfully step forward and say I want to create more change and uncertainty and chaos in what I do. When I was referring a little bit earlier to inertia, it’s not just intellectual laziness, it’s often just exhaustion. What’s happening nationally, I think has been exhausting many in the academy, and our politics, the level of incivility that’s increasing and rising on campus. Arizona… you just have to have one person agree in a public forum so that you can videotape and that could be the person behind the iPhone, if they’re agreeing to do it. And that’s all this needed. And of course, these courses and classrooms are public spaces. So, we’ve had lots of faculties classes being put up and being pilloried by different websites, various political perspectives, and some of its been in the Chronicle over the last couple of years. So, it’s been a challenging environment. There are many things going on that are tapping people out. But, for me, what has been the thing that always allows us to continue to succeed? If you’re talking about very mechanical things, or this is an obligation…we need to achieve these program outcomes, that doesn’t stir many people’s souls. But, if you actually have, in advance, thought about how can you position your initiative so that it’s focused and grounded in the values of your community, your literal community or your institution, then people can connect in ways that aren’t just focused on disciplinary interest or compliance. You know, you’re tapping into their heart and what they care about as a person and what motivates them. Again, sustainability in my own discipline of music, there’s a discourse there, and there are ways that one can think through it. But those colleagues (and I count myself) that are very passionate about the future of the planet, we’re motivated to do much, much more, and we’ll seek that out. So amid all the turmoil and depletion of energy and the exhaustion, if you can find ways to shift that conversation into this catalytic space that talks about possibilities, that taps into what people believe and what they value and what they care about deeply, then you’re feeding that conversation from a place that will enrich and nourish rather than just take away, exhaust, and grind you down into submission.

John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next?

Blase: Well, what I’m doing next is continuing on and more and more explicitly going back to the well of community organizing methods, strategies, and theory to help us come together collaboratively. For me, faculty on our campus, and I know a lot of places, feel increasingly radically disempowered either by state legislatures, distant boards, priorities that may be economically driven or politically motivated that are not aligned with where many faculty are themselves. And we tend to wait until we grow quite gray for change to come from the top. So, I’m a firm believer of coming together with colleagues to focus on what’s possible, what can we do together, and actively doing that. And good administrators will be happy to jump in front of that train and take all the credit they want. God bless them. But, just what can we do together to make this a better place, a richer educational space for our communities and for our students? That’s largely pretty much everything I’m doing. Of course…presenting, publishing, writing and more writing, but like everybody else, that’s the thing that really kind of keeps me lit up.

Rebecca: Thanks for joining us.

John: Yes, thank you for joining us. That was a very good discussion.

Blase: Very much appreciate it. Thanks 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 Brittany Jones and Kiara Montero.

97. Emotions and Learning

As faculty, we often don’t take emotions into account when planning our courses or curricula. In this episode, Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh joins us to discuss the powerful role emotions play in student learning. Sarah is the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing Education with the Science of Emotion and of Hivemind: the New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World and numerous scholarly publications. She is the Associate Director for Grants and Research at the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, the Co-Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive and Affective Science, and also Research Affiliate at the Emotion, Brain, and Behavior Laboratory at Tufts University.

Show Notes

  • Sarah Rose Cavanagh – websitetwitter
  • Caulfield, M. (2017). Web literacy for student fact‐checkers. Pressbooks.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2019). Hivemind: The New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World. Grand Central Publishing.
  • Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college (K-12). John Wiley & Sons.
  • Lemov, D. (2012). Teach like a champion field guide: A practical resource to make the 49 techniques your own. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Lemov, D. (2015). Teach like a champion 2.0: 62 techniques that put students on the path to college. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Parker, P. (2018). The art of gathering: How we meet and why it matters. Penguin.
  • Harrington, Christine. “61. A Motivational Syllabus,” Tea for Teaching podcast, December 25, 2018
  • Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2006). The promising syllabus. Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(2), C2.
  • Knapp, Jennifer, “41. Instructional Communication,” Tea for Teaching podcast, August 8, 2018
  • Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational psychology review, 18(4), 315-341.
  • Pekrun, R., Frenzel, A. C., Goetz, T., & Perry, R. P. (2007). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: An integrative approach to emotions in education. In Emotion in education (pp. 13-36). Academic Press.
  • Smith, Kentina (2017). Stimulating Curiosity Using Hooks. Noba Blog. June 7

Transcript

John: Before we get to our regularly scheduled program we have a small request. Our 100th episode is around the corner and we’re collecting stories from our listeners about episodes, guests, or ideas that have influenced or impacted you, your colleagues, and your students. Please share your stories on teaforteaching.com.
We now return to the regularly scheduled podcast.

Rebecca: As faculty, we often don’t take emotions into account when planning our courses or curricula. In this episode, we discuss the powerful role emotions play in student learning.

[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: Today our guest is Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh. She’s the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing Education with the Science of Emotion and of Hivemind: the New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World and numerous scholarly publications. Sarah is the Associate Director for Grants and Research at the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, the Co-Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive and Affective Science, and also Research Affiliate at the Emotion, Brain, and Behavior Laboratory at Tufts University. Welcome, Sarah.

John: Welcome.

Sarah: Oh, thank you.

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

Sarah: I am not. I am a coffee drinker. And I just had a very large coffee and I’m moving on to water now.

Rebecca: So many coffee drinkers on this show.

Sarah: Yup. It’s important. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking English breakfast, despite the fact that it’s no longer morning.

John: I’m drinking Tea Forte Black Currant tea.

Sarah: Mmmm. That sounds tasty

John: It’s very good.

Rebecca: So Sarah, we asked you to join us today to talk a little bit about The Spark of Learning. In that book, you argue that faculty should design all aspects of the course to target student emotions. Yet as teachers, we don’t really think about emotions, necessarily. So she can talk a little bit about why considering emotions is so important.

Sarah: Sure. Well, I think when you look at what’s required for learning in the classroom, you’ll see that there’s numerous cognitive resources that are required for learning. They have to pay attention to the material, you have to be willing to work on the material and your working memory, you have to be motivated to put effort and energy into that work both in the class, but then also outside of the class when you’re working on assignments. And all of these cognitive resources are limited, there’s only so much of them to go around. You can only pay attention to so much at once, you can only work on so many bits of information in your working memory. So we have to think about how can we motivate students to direct those cognitive resources towards the class material, toward the work of the class. And I believe that emotions are a critical ingredient in doing so because emotions attract attention. They were motivated to pay attention to work on emotional material, things that are self relevant. And we think that emotions evolved in the first place in order to motivate behavior: to push us toward things that are good for us, to pull us away from things that are dangerous or irrelevant, and also to tag information as important to remember. …and thinking a little bit about the emotional design of a presentation style, of the assignments that we choose, of the class activities, and even of how we assess students. All of these are strategies by which we can get students more motivated and more engaged.

John: One of the things you talk about in your book is the importance of first impressions. Could you tell us a little bit about why that’s so important to open the class with something that engages students’ emotions?

Sarah: Mm hmm. Great. Well, I think that students come to the class, they have busy lives… lots of things pulling them from work of the class… and when they first come into the class, we need to spark their curiosity, we need to get them engaged, and to focus them on the work of the class. I had a speaking engagement in Tennessee on the subject of learning and their planning committee was reading Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering. So I picked it up in the airport, and I was reading it and she talks not about classrooms, but any gathering or meeting space. And one thing that she said that I love that I thought was very consistent with this idea of first impressions is you shouldn’t start with logistics. She says, “Don’t start a funeral with logistics.” Don’t stand up and say, “here’s the parking information.” And I think that we can use that lesson in the classroom. Like why start a class with “Oh, here’s the learning management system.” And “here’s what happens if you plagiarize” and all of these logistics that are kind of boring, and kind of ugly. [LAUGHTER] Why not start with the idea that we’re watching this intellectual journey together? Here’s what drew me to psychology or literature, chemistry, here’s what I think that you’re going to take from this class, here are the things you’re going to learn… to start with that passion. That’s going to form student feelings about the entire semester. And so I think that first impressions are important.

John: So perhaps going over the syllabus, interminably, on the first day may not be the best strategy. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Right.

Rebecca: To follow up on that a little bit, though, syllabi have all these policies and things… is there a way that we can tap into this emotional connection in a document like that, that can feel very policy oriented and rules oriented?

Sarah: Well, I think…a couple things. One, I wish I could remember the person’s name, but probably five years ago now, I saw some person’s blog posts on Twitter or something. She was a historian. And she had redone all of her syllabi, with images and famous quotes and made them really beautiful and kind of exciting to look at. And even though it was late in the summer, and I was already a little stressed about everything that was going on, I was inspired to redo all my syllabi similarly. And so I think just putting a little design into your syllabus can make it a more attractive document. I think my colleague, James Lang has a Chronicle post about starting syllabi with kind of what we were saying about Priya Parker and the Art of Gathering with a promise, “here are the exciting things that we’re going to be covering” instead of, “we’re going to read these books and cover these principles.” So in that section, when you say what the course is about, I think is powerful. And then in terms of policies, certain policies are a good idea to include on the syllabus. But I think the language that you choose matters quite a lot. And back in the day, I think I had a section on issues of courtesy. You know, “don’t pack up your bags while I’m still talking,” “don’t use your cell phones,” all these things. Now that section on my syllabi talks about “Let’s respect each other, and here’s my commitment to you: that I will start and end the class promptly on time that I will return your assignments to you within a reasonable time frame, but I will respect all of your contributions. And in return, I would ask that you not pack up your bags, while I’m still speaking and these kind of things.” And so I think framing some of the policies in terms of both what’s exciting that’s going to happen, but then also in the sort of communal language rather than punitive language, I think can go a long way to make this a little bit more inviting.

John: I’ll throw in a reference to a past podcast… we had Christine Harrington, who talked about her book: Designing a Motivational Syllabus. And also, Ken Bain had written about the “promising syllabus” way back. And I think that’s inspired a lot of these discussions. And I think they’re all very good suggestions. We should all do more of that, I suspect.

Rebecca: So we talked a little bit about the setup in the beginning of the class. Some of it is also just deciding what assessments there’s going to be and what the assignments are going to be. So can you talk a little bit about how we can plan for emotion in those kinds of design aspects as well?

Sarah: Sure. And here, I’m going to cite Reinhard Pekrun, the researcher and psychologist, and he has an entire theory of academic emotion. So he was having a lot of respect before I ever did. And his theory of academic emotions, he calls the control value theory of academic emotions. And by control, he means autonomy. So giving students choices, giving them flexibility, and the sense that they’re crafting their own intellectual journey, not just that they’re submitting themselves to yours. [LAUGHTER] And then value really being about some of these things that we’re talking about in terms of emotional engagement, but also the whole idea of relevance . So the students see the relevance of the assignments and the assessment. And relevance is multifaceted, it can be relevant for their personal lives, or their future careers… It could be some transcendent purpose, here’s why we should be evaluating this topic in order to improve society at large… that the students should see the value. And so kind of the opposite of busy work. We’re not just doing this for no reason, there’s a purpose, there’s a relevance. And so I think, using his framework, and thinking about ways that we can help students shape their own intellectual journey, and which assignments they’re going to do with the topics, you’re giving them choices of topics… on exams, giving them choices of essays, things like that. And then value, always illustrating the relevance and the importance of the work that they’re doing, I think are ways that we can think about assignments and assessments.

John: You also talk a little bit about using emotional contagion in classes to help build motivation. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Sarah: Sure. That whole topic really engaged me in reading and researching and writing… kind of turned into my second book project. But I think that we are incredibly social beings, we’re individuals, but also have this collective aspects to our psychology and how our brains work. I think that in the classroom, we’re in a social setting. And there’s certainly lots of research evidence showing that emotions, in particular, are contagious, that they kind of spread from one to another. I think one of the ways that that topic is relevant in the classroom is from instructor to students. And so putting a little bit of thought into your presence and the kinds of emotions that you’re showing: are you showing passion? Are you showing enthusiasm? Are you engaged yourself? Are you interested and present yourself? …that level of curiosity and passion can spread through the class. There’s student to student emotional contagion. And I’m sure anyone who’s taught a while has had these experiences both positive and negative ways… the ways in which enthusiasm and motivation can kind of spread among the class and the ways that negative emotions can spread throughout a class. And there’s a big literature on the topic of reactance, which is a term that refers to when the students sort of collectively decide that you, the instructor, are unfair, or uninteresting, or something else, [LAUGHTER] and kind of bands together and bond over that. And so thinking strategically about how to minimize those occurrences, are also ways to think about emotional contagion in the class.

John: So, on those days when you’re not feeling as energetic and enthusiastic, what can we do to help create that emotional contagion effect?

Sarah: Yeah, coffee. [LAUGHTER]

John: …or tea.

Sarah: Yes, or tea… coffee or tea. But, that’s a fascinating question, and one that’s a little under studied. And so I looked at the research literature, and there are a couple of research studies on the whole phenomenon of faking it, and doing emotional labor. So putting on a happy face, and an enthusiastic face, even when you’re not there. And it’s mixed. There’s a power in authenticity. But sometimes we also have to engender some enthusiasm that we might not necessarily be feeling. I think that prior preparation can also go a long way. Some of these ways of being more emotionally engaging, I think, can be in your choice of activities in the class and videos that you’re showing. And so thinking ahead of time, if it’s kind of a dead time of semester for you, thinking of things you can do in the classroom to mix it up, because you know that your energy might not bring that energy.

John: And you also suggest that mindfulness training might be useful in helping faculty become more focused or more present in the classroom.

Sarah: Yeah, mindfulness is super interesting. I think it’s one of those topics that are so multifaceted that they’re hard to break down and study from a psychology perspective, because mindfulness itself has attentional components it has components of acceptance. But research shows that mindfulness is really good at bringing people to the present moment. And I think that some of these present and performance related topics… a lot of it is “are you there with the students,” instead of off in your own mind, creating your shopping list or thinking about your manuscript that’s overdue. [LAUGHTER] And so I think bringing yourself back to that present moment, and reconnecting with the students… making eye contact, thinking carefully about what you’re going to say. That is the essence of mindfulness training, bringing yourself back to the present moment, and so it may benefit your work in the classroom.

Rebecca: Can we talk a little bit about those negative emotions.

Rebecca: You know, sometimes that happens… you’re having a bad semester or something goes wrong. And then perhaps that contagion effect really does happen in your class, and you need to bring it back.

Sarah: Yeah.

Rebecca: Do you have some strategies on how to bring it back.

Sarah: I think that those emotions tend to build within the class itself, when students aren’t feeling heard, when they are not feeling that autonomy, and they’re not feeling that control. And I think a lot of those emotions are just around perceptions of unfairness and status and authority. So some of the ways do work on that, I think, are being transparent and having open conversations with the students doing mid semester check ins… you know, giving them a voice, and a way for them to.. Instead of telling each other what they don’t like about your class… to tell you. And then that, in demonstrating that you care… that you want to know what their feedback is, especially if you’re able to make slight changes, because they might have a point… and none of us are perfect. But having that open conversation and valuing their voice, I think, is a way to try to alleviate some of that reactance. The literature on reactance shows that the best defense is a good offense… preventing it in the first place. Some of the ways that the research suggests to prevent it is, again, that presence and immediately… this whole concept of immediacy cues, things like eye contact, using inclusive language, varied vocal tone, things like that that shows students that you’re there with them, have been some of the best variables that predict lower reactants and lower negative emotions over the semester.

Rebecca: There’s some really great tips on immediacy in the episode we had with Jennifer Knapp.

Sarah: Oh, good. I’ll check that out.

John: You also talk a little bit about self disclosure as a way to building more immediacy. Could you talk to us a little bit about how self disclosure might be done productively? And when does it go too far?

Sarah: Yeah, I think self disclosure does two things that explain why it’s effective. One, it’s a way of being present. And secondly, it’s also a way of using storytelling in the classroom. And we know that stories are kind of cognitively privileged… that they work… they’re effective in the classroom. I read a couple of qualitative studies in which they had a sort of student think tank somewhere asking them about instructor self disclosure, and the times that they felt that it was very effective, and the times that they felt that was less effective. What students reported was that it was most effective when instructors shared stories about their own intellectual journeys, especially times that they had trouble with this material and how they worked their way around it. I always tell my students that I failed to get into a single graduate school the first time around and they love to hear that. Because it shows that when you look toward your goal, it’s not always smooth sailing, we all hit bumps in the road and have to re-strategize. Some degree of personal one-on-one disclosure is also effective… talking about the game you were at with your kids over the weekend, or your favorite movie, and things like that… just because it makes you a person instead of just an authority figure at the front of the room.

Rebecca: I thought we were all robots at the front of the room. [LAUGHTER] I didn’t understand that we weren’t that.

Sarah: Yeah, it always surprises me when my students perk up whenever I share something personal. And I’m like, I’m this old fogie, like… It surprises me that they’re interested. But they are, I think, for those reasons. I think reasonable boundaries, they don’t need to know about… [LAUGHTER] what they don’t need to know that. They don’t need to know everything.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a little bit about design and thinking about getting students motivated together, and us helping them get motivated and them motivating each other. But you also talked a little bit about the strength of emotion in being able to just process and remember things. Can you talk a little bit about that, and maybe some strategies that we can incorporate into our classes related to that?

Sarah: Sure. and I think primarily, the first thing that I always think of with emotions, in that sense, is grabbing attention. And we have lots of literature showing that, on a very basic neurological level, emotional stimuli arrests attention. And I ran into a blog post after writing the book that I wish I had run into before writing the book by Kentina Smith, and she talks about using emotional hooks in the classroom. And I love that term. And what she means by that is kind of sectioning up your class into whatever makes sense for your length of your class and for your material. And then beginning each segment of your class, of your material, with an emotional hook… that they hook them in. And that can be using videos… stories, again, are really great… reading passages that are emotionally interesting. Again, demonstrating relevance for career or for something else. I was running a workshop at Northern Illinois University and one of the professors shared what she did… she was in a nursing program… and in one of her freshman classes that were really a lot of work… and students often got discouraged… she would have the students who had just graduated and now were in their internships come back and talk about how the material that they learned in that class… how they were using it in the field at this moment… and how they were so grateful to have those skills. And I thought that was amazing. That was a really powerful way of hooking students attention and saying, “Okay, this material might be a little boring, but it’s really important.” That isn’t too flashy. I think sometimes people worry that what I’m talking about means that we’re just purely entertaining the students. And I don’t think that’s the case… and so using those emotional hook.

Memory is interesting, it’s a little trickier. Because there is some evidence, I shouldn’t admit this. But when you do something really emotional, that students remember the emotion, and then not what comes next. Because they’re so caught up in the emotion. But I don’t think much of what we’re doing in the classroom is making students super emotional, but just like giving them a little bit of a prime, we’re more likely to remember things that are novel, that are interesting that would get us a little outraged, that get us a little passionate. And so I think that at a very basic level, emotions benefit these cognitive resources.

John: One of the emotions you talk a little bit about is frustration, and that it can be useful sometimes to confuse students a bit. Could you talk a little bit about?

Sarah: Sure. When I talk to people about ideas in the book, they sometimes think that I’m advocating that students should be happy all the time, that it should be nothing but positive. And I don’t think that. I think that some frustration is a natural part of the process of learning. There’s experience-sampling studies where students are learning new skills from computerized tutorials, and also reporting on their emotions, like on a dial at the same time. And it shows that, as the students learn new skills, it’s a repeated dynamic cycle between initial confusion because they don’t know this yet… they start strategizing and start trying things… working on it… and then they’re frustrated. Then they solve that level or skill or problem and they achieve learning, and then they have this flash of pleasure. And then the tutorial system brings them to the next level and they’re confused again. And that learning seems to be that repeated dynamic cycle. I think that that’s very true. I think helping them navigate that through self disclosure… through transparency… saying, “Hey, you’re going to get frustrated and that means you’re learning. That means that this is something you haven’t encountered before.” I think this can help navigate them through because you don’t want them to get so frustrated that they get anxious and worried. So normalizing and acknowledging that that’s part of the process… But I think it is, I think it is part of the process of learning.

John: We often have students from very diverse backgrounds, though, in terms of their prior knowledge. How can we design activities that will provide an optimal amount of challenge for students, when students come in with so different backgrounds?

Sarah: That’s really tricky. [LAUGHTER] I think that’s one of the trickiest things about our job. And I think routinely assessing where your students are at, can be a strategy. I mean, it’s still going to tell you a lot about the average, which is not going to tell you as much about the diversity of experiences, but having kind of your finger on the pulse of where your students are, either through quick quizzes, online check-ins, but even through the questions that you ask. I read Doug Lemov’s book, I’m forgetting the title, [Teach Like a Champion] but he worked in high school and studied star teachers who were having with amazing outcomes, even in high schools that had low resources. And one of the recommendations that comes out of his analysis of those teachers was asking questions in ways that really reveal the student level of knowledge. Instead of saying “Everybody’s got that?” or “Does everyone understand? …asking those questions so that you can have a gauge of where all of your students are. Smaller classes… you can do more personalized, focused things. One of the works that I read had talked about getting progress feedback, as well as discrepancy feedback. So having papers be due in segments, and not only showing students where they needed to improve, but also telling them where they have improved. I think that sort of personalized attention we can’t all do when we’re teaching classes of 500. But, if you’re teaching a smaller class, some of that personalized stuff can help.

John: Can peer instruction, perhaps, help leverage some of that when you ask questions that are challenging for some and easier for others.

Sarah: Yes, I love that.

Rebecca: Sometimes students may get too frustrated and give up. How do you get them back to a place where it can be productive again?

Sarah: Again, being transparent, kind of my go to, and talking about the fact that that’s likely to happen at different points in the semester for different students and helping them do that. I think, knowing your college’s resources in terms of student mental health, in terms of academic support, and being able to refer students out to those, I think is important. And I think even just small things like sending an email. And again, they realize that I have this bias because I teach small classes, relatively. But you know that a student is struggling and you can observe that they’re hitting kind of a rough point… sending them a personalized email and saying, “Hey, do you want to drop by office hours, this is when they are…” and feeling seen by the professor and knowing that there are resources, I think, can be very helpful.

Rebecca: One of the things you mentioned up front was the idea that we want them to get curious and engaged and own their learning. Can you talk a little bit about ways other than just the choose your own adventure kind of opportunities where they have choice, that we can leverage students curiosity and get them really hooked?

Sarah: Yeah, I think asking questions, kind of the idea of puzzles and mysteries. Every field has their unsolved mysteries. And I find that students really respond when I present debates that are ongoing in the field. And I think that works on two levels. There’s not a set answer and so they’re curious, because we’re always most curious about things that we’re not quite sure about. And they also feel the freedom to contribute, because they know they’re not going to get it wrong, because no one knows. But also putting them in this position where they feel like they too could join this quest. And they might be able to push knowledge, if they were to go on to graduate school. So, putting them in the shoes of a contemporary psychologist or biologist and here are the things that people are yelling at each other about on Twitter, because no one can agree. “What is your opinion?” is a way to get students curious.

John: We’re recording that in mid-August, but will be releasing it shortly after your new book, Hivemind comes out? Could you tell us a little bit about Hivemind?

Sarah: Sure, it’s a complicated book. I see it as having three layers. On it’s base layer, it’s really a contemporary overview of social neuroscience, the current state of knowledge in terms of how we are, as I was saying before, not just an individualistic species, but we also have this collective aspect. That as Jon Haidt says, we can be hive-ish. And that’s why the title Hivemind. And so at its base level, it’s kind of like a bird’s eye overview of what’s going on in social neuroscience: How do our brains relate to each other? How do we engage in this sometimes almost collective consciousness and things like that. And then the second layer is how smartphones and social media, the invention of those devices and technologies, are amplifying our social natures, both in good ways and in bad ways… on evaluating that evidence. And then the third layer is sort of our current political polarization moment, and what we can learn from social neuroscience and social media as to what’s going on in the world.

John: How have the changes in technology led to the changes in polarization that we’ve been observing?

Sarah: Yeah, it’s a fascinating question and one that would be a great question for a class because I don’t think we know for sure. But anyone who has a smartphone or is on social media, I think, has seen evidence of this polarization and felt like it has become more extreme. And certainly, there’s some polling about in the States, Republicans and Democrats and how comfortable you would or wouldn’t be if your child married someone of the opposing political party. And those sorts of studies are definitely showing greater polarization. And there’s a lot of principles in terms of when you get together with a group, and you begin discussing your opinions and you’re sharing your opinions, that your opinions become more extreme, because you’re hearing it echoes back… the whole phenomenon of good polarization and echo chambers. So there’s evidence that that’s making all of that worse. I think that there is also evidence, though, that we may be paying too much attention to the polarization and that talking so much about the polarization, in some ways gives us permission to be polarized. And I think that there’s evidence from social psychology that we form much more extreme “us versus thems” when we feel under perceived threat. And certainly we are under numerous threats. But I think that also we are kind of buying into a collective panic and fear. Ironically, in part, one of those panics, I think is about smartphones and social media. And I think we’re overly panicked. It’s really, really complicated. And I think it’s really, really fascinating. And I think we’re not sure quite yet.

Rebecca: I know that a lot of faculty have talked about how the polarization, the spread of misinformation through social media, is impacting conversations and things that are happening in their classes.

Sarah: um hmm.

Rebecca: Do you have any suggestions for how to navigate that, using some of this emotional research that you’ve been focused on?

Sarah: Sure, I think that, I’m going to go back to my transparency again. But having ground rules, especially if your class is focused on a topic that is likely to generate some of this heat, starting the semester with ground rules about respect, about open dialogue, and then also with the tapping back to control and then autonomy, giving students some power over that. So, on Twitter, people are sharing stories about how to charge the class to sit down and develop, with an agreement about how we’re going to debate things together. And students would make suggestions and some of this is done on Wikis… that’s really interesting work. So I think acknowledging that, and I think this is going to vary a lot on different campuses. And I’ve seen that… I do some traveling around doing workshops and talks, and I see that variability. Different campuses very politically in terms of whether they’re left leaning or right leaning… The students vary in their degree to which they’re politically active or interested. On my campus, I find that students are reluctant to debate some of these issues, and that we have to bring them to the table. Whereas I talked to people in some other campuses where they have to cool down the whole class because everybody’s jumping in. So I think the strategies will vary a lot based on your student body and the topic that you’re teaching. But I think ground rules about respect, especially collectively sourced, can be very powerful… and getting students some say,

Rebecca: It sounds like maybe this book is coming out just in time, so we can all prepare for 2020. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

I was at Wellesley College, I think, a year ago. They were asking me about the topic of the book, Hivemind, and they were saying the same thing. They were like, “Oh, this is so timely.” And one of the women, as she looked at me with such dismay, and she was like, “I really hope it’s not still timely by the time the book comes out.” …that we resolve some of these issues. But now it’s coming out in a few weeks and I don’t think we’ve solved much.

John: Is some of it, though, a shift from national media, where the major newspapers and TV stations and so forth had to appeal to a broader audience, so they aimed at the middle of the spectrum? And now we’ve diversified, as has happened in many other areas with music and arts as well, so that now any particular point of view can develop its own hive, and extreme views can spread perhaps more easily,

Rebecca: …like the long tail idea?

Sarah: Yes, I definitely think there’s a lot to that. And I think that some of those things are, when we’re not looking politically, necessarily are really positive. It allows social media and has allowed people of like mind to find other people of like mind in terms of like hobbies or interests, or people who share their life experiences. I interviewed some people in the book who have had those experiences: there’s no one that understood them, or if they were disconnected from their heritage, and they were able through social media to connect. But I think that it is more dangerous when it’s news sources and politics.

John: One of the issues I’ve seen in my classes in the last several years is that people used to disagree about policy outcomes, but they generally didn’t disagree about basic facts and evidence. And now I’m seeing a lot of that in classes in ways I’ve never seen until the last few years. How can we deal with that type of an issue?

Sarah: Yeah, there’s some great people working on this issue. Mike Caulfield has a whole fact checking literacy. It’s a free online PDF, a book, and he has what he calls “Four Moves to Fact Checking.” And what I really love about this is it ties into the emotional piece and understanding how humans work. Because other approaches to fact checking in media literacy are really laborious. There are 12 steps… and I think unrealistic for how we engage with information. And he has, I don’t know each one of his moves. But there four moves for checking facts in which students can quickly advocate for certain information and look for the background… look for actual scholarly sources on it and get to a better place of is this actually information that’s true. And I do it with my own students, my intro Psych students, we do a little fact check on a couple different memes [LAUGHTER] to get them used to that sort of thing. Because if we can’t agree on facts, then we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.

Rebecca: It sounds to me like talking about emotions in general, no matter what your class ia, could be a benefit in helping students understand and sort through the difference between an emotional response to something versus a cognitive response to something,

Sarah: Right, I think so too. My research background is in emotion regulation. And in the book, I advocate for using cognitive reappraisal, which is an emotion regulatory technique in which you reinterpret the situation or the emotion that you’re having. And there’s some really fascinating work being done using cognitive reappraisal to people on two sides of intractable conflicts, and it is effective… and I think, using emotion regulation and regulating our own information, especially as it intersects with facts, especially facts that are political. I absolutely agree it’s going to be a critical strategy.

Rebecca: Do you have like a Cliff notes version of that, that you could share with folks who are maybe not in your field, that we could share that information with students?

Sarah: Yes. Sure. I think that’s one of the basic examples that I give for cognitive reappraisal is, you know, if you’re fired, you got a pink slip at work. And you could interpret that on the one hand as “You are a failure, you’re never going to have another job, that this is a devastating loss.” And that’s going to lead you down a directory of a certain emotional response. Or you could rephrase it as “You know, the company is downsizing and it’s nothing personal, that you would always want to just shift careers to these and this is an opportunity to do that.” And that set of appraisals or interpretations is going to set you on a very different emotional path. I think that reappraising some of these “us versus them…” You talk to people on either side of the political spectrum and about the opposing political side… and there’s also a lot of dehumanizing speech: they’re monsters, they’re evil. I think when we engage in those appraisals, it’s just going to drive us further and further apart. And so reappraising those, yes, disagree with this person on this policy, but trying to see their perspective… going to have that conversation, framing them as a human being who has different opinions than you, rather than a monster or a creature, I think, are powerful ways of trying to step back from some of the heat of this polarization.

John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next?

Sarah: I want to answer it on two levels. One on the like Spark education level. With my colleague, James Lang, we’re focusing our attention and have some grants out the door on grading. And so you think about emotions in the classroom, emotional moments in the classroom, I think being graded and handing back a grade… students’ reactions to grades as one of the most emotional moments. There’s a lot of literature showing that students find receiving grades demotivating. Sometimes if they get a lower grades than they expected, they won’t read any of that careful feedback. And it can be unreliable, from professor to professor, from student to student, there are biases… gender biases… racial biases… in grading. And so I think we kind of need to fix grading, and that’s what we’re turning our attention towards next. On the writing side, I’m working on a book proposal that’s going to remain mostly secret, but it’s gonna be something fun. [LAUGHTER] I don’t want to think about politics anymore. I sometimes joke that writing Hivemind, it’s like I sat down and developed, like, “How many hate lists can I get on? “ And that’s like the farewell to the chapter outlines.

Rebecca: So now you need balance, you need to get on the good list, right?

Sarah: So I might do something like a little fun. It will still be psychology and neuroscience, personal anecdotes, and interviews and things like that, but one that has nothing to do with politics.

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice place to be.

Sarah: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been really interesting and I think faculty as they’re getting started in the new semester will take advantage of some of this information as they move forward.

Sarah: Awesome. Thank you. This has been such a pleasure,

John: Thank you. And I’m looking forward to the arrival of Hivemind which should be in early September, I believe.

Sarah: Yep. September 3,

John: it will be out by the time this podcast is released.

Rebecca: Yeah, September 4.

Sarah: Oh, that’s so cool. my publicist will be so pleased.

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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.

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.

[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: 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.