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.

89. Teaching About Race

Class discussions of race and racism can be difficult for all participants. In this episode, Dr. Cyndi Kernahan joins us to discuss ways of building a classroom climate in which these issues may be productively explored.

Cyndi is a psychology professor and Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. She’s the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor, which will be available from West Virginia University Press in Fall 2019. The book will be part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Series edited by James Lang.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Class discussions of race and racism can be difficult for all participants. In this episode, we discuss ways of building a classroom climate in which these issues may be productively explored.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Cyndi Kernahan, a psychology professor and Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. She’s also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor, which will be available from West Virginia University Press in Fall 2019. The book will be part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Series edited by James Lang. Welcome, Cyndi.

Cyndi: Thanks.

John: Welcome. Our teas today are:

Cyndi: I actually I just have water although I am a big tea drinker usually.

Rebecca: I’m drinking golden-tipped English Breakfast tea.

John: That’s a new one.

Rebecca: I know I’m branching out! [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have blueberry green tea today.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your forthcoming book, Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor. Can you tell us a little bit about the book?

Cyndi: Yeah, the book is essentially my answer to a question to my earlier self. So when I started teaching about the psychology of racism about 20 years ago, when I first started here, I felt desperately in need of help, because I’d always wanted to teach about the psychology of racism but it was much more difficult than I anticipated, as most teaching often is. And I was very young and new and I wanted a guidebook and there really wasn’t one. And so I kind of have had it in my mind for a long time and about five years ago, I started thinking seriously about how to do it. So the book is meant to be sort of a guidebook. It’s got both my own experiences, but also a lot of evidence in it. I’m a social psychologist, so there’s a lot of evidence from my field that I think is very easily translatable to the classroom in terms of how to learn and how to think about these issues because they’re hard to teach. It’s hard to teach about racism, I think. There’s a lot of difficulty in it. There’s a lot of evidence and also just sort of my overall philosophy about how we can teach it in compassionate but very honest ways. And so that’s my overall thinking…making sure that you tell the truth but that you tell the truth in a way that doesn’t alienate your students and keeps them engaged, which I think is kind of a can be a difficult line to walk. So, that’s kind of what it’s about. It covers a lot of different things, student resistance, creating a good climate, how to take care of yourself as an instructor when you teach this sort of stuff. But, those are some of the basic ideas.

John: A few years ago, with the election of Obama, there was some people who claimed that we had moved to a post-racial society. I think evidence since then has shown that that hasn’t quite been the case.

Cyndi: Yeah.

John: And I think the book is particularly well timed because these issues are in the forefront with the news all the time. How do you begin to address issues of race in your classes?

Cyndi: First of all, I think that idea of the post-race thing is really interesting, and I see it a lot in students. I mean, I’m just finishing up teaching this class now. We’re in our last week of classes now, it’s finals next week. And when most of my students, most of whom are white, came to the class a lot of them just have this colorblind idea, which is similar to the idea of post-race, like we’re done…sorted that out in the 60s, it’s all good. And it’s obviously not…and so they believe that we’re in this equal playing field, which we’re not really in obviously. And so that’s kind of a starting point. I talk about that in the book, this colorblind ideology that most Americans share. The first order of business is sort of getting through that. And so there’s, I think, two main things that most students and most people (especially white people) need to understand. One is that colorblindness isn’t really possible, even though we think it should be the norm, it’s not really the ideal. So that’s one thing, but then also that there is this larger structure of what people in my field would call institutional racism or structural racism. And that’s the piece that I think most white people, most students don’t really get: that racism is not as people said, individual acts of meanness, it’s also these bigger things that affect us that we don’t think about. That’s usually where I start. We talked about what race is and what it’s not, what institutional racism is, and what it’s not. So I think that mostly answers your question as to where we start.

John: And that feeling of colorblindness is that more unique to white students, perhaps than students of color?

Cyndi: I think it’s more unique, but it’s not exclusive to white students. Students of color can often struggle with that understanding of institutional racism, and structural and cultural racism, as well. If you look at attitude surveys, it’s not unusual for people of color to say that they don’t necessarily see it in institutional or structural terms. Or you’ll see surveys, they’ll ask, “What’s more important? Individual behavior or institutional laws and policies?” And almost all Americans with the exception of really recent immigrants and Native Americans, I think, say that the individual behavior is more important. And as a social psychologist, I would say, actually they’re both important. But as far as what impacts your life more, it’s those big, broad institutional, cultural stuff. So I think white students are more likely, but not only.

John: How do you make students more aware of those issues? How can you help get them past that notion of color blindness?

Cyndi: One answer is a lot of evidence, but it’s how you deliver that evidence. My usual way to try to get these things across is to combine a lot of statistical evidence, a lot of broad evidence, with stories and examples that are representative. So I try really hard in my content, like I don’t just cover a bunch of psychology experiments, and I don’t just cover statistics. I try to have that together with individual stories of people’s experiences. And I also think discussion is really key. So I don’t lecture in this course, really much at all. I’ll do some mini-lectures. But, that’s never the main thing that I’m doing because I think it’s really important for them to read, and then come to class and process all that stuff. Because the number one thing that happens, again going back to the misconceptions they come in with, is that they realize that there’s all this stuff that they didn’t know. So we cover a lot of history, for example, and there’s all this history of how we got to the racial categories that we have now that they’re just like, “No one told me this.” And they need to hear other students say that too. That’s part of also creating that climate is like, “Oh, I’m not weird or stupid for not knowing this. All these other people didn’t know it either.” And we talked a lot about, “It makes sense that you wouldn’t know because we don’t really teach it in our K-12 system very well for most students.” So, I think it’s a bunch of things. I think it’s what the content looks like, it’s how the class is structured, it’s how the evidence is presented. I think all those things matter.

Rebecca: Many faculty members avoid talking about race, especially in classes that are not about race specifically.

Cyndi: Yeah.

Rebecca: So can you address maybe why faculty do that, and how to help faculty overcome that fear?

Cyndi: I think fear is the main reason. And there’s different types of fear. One is: I don’t want to be the bad guy and I don’t want to be confrontational, which is understandable. Many years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who taught in our English department, and she was teaching something called ethnic film and literature. And at the time, I was coordinating ethnic studies, and I really wanted her to teach that class again so that I could get it back into the rotation. And she just told me…we were at a party and she said, “I’m not teaching that anymore.” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because I have to fight with them about whether or not racism is a real thing. And I don’t want to do that anymore.” She didn’t want to put up with the resistance, essentially. And she didn’t want to have to be what she felt like was the bad guy to deal with that resistance. And so I think that’s a big piece of it. If I try to tell students the truth about this stuff, they’re just going to resist and then I’m going to have to deal with that discomfort. And that’s a real fear, particularly for instructors of color. I mean, they’re all these national examples, right? …of people getting called out by their universities for basically just telling the truth in their classes and trying to teach institutional racism. The most famous example was Shannon Gibney over at Minneapolis Community and Technical College near where I live, and she was officially reprimanded by her University, basically for teaching what I teach, because she was getting pushback from white students, essentially. So I think that’s part of it. Also, it creates a lot of dissonance in students which was related to the resistance, so knowing how to deal with that dissonance can help students feel okay about themselves even as they recognize that they hold a lot of these beliefs and they haven’t really been very critical about it. So I think that all those things, all those types of fears play into why you don’t see people covering it.

Rebecca: How do you suggest maybe faculty get over that or feel prepared for that resistance or can actually deal with that in the classroom and not feel shocked or distressed or overwhelmed.

Cyndi: The big key, I think, is being prepared and feeling like you know how to talk about it. I’ve also heard a lot of instructors say, “I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge.” For white instructors, they feel like they don’t have the right or the credibility to talk about it. So that’s sort of an issue, and for instructors of color, there’s a whole other set of things. If you look at the research for them, there’s just a ton of microaggressions that they often have to deal with. They’re also seen as not being credible purveyors of this information. So that’s an issue. So I think just a couple things: one being as prepared as possible. So knowing your subject really well…being clear that when you teach the class, you’re gonna be clear with the students like, this is the evidence we’re going to use. So you’re not coming at it, like it’s all people’s personal experiences or opinions. That I think is where it gets especially hard. But if you know that, you’re going to come back to this scholarly base of evidence that usually makes most of us more comfortable, because that’s how we roll. …and people had this misunderstanding of teaching about race: “Well, it’s all just opinion.” I once had a student say, “How could you possibly give us a test on this? I mean, it’s just all people’s opinions.” I was like, “No, not quite. [LAUGHTER] There’s definitely evidence there. There’s psychology, there’s sociology, and there’s history and we’re going to use all of those things.” So I think that part of it is knowing that you have this common base of information. And also knowing what to expect…how to deal with the resistance, knowing what the resistance looks like, I have a whole chapter on what resistance looks like and how it manifests in white students versus students of color and how to think about it and how to deal with it. So I think that can be helpful too.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about maybe one or two ways that we tend to see resistance and a couple of strategies that we might be able to use to overcome that?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think, in general, what you see with the research is that white students tend to be more resistant than students of color in general. They tend to be more vocal about it than students of color. One sort of broad distinction you sometimes see is that students of color are more likely to leave if they’re the minority in the classroom. So, if you have mostly white students (which is a lot of what I deal with, and maybe I have a few students of color), you might get more passive resistance on the part of the students of color, they sort of withdraw a little bit more, because they don’t want to be the one student saying things in the class and then being really looked at or targeted in that way. And for white students, they just tend to be more comfortable speaking up about this, particularly in the primarily white environments. So I think the ways to get around resistance are: 1. always sort of coming back to the evidence that you’re using. And if you set the table at the beginning of the class that can usually work so you can come back to: “Okay, here’s what we’re going to focus on.” So for example, I’ve had students say in class, when we talk about wealth disparities or something, they might bring up a particular person that they know who doesn’t fit that. And so what I found is useful as I don’t fight with them about whether or not their story is true. I don’t know the wealth of this individual family of color. So if I tell you that the wealth disparity is like 10 times… white families have on average 10 times the wealth that black families have…and they say, “No, no, there’s this one family I know. And they’re, they’re really, really rich…,” you know, as sort of an anecdotal thing. That’s a way you see resistance manifest, right? And so instead of arguing back and forth about whether or not that family is rich, which is useless, you can just undercut that and talk about the general wealth disparity. So, that’s one way to do it. That’s obviously pretty mild resistance. If you have consistently students questioning evidence, which doesn’t happen as much as you might think, bt it can happen, but it can happen, then I sometimes will take that out of class. For students of color, the way I try to work with the resistance you often see there, which is that sort of passive withdrawal because again, they don’t want to be targeted within a predominantly white classroom, one technique I use is to send an email really early in the semester that says something along the lines of, “We’re going to be talking about racism all semester. Your classmates may look to you to be a representative, just know that I know that you don’t need to do that. That’s not your job. And I’m not going to expect that of you, because I want to try to make those students especially feel as safe as possible. And I also recognize too, I reinforce to them: “I’m a scholarly expert on this. But this is your lived experience and I recognize that. Not saying that one is better than the other, but just I see you and I see that your experience is going to be different than the white students in the class. And so that’s the way I try to short circuit that withdrawal from class as much as possible. And most students, at least so far, have appreciated that…and also just acknowledging way up front that this is going to be new to you. You’re going to be uncomfortable, I put it in the syllabus: “You’re going to feel uncomfortable, this is not comfortable stuff to talk about, and so just know that it’s coming.” So those are a few things.

John: Do you recommend having the class come up with rules of engagement or discussion on these issues.

Cyndi: I definitely do. I mean, I have some that I think are important, but I let them drive that discussion. And then I add them in if I feel like maybe they’ve missed them, or something. And I usually have them. Actually, I think I learned this from an earlier version of your podcasts, someone was on talking about having the students working groups to develop their rules of engagement. And so I did a little bit of that on the first day this semester, let them talk about it in small groups before we talked about it in large groups. And then I just take a picture of what those agreed upon discussion groups are and I post them up on Canvas, so that that way they can come back to them. Yeah, we have a whole discussion about discussion: about what it should look like in our class, how we want to engage. One big question we always talk about is do you want to raise your hands or just talk? How do you want to handle somebody upset? They always think it’s going to be more contentious than it actually is, at least so far in my experience. I haven’t had a whole bunch of anger or confrontation. So that’s been so far that’s worked well.

Rebecca: What are some of the consequences of not dealing with race specifically in classes or subject matter that doesn’t directly indicate that race is going to be a part of the conversation? So we often hear this from faculty in math or science, or I would even say in my area of design where it’s not obvious that race might be something that should be discussed. What are the consequences of completely avoiding it?

Cyndi: Well, obviously it marginalizes it. So, it turns it into something that only some people can do. Only some people can cover these topics, only some people are allowed to on some level. And it’s interesting you ask that because this has come up on my campus in the last couple of years in a couple of different ways. Because we have, I don’t know if you all have it, a diversity requirement, but we do. So we have one course, American Cultural Diversity, that students are supposed to take. And there’s been sort of a…fight is a strong word, but…argument over who should be teaching those courses. And I don’t think just anyone should be teaching them. But I do think people can develop an expertise within their own field. So for example, I have a colleague (and we have a very big agriculture college on my campus), and she teaches soil science and crop production and all that sort of thing. So that’s an area where you think, where’s the race going to be that but it’s deeply in it because she’s teaching these future farmers and folks working in that industry. And there’s so many immigrants that work in farming. So she developed and she developed the expertise on this. And she developed a class on immigration…migrant farm workers, essentially. She and I talked about that course many times when she was in the process of developing and starting to teach it. She teaches it regularly. And I think the advantage of that is that, for the students who are majoring in that college, that’s going to feel very relevant for them. And so again, I think people have to develop some expertise to do it, and then they need some tools for how to teach it. But we all need tools for how to teach it because it’s hard. So, I think it’s important because it allows people to be more motivated to see how it relates to their specific field. I also have a colleague in math, who has talked a lot about trying to develop some courses around race and whiteness and math. You may recall, there was a math professor, I think, in Illinois, who was writing about white privilege and math and got a lot of haters online, essentially. Basically a really good scholarly analysis about the way white privilege works in math. And that stuff is really useful for students. It helps them connect in ways that are relevant to them.

John: You mentioned using narrative. While evidence is useful, it doesn’t always reach all of the students. I’ve been teaching about discrimination in my labor economics classes for decades. And it’s remarkable how resistant people are to facts. Because they rely on the sort of narratives: “My third cousin twice removed is this exceptional case. And it means all this evidence is wrong.” But you mentioned using narrative perhaps in a constructive way to help students understand that. Could you give us some examples of that?

Cyndi: Yeah, sure. Like the example that pops to mind right away was a really powerful piece that I used this semester on black maternal death rates, you may know that they’re wildly disparate, right? There’s a huge health disparities when it comes to race and healthcare. And so there was a really nice piece that was actually in the New York Times Magazine. That was this really good combination of a personal story of one woman and her experience. She lost a baby and then she was pregnant again and dealing with that… and there have been all these famous cases. Serena Williams most famously talked about her complications during birth and not being believed by doctors. So this piece was really great because they both had her story but then woven into it, it was a really well written piece. It had all the statistics, the differences…And the students…I gave it to them over a two-day period, because it was pretty long, and we discussed it for two days. And I just used it as this larger example of implicit bias in the healthcare industry. And these larger statistics on the disparities, the wealth gap…it illustrated a bunch of things that we had already covered. And the students loved it. It was hard for them to read, but they were very engaged with it. And some of the questions I got were excellent. And I’ll just say, too, I think one important thing is that when you come into a discussion, it’s really important to have a base to discuss with. And so, every day they have to read and post questions. I don’t give like reading quizzes, but they have to post questions so that I know that they read or at least mostly read, and I grade them. Because if you don’t do that, then your discussion is not good at all. If people don’t have a base of evidence to work from, you’re not going to get anywhere. And so those types of materials…I’m always looking for them…where they have that combo of the broad statistics and also the individual stories…and yeah, I know economics, it’s really tough to get those pieces. It’s the same for psychology can be really hard to find, but they’re useful.

John: Well, certainly in immigration and discrimination in labor markets, there’s a lot of examples out there and lots of good content.

Cyndi: Yeah, there definitely is. You just got to always be on the lookout.

Rebecca: So, what happens when it’s a conversation where the discussion point wasn’t going to be race, but then it becomes race. There isn’t a piece that you’re going to discuss ahead of time. But it pops up in conversation, it needs to be addressed. Do you have any strategies for handling those more impromptu situations that occur?

Cyndi: Well, for me, I think I always go back to then, either being honest that I don’t know enough to comment on it. What that question makes me think of are when students will bring up current examples, either that I don’t know or that I don’t know enough about. And so I will always try if I can to find some relevant psychological data or evidence or sociological data or evidence that I can bring it back to. And there have been times when if current events are happening, and I feel like I don’t know enough, I’ll just say, I don’t think we know enough. So if we have time, maybe we all spend a few minutes on our phones trying to find some information and you can do that right in class sometimes. But I always see myself as sort of a guide in terms of helping them sort through what the larger patterns are in terms of that evidence. And I think if you create a decent enough climate where they trust you, that usually can work. But yeah, the impromptu stuff can be tough, particularly if it’s not your area. I think that’s where, again, being prepared is hard. And I think you can just say, if this isn’t your area, like, “Let me go and find some more. Let me go find some stuff out and then we’ll come back to it.”

John: On dealing with things in the moment, how would you recommend people respond if someone makes a comment that somewhat racist without realizing the impact of that?

Cyndi: A really good example of that happened actually in a colleague’s classroom on campus this semester, and he called me after it. I forget what the term was, but a student had used a term in class that he found offensive and he was pretty sure other students found offensive and he didn’t really deal with it in the moment. And so he called me and asked what I thought. And I think one of the strongest ways to deal with that is, oftentimes, students don’t realize or people don’t realize that a turn might be offensive, or it might seem offensive. And so a lot of times, and what I advised him (and he said, it worked pretty well) is to go into those conversations, discussing it in terms of kind of a growth mindset idea. You know, here’s this term that was used…it’s offensive for some folks, but some folks might not understand why and then maybe talking about why that is. The word “colored” gets used a lot… “colored people.” And it makes sense in some ways that white students now who are very young wouldn’t know that that was an offensive term in the 50s and 60s. And so they use that term because they hear people say, people of color and then so colored people seems like a normal permutation of that, right? But it’s really not. It has this very unique history and so you could talk about how “Here’s this history that you may not have understood. And here’s this term that people didn’t use to describe themselves, it was used about them. And so that’s part of what makes it offensive.” And it’s normal that language changes and it evolves. And there’s plenty of examples you can bring up around that, like we talked in my classes about the word queer and the way that shifted over time…and language evolves…and so just sort of accepting that you’re going to make mistakes, you’re probably going to say things that might be offensive, but what’s the mindset that you bring to that? Do you bring the mindset that it’s normal, and you’ll figure it out, and you have to make your classroom safe for that too. So that it’s not like people are being called out and told that they’re saying the wrong word. We talked a lot in class about the difference between willful ignorance, like, “I know it’s wrong, but I’m gonna say it anyway” and just ignorance…like just really not knowing and coming out that and I give examples of my own, like times I screwed up…things I’ve said that were wrong, as a way to help them see that you’re never finished. I’ve been doing this for like 20 years, and I still make mistakes. I think that helps.

John: When you’re setting the classroom discussion rules, would that be a good time to bring that up?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think so. I think that you could, you could talk about expecting people to make mistakes. In the rule setting phase, you can talk about not expecting perfection, and how people will make mistakes and that’s all right, and ways to sort of come back from that, and gently talk about it rather than calling people out.

Rebecca: How do you handle microaggressions or other behaviors that might happen in class, that aren’t just like a word or whatever, but it’s something that’s happening or you see a pattern of behavior with a particular student. And maybe it’s something that you feel like you need to handle one on one. How do you usually handle those kinds of conversations?

Cyndi: Dealing with those. It’s usually much better one on one, because again, just like anybody, if you if you were to call someone out in class, then you’re likely to just get defensiveness and nobody’s going to be able to hear it. So what I’ve done in the past has been to talk to students one on one rather than to frame it as “You’re a bad person for doing this,” it’s like, “This is what I’m seeing. This is the pattern that I’m seeing. This is how I think it could be perceived” …and then just listening to what you hear. And you have to have a fair amount of trust with a student to be able to do that. But in general, I think whenever it comes to talking about someone’s racist behavior, it’s always better to focus on the behavior rather than the person. This is why when you hear national conversations about is that person a racist, I always want to throw my radio or my phone or whatever because it’s so frustrating to hear it framed in that way. “Is someone a racist?” is not a useful question. And I never quite sure what that means, because the goalposts always move, in terms of like how we think about what that word means. So, instead, focusing on the behavior, this is the pattern I’m seeing this is a problem. And I think if you’re in a moment where (this would be less with students, but more with colleagues) where you’re seeing this happen, and it’s directed at a person who has a lot less power in that moment… so like, a person of color, for example…you could step in and say, “This is what I’m seeing, and this is how I think about it.” So you’re not putting it on the person who was maybe the target of it. But you are saying in that moment, I see this and I see that this is a problem. That can be harder to do and less with students, I think more with colleagues. But, in general, it’s just sort of noting that it’s happening and being honest about it without necessarily saying you’re a bad person for doing this.

John: Last fall, we had a reading group addressing some of these issues. And one of the issues that came up in a lot of discussions is how to address these issues with colleagues, particularly those who are evaluating you for retention, promotion, and similar issues…

Rebecca: or hiring…

Cyndi: That is so hard when someone is in a position of power. Because if you’re the job candidate, there’s just no way that you’re going to be able, in that moment, to be able to do that.

John: What if you’re a junior faculty member on, for example, a recruitment committee and you observe comments or behavior that seems to be biased in some way. What would you suggest to a faculty member in that position?

Cyndi: I think you could go back to the sort of something called micro resistance. And there’s been a little bit written about this. In terms of how to deal with it, again, not making it about the person but just saying like, this is what I’m hearing, this is what I’m seeing. This is how I feel about it. And so you make it more about yourself. In extreme situations, and I’ve certainly been in them and seen them, you could go to other people that you trust on the committee and say, “This is what I’m seeing. This is what I’m hearing.” This is slightly different, but I had a slightly different but I had a student come to me last week and say that she’s in another course. And she’s hearing this from an instructor. And so then I was able to go to that department chair and say, what’s happening? So, I think using your mentors, using your colleagues, if you’re in that lower-power position; and if you’re in a higher-power position in those same spaces, try not to make the target responsible for that. If you’re a man, and you’re seeing sexism, it’s useful to just call that out. And again, not calling the person out, but just saying, “This is what I’m seeing. This is the pattern.” We talked about this actually, there’s an interesting anecdote in my class this last week. We were talking about this micro resistance thing and one of the students is a softball player and she’s on the softball team. According to her, there’s one black softball player on the team and everybody else is white. And, according to my student, whenever racist things will come up, like, they’ll all look at the black student to ask her “Is this okay?” And we talked in class about like, maybe that’s not fair to put that on the student of color. This white student feels like she really wants to be an ally, like she really wants to be an advocate. So we talked about, well, maybe you just say what you think about it, rather than asking her “Is it okay?” or going to her afterwards and saying, “Do you feel okay about this?” Because what is she going to say in that moment? I mean, she’s in the minority…the black student is, and so I think that can be a useful way to think about it too, because a lot of times we want the person who’s lower in power to like, excuse it and make it okay. And that’s really not fair. And I think it happens just because people don’t think about the power dynamics at all. They just don’t think about it. It doesn’t occur to them. And so trying to be more intentional about what is the power in this situation and trying to be more fair.

John: One of the issues if there’s a small number of minorities in a class, one potential issue might be stereotype threat. What are the consequences of that? And how can we address that perhaps by making it a more supportive environment?

Cyndi: Yeah, stereotype threat is really interesting. I know a lot about this. Actually, I’ve given lots of workshops on this, in addition to like implicit bias and stuff, too. And it’s a real problem. The consequences are…they’re sort of short term and long term. So the short-term consequences of stereotype threat is that you have students who underperform. So in a test situation or on a writing assignment, where you have a student who is feeling stereotype threat as a result of race or gender or social class. And so then it just create that extra layer of anxiety and stress, essentially. And it’s not always apparent. And you don’t necessarily know that that’s what you’re experiencing. But we know from the neuroscience research that, you just have less working memory in those moments because of stereotype threat. And so the short-term threat is that you underperform. The long-term consequence is that students disengage from the area altogether. So this is why we hear.…I’ve heard it so many times from my female advisees…“I’m not a math person. I’m not a science person. And I think it happens in art as well. I don’t know about design specifically…

Rebecca: um hmm.

Cyndi: …but you’ll get like, I’m not an art person. I’m not creative.

Rebecca: I can’t draw.

CUNDI: I can’t draw, yeah, that’s it. That one’s, I think, less about race, maybe a little bit more about gender, but it’s a very similar thing of like, “I don’t feel like I can do this. I’m not creative.” And so I’m just going to withdraw from it altogether. And so you see what Claude Steele calls dis-identification. So I’m just going to dis-identify with that field. It’s just not my thing. I’m going to go get my self esteem somewhere else. And obviously, that has serious consequences if the thing you’re dis-identifying with is school altogether. And so that’s why we see this underperformance over time with students of color and with women in math and science. The ways to get around that…there are a few. There’s a whole set of interventions that social psychologists have developed that can be really powerful. I guess I would send listeners to the mindset network web page. I don’t know if y’all have ever seen that. It’s mindsetscholarsnetwork.org. But it’s a bunch of social psychologists who have gotten together to create these really pretty low-cost interventions around increasing belonging…using values affirmations… Utility value is another one…growth mindset. There’s a bunch of them and there’s a little tweaks that you can do in your classes to help that. The other big intervention, and you can sort of call that active pedagogy. So there’s really good research that the more active your class is, that’s going to be good for everybody. But, it’s especially good for your students of color your first-generation students and your students who are women in math and science and engineering courses, where they’re more likely to feel that thread. That as an intervention itself is really great. There’s a ton of really nice discussions of that, and studies of that that you can find in terms of active pedagogy being an inclusive pedagogy. Because, in general, you want students to have a sense of belonging and you want them to feel included, and that’s going to help to undercut that, because really all stereotype threat is about is about a lack of trust. So everybody thinks it’s a lack of confidence in the student. It’s not. They don’t trust the environment to be fair, and so that’s why they disengage and they pull back. And so you want to you want to do everything you can to keep that trust.

John: …and they build more of a sense of community with their fellow students.

Cyndi: Absolutely.

John: I’m going to our conference in a few weeks, and one of the activities there is something called “sip and paint.” A friend of mine tried to convince me to do that. And my reaction was “No, the last time I painted I think I was seven years old.” [LAUGHTER] So, there’s a gender issue perhaps with the artwork thing.

Cyndi: Creativity. Yeah.

John: You mentioned implicit bias. My labor classes are online and one of the things I do is I have them take some of the Implicit Association tests, and then discuss them. And they tend to be pretty comfortable discussing many of them, but they tend to be much less comfortable discussing race.

Cyndi: Oh yeah.

John: But one of the things that led to some really good discussions are the associations between gender and careers.

Cyndi: Yeah.

John: And a lot of female students remark on how surprised they are that they associate women with home activities and men with careers. But, one of the things I note from the students who tend to perhaps have the more resistant attitudes towards facts in general, from other discussions, is that they tend to question the tests themselves and say, it’s clearly set up to demonstrate a bias when that bias really doesn’t exist. And those students are really hard to reach and we can keep giving them facts. But I’ve never been completely successful in getting through that barrier, at least in any one course. Any suggestions?

Cyndi: It’s really tough. As a social psychologist, I feel pretty comfortable talking about the Implicit Association test, but it is really hard to describe well, so that’s one problem with it, because you try to explain “No, no, like 25 years of research…” When I still had paper versions of the literature, I gotta bring in my big giant folder and I just sort of slap it on the desk and be like, “They’ve been studying this since 1995. But, like you said, the facts don’t always help. One thing I think that helps with them understanding implicit associations, is to depersonalize i… and I have some great podcast and book suggestions and article suggestions on how to help them understand what implicit associations are. But really, it’s not about them as a bad person. And that is one way I found to get at it. There’s a phrase that gets used by Mahzarin Banaji, who was one of the test co-creators and she talks about implicit associations as the thumbprint of the culture, which is really accurate, you know. So it’s not you’re a bad person, you have implicit bias… like, we all have it and it’s the thumbprint of the culture. You’ve been learning since you were a baby, what’s associated? what’s good and what’s bad? I mean, it really is that crude. It is your brain saying, “This group is bad. This group is good” over and over and over again, you get those messages. So if you can de-personalize it, I think that can help a lot. I have found that using the podcasts that I have on it, and some of the more newsy articles and they cite the researchers, that can be really helpful, too. But yeah, it’s they want to criticize the test all day long. I’ve gotten to where I don’t have them take the test until after they have a decent grounding in the science because they’re very resistant to the idea. They think the test just sucks.

John: At least those who have their preconceptions not confirmed in the way they’d like them to.

Cyndi: Yeah, because again, they think this means I’m a bad person. They think it’s the racism test. There’s a King of the Hill episode. I don’t know if y’all have ever seen that show, but I used to love that show. And there’s an episode where Hank has to go take the racism test, because he’s worried that his dog is racist or something. I can’t remember the full thing of the story. But, that episode is one of my favorites because it’s like, “Okay, let’s see if he’s racist.” But, that’s not the way it works, folks. I’ll have students sometimes say like, “We should just have all cops and all teachers and all judges take this test. And then we’d know who to hire…” and I’m like, “There’d be nobody left. There wouldn’t be enough people left to do all these jobs.” And I think if you talk about it in that way, it can make it so that it’s not a moral failing, which is, I think, why they’re so resistant.

Rebecca: I’ve done something as a follow up to doing some of the tests in my classes where I had students look at their portfolio of design work, and just see who was represented in the materials that they made. And what they usually do is discover that either it’s a lot of people that are just like them, or that it’s white and young….

Cyndi: Yeah.

Rebecca: …which some of the people in the class may not fit that particular group, but that’s what they’ve still represented. And that helps a lot, because we talk about, “Well, it’s easier to design for a group of people that you’re around all the time, perhaps”

Cyndi: Yeah.

Rebecca: Or, You know, know what, like this particular population, maybe preferences, if that’s a group that you’re a member of. And that sometimes helps too because it kind of breaks down some of the total ownership or blaming a student for something. It becomes more of that cultural identity piece.

Cyndi: Yeah, you can ask them, like, “Who’s most of your friends? Who’s in your environment?” I have them write journal entries all semester. I don’t say “Go find the racism and tell me about it” I just say like, ”Just tell me what you observe in terms of both race and gender.” Just like “What do you see? Who’s doing what jobs? Who’s in what space?” and that helps them too to start to see the stuff that they just sort of take for granted, because it’s the water that we all swim in. We’re all very segregated. And so I think it’s good for students to recognize that and then how that plays itself out in who you select to design, for example, and who comes into your consciousness. So again, thumbprint of the culture rather than moral failing…bad person.

Rebecca: I also do an activity in my capstone class where I ask students like, who are there five designers that inspire them, and then I end up with a pretty small list when we aggregate all of them together. And then I say, I’m going to ask this question again later in the semester, and I expect these lists to be really different. [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: Yeah, that’s good…makes them explicitly think about it.

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

Cyndi: I want to write more about these issues. What I really want to do is run some workshops for faculty. I’ve done a couple. Most of my workshops have been on stereotype threat and
implicit bias. So I would like to run more workshops on this topic in particular, like how do you teach about racism rather than teaching inclusively. That’s fun to talk about too. But how do you how do you teach about race and racism? I would love to do more of that. And I would also like to write more about these issues. Because I think it’s hard to do. And so I would like to just have more conversation. I’m also hoping eventually to maybe write a different book about inclusive pedagogy. We’ll see. I’m not sure. it’s a ways off.

John: And when is your book coming out?

Cyndi: It’s supposed to be November, I believe, November or December.

Rebecca: Well, I know that will probably have a line of people now that really want to make sure they get their hands on your book, because…

Cyndi: I hope so.

Rebecca: …there’s a lot of books that deal with these issues conceptually, but not in a practical way.

Cyndi: I could not find a lot on teaching about it. Like I said, I wanted the guide that I wish I had for myself 20 years ago, but I there’s just there’s not a ton. There’s a lot of good chapters on it in some edited books, but there wasn’t a lot that had sort of an overarching idea. So that’s what I wanted to try to do.

John: We were looking for that just last year. So, we will have it on pre-order very soon.

Rebecca: Yeah, Definitely.

Cyndi: Cool. Thanks.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. This was really great.

Cyndi: Yeah, thanks so much for asking.

John: Thank you.

[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.

73. The Injustice League

Difficult conversations like those around injustice and inequity can be challenging to facilitate no matter the student body, but first-year students have additional barriers to overcome like establishing a sense of belonging on campus. In this episode, Dr. Margaret Schmuhl joins us to discuss how comic books and programming outside of the classroom can help first-year students develop the confidence to engage with complex social issues. Maggie is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Mya Brown – Assistant Professor in the Theatre department at SUNY Oswego
  • Amy Bidwell – Associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness at SUNY Oswego
  • ACUE – Association of College and University Educators – certificate of effective college instruction

Transcript

Rebecca: Difficult conversations like those around injustice and inequity can be challenging to facilitate no matter the student body, but first-year students have additional barriers to overcome, like establishing a sense of belonging on campus. In this episode, we examine how comic books and programming outside of the classroom can help first-year students develop the confidence to engage with complex social issues.

[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.

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Margaret Schmuhl an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome back Maggie.

Maggie: Hi everyone.

John: Good to have you back.

Maggie: It’s good to be here.

John: Our teas today are….

Maggie: I am having a black ginger and peach tea.

Rebecca: Oh, one of John’s favorites.

John: It is [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m having English afternoon tea.

John: And I have Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: Oh, another one of your favorites.

John: I have many favorites.

Maggie: That’s a favorite of mine too.

John: We invited you here to discuss your first-year Signature Course here at as Oswego called the Injustice League: Crime, Justice, and Inequality in Comic Books. Sounds like a really fun course. Can you tell us a little bit about the course and how it differs from your other introductory criminal justice courses?

Maggie: This class was a lot of fun to teach. In the class we read various comic books, we watched different superhero movies and we talked about, within those comic books, what it means to have justice, to recognize injustice, and how society responds to crime and maintains or perpetuates various inequalities in those stories and movies.

Rebecca: How does that class differ from the other classes that you teach in your subject area? Because it’s a First-Year Signature Course, so that has particular meaning at our institution.

Maggie: Yeah. So the signature courses here at SUNY Oswego are about bringing a student engagement aspect to our academic course content. And so in this class there’s a balance of introducing our subject matter (in my case, Criminal Justice Studies) to the students but through a really fun way, but also working with students to help them with their academic success and getting engaged with each other and with our campus community.

Rebecca: Are these usually majors that are in this class or non majors?

Maggie: So I actually had a mix of majors and non majors. I had probably about 19 students. I had about 10 or so majors and so about half of the class were non majors. And they came from a variety of disciplines, including computer science, communication studies, and we even had some undeclared majors in the course.

John: And this is part of a broader initiative that we talked about in a prior podcast, and we will include a link to that in the show notes for anyone who wants to learn more about the first-year signature courses here. So one of the purposes of this, as you said, is to build more of engagement with the college community and also amongst themselves so that students will feel more connected. And one of the first things you did, I believe, was take them on a field trip. Could you tell us a little bit about that field trip?

Maggie: In Oswego, there’s a local comic shop that we ordered some of the students comic books from. In the very first class I asked them which comic books they were interested in purchasing and how many students we’re going to accompany me to the comic book shop here in town. And so to get to the comic book shop, you have to take the public bus, or at least if you don’t have a car, and many first year students don’t, they have to learn how to take the public bus. And so part of this field trip was not only obtaining some of the course materials for the class, but also getting the students familiar with public transit in the town and how to navigate a new place with them. So we arrived at the comic book shop and the owner was very gracious to us. She made us cookies and we had coffee and the students picked up their books and some of them even got some additional materials. We had a lot of fun. It was an amusing trip bringing a bunch of college students on a bus, and some of them their first time using public transit, and the bus drivers were even entertained by the group of us, so we had a really good time.

Rebecca: I think you also discovered the infrequency of the buses….

Maggie: Oh yes.

Rebecca: …in our town, right?

Maggie: Yeah…

Maggie: Oh yes.

John: Particularly on weekends.

Maggie: Yeah, particularly on weekends. We did wait about an hour for the bus on Sunday. So that was a little bit of a lag, but we made it through.

John: I should note that the comic book shop is actually owned by the wife of a former member of my department. It’s Arlene Spizman who runs that store.

Maggie: Yeah, Arlene was wonderful.

John: She’s a very nice person.

Maggie: I didn’t realize she had that connection.

John: In fact, I just finished a paper with her husband.

Rebecca: I’m sure it can be difficult to have an authentic conversation about justice in general, especially with a diverse population of students and maybe students that don’t know each other very well. How did talking about comic books as a way to get into the topic help facilitate those discussions?

Maggie: Comic books offer a different world for students to experience some of the concepts and some of the issues that we struggle with as a society. And so to be able to visually see these issues play out across the panels, it’s a place where students don’t feel nervous or threatened, it feels safe. They’re taking these comic books and they’re finding ways to relate with them and work out some of their preconceived notions or feel like it’s okay to start working on some of these biases and issues in society.

Rebecca: It seems like it has a lot in common with some of the other topics that we’ve talked about on the podcast before, like simulations and role playing, where it’s a place to escape the real world and talk about something really challenging in a so-called fake environment, but really they’re working out real-life issues and biases and all kinds of things that can be really difficult to talk about, but it’s a lot easier to talk about character that’s not real.

Maggie: Absolutely. Yeah. One of the comic books we read is an X-Men comic book called God Loves, Man Kills and we talked a lot about the concept of othering and what it means to target out and marginalize a group of people and in a lot of ways X-Men plays out what has happened in race relations in society and in other groups who have been historically marginalized. And so for students to consume this information through a comic book, they can better reflect on their own experiences and start to understand the position of others in society.

Rebecca: It probably also makes it a lot easier to make mistakes when you’re talking about that. I think sometimes students don’t want to talk about touchy topics because they’re afraid of offending someone or saying something in the wrong way but if it’s not about anybody real….

Maggie:Yeah

Rebecca: …then it’s not going to hurt someone’s feelings.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely…. And another thing that we did in this course right from the get go was to set ground rules for discussion and conversation. And so I had the students come up with various guidelines for discussions and we would write them down so that we could refer back to them as we continued throughout the semester, so that they all understood that they had a responsibility to each other to make sure that everyone was comfortable and safe in this classroom. It really helped to facilitate a lot of these very difficult discussions in a very similar way that comic books themselves kind of help us talk about very critical and very upsetting social issues.

John: They also come in probably very familiar with many of these comics because they’ve seen them in movies, and some of them may have read some of these as well. Could you give us some specific examples of some issues in criminal justice that you were able to address using comic books?

Maggie: In terms of the classroom breakup, we have many students who were avid comic book readers. And we had many students who were somewhat interested in comic books but were more in tuned with the recent TV shows and movies that have come out of Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. And so there’s, you know, quite a range of knowledge around this. But for the most part, most all of the students were interested in some kind of criminal justice aspect of their studies. And so, one of the concepts that we tried to discuss in this class was the issue of mass incarceration in society. And so what we did was we read a book called Bitch Planet, and in this planet, women are incarcerated on another planet. It has a lot of strong connections to some of the ways that society has restricted women’s rights throughout history and how the punishment of women has differed across time and across place. So to be able to see these concepts in a comic book and to talk about the parallels that exist in our society was a really, really cool process for the students.

John: Did you mostly focus on comic books they were familiar with, or you mentioned Bitch Planet, which was one that perhaps many of them hadn’t seen before. Did you bring in many that were things that they hadn’t expected or that they were less familiar with?

Maggie: There was really a mix. I even had some criminology textbooks that had various criminological theories played out in comic book form and we read a few of those to give us a baseline of various theoretical perspectives on criminal behavior. But most of the comic books I’d say we’re falling in the mainstream. I think that’s what students were typically looking forward to, but they really did enjoy the new reboot of Miss Marvel, with Kamala Khan and Bitch Planet and those were perhaps a little more on the periphery than Black Panther and X-Men.

John: How did students react to this? Did they generally find it interesting? Were some students troubled by using comic books? What about the imbalance between those students who were very avid comic book fans with those who were less familiar? How did that play out?

Maggie: Some of the very avid comic book fans in the class had a lot more context to really draw from when discussing histories of the Joker or Black Panther and the development of the character over time. But because comic books have become so popular in mainstream media, with TV shows on Netflix and pretty much a new Marvel movie coming out each year, that students really had a lot to draw from. Students didn’t need a great depth of knowledge of comic books prior to coming to this class.

John: For those students who were avid comic book fans, was it a little more challenging, perhaps, than they expected to look at some of these things through perhaps a more critical lens?

Maggie: I think that comic books, even if you don’t have a great background of reading comic books, or knowing the development of various characters, I think comic books allow for anyone to just pick them up and start thinking about them in a different way. They’re relatively quick reads, which really helps. Students can read them a couple of times and start to reflect back on some of the course concepts and theories that we discussed and how they apply and pull out those very specific examples. So I think the medium of comic books really provides a great range of abilities for students.

Rebecca: What are some of the things that you learned from teaching this class that you started employing in other classes?

Maggie: Oh, that’s a good question. One of the things that teaching the Injustice League has helped me with my other courses is to really think about being explicit with what I expect and what I hope students learn from various assignments and activities. In the Injustice League, students are entering college for the very first time and so they may not always understand why we’re reading this particular article or how it relates to the comic book that we’re reading today. And so for me to slow down as an educator and say that “Here’s why we’re doing this. Here’s what the research is showing us about why low-stakes testing in this class is a good thing.” That’s helped me in my other courses be more explicit with why I’m making decisions in various teaching practices.

Rebecca: Have you done anything else that’s related to bringing more comic books to other classes or field trips or some of the other things that brought the fun piece to the class that I think really energized the group as a whole?

Maggie: In my research methods class, I’m hoping that students will be able to assist in it by going out into the community and surveying people about dating formerly incarcerated persons. And so I think to get them out into the community and to start locating various areas of the community will bring some of that campus engagement aspect to it. In my crime-mapping class we actually started geocoding some of the locations around campus and so these are more upper-division courses but I’m trying to, even though the winter months make it a little more difficult to get outside, but trying to get outside of the classroom and really talk about how important it is to be connected to our community and to understand our relationship with the community.

John: I believe there was also some type of a video or a movie that you showed and I think other classes participated in that. Could you tell us a little bit about that and how it fits into other classes?

Maggie: There was a collaborative effort among some of the first-year signature course instructors to bring our students together in a common place. We ended up watching a episode of Luke Cage and this particular episode really spoke to a lot of the different courses that were being offered in the Signature Course program. Obviously my course, as one that deals with comic books and crime and justice and inequalities, Luke Cage is a very good example of many of the concepts that we talked about in class. But Mya Brown in the theater department also taught a class called Blackish Mirror and it followed the development of black characters on television. And so this was also a really good place for her class to talk about how various stereotypes that they had learned existed and/or were resisted against in Luke Cage. We also had a professor from political science and from communication studies, talk about political organizing or activism in Luke Cage, as well as narrative and the use of narrative in TV shows. We even had a signature course instructor in the health and wellness department… their class made snacks for the students to enjoy at the event.

John: Healthy snacks.

Maggie: Yeah, healthy snacks and it was brilliant. The students loved it. They created a snack mix that could be created and replicated by using ingredients found on campus. So that was a really cool way to bring in even a discipline that’s not necessarily focused on examining social inequalities in media to this event, and so it really spoke to a lot of students across various disciplines.

John: And we should note that, that person was Amy Bidwell, who was on an earlier episode. Were there any surprises in teaching the class that you didn’t expect?

Maggie: The class was a lot of fun. I don’t think I’ve had as much fun teaching any other classes I had teaching this class. It was really fun to pick up a hobby of mine, something like reading comic books, to bring this to the classroom and to start and challenge students to think about the media they consume in a new way, and how it reflects what we do in society and various values that society has. One of the most surprising things in the classroom was really how much of a community the students had at the end of the class. They had been speaking about other courses and working together on other projects and planning their course schedules for the next semester so that others would be in their courses together and so that was a really cool outcome of the class.

John: …and I believe you also opened an Instagram account for the class.

Maggie: I did and so you can follow it @the_injustice_league_oz… each word is underscored. I won’t say that I have many followers on the Instagram account but a lot of the students who did follow it seemed to really enjoy it.

John: And are you going to be teaching this again?

Maggie: I will be teaching this class next fall. So I’m very much looking forward to the next cohort of Injustice League members.

Rebecca: Did you carry on the superhero fantasy world theme throughout the class? You talked about rules for discussion or rules for engagement at the beginning. It’s almost like world building. Did you think about theming that more? Could you talk about how you might have done some of that?

Maggie: All of the designing my syllabus was all thinking of the class as being a part of a group of superheroes as opposed to just a group of students in the class. I even designed the midterm exam to look like a top-secret mission directive from their Professor S, which is me. The secret mission was about identifying various concepts that we talked about in class and applying them to a new comic book that we hadn’t read in the class. And so, in this midterm exam, they got to explore some of their favorites that we may not have gotten to touch on the class. It was a good opportunity for them to get creative and think about how these theories and concerns about justice translate across various stories.

John: And that way, you’re giving them some autonomy, but you’re also helping them develop transfer skills so they can take the things you learned and apply them in new circumstances, which is a really good practice.

Maggie: Even one of my students, when we were discussing moral panics, stopped into my office hours one day and was ecstatic because he had just realized that his journalism course was talking about moral panics, and so to be able to identify these concepts across disciplines was also a really cool outcome of the class.

Rebecca: You talked a bit about the class being really fun to teach. And part of that’s because you brought your hobby and your discipline together. But were there other things that made the class fun? I can imagine that you’ve all thought about yourselves as a part of a league. So maybe that you felt more connected to your students, or am I kind of projecting?

Maggie: Oh, absolutely. So, I called myself Professor S as a play on Professor X in X-men and so the students really loved that and they had a really good time with the way we even addressed each other in the class. The Instagram account even helped create more of a community by bringing in various pictures of each other doing or identifying various comic things across our everyday lives and interactions.

John: How did you first get interested in comic books?

Maggie: Actually, my first interest in comic books came from graphic novels and reading Persepolis as a kid. But, of course, I fell in love with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I’ve watched pretty much all of the movies in chronological order.

Rebecca: Of course [LAUGHTER]

Maggie: I called it “research,” the summer I rewatched them all, it was a wonderful time. After reading a novel like Persepolis it was also something that really got me interested in criminal justice and society and inequalities in social life.

John: Did the students seem more open to discussing some of these issues having been exposed to them through comic books?

Maggie: Comic books reflect a lot of what is going on currently in society and they provide us a way to talk about really difficult topics of racism and sexism and things that occur and that people and students are experiencing in their everyday lives. So using comic books to facilitate these conversations is really important for students just beginning to question some of these processes.

John: One aspect of this course, as you said before, was to help introduce students to college life and help them create bonds and connections. But that also frees you up quite a bit because you don’t have a standard curriculum. Is this the first time you’ve ever taught a class where you didn’t have a fixed amount of material you had to cover in the course?

Maggie: Yeah, so this class was really flexible in that way. As I look back on the class, I’d say that it’s equally as important for us to be talking about some of the content about comic books and the sociological and criminological aspects of them as it was to help students become more connected to their community and to their campus, but also to ensure that they will be successful students at moving forward. And so this class really allowed me to work on some of their questions that would just come up, like calculating a GPA or registering for classes. And so the flexibility that exists in this class lets me respond to the students and their concerns in the moment and to occasionally tie-in some of those issues in current events to what we’re discussing in these comic books.

Rebecca: I could also imagine that it allows for the tangents that might occur as you start talking about something related to the comic book but you think it’s a valuable discussion. But if you have a finite amount of material in a finite amount of time, you might not be able to b go down those rabbit holes, but they can be such valuable conversations.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the flexibility of this course isn’t just to my benefit, but to the students benefit, where they can ask questions and we don’t have to worry about how much material we get through. We don’t have that curriculum that requires various elements to be covered and so the students can explore some of their questions in a very meaningful way.

Rebecca: I think it might be useful to just clarify that these classes are not part of any specific major, and they’re not a prerequisite for anything. So that’s what we’ve been talking about in terms of them being kind of freeing. I don’t know if we explicitly stated that.

John: Did you get to know the students better than you would in a typical introductory class?

Maggie: O ne of the good things about this particular classes is that there were only 19 students, and so it really allowed for me to get to know each of them individually and be able to see their personalities through our discussions and to have that comfort level with the classroom to talk about what made their day not so great today and what they really enjoyed about the weekend. And so to have that sort of informal relationship in a very formal setting was a really cool experience.

Rebecca: I know that one of the things that I’ve been thinking about after hearing many of the faculty who taught the signature classes talk about their classes is just finding ways to have some more of those informal opportunities in class, but also thinking very carefully about the content that I think that needs to be covered versus what maybe actually needs to be covered. There tends to be a disconnect, We think we need to cram in so much stuff. What are some of the key principles and things? And can we go into more depth for some of those if students are interested? And I’ve allowed that to happen a little bit this semester, and it’s been really delightful, I think, for everybody involved.

Maggie: Yeah, that was one of the things that I struggled with in the class. At the very beginning I was treating the class like a topics course and cramming, or at least planning to cram, a ton of information in. A few weeks in, I realized that it just wasn’t going to work for this type of class, that this class really did need time to facilitate these relationships and to help students learn and navigate their first semester here on campus. And so to have that flexibility for them to be able to explore their questions and concerns on campus and off campus was a important part of this class.

Rebecca: Sometimes I think that these functional aspects of being a student can get in the way of learning. So spending the time and just addressing those concerns that are preoccupying a student can free them up to actually think about the content and spend time investigating it. So, if they’re really concerned about figuring out their GPA or really concerned about making sure they’re registering for the right classes, addressing that concern up front can actually free them to focus on learning.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of students, they come into the classroom and they think that college is going to be just like their high school experiences and so that studying in the same ways is going to be effective for them or that GPA’s and what credit hours are. There’s a lot of new information that makes transitioning to college more difficult one then, say, transitioning from their middle school to their high school . And so I think this does give them the time in class to talk with a faculty member to try to work out some of these questions in a way that they may not get to in their other courses and so it does certainly alleviate some of their anxiety around these issues.

Rebecca: When there’s not a context like that I think the option is going to office hours or something and that can be really intimidating, I think, for first-year students, or they just have no idea what office hours are for, which is another thing.

Maggie: Right, or how to book an appointment…

Rebecca: Yeah.

Maggie: …and all of that. And so I know many of the First-Year Signature Course instructors, including myself, tried to have individual meetings with students to break the barrier of setting up an appointment for office hours and how to draft emails to your professors and such and so I think it really helps them not be as nervous about getting the help they need and the resources that they may need in the future moving forward.

John: Because in the past if they were called into go to someone’s office after class…

Rebecca: Right, it was a bad thing, yeah.

John: Exactly. And so, you know, that’s something they do need to get past and it takes a while often and by then sometimes a little too late. So that’s really helpful.

Rebecca: Speaking of criminal justice, right? [LAUGHTER]

Maggie: Colleges, it’s a different culture than they’re used to and so to get assimilated to that culture is really important in many different ways.

Rebecca: Right, it’s like mentoring instead of a penal system.

Maggie: Right? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Kind of a weird word flip there.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely.

John: And one of the nice things about this whole program is it was set up as a randomized controlled experiment where students were asked if they were interested in courses and then they were randomly assigned or not assigned. And there’s some work that’s being done right now analyzing how their outcomes compared to outcomes of the students who were not in one of these groups, and they’ll be followed a bit to see how this works overall. So, I’m looking forward to seeing more, but the preliminary results they have, as were reported in the meeting this morning, were fairly positive.

Maggie: Yeah, retention was really good and so hopefully that’ll continue.

John: Semester-to-semester retention….

Maggie: for underrepresented populations, yeah. There was…

John: …was 100% retention semester to semester.

Maggie: Yeah.

John: It’ll be interesting to see if that persists, because that has not always been the experience of Freshmen.

Maggie: Right, and hopefully it does and I think one of the things this Signature Course program is trying to promote are those students and faculty relationships and that if students have a strong bond with a staff member or faculty that they’ll be more successful in all aspects of their academic life.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking, what next?

Maggie: Well next, I’m currently meeting with various new faculty members for the Signature Course program so we’re going to work our way through more course prep, and I’m very excited to meet the newest members of the Injustice League next Fall.

John: And you’re also joining the cohort of people in ACUE…

Maggie: Yes.

John: …which is starting up here on campus very shortly.

Rebecca: …another league.

Maggie: Yeah, another league of sorts. [LAUGHTER] I’m very excited… very excited for that as well.

John: T hank you. It’s been a lot of fun talking to you about this course and I wish I could take most of these courses.

Rebecca: I know, they’re always so much fun to hear about, but I think they give us lots of prompts and interesting things that we can start to consider in other contexts too.

Maggie: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

[Music]

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

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

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

61. A Motivational Syllabus

Do you wish your students knew what was on the syllabus? In this episode, Dr. Christine Harrington joins us to explore how we can design a syllabus that helps us improve our course design, motivates students, and  provides a cognitive map of the course that students will find useful. Christine is a Professor of History and Social Science at Middlesex College, and is the author of Designing a Motivational Syllabus (and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success). Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the NJ County of Community Colleges.

Show Notes

  • Harrington, C., & Thomas, M. (2018).  Designing a motivational syllabus:  Creating a learning path for student engagement.  Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing.
  • Bain, K. (n.d.). The promising syllabus.  The Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University. Retrieved from: http://www.bestteachersinstitute.org/promisingsyllabus.pdf
  • Listeners to this podcast can purchase Designing a Motivational Syllabus at a 20% discount by visiting the Stylus Publishing order page and using the offer code: DAMS20. This offer applies to the paperback, hardcover, and ebook versions and is valid through 6/30/2019.
  • www.scholarlyteaching.org  – Christine’s website.

Transcript

John: Do you wish your students knew what was on the syllabus? In this episode we’ll explore how we can design a syllabus that helps us improve our course design, motivates students, and provides a cognitive map of the course that students will find useful.

[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.

John: Our guest today is Dr. Christine Harrington, a Professor of History and Social Science at Middlesex County College, and the author of Designing a Motivational Syllabus—and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success. Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges.

John: Welcome, Christine.

Christine: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Christine: I am not drinking tea; I’m not a tea drinker, I just do water and I will do iced tea once in a while, but not at the moment.

[LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: And I have Prince of Wales today—mixing it up, you know?

John: We invited you here to talk a bit about your book, Designing a Motivational Syllabus, released just this past May, and the syllabus of many faculty tends to read sort of like a legal document and it often tends to be a bit off-putting and some people just provide a list of topics. You have a much different approach and it seems really productive. Could you tell us a little bit about that approach?

Christine: Sure, I’d love to. Thanks so much, John. I really believe that the syllabus is an underutilized resource. As we’re beginning our semester as faculty we always are required to put together a syllabus that explains to students what the expectations of the course are. But as you mentioned, many faculty treat it as a list of do’s and don’ts, making sure that we’re communicating what the classroom rules and expectations are and maybe the course topics, but it often kind of starts and stops there. So, I really think that it’s an opportunity for us to invite students to our course and Ken Bain is actually someone who’s written a lot about this as well, you know, inviting them to the feast. I think that’s what we want to do: we want to give them the excitement and passion that we feel as faculty and get them really excited about the course too. So one of the areas I saw as a gap or missing in the literature was the motivational angle of the syllabus. In addition to providing some really good resources and providing a course map to students, I think we can motivate our students through communicating our passion, telling them a little bit more about what to expect in the course in a more conversational style… by the words that we use… by the images that we include on the syllabus… and then also providing them really helpful information so that they view this as a course that they’re excited about and they will feel supported in.

John: We actually had Ken Bain here about 12 years ago, I believe it was, and he gave an all-day workshop on building a syllabus and I attended that and it was wonderful; much of your book reminds me of that, but you also go quite a bit further and provide a lot more suggestions in detail, so I like your approach. Could you tell us a little bit more about how the syllabus serves as an entry point to course design or redesign?

Christine: Sure. I think that for many of us the idea of redesigning or designing a course for the first time even is quite daunting and overwhelming to really think about how to engage our students and achieve all of our course learning outcomes. So, I’ve used the syllabus as a vehicle for that, as an entry point that I find that faculty find it a little easier if you’re working with a more concrete practical document to help them understand course design. Now, I have been accused by some of my colleagues of doing the old switch and bait, you know, I did a syllabus workshop that really was a course design workshop and they’re like, “Wait a minute, I think that you tricked me here,” and I said, “No, I didn’t, I thought you were talking about the syllabus, and if you’re going to talk about and think about what kinds of assignments and assessments you’re going to use—this is course design.” So you need to have a larger conversation. So, I said it’s an easier way for faculty to begin the dialogue and really take a good deep look at, well, what is it that I’m asking students to do and how does this fit into the overall course as well as the overall program that the course fits within… so, seeing the larger picture in terms of the course and program learning outcomes and revisiting the assignments and assessments and perhaps moving away from some of the “always have done this” kinds of assignments… you know, traditional exa…, paper… presentation… that almost all of us have in our course in one way or another. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon ship, but it is a great opportunity to step back and say, “Wait a minute, are these the assessment tools that are really going to help support student learning and help ensure that they’re going to achieve the learning outcomes that we set forth in the syllabus?” and then the syllabus really becomes the map for students. So it is the document that communicates the design of your course. As you are crafting your syllabus, you’re really thinking about: “What is it that I’m asking students to do? Why am I asking them to do that? and what kinds of supports am I going to put in to place so that they can accomplish those tasks successfully?” So, I really believe that it is a course design tool and that if you do it well, a well-designed syllabus really will show students exactly how they get from point A to B and the kinds of supports that are available to, you know, really enhance their learning journey along the way.

Rebecca: [If] faculty were to use the syllabus as a way to redesign, where in this syllabus should they start?

Christine: Well, that is not an easy question. You know, I think it depends on—I tell faculty they have two choices when they’re thinking about redesigning their syllabus: you can take the big approach, which is the course design approach, which is going to be looking at your course learning outcomes and then looking at what kinds of assessments or assignments are aligned to those learning outcomes… and then what I usually do for this big approach is ask them to think about what are the key summative assessments that you’re looking for and then work backwards from there using the backwards design process and determine what kind of formative assessments they need to use… and then as you start to craft the way your course is going to be developed, I say take your course outline your schedule of what you’re going to do—week 1, week 2, week 3 and start to plug in those summative assessments and then start to plug in the formative assessments that you’ve identified… and then that will help you determine what needs to happen in week 1, 2 or 3 to help them be successful on those tasks. So, it’s really kind of using that backwards design. I like to say it starts with the learning outcomes, it shifts over to the assessments that you’re going to use and then it starts to move into the course outline, you know, or sequence of topics that would be really important. But I said to you there’s kind of two ways that faculty can begin to, you know, redesign their syllabus. This is the big way and the way that I would really love faculty to do it, but if someone’s saying to me “The semester’s starting next week, that’s just too monumental of a task…” You cannot engage in this process in a day or two. It takes a significant chunk of time for you to really re-evaluate what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. So there’s also a lot of takeaways in this book about how you could do things literally in five minutes or less that would enhance the motivation and engage students in learning. For example, I did a workshop on my campus where we had a syllabus redesign summer camp and at the beginning of the semester we had faculty submit their current syllabi and at the end we had them submit their final syllabi… and the transformation just from a visual perspective alone was really incredible. So, if you didn’t even look deeply at the design piece… for instance, having a nice photo to draw students in (that’s related to your course content)… there was a biology faculty member who put this amazing, great engaging skeleton on the front page… and that really was much more effective than having her first syllabi, which had all rules and regulations…you know: “do this, don’t do that…” and a welcome statement and a picture of yourself… really just some of those kinds of elements really can make a difference. There’s some research studies out there that support adding a few additional words like “please come and talk to me” makes it much more likely that a student will come and talk to you, and it communicates that you want them to come and talk to you. There are some very easy fixes; changing it from formal language such as “the professor will” and “the student will” to “I am going to” and “you will do this…” Just using that more personal language can really help. So those fixes are literally… you could do it in five minutes or less if you want to make a couple of minor changes to increase motivation, but the overall course design is obviously a much bigger process, I’m not going to pretend it’s not.

Rebecca: I think it’s always a good reminder that you can always do small things before you can jump into a big thing and that the big thing is, you know, valuable. We were laughing at the beginning of what you were talking about a minute ago because I did the same exact thing here where I did a syllabus workshop that was a complete course redesigned workshop.

John: …and I suggested we rename it in the future as a course redesign or course design or redesign, but maybe leaving it as a syllabus workshop might work.

Christine: Yeah, I think you’ll get more people to participate. It’s less scary. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s sneaky.

John: It is. It’s a sneaky way of getting in.

Christine: …and it also really allows faculty to walk away with something very practical… tangible… that they actually have done as evidence of participating in that workshop, and that’s great for administrators to see as well.

Rebecca: That’s a good point. So you talked a little bit about the syllabus as a tool for faculty to help think about organizing their class and redesigning it, making sure that students are going to learn what we’re hoping that they’re gonna learn. Can you talk a little bit about how the syllabus is a tool for students?

Christine: Sure. I think it’s really critical for students to not just take this document and put it aside but to recognize the value that it has… and I will tell you that students who see a more in-depth, comprehensive syllabi have a much more positive perception of the faculty member and also of the student experience of being in that class. From the student perspective, it’s motivational for them to know that they have a faculty member that cares enough to put together this really comprehensive package. Having a long syllabus that does not have any visual tools in it and is overwhelming… whether it’s legalese… that is something that students are not going to use much. But when you create a syllabus that’s motivational and engaging and visually effective, students will use that document and they really will appreciate it. Now, they do need reminders about how to use that. I think that it is a document that all of us quite frankly emphasize in the first day or first week of the semester and then often don’t revisit except for to say “in the syllabus…” which may or may not help a student if they’re having trouble navigating it. So, I’m a very big fan of making sure that we make it a document that is student friendly. If it is a longer document, including a table of contents, so that they know they don’t need to read all of this. Maybe the last half of the syllabus is the rubric section with specifics on the assignment… that they just need to know it’s there when the time comes for them to look at it. So I will often encourage students to view the syllabus very much like their textbook. You don’t need to read the entire textbook during the first week of class, but you certainly need to know what’s in the textbook so you’re not just focused on chapter one. You need to acclimate yourself to all of the information that’s in the text and what kinds of topics and resources are included. Well, the same goes for the syllabus… so really helping them use it as a resource and not feeling like they need to read it and memorize it, but instead use it as a tool to help them be successful.

John: One of the things you suggest is doing a screencast with the syllabus perhaps to make sure that students do look at it and to make it a bit more welcoming. Could you talk to us a little bit about that?

Christine: The screencast, I think, is a very valuable strategy, especially in the online class, but it can also be helpful in an in-person class. We all know that sometimes students are adding and dropping in the beginning of the semester and might miss an important conversation, and this really allows you to communicate about the syllabus to students. In addition, I will tell you that I have had students… I tend to have a fairly lengthy syllabi, as you can imagine, based on my textbook, I like to include a lot of resources… and I have had students say to me, when I got the syllabus via email from you, I really was overwhelmed and I was ready to run away from this class; I thought it was going to be a lot of work because it was a long syllabus, and once you explained it and we started to see the resources in it, I discovered that’s not the case at all. So I think that having that personal touch and the the nonverbals that you can really communicate through a screencast with a web video as well as the audio really does help students understand the value of the syllabus and we have so many great online tools now, like screencast-o-matic, that are free… things like that… that you can really easily do that in a short period of time to do an introduction, and students can refer back to that as they need to throughout the semester.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of things you would recommend faculty highlight or introduce about the syllabus on the first day? You mentioned identifying some of the resources and things in it. But, as you know, there’s a lot of faculty that call the first couple class days syllabus days and some of them actually read the syllabus to the students. What would you recommend?

Christine: Well, I certainly would not recommend reading the syllabus to the students. [LAUGHTER] That is not engaging. I think that the part of the syllabus that doesn’t get as much attention as it should is the “Why are we together?” The syllabus communicates: the purpose of the class, the goals of the class, and “What are the takeaways that they’re going to get as a result of being in this class?” Students, what they’re going to immediately want to know is about the grade, right? They go directly to the page that has information on the grade and the assignments that they need to do. But if they go there first, they’re missing the big picture. So, I think that we as faculty have a wonderful opportunity, whether it’s through a screencast or live in a regular classroom setting, to emphasize the learning outcomes of the course in a user-friendly way… not necessarily reading the learning outcomes, but to passionately explain why this course matters so much and the value of the course and the skills, and not just the knowledge that they’re going to get, but really the experience and the confidence that they’re going to get as a result of being in this course. So I really find that to be the most important piece to emphasize, and then helping them see the direct correlation and connection between what it is that they’re going to achieve and those learning experiences. So whether they’re assignments or assessments… the why behind all of those… so they don’t just view it as a big long checklist of “this is what I have to do because it’s a college course,” but they understand that that’s the roadmap that’s going to help them accomplish all those tasks. So, for instance, if I can give you one example, quizzing is something that not every faculty member does, sometimes it’s more of a more high-stakes midterm/final kind of situation… but faculty who really want to provide that opportunity for students to have formative assessments along the way would also include quizzing… and when you do that what happens is is that you’re helping students learn those skills along the way and help them self-regulate whether or not they’re on task to achieve the learning outcomes. But students may view them as busy work or that you don’t believe they’re going to read without being held accountable. By explaining the why in the rationale and bringing some of the research in on the testing effect and explaining to them that the reason for me doing this is because the research shows that if you test yourself you are much more likely to learn that content and it will stick with you throughout much longer periods of time. So providing the why, I think, is probably the most important part that I would bring their attention to and I think that we don’t do that enough as faculty.

John: Just as a plug for a future podcast, Michelle Miller will be a guest in a few weeks where she’ll be talking about the testing effect and retrieval practice.

Christine: Terrific.

John: But that is an issue. Students see testing as something negative; it’s not something they find quite as enjoyable… so providing that rationale is really useful and students don’t always buy it but the more you can convince them and the more evidence you can provide, I think the more likely it is that they’ll see the benefits.

Rebecca: Yeah, John and I have talked about this before that when I started doing that in my design classes, which is a place where testing is not as common, I had students actually asking for more, which I found to be very bizarre initially. You don’t generally have students asking for more tests or quizzes, but when they started realizing how it was helping keep them on track they actually found them really valuable.

John: In helping them assess their learning and to help improve their own metacognition of what they know and what they don’t know, it can be really useful.

Rebecca: One of the things that you have in your syllabus is a teaching statement. Can you talk a little bit about why you include that and why you recommend including that? Because that’s not something you commonly see in a syllabus.

Christine: Absolutely, in fact, there are a couple elements that I think are essential if you want to use the syllabus as a motivational tool, and I see the teaching statement as being one of the key elements; it’s an opportunity for you to start to build a relationship with your students, and it gives you a chance to share some background about who you are and why you’re passionate about the subject and what they can expect to happen during class. As we all know, the professor-student rapport is probably one of the most important predictors of success. Students who have professors who they believe care about them and are interested and engaged are much more likely to be successful than students who have faculty who are much not engaged and maybe not as connected to them. So, I believe that we could use the syllabus to begin developing that relationship, because we often send this out prior to even meeting a student for the very first time, and it also might be something that is shared on some kind of management system within the university or college setting for students to decide which classes to take. So it can invite them to why they should be taking your class –it’s really a wonderful way for you to share a little bit about yourself and your professional background expertise and passion.

John: You also suggest in your book that the syllabus can serve as a communication tool and it also makes it easier to be transparent in terms of how you grade and letting students know this, and that can increase equity, or at least a perception of equity. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Christine: Sure, I think it’s really critical that we are being as explicit and as transparent as we can be. There are going to be some students who can more easily connect those dots than others and when we make the dots connected for them we’re equaling the playing field to ensure that all of our students know what it is that they need to do in order to get to the finish line and how the different tasks relate to one another. So the more you can communicate and ensure that some of the students who may not naturally see those connections can see those connections, I think that really does improve learning and the academic experience for all students.

Rebecca: You mentioned earlier about referencing the syllabus and having students use the syllabus as a tool throughout the semester; you also mentioned early on that faculty have a tendency to say “it’s on the syllabus” without really providing much more guidance than that. Can you talk a little bit about ways that you recommend using the syllabus at farther points in the semester to help support students and continue to motivate students beyond just the beginning of the class?

Christine: Sure. I think that is critical. You know, many of us do activities on the very first day of class. I’m hoping that many of us are not reading the syllabus anymore and we’re starting to get more engaging strategies at the start of the semester. I know folks do a syllabus quiz and things of that nature. I actually think that having a group quiz format,, something that’s more interactive, is great. I do jigsaw classroom exercises at the beginning of the semester on the syllabus. They’re diving into that resource and understanding it and reporting back and teaching their classmates about the different section that they were assigned to. I think setting the stage at the beginning of the semester is really important, but we can’t stop there; we need to then follow through and revisit the syllabus throughout the semester. So what I typically do is I will often ask students to, at the beginning of class, (I always ask them to have their syllabus with them)… and I might give them a few minutes and I do this activity called dusting off the cobwebs… where they have to recall what we talked about last class and maybe from the readings and then we can look forward. So after we clean up our house in terms of where we were then what’s coming next, so what are we talking about today? How does this link up with the concept that we talked about last class, and then what what’s coming up in terms of what’s due? So instead of me putting on the board or on a PowerPoint slide, “Next week, don’t forget you have to submit the first part of your project” or whatever it might be. I’m having students give those daily reminders. So you can literally spend five minutes or less in a class, and maybe once a week; it doesn’t have to be necessarily every class… but maybe Monday’s will be your dusting day and looking forward opportunity. So I think that’s really helpful. The other time where I spend a little bit more time on it is when there is a big project that’s coming up. So at this point of the semester I will often have students work in either a partner group or a small group and in that situation I’m asking them to look at pages 12 to 14 that outline the details related to assignment 1 and the rubric of how you’ll get assessed on assignment 1. I want you to review that. I want you to put that in your own words… tell your classmate about what it is… and then you have an opportunity to ask me any questions about it. So, I’m basically training them to engage in that process. Again, this doesn’t need to eat up a tremendous amount of class time; it can be a few minutes. But by doing that you end up often getting better products to grade which makes your life much happier when it’s time for all the papers to be handed in because even though you put it in the syllabus, it doesn’t mean that they’ve looked in the syllabus… or they knew where to look… or maybe something didn’t make sense to them and they were not comfortable asking without the opportunity given to them in that very explicit way. So, I find that that really as a very helpful process. I also like to do an activity kind of mid-semester looking at the learning outcomes… so, going back to saying “Okay, so here’s what we said we were going to be able to learn and be able to do at the end of the semester. We’re about halfway done. I want you to look at the learning outcomes and do a self assessment. Where are you at on a scale of one to five? What do you need to do in order to get to the level five at the end of the semester? …and some of that’s going to happen obviously in classes or through the assignments. But, what else can you do to ensure that you’ll achieve all of those learning outcomes?” So, I like to use it in a self-regulatory way as well.

John: One of the things related to that is you suggest the use of an assignment grade tracking form. I’ve always kept my gradebook in Blackboard so students can see where they are but students don’t always seem to pay much attention to that. Having them create their own assignment grade tracking might be useful. Could you talk a little bit about what the form is and why you recommend that?

Christine: Sure. I do think that with our current technologies {Blackboard, Canvas, thinks of that nature), the LMS systems really do have a pretty robust gradebook feature where students can easily track their progress. Because in order for them to self-regulate they need to know whether or not they need some external data to see if they’re on track or not. To me, as long as they’re engaged in that checking and self-regulatory behavior, I don’t think it matters whether it’s definitely in the syllabus or in Canvas or Blackboard. But unfortunately, not every faculty member is using the gradebook to its full capacity, so sometimes students are left wondering about their grade and I want them to feel in charge of knowing how to do it. I also think that they have a hard time sometimes seeing the weighting of assignments so that they might view a smaller assignment as being equal to that of a larger one and not recognizing the significance that can have on your grade. In the absence of some of the technology tools… and there are great apps for this too so if your student has a faculty member that is not using an LMS gradebook, they can go ahead and download an app… and I think that’s a great way to track it as well. But just including something like that on the syllabus helps them see the breakdown on the weighting of the different grades so they can see how that final grade is determined.. Because I think you’re right. In the LMS’s I see that students are often looking only at the current calculated grade rather than looking at all of the pieces of how that grade came to be. So anything we can do to help them better understand the grading process and how those elements go into the final grade, I think, is useful.

Rebecca: In your book and also in the example syllabi that you’ve provided (both on your website and also in your book) you talk a little bit about your assignment sheets with rubrics and things completely spelled out… so not something that’s more generalized but something incredibly specific. Can you talk a little bit about the choice to do that and the advantages of doing something like that?

Christine: Sure. So I think that we all provide students with details about our assignments; it’s about where does that happen. For some of us, we think that that should happen outside of the syllabus in the LMS in a different place… under assignments or some other tab rather than being in the syllabus itself. I think it’s really helpful for students to have a complete package in the syllabus. Now, just because I think that doesn’t mean that it’s true, right? Actually I did a really neat study with a colleague of mine Crystal Quillen at Middlesex County College where we examined the student perception of syllabi length and we shared different syllabi. There was a 6-page a 9-page and a 15-page syllabus and they were randomly assigned to different groups. What we discovered was that students who were reviewing a medium or long (which was 9 or 15 page) syllabus actually found that syllabus to be more positive. So they had a more positive perception of the faculty member in terms of being motivated and things of that nature. In addition, we asked the specific question of the students “Would you rather have all of the details about your assignment in one place in the syllabus or is that not what you want? Would you rather just know ‘I have to write a paper’ and then have those details about the paper be provided at the point that you need them and in a different place within your learning management system?” …and 66% of the students said we want it all in one place. I think one of the challenges that our students have is that every faculty member sets up their LMS page a little differently… and I know colleges really work hard to try to have some consistency across the different course shells that exist… but students really do struggle with trying to find that information. If we can guarantee to students that all of the essential information you need about your assignments and your learning path are in the syllabus, then I think that makes a lot of sense. I really think it’s important for faculty and students to understand that it’s almost like an addendum to the syllabus, but it is in that document. So that they don’t need to get overwhelmed by it on day one but they know that it’s a resource… very much, like I had said before, like the textbook is.

Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting point right, a lot of our students are in five classes and if there’s five different ways of doing things and it’s organized five different ways with five different evaluation systems it can get a little overwhelming after a while. It’s a lot to keep track of. We often complain that students don’t keep track of things, but we certainly don’t help it.

John: We’d like to reduce the cognitive load.

Christine: Yeah, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, it’s the case and sometimes we need to get ourselves back in from the student lens to see what does life look like from their perspective. …and if I could just say one other thing about the “It’s in the syllabus” comment… I mean, believe me, I pour my heart and soul into creating my syllabus. My husband often laughs at me because he’s like “Haven’t you taught this course before? You look like you haven’t taught this before…” because I’m spending hours and hours and hours and I just had it last semester but I know it could be so much better. I’m trying to find ways to communicate it better. So, I know that the information is in the syllabus because I put it there. I spent many hours doing that. But if I give if a student is active enough and engaged enough to ask me a question about an assignment or the course and I just say “It’s in the syllabus” my syllabus is a long document. I do need to navigate them to which part of the syllabus it’s in, because my syllabus is probably a little different than other syllabi that they have looked at. So, I feel like it’s so easy and frustrating for us when the students may not have looked carefully before asking us. So that’s a skill we need to help them learn. But maybe they did look and they didn’t find it as quickly as they would like to. Let’s be honest. You and I also are not going to spend an enormous amount of time looking at a website if we can’t find what we’re looking for right away. We’re going to ask someone. So, we want to make it as easy to navigate as possible, and having consistency I think across different courses does help… not that you need to have a rigid standardized syllabus that looks exactly the same in every course. I think you need to have a little bit of room for the flavor and the personality of the course to show.

Rebecca: Those are things that we just forget about. We forget that it can be really overwhelming to look at documents. Yet we all complain about the same thing when someone else makes a document that we have to look at and we can’t find something. So, it’s good to double-check ourselves. So, I appreciate the reminder.

Christine: Absolutely.

Rebecca: One of the things that needs to be in a syllabus to some extent is the policies… there’s college policies that might have a particularly language that you have to include, but then also maybe what some of your own policies are as an instructor. How do you suggest including those in a motivational, inspiring, and supportive way? Because sometimes they don’t feel very inspiring or supportive.

Christine: That’s a great question. In fact, I have noticed that probably one of the biggest demotivators of a syllabus is the policy section… and many times faculty add more and more policies based on negative experiences that they’ve had. So something happens in a classroom setting and they’re like “I need a policy on that, so I’m going to add another policy about that…” and it starts to become this really big long laundry list. And clearly we have to have policies… I’m not saying we shouldn’t but I think the way in which we communicate our policies really do matter. When we have a list of “don’t do this: don’t cheat, don’t plagiarize…” all these kinds of rules and regulations… we’re kind of communicating to students that we think you’re going to do this, so I’m going to set you straight right now… rather than using more positive language. Instead we could communicate the same policy… I like to use the academic integrity one. So instead of saying “don’t plagiarize” instead… if you have a policy about academic integrity and the importance of why that matters so much and how everyone is expected to uphold academic integrity and engage in honest actions… That I think sets a very different beginning to that policy. The other piece is that we sometimes create policies that promote, I think, more achievement gaps… and actually gets back to that question you asked me earlier about equity, because many of our policies do not promote equity. I’ll take a late work policy, for instance… and I recognize the fact that we all need to be timely with our tasks. I mean in the world of work people are going to expect you to complete tasks on time and I recognize that that’s a very important skill. However, I also know that we are all human beings with a life on the side, you know, so that life happens sometimes that may prevent us from being on time with a task. I know I personally have not always been on time. I’m a very timely person, but there have been times when I have missed a deadline and haven’t been exactly where I needed to be at the time I should have been there. It’s not a pattern, but it does happen. So I think we need to have policies that are building in some of the flexibility that communicates to students that we respect them… we recognize that they have a life outside of school or at least outside of our class… sometimes our policies don’t even seem to recognize that they have other classes… like our class is the only one. So, students complain about that quite a bit… thinking that you’re looking at this only from your angle and not recognizing that this is one of many classes that I’m taking. When you think about policies such as that, it’s important to communicate it in a way that isn’t taxing on your time so that you’re taking late work every minute of every day… but is respectful. So, a very simple way to do that is “Here’s the policy. I expect you to be on time with tasks, especially if you’re doing a group task and your classmates are dependent on you.” I tend to be a little bit more rigid with my policies when it’s a group related task versus an individual task. But I also know that life happens and if you are in a situation where you’re not able to meet a deadline, please come and talk to me.” Because, if you put in a policy that says no late work is accepted… everything must be handed in on time. Well, certainly you won’t have to deal with any late work… that helps you with your time management, but it really is inequitable because the student who comes from a culture where it’s fine to challenge authority might come to you and say “My grandmother passed away last week. I have this really horrific thing happened in my life…” and, many of us… I know I myself… I had at some point a no makeup policy. It wasn’t a real policy… if you came to me and it was a good reason then I gave you an extension. But I only did that if you came to me. I did have no makeup policy on the syllabus. So, the problem with that is that there are certain groups of individuals that are not going to challenge authority and take your word at face value. So now you’ve put them at a distinct disadvantage in the class. So I think it’s important for our policy to do a couple of things: one is first of all they should be accurate… so I did not really have a no makeup policy… I had a “makeup if you have a good reason.” So, it wasn’t accurate. So now my policy is much more reflective of my current practices. I expect you to be on time but if something happens, communicate with me and we will see what we can do. It’s not promising them the world but it’s certainly promising them at least the conversation… and second in addition to having it be clearly communicated, it really needs to be equitable so that everyone gets an opportunity and it’s not a case-by-case situation where if they’re more willing to challenge authority they’re going to be more likely to get a positive outcome.

Rebecca: One of the things that you mentioned earlier is shifting the language in the syllabus to something that’s more personal from something that feels more like legalese or something. In those circumstances where an institution might impose a particular policy that’s written in a particular way that doesn’t match the voice of the rest of the document, how do you suggest dealing with that in a syllabus, when it might be required of you?

Christine: I think this is one of the big challenges that faculty face, is when there’s required elements that are not very motivational in nature. So first of all I would say try to start a conversation on your campus about revising that language, not necessarily the policy… that’s what the policy is going to be… but can we introduce it in a different way? So, I would say if you can do that that would be ideal because then that would be benefiting all of the students in all of the classes across your entire campus if they’re required. So I think that’s probably the point of intervention that I would encourage you to take and you could go back and refer to some of the ideas in the text or talking with colleagues about other ways to better word some of that policy language. If you’re not able to switch the language, or you want a quicker fix while that conversation is happening, I think it’s appropriate (and again you need to find out on your campus if it is) to maybe have an introductory statement: “The next section of the syllabus is going to be the institutional policies that every faculty member needs to include.” So, not saying they’re badly worded, but you’re saying that they’re different… like you can definitely see that I need to include these and I certainly wouldn’t have them (unless you’re required to) on the first page or two. Let the more positive motivational pieces be front and center and then have the policies be later on in the syllabus. So almost like you have a cover page or some kind of introduction before getting into the more typical policy language, I guess, if you need to include it I think can be helpful.

Rebecca: I’ve done things where, for example around intellectual integrity, there’s a campus statement (and I label it as such) and then my policy which kind of interprets that and puts it into context and is in my language… so the same idea that you have about introductory or it’s you’re kind of separating the two and making it clear like whose is whose.

Christine: mm-hmm

Rebecca: …and I think that sometimes has helped students too… but I’ve always found that to be jarring.

Christine: Yes. I would agree I think that definitely is, and I like your approach really of summarizing it because sometimes those policies that we get handed down are very lengthy and students probably aren’t going to read them. So, even if you gave the one- or two-sentence summary of what that meant…translation is… you know this is what you need to do… Be honest. you know, engage in honest action. It really matters. We all want a good reputation and we all want to learn. So in order to do that, these are the kinds of strategies that you need to engage in… and going to the integrity topic again, I think so many times students are unintentionally plagiarizing… not always necessarily doing it on purpose. So maybe helping them understand how they can better learn how to cite sources appropriately or how to paraphrase more effectively… So, pointing them to resources that are going to help them with all the tasks.

John: In your book, in addition to providing a lot of great resources about the syllabus and a lot of great recommendations and the evidence behind them you also provide quite a few some very nice sample syllabi at the end of the book and it’s a great resource and your publisher has very gracefully provided us with a discount code to any of our listeners which is DAMS20 and you can do that by going to the Stylus Publishing website. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Christine: John, if you don’t mind I’d like to also share my website which is just www.scholarlyteaching.org. If you go to that website you will see several other teaching and learning resources,including several sample syllabi… and the syllabi that we used in the research study that I mentioned earlier on the length of the syllabus are provided there as well.

Rebecca: There’s also really good videos… a syllabi checklist… There’s some really great resources on the website. So definitely I recommend checking that out…

John: …and also information about your other books.

Christine: Yes, thanks for that John… appreciate it.

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

Christine: Well it’s interesting that you asked that. I am looking at options right now but I am very much interested in staying connected to the teaching and learning space and how we can improve what we do in the classroom. I’m spending some time thinking about moving it up to a higher level and engaging administration in some of the conversations that we’re having about teaching and learning and putting the teaching and learning centers kind of front and center really in conversations about student learning and engagement on campuses. So, for instance I work in the community college system as you know. There’s a national movement called Guided Pathways and this national movement is all about improving the success outcomes of students and it happens to a variety of ways. They talk about making sure our programs are clear, so that they’re defined and students know how to get from point A to point B. They talk about helping students choose a pathway and stay on a pathway, and they also talk about ensuring learning… but, having been a part of this national conversation, the “insuring learning” really is very much an afterthought, I think, unfortunately. I feel like we’re dancing around the classroom. So I’d like to take some of this work that I’ve been doing and work that’s been very directly helpful to the faculty and try to shift it to being helpful to the community college leadership as well as leadership at the four-year universities as well… to emphasize the importance of good and effective teaching practices. So we’ll see where that takes me. I’m not really sure how that’s going to transpire, but I did just present on that topic at the POD conference. I’m putting teaching and learning centers right in front and center in the Guided Pathways movement, getting them at the table of these conversations. So, I’m very interested in further pursuing that at this point.

Rebecca: That sounds like that could be really valuable to a lot of the faculty because translating that information to the administration is always really useful in finding support and all working together to have these really stronger outcomes for students.

Christine: Absolutely.

John: Well, thank you. This has been a fascinating conversation and this is a book I’m going to recommend to all of our faculty.

Rebecca: Yeah, so glad you were able to join us.

Christine: Well, thank you. I really appreciate the invitation and I hope that everyone listening is able to design motivational syllabi and if that happens our students are the ones who will benefit at the end of the day. So thank all of you for listening and for supporting students in their learning journey.

[Music]

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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

60. Inclusive Teaching

Are your class conversations dominated by a small number of voices? In this episode, Dr. Danica Savonick joins us to discuss a variety of class activities that support an inclusive learning environment and promote equity in participation while increasing student learning. Danica is an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literature at SUNY Cortland, and a recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders award, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies, and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship.

Show Notes

Studies of bias in the classroom:

Transcript

John: Are your class conversations dominated by a small number of voices? In this episode, we explore a variety of class activities that support an inclusive learning environment and promote equity in participation while increasing 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.

Rebecca: Today our guest is Danica Savonick, an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literature at SUNY Cortland. Danica is the recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders award, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship. Welcome, Danica.

John: Welcome.

Danica: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

John: Our tea’s today are…

Danica: I’m drinking a coconut lime seltzer.

Rebecca: That sounds pretty good.

Danica: It is.

Rebecca: It’s a good alternative to tea, I suppose.

Danica: I think I’m pretending that I’m on a tropical island or something.

Rebecca: Yeah, the weather around here would make me want to do that, so perhaps it’s the same there.

Danica: How far away are we from from each other? I’m here in Cortland, you’re…

John: About an hour and 45 minutes, I think, by car.

Danica: Okay.

Rebecca: Very rainy today.

Danica: Yeah, and I hear we have some snow coming up in the next 24 hours or so, so should be interesting.

Rebecca: I have the Prince of Wales tea.

John: …and I have a holiday tea from Twinings that I picked up in the tropics in Orlando at the Online Learning Consortium a few weeks back.

Danica: Sounds yummy.

John: It is good.

You’ve written quite a bit on creating a supportive environment for discussing issues of race, class, gender and sexuality. Let’s first talk a little bit about the context in which you address these issues. What courses do you normally teach?

Danica: I generally teach American literature courses. Sometimes those are general education courses, sometimes they are within the English major. I’ve also taught a number of writing classes that are a little bit more interdisciplinary in nature, and regardless of whichever course I’m teaching I like to give them a theme or put my own little twist on them. For instance, if I’m teaching a writing course, this semester the topic is the purpose of education and so we’re drawing from a wide different disciplines… people who’ve been writing about different learning methods and then when I teach English courses, some of the topics I like to do are the arts of dissent and we’ll look at the theme of dissent in American literature. This semester I’m currently teaching Intro to Multicultural Literature, which has been super fun and then next semester I’ll be teaching a graduate course on feminist world-making, which I’m really excited about.

Rebecca: Well that sounds really exciting.

John: What are some of the challenges you face in discussing some of these issues in your classroom and trying to have productive conversations?

Danica: Well, some of the problems that I’ve noticed are consistent regardless of what classroom or what school I’ve been teaching in, but some of them vary according to the student population. But one of the most common problems that I see is just a lack of student participation, or if there is participation it’ll be the same two or three students who dominate the conversation… and actually just this weekend when I was home for the holidays I was talking to my family about this—my aunt is auditing a course at SUNY Purchase—and she was saying that the same one or two students speak every single class period and she’s curious about what the other students have to say and what they’re thinking… and even my grandmother who was at Brooklyn College in the 1950s… she said she remembers feeling too scared to talk in most of her classes… and so it was only one or two of the… I guess… the brightest and most vocal students who would talk in the classes. And then, of course, as I started teaching I started to notice this as well and I think it’s every new instructor’s nightmare probably that “What if nobody talks? What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do with all that silence?” And so, I guess the main problems I’ve been trying to address are not having the same one or two students dominate the conversation but having really every voice be heard in the classroom… and the more I’ve thought about it and the more I’ve come to study classroom dynamics the more I’ve realized it’s not entirely the fault of the students in those situations, and actually quite often it is the shared responsibility of both the professor and the students to create a kind of environment where everyone feels like their voice matters and that they have something that they can say… that they won’t get shot down by the professor… that they’re not intimidated by their peers and whatnot. So a lot of my work has been trying to increase participation in classrooms and also because my focus is often on race and class and gender and sexuality in literature, we have to figure out how to have productive conversations around those really difficult issues. And for a lot of students, it’s their first time talking about these issues and so we’ve had to establish ways that we feel comfortable talking about those important questions and issues.

Rebecca: I was actually just gonna follow up to what you were saying… really curious about the emphasis on the first time students have talked about some of these things, and I think that that’s really important. We’ve been having a reading group on our campus with a book called Race Talk and that’s something that we’ve mentioned pretty frequently: that a lot of these students have never been in a context to have a conversation about race… a lot of the faculty have never been in a situation to have a good conversation about race… So, when it’s someone’s first time, how do you help that be productive and feel safe? Because you have to be vulnerable to be in those situations.

Danica: Definitely. One of the most effective things that I think I’ve done is tell students that we’re inevitably going to mess up in these conversations because our educations have not provided us with the language and the grammar and the vocabulary for talking about conditions of structural inequality… and so I make that the baseline or the premise. We know we’re gonna say the wrong thing and we are likely going to accidentally offend someone and so as a class what we do is establish protocols or ways that we want to collectively address how to handle those situations and we come up with a set of community guidelines and principles and ideas that we agree upon for how to behave when we realize that, “Oh no, I could have said that better. I wish I hadn’t said that…” or if one student feels offended by something and so I think that has really helped, especially for students who are having these conversations for the first time; they know that it’s okay to say the wrong thing and we have an established procedure in place for how to deal with those moments.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you set those guidelines up and how students participate in that process?

Danica: Yeah, definitely. This is one of my favorite things to do every semester is have students co-author a set of community guidelines in order to foster inclusive discussions of difference. Because I want every student to understand that their voice matters and I know one of the reactions that you can get is students can start feeling alienated if they say the wrong thing. They can disengage. They can start thinking that I don’t have a place in this conversation. …and so one of the ways that we create that environment is we’ll co-author this set of community guidelines. Rather than having students write them from scratch… I think that can be really difficult… so, instead what I’ll do—it takes about I would say half of a class period to maybe half an hour, could be 40 minutes, it depends on the size of the class—I’ll print out some really basic guidelines, four or five things that I think might work well in the class as principles that we might want to agree to abide by. So things like we won’t make assumptions about anyone in the class’s race, gender, ethnicity, things like that, and we read over them as a class. I usually project them at the front of the class and they also have them in front of them on a piece of paper and we’ll read through them as a class. They can ask questions… they can ask me to define a word they don’t understand, and then I give them about ten minutes to read through them quietly on their own with pen and paper and cross off and edit and add and remove anything that they don’t like about the guidelines… to add additional guidelines… to change the wording of certain guidelines… and then rather than calling on students individually and having to put them on the spot, I have them work in pairs of two to go over some of the amendments and edits and adjustments that they would like to make and then after five minutes or so we go around the class and each pair presents one or two amendments that they would like to make and so it really ranges from adding different adjectives and verbs to adding whole new amendments or saying that they didn’t like one of the ones that I put up, which is totally fine with me. The idea behind not having to ask them to do it from scratch is just that they have something to work with—it’s not that I’m wedded to those particular principles, I just wanted to give them some kind of language and some kind of grammar for how they might formulate the different community guidelines.

Rebecca: It seems like the pair scenario would help to mitigate any issues that might arise from a dominant group dominating the rules.

Danica: Yeah.

Rebecca: That was gonna be my question but then I realized as you were talking that that might actually be how you solve some of that issue.

Danica: Yeah, and it’s pretty egalitarian. We go around the room and each group says something, even if it’s by the time we get to the end sometimes the groups are like, “Well, everyone already said what we were gonna say, so we just wanted to agree that we really liked the amendment that this other group made.” And so that way each pair gets two or three minutes to add something, to say something, and then we move on, and so it’s not like one pair gets to really dominate. The other thing I forgot to mention is students go home, they have at least one or two evenings to think about the guidelines that we came up with. They have access to them. They can open them up at home and it’s not until the beginning of the following class that we ratify them, and often when we come back together at the beginning of the next class they’ll have thought of one or two things that they want to adjust and once we make the final edits and adjustments then we as a class decide that we agree to abide by them.

John: Another nice thing about doing it in pairs is when people are speaking it’s a little safer because they’re representing their group; they don’t have to take a stand and it makes it a little more comfortable perhaps for those who might have been reticent.

Danica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I like that you have the ability to review over a couple of days as well because that also gives students who don’t want to speak up the opportunity to email you or communicate with you separately too, right?

Danica: Yeah, definitely.

John: How well have the guidelines worked? Have students responded well? Do you get more buy-in to the guidelines since they created them?

Danica: Yes, absolutely. I was really surprised the first time I did this. I was like, “This is one of those wacky pedagogical experiments; I might fall flat on my face, they might think that I’m an alien from another planet.” But, they were so enthusiastic and I’ve actually had students from former classes say “That was one of the most meaningful things that we did that semester. I think about that a lot. I wish more teachers did that…” and so I’ve gotten really positive feedback on it and it’s also fun. It’s always one of the best conversations that we have throughout the semester. And you know it turns out that they have a lot to say about the issue. Actually, I often do this assignment when we’re teaching a work of literature called Citizen by author Claudia Rankine, which talks a lot about microaggressions… and students have witnessed and they’ve experienced these microaggressions in the classroom and so they’re eager to have a chance to participate in crafting a classroom that isn’t going to have these kinds of uncomfortable and awkward moments. I also should say that when we do this I share with students beforehand several of the studies that have been done recently on classroom participation and who feels most empowered to speak in the classroom. So, there’s been a lot of studies done on gender and the experiences of students of color and what a lot of these studies have found is that those voices that are most empowered to speak in mainstream media and culture are also the students who feel empowered to take up time in the classroom. And so I share this with students before we begin the community guidelines activity and they’re always really interested. I have the sense that some of them have witnessed or experienced or might have some sense that these things go on, but to actually see the research and to see the findings and to see these massive studies that have been done, they’re just interested in it, and especially because my classes are about race and class and gender and structural inequality, I think it’s fascinating for them to see the way that what we often think of as huge systemic issues can come to influence who speaks and who participates in the classroom as well.

Rebecca: Maybe we could share those citations in our show notes?

Danica: Certainly.

Danica: You’ve used something called Commons in a Box. Could you tell us a little bit about what that is for people who are not familiar with that?

Danica: Sure, it’s a free open-source learning and writing platform. It came out of the CUNY Graduate Center. It’s a combination of WordPress and BuddyPress, and so it’s this easy to install package that allows you to create digital learning spaces, and so different universities have taken it up to do different things. Often I’ll see institutions using it as a space for their professors to host course websites. They might want to have some kind of blog that features student writing. They could use it for digital humanities projects… and it’s free and it’s open source and so all you really need is server space. As often as possible, I’ve tried to host my courses on either Commons in a Box, or currently I’m using an installation of wordpress.org as an alternative to using Blackboard or Canvas and I could talk a little bit about why if you’re interested.

John: Yeah, could you tell us a little bit about what the advantages of this is compared to say one of the common course management systems?

Danica: Sure. I see the primary benefit of these platforms as they help students to develop transferable skills that are going to aid them in the world beyond the classroom, and so I’ll talk a little bit about what I mean by that. WordPress is one of the most common platforms on which the websites in the world are built .The latest statistic that I saw was something like 30% of the world’s websites are built on the WordPress content management system, and so I like to organize my courses on WordPress so that I can familiarize students with how websites are put together… how you can build them… how they think… how they organize information… and so what I try to do throughout the semester is scaffold students’ interaction with the platform. At the beginning it’s pretty user friendly: they create an account, they are able to log in to our site and then gradually they start going into the backend (which WordPress calls the dashboard) and they start creating their own content. So, they get to experience the process of going back and forth between the backend and then the front-end and seeing what that process is like and how information is organized on the WordPress platform. So, they start creating blogs and then what I like to do towards the end of the semester is deconstruct our class website and take it apart and break it and redesign it with students so that they can see, first of all, how easy it is to build a website. A lot of my students are new to this. They’re not necessarily computer science majors. They haven’t taken computer science courses, and so they’ve interacted with a lot of websites but they haven’t really gone in and thought about how they might build their own and so I show them how our course website is built and we redesign it we do all kinds of things and then often for students’ final projects they will have the option of designing a website related to something that we have done in the course and they often choose that option. They like it… they like getting to experiment with WordPress. For most of them it’s their first taste of the platform and several of them have said that they’ve gone on to learn more about WordPress because they’ve become really interested in it and I see this as a really great opportunity for students first to think a little bit more critically about how the internet works and how these pages that we’re constantly interacting with… how they’re constructed… and also to develop a transferable skill that could become a really valuable part of their resume and the skills that they will bring to the work world. Being able to build websites on WordPress is huge and so I find that starting that process early can be really helpful. It also creates an opportunity for us to have conversations like why is our course built on WordPress when all of your other courses are on Blackboard and we get to talk a little bit about what Blackboard is and the different ways that content management systems, especially in higher education, work to structure certain kinds of relationships of teaching and learning.

John: Does the institution host WordPress, or are you hosting your own instance of it?

Danica: Ideally, the university will host it. When I was at CUNY they have a really strong culture around open educational resources and free writing platforms and there’s a big community around that. It might exist at my new institution—I have to do a little bit more work to find it. As far as I know there’s a lot of people that are using Blackboard at my institution. Ideally… best-case scenario… the university would provide server space and then you could have an installation of WordPress or Commons in a Box, but currently I’m using Reclaim Hosting and Domain of One’s Own in order to have a classroom commons installation that I’m using across the three different classes I’m teaching.

John: Do you use the open aspect of that? Is the students’ work public or are you keeping it closed to the classroom, or is that something decided on a case-by-case or class-by-class basis?

Danica: Yeah, that’s a great point, thanks for bringing that up. It varies. Parts of the class web sites are public, parts of it are private… and another benefit of working in a quasi-public, quasi-private space is that it allows us to have conversations about what information students are putting on the Internet and what they want visible. What do they want to become part of their professional digital identity? What do they want to show up in search results versus what do they not want to show up in search results? So, we have a lot of these conversations early on in the semester when they’re establishing their accounts. We talk about the risks and the repercussions versus the benefits of using their real name to do the blogging that they’ll be doing on the site, and then for their final projects… often, but not always, I would encourage them to use their real name because they put a lot of time and effort there carefully revising these projects and they are deliberately constructing them with the idea that they’re going to be writing for a public audience. But, of course, in this climate of anti-immigration that we’re living in, you have to be super careful about what you’re encouraging students to put their name on and so I always have conversations around that. There’s always an option never to use your real name. You can always use a pseudonym for the blogging and for the final projects. You can always submit solely to me instead of publishing to a public audience, because I understand there are severe risks and in some cases they will outweigh the benefits of creating something publicly.

John: And we should note that you have an article in the describing your work here and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes as well.

Rebecca: You mentioned student blogging. Can you talk a little bit about how the student blogging is used in your classes and how that augments student learning and how that might facilitate some of these conversations that might be tricky to have?

Danica: Sure. I love student blogging—I don’t know how I would teach these courses without it. My courses are structured around the blog—it’s one of their major assignments, and so for every single class two or three students are assigned to blog about the assigned reading—I think the requirement is something like 800 words or so—and that they have to do a small close reading… so an analysis of the excerpt of whatever literary text we’re reading and it has to end with two discussion questions, and for every student who isn’t blogging. So, the majority of the class they have to leave a comment on those blogs before our class period starts, and so the blogs are due at noon the day before class and then students have from noon until our class period to leave their comments and then the way the course is structured the same day that those three students are blogging… so they’re each writing a blog… they are also facilitating a class discussion… a ten-minute activity… or it can be a presentation… it can just be more of a conversation. They have ten minutes at the beginning of the next class to do whatever they want, and I encourage them to make it the best lesson plan that they have ever seen or the way that they want their ideal course to be structured, and so I encourage them to try things like think-pair-share or to do interactive activities and it’s really exciting to see, first of all, the things that students choose to blog about, because with the readings that we’re discussing there’s so much that you could talk about. I have certain things I want to talk about but those might not necessarily align with what students are interested in within the text, and so having these open-ended blogs allows students to identify what it is they’re most interested in; it allows them to get feedback on their writing from their peers prior to our class session. One way that I’ve come to think about the blog… that I talk to students about it… is as a rough draft for a paper. They’re putting out a thesis… they’re putting out an interpretation… they’re providing some evidence from the text to support it… and then they have this tremendous opportunity to get feedback from all of their peers… and so in the comments the other students will be like, “I really like this point…” “I have another example that can help you support your point…” They might raise objections; they might raise counter points: “Well, have you thought of this other thing?” And so it’s a really great way for them to increase the quality of their writing and their ideas by getting feedback from their peers. Actually, this happened just in our previous class, a student was using a term “devaluing” to talk about sexuality in one of the books that we were reading and a lot of his fellow classmates were saying that word wasn’t working the way that he thought that it was working. So, in his facilitation he kind of talked through the feedback that he got and as a class we came up with a better word that would more precisely name the kind of relationship that he saw developing in the literary text, and so with the class facilitations it provides students with an opportunity to practice their public speaking and to practice standing up in front of a classroom. A lot of the students say that they’re really nervous at first, but that they’re glad in the end that they did it and they always get through it and we always manage… and so this kind of pairing of the blog with the in-class facilitation really teaches students that they are active knowledge producers and that they have something to contribute to the class and that their voice matters. They know that they’re not allowed to just disappear and sink into the background—they’re actually the ones up there in front of the class leading the lesson and it’s interesting to see actually the ways that it increases their performance once they’re back in the chair of the student, because they know what it feels like to be up at the front and so they’ll put out a question and they then get to experience what it’s like to have no one raise their hand and so they become much better as students and much more engaged once they return to their seats and resume that more traditional role of being a student. I never know what students are gonna do for their facilitation. They don’t have to run it by beforehand, so it’s always exciting. I don’t know what they’re gonna do in class today and it’s really made my role as an educator different and I’ve had to learn to listen really carefully to the things that students are saying when they’re up there presenting and my job becomes connecting what they’re saying to the main ideas and the main skills and the main topics of the class. So, for instance, if a student is giving a presentation I might interject and say that’s a thesis statement,… what you just said… you just made a thesis statement and then they start to recognize learning how to make an argument, how to make a thesis statement is one of the skills of the course, but it takes a long time or they’re not quite sure what I mean by that, but when they’re talking they’ll just do it naturally and so my job becomes pointing out to them that they are already doing the things that we’re learning about and just helping them recognize better the ways that their facilitations are connecting to the themes and the skills of the course.

Rebecca: I wanted to circle back to the leaving comments for other students—so they do the close reading, they post about that and then students comment on it. When they’re commenting, how do you help students learn what a good comment is?

Danica: Yeah, that actually becomes a topic of discussion early on in the semester. They’re given a few guidelines: it should be, I don’t know, a hundred and fifty words or so; it needs to make a contribution to the post; it can’t just be “I liked your post” or “I didn’t like your post,” and then what I’ve tried this semester is we implemented—kind of halfway through the semester—this rule that each comment needs to provide a quote from the text so that the commenter is either supporting providing further evidence that will support the author of the blog’s claim, or providing a counter example. One of my students last class, he said “Conversation makes the best interpretation” and I really loved that because they’re starting to learn through the commenting the ways that all academic writing is a conversation among various viewpoints and that when they’re writing a scholarly paper… when they’re writing a research essay… they are inserting their voices into larger conversations; they’re in dialogue with people. It’s not like you write a paper in a vacuum; it’s actually a synthesis of all these different viewpoints and ideas and so I see the commenting as kind of a rehearsal for class discussion. So when we show up in class, say, for instance, students aren’t being particularly talkative, I can say, well, you said this in your comment, and so I know that they’ve already engaged with the ideas and it allows often our class conversation to reach a higher level because they already know what several of their peers’ interpretations of the text are; they’ve already thought about them; they’ve already thought about the pros and the cons and how we might need to complicate some of these analyses; and so it just takes our class discussions to the next step.

John: Do you do anything to ensure that everyone responds to a certain number of posts to make sure that you don’t see everyone replying just to one other post to make sure you get some balance there? Do you have a mechanism for doing that?

Danica: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, for every class students have to comment on at least one post; they’re welcome to comment on more than one, but the requirement is one comment prior to class. I don’t have a mechanism for ensuring that. The class is 25 students, if we have three bloggers, one blog might get ten comments and the others might get four or five, and one way to kind of address that in the classes is encouraging students to think about their blogs, think about the title of the blog, think about the content of the blog, think about how they’re competing for the attention of their peers. I encourage them to say, “Okay, your peers have three blogs to choose from, how are you gonna get them to read yours?” It’s a way of getting them to think a little bit about audience and what is the function of a title. What is the work that a title can do? …and from that introductory paragraph how can they give their reader a sense of what their blogs gonna be about? How can they convince their reader that there’s gonna be a good payoff that their blog is worth reading? And so it’s interesting to see the different ways that they try to attract the attention of their peers. Because they do want those comments and I find they get excited about the different feedback—they’re not required to respond to the comments, but they do often… which, yeah, it’s always exciting to witness. I try to linger, I lurk a little bit on the blogs and I’m often not interjecting in the conversations, but just kind of reading through them and that’s actually the other benefit is that it ends up serving as a mode of formative assessment because I can see what they have understood from the readings and what might be missing… what might be the things that I need to address in the time that I have—what’s not quite getting through to them, either in terms of aspects of the reading that they overlooked or in terms of the skills. So, if I tell them that your blog needs to have a main point; it needs to have a thesis, and I’m seeing that they’re not quite doing that I can then adjust my lesson plans so that that becomes the focus of the next class and I can use their blogs, their own words as an example to say, “Okay, how could we give this blog a stronger thesis?” …and so it’s quite common that we’ll end up editing or revising some of the blog posts. They get projected up on the screen and students, because we’ve created a culture that they’re constantly giving feedback on each other’s ideas, students feel a lot less embarrassed or they understand that we’re all trying to become better writers and so they’re okay with it if I project their blog post and we talk through “What are some of the pros? What are some of the cons? How could we strengthen this?”

John: And it’s a much more authentic learning experience having them focus on audience and trying to build a strong thesis statement.

Rebecca: It seems like the blog post assignment really primes students well for the final projects that you had mentioned earlier that have a public audience because they’re already practicing writing for a specific audience and it’s another writing for a more general audience, I would assume. Can you talk us through that a little bit?

Danica: The final projects for my class often vary, but they’re usually collaborative… they’re usually digital… they’re usually public… they’re usually some kind of creative student-driven element. It’s usually students identifying the topic and then running with it, whether that’s a research blog or whether that’s currently my students in Intro to Multicultural Literature are co-authoring a glossary of key terms for literary studies—I have never done this before. It is a total experiment—I don’t know if they know that this is my first time doing this, so it’ll be interesting. I don’t know if they’ll hear in this podcast, but whatever, it’s fine. So I’ve done different versions of these collaborative public final projects. They vary sometimes based on the content of the course, students’ level of preparation, what are the aims and objectives of the different courses. It’s a little bit different for a basic writing composition course versus a more advanced literature course… and so one of the format’s I’ve done is have students co-author scholarly articles that they would submit to an actual journal, and so I did this in one of my freshman writing classes. We spent the entire semester talking about contemporary issues in education… so related to technology in the classroom… active learning versus lecturing… conditions of educational equality in segregated schools… and about halfway through the semester they were put into groups and they had to identify a research question. They did an annotated bibliography, they developed a whole research project, and then they made it into an article, a short article that they submitted to the scholarly academic peer-reviewed journal Hybrid Pedagogy to see if they could get it published or not, and I had been in contact with the journal’s editors since the summer before the class, so they knew this was coming. It would not have been possible if I hadn’t been working with them because they knew there was gonna be a really quick turnaround time where the students needed to know if they got revise and resubmit, if they got rejected, or if they got accepted… and I knew that this was a wildly fanciful or an unrealistic expectation to ask students to get a scholarly journal article published—these are basic writing students at Queens College—a lot of them are first-generation students… they work jobs… they are English language learners… and so in addition to reviewing of the conventions of English grammar and how to write a paragraph… how to write an academic paper… all things that were new or needed to be reviewed… they were also trying to get their writing published in a major publication… and so what ended up happening with that is that several students got revise and resubmit. But by the time they did it was the end of the semester and finals were happening and so I tailored the assignment a little bit towards the end. I tweaked it, because all semester I’d been telling them “these blogs are important, these things that you’re writing your research, everything, all of this matters because people are actually going to be reading this and you want them to take it seriously and you want them to listen to you. You don’t want to lose their attention halfway through.” … and so we needed to come up with a way that they would still get published even if they chose not to endure the editorial feedback loop of revise and resubmit, or the accept with minor revisions, and so what we had them do is they took the feedback that they got from the editors and several of the groups chose to post to HASTAC.org, which is a tremendous resource. It is an academic scholarly network of 15,000 plus members of scholars and students and academics and artists and activists and so there’s a special group within HASTAC that showcases and features and highlights the writing of undergraduates. So many of my students ended up submitting their final blogs there, but one group did continue—they kept revising their submission and going through the queries that they were getting from the editors and then the copy editors and just all of these stages of the writing process that were very new to them. This is a required writing course… no one showed up at that course eager to do all these drafts and revision and the skills that we teach in a basic writing course… but they continued in that editorial feedback loop for about a year after our class ended and then in August of 2017 their article was published in Hybrid Pedagogy, which was very exciting and so that is now something that they can put on their resumes and I was just so impressed with them for sticking through it because we know everything that goes into writing a journal article but for them they didn’t even know at the beginning of semester what a peer-reviewed journal article was… and so it was like a huge learning process. So, that’s one of the formats of these collaborative public final projects: submitting something to an established publication, which required a lot of willingness on the part of the journal editors to work within a really quick timeframe and the managing editor Skyped into my class several times and talked to students about the journal, helped them with their submissions, they got to pitch their ideas to him, it was great. Some of the other formats I’ve used that have also been good—I’ve had students write explicitly for HASTAC and that’s an opportunity for them to tailor their writing for a very specific community. So that’s something that we did this semester in the writing class that I’m teaching. We read so much about HASTAC… we read about its history. There was an article in Inside Higher Ed calling it the ethical social network and talking about their commitment to protecting their users’ data; we learned about who is a member of HASTAC, who are the different people who are reading it; how does the website organize information—by topic, by tags, by categories and so they were reading and analyzing the site itself before they even started writing their research blogs. So it was a similar process where they identified a research question and they authored blogs that were specifically going to be then tailored for the HASTAC audience, and so one of the big aims of that assignment was this skill of kairos and figuring out how to tailor your writing for a specific community of readers and figuring out what are the conventions? what are the affordances of this specific writing space? and how can I best get my point across to this very specific audience? So, that was useful in helping us have conversations about audience awareness and tone and how you make an argument; how do you convince someone that your point is right without alienating them. So that’s one example of having students write for HASTAC. …and the nice thing about HASTAC is that it comes with a built-in user community. You have sixteen thousand people who are visiting the site and reading things. The other kind of format for these public projects is what we’re doing now with the keywords. Students are co-authoring these individual keywords, they’ve identified specific words that have emerged that they’re interested in throughout all the readings that we’ve done this semester and through our discussions and through the blogs and the final product for that will be something that is hosted on our course WordPress site… so it’ll be a page or an offshoot—I’m hoping to write some kind of table of contents that will link to each of the student’s posts—hopefully there will be media, and so this will be something that they can then share. They can decide that they want to make it part of their professional identity, part of their portfolio, or they can decide not to—it’s really up to them. …and so one of the things that I’m constantly thinking about in developing these assignments is like how to actually connect students to audiences of readers and people who could actually benefit from a keyword entry on memoir or on ghosts… that’s another keyword, apparently we talk a lot about ghosts in my class… and this is coming out of the research that I’ve done on activist pedagogy and really thinking about the role of the teachers connecting students to audiences and people that could potentially benefit from the writing that they’ve been doing. So, thinking about these projects as both a benefit to the students in the class and also to larger publics and communities.

Rebecca: How have students responded to this sort of work? You know, you mentioned that, you know, some of the classes are required courses—students are not necessarily marching in excited to do these sorts of things… so it sounds like you’ve hooked them a little bit. What is their final response to these?

Danica: In general it’s been really positive. The jury’s still out for the semester. We’re gonna do course evaluations I think next week, so I’ll learn more. But in the past, I do a lot of framing around what we’re doing in part because I was always a very willful student and I did not like being told what to do. But if I understood why I was being told to do that thing then I would get really into it and really excited and so with these student-centered assignments and activities I’m always super explicit: this is why we’re doing this; these are what I see as the benefits of this; this is why we’re authoring a set of Community Guidelines; this is why you’re doing a presentation; you’re doing a presentation because public speaking is one of the most valuable skills that employers look for and so when I’m writing your recommendation letters I want to be able to tell them what a great public speaker you are and that’s why I’m asking you to stand in front of the classroom and facilitate this. Also, I should mention this semester and at SUNY Cortland a lot of the students are going on to become teachers and so it’s important to have these experiences at the front of the classroom. I think that being explicit really helps students, and the other thing I’ll say is that I often am explicit about how frustrating student-centered learning can be, and we talked about how it can feel difficult and how sometimes we just wish that the teacher would give us the answers rather than making us figure it out ourselves or making us work in small groups and so I try to create spaces for students to express those kind of emotions and reactions to things. I also try really hard in designing these student-centered assignments… to design… to create the conditions where for instance, we’re doing a collaborative writing project… I try to give them an assignment that actually requires multiple minds and that if they had tried to do that exact same assignment on their own the final product would not be as good as if they were doing it as a group. So I put a lot of thought into kind of carefully constructing these in a way that they will be oriented to succeed in them. Recently I wrote a blog on collaborative close reading, which is a really, really difficult skill to teach—it takes years, you know, for most of us to learn how to do close reading, but I’ve tried to create this assignment that had students work on it in groups, and so rather than having to notice all of a million different things that are going on in a passage of literature, they had a bunch of different minds put to the task and they were all looking at the same paragraph for 20 minutes and dissecting it and they were all contributing their different insights and so rather than having to go at it alone they were able to learn from the different perspectives that the other students brought to the text, and so I think just being really explicit about why behind everything has helped to ensure that the reactions have generally been positive.

John: How have other faculty responded? Have other people started working on building more productive conversations? Have other people in your department started working more on open pedagogy projects?

Danica: Well, I would hesitate to say anything explicitly about my department because I’m so brand-new. It’s my first semester in the department. But one thing that’s been super exciting for me has been to see people… especially with this recent blog that I wrote on collaborative close reading… it went viral on academic Twitter and people have been reporting back, because that’s one of the things that I asked them to do is let me know how it works… let me know if, you know, you have any suggestions for how to make it better… and almost every day I’m getting tweets from people at universities across the country saying, “I tried collaborative close reading and this is what my students did…” and they’ll post pictures of the passages that their students highlighted and so that makes me feel like I’m part of a community that is bigger than my own institution. So, when I’m running these, of course I hope that they will be helpful to my colleagues, but I’m also… I really feel like I’m part of a bigger academic community and part of that is because I post these blogs to HASTAC, and so it really is, people are a community of 16,000, however many users, but then it can get tweeted out. So, even if you don’t have a HASTAC account you can still read the blogs and there’s so many ideas about scholarship being really isolating, but things like that… and getting to talk to people and discuss pedagogy with people at different institutions makes it feel a lot less isolating. But in terms of your question about reactions of colleagues, I have been super lucky both at CUNY and now at SUNY in terms of support for the kinds of things that I’m interested in doing. These are schools with very strong commitments to education, where people are already interested in and talking about student-centered methods and curious and wanting to learn more. The other day I have my students write found poems—which is the genre of poetry where you take some kind of existing document—often it’s a bureaucratic document—and you make it into a poem by cutting it up and whiting it out and mangling it and turning it into poetry and my students created these awesome, awesome found poems; they were beautiful. So, we spent a day in class, I gave them whiteout… I gave them scissors… I gave them tape… They started as banal documents; they made them into stunning poems. They would bring in their tuition bills or song lyrics with offensive stereotypes in them—one of them brought in the transcript from the Brett Kavanaugh hearing and they took these documents and as a way of thinking about language and power they made them into these gorgeous found poems and so I went to the chair of my department and I said, ”Hey, you know, my students created these poems and I would love to have someplace to display them ‘cause I think they’re really awesome” …and not only did she give me permission to tear down what was on the bulletin board, she helped me do it. We tore down these old flyers that had been up there for decades and we put my students’ found poems on and so now we have this beautiful display in our hallway of student work and several of my colleagues have reported seeing students stop and read the poems and take pictures of it and so they’re excited to see their work has become part of this gallery. In general I’ve just been really lucky and fortunate to work with colleagues who are similarly invested in helping students. I did think of a few ideas for people who might not be so fortunate on ways that they could start doing student centered things. The first would be, and I’ve already mentioned this, creating a free profile on HASTAC.org because there are so many people out there doing really creative and exciting things in their classrooms… and connecting their classrooms to larger movements for social justice… and thinking about how do you engage students in really important discussions about contemporary social issues… and so HASTAC has been a phenomenal place for me to connect with other people who are doing that kind of work. I try to start small, and so something like think-pair-share is so easy… it’s taking an index card, giving students 90 seconds to respond to some kind of open-ended prompt, then they turn to the student sitting next to them, they share their responses and then we go around the classroom and I transcribe each group’s answer to the question on the board… and so their ideas become the material that I then get to teach the course through, and we crowdsource responses to some question related to whatever the topic of discussion is that day and something like that is so easy, it’s so simple—we have gone through… I would say we’re in the thousands of index cards in terms of my courses this semester. Because the students like it and they recognize that that changes the classroom dynamic. They recognize that suddenly it’s not just one or two students dominating the conversations. So, when they get up to the front of the class and they get to facilitate something I would say, I don’t know, 65, 70 percent of them choose to do think-pair-share because they recognize that it really lowers the barriers of anxiety about participating in class—everyone has 90 seconds to scribble something on their index card and it’s only an index card,— it’s tiny—there’s not any kind of pressure to write something beautiful and then that becomes just such an easy way to really transform the dynamics of the classroom… low cost… low time investment… and even when I’m thinking at the bigger scale of assignments and rethinking the research paper so that it’s not just being submitted to the professor, but it’s for a public audience, I try not to overhaul everything at once. So it’s like each semester I’ll try one new assignment. Not throwing everything away and starting from scratch each time, because it takes a lot of energy to do these things. And so thinking about how we can make small changes and experiments but not overwhelm ourselves or our students… and the other thing that I would suggest if somebody finds themself in a situation where they want to start trying these things but might not have the kinds of tremendous support that I’ve been lucky to have is… there’s just so much research out there on the effectiveness of student-centered pedagogy. We’ve read a lot of it in my course this semester on writing and education. We read a lot of the studies that have shown how positive of an impact it can have on students to discover ideas for themselves and to work in small groups and solve problems and arrive at answers rather than sitting and listening to a lecture. Just kind of having some of those studies in my back pocket—I’ve always felt that if I was called upon… you know, “Why did you do that? I can’t believe you let the students help assess each other’s papers.” I would have some things that I can cite, that I could go back to to say “Well, actually, it’s been shown that asking students to metacognitively reflect on the implications of their writing is a great strategy.” So that kind of thing has been really helpful for me in terms of thinking about relationships to colleagues and different reactions to this kind of pedagogy.

Rebecca: We normally wrap up by asking, what next?

Danica: Well, at the small scale, I guess, we have this digital glossary of keywords that will be coming out from my multicultural literature students… going to learn all about ghosts and power and assimilation and why these words are important for how we think about and analyze literature… so really excited to see what they do with that… and then I guess at the bigger scale I’m working on a book on the activist pedagogy of teacher poets from the 1960s and 1970s, and I’m hoping that some of that work will help us really understand the ways that a lot of contemporary student-centered practices… things that we’ve talked about today… a lot of them emerged in the 60s and 70s and especially in relation to the critiques of power emerging from the social movements of that era from the women’s movement and the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War… and so I’ve been thinking a lot about how those critiques of power necessitated new relationships of teaching and learning and this was especially happening in the work of poets who I’m interested in and so that book is also considering the ways that interactions with students shaped American literature in ways that we rarely consider and also the tremendous role that poets and authors and especially feminist poets have played in creating a lot of the contemporary student-centered pedagogy that we know today to be so effective.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Danica: Yeah, it’s really fun to work on.

John: In some of your posts you’ve listed a large variety of techniques that people can try and we’ll include links to those in the show notes as well. Thank you, this has been a fascinating discussion and we look forward to hearing more about what you’re doing.

Danica: Thank you so much for having me, this has been really fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us. [Music]

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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

59. Gatekeeping in Math Ed

Teachers at all levels often play an important role in influencing the educational and career paths of our students. In this episode, Dr. Marcia Burrell joins us to discuss how math teachers play a critical role as gatekeepers who may either welcome students to or provide a barrier to student success in all STEM fields. Marcia is the Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

  • National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM)
  • Budapest Semesters in Math Education
  • Polya, G. (1973). How to solve it: A new aspect of mathematical method. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • The Polya Approach Used at the University of Idaho
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
  • Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
  • Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Miller, L. & Spiegel, A. (Hosts). (2015, January 23).Invisibilia: How to become Batman pt. 1 [Radio broadcast episode].
  • National Research Council, & Mathematics Learning Study Committee. (2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. National Academies Press.
  • Brandsford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.

Other resources:

  • Larson, M. (2016). The Need to Make Homework Comprehensible. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
  • Stinson, D.W (2004). Mathematics as gate-keeper: Three theoretical perspectives that aim toward empowering all children with a Key to the Gate, The Mathematics Educator14 (1), 8–18.
  • Burrell, Marcia (2016) Gatekeeping in Mathematics TEDx talk at OCC. January 29, 2016.

Transcript

John: Teachers at all levels often play an important role in influencing the educational and career paths of our students. In this episode, we examine how math teachers play a critical role as gatekeepers who may either welcome students to or provide a barrier to student success in all STEM fields.

[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.

John: Our guest today is Dr. Marcia Burrell, the Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Marcia.

Marcia: Thank you.

Rebecca: Welcome. Today our teas are…

Marcia: Earl Grey with caffeine.

Rebecca: Extra caffeine. [LAUGHTER]

John: Mine is just a pure peppermint tea today.

Rebecca: And I have a jasmine green tea.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about the work you’ve done on math instructors as gatekeepers. What does it mean to be a gatekeeper?

Marcia: Well, I like to use the word gatekeeping because sometimes gatekeeping has to do with an open gate, where you can just slide right through, or someone gives you the key, or they’ve given you the secret password, or it’s a barrier, where if you don’t really know what the hidden curriculum is about passing through the gate then you could stay there and be turned away. And in mathematics a lot of times people are afraid of math or they’ve been socialized to think they cannot do math and it’s really a gate that’s been created either by themselves through socialization or it’s been created by a math person or by someone like a parent who said, “oh, don’t worry, I wasn’t good at math either.” So, when I think about gatekeeping and mathematics it’s really about barriers that are created by us or barriers that are created by others, or for people who are really successful in mathematics, they have an opportunity to open the gate; there are certain things that they can do that will make people pass through the gate more easily.

Rebecca: I think our students can empathize with the idea of gatekeeping when it comes to mathematics—you hear them talking about these stories of certain situations where the barriers have been in place for them, or sometimes that’s faculty. For example, I’ve heard many times in creative fields where the creative faculty might say, “yeah, we know you’re not great at math but you have to take math,” or I had a situation when I was a kid in middle school—I remember distinctly middle school teachers saying “the women in this class aren’t going to do as well” and then I remember the few of us banding together and then we got really good grades on this final exam that we were told that we wouldn’t do well in. I think that those narratives are certainly there and it’s interesting to think about it not only from the person coming to the gate but also from the gatekeeper perspective, which leads me to the question of, what are some things that gatekeepers do that keep people out?

Marcia: I’m gonna focus on math people mostly, where sometimes they say things like maybe in a beginning level math course, “Why didn’t you know that? You should’ve learned that before. I don’t understand why you can’t do fractions.” So, there’s vocabulary built into a lot of us where we send out messages which get people to realize, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me; I should know how to do this.” So, they start imposing those same messages on themselves. The other thing that I think is important is in mathematics there’s always been a stratification about who can do math or who should do math and who can be successful in math. Often, as you just said, women have stories about fighting to get into a advanced math class because they didn’t do very well on some class but they were willing to work hard. So, certain populations are harmed because they’re socialized that way that when women have trouble in mathematics we say, “Oh, we should make it easier; you should do a group of courses that are not gonna lead you to calculus in high school,” but sometimes when men struggle we go, “Oh, struggles perfectly fine.” In the U.S., teachers make it easier for students to learn; they give them answers, they work out all the details. When I say give answers, I mean they work out all of the problems so that it’s really just rote, as opposed to in other countries, struggle is actually honored—hard work and struggle is part of the mathematics learning process, where in the U.S. sometimes we don’t allow people to struggle. If you got a B in Algebra I, well, you don’t really need to take Algebra II because the minimum requirement in New York state is Algebra I, and the fact is struggle is a part of the learning process. Historically, we’ve always stratified who is successful in math or who can take math and the level of courses that people can take. Plato 2,300 years ago believed that everybody needed arithmetic, but the advanced math was relegated to philosopher guardians, and in the 1920s the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics argued to have mathematics part of the curriculum, and between 1890 and the 1940s there was a growth in public schools and the perception was that sometimes they weren’t sure that students had the intellectual capability of doing some of the mathematics that NCTM thought was important. But remember in the 1950s the business world and industry said, “What are you guys doing in schools? The people that you’re putting out there can’t do mathematics.” Well, that was mathematics for a purpose and then Sputnik happened and all of a sudden math became this subject that we wanted to make sure people had. But think about how many English classes do people take—one or two in high school, but in high school students often take four or five math courses. I’m not saying they’re not important, but it really forces us to think about mathematics as an elite subject when gatekeeping from my perspective is it’s not about an elite subject, it’s everyone can do math; people are born mathematical and everyone should have an opportunity to do the subject and not fail at it, but struggle and make movements towards whatever learning they need to do.

John: So a lot of this sounds like our society is creating or emphasizing or encouraging the development of fixed mindsets in math where many messages coming through (as you both have mentioned) in early childhood discourage people from thinking that they’re able to do math and only the elite can get through. Is that common in other cultures?

Marcia: I mentioned earlier that in other cultures hard work and struggle are honored and I witnessed in Budapest, when I was visiting there as part of my sabbatical, that students were asked to go up to the board and struggle through a problem, even if they had no idea. And we do a lot less of that because either you know the answer or you don’t; that doesn’t really work that way—it is an iterative process. I used to work on problems and maybe get a little frustrated, put it away and the next day I’d look at it and I go, “Oh, now I get it.” It’s really about process. The NCTM standards talk about process and product, and if you want people to learn mathematics then you really have to emphasize process, working in teams, giving people a chance to try things and fail but also collaborate with others to ensure that maybe there are multiple ways of approaching a problem, but if you’re not allowing students to talk with one another and work it through, then sometimes they think there’s only one way to do it and it really doesn’t improve their mathematical abilities. Mathematicians are about process—there are certain skills that mathematicians use. Good mathematicians persevere through problem-solving. They check their answers using different methods, they plan how to solve a problem versus jumping into a solution, and they justify the answers and communicate with others. Good mathematicians don’t just know the answer; it’s a process, and there’s even collaboration between mathematicians, but when we teach it on the K-12 level, we say, “This is what you need to learn and you need to learn it in a specified amount of time,” and so a lot of times students are turned off by the way we teach mathematics. Opening the gate is really about helping teachers rethink how they actually teach mathematics. We have a lot of data about how to successfully teach math, and it’s about problem-solving, reasoning, communication, connections and representations, but if you’re just gonna stand at the board and write the answer to a problem, that doesn’t help people really connect to how you came to that problem. So, gatekeeping is about getting teachers to rethink how they’re teaching mathematics and what they think is important. Process and products are important, but process is actually more important.

Rebecca: You mentioned mathematics as a collaborative process, but in my experience in K-12 I don’t think I ever worked with another person once.

Marcia: It’s funny you mention that. Again, the stratification stuff is huge. I attended a program called Budapest Semesters in Math Education and it’s geared for Americans, Canadians to come to this program. They’re interested in both juniors and seniors to come and learn about the problem-solving approach to mathematics. These are students who are mostly math majors, but they could be math ed majors, and they are sent to these schools where they’ve selected the top students in mathematics to use a problem-solving approach and what happens is they give them a problem with no background and they ask them to work out these problems. They can use their textbooks, they can use calculators, but the fact is our students—Americans and Canadians—get to witness students almost trying anything to work out these high-level mathematics problems—sometimes they’re theoretical, sometimes they’re applied. But what the students say who are in this particular program—and I got to be in these classes with them—was, “Why can’t we have all students use some of these processes?” And the processes are really just the things we already know that good mathematicians are supposed to do, sort of George Pólya, you know: analyze the problem, look at all the facts, try something, test your answer. But you actually get to witness that. So, when you asked me “None of the classes I ever went to that were collaborative and problem-based and working in teams,” well we seem to have an idea that only the gifted and talented or special programs will allow kids who already show aptitude to do mathematics in that particular way, and the fact is I visited a school in Budapest where this teacher who’s been working with the gifted and talented students got permission from the parents to try this problem-solving approach for a ninth grade through 12th grade. They had to get sign-offs by parents, because of course, in our system, if kids don’t know certain things by the end of certain grades then their opportunities—another gate—for getting into the university and going through the career path are cut off. So, these parents had to sign off that they were going to risk that what she was gonna to do over the next four years was gonna be helpful to their students and that they wouldn’t be harmed by doing this problem-solving approach. I witnessed several math classes where this teacher had been working as part of her dissertation to have students go through this problem-solving approach—it’s not just Pólya; there are other… Pósa there’s a Pósa method—I met this gentleman who, he was in his 80s and he invented the Pósa method and he’s one of the top mathematicians in his age… in his day, but he devoted his life to teaching problem-solving to kindergarten through grade 12. But the point that I’m making is, I witness students who had been through this process, and they were explaining problems to their peers on the board in ways that I haven’t seen good math teachers explain. But they built these kids up from start to finish to be confident about what they knew, to work in groups, not be afraid to make mistakes, and I think that we can do more of allowing students to learn not just at their own pace, but learn what mathematicians do—the process of engaging with one another if we weren’t so afraid of the whole accountability—what do kids know at the end of 12th grade? What do they know at the end of 11th grade? It’s recursive. Some things they learned in ninth grade in Algebra I will come back in Algebra II and when they’re college students they’re gonna pull the algebra and geometry together, if we allow it, as opposed to looking at these areas as completely separate things. One of the things about gatekeeping is that teachers have to think about students as already being competent; they’ve got to provide students with scaffolding so that students that are in different places have an opportunity to demonstrate what they know. I also think that we have to have high expectations, but we have to let students understand that they can extend the learning if they take some risks; that’s what good mathematicians do, and then we have to exhibit in depth knowledge as well as subject matter knowledge. So there are certain things that gatekeepers—math teachers—can do, but they’ve got to trust that students can learn, and we’ve got to keep the expectations high, but also scaffold for them so that they’re successful.

Rebecca: …a lot of evidence-based practices.

John: Yes, I was just going to say a lot of what you’re talking about, there’s a tremendous amount of research supporting that, not just in math instruction but across the board. In terms of providing students with challenging problems—you have the desirable difficulties of Bjork and Bjork, for example, and in terms of learning from mistakes, that shows up in all of the research on teaching and learning and it’s something that Ken Bain talked about when he summarized some of this research in What the Best College Teachers Do, and it’s also shown up in several of the books we’ve used in our reading groups, Make It Stick and Minds Online, for example: that retrieval practice, low stakes testing, where students can make mistakes and learn from mistakes, is effective in all types of instruction. So, these are really good practices that seem to be mostly neglected in math instruction.

Rebecca: I was expecting John to also mention something about growth mindset. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think I already did a while back, but treating math as something you’re either good at or not good at by teachers and by families and by our culture discourages the development of a growth mindset, and that’s really important. This year I’ve completely flipped my large microeconomics class and one of the things I had them do is before each class I asked them to do some readings and then I asked them to work through some problems in the readings; I have students submit a short Google form, where I ask them just two questions before each class. The first question is: “What have they learned from this reading assignment before that day’s class?” And also, “What are they still struggling with or what don’t they fully understand?” And half to two-thirds of them before each and every class list, “I have trouble interpreting graphs;” “I have trouble understanding graphs;” or that “I have trouble computing these things,” and that’s all basic math, and of course they have trouble doing it when it’s the first time they see it, but they see it as a barrier— “I’m just not good at it,” and every day in class I’ve been trying to encourage them to say, “Well, you may not do it now, but you can get better at this;” “You haven’t yet mastered this;” “You’re not yet good at this, but the more you do it the easier it gets,” and we’re not always seeing that happen, and we see that in lots of areas.

Marcia: Yeah, I think that students are more willing to say “I’m not good at math; I don’t have any experience with math,” but they would never say, “I can’t read; I’m not good at reading.” They might say it, but it’s socially acceptable to say “I’m not good at mathematics,” and the fact is when you look at a group of kindergarteners and they’re in a classroom, they’re all learning for the first time how to add and subtract and they slowly… I’m sorry, through some of their elementary school teachers who often are afraid of mathematics, and they say little things, “Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s okay to not be able to do that, we’ll work on that later on,” but they say it in a way that sometimes gives students permission to say, “Oh, I don’t have to learn that—I’m a girl, I’m a student of color, I don’t have to learn that because the teacher said she doesn’t know it either,” and so one of the concerns that I have for how we train childhood educators is we force them through, at least on our campus, these two math classes where they go kicking and screaming, but the fact is we almost need to reprogram them to think about the things that they can do mathematically and then build curriculum around them. It’s not always about the fact that the way you learn is the same way that all the kids that you’re teaching learn; it’s more about how do you change your perceptions about mathematics. There’s something on NPR, and I’ll have to find the reference a little bit later on, where this young man who was blind learned how to ride a bike, was sent to school, and people couldn’t even really understand why he was able to do all of these things as a blind person—well, his mother decided to treat him like he was a sighted person and it’s a Batman series, where the fact is, if you convince someone that they can do something and you believe it, then all of the things that you do to work on their perceptions about their capacity will come through. But first the teacher has to believe it and then they have to do all of these things to scaffold it. The fact is that, and again, I’ll have to find the researcher, but he did this study where he told all of his researchers that these mice were smart mice… these mice were everyday the same mice… what happened is the researchers came in and they treated those mice like they were smart—they handled them differently, they had them run through whatever people do in psychology with mice, and then he came back later on and said “All of these mice have exactly the same capabilities.” Well, that works in exactly the same way in the math classroom; students come, and if we believe that they’re capable and we come off and treat them with respect about what they have learned and how to build on that, then we’re gonna see better progress in their learning. I have to come back to the gate because the teacher has a lot of power to make the gate accessible or make the gate a barrier, and the barrier is really just the messages that the teacher says to the students and to herself about success in mathematics, and we lose entire generations of people when the gate is closed to them mainly because of perception.

Rebecca: So much discussion of gates it should be important to note that in front of Marcia is this picture of so many different kinds of gates in our conversation. Can you talk a little bit about the gates that you have in front of you?

Marcia: Yeah, I decided to Google different kinds of gates and when you think about the Brandenburg Gate or you think about gates like this one —remind me what this is called; this is in Cincinnati—the arch; this is really a gate, but this shows an opening to something, so when you think about gatekeeping in mathematics, I want us to think about people being gatekeepers for accessibility. So when you look at those pictures you think of when you’re going through the turnstile to pay with an EZ Pass. That is a barrier. If you don’t have money, you don’t have an EZ Pass, you’re not getting through, but if you look at the door to no return like in Benin it’s an opening to the next world just like certain pictures of gates just have you think differently about openings and closings.

Rebecca: There’s some like the dog pen where there is no way in or out; it looks like that one’s just closed forever.

Marcia: Yeah, which one is it? This one or this one? Right, I mean this has a gate, but often people are closed inside of thinking that they can’t do math and they can’t be successful. The job of a teacher would be to help them jump over that particular gate or find a different way to think about opening that particular gate. If you’re a dog and you’re inside of a pen, I think you’re just gonna need somebody to lift you up over that gate, and I think about that with teachers that what they have to do with each individual student is completely different, but their responsibility is to help them understand that they’re all mathematicians and they all have capacity for success in mathematics.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a little bit about how gatekeepers can open the gate or provide the leg up over the wall, or whatever it is, right, that’s there. Can you talk a little bit more about how to be inclusive and how faculty and teachers can really support this environment that would allow for problem-solving and allowing students to fail and try again and to iterate and eventually succeed?

Marcia: I’ve thought a lot about elementary school students and middle school students, where you’ve probably heard about the Montessori Method. The Montessori Method, you work with individuals to build from what their interests are and it turns out that students without a lot of direct instruction can complete whatever the curriculum is for that grade level by mapping to their interests, their strengths, and projects that they do where they’re learning the mathematics in ways that might be considered non-traditional. In the Montessori Method, they’re not just looking at memorizing times tables; they’re looking at multiplication as repeated addition, they’re looking at visualizations instead of just looking at a text. And the fact is that sometimes, I think, that if we allowed students to individualize their learning, especially in middle school and high school, that there’d be more progress than forcing students through the curriculum where each week they’re expected to learn something but they’re not learning it, they’re sort of just being dragged through the mud. And I have a lot of respect for my peers who are math teachers. I was a math teacher where I felt like I know what that kid needs, I need to take time to help that kid through what they need, but I didn’t have the courage to stop what I was doing and figure out how to individualize or make them work in small groups. I was a successful K-12 teacher, but I feel like I started to figure out what was needed when I made the decision to leave. So, part of my job as a math educator is to help our candidates who are gonna be teachers in schools to have the courage to do what they know is right: think about their love of mathematics and give kids problems that are theoretical and have them try it; give them applied problems, give them things where they have to use visualizations and not just know the procedures, but also understand the concept.

John: And also perhaps to use peer instruction, as you talked about, where students explaining things to each other reinforces learning for each student.

Marcia: Yeah, and sometimes the things that we expect of what we call the gifted and talented are exactly the things that other students can do but we’re afraid to take a risk, and I met earlier this afternoon with one of our adjuncts that’s teaching math methods to our graduate students and she said her job is to teach her candidates how to be good teachers, and sometimes that means forgoing what they think they wanted accomplished on that day and building something fun that’s gonna get students to see that math has many openings, not just following things through rote or through memorization. So, I had a really nice conversation with her because she does work in the school systems, but she’s teaching a course for us and she uses constructivist approaches. I have many peers that are still engaged in this math war that it has to be rote, it has to be step-by-step. In the constructivist approach, you care more about the process that students engage in and there’s a program that I listen to on Sunday morning it’s on NPR where it’s a puzzle and the puzzle is usually related to a vocabulary puzzle as opposed to a math puzzle, but the type of thinking that you have to engage to solve those puzzles really is mathematical thinking, so I love those puzzles, but they’re all couched in word puzzles… but it’s really mathematical thinking… and so I think the teachers need to use more of those word puzzles to bring people in so that they understand that they’re engaged in mathematical thinking—it’s just not called mathematical thinking. One of the other things that I wanted to mention before I run out of time is we are heavily tracking students into particular tracks. Sometimes you’re in the track where you’re just going to do Algebra I, and sometimes you’re in the track where you’re gonna get to do Algebra I and Algebra II, and maybe you’ll get to do Geometry, but some of the best learning occurs when there’s heterogeneous grouping and there’s less tracking. This gate stuff, these gatekeeping, really reinforces tracking, which when students come to SUNY Oswego and they’re in a remedial class and don’t know why they’re in the remedial class, because they may have been tracked in a particular way and cut off many, many job opportunities or majors because they were tracked in a particular way, and that is gatekeeping that occurs in fourth grade. And again our responsibility for our childhood educators is to get kids to think more broadly about what mathematics is; it’s not just arithmetic, it’s not just geometry, it’s not just theoretical problems; there are many types of problems that childhood people could engage students in that wouldn’t shut the door to possibilities 10 or 12 years later when students find out that they were tracked in a way that makes it so that they could never do graphic design or they could never do engineering or something else that they didn’t really understand was possible because somebody closed the gate early on.

John: …and that’s really important because most of the growth in income inequality is due to differences in educational attainment and the returns to education. And the returns to education in the STEM fields is far above the returns in other areas as well. So, keeping people out of those areas means that the people with those areas end up doing really well, but the people without those skills end up in jobs that are perhaps overcrowded with lower job prospects, lower prospects of growth and it helps reduce social mobility and economic mobility. It’s a serious problem in our society; it’s the worst we’ve ever seen it in the U.S.

Marcia: Yeah, I can’t connect it completely to perceptions, but a long time ago I taught a remedial math course at Clinton Community College and I had a student in that class and she was a smart person—I think everyone is smart—but I walked through how to study math, how to approach it: you are capable, work hard, keep asking questions, and about 10 years later I got a postcard from her—this flabbergasted me; she was in a remedial class and she had entered a PhD program in mathematics and she said it was just about the fact that somebody finally showed her how to study math—it was read the textbook, try the problems, come to class, listen maybe to the lecture, don’t be afraid to make mistakes; when you’re tired take a break. There are certain things We know that people can be successful in mathematics but we keep thinking that it’s this magic wand thing; it’s not a magic wand thing. We actually know —there’s research from Adding it Up —where we know exactly how people learn math well. The stuff research from Bransford, which how to study mathematics, how to learn mathematics, it’s written in black and white from large-scale studies, but then we return to the rote memorization, follow these steps and that’s not the beauty of mathematics at all.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think is really interesting about what you’re saying is that societally we might think, “Oh, fourth grade teacher… not really gonna have a big impact,” but you’re really talking about this fourth grade teacher is not a gatekeeper of the little gate around the garden; this is like the gate to the universe.

Marcia: Absolutely, and most of our math candidates who are not math concentrates—they’ve got to take these two four-credit math courses—will say, “I just need to get through this class; I hate math.” If you hate math it comes through loud and clear in your teaching; it’s really difficult to mask that. I taught a math for diverse learners course that the School of Education and Arts and Sciences Math Department and Curriculum and Instruction collaborated on and it was a math for diverse learner, so some of the things that I’ve been talking about here was in a full graduate course, and students would say, “Well, I never really thought about that; I thought everybody was gonna learn math the same way I learned math”—you’re a math person, I shouldn’t even say that. You’re a math person—you came through the system and you were successful in the current system, but if you want to build the next generation you’ve got to think about some of these other factors—you’re gonna be in a system, and as we’ve talked about systems, you are part of the system and you do have power to make changes to it, even if it’s perceptions, even if it’s just giving students the perception that you care about their learning and that they can succeed, and so this is really important to me. There are three principles: teachers must engage student misconceptions, understanding requires factual knowledge and conceptual understanding, and a metacognitive approach enables students self-monitoring. If I think about gatekeeping, if teachers kept those three principles in mind, they’re not mine—it’s in the research. This is sort of revolutionary because we don’t want to restrict people to thinking that only certain people can do mathematics, but if math teachers, whether they’re childhood or adolescence, or university teachers think about what good mathematicians do, they’ll follow these three principles and it might move us forward. I know it’s a big deal because the successful people want to keep what they have to themselves, but I think we miss out on the potential of entire generations if we don’t give them access to opening the gate through mathematics. When the Common Core came out teachers had the perception that they had to give these problems to students and parents would call and complain—“I can’t even do these problems; these aren’t the problems that I did when I was a kid”—well, the fact is we weren’t supposed to be sending these problems home; we were supposed to be doing those problems in class, and so a lot of the Common Core mathematics was supposed to be using manipulatives and getting kids to talk about how they think through the arithmetic problem. They were sending home problems and parents were complaining they were spending two or three hours to work through these problems, and there was an article put out—it was an NCTM—where they said what is your problem? No, don’t send these problems home for kids to fight with their parents, ‘cause that’s just gonna reinforce, “Oh, I couldn’t do math either;” it was supposed to be completely done in the classroom in collaborative groups, but we’re still not interested in teaching in that way. So, we sent home the homework—well, you could have been sending home memorize these timetables just as we did 20 years ago or 30 years ago, so finally NCTM put something out to help math teachers in the K-12 area not to send home these problems that would take parents two to three hours, but to rethink the organization of their classrooms where students could work on problems and have fun with mathematics, and the fact is that there are reforms that mathematicians fight about; there are a whole host of mathematicians that said Common Core was bad; Common Core is not bad, the way it was implemented was bad, so now we’ve done some backtracking to think about the fact that when you carry, when you’re subtracting or you’re adding, why do we do that? And the Common Core got students to make sense out of place value and make sense out of what it means when we carry this is about the tens place or the hundreds place and whenever you have new curriculum, Common Core or what was the curriculum in the ‘50s, I can’t remember… the new math… there’s always new math, it’s just an approach to make it more inclusive, but sometimes the way we roll things out makes it difficult, at least for the next generation of teachers, so I’m pro-reform movements, but we have to take the time and the energy to implement it in a way that’s actually gonna be useful—we just keep going back to the way we taught math a hundred years ago.

Rebecca: It sounds like what happened was faculty who knew how to do things a particular way get handed something that’s different but not a way of demonstrating or doing the different, right, like…

John: …without the professional development needed to allow them to implement it effectively.

Marcia: Correct. That’s correct.

Rebecca: The method doesn’t match the material.

Marcia: Exactly. At the same time they were putting out that students have to take a main assessment in fourth grade and eighth grade, but those assessments didn’t really align to this new Common Core curriculum, and so lots of things have changed over the last, I’d say seven to ten years, and we’re sort of coming out of that. When students come to the university level we still expect them to know mathematics. Do you remember twenty-five years ago they changed the math curriculum to be Math A and B, Course I, II, and III? New York state was the only state that was really thinking more globally about, “Wow, it doesn’t always have to be about algebra—it could be about statistics, it can be about more applied,” but the fact is universities didn’t change and we were still expecting students to know this narrow curriculum but it did broaden what people thought about mathematics, but it didn’t really help a lot of those students because then they were closed out of particular career areas because they might have been in a school that embraced applied math or embraced business math or something that might not connect to what they would do at the university level.

John: You’ve also been involved with Project Smart here at Oswego. Could you you tell us a little bit about that and how it relates to math instruction.

Marcia: Project Smart was a thirty-year project where teachers came to SUNY Oswego for summers to do professional development, math, science, technology. There are some teachers retiring over the last couple of years that came to Project Smart right from the beginning. We brought people in like Damian Schofield in the early days to learn about human-computer interaction. We brought people in from music and from art to help teachers integrate other things into their teaching, so they used to come for three weeks, then they came for two weeks, then they came for one week, then we built it into the department where faculty got released time to go into schools and work with teachers from the bottom up to think about how to improve teaching in their classroom. Project Smart really honored the work that teachers did because we would say, “What do you want to improve in your classroom? Are there particular things that you know students are struggling with?” This past year, funding for Project Smart ended, but the institution is still supporting individual faculty to go into schools and work with teachers to build classrooms that connect with the learners that they have in front of them. It’s more connected to what’s called a professional development school, where at the university we have the latest about how to teach, whether it’s math or English or social studies or modern language, and then we go into schools where they’re dealing with kids every single day and we try to help them figure out how to improve as a teacher; we meet them where they are; we build from there, so Project Smart is over—I’m not gonna say it’s dead, but we have a different system to work on professional development schools but just in a different way.

John: So you’re still doing the same thing even though it’s not under that official title?

Marcia: Correct. Correct.

Rebecca: We always wrap up our episodes by asking, what next?

Marcia: Oh my goodness, thank you for asking what next. After returning from my sabbatical, where I had the opportunity to be part of Budapest Semesters in Math Education where I got to see classrooms where students were using Pólya’s problem-solving approach in addition to something called the Pósa method, I worked with Josh McKeown, who’s from international education to reduce the cost of the Budapest program, so we’re working to recruit math students, both childhood and adolescence teacher candidates, as well as straight math candidates to consider going to Budapest over a winter course for one or two weeks over winter session or during spring break. What would they experience if they went to a short course? They would visit classrooms using the Pósa method, they would sit in on some of the math courses at BSME, where teachers are actually showing how to use a problem-solving approach in mathematics, where sometimes our students say “You talk about problem solving, you talk about the constructive approach, but no one is doing it so we don’t really know what it is.” The next step is to work with international ed to get a group of students to do the BSME program.

Rebecca: That’s really incredible.

Marcia: I’m excited about it too and I hope to also re-institute my math for diverse learners course because through that course I reinforce that I believe students should have access to high-quality, engaging math instruction. I believe all students should have mathematically rich curriculum. I believe all students should have high expectations and strong support, and we’re all gatekeepers— we are change agents and we control the gate. I think it’s ambitious because many people don’t agree with me saying that mathematics needs to be more inclusive, but that’s what I’ve been working for my entire career and I hope to continue that way.

Rebecca: Your work is incredible and we’re really excited that you’re doing that work.

Marcia: Thank you.

Rebecca: I know as someone who’s in a field that you don’t always associate with math—I believe in math and so I hope we can all help support your initiative.

John: It’s a major social justice issue.

Marcia: It’s a huge social justice issue because, again, what happens is often students of color, students that come from poor families may or may not have had the best math instruction. I mean, it’s a big cycle, and when they come here we should be able to help not just convince them, but this is a public institution. We should be able to provide access for them to reach whatever goals they hope to. We should be able to take students where they are and help them achieve whatever their focus is, whether it’s math related or not.

John: Well, 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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.