175. Embracing Change

Faculty who had to shift to teaching online for the first time due to the pandemic were forced to confront their habits and typical ways of teaching in order to adapt to and support students in a new modality. In this episode,  Colin and Jonikka Charlton join us to discuss ways in which faculty and departments have embraced and resisted change during this transition. Colin is the chair of the Department of Writing and Language Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Jonikka is the Associate Provost for Student Success and Dean of University College, also at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Faculty who had to shift to teaching online for the first time due to the pandemic were forced to confront their habits and typical ways of teaching in order to adapt to and support students in a new modality. In this episode, we discuss ways in which faculty and departments have embraced and resisted change during this transition.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guests today are Colin and Jonikka Charlton. Colin is the chair of the Department of Writing and Language Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Jonikka is the Associate Provost for Student Success and Dean of University College, also at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. Welcome.

Jonikka: Thank you.

Colin: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Colin: I’m actually drinking blackberry sage, made by a company I don’t remember because I’m freezing, ‘cause It’s like 50 here. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That sounds really warm. I’ll go with that.

Jonikka: I’m just a water drinker. Colin’s the tea drinker in the family.

John: I am drinking a chocolate mint oolong tea.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.

John: It is. It was a gift from my son.

Rebecca: I was gonna say, I think that’s a new one for the podcast, John.

John: I think it is.

Colin: That’s pretty cool.

Rebecca: I have a new one today, too. I have a Palm Court blend from Harney and Sons.

John: Ok. We’ve invited you here to discuss some of the challenges associated with teaching writing during a pandemic. But first, could you tell us a little bit about how your institution has handled and adjusted instruction during the pandemic?

Jonikka: Yeah, I guess I’ll start from kind of a wider institutional perspective. I was honestly really surprised and really proud of the institution, because when we switched to online really rapidly in the spring, we kind of stayed there. And so there wasn’t a lot of pressure internally, or even externally, for us to have a lot of students on campus. And in the valley, the households are generally pretty large. So there are extended families, large families, living in the same household. And so the threat, I think, was a little bit higher, potentially, than in some other areas. And people having barbecues and family get togethers all of the time, it’s really, really important. So in the spring, we were completely online, we started having to distinguish between asynchronous modality and synchronous modality. And then we pretty much kept that for the fall semester, there were probably maybe 8,10 percent, a mix of hybrid courses and face to face. And then now in the spring, I was just looking before we got on here, and it’s about a third asynchronous, a third synchronous, and about 18% is face to face and the rest are hybrid. And we’re really starting, even those hybrid, are starting online. And hopefully, if we get as many people as possible vaccinated, then we maybe can move toward the end of the semester, a little bit more people onto campus. But that’s kind of the way we have. We did a huge investment in online faculty development over the summer. And so the fall was when we got to really test and see how that worked and get some feedback from students, which I’m sure we’ll talk about a little bit today.

Colin: I can speak from the developmental, and, I guess, the program level. So we did tons of training, as Jonikka said. I think the bulk of the response at the very beginning, whenever that was, I feel like it was a year ago, but it’s actually just a few months. So the bulk of it was invested in technology, both in terms of trying to figure out how to help students get access when they were sitting in Burger King parking lots trying to get Wi Fi at the very beginning, but that disappeared so quickly. So it’s like having whiplash from rapid response kind of triage stuff, like, something happens, Spectrum gives everybody free Wi Fi. We don’t have enough bandwidth to have more than so many Zoom meetings or recordings, and then we get an extension and now we have unlimited hours or something like that. It’s like being part of a really gigantic cable company, they keep giving you more stuff to try to make sure everything keeps working, [LAUGHTER] except the cable company actually works in your favor in this case. So there’s a lot of technology stuff, a lot of blueprinting for online classes. For faculty support, there emerged a need for psychological and wellness and self-care support. But that really wasn’t as much at the front of what was happening. But you can tell that people were starting to need it because there was a lot of discomfort and just unfamiliarity. And a lot of people doing things they knew they had to do, but they didn’t know how to do them with the technology side of it. And then from the program side, department side, at least in our department, we backed away from a lot of that and tried to offer something as an alternative to talk about concepts, because a lot of the work was in the logistics of getting things built and getting classes built, making sure people understood that you have to tell students how to navigate your courses, because that was a new thing for a lot of faculty, right? And at the same time, I’m trying to basically, not reinvent the wheel, but trying to get people in the department to have a talk about what engagement is and what teaching is, which I know probably sounds weird as a thing to do. But we had to have that discussion in a very small, private, disturbing, communication, like difficult conversations kind of moment. I guess it was conceptual training that was going on or retraining. And then there was also institutional support, that, I think probably allowed us to do the other because I don’t think if we had had the technology part stripped away from us or we had to be responsible for ourselves, I don’t think we would have found the space to do the wellness stuff and the conceptual training. I don’t know how widespread that was. I know every department handled it a different way. But we’re a big department. And we handle so many freshmen that we just had to do it for the writing program and for the language programs and all of those things, which went from zero asynchronous to literally 100% asynchronous writing classes over the course of the summer. That was a big lift.

John: That’s a pretty dramatic shift from going from zero to 100%. How did the faculty adjust? How did they come out of those difficult conversations?

Colin: At the Dean’s level, at least for our college, we were told we could let the faculty decide what they wanted to do in terms of their own level of comfort and preparedness, right? And so you had a few people who wanted to know just how protected were they’re going to make the classrooms because they couldn’t teach with a mask on and they couldn’t teach online. And so they felt like they had to have a situation where they were going to be with their students, and even getting some of those faculty to understand that they could only meet with half their students once a week and the other half. because of the room size constraints, like those conversations had to happen. So those faculty were incredibly stressed. And so faculty were making their own decisions. And I was trying to coordinate all of that, so that at least made sense, so that there would be as little damage done. Plus, I live with Jonakka, and she says things like “You don’t have any synchronous classes for writing. Are you stupid?” like, “What have you done?” [LAUGHTER] And she reminds me that I must have made a mistake somewhere, but that’s what faculty chose to do. But when you talk to the faculty who chose to do that, who I couldn’t believe some of the faculty that asked to do that, it was because they thought they were doing the students a favor, because it would allow the students to arrange the rest of their schedule. We get through summer, we survive the fall, we have already made the schedule for the spring. And then about half of those teachers said, “You know what, you were right. I want to do synchronous, but is that going to hurt the students?” And so those faculty had even more adjustments to make, I think, because they tried the asynchronous for the right reasons, but they lost more students than they were used to. They had difficulty with assignment completion, and all the things you have difficulties with every time you do a new class, but just kind of multiplied. But we have 97 people in the classroom in our department, that includes all the TAs, all the part-timers, everyone. So 43 of those are first-year writing teachers. And they were incredibly happy that 10 people blueprinted the courses for online asynchronous and just went with it. So that’s also something that you don’t often see. In a big program, you see a lot of people doing a lot of different things and asking if they can stretch the syllabus a little bit this direction. And nobody wanted to do that. Everybody was so worn out and tired. They were just like, “This syllabus is great, and when it doesn’t work in three weeks, I’m gonna blame you guys and feel just fine about all of it.” [LAUGHTER] So what does that mean? I guess there were new stressors they didn’t expect. And there were collaborative moments that they also didn’t expect. So they leaned into the stuff that you would expect them to be resistant to because of necessity, but they also then had better discussions, I think, about the purpose of teaching writing online, how you talk to students when you don’t see them in real time, that kind of stuff. I don’t think those conversations would have happened. So yeah, every time they would get comfortable, then it would be a new issue that came up about why are students disappearing and that kind of thing,

Rebecca: …a pandemic… time to get uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. [LAUGHTER] Right?

Jonikka: Yes.

Colin: Right. Learn to unlearn or learn to learn on a daily basis or…

Rebecca: …learn that you’re also a learner.

Jonikka: Exactly.

Colin: Exactly, and that it’s okay. I think that was the hardest part for our folks is, I set up teams and made people leaders that had never been leaders before for technology support to try to lift the burden away from the people you were expect to always go to because I knew what was going to happen. And that worked out great. But then they would also get lost in all the permutations of “Well, if you do it this way… if you do it this way.” So they burned through their need to explain how they do things in their class really, really quickly. Because you know how teachers do that thing there, unless I’m being unfair. It’s like, “Oh, let me give you three examples from my class about how great things go, or how terrible things go” …or whatever. They burned through all those anecdotes. And then they were left with the whole thing, like maybe the assignment really sucks and that’s why the students aren’t turning it in. Or maybe I was really boring on Monday and they just had to live with that. And that’s hard. [LAUGHTER] Is that not true, Jonikka?

Jonikka: I was just reminded, it’s really interesting to me that the writing program has a lot of really great teachers. It’s a very robust culture of teaching in that department at the institution. And so what I saw both there and across the institution was faculty who had their identity as being really great teachers who are able to engage students and their students come back and they do well. And so you saw a lot of those faculty whose students just disappeared, and then they were like, this has never happened to me before or not since I first started teaching. And so I think there’s that component of it, that it took us probably four or five or six months to get to that place when people realize I had a whole semester of this and I’m not having the same success I had before and I think we have to have conversations and find places for faculty to have those conversations and to know that it’s okay. It doesn’t mean that they were a fraud all along, or they didn’t do a good job and that sort of thing. So what you said reminded me of that.

Rebecca: It really is a different space.

Jonikka: Yes,.

Colin: Yes. And I don’t know how many of the teachers that were really stressed were stressed because of access. Because honestly, if you’re teaching face to face, and you have students that aren’t showing up, you have the same problems trying to contact them. I think we all have a sense that because we’re seeing people regularly, that we’re somehow seeing them more often, which is totally false. And so I had so many emails from faculty about how do I get in touch with students who won’t respond to me? And I’m like, I know what they were saying. But it’s a silly question, right? It’s like, “everybody who’s not here today, raise your hand” kind of question. You can’t get in touch with them, because they’re not paying attention to you. And you can’t make them pay attention to you if they’re not paying attention to you. But that reality was just heartbreaking for some of them. And we’re talking about people that are really just stressing over like having a 14% drop rate, because they’re used to having a 3% drop rate, or if like a DFW rate is like 3%. But our enrollment was up. What was it up, J?

Jonikka: it was like 18%, it was huge. We had a huge influx of new students in the fall, largest breaking enrollment and all of that. And so we also had the pressure of really huge classes. So that just exacerbated the whole thing, I think. We had lots of students who didn’t go to Austin, or they didn’t go to Rice, or wherever they stayed. A lot of that was that too.

Colin: And nobody wants to hear me say, and I’m the last person that wants to say it, but nobody wants to hear your department chair say, “Look, when you have a 16% increase in enrollment, you’re going to lose some people, because there have to be a high percentage of those people coming in who are somehow not college ready, or who are experimenting or who are at risk, and we have no way to help them or support them, because we don’t know why they’re here. Because this is unprecedented.” And so that doesn’t help.

John: Most studies have found that freshmen are much more vulnerable when they’re in online classes, the drop-fail-withdrawal rate for freshmen and even sophomore students is a lot higher than it is for upper-level students. Add to that a pandemic. And then you mentioned a lot of additional students coming whose plans were not going in the direction they originally anticipated, which just adds to all the stress. But having a drop-fail-withdrawal rate in that range is pretty low, actually.

Jonikka: Yes, it absolutely is. And he’s talking about like some really great faculty in his department. That’s not the case across the institution. And I remember back in April, May, as we’re having these conversations about modality moving into the fall… it’s great… and I’m supportive of the idea. And it’s kind of amazing, actually, that as an institution, we said faculty choose your own modality. A lot of institutions didn’t do that. But I was trying to be the consistent voice that was saying, “But could we at least make some more strategic decisions around classes that freshmen are going to take, because your sophomores, juniors, and seniors and your grad students, they’re going to be able to adapt in ways that our freshmen are not. It’s one thing for a first-year student to come in and have one class out of five or six on their schedule that’s online. But we’re in a situation where literally their entire schedule was online, none of the courses were organized in the same way, even though they may all be using Blackboard it just looks different, the whole classes operate differently.” And so I was really worried about that. And I was right to worry about that. Because as we moved into the fall, our first-year persistence rate from fall to spring is down about six and a half percent from where it normally is. And everyone’s really concerned about that. And of course, attention is also starting to shift to this year’s seniors and what that first-year experience is going to be like next year. We did a survey and I’m sure at some point, we’ll talk about the survey. But even the students who did well said this was not for me. Yes, my grades look okay, but I don’t feel like I learned what I needed to, so I’m going to stop out in the spring. And like, “I’ll catch you on the other end in the fall, when hopefully things are okay and we’re back in an environment in which I feel like I can learn.” And so that’s been really startling, I think, to some on campus. We’re trying to figure out what we have control over and what we don’t have control over and how you can shift an entire institution’s worth of faculty. We could not have moved and said everybody’s going to be teaching at a really high level. And I think too, the pandemic and what’s happened has just kind of uncovered some things about teaching and what was going on in classrooms that I promise you is going on in face-to-face classrooms. But now it’s been uncovered and people are concerned about it and more heightened awareness, I think, around it. But, that’s one of the opportunities too. I think it’s enabled us to say “Hey, let’s shine a light on and have those conversations about what teaching and learning really is about and how do we engage students?” And I was really happy when I heard a few engineering faculty say, “You know what, when we go back face to face, we didn’t know what we had, we didn’t know the opportunity that we were kind of squandering before in our face-to-face classes. Now they’re talking about flipping their classroom.” And I’m like, okay, that’s 20 years ago, or whatever. [LAUGHTER] But now you’re in that place where you see why that would be helpful to you, and what you could do differently when you go back face to face. That’s exciting to me. I haven’t been in the classroom in a while, but my first love and my first identification is as a teacher, and asking those things about learning and teaching and why we’re doing what we’re doing. I think it’s great that more people are doing that.

Rebecca: I think the same kinds of themes have come up in a lot of conversations that we’ve had over the last few weeks with guests about what’s happening between the fall and the spring and students timing out and faculty changing what modality they’re teaching in, and also just reflection upon what they might want to do in the future, too. So it’s kind of these interesting themes that are happening that may have not have happened otherwise, for sure. I know, Colin, you mentioned faculty choosing to be more synchronous, perhaps in the spring, can you talk about some other things that were learned from the fall that are going to improve the experience for everybody in the spring?

Colin: I think it’s across our department. And I think there’s a lot more people across the university, too that realize that there’s no such thing as a neutral delivery method anymore. And I think people like me and Jonakka knew that, because our training in teaching actually made us teach in different ties, even if we weren’t comfortable with them. The more people, I think, understand something that when I ran the writing program, however, many years ago, that was probably nine years, I remember telling people, your students who will turn in their assignments if you teach them how to do the whole course in the first week, and then just repeat over and over again. And a few people would do that, but very few people would do it because they do what teachers tend to do when they’re content focused, which is they say, “I can’t get through that many chapters of a biology book, if I take a week out to teach them how my class works,” or “I can’t have them read as many articles as I want them to read, because I’m taking this time out to basically train them metacognitively on how to actually take a Colin class.” Right? People complaining about that, they left my department and were replaced by strange little clones that wanted to say, “Hey, is there any way we can extend the first two weeks and just do an introduction about what online learning is?” And they got all these ideas and even like, I remember, we opened Blackboard a week early in the fall, but not at this spring. Our people were contacting their students and talking about how the course was set up. So I think there’s awareness. I don’t know how deep the awareness is. But there is an awareness with at least our people who teach 4000 freshmen a year that you’re not designing your class for yourself and your students, you’re designing your class for the students who go to four or five other classes, because they will drop you quicker than other people if they don’t feel like they have an anchor in your class. And sometimes that’s understanding how to navigate, sometimes that’s having a personal connection with a teacher, sometimes it’s knowing your peers’ names, whatever that engagement factor is, if they have it in your class, they will stick with your class, which means in a writing class, there’s more of a chance we’ll stick with their other classes, because we’re usually the ones that get dropped, I think. Either us or math, unless, J, you have different statistics. I think anecdotally, when we talk to students who haven’t been coming to class, and we find out they’re not doing well, they will usually stop coming to the writing class, because they feel like there’s no way to make it up. So I think there’s a sense across the writing instructors now that it’s not okay to build designs that work for 75% of the people. And then there’s this 10%, that will average out in the middle. And then there’s 10% that just don’t see how to get over the hump because they never have a success, or they never see an end product. And so they just cut that class. More like an algebra approach, you don’t understand the first three chapters of algebra and you feel like you’ll never be able to catch up because you have to know those things in order to move to the next. Actually, it’s a very forward thinking kind of threshold concept type of student that I’m imagining, because they really don’t feel like they can get enough under their belt to move forward. So I think we learned,as teachers, we’ve learned a little bit about that. I really hope that all the students that we worked with in the writing program, I hope that a large percentage of them took to heart what we said about having real conversations with their teachers and other students, there was a lot of conversations in our “Designing your life course” and in other courses where I saw students were constantly talking about setting up peer networks, or in our roundup and kickoff activities and that kind of stuff. They were constantly talking about the need to do that. But they had no idea how to do it online in online classes. They knew how to do it online. So as soon as people like me said, “I don’t care how you set up your community use WhatsApp, use whatever,” then it all went crazy. So there’s also I think, an understanding that students can organize themselves better than we can, or at least we should try to negotiate a way to organize ourselves that’s okay with the teacher and it’s okay with the students. Because nobody wants me teaching a Twitter assignment, because I don’t understand it. Like I don’t know how it works. But you also have to let students organize themselves in the peer network so that it will survive. And not just with team-building things because you don’t know how to run Zoom. And so you just force everybody into a breakout room because you somehow think that somehow is the same as having them work together in groups in classrooms. So I think we’ve learned quite a bit about design strategies, or at least design thinking, even if nobody’s going to call it that, but me. Maybe there’s a few other people at the university that will call it that.

John: You mentioned spending some time at the beginning of class, focusing on metacognition and helping students learn how to learn more effectively, is that something that’s widely done in the institution? Or is that something that’s becoming more widely done in the institution?

Jonikka: I would say it’s becoming more widely done. It’s very much at the heart of our first year writing program: metacognition, reflection, the whole thing. It’s just very built into the DNA there. And then we have a first-year experience course, that was kind of built on some similar kinds of principles. But I think some of the feedback from our student survey was that students felt their courses were completely disorganized. And they didn’t know when anything was due, they didn’t know when they were supposed to be working on something, or how to find what it was they were supposed to be working on. In some sense, that’s one of the easier things for a faculty member to address. Because it could be like a beginning of the semester video explaining how your course is organized or whatever. In terms of sticky teaching problems, that’s not terribly sticky, you can see a path forward to figuring it out and to helping students with that. My hope is that we can help those faculty transfer their understanding of that situation to their understanding of how to teach a project for a course, or when they make a big assignment. If it’s a writing assignment, or any other kind of assignment, that they recognize that the same metacognitive moves would be helpful for students. So I think that that would be an exciting thing to see happen. I don’t think we’ve had enough conversations yet about the feedback from students, both what we heard through our survey, but also what faculty may have heard through their course evaluations, or just their own experiences. I went to faculty senate before the break, and I had a number of faculty, and they were really good teaching faculty, talking about how they had gone through the blueprinting process and they had been asked to do all these assignments and stuff for every single learning objective and things like that. And they realized that they had gone too far, that they had overwhelmed the students. So now they were gonna back off after that. So they’re engaging in some metacognition themselves, which is good, and I think the more that we can encourage that in faculty, and then help them make the connection between what they’re learning and how they’re applying what they’re learning to the next iteration of the course, to what their students go through. I know I spend a lot of time having those conversations with my own faculty in my college. And now I’ll often say to them, I’ll try to find a gentle way of saying it, but like, I’ll say, “Would you think that’s okay from your students?” And how would you go about doing that with your own students and think about that for yourself. That’s my hope.

Colin: We also had a very small pilot for students as learners and teachers that at least that Alyssa Cavazos ran out of our Center for Teaching Excellence. And it was only five teachers, I believe, It may have been six, and I was one of them. But the other four teachers were from history, philosophy, I think it was physics, may have been just math, I cannot remember the other one. But they have never had a student observe them officially in a class. And we all spent an entire semester with a student partner, basically doing metacognitive work. And it did a number on me, and I know how to do that work. I respect student voices and I want them with me. And so it was really fun for me. It changed the other four people’s lives. And so there’s at least four other people in four other colleges, because we spaced them out around the university, who worked with a upper-level student about their classes and redesigning it and thinking about student reactions on a daily basis. And I hope we can scale that up somehow in a way that isn’t completely uncomfortable, but a little uncomfortable. Because the good parts are the uncomfortable parts. The good parts were where the students asked like, “How do we tell the teachers what we really think?” And the teachers were like, “How do I tell the student that I don’t really care what they think?” …like, those things happened at the beginning. And once they got over them, the conversations that happened as designers as co-designers were fantastic and amazing. And it was with people that are resistant, they wanted to be in the project. But they were not. They did not go into it thinking they were completely open to what a non- major student would say about their teaching as an observer that had been trained to observe. I hope that projects like that continue and thrive. And people don’t just let it go because things go back to normal and they don’t have something driving them to think about how to make their classes work better. It’s probably up to people like me and Jonikka to make sure they keep asking these questions and don’t just let them drop, right?

Jonikka: Well, we’ve been asking, the Interim Provost here and I, have been asking on a regular basis, like what will next fall look like? What will we basically have learned that informs what next fall looks like? And I don’t think most faculty were ready, at least before the break to have those conversations. Everyone is completely exhausted, students are exhausted, faculty, staff, everyone was just exhausted. And I think it’s gonna be a long while before we ever restore ourselves to some sense of space and ability to look at and reflect on the things that have happened in a way that enables us to move forward in a more substantial way.

Rebecca: One of the things that has come up in conversations I’ve had with arts faculty and writing faculty, here anyways, is the processing of what’s happening in a pandemic. That sometimes happens through writing or making in some way, or also the want to escape from what’s happening in writing or making. [LAUGHTER]

Jonikka: Yeah.

Rebecca: And that complex dance that’s happening and different people need some different things. Can you talk a little bit about how faculty in your departments tried to balance some of those needs, concerns, wants?

Colin: We had one faculty member who started a journal writing, like, initiative right at the beginning of everything. And it wasn’t because of this. He had wanted to start it and he was going to retire. And he just wanted to give it one last stab to see if he could recruit some people. The students that joined that I know and the faculty said that it was incredibly insightful, and they wanted to talk about their writing, and they wanted to journal and talk about what was going on. So that was really great for him as a faculty member. I know that there had to be a shift for… I know that this may be a weird way to answer the question, but it felt like there was a shift from faculty always pointing students towards more…. I guess what you’d call more scholarly resources, like a path that… I use that word with air quotes around it, but you need to learn more and so you go off and you look and reread more. And I remember, we were having a meeting and I was like, “Why? It’s a literacy narrative.” And you’re freaking out, because your students are doing a literacy narrative. And the high school students just got sent home, and their teachers aren’t making them turn their cameras on and they’re not talking to them. And then in the college version of the class, your students are able to do the types of work in the field that you would normally have them do, because we’ve got a pretty crazy experiential component to our first-year writing courses. And I was like, “Dude, they live with their families, just have them do interviews. Stop trying to reinvent the wheel and just own the space that you’re around.” And I remember somebody else saying, “Yeah, it’s like, when my students don’t want to turn their cameras, I say, well describe the perfect space, it’s at least a reason to get you to be creative and think outside of the box,” or whatever. And so students started drawing their own ideal spaces for their Zoom things when they left their cameras off. So there, I think there was a lot of shifting and deconstructing of the boundaries between what you see as your life and what you see as the real world and what you see as school. Not everybody’s comfortable with that stuff, either. But I think people had to find their own outlet or their own break to a certain extent. I give my students my cell phone, and then I labeled them by the course and the semester so I can remember them. But I had tons of students texting me in the middle of doing things in class because things weren’t working, or somebody didn’t show up, or whatever, or they needed me to come into a group. When I told people I was doing that, the people that were having trouble managing people in multiple rooms that were kind of privatized, they’re like, “Oh, my God, that makes so much sense. I’ll just have them go on R emind and tell me when things go crazy, or tell me when it hits the fan or whatever.” And so all these people that think they know technology and how to communicate really well, they didn’t really know how to communicate really well in the new classroom environment. So I think they had to find a way to do that. So your personal chats with your teacher, those went crazy for a while, I think mine are still too crazy. People having jam bands, you know, after class, or I think we had a few departmental after hours cocktail parties or something. We had all kinds of weird ways of socializing with some of the groups. Not a ton, though. I think, from what at least the writing program teachers told me was what they really missed the most were the unexpected, spontaneous conversations they have with students and faculty, which you can’t replicate by having Zoom meetings where everybody learns the song and plays together. Like you can’t force the hallway conversation, which is why I always go in and like Zoom bomb Jonikka whenever she’s in an important meeting. She’s right across the hallway, and those people don’t laugh enough. But I’m the only guy at the university doing that, [LAUGHTER] like stand up comedy to try to break the fourth wall with people, because there’s so much investment in just getting through meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting. So I’m sure there’s more clowns at our university than just me. But there’s a small cohort of clowns and Jonikka knows all of them.

John: You mentioned some of the problems with engagement or with students making connections with other students. What techniques have people tried or will be trying this spring to help improve the development of more community in either asynchronous or remote synchronous instruction?

Colin: I think there’s a move in our program to have a version of teamwork or the idea that students develop an ability to do teamwork, or work together to finish a project and have different responsibilities. It’s a complicated definition. But I think people are moving away from longer collaborative projects, and they’re moving towards more, do the work in class in a small group, get something accomplished, present on it, and then rotate out. And then having students form their own communities for projects outside of it as support groups. So there’s more small team work in class that actually has a product attached to it. So I’ll give you an example. There’s a difference between having students get into a group to deconstruct a reading and then piece together an interpretation of a reading, made from five different groups working with different passages from the text. That’s a very different exercise in a face-to-face class than what they’re doing when they have students create a message from scratch, using some kind of social media outlet, using a pandemic context and trying to create a flyer that would get people’s attention to do some activity. And then to have that whole thing go from prototyping and ideation all the way to design and testing. That’s not something that I think the teachers knew how to do, or wanted to do to start with. So engagement wise, it probably would make a lot of teachers that I know mad to say it, but they really do need to feel like they’re entertained, because they’re enjoying what they’re doing. Not necessarily entertainment just for fun sake, it’s that there’s a felt sense that they need to enjoy what they’re doing, if that’s you being a clown, and they actually will engage with you and learn something, and they just use you as the magnet, that’s cool. But if it’s doing small projects that have a finish line to them and during the class, then that’s fine too. Or if it’s having your students teach the class, which is what I was doing, having different groups teach every week, so that it’s not just me that’s responsible for distributing knowledge, it’s more people doing knowledge. Jonikka too, would tell me this probably isn’t as widespread as I feel like it should be. But there’s a need, I think, for students to be the knowledge makers. And I think that there’s more evidence from what I’m seeing in my department that people let students talk through their ideas as they were developing and that that made students more engaged. It’s completely counterintuitive to a lot of our faculty, because they think that what they really want to see is what happens when the students finally get it. And I keep telling them over and over again, “No, you want to see the process, you want to be with them while they get it, you don’t really care that they get it because at that point, you have to move on to a new idea.” But I think they’re having to flip their own ideas about those “aha” moments, because the moments don’t really work anymore. The moments are just like, “Oh, I got it,” but then that person’s muted, and they’re off on their own direction. And so I think there’s a lot of us working with students to set them up in pairs or small groups, and then kind of coaching them on how to be with one another. That sounded really weird, but coaching them how to be with one another and work together. So that when they’re off on their own, they will have that as a habit to come back to when they don’t have you. And I’m sure that’s what we do in face-to-face classes as well. But it’s really, really different in an online, especially in a Zoom, environment. But in an asynchronous environment, I always said that being online was two and a half times as much work. But the amount of matchmaking of ideas that I had to do online through discussion lists that basically quote one person and pull them over and have them engage with another person in a conversation. That was my entire life at teaching for that last semester. It was just trying to manage a conversation and create a community of people who were basically posting and responding and then leaving… this, “here’s what I think. I’m out of here.” So I don’t think we’ve figured out the perfect strategies for any of that other than you have to listen to your students. And when they’re engaged, you have to immediately ask them, even if it’s very uncomfortable in class, “Why did you say that?” or “Why did you feel like that was really cool?” Like, “How did you come up with that?” like, there was a whole lot of asking students to expose how they came up with ideas and why they connected things that I did, that I always do a couple of times in a class in a meeting, but not as much as I needed to do it here. So it was really more like “That’s a great response”or whatever. “Talk us through how you came up with that.” So a whole lot more of asking students to teach the rest of everybody what they just did, which I guess is kind of engaging by example. It’s a kind of having the students be models instead of always expecting texts or pieces of writing or reading to be the models for the students when they leave your classroom. It’s a hell of a lot more work. I’m pretty sure that this is the way Jonnika and I always taught because I’m very comfortable with it. But teaching people to do it when you’ve been doing it for so long, is incredibly hard. And then telling them that it involves a whole lot of trust on your part for students, and then finding out that that’s not actually something that people have a lot of… that’s kind of hard too to cope with. There’s not as much trust as there needed to be or assumed trust that you can ask students to pick up the baton, or whatever the metaphor is, and take the lead on explaining an idea, I thought that was a whole lot more prevalent than it was. And so there’s a whole lot more of that that has to happen. A whole lot more of trusting of students, a lot more work in the first-year experience to try to get people to help students become leaders before they’re sophomores. I think there’s a lot of work to be done there, that can be really fun. Why are you smiling, J?,

Jonikka: I was just about to say, I’m going to be the Debbie Downer here. I don’t think we do this really well. I just think across the board, we’re not doing a good job at creating community, and making those connections for students. And like I said before, I really think it’s not new to the online environment so much, I don’t know that we were necessarily really great before. And I do think more people were able to do it in person than are able to do it online. And I do think that the technology is causing us some trouble. So down here in the valley, certainly not all students have access to Wi Fi, many of them are driving up to the Burger King parking lot, or driving up to our parking lot, or whatever. So even when faculty are making the choice to be in a synchronous environment, they’re not necessarily doing anything engaging in that environment. Actually, our son was in some synchronous classes last semester, and he would talk about how the teacher would call on the students to respond to something or answer a question or something. And then the student would have to unmute themselves and say, hold on a second, I’m with the customer, or whatever, because they were at work. And they were just listening to class. And so they at least did unmute and respond. But it’s very hard to imagine how you create a community out of that when you’re not able to take advantage of the moments when you’re in real time with one another. And lots of feedback from our survey about the black screens in Zoom, and how awful it felt to everybody and a lot of empathy on the students’ part for the faculty member. Like I cannot imagine what it must be like to try to teach to a screen full of black screens. So it was uncomfortable for them, uncomfortable for the faculty member. And so I think we need to do a lot better job of lifting up those faculty who have found those strategies that are working for them and to recognize when it’s people like Colin or some of the people who… really a lot of that engagement comes from charisma on the part of the faculty, you can’t replicate that with everyone. So what are those strategies that people are using? I’ve heard some people, it’s a different app that they’re using, or something like that. But the kind of things are available to everybody that are in Blackboard and things like that, you saw all these people move to using discussion boards, and now everybody hates discussion boards. Because it’s the same rote practice, write a couple, read a couple. respond to them, there are memes about it now. So students are making fun of it, and rightfully so. It can be difficult, and then you put the faculty member in the position of “Okay, now I either have to read them and treat them with the respect that they deserve or I just take it as you put in your time and you did your task and we’re done.” I don’t have any particular examples that I can share with you, which is terrible, and more probably a sign of me just not talking with enough faculty members. But I just worry that it’s not enough yet. And even as we move into post pandemic, there’s going to be more of a mix of online and different modalities. And so it’s not like the conversation stops now. I think it’s just maybe we’ll have a little more peace of mind to have those conversations as we move forward. But that engagement piece is absolutely critical. And I’m certain it’s why a lot of our persistence rates, fall to spring, are down and things like that. I don’t know how long students will have patience for it, I guess is what I’m saying.

Colin: I have one practical strategy that I remember. See, you were a Debbie Downer…

Jonikka: There you go.

Colin: …but I remember the positives, so…

Jonikka: OK..

Colin: That’s why we’re married. I think teachers need to see the time in class, they need to completely redesign how they imagine that… I think ours is an hour and 15 minutes for a normal class… and never unimagine the potential for when they go back to different modalities. And it’s not just synchronous meetings, or asynchronous meetings, or asynchronous work with occasional voluntary meetings and that kind of thing is that the work that happens in class should probably be social and it should be structured and designed around community instead of being designed around: “This is a list of outcomes that have to be done before the end of this class.” More like these are lists of prompts of things that we’re going to try to address. Because the thing that I think made a lot of difference with some of our faculties… I coached them on how to do a green room… and maybe everybody was doing this and I just was too busy to notice that it was a trend or something… but not to have time before class and not to worry about seeing people in the hallways because they weren’t there. They weren’t any hallways and not to join your class early. But to literally have 10 minutes of a green room time at the beginning of a class meeting where everybody is mingling and talking and checking in with each other. And then to have 10 minutes at the end of class where you basically do the same thing, and people head off or they don’t head off. And what you saw when you started doing that in your classes, or what we saw, was that the students were showing up because of that time, and they needed that time, and they needed a different kind of entry into the class. And we had to coach them, it wasn’t an easy thing, it wasn’t a normal thing, because it’s not like being on your friend’s chat room or something. It’s still weird and awkward, and someone who forces everybody to do icebreakers and games, unless that’s just their thing, that’s going to be also awkward, but to have the time to talk to each other as human beings, and it not be like creepy, was incredibly important, I think, to have built into the class, as a normal part of being in the class because there were no breaks. Students were just going from class to class work to work. I had students get pulled over in cars, while they were in my class, doing presentations, like all kinds of crazy stuff happened. But in my classes, at least, they knew each other’s names, and they knew how to contact each other within the first few days, because we were doing those meetings. Now, they all told their friends that Colin’s classes are easy, because he doesn’t teach the whole time. But yeah, I was teaching, it was an experiment in social engagement, or whatever. But it, of course, changed what I could do during class time. But I think it was important for me to build that in. And I don’t think I will ever remove it again from my other delivery and modalities. The discussion boards are a joke, unless they’re an extension of an actual discussion. So if you’re not teaching your students how to have the actual discussion, then discussion boards are just going to be habitual writing behavior, and nothing new is going to come out of them. And so I think you have to learn how to be with your students that way. It’s probably not something a lot of people would be comfortable with, but I think it’s an actual practical strategy. You have to bookend your classes with at least the opportunity for engagement, where it’s low risk, but high impact talking with your students. Not in a conference, just talking with people.

Rebecca: I think that’s one of the key things that’s missing in online learning for students is just their general social community. So maybe we weren’t doing that in a physical classroom previously, but they had their actual social circles happening, they were able to connect with other students, and that existed for them. But when everyone’s in online classes, that part of the college experience is very difficult to facilitate. So that then became an academic part of college as opposed to just the social piece, I had the same kind of experience in my class, when there was that social time or whatever, they bonded a lot, and it helped a lot.

Colin: Yeah, I remember one student telling me, are we ever gonna stop changing group? And I was like, “Dude, all you have to do is say it. We’ll stop changing groups… keep the same group for two weeks. Two class meetings later, “Could you please get me out of this group, I cannot stay working with these people anymore.” [LAUGHTER] And I was like, “So I don’t know. What is the silver bullet?” They’re like, “Just go back to what you were doing before. I thought I wanted the same people. But my God, I do not want the same people.” But that whole class had a conversation about that and had a big joke about it, like who’s not going to be put in which group and they’re just like, “He’s gonna have to randomize everything, because if we start talking about who we like, and don’t like, [LAUGHTER] it’s gonna get really awkward really quick.” But you can have that conversation when the group has developed that sense of community. If it’s just me assigning names to stuff, then you’re not really having a conversation about why you’re doing it.

Rebecca: And each group is a bit different. I had students that asked for two different persistent groups that they just rotated between.

Colin: Yeah, now, that’s metacognition.

Rebecca: Ok. We can do that. I’m not sure how that’s gonna work. [LAUGHTER] But we can try that. And by the end, I think they thought, “Well, okay, that was an interesting experiment. Maybe we don’t want to do that again in the future, but you know…”

Colin: That’s great. I’ve got my aAclub, and I’ve got my B club, but I really can’t handle you guys today, so I’ll go with the B club.

Rebecca: Well, they had the project team, and then they had a different circle or whatever.

Colin: That’s great.

Rebecca: I could make it happen, so I did.

John: How have students on your campus responded to all the changes they’ve seen in instruction resulting from COVID.

Jonikka: I think one of the really interesting things that came out of our survey, which I’m curious to hear if any of you heard anything on your campuses, is that students consistently said they had more work to do in the fall than they had ever had to do before. And so every time I get a chance, I try to engage somebody in a conversation about this, because I think there are so many different complex things going on. I think, in many cases, students literally were doing more things than they did before. And part of that was a consequence of the online environment. So rather than having a discussion in class, they were having to write responses to the same kinds of questions that faculty might ask in class or something like that. So I think there’s actually more of that going on. And I think that faculty, through a lot of professional development things that we did were introduced to all these gadgets and tools and things, and then they started using them. And so they weren’t necessarily doing similar kinds of things in the face-to-face environment. Students when they’re going to class face to face… I think there was a lot of activity and a lot of work that was going on in class that they didn’t classify as work. It didn’t feel like work. But now because they’re having to do it while they’re at home or someplace else, now it’s homework or whatever. I read a little tidbit in The Chronicle at one point in the fall, it was kind of a national phenomenon that other people were reporting the same kind of thing. But I’m just really curious if we ended up having any deeper conversations about this, because I think it’s really easy for faculty to say, “Well, no I’m not” and for faculty to say, “Well, yes, you are.” but to have the conversations about what that lived experience really is like, and to be able to negotiate. Some of those faculty here did who said, “Yeah, I really did go too far. So now I have to rethink what is the most important things,” and maybe I’m hoping it leads to some like projects that are scaffolded, rather than 1000 little things that they asked students do, that are disconnected.

Colin: …or they’ll be a revolutionary cry for passive learning again, from students?

Jonikka: Well, we did hear a lot of that, we did hear some of that, like, just give me a few tests. And that’s it. I was like, “Oh, no, that’s not good, either.” [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve been hearing a lot of the same thing. And I think the surveys done in the SUNY system are affirming that as well, that students do feel like they’re doing more work. And partly, I think it’s because in the past, when there was a lot more passive learning, faculty would give students readings to do and then assume that they had read them. And now as more people have moved to a flipped learning environment, they’re giving them what they used to give as a lecture, except now they’re adding some questions and some quizzes to it. Where now students are graded on having done it. So now they actually have to do the readings…

Jonikka: Right.

John: …in ways that might not always have happened in the past. I think some of it is faculty, were often assuming that students were doing all this work, because that’s what the faculty had done when they were students, forgetting that they were not a random sample of the student population. So I think there’s a little bit of recalibration, perhaps, that needs to take place. {LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, I think too the class time that you’re mentioning too Jonikka was definitely something that I experienced, I teach in a studio program. So our class time, if we’re in synchronous time, we’re in class for six hours a week. And then students are used to having homework. So workload in general, these students are used to work, they’re used to doing a lot, but I didn’t have so much complaints about too much work. But I think it’s too much independent work, because I was teaching, partly synchronous and partly asynchronous. And I am in the spring teaching synchronously and setting a time in class to do the same kinds of exercises and things that I would have done if we were face to face because I just needed scheduled time to do the activities and some of that guidance. And they were really asking for that. We started off with meeting only once a week at the beginning of the week, which they liked. And then they kept asking for a little more and a little more and a little more. And next thing, you know, I was pretty much teaching synchronously. [LAUGHTER] You know, not completely, but it got pretty close by the end of the semester, because it was helping them to have some structured time because they weren’t managing their own time. Although I would say this is going to take this amount of time, you’re used to being in class for six hours, we’re only in class for two, you have that four hours, that’s still class time, that’s not even homework time. So it feels like it’s a lot, especially if they’re not used to it.

Colin: There’s probably a whole book to be written about timely motivation too, because listening to what you were saying, part of the issue I noticed was that students who are usually coming to face-to-face classes, they will plan to freak out because they haven’t done what they needed to do. And they will come to you either at the beginning of class or during group time, or at the end of class. That doesn’t work in Zoom. I remember having conversations during the end of the semester about when you go next semester, talk to your teachers the minute you think there might be something wrong, so that you can figure out how you’re going to talk to them. Because I think you all need to learn how to talk to people more quickly. Because you’re waiting, and thinking there’s going to be a moment and then you look up and there’s nobody around you. Nobody in your family understands what you’re going through with those classes, your friends are freaking out and don’t want to show weakness, or they’re already messed up or upset or passed you. And so there’s no timely motivation. It’s just it happens to happen. But it doesn’t happen to happen online learning, at least it doesn’t in my experience. And so I don’t know that we can build those things in. But I think you could make a whole career out of trying to figure out how to recognize when you need to be timely and motivated for a student and not be really creepy about it. Like “Oh, tell me what’s going on.”

Rebecca: And we all know that those moments aren’t happening because we would have those moments with colleagues and they don’t happen in meetings now either.

Colin: Yeah. Okay, everybody take a beat. We need to talk about what’s going on with Jonikka. [LAUGHTER] That’s only gonna happen in my meetings.

John: And there’s a lot of stressors caused by the pandemic and I think that’s a part of it. People are feeling overwhelmed. It’s harder to stay focused. There’s so many things going on in the world that are very distracting and concerning to everybody.

Jonikka: Yes.

Colin: I’m distracted by the distractions.

Rebecca: We always end by asking what’s next? …which always seems really big as we’ve had these episodes during the pandemic, but what’s next?

Colin: I need season nine of the British baking show to come out very very soon…

Jonikka: That’s true.

Colin: …for my own wellness and sanity. [LAUGHTER]

Jonikka: I think for us, one of the big things that’s next is that we’re taking advantage of some of the CARES dollars and things like that, that are coming in to support faculty professional development on a scale that I have never seen before. So we’re trying to do something, this kind of series that is going to be focused on faculty teaching first-year students. And so really taking a different approach than we’ve ever taken before. And really focusing, I think, in some ways more on the affective pieces, like, “Who are these students? What has their experience been?” Well, honestly, that’s just good faculty development, but we’ve not really done it in those kinds of ways necessarily before. What are their experiences? How do they learn? And bringing students into that conversation too like, “What did it feel like to be part of classes that operated in these kinds of ways?” And so really getting to the heart of where we started this really just about the teaching and learning piece, and what does it mean? And what shared values and shared understandings of what it means for students to be actively learning in a class. And what does that look like different? Why is it so special and important for first-year students. So that’s what we spent at least the last 24 hours, feverishly,trting to figure out what we can do for that, and how we can build those student observers and feedback givers into that process as well. And try to get at least 60% of the faculty who teach the majority of their workload with freshmen to do that. So again, that’s something that Colln and I probably have wanted to do for 20 years. We could have done it any of those years. But it means something different in this context now, where we’ve got our next freshmen class is going to have had an entire year and a half of their four years of high school be almost nothing. I mean, we’ve got one 21 year old and one almost 16 year old. And so we’re kind of seeing it firsthand what’s going on with these students and what it means for them to learn and be in school. And so we’re gonna have to reckon with that as faculty. And so I think now’s a good time to have those kind of real fundamental conversations.

Colin: Even though I ramble a lot and talk all the time and, as Jonikka told me today in another conversation, for somebody who loves to talk about all the intricacies of things, there are things in my life that I absolutely refuse to talk about. I’m not the most comfortable social person in the world, especially when it comes to difficult conversations that affect things like equity and diversity and how people’s identity are tied to the teaching. And I can make a joke, and I can point out something insightful, and then kind of run away while everybody’s laughing. But I think this last year has taught me, kind of along the lines of Jonikka with the affective stuff and thinking about students that way, is that I’m going to have to be a actual active sponsor of difficult conversations, and try to get other people to do that with me, because a lot of the things that have been happening in different groups I belong to, it really is all about sponsorship, it really is like all of the conversations are about listening to people and trying to have a conversation when people need to have it instead of figuring out how to put it off until a time when you can deal with it. And at least this last year has taught me that you can’t put any of those things off, because in 24 hours, somebody could lose it, or somebody could solve the problem and move on to the next bit. And so I literally was thinking I better remember to tell you guys to have a good weekend when we’re done. And then and then Rebecca was talking, I was like, dude, I think it’s Tuesday. It’s Tuesday talk time Colin, it’s not Friday yet. [LAUGHTER] So I don’t have any sense of time anymore. But I think that might be a good thing. I wasn’t joking about the timeliness thing. I think Jonikka and me and other people that are in positions where we’re responsible for trainings, I think we have to make sure that part of those trainings, deals with people’s need to have conversations they really don’t want to have. So if there’s a conversation about merit, and how we’re going to figure out merit one year, maybe we should have a conversation about why you deserve a raise, and what’s good teaching, instead of worrying about counting things. And if we’re going to talk about shoving something to do with equity into a training session, why aren’t we talking about having it as part of every session? And what would that change? And who needs to deliver it? And so I think there’s a lot of challenging conversations about student perspective, about equity and diversity, and about what good teaching is, or not even that, I think it’s about what do we really want to see happen in a classroom that is successful? And what does that mean for the teacher and it’s okay for it to be something different for the teacher than for the student. That’s actually why it’s interesting, because they’re both getting different things out of it. But I don’t think we have the language for learning from each other. I don’t think we’re that advanced in having a language about how that happens between teachers and students. I know that there are experts that have affective terminological screens and they understand how to deal with the way the brain works. I don’t think people that are good at teaching and people that are good at psychoanalyzing have really figured out how to mesh the thing so that it works for everybody in a way that you can have that conversation. So when I say we need to train our students how to talk to their teachers, I actually mean that. I don’t mean we need to train them how to write an email that doesn’t offend their teachers, because it’s grammatically correct. I mean, literally, I wish I would have figured this out five years ago and taught Ian, our 21 year old, how to start a conversation with one of his college teachers, and how to think about how to start it differently with one than the other. Somebody should have taught him that in a writing class, probably one of my teachers, but I should have taught him that too. As soon as I realized that he needed to have that conversation with somebody else instead of with me. So I think there’s a whole lot of react to the student in front of you and just fix it right there. And not as much training in the listening part and the having the difficult conversation. And having a moment where you can trust each other, I think we’ve got a whole hell of a lot of work to do in that area. So that’ll be fun for the next 15 years of our life… be an affective czar of an institution. There’s not enough going on, right?

John: And the pandemic and the shift online has exposed so much inequities that our students are dealing with. And that’s particularly true for first-generation students. And that’s something I think that all colleges are now being forced to face in a way that they had chosen to ignore for a very long time.

Rebecca: So yes, many difficult conversations in the future [LAUGHTER]. Good call. Colin. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. This was really interesting, and I think has a lot of important things to think about, not just into the spring, but into the fall and many future semesters.

Jonikka: Thank you.

Colin: Thank you guys for talking with us and listening to us.

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

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

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173. Pseudoscience

In an era of conspiracy theories and fake news, our students come into our classes with misconceptions and misunderstandings about our disciplines. In this episode, Kristin Croyle and Paul Tomascak join us to discuss how a first-year science seminar class confronts pseudoscience. Kristin is a Psychologist and Paul is a Geochemist. Kristin is the Dean and Paul is the Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Shermer, M. (2014). Why People Believe Weird Things. Naturalist.
  • Zener cards – American Psychological Association
  • Huff, D. (1993). How to lie with statistics. WW Norton & Company.
  • Van Der Kroon, C. (1996). The Golden Fountain: The Complete Guide to Urine Therapy. Wishland Incorporated.

Transcript

John: In an era of conspiracy theories and fake news, our students come into our classes with misconceptions and misunderstandings about our disciplines. In this episode, we discuss how a first-year science seminar class confronts pseudoscience.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guests today are Kristin Croyle and Paul Tomascak. Kristin is a Psychologist and Paul is a Geochemist. Kristin is the Dean and Paul is the Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego. Paul also had been the Associate Director here at our teaching center at SUNY Oswego before he entered the Dean’s office and Rebecca joined us as Associate Director.

Kristin: Thank you.

Paul: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.

Kristin: We’re happy to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Paul: I have a special tea for you. I have a tea that has a best buy date of March 2000. A special tea.

Kristin: Does it have flavor still?

Paul: In a way… Yeah, It’s got a special flavor. [LAUGHTER]

John: A vintage tea…

Paul: Yeah.

John: …a good year.

Kristin: And I have coffee in a Christmas mug because the Christmas mugs are still out.

Rebecca: Mine are out year round.

John: And I have Prince of Wales tea.

Rebecca: And I have Big Red Sun.

John: …for a change.

Rebecca: Ah, it’s a little switch up. It seems sciency… It’s what I had open.

John: We’ve invited here today to discuss the first- year seminar course you both offered on “How to Think about Weird Things: science confronts pseudoscience.” First, could you remind our listeners a little bit about what the first-year seminar courses are here. We’ve done some past podcasts on them, but it’s been a while since we talked about that program.

Kristin: The first-year seminar course at SUNY Oswego is a relatively new initiative started just before I came here in 2018. But that’s before I came to SUNY Oswego, so I’m allowed to be wrong on dates before I started. It was initiated by our Provost, Scott Furlong. And the first-year seminar courses, the way that we envisioned them, is partially as passion topic courses for faculty, but also as a transitional experience for new freshmen so that they can have an experience in which they have both some social bonding, some interesting and challenging and really fascinating materials to talk about in course, but also some built-in experiences to help them connect to their new university and transition into kind of the college student way of functioning and being in a supportive atmosphere. So both academic challenge and excitement along with kind of the adjustment to the new university culture… Oh, and those are all taught in classes of 19 or less, so that there can be a strong peer-to-peer experience. And they also have writing intensive experiences involved.

John: What are some examples of pseudoscience that you address in your classes?

Paul: I’ve been teaching this course prior to the first-year seminar series for some years in a variety of different places: as an upper-level Gen Ed course for non majors, as a honors course, because the topic just transcends level, and it’s something that everyone can get something out of. And every time I’ve taught it, I’ve ended up emphasizing different things. And that persists. At one time, I was adamantly avoiding talking about conspiracy theories, because conspiracy theories are just bollocks. It’s a zero-sum proposition, there’s really no way out of it. There’s no good dealing with the topic. But given the fact that conspiracy theory is something that we all really need to be talking about nowadays, it’s something that I’ve brought in little by little, but it’s still dicey. You can talk about creationism, and have some strong things that you can bring up as, this is why this really is not tenable in there, lots of things you can talk about in terms of cryptozoology or psychical ability, or persistence of life after death, consciousness after death. And there are scientific things that you can point to with these. But with conspiracy theories, it’s always going to be “Oh, well…” there is always an “Oh, well” out of it. And so that’s a hard one to grapple with in any real constructive way.

Kristin: Well, one of the things that attracted me to the course…. Actually, let me tell you about how I got into it. As Dean, I wanted to get a stronger connection to the students. It’s good to have the experience in the classroom, especially at a new university for me, because I can see what faculty were going through in terms of: setup your course shell… What are the policies that you have to include? What are the students like in the classroom? How do you submit your grades? …all those kind of technical aspects also that Deans know. I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen Fall 2020 if I had perfect foresight about what that would have been like, but still… not necessarily as my first experience teaching at Oswego. But I still think it was valuable. But one thing that attracted me to the courses when I was thinking about what courses to teach, intro psych was actually my first choice because I enjoy hanging out with freshmen. It was my field. But then I thought… these freshman seminar courses, and I got a chance to talk with Paul on a regular basis in previous years, he was teaching a bit about all the interesting things we were talking about. And I think that course is fascinating, but as a psychologist, some of the things that really attracted me are pseudoscientific beliefs, particularly about interventions and treatments and the way people are scammed the way that having an understanding of how the brain and body actually work, and what evidence for treatment looks like versus people who are charlatans who are taking advantage of people who are in vulnerable positions. That’s the part that really hooks me into pseudoscience and why it’s so important to teach students about it. But with that, as a hook, you’ve got all kinds of possibilities, because it’s many of the same thinking errors and misunderstandings that open you up to paying thousands and thousands of dollars for getting your future read repeatedly. It’s the same kind of thinking errors that opening you up to those and some other things that are not necessarily mainstream.

Rebecca: So how do you overcome some of those thinking errors, or help students overcome their thinking errors?

Paul: I’m going to say “um” a lot and I’m going to pause a lot, because I know that it’s something that John enjoys editing out.

Kristin: But you should totally leave that…

Rebecca: Um….what do we think about that? [LAUGHTER]

Paul: When I teach this class, there are a number of things that I emphasize. But I emphasize that we are on some level, all scientists, we are all critical thinkers. And in order to get through life successfully, you have to be able to do these things. And I like to draw the horizontal line on the board on the first day and say, on this end is complete gullibility, complete credulousness, you’ll accept anything as truth. And on the other side is complete dismissiveness, complete cynicism, and you won’t accept anything, regardless of how well it’s shown to be acceptable or true. And that it’s important that you understand that there is a spectrum. And that being skeptical doesn’t mean being dismissive. It means that you ask questions, it means that you don’t accept things at face value, especially if they don’t really smell right. And if something has the taint of, “Well, this is too good to be true” …it probably is. And you’d be doing yourself a favor by looking more closely at things, getting some more information. So I try to disabuse students of preconceptions by asking questions and by forcing them to ask questions. And even with things that seem to be “Well, that makes sense, so yeah, I’m going to buy into it.” Well, why does that make sense? What’s the physical reality that underlies that, that makes you think that that is the way it should be, the way it might be? And where do you get your information? And that is a very productive line of inquiry, where you start to break down the “Well, I heard it from this person…” Well, what does this person know? “Well, I heard it from this website.” Well, let’s go to that website and look and see if there’s anything that we can connect to. And is this someone who’s just manufacturing information? Or do they have links to somewhere where you can say, “Wes, this is verifiable on some level.” So it’s good regardless of whether you’re talking about something that’s way out there or something that’s not so way out there. It’s good, basic, critical thinking.

Kristin: And one of the things that I think is very helpful is repetition. I went through a lot of topics, but in each case, there is this harking back to what kind of thinking errors might be present, what kind of scientific errors might be present. And as they start to do that over and over, they get better. For example, one of the early topics that I talked about was alien abduction. When we talked about alien abduction, we talked about how does memory formation work, we talked about sleep, the sleep cycle, hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations and sleep paralysis. We talked about false memories, and how false memories are formed, and that they are experienced in the same way as real memories. If you have a false memory, it’s not like a different thing for your experience. We talked about all of those kinds of normal processes, as well as, unfortunately, the role of hypnosis in creation of false memories, which has a lot to do with beliefs and induction. I say, unfortunately, as a psychologist, it’s horribly embarrassing for the field. it really is a terrible thing. So we talk about all of the scientific contributions, and then we talk about “Okay, now the experience of alien abduction.” How does hypnosis fit in there? How do sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, fit in here? Those are hallucinations as you’re falling asleep or waking up…it feels very real, but are actually more like a dreamlike state. How do all of this fit in? And then we look at an account of alien abduction and say, “Okay, what do you see here?” And then they can identify some of the thinking errors, like “Okay, here’s this part… looks like a false memory.” But sure, they’re really upset because it feels real. This part here, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There’s no extraordinary evidence, so they can start to identify both how do we separate the science from the non-science and then where can we start to identify thinking errors. And as we do that topic after topic, they get better and better and better at it.

John: In all of our classes, following up what Paul said, students come in with models of the world and those models aren’t always accurate… or we often have better models that we’d like to share with our students. But it’s important to break them down. And you’ve talked a little bit about how you can provide them with evidence to help them perhaps modify their models of how the world works. But, what do you do with those students who are really resistant, who really deeply believe in some of those pseudo science principles?

Paul: Yeah, this is something that Michael Shermer talks about in one of the books that I’ve used as a quasi textbook has been Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. And in the later editions of the book, he has a specific chapter, that is “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things.” Because, again, early on in the class, there’s something of an inclination to think of, “Well, I don’t think crazy things like that, and it’s only the gap-toothed yokels that believe in alien abductions or that believe in whatever it is.” But it’s important to understand that this is not something that’s limited to people who aren’t smart. There are plenty of people who are genius-level smarties who believe, not just weird things, but things that are patently out there. And so getting students to accept that, “Okay, we can talk about this as a group, because we’re not just pointing out that you’re a dummy, these are things that lots of people believe, and there are reasons why they believe them other than just being morons.” So the idea that preconceived notions are things that aren’t necessarily rooted in ignorance, or rooted in stupidity, but they’re rooted in misinformation, they’re rooted in being told something by someone you trust at some point, and not questioning it. So I think creating an atmosphere that people can feel good about talking about these things, and not just sitting there going, “Oh, I hope he doesn’t talk to me about this, because I actually believe in ghosts,” is useful. And I’ve had students in class who are ghost hunters. And we’ve gone through an entire lesson on why some of the classical ghost hunting techniques really don’t make sense when you analyze them. And I’ve had a student say, at that point, “Well, we don’t really do that, what we do is this,” and everyone in the class looks nervously at one another, that “Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t realize that they were among us.” But, they are among us, because we are them. They are us, we all have an equal opportunity for believing weird things.

Kristin: One of the things that I also talk about is different ways of knowing. And that when you say science proves X, Y, Z, it has to meet a scientific standard. But if you say, for example, my faith tells me X, Y, Z, that’s a different way of knowing. And it’s not subject to the same kinds of proofs, it’s subject to different proofs. An example that we explicitly talked about is angelic visitations: are angels real? If you say science proves that angels are real, it has to stand up to scientific scrutiny. And in many religions, that would not only be a weird thing to say, it would be antithetical to their religious perspective. As soon as you start saying science proves my religion is correct, it becomes in some ways, a non-religious argument, and that it’s perfectly fine to have different ways of knowing different aspects about the world. But if you say science says this, this is the way the world works, because scientists have proved it, then you can subject it to scientific scrutiny. Another example is intuition and personal experience, that there are aspects of intuition and personal experience that may tell you certain truths about yourself or your relationships with others or whatever. And you don’t have to have the kind of scientific scrutiny in order to believe that you understand the way that your relationships work. But that’s a different way of knowing, it’s a different aspect of the world, and we do talk about that explicitly. And it’s fine with me if students choose to hold two ideas in their mind at the same time, they say, “Well, perhaps this idea that I have doesn’t actually make any scientific sense. I still believe it right now.” But I have some faith that if they continue this process to continue to analyze different ideas using the same skill sets: How does this make sense? What are their thinking errors? Is there an underlying explanation that makes some scientific sense that fits with the way that we know the world works. If they continue to do this, that eventually some of those closely held beliefs, which are scientifically disprovable, that they will start to kind of chip away at the edges there.

Rebecca: I know both of you are big advocates of active learning. Can you talk a little bit about some of the activities or exercises or things that you have students do as part of this course.

Paul: One of the classics, when we talk about psychical ability is pairing students up and having them basically test each other and their clairvoyant skills. So you give them the set of five Zener cards with the star and the squiggly lines and the square and you have them run through a series of “Okay, I’m projecting an image to you, you write down what it is.” And that’s good from a couple of standpoints. One is that it’s active and people are taking part in it, two is that people can understand: “Okay, if I really wanted to do something to show that there is something viable here, what would I have to do differently? Why is this test flawed?” And we talk about the development of good scientific tests. And that’s very productive, because there’s a lot of situations where you can say, “Well, you know, you’re still not controlling for this…” Okay, and the series of sort of nested tests that you have to go through in order to get to something that everyone would say, “Okay, I will accept the results of this” gets to be pretty complex. The other thing that’s good about this on a basic level is that it regresses to the mean. And regardless of the number of students, the number of tests, occasionally students will cheat and you can talk about that. But aside from cheating, you end up with a bunch of people that score exactly what statistics would say you should get and you can talk about one of the big things that I like to emphasize is not to let people use numbers to try to prove something to you that isn’t accurate, basically lying with statistics. A former student in the class sent me a book at some point, this little book called How to Lie with Statistics. And it’s a great medium to talk to students about things that are mathematical in a world where people are fearful of math, and they hate math. And this is a good application of mathematics, sort of basic mathematics to show something that is easy to wrap your head around. And it’s something as well in Shermer’s book, he talks about going to Edgar Cayce’s Institute, and doing this sort of mental ability test or psychical ability test. And he does the same thing. And he tries to convince people that “Well, just because you got 5 right out of 25 doesn’t mean that you’ve got some exceptional ability,” and he draws a bell curve, and they talk about it. And in the end, the person still doesn’t accept it. But it’s a good experiment to run, it gets people thinking about something that is not necessarily easy to think about otherwise.

Kristin: I’ll start by saying that I have huge sympathy for all the new faculty that started in Fall 2020 and were trying to build new courses while coming up with different teaching techniques. I was challenged this semester, this last semester, to build the course while trying to adapt to what was an unfamiliar form of teaching for me. Paul was very gracious in sharing materials. But, you know, when you teach the course yourself has to be rebuilt because it’s your own thinking, and your own style. Just for disclosure, though, I had intended the course to be a hybrid course in which we met with our faces, at least, three times a week, sometimes in the classroom altogether, and sometimes all online together. But as the semester went on, it did not work that way. I ended up having some students that always want to come face to face (a small number), and some that always ended up being online. So it was not the course I anticipated. But that’s okay. I know that we all experienced that. What my students responded to the most enthusiastically ended up being analysis of web comments. So I would often bring in slightly adapted web comments, I would correct for grammar and, you know, readability …say here is this diatribe this person and removing their identity and things because it’s about analysis of argument and they would go to town on it. Here’s this diatribe about astrology, it runs from how scientists are paid to debunk astrology all the way down to how you should stop being sheep and see the truth in front of you and everything in between, with all kinds of false analogies that don’t make any sense in the middle, all that good stuff. They loved that. And I loved it too. We all loved it, because that’s what I really want them to be able to walk out doing, to be able to see kind of something that looks like a well argued and well written diatribe against the world who doesn’t understand and to be able to look at it and say, “Oh, wrong, wrong. wrong, thinking errors, misstatement, false analogy, ripples in a pan have nothing to do with how stars move, and all kinds of different things. [LAUGHTER] So we ended up doing a lot of those kinds of similar things. I think one of the last things I did in the last homework that we worked on together was on a manifestation website service, you sign up for $1,000, you get these courses, and you can manifest wealth in your life and their analysis there was really excellent. It was excellent about why this might appeal to people. What is wrong with all of these arguments? It doesn’t matter how many incredibly well done video anecdotes you get from individuals who have manifested wealth in their life, that that’s not gonna transfer to other people. So lots of analysis of web comments.

John: With social media, there’s a very rich source of data that could be used for this.

Kristin: Exactly.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about the course structure and what you’re doing in these classes?

Kristin: I have avoided student presentations in class for 10 years, because I usually find them to not be a good use of course time, let’s just say that. But Paul was using student presentations, and I put them in for this course and they were awesome. So, I have completely changed my opinion. But part of it is also that I was teaching larger classes in the past. So figuring out how to integrate student presentations in a way that is a useful use of everyone’s time, but the student presentations in this class were fantastic. They were typically on a specific pseudoscience topic that we wouldn’t have spent a lot of time in class on. But it gave them an opportunity to again, have this kind of repeated, “Here’s a thing that you think is really different.” Like. maybe… maybe not… Chromotherapy, you know, does exposing yourself to different colors of light effect different organ functions beyond jaundice, and beyond seasonal affective disorder where there’s clear evidence… if you look at blue light, or red light, or whatever. People go “Hmmm, I’ve seen videos on this on TikTok… well, wait a minute, doesn’t make any sense.” And here are the arguments, a little scaffolding from a student presenter, here are the arguments about why this doesn’t make any sense, then students popping up with other arguments. And having that experience repeatedly, of student presentation after student presentation, I have worked them like you know, three or four weeks, it gave them more experienced practicing. And honestly, some of those topics are fabulous to talk about in class. Although I allowed students to select their topic out of a menu so that they didn’t have to know what was pseudoscience right at the beginning of classes. No one selected urine therapy, though, I was hoping given how much success Paul has had in his classes with that.

Paul: Urine therapy is number one.

John: Could you elaborate on that a little bit, Paul?

Paul: The student response to the class has been really good historically. And I will occasionally, and sometimes out of the blue, receive a book in the mail from a student. This person that I had never heard from after the class, student says: “I was in a bookstore, I saw this and I thought of our class, and I thought you might like it.” So that’s always really nice. But it’s especially nice when the person sends you the definitive book on urine therapy, because my library was not inclusive enough of that topic. So now I have something that when a student chooses, or pulls the short straw, on urine therapy, I have something I can give them as a resource for this topic.

Rebecca: A whole book….

Paul: A whole book. I think it’s called the Golden Fountain. I’m not kidding. When I do the course and I have students do some sort of presentation, I will, so that I don’t run into the problem of a student doing something that they already know a ton about, I’ll have them draw them at random. And from the start, I’ve got the little hat with pieces of paper in it, and I’m telling them: “Who’s going to draw urine therapy?” …and it’s hotly contested. And it’s great when the student comes in to give their presentation that day, and starts out with a long pause and says, “This really makes me sick.” [LAUGHTER]

John: I’m not sure if I should ask, but what is urine therapy?

Paul: Well, I’m surprised being a man of the world that you are not well aware of this, John, but by consuming your own urine, you’re able to tap into a great deal of vitality and essential nutrients, etc, perhaps some reparations to your chakras as well, through consuming your urine. There are people out there who will attempt to get you to pay them money to teach you how you should be doing this. But it comes down to drinking your own urine and having that basically cure any disease. And you can take it purely internally, you can rub it on your skin to produce a healthy skin tone, you can use it in your hair. There are certainly people out there who will claim that it is a cure for cancer. And that’s sort of the bar for all pseudo-medicine is when are we going to get to the end, this cures cancer. And sure enough, there are people out there. It’s usually a sad case where the person had cancer, they went through a number of different treatments, nothing was working, and they hit on this and suddenly they’re cancer free. And it’s a good place to talk about correlation and causation. It’s a good place to talk about how we design clinical tests for medications, vaccinations, whatever. When an agency says “Yes, this is demonstrated efficacious or this is demonstrated safe…” what does that actually mean? Well, it has to go through a certain process, which is not some random process that someone hands over some money and “Okay, yeah, you’re good to go,” that these are real things. So that, I think, is another area in which I’ve significantly improved over. I think I started teaching this in 2006. I talk more about anti-vax. I talk more about clinical trials. I talk about the placebo effect, and Kristin has actually helped me a lot with that. Because she knows about things that I didn’t know about when it came to placebo effects. So there’s a lot of good stuff there that, again, it’s science, but it’s not something that you need to have a degree in something to understand and to be able to then apply in your own life.

John: In terms of the placebo effect, there’s two things that just really struck me in terms of fairly recent research. One is that the strength of the placebo effect seems to be growing over time. And secondly, that the placebo effect still seems to exist, even when people know they’re taking a placebo. Any explanations of why that’s happening?

Kristin: Isn’t that fascinating? I just think that’s amazing. No, no explanations. I have great admiration for the power of the mind.

John: Mystical powers? [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Well, for example, there is excellent research that says that people who have even late-stage cancer will survive longer, if they have social support. That’s not placebo. That’s because your mind and body are constantly one system and that we survive in a social environment… just one reason the pandemic has been so difficult… and that people survive and thrive better when they’re in a supportive social environment. Totally not placebo. But it is, in some ways, our traditional Western medical approach would see that as a psychological or mental intervention. It’s amazing. Although the early psychoanalysts, they did some strange stuff, and claimed some strange things, Freud and his students, some of that early work, it really does demonstrate if you believe that something is going to be very different. Hysterical pregnancy is a great example. People who believe that they are pregnant strongly believe that they are pregnant who are not actually pregnant, show many physical signs of pregnancy, including abdominal distension and ending of periods. Sso there’s a lot of different things that the mind can do. Unfortunately, only that only takes you so far. But that is definitely something that I talk about in class, as well as the waxing and waning nature of many illnesses, and how that opens people up for charlatans to take advantage of them. Multiple Sclerosis is a great example, where there’s unpredictable often waxing and waning symptoms. And people with MS have been targeted for many, many, many, many years for completely wacky, expensive, invasive, painful treatments because of the waxing and waning nature. And if their experience is that it has healed them, it’s hard to say that’s not your experience. But it is easy to say there isn’t any scientific evidence that this would help anybody else. They’re taking your money, unfortunately. And I also talk about how parents with children with significant developmental disability are often also at a point of desperation, where they’re sometimes ripe for this kind of thing too. One of the students in my class presented on hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatment, which of course is a great treatment if you have the bends after scuba diving, but is not effective for autism, though there is a market to sell people, these chambers for $20,000 to have a chamber in their homes so that they can put their child who has autism in the chamber on a daily basis, which for one thing is expensive and not effective in any way. But it’s also potentially also really scary for a child who doesn’t understand what is going on being shut up in the chamber every day. So, beyond the improved understanding of how the world works, there is, also real harm being done by some of these things. And we’re talking with students about the importance of a control group. Why does having a control group make all the difference? And talking about that repeatedly as these other examples come up, I really believe will help them to understand the world better, and become better consumers and self advocates.

John: One of the things you just mentioned is the importance of a strong social network and of human connections. How did you nurture that in this somewhat challenging circumstance of fall 2020 during the pandemic?

Kristin: That was really hard, because it’s something that I have never struggled with in class before. And it was a real struggle this semester. I don’t know if that was the case for you too, Paul, or Rebecca. But this is something that I consider to be an easy and normal thing in my teaching. But this semester, it was really a challenge to have students make peer-to-peer connections. I feel fairly comfortable that they felt a connection with me. And I certainly felt a connection with them. But getting them to connect peer to peer was a challenge. And I attribute that to first, not ever having done it this way before. I think if I had another chance I could do it better. Just like any kind of teaching, the second time around is usually better than the first. But part of it was that I was so responsive to students who felt like they needed the face-to-face interaction that I continued to meet face to face every day with them with a chunk of students on Zoom. And it would have been, given my teaching style, it would have been a better experience, I think, for all of us if we’d stayed in one together format more often, if that makes sense.

John: I think this is a problem we all faced, that student peer-to-peer connections were challenging, both because of the modality and because of the circumstances in which we’re all living right now. Paul?

Paul: This past fall, I taught a different course. And it was an upper-level honors course. So these are students who… they’re high achieving, they had figured college out. And it was, for me the easiest of all scenarios, because they were on task, and not that they weren’t necessarily happy with the way that the world was going, but from an academic standpoint, it was a fairly easy scenario to adapt to.

Rebecca: I wanted to circle back for a minute about the diversity of topics that you addressed in class, and what you’re using as hooks, and the value of the different kinds of topics as hooks for students. So there’s some that I think fit in the category of very outlandish, which are probably really easy for some students to really get into… find fun… and then there’s also some of the medical things that you’re talking about that I think students might relate to more directly, and they can see how it fits into their lives. Can you talk a little bit about how you chose the topics and how your students may be related to those topics?

Paul: Certainly, when you’re just talking about science, it is harder with a mixed audience of students who aren’t necessarily buying in from the start. In previous incarnations of this class, it was nominally a natural science course, but realistically, it was being taken by everybody. When I taught it as a first-year seminar course, there was a fair number of psych majors. But really, it was a complete mixture. So, I felt obligated to present a certain amount of science. Here’s a big idea in science, why do we think this? What’s the evidence for this? Why is this important? Why should you care? So I was able to get to things like creationism through the door of “Well, how is it that we know that the earth is as old as it is? And why is it that this is not just something that was handed to us, and we believe it, but it’s something that’s objectively demonstratable?” And beyond that, when you start talking about biological evolution? And okay, why is it that we believe that this is at least a reasonable description of what’s going on in nature? Okay, here’s some stuff that’s a little bit dry. But the end goal is being able to say, “Yeah, I can accept this beyond just having it handed to me.” Evolution is a good one, in that it integrates a lot of different things. So you can bring in the purely biological, you can bring in populational, you can bring in geological and physics, and you don’t have to dwell in any one particular spot to try to make the point. But nevertheless, there are portions of the class that are somewhat more pure sciency, and I try to front load those in the course to keep the carrot out there of “Oh, we’re going to be talking about psychical abilities soon, and we’re going to be talking about UFOs soon,” because that’s fun stuff and ghost hunting and all that. But yeah, the science is a critical underpinning for the course and trying to get it so that it’s not just: “Here’s the scientific method, memorize this,” …to have it be science is a process that we all are invested in, and when you stop investing in it, then there’s trouble. And I think that the past year has really underscored the fact that that’s something that everyone should be… certainly every college educated person… but really everyone, should be understanding of the fact that science is a critical tool. And it’s not just the sacred tablets that have been handed down from the clouds, it is something that has objectivity, and there are processes… and what makes a scientific paper. We keep talking about, “Well, this vaccine test was done, and it was published in The Lancet, or it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Why do we care? Is it just we paid more to get our article in this journal that people quote? No, it’s that these journals actually have a high bar for what they accept as publishable. And if it’s published in there, it means something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be true a week from now. I think in dealing with science, it’s good to emphasize that it’s not just something that is dusty books sitting on shelves. But by the same token, there’s an inherent danger when you expose the fact that we don’t know anything for certain. And it’s nice and comfortable to think that when you drop the apple, it’s going to fall at a certain rate. And when you get up tomorrow morning, the sun is going to be rising in the east. But when it comes to it, the more contentious the scientific question comes, perhaps, the bigger the scientific question becomes, the greater the likelihood that we’re going to continue to develop our understanding of things and rooting out the question of “Well, that’s just a theory.” Well, it’s not just a theory. If it’s a theory in science, it means something. It doesn’t mean that it’s a hunch. It means that this is something that we’ve put an awful lot of effort into, and awful lot of thought into. A lot of people have had their eyes on this. It’s not just one really smart person saying, “Okay, this is the deal.” …just the process by which we have to go in order to get to the point of saying, “Yes, we accept this as the way things work, whether it’s biological evolution, or whether it’s the verifiability of vaccine, or whether it’s anything.”

Kristin: And one of the things that you’re touching on there, I think, is also an important theme that comes out: that science is a continuing investigation, that it’s very comfortable for students, especially in K through 12, to think about scientists having answers instead of being an ongoing investigation. And typically the things that are taught in K-12 are the things science has answers for, not the things that are continually being investigated. So it can be scary for students who have that background to be confronted with news that our understanding of a virus is changing over time, because that’s the way understanding works. It changes over time as we learn more and more. This theme keeps coming up throughout the semester as well saying, “Hey, this is what we understand now. The state of our knowledge is this. The door isn’t closed to the state of our knowledge to be different in the future. It also gives us a good opportunity to bring in the importance of diverse voices as scientists. So one of the things that I talk about in my class is the roots of psychological assessment and intelligence testing, and how some of those roots have explicitly racist foundations among people who were explicitly racist and some probably unintentionally racist, but having racist impacts. And some of that is clearly because there were only white men doing work at that time in that area. And when you have only one perspective, it leads to one group of answers, that if you have a more diverse group of scientists who are studying a question, they expand the definition of the question, they expand the definition of what is possible evidence, the answers that they come up with are different and better answers because of the nature of scientific investigation. That it’s not just we have a question, and here’s the answer. It’s we have this question about the world, what does the question mean? Is that the right question? Is there a bigger question? How can we investigate it? Let’s look at different evidence, let’s expand our understanding. As part of that, we also talked about the foundations of photography, and what happens when you have only white people creating photographic film and processing. And what happens when you expand that into a more diverse group of people on a more diverse group of images, the same kind of idea. Although I have to say the horoscope and astrology stuff was the stuff that got the most excited,

Paul: Ah ha, the fallacy of personal validation. [LAUGHTER]

John: But I think we can also generalize what you were just talking about in that all of our disciplines involve in ongoing investigation, and that students come into our classes, thinking of them as these defined bodies of knowledge that they just have to memorize. And it is a bit of a shock and adjustment to students to see that there are many things we don’t know. And that takes a while to get them comfortable with that idea and accepting that idea.

Kristin: And that it’s not a flaw in the scientific process or the state of knowledge, the fact that it’s changing. That’s not a flaw, that’s actually a feature. Yeah, that’s a tough one.

Paul: And one of the things that I specifically talk about in the whole science, you know, what is science? What is pseudoscience? …is where things go wrong. And we talk about fraud. There are a number of times during the course where we’ll talk about “Well, this was published in this journal, and it was wrong.” And let’s see what happened later. And we talked about retraction and things like that. So the self- policing nature of science, when it’s working, right, it’s the best way to get to the point of feeling good about an explanation for something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that something is proved or something is fact. But we have this process in place, and as long as it’s a topic that people feel is important enough to have lots of eyes on it… well, there’s going to be no way of hiding that one set of results that doesn’t seem to agree with everybody else’s. And those things get found out, they get basically debunked, and the science moves on. So the idea that science is fallible, the idea that science isn’t perfect, it’s something that has to be embedded in that. But by the same token, because of the nature of the process, we can say that science is about as good as we can do when it comes to understanding and this was Carl Sagan… all that.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Kristin: What’s next? What’s next… I’m looking forward to spring semester. I’m looking forward even more to the next fall semester. I think we all are in that position. I really do appreciate the experience that I have with my students and I’ll teach again next year, but since the universe is paying me to be Dean, I have to do that work as well this spring.

Paul: Well, my life has been leading up to this podcast. So really after this, there’s not a heck of a lot left for me. Now, it’s nice to know that CELT wasn’t destroyed by my being part of it once upon a time, and it actually seems to have improved since then. That’s a nice job.

John: Thank you. I think this is a fascinating course. And teaching students to more critically analyze what they read and hear in social media and in their social network is a really valuable skill. So I’m glad you’re working on that

Rebecca: It really does seem like what college is all about.

Kristin: Well, thank you. It was a lot of fun. And throughout the whole semester, I was grateful to Paul for the scaffolding that he gave me. He was able to answer all kinds of questions and gave me interesting materials to work off of. So thank you, Paul.

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

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

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172. Advancing Online Learning

We’ve focused a lot on faculty switching modalities during the pandemic, but even experienced online instructors have faced new challenges redesigning their courses to work for students with limited computer technology, network access, and quiet study environments. In this episode, Kevin Kelly and Todd Zakrajsek join us to discuss how universal design principles can be used to provide learning equity and human connections in our online classes.

Kevin works with colleges and universities as an educational consultant and teaches as a faculty member in Education at San Francisco State University. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Todd is also co-author of Dynamic Lecturing that we’ve discussed on earlier podcast episode. Kevin and Todd are the authors of Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments, recently published by Stylus publishing.

Show Notes

The Excellent Teacher Series

Resources and tools

 References

  • Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285.
  • Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.
  • The psychology of progress bars. Spindogs. Samuel Merritt University.
  • Baker, R., Dee, T., Evans, B., & John, J. (2018). Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment. CEPA Working Paper No. 18-03. Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Transcript

John: We’ve focused a lot on faculty switching modalities during the pandemic, but even experienced online instructors have faced new challenges redesigning their courses to work for students with limited computer technology, network access, and quiet study environments. In this episode, we discuss how universal design principles can be used to provide learning equity and human connections in our online classes.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guests today are Kevin Kelly and Todd Zakrajsek. Kevin works with colleges and universities as an educational consultant and teaches as a faculty member in Education at San Francisco State University. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Todd is also co-author of Dynamic Lecturing that we’ve discussed on earlier podcast episode. Kevin and Todd are the authors of Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments, recently published by Stylus publishing. Welcome, Todd and Kevin.

Todd: Thank you, Rebecca.

Kevin: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are:

Kevin: I’m drinking Irish breakfast tea with honey from our backyard beehive.

Rebecca: …can’t get any more fresh than that.

Kevin: Nope.

Todd: Well, I just finished hibiscus tea. But now I have my big old bottle of water to get me to the next round.

Rebecca: Excellent. And I have Christmas tea.

John: And I have ginger tea. We’ve invited you here today to discuss Advancing Online Teaching. Could you tell us a little bit about how this very timely book came about?

Kevin: Well, Todd and I have known each other for years and years. And it just so happened that one day he was telling me about a series of books that he’s created. And he invited me to work with him on a book about online teaching. And we’ll get into more about how that evolved, but Todd maybe can fill in the gaps in my memory there.

Todd: No, this is perfect. And you know, I take credit where credit is due. Sometimes you just get really, really lucky, and Kevin and I this round got really lucky in a way. I wanted to mention the fact that we’ve actually been working on this book for about two years. This isn’t a situation where suddenly everything went to emergency remote teaching and we threw a book together. We started about two years ago working on this, we’re both massively busy folks. And so kind of kept picking away at it and running back and forth with edits and kind of kept working on and working on it. And then it was about December of last year, we talked about it and said, let’s just get this thing done, put some time aside and just crank away at it. And it was about six weeks later that everything started to go sideways on teaching. And so then we talked it over and really focused hard. And within about three months, I guess, got it done, because it takes about six months in production. What I mean by lucky is we had enough of it as a framework, that had been years of work, that we could then dump it into something that we could get out very quickly. And at a time that I think is going to be real helpful.

John: One of the things I really like about your book is it’s focused from the ground up on inclusion, equity, and the use of universal design for learning. Could you talk about why you chose those as the foundation of course design?

Kevin: We wanted this book to be different in a few ways. Many of the books out there about online teaching focus either on the technology side (what buttons do you click to make a discussion forum take shape or what have you), and some of them will focus on the student side (how do you actually facilitate those discussions?). But with work that both Todd and I have been doing in different circles, we decided that we wanted there to be an underpinning, if you will, of these different concepts so that they would be infused in everything people do, not just a tack-on at the end, the way you might find in a college of education: “Oh, here’s a class on how to make your courses more multicultural,” Instead of infusing that into every aspect of every course. We kind of viewed it like when you go to the eye doctor, and they put one lens down and say “Are you clear or fuzzier now?” And now we have these three lenses, you characterize it as inclusion, learning, equity and universal design for learning. But we frame it as universal design for learning, learning equity, and human connection, which is a little bit broader than inclusion. But it was really important for us to really think about: “Hey, there’s a human at the other end of that internet connection when you’re having a teaching and learning experience.” And we don’t want to lose sight of that. What do you think, Todd?

Todd: I think that’s a really good point. And I think the biggest one still is that concept of coming back over and over again to remember the human in the exchange. It’s really easy to post things out there and open quizzes and do all those things, and forget the fact that when you open the quiz the student who might be taking the quiz may be in a car in a McDonald’s parking lot, because it’s the only place they can get internet. So we really wanted to hit that over and over again,

Rebecca: I really appreciated too, the extensive coverage on accessibility and things as well as part of that discussion, which sometimes gets overlooked, which is really unfortunate,

Kevin: Right, and we also wanted to make sure that accessibility wasn’t the only frame through which to view Universal Design for Learning. Often many people think about it that way, but we think about, “Hey, these are accommodations for students with busy lives. These are accommodations for students who may speak English as a non-native speaker. These are accommodations for people who are parents and juggling one device amongst themselves and other people in the house just trying to get work done and survive.”

Todd: And that’s how we did a lot of the themes, and it comes up over and over again. You don’t design something so that you provide an opportunity for a person who has some kind of challenge, you design so that that challenge doesn’t matter anymore. So if a person does take a little bit more time to cognitively process, you could certainly make extra time for that person. Or you create an exam with no time limit, and then it’s no longer an issue. And so Kevin was phenomenal at finding a lot of different ways of, again, constructing the learning environment, in an online situation, so that challenges don’t matter anymore, to the greatest extent possible.

John: Many of the earlier books focused on an ideal condition where students working remotely were students who had good equipment, good connections, and plenty of time to arrange for this. But that’s not the student body, I think, that we’re generally seeing. Even without the pandemic, we see increasing diversity in the students and the time commitments and the challenges they’re facing while they’re enrolled in college. So, I think that focus is really good.

Todd: I think that’s a really, really important point, because is in the past, students who are in online classes chose to be in online classes. And there are certain types of students, my daughter is one of them, she does much better in an online course than she does a face-to-face course. She’s got a lot of learning challenges, and it just works better for her. But what we found with emergency remote teaching about 9-10 months ago, is that everybody, faculty and students who had no interest in being in online environments, were all there, which means there was a tremendous mismatch. So the other things we’re really working on with the book is if you find yourself in that mismatch, how can you match it up a little better?

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about ways to overcome some of the racial and ethnic achievement gaps that we see online and some of these other maybe economic issues or just experience differences between students who have a lot of experience online versus students who are new to online?

Kevin: Sure, and I would characterize the equity-based gaps that we see…and often we hear them referred to in reports as achievement gaps… but the literature now encourages us to use words like education debt, so it’s not on the doorstep of the student. But, are we making student-ready colleges as opposed to college-ready students. And so, one of the groups I mentioned in the book Peralta Community College District, I’ve got six years of data, I’ve been looking at their work with students of all varieties, and the only data you can really get in a disaggregated form is for ethnicity, because it’s in the student information system, the database that has characteristics about the students, but the fields for first-generation student, the fields for veterans, the fields for students with disabilities, sometimes aren’t filled in at all. So you won’t be able to tell, to the same extent, that there are either biases, assumptions, or institutional barriers that negatively impact students’ motivation, opportunities, or achievement. So when we get to different things that work for different groups of people, Universal Design for Learning really helps because it allows us to construct multiple pathways for people to succeed. And those multiple pathways may need to take into account that some students are interdependent learners, as opposed to independent learners. They grew up in a culture where everybody’s sitting around the table, and they’re learning as a group, as opposed to individually off on your own reading a piece of text and answering questions about it later. And so to create opportunities for students to learn interdependently with small-group projects or discussions, gives those students who come from, whether it be their family or their identity, their culture, gives them opportunities to succeed in ways that we may be not fostering with highly independent, self-directed learning activities that we commonly see in online courses.

Todd: I want to mention the fact that what Kevin just pointed out is phenomenal in terms of making sure that we’re kind of helping create good learning opportunities for students. But a lot of times people will make that mistake of thinking what we’re talking about here is meshing in learning styles. And you have to be very careful because the literature is very clear on learning styles… it’s one of the trickiest things to debunk out there. We’re not talking about teaching to a given learning style, we’re talking about a situation that if a student is in an environment, for instance, where they’re low bandwidth, and you know, watching videos is going to be really hard… text based material will be a lot better. If you’ve got a student who’s an incredible writer, but they’re extremely shy, then asking them to create a video might be really hard for that person, but creating a paper is not. So, it’s helping to match the types of preferences and abilities students have, not teaching to that learning style. So I just want to make sure there was no misunderstanding there.

Kevin: What you said, Todd, just made me think of some of the research that we’ve been looking at to build the Peralta Equity Rubric. I’ll come back to that in a second. But there’s research that shows that African-American and black students, if they don’t see themselves in the course materials, are less motivated. So back to Rebecca’s earlier question about what can we do? We can make sure that the images and media that we use to represent the content and topics in our courses are also reflective of the students in our classroom, whether that classroom be face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online. And so those types of strategies extend beyond just “What is the content?” but how are we presenting it, as well.

John: One thing that struck me with Todd’s comment is that it may be the case of someone in an environment where writing is easier for them or more natural while video might not be, but for a student who is interacting with a course primarily Through a smartphone, it’s quite possible that the video may be the easier form of representing their knowledge rather than trying to type a paper on a smartphone.

Kevin: Correct. And one strategy that I’ve started using in my own class is for students who may not have access to a device, I had a student who first made me aware of this challenge who was living in his car. And so he didn’t have access to a computer on a regular basis unless he went to the 24/7 lab. So he started using Google Docs and then I told him about Dragon apps so that he could do voice to text. And then I got smart enough, somebody told me about Google Voice, which is a free phone number that students can leave a voicemail message. And so now that student can just write with a pen and paper, not worry about typing it at all, and then read it as a voicemail message just like a book on tape, I can still grade it with the same rubric, but that student has fewer barriers to reach the particular goal with respect to that assignment.

John: You mentioned the equity rubric that you developed at Peralta colleges. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Kevin: The short version of the story is that they were moving from one learning management system to another, from Moodle to Canvas. And at the same time, they decided they were going to write their first ever distance education plan. And based on some data that one of the team members had identified during her sabbatical, when you look at the average between all students in face-to-face courses and online courses, that average of retention and success kept shrinking so that students in online courses were catching up. But when you disaggregate that data by ethnicity, you see that Asian students and white students are well above the average and black African-American students, LatinX, Hispanic students, were below. And so we saw that we couldn’t just think about this in one way. And we decided in that distance education plan they wrote for the district, that they wanted the two core values driving the plan to be the learners themselves and equity. And so we didn’t want it to just to be a document sitting on a shelf collecting dust. And so we started looking at how do you operationalize helping faculty members infuse learning equity into their courses. We went out on the web and couldn’t find anything, the closest thing we could find was the University of Southern California has the Center for Urban Education, and they have five principles about equity by design. But that wasn’t very practical for a teacher learning how to infuse equity. So we just went out, looked at all the research that either showed an equity-based gap that negatively impacted student’s performance or an equity-based intervention that positively impacted student’s performance. And those research efforts led to eight criteria that we wove into this rubric. And now we’ve been using it to train faculty. I’m using it in my own course. And it’s been exciting to see how the whole district is responding. It’s gone from an equity rubric to an equity initiative over time,

John: Is that something you share publicly?

Kevin: It is. Yes, if you go to the Peralta website, and we’ll make sure you have the link for your show notes. But the rubric itself is a creative commons document. The training, which is on a new version we’re going to launch in just a couple weeks, we’re putting in the Canvas Commons for free. There’s a bibliography that’s quasi-annotated, that shows the literature pertaining to each rubric criterion, and document that explains some of the core concepts. And some of my work involves taking that rubric and turning it into a framework. And I like to see it,if you’re familiar with Photoshop, or any tool where you have layers on top of layers. The Universal Design for Learning matrix is a grid three by three that helps you identify the checkpoints for integrating UDL principles into your course. And so I thought it would be a nice add-on, it’s not the same as, it’s a new set of ideas for faculty to start weaving in equity principles. So for example, in Universal Design for Learning, we think about different ways of presenting content based on the format, audio and text, or video and text. And then with learning equity, you think about “How do we present multiple perspectives on that, so that we have different ages and ethnicities and backgrounds and cultures and identities, carrying their ideas on the same topic?” And from there, we’ve taken it forward and built it out into a core part of the book.

Rebecca: It’s a much needed thing… grateful that you guys worked on that. I know it’s something that in doing a lot of accessibility related work and UDL work with our faculty and trying to bring in equity more holistically, it’s challenging, because it’s all these disparate resources and trying to make all the connections, it’s nice to have them all in one place.

Kevin: Well, I have to say one of the things that led to the success of this project was the fact that we had such a diverse group working on it. We had people from all walks of life: students, staff, faculty, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of is the work I’ve been doing with that Community College District

John: Changing the topic just a little bit, you advocate a backwards-design process, as many people do, but you also emphasize the importance of creating learning objectives at the level of course modules as well as at the level of the course and also making those explicit, not just in the syllabus, but also in the course module. Could you talk a little bit about why that’s important?

Kevin: I constantly refer back to what I call the psychology of the progress bar. And so if you’re familiar with progress bars, we as humans are not satisfied or motivated until it’s 75 to 80% complete. So when you have, for every course that you’re taking, and imagine a student with a normal load is taking four or five courses, let’s say you have an average five to 10 learning outcomes at the course level, that’s potentially 40 to 50 learning outcomes, or progress bars, that you’re trying to measure your progress over the course of the 17 weeks. So that means you’re waiting until week 12 of any semester to know how you feel about how you’re doing in a course. So that idea behind having module level learning outcomes means that you’re breaking things into small chunks, students can see that they’ve reached those outcomes right away. They dovetail or fall under the umbrella of those larger course-level outcomes, but provide checkpoints along the way for students to tell how they’re doing and stay motivated. Again, that motivation for persistence and success are key factors in helping our students in these online courses. And then, obviously, Todd brought a whole lot to that conversation, because he knew, just on the back of his head, the entire history of the term “learning outcome,” and why we use that instead of the word objective in the book, Todd, what do you think?

Todd: I’ll just mention this quickly, as I think it’s important for the book, because it seems like folks just love to argue about whether you’re really looking at outcomes or objectives… and goals, we totally get, everybody sees those as being separate… but outcomes versus objectives. So we kind of outline in the book, the different ways that people have actually defined those terms. But one of the cool things about this is that it was back around 1962, that a book was written about objectives, it goes back to the 1800s. But in 62, there was a specific book that was written that says, looking very, very carefully, what is the behavior that’s being done? How’s it being done? What’s the criteria for success, and we should be able to document those things so that we can objectively look at whether or not a person has achieved this. Then in about the late 80s, early 90s, the outcome-based education came along. And the big push was from objectives to outcomes. With the idea being that we’re going to define the outcomes of something we should be able to identify what is the behavior? What’s the criteria for success and how they go about doing it? And then they cited the same research from the 1960s. So we have two or three pages in the book of the folks who say, “Oh, no, no, it’s not objectives, it’s outcomes.” We say, Where do you think that came from? So at this level, and we’re not trying to be rude about it, but it really doesn’t matter. If you’re not writing a thesis on this, what’s important is that you can write a statement that says, “By the end of this unit, by the end of this class, by the end of this whole section, a student should be able to, or will be able to…”, and so that’s what we really went for, but kind of waiting for the feedback. The book’s brand new… out right now …of waiting for the hardcore education folks to kind of explain that we had outcomes and objectives wrong.

John: I gave a workshop on this topic in June for people preparing courses for the fall. And that was something that people from our education faculty were raising, saying, “Well, are these really objectives? Or are they outcomes?” And my point was, it doesn’t really matter. These are the things we want students to be able to do. And let’s just work on helping them get to that point, because both terms are used generally interchangeably, from what I’ve seen.

Todd: Yeah, totally.

John: And in describing them, you do use the SMART acronym. One issue I’ve run into is that there’s many different variants of that acronym, but you adopt one that actually pretty much the same one we had used here on our campus. Could you describe that SMART acronym?

Todd: It’s kind of going to come back to the same thing you were talking about for outcomes versus objectives. For a smart outcome, it is very important for It to be specific, that it’d be measurable, achievable, realistic, time bound, sometimes people change realistic for reachable. And so these words will bounce around a little bit. But I think what’s important, it’s almost… in drawing this analogy to Bloom’s taxonomy, people get so hung up on Bloom’s Taxonomy to say, is this knowledge or is this understanding? You know, it’s foundational. If it’s foundational, I’m good with that. There’s a difference between knowledge and understanding versus application versus synthesis. On a SMART outcome, there’s a difference between writing an outcome that’s just not reachable, it’s not timely, it’s not measurable, those are problems. So again, as far as I’m concerned, as long as you got something that’s specific and measurable, and probably reasonable, those are the big ones. But, that’s what we’re really after.

Rebecca: I love the emphasis on chunking things into small pieces to manage cognitive load, not only of our students, but also of the faculty member teaching the class… because just like students who may have those 50 outcomes they’re trying to head for, faculty are also trying to manage that and keep track of that for their students as well. So I like the idea of the cognitive load management for everybody involved in the learning process and really keeping it organized, which is a key thing for any sort of learning design, to make sure that people know how to move forward.

Todd: Well, yeah, I’m going to say that I think probably one of the most important aspects of creating any kind of learning environment for your students is it comes down to cognitive load. I mean, it really is, because at any given moment, if you have too much to do. For anybody out there who doesn’t know what cognitive load is, think about, like, the expressway. And so you got information coming in, if I’m looking over and I see somebody walking by, and I just watch him for a minute and see what their outfit looks like, that’s one thing I can do. If a friend is talking to me, I can listen to the friend. if they’re talking to me in the car while the radio is on, and then it starts to sleet outside, I’m thinking, you know what? …trying to keep the car on the road, listen to somebody talking, and having the radio is too much. And so it’s just too much material coming through at once. And it’s kind of like when the expressway has too many cars coming in at once, and everything comes to a grinding halt. So what we have to be really careful of is that the more you do something, the easier it becomes. And the more you have frameworks for doing things, the more easily you can do it. So as we build these kind of structures, students can process a lot more information. But that’s the cognitive load. And everybody has that feeling of sitting down to read something and getting about two paragraphs in and saying, “Yeah, not now, I just can’t do this right now.” That’s cognitive load. And we do it all the time. The most important thing to keep in mind is, if you’re an expert at something, the process is very easy, because it’s repetitious, but your students are novice, so they’re going to face a lot higher cognitive load. So the thing that you think, “Oh, this is easy…” they’re holding on by their fingertips. So be mindful of that cognitive load, I think, is really important, from the work of Sweller in the 1980s.

Kevin: And just to build on that and to go back to Rebecca’s concept about the chunking and how important that is, it also serves today’s students. So recently, I was a moderator of a student panel at a conference. And we had in the same panel, a working mother. She was a single mother of two kids and in her 30s. And she said, “Sometimes I’m just trying to get the work done. I’m not aiming for the A, even though I would love an A, I’m just trying to get through this credential so I can get a degree and get upward mobility socially and socioeconomically.” And so thinking about chunking as a universal design for learning concept, where students can track their progress when they’re having to bounce between different priorities, academics, worklife, family obligations, this makes a streamlined pathway. Using Todd’s expressway, we’re creating a carpool lane for busy people.

John: And it also matches with your discussion earlier of the checklist type idea, that when students are given a project, say “write a paper by the last day of the term,” it’s really easy to procrastinate. And then quite often, when people did that, it became overwhelming, and it just never got done. By breaking it up into smaller chunks, you’re keeping the cognitive load lower on each chunk, but you’re also dealing with those human tendencies to procrastination and so forth, to make it easier for people to keep the work manageable to stay on track and not to put things off, because they’ve got many other things that at the moment seem more pressing than something due a month later, or two months later.

Todd: Yeah. And John, you brought up something that’s hugely important there, that so much of this stuff is interwoven. And I think it’s hard for a lot of folks to see all of the different connections that are out there. But if you do a project, just like you just said, that’s due at the end of the semester, students wait till the last minute because they will. As a faculty member, I’ve had reports for Provost that I’ve waited until the last minute to do, but that creates the high pressure. Cognitive load goes up, You start thinking “I can’t do it.” Once I started thinking I can’t do it, now I’ve got to pass this class. And so I started looking out online, maybe there’s a paper I could just buy. So suddenly it becomes an integrity issue. And so a lot of times when you look at the research on students who will do unethical things, or cheating in the classroom, it’s almost always based on pressure. People don’t cheat on things that they don’t feel pressure about. So when you have all these checklists, that Kevin pointed out, through the semester, you keep the cognitive load down, you keep the pressure down, then the need to cheat, so to speak, you take that away. So there are really things that we can do to create a better environment for the students that don’t entice them into these unethical behaviors.

Kevin: Well, and one strategy that we put in the book is to not only provide the due dates, but provide start dates. And when you break up a project into chunks, you can have a first draft, you’re gonna have feedback from a peer, and have those all lined up so that students see it’s not just one thing at the end of the term, and they’ll just wait until the last day. But instead, “Oh, I need to start my draft because I need to turn that in. Even if you’re not going to do a whole lot with it as the instructor, but you’re going to provide opportunities for students to interact with one another to get feedback about their work before they turn it in. All those things are important. I’ve gone to the extent where I have students take a snapshot either digitally on their computer, or with a phone picture if they have a paper-based calendar and show that they have allotted the correct amount of time each week for my class. And I give them, if they want, the ability to download or use an online to-do list that basically sends them reminders to start and finish things up.

John: And that feedback that they’re receiving all the way through also reduces the ability to engage in academic dishonesty and it reduces the benefits of it because none of the tasks are unmanageable. It works a lot of ways.

Rebecca: I really appreciated all of the equity framework built into your book, but I have to admit the chapter I went to first was “managing your workload when teaching online and I think maybe a lot of faculty might switch to that immediately right now, in this moment in time. Can you talk a little bit about some of the strategies to reduce workload for faculty as well?

Kevin: Sure, I’ll start, but I know Todd has lots of ideas to jump in. So a couple things, one, and we’ve referred to this before, and not in this interview. But, Tom Tobin has a book with Kirsten Behling about universal design for learning, and in it they propose this “plus one” strategy, just think about one thing that you can do. So while we present a lot of ideas in the book, it’s chock full of ideas, we recognize that, unless you’re going to do a full course redesign over a summer or something like that, you re lly are going to find that the maximum strategy that will help the most students at that particular time. And so when you’re talking about workload, part of it is parsing out the work of modifying your course. The other is thinking about strategies that will help you maybe be more equitable in how you reply to students in a discussion forum. There’s research that shows it, and that particular study by Stanford 94% of the instructors replied first, and sometimes only, to names that look like white male names. So a strategy might be to create a spreadsheet showing that you have responded to all the students equally throughout the semester, just tracking your own progress. Until they have tools like that in the learning management system, we have to do it ourselves. That increases the workload in some respects, but also decreases the workload in terms of, “Well, I know that I’ve talked to Todd three times already this semester, but I haven’t answered Rebecca once.” If I’m worried about whether or not Rebecca is going to stay in the class, the way to demotivate a student is to give them no feedback whatsoever. So that increases our workload when we get those administrative calls from our department chairs or Associate Deans saying, “Hey, your DFW rates really high.” So just thinking about different things that you can do over time, and also ways of working with colleagues. If you’re teaching a class that has more than one section, you might be able to strategize who’s going to do what this week. The ability to leverage open educational resources, so you don’t have to create something from scratch, but maybe modify it to meet your needs. There’s all these different ways that you could manage your workload in the online course development, and also the course facilitation.

Todd: The other thing I would add to that is… I think it’s really important, everybody’s in firefighter mode, especially right now. You’re just trying to get… tomorrow is all you’re trying to do. But I can remember being a faculty member about 35 years ago, I was kind of in that same framework, too. I know that now is tremendously just pressure for everybody. But you know, last year wasn’t just easy, and three years ago wasn’t simple. So we’re always in this field where, because there’s an unlimited number of things we can do, and if we care about our students and we’re pretty bright, and keep trying to do new things, we’re always kind of overworked. So I think this is no different than a lot of other times, you got to take stock of where you’re at and what you can do. And I think budgeting a little bit of time, even every week just for 20, 30 minutes, and specifically say to yourself, low-hanging fruit stuff… What could I do that would actually cut down some of unnecessary work that I’m doing right now, and not decrease the learning for my students? I could take a thing out here, and they’re still going to learn just as much. Or what’s something that I could add that, after a very short period of time, the cognitive load wouldn’t be bad, because it might take me a couple times to figure it out. But once I got it figured out, then I can do something that takes very little time and has a lot more growth for my students. And so just taking stock once in a while, because I will tell you that I remember when EXCEL came out. So when Excel came out, a friend of mine said, you got to get your gradebook into Excel. And for anybody who’s listening that’s old enough to remember carrying around the green book… the little green book that we all wrote up all our notes with. I had five exams where I dropped the lowest exam. And I was doing my class with 600 students in those green books. And it took me two years before I finally tried Excel, because I was too busy to try it. So my framework now is to say, “What if I had budgeted 30 minutes to try that?” I think in the end, it only took me about 30 minutes to an hour to actually run it in Excel. But I never took the time. So what we’re advocating for is, as busy as you are, take just a few minutes to just say if I jump off the treadmill, what could I do that would take less time?

John: This is going to date me a little bit, but I only used one of those little green books back in 1980 and 81. And then I picked up a Timex Sinclair computer, one of those early things, and I wrote a grade book program and I was using that up until the time I got a spreadsheet. I think Lotus 123 was the first one I used and then Excel after that, and then the gradebook in the LMS. I hated doing all that by hand. So I’ve always tried to automate it.

Todd: Before we move on. You know, I do want to point out, just for nostalgia, that there was nothing in society more powerful than that little green grade book because anybody in higher education had seen that book before. And I can remember my sister got in a car accident and these surgeons would come in, different people come in, and they were very dismissive of us, almost all of us. But, I was grading one time and one of them came in and saw that book and stopped and says, “What do you teach?” And then we got into this really nice conversation and it suddenly occurred to me, even the physicians fear the green book.

John: One of the things you emphasize throughout your book is building human connections in online courses. Could you talk a little bit about some strategies that we can use to do that effectively?

Kevin: So first is being aware of opportunities where students can interact with one another or interact with you, the instructor. And so that awareness then extends to “Okay, we’re going to build it into an assignment but in a way that helps students understand that that’s part of what you want to achieve.” And so we often look at instructions for, let’s say, a discussion forum where it’s maybe a paragraph maybe two of how they should respond to your original prompt, and then please reply to two other students. And so giving them some feedback about what do you want to happen in those replies? Do you want them to extend what the other person did by finding resources that would be helpful for the argument they’re making? Is it to probe or clarify when that student’s not making enough points to really make it clear what they’re trying to say? And so giving them some ideas, and then when we pull in the equity angle, on top of human connection, we can say, “How does your connection to this and your background and your identity map to what you’re experiencing with your student classmate?” And so getting them to start interacting with one another at different levels, also increases that sense of human connection because they know each other better? A lot of instructors I know, especially in fields, maybe like STEM, they’re worried about adding things to the class that would take away time from other important activities. And so it’s finding those ways to do both. I’m a big fan of both/and as opposed to either/or. So, if you’re going to have a discussion, then maybe “How does this physics concept apply to your background? How is it useful in your life?” And so there’s still thinking about the physics concept, instead of just a chance to socialize with your classmates. And then moving on from there.

Todd: I love the way Kevin just covered the one aspect. Another thing we’ve talked a lot about in terms of this human connection is there’s an old phrase that “we teach the way we were taught.” And it’s actually a way to excuse folks for lecturing because like, “Well, I was lectured to, so I lecture.” I don’t actually believe you teach the way you were taught. I think that… in fact I know, back when I was an undergraduate, and we’re talking about back in the late 70s, early 80s, there were faculty members doing service learning, there was small groups, we did problem based learning, we had a lot of different things. I loved this one guy who did storytelling lectures. I don’t teach the way I was taught, I teach the way I best learned. And that makes a lot of sense, because if we really don’t stop and take into consideration other people, every one of us has a way we learn. And we think, “Oh, you know how students will learn best is you do it like this.” And it’s the way you learned. And so what I think the thing is, is we got to break away from this concept of teaching the way we best learned. And by the way, as evidence of this too, you’ll have some students who will do phenomenally well in your class. If you sit down and talk to them, they tend to learn just like you did. And that’s why the class is going so well for them. So I think, for me, what I try to do is to say “Who in the classroom….no matter how I’m teaching, who in the classroom is struggling right now?” And so if I’m teaching something where people raise their hands and just shout and answer quickly, I’m actually teaching to the fast thinking, low concerned extroverts… the people who don’t mind making mistakes. And if I stop and think for just a second, who is that not benefiting? Well, somebody who needs to take a few more minutes to think, a person is a little bit more introverted, or an individual who’s really self conscious about making mistakes. So that’s a part of trying to find that human connection to of getting away from just assuming everybody out there like us

Rebecca: As a slow thinker, I really appreciate that.

Todd: And you know, it’s funny, I just want to say is, I think that’s really, really important. Because people will make jokes about that all the time. It’s like, “Well, you know, we introverts…” They’re all learners. And this is one thing I just loved working with Kevin on. He’s one of the kindest, most human oriented people I’ve ever been around. But constantly be thinking, if somebody makes a joke to me and says, “Well, you know, I’m kind of introverted. So I don’t know if I’ll fit in here.” I’ll say, “Well, wait a minute, how can we make that work? And it’s not a joke. Let’s talk that through.” Because education is by and large, built for fast-talking risk-taking extroverts. That’s just who education had been built for. And online learning actually changes that game, which is why some students dislike it, and others love it. But they’re all humans out there. So we do have some students who are really struggling now with online learning, who wouldn’t be doing much better in the classroom right along with the people again, who are doing much better because we’re online.

John: And we should try to design our courses to work for all sets of students.

Todd: Yeah.

Kevin: There you go.

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

Kevin: Well, I would say, Todd described how this book evolved over the course of a couple of years. And during that couple year period, this thing called a pandemic happened. So obviously, there’s more that we could be doing. And so I know, for myself, in conference presentations and workshops that I conduct at colleges and universities, I’ve been trying to fill in different gaps to help people with immediate needs that we may not have been able to get to to the book, otherwise it would have been an encyclopedia. We packed that thing full of ideas, but I think Todd just constructed a website. I’d love to find ways to engage the community around the equity challenges that they’re facing and help folks identify what this really looks like in a course. When you’re talking about learning equity or Universal Design for Learning or human connection. These can seem like abstract concepts. And so when you’re saying, “But I’m designing an online course, I need something that I can see.” So getting examples of that, not just by the ones that Todd and I put in the book, but by others. Stories that students tell about things that helped them, those are the things I think would really bolster this book and make it achievable for people who are busy and just trying to help their students. What do you think, Todd?

Todd: I think that’s great, Kevin, and I guess that’s, for me, the same type of thing. We’ve written the book, I think it’s an amazing material, quite frankly, and I’m in awe of it at the end. And I’m not saying that just because I’m the co-author of the book. It’s got so much information packed into it. And so we did set up a website, theexcellentteacherseries.com, because this is part of that series. And it’s going to have information on it. So I think what’s next is what Kevin was just talking about, just continuing to put tips and different suggestions on this so it can be a living project, as opposed to a static book. The book itself kind of launches you and then we have this living project that people come back to and contribute with.

John: Thank you. I really enjoyed reading your book. And I’ll strongly recommend it to our faculty here. And we very much appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.

Todd: Thank you.

Kevin: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for joining us and sharing all of your rich information.

Todd: Appreciate that. Thanks for the opportunity.

Kevin: Yeah, and the chance to have some tea.

Todd: Oh, yeah. Gotta love the tea.

Rebecca: Tea is very important.

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

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

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161. Relationship-Rich Education

Many students enter our colleges and universities with hopes for a better future, but depart, often with a large burden of debt, before achieving their goals. In this episode, Peter Felton and Leo Lambert join us to discuss the importance of human connections in supporting students on their educational journey.

Peter is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, the Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and a Professor of History at Elon University. Leo is a Professor of Education and President Emeritus, also at Elon University. Peter and Leo are co-authors of Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, which was just released in late October of this year. They also were co-authors of The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most.

Show Notes

  • Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Felten, P., Gardner, J. N., Schroeder, C. C., Lambert, L. M., Barefoot, B. O., & Hrabowski, F. A. (2016). The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Rudy’s Lakeside Drive-in
  • Jack, A. A. (2019). The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Harvard University Press.
  • Barnett, Elisabeth (2018). Faculty Leadership and Student Persistence – A Story from Oakton Community College. Community College Research Center. May 9.

Transcript

John: Many students enter our colleges and universities with hopes for a better future, but depart, often with a large burden of debt, before achieving their goals. In this episode, we examine the importance of human connections in supporting students on their educational journey.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare , a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guests today are Peter Felton and Leo Lambert. Peter is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, the Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and a Professor of History at Elon University. Leo is a Professor of Education and President Emeritus, also at Elon University. Peter and Leo are co-authors of Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, which was just released in late October of this year. They also were co-authors of The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most.

John: Welcome

Peter: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca.

Leo: Thank you. Great to be here.

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

Leo: I am having a cup of coffee. But, I was explaining to John that what I wish I were drinking was a chocolate milkshake from Rudy’s Drive-In in Oswego, New York, one of my favorite places to go and watch a sunset. People who have never been to Oswego don’t know that Oswego is one of the most beautiful places in the world to see a sunset. And I’ve had the privilege of doing that many times. So, you’re very lucky to be situated where you are.

Rebecca: Definitely. It’s beautiful. And it’s beautiful at this time of year for sure.

Peter: Right on the Great Lake

Rebecca: Just cold,

Leo: Yes.

Rebecca: …especially by Rudy’s Drive-in. [LAUGHTER].

John: But it’s less crowded, which makes it a little bit nicer. It’s been a little less crowded this summer with COVID, from what I understand. I haven’t been there, but they were doing takeout as soon as they could bre-open again.

Rebecca: It was. It was my daughter’s favorite thing to do. How about you, Peter, are you drinking tea?

Peter: I have a big glass of water. But, now I want a chocolate milkshake.

John: And I’m drinking Lady Grey tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s a switch up. I have Big Red Sun, Big Red Sun tea, and a big cup of it.

John: And what is Red Sun Tea?

Rebecca: It is a black tea blend from Harney and Sons.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: I’m switching it up, John.

John: So, we’ve invited you here to talk about your new book, Relationship-Rich Education. Could you tell us a bit about the origin of this project?

Leo: Sure, John, I’m happy to do that. In 2016, Peter and I published another book with three friends, John Gardner and Betsy Barefoot, who have long been involved in the freshman year experience program. John really gave birth to that 40 years ago at the University of South Carolina. And they’re prolific scholars and have written so many great things about undergraduate education, as you know, and also with Charles Schroeder, who’s one of the deans of student affairs in this country. And the book was called The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. We tried to drill down to what really counts in undergraduate education. And we came up with six things, learning matters, relationships matter, expectations matter, having high expectations of students, alignment matters, bringing all the parts and pieces of the university together in alignment, improvement matters, kind of a spirit or a culture of continuous improvement, and leadership matters. And we had an unusual amount of resonance and commentary on this idea of how important relationships were, in the undergraduate experience… something we’ve known through research for more than four decades. And it inspired us to drill down more deeply and write a book on relationships. And that’s what we have spent the last two years doing.

John: As part of this process, you interviewed 385 students, faculty, and staff at 29 campuses. How did you pull this together? What was the process of finding the subjects of the interviews, and then the focus of the interviews?

Peter: John, we started by surveying a fairly large number of higher ed leaders, administrators, faculty, staff around the country, and also foundations and people like that, asking them, where are their really good things happening in undergraduate education? And from that we built this sort of set of programs and institutions that we thought were particularly interesting, and we wanted a diverse set, because American higher education is about 40% Community College students, that we wanted to make sure we had strong community college representation, a lot of the regional comprehensives, a few small liberal arts, and a little bit of everything. So we identified all of those. And then it turns out, people are nice, and you write to them and say, “We’d like to come to your campus for a couple days and talk to your students and colleagues about their experiences.” They say “yes,” and so, back when you could actually travel, we spent a lot of time traveling, a couple days on each campus, and talking with small groups or individuals, asking them often about stories by starting to say, “Tell us about a relationship that’s mattered a lot in your education or in your teaching or in your work here.” And then using that to sort of spin out into broader conversations about identity and education, in all sorts of different directions. So, it was the most fun research I’ve ever done.

John: And you weave those in In throughout the book to illustrate it. And I think that makes a book much more effective by building on that narrative.

Peter: As we have said, John, we know the research is really clear: that relationships matter. They matter for all sorts of things from learning to belonging to motivation, and they matter even more for first-gen students and students of color. And so we knew that. We knew we didn’t have to prove that. What we thought is the stories would help us all understand what that actually means in lived experience… maybe motivate, challenge, inspire, all of us to do better.

Rebecca: I think stories are such a powerful way to learn anything. It’s the nice hook to get us all interested and reading the stories, I think, brings all this data to life, which is really exciting, and, I think, incredibly helpful for faculty and the wider higher ed community.

Peter: Well, thanks. I agree, I got to say, the stories from students and the conversations with students about what’s mattered in their education. If you’ve never done that, sit down with some students and ask them who has mattered in your education and why and just listen, and you’ll be impressed and inspired about professors they talk about, but also the people who work in coffee shops and the campus cop, and moms and dads and just all sorts of people who do small and large things that really support and challenge students in powerful ways.

Rebecca: In the introduction, you describe the changing composition of the student population and describe some of the challenges that are faced by many first-generation students today. What are some of those challenges that have been rising in significance?

Leo: Well, I think when you think about who the American college student is, in the general public consciousness, they probably think of someone who is 18 to 22 years old, going to school full time on an ivy covered campus, sitting on a lawn somewhere, and having the best four years of their lives, right? But, that is increasingly not who the American college student is at all. First of all, 39% of American college students are at two-year colleges. And increasingly, they are people of color, they are working. They are balancing family responsibilities, taking care of children or aging parents. And increasingly, they’re first-generation and new Americans as well. So, we really tried to focus on institutions and people in this book that represent this, what we call an emerging new American majority college student. So, some of the challenges are that these students obviously don’t benefit, oftentimes, by this multi-generational mentoring that occurs almost by osmosis in a lot of families. And so you go off to college, expecting that you might have an experience in study abroad, or expecting that you might do research with professors that, you know, the Academy… Anthony Jack has written a lot about the privileged poor and this hidden code in the academy that is not hidden. It’s quite obvious for people that know the rules of the road for higher education with families that have had generations of experience with colleges and universities. So, that’s a challenge. And I think we also saw very clearly that many of these students, I think, really feel pressured into careers, into needing to do well by their families. This is an incredible opportunity that I have, but I need to get a job. I need to make money. One of the women that we talked to, a Professor at Rutgers University, Newark, Sadia Abbas, speaks about how many of these students almost need permission to be intellectual. They’re interested in philosophy and art history and English, and are passionate, in many cases want to pursue these subjects. But, oftentimes, I think, feel some pressure from families to pursue a degree in accounting or nursing because, not that there’s anything wrong with accounting or nursing, quite far from it, but simply because the pressure for the career dominates. One of the things that Peter and I wanted to be really clear about is that we also think it’s important to recognize that these students bring a lot of assets and agency to college with them. They don’t often recognize all the agency and all the assets, all that they have, but they have accomplished important things in their lives. I mean, they have raised children, they have held down a job, they have sometimes overcome barrier after barrier after barrier to arrive at the gates of higher education. And so we were so inspired by talking to so many faculty who build those assets and build that agency into their curriculum and into their courses and help their students learn to tap into everything that they’ve accomplished. And to be proud of that and to build on that. Many of these students speak multiple languages, are multicultural. And so I think it’s important that we not think of them as disadvantaged students… they have significant advantages and bring a lot to their institutions and to their courses and to the curriculum, if we can be creative about thinking about ways that we can tap into that, as teachers.

John: Following up on that, one of the things you suggest in your book is that we help students develop a sense of meaning and purpose to move beyond this careerist focus that an increasingly large share of students come in with. Why is that important? And what can we do to help students shift their focus to develop these other goals?

Leo: It’s a great question. And I think one of the things I’m most frustrated about with regard to the higher education enterprise at large these days is how often we talk to our students about college in very transactional terms: the number of credits that you need to get this major, what criteria you have to meet to get into this sorority? What hoops you have to get through? What do I have to do, John or Rebecca, to get a B in your class? Students are too often talked to about higher education in this transactional context. And what Peter and I are passionate about is that all of us need to develop a vocabulary and a mindset to help students think about their experiences from a relational approach. And that includes, especially, addressing these big questions of meaning and purpose. We want students in college to be asking questions about: Who am I? What is my identity? What is my purpose? What talents do I have? And I love this big question that our friend, Randy Bass, at Georgetown, who we reference several times in the book, he asks this question about: Who are you becoming for other people, not just yourself? That’s a big question to put before students, and questions like that are best asked and answered and reconsidered in conversations with people that we care about and that care about us. Our mentors, our friends. That’s one of the most important aspects of college. And, so often, it is given short shrift. Think about this time of year how we’re using advising appointments with students, getting them ready to register for classes next semester. And what are we too often focus on? Not the big questions, but the nitty gritty, the hurdles, the degree requirements, we need to be more mindful of making the shift to the relational, away from the transactional?

Peter: And can I add two things to Leo’s really wise response? One is: this doesn’t have to be super complicated. And it doesn’t have to require us all to become philosophers or counselors in some ways. I mean, there’s simple questions. One of the best questions, or best prompts that we heard in this was someone who says to her students, “Tell me your story.” It’s an open invitation to the student to talk about what’s important to them. We heard a lot of students say the most powerful question they get asked is “How are you?” …with someone really just follows it. And then the second thing that I want to say is that we need to recognize that what we do with students… we help them ask each other good questions, too. So when I’m not sure my students always say the most profound things on their mind when they’re talking to me. But what I’m hoping is sometimes the questions I ask get them talking to their friends to say, “You know, professors kept asking me like, “What’s my story? and I’m trying to figure that out? What is my story?” or “Who am I for other people?” …and so they don’t need to tell me, but we need to help seed these conversations and these questions about meaning and purpose.

Leo: We interviewed a fellow by the name of Steve Grande, who’s a Director of Service Learning at James Madison University in Virginia. And he said something very profound. And that is that every day when he goes into work, he tries to raise his consciousness about how much his words matter to students. And the value of five and 10 minute conversations with students that to him might seem, not all that profound and important, but in the life of an undergraduate student, are enormously important. You know that from your own experience. And it could be a conversation in the hallway or the stairwell or in your office or in a coffee shop, where a student sees a gift that they might have that’s been revealed to them in some new and different ways. They’ve discovered something new about themselves as a result of that conversation. We were speaking earlier, before the podcast began, about all the stress that faculty are under right now. And oh, my goodness, you know, it just seems like we’re just barreling through, trying to pull body and soul together during this COVID crisis. But, all the more important during these times, to raise our consciousness about how even those short periods of time we are spending with students is the mortar that is holding the college experience together for our undergraduates. And I wish we could all adopt Steve’s mantra about raising our consciousness with regard to the importance of this work really matters.

Rebecca: I think those relationships and that power goes both ways. Right now, it’s not just what’s holding the undergraduates together things, what’s holding the faculty together? [LAUGHTER]

Leo: Amen.

Peter: Yeah, definitely, my students are the best part of most of my days.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’ve had some really great conversations with students this semester. I tend to have classes where I get to know students really well, because I teach in a studio setting. But, even more so now, even though I have less interaction, I feel like I know them in a really interesting and profound way, which is really exciting. And as you’re talking about relationships, I’m thinking back to my own experience as a first-generation college student. And the things that I do remember are those relationships, I remember very little about individual classes or facts, or whatever, right? [LAUGHTER] But, I remember certain exchanges that I had with a very limited number of people, but those limited number of people is what made me even think about pursuing a higher degree. I wouldn’t have considered it at all. That’s not something that happened in my family. So, I think it’s really interesting. It’s sounding true to me too, those relationships is what I remember.

Peter: And Rebecca, we heard versions of that, and when we could have told those stories ourselves, too. But we heard that from students all over the country, with all sorts of different backgrounds. And one of the big lessons I’ve taken from this is helping students see the capacities they have within them, that they might not believe, they might not trust, they might not know. And so one of the gifts this book has given me and I’m loving it this semester is just every time I’m talking to my students, I try to say something good that they’re doing. This part of your work was really strong, you have other things you need to work on, but this part was powerful. And just the reminder to point out those capacities and help students see that, you know, this is part of a developmental thing. So often students come to higher ed thinking it’s about grades and performance. And it’s not about learning and growth, right? And so they find something hard and they’re embarrassed by it. It’s like “No, the hard stuff is the good stuff.” Let’s focus there and say, “You don’t know how to do this now. But I bet you will be able to know how to do it, maybe not this fall, maybe next spring, maybe next year. But, let’s get there.”

Rebecca: I really like where the conversation is going in terms of thinking about really practical things that faculty can do to help build these relationships. I know you have a whole chapter on just the classroom and the relationships that we build as faculty. Can we talk a little bit about some of the practices that you discovered in your interviews that really worked and had a big impact on students?

Peter: Yeah, just a couple ideas, to begin. And I want to reinforce Leo’s point from Steve Grande that what we do matters a lot, but that everything doesn’t have to come through us. And everything doesn’t have to be one-on-one because it is not scalable. It is not possible for a faculty member to have a powerful, long-term relationship with every one of their students. So recognizing just two different things. One is how we can say the same thing to all our students at once. One of the great stories we heard was from a writing center tutor at LaGuardia Community College, who said when she was in her first semester of writing course, the professor about halfway through the semester came into the class and said, “You know, this is the time in the semester, where one of my best students always just disappears, and I don’t know what it is, if they feel like they’re getting behind, or they feel like they didn’t do as well as they should have this last time. But I need to say to you, ‘Don’t disappear. Come see me. You can get through this.’” And this student thought the professor was speaking to her and went and talked to the professor, ended up being successful, was a writing center tutor. And she said, “The thing that’s stunned her is how many students came in and said, “This professor said this story, and he was talking right to me.” And so there’s ways where we can speak in general to all of our students to help them feel validated, feel that capacity, feel their struggles are common. And then second thing is how do we help students see each other as allies and assets in this work. And the good news is a lot of what we do with active learning is really constructive in that way. It puts students together solving problems and everything. I found one thing in our research that suggests this, students turn out to be like other humans. And so encouraging them to do things like first, introduce yourself to the people in the small group and say each other’s names, because they’ll spend the whole semester working together on projects and sometimes go “What’s his name again?” …and so, don’t let that happen. But put them into purposeful groups and encourage them to see each other as allies in this work.

Leo: We were reminded constantly in the book that some of the interventions are very simple and very powerful. And the power to institute these practices can be in the hands of departments or small groups of faculty. They don’t have to wait for an initiative from the Provost. Sometimes I think, when Peter and I’ve been invited to speak to entire groups of faculty, and I think the faculty are thinking, “Oh Lord, this is going to result in the Provost wanting to create six new formalized mentoring programs at the institution.” And that’s not what we’re trying to see happen, at all. Quite the contrary. I want to give you an example of something simple and powerful to illustrate what I’m talking about here at Oakton Community College, they have the Faculty Project for Student Persistence. It’s a commitment on the part of faculty to get to know their students as well as they can, given that faculty have very heavy teaching loads. These are not small classes. But, they’re trying to create an institutional culture at open, that is relational, where students are going to feel that there is at least one person on campus that knows who I am, and has shown an interest in me. So, there are four things about the persistence project: faculty that are in it commit to know their students’ names. Secondly, they commit, in the first couple of weeks of class, to have a 15-minute private conversation with a student. Now, that’s time consuming. If you’ve got 30 students in your class, that’s quite a bit of time. They commit some time in the early, maybe, say first three weeks of the course, to give students some graded feedback. And fourthly, they promise to uphold high expectations in the class, not impossibly high expectations, but they want there to be a degree of challenge associated with these courses as well. And they’ve had enormous success with this program. And the institution is trying to arrange things such that every student would have at least one of these classes during their first year, so that one of these faculty members is going to be an anchor person in their lives. We tell the story in a book about a former Marine who was in Professor Holly Graff’s philosophy course. And he was concerned that she was going to stereotype him because he had been a marine in his prior career and that she would think certain things about him. He wanted her to know, for instance, that he was a Bernie Sanders supporter. And in their conversation, she learned that, in all of the independent reading he had been doing in the Marines, he had read more philosophy than anyone else in the class. And he left her office after that brief conversation with an honors contract for the course. I mean, think about how that relationship between that learner and that Professor changed as a result of one 15-minute conversation. He’s known, he’s inspired, the professor’s inspired by this incredible student that she has in her class, and the learning dynamic has changed. Because of a really simple faculty-led, faculty-inspired, faculty-developed program.

John: You encourage the development of these networks. But you note that one barrier to that is the incentive systems that faculty face, that the rewards are not very well aligned to creating these types of networks with these types of interactions, what can be done to alter that?

Peter: That’s the easiest question you’re gonna ask us. So, we wish we had a simple solution. But I think there’s at least two parts that we need to think about individually, and we need to think about collectively. So, one thing is this has to be on the agenda of faculty senates, and Deans and things like this. But what we should be asking is what is getting evaluated. Because, often on many campuses, there’s an immense amount of invisible labor, that faculty and others do too. But, since this is primarily about teaching, let’s talk about faculty… where some of our faculty, often let’s say, faculty of color, LGBTQ faculty, do a lot of mentoring that is identity based, that students come to them in particular, and they carry this heavy load apart and on top of everything else. And if that is invisible labor, but that is keeping students at the institution, that is helping students succeed. Sometimes it’s helping students wrestle with the most important questions in their lives. So, there’s invisible labor, and even if it’s not identity based work, we know, you know, some people teach first year students and have those students come back every semester just to say, “Hi.” There’s all this kind of relational stuff that happens. So, how do we find ways to actually capture what’s happening that matters? And then how do we evaluate this? One of the questions that we’ve heard from a number of faculty is that institutions that are trying to reward faculty for doing, let’s say, good mentoring at institutions. We often know how to reward faculty and recognize faculty who have students who go on to graduate school, right? Students who go present at conferences, we can see that. So, honor students, you know, check. It’s really hard, often, to recognize the mentoring that’s happening that helps someone graduate with a C average, and accept that student’s experience at the institution and their education is as important. Perhaps that mentoring is more important and helping the C student graduate than it was to help that honor student… and I mentor honor students, I love them. But the honor student who always knew she wanted to study history, and is coming and working with me, and look, she’s doing great things. So we need to have evaluation systems that both capture the important work. And let us recognize that success might look different for different people in different roles in this work ,and recognize that there’s not one path forward on success.

Leo: I would think also that there needs to be a formalization and a recognition of what constitutes faculty work. Early in my tenure as president of Elon, we took two years to develop a statement, the entire faculty worked on this, called the faculty-teacher-scholar-mentor model at Elon. And it’s something that’s kind of our guide, we were at a point of institutional change where the professional schools were undergoing accreditations and the role of scholarship was rising, to have the business school be AACSB accredited, and so forth. We’re adding lots of faculty, the faculty was growing and changing. And it was one of these moments where we really had to stop and think… we need to move very carefully here and think about what we value as an institution, and how the model of faculty work at a place like Elon needs to be well defined, so that we’re serving our students. Well, we’re meeting our accreditation requirements, our faculty ambitions. And we were very clear that teaching mattered the most, that this was going to be 50% of what constituted the most important work in promotion and tenure criteria. But we differentiated mentoring from classroom teaching and other aspects of teaching to formalize the roles that faculty spend outside of the classroom in so many important ways: helping our students to develop, advising undergraduate research projects, and supervising internships, and traveling with our students all over the world, and leading experiential learning programs of very high quality. And they’re doing their scholarship on top of that, but I think this requires great intentionality. And without the intentionality, I think the relationships, the mentoring, is never going to get factored into the work. Our buckets are so clear in most promotion and tenure processes at institutions I’ve been in in the past: there’s a teaching bucket, and there’s a scholarship bucket, and there’s a service bucket. Where do relationships and mentoring fit in that model. They really don’t. And so I think we have to be more creative and more intentional about redefining the nature of those buckets, if we really want relationships to matter. And we argue in this book, they really do. So I think these are formal conversations that institutions, faculty, deans, provosts, boards of trustees need to have to fundamentally re-examine the importance of faculty spending time on these kinds of activities and being appropriately rewarded for it.

Rebecca: I think along those same lines, there’s a group of faculty, like part-time faculty, adjunct faculty, who play a really critical role here in relationships and maintaining those relationships that are widely overlooked even more so than maybe tenure-track faculty.

Leo: Oh, my goodness, we talked with the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Patrick Henry Community College and, at a lot of our institutions, a lot of community colleges, especially, you’ll find 50% of the teaching load is shouldered by adjuncts. And they went through a tremendously important process there to re-examine the ways… and again, in their words, this was not rocket science, but it was very intentional… the ways they could support their faculty in achieving greater levels of success with their students. And it was the simplest of things like having spaces for them to meet with students before and after class and perhaps have a cup of coffee, access to a copying machine, and the basics. What the faculty wanted most was information. Full-time faculty had lots of information about all the support services that students could tap into if they were food insecure, or needed clothing, those services were available at the school. But, oftentimes, the adjunct professors were in the dark about where to turn to help their students in this regard. They intentionally paired full-time faculty with adjunct faculty, so that there was a greater dialogue and a sense of cohesion between the two groups of faculty. So much can be done. There’s so many adjunct faculty that Peter and I met as a part of this process, who are so committed to our students and our students’ success. And they’re doing this work with the scantest of support systems behind them. And with a little bit of intentionality and creativity on institutions’ part, we can do a lot more to undergird the student and faculty relationship that exists with adjuncts.

Peter: And just to add one thing to what Leo said, when we talk to students, they told us powerful stories about what adjunct faculty had done to transform their lives. So, students don’t think “Well, I’m just with Professor Felton, who’s an adjunct, so it doesn’t really matter.” This is their professor, this is the person who’s giving them feedback. This is the person who’s inspiring and challenging them. And so we at institutions and we on faculty really need to support our adjunct colleagues, because they are so powerful in students’ educations.

Rebecca: I think along those lines, right now, when students are facing a lot of remote learning still, online learning, online synchronous learning, and having less face-to-face communication in the classroom, those interactions with faculty may be even more important than they were before because they may not be interacting with some of the other folks on campus who may have been important when they were in a physical space. So, what advice do you have during this time to help faculty facilitate some of the relationship building between students, because they’re so isolated right now?

Peter: Yeah, Rebecca, this is really important. This is really hard. We don’t have any simple solutions. One of the places we did visit, though, was Southern New Hampshire University in their online setting. And one of the people we interviewed there said something that just really has resonated with Leo and I, which is, this person said: “My role for these students is to be the human in these courses, that so much is just remote and distant and asynchronous, and there needs to be a human presence in this. And that has to be me.” So, how can we be present for our students? Even if it’s asynchronous, right? How can we check in with them? How can we create opportunities for meaningful formal and informal interaction. So, two small examples for you: one, and you’ve probably seen this with your colleagues. But I’ve been so impressed with some of my colleagues, who are teaching classes in Zoom when they have synchronous moments. And the first few minutes of class, what always happens is when students come in, the professor says, “Hello,” when sends them into small groups with questions that the students have to talk with each other about. These are purposeful questions connected to the work of the class. But, they’re the kinds of questions that are meant to engage conversation. And so students don’t come into class and start by being silent and staring. They start by saying hello to the professor, and then talking with a couple peers. And a second thing is just finding ways to emphasize with our students, that their well being is connected to their learning, and their learning is connected to their well being. And so if they can’t, if they can’t do something right now, if their world is falling apart, we need to be able to be flexible enough and clear enough about what’s most important in this. That doesn’t mean we don’t have standards. It doesn’t mean we don’t challenge our students to work through really difficult things. But recognizing that sometimes your class isn’t the most important thing or the most urgent thing in a student’s life right now. Often they do have challenges they don’t want to talk to us about and just offering a little grace and saying, “Okay, so you can’t get this draft to me today. How’s Monday?”

Leo: One thing I’m hoping that all of us are doing during these very challenging times is, at least in informal ways, being chroniclers of this experience, to have these moments of consciousness about what we are doing, what we are doing well during these times. And I’m of the strong opinion that the world is never going to go back to 2019. Higher Education is never going to go back to 2019. And I think in the early days of the pandemic, we were under this illusion that “Well, things will get back to normal.” We’re not going back to precisely the way things were before. Look at this conversation we’re having here this afternoon and all the ways our teaching has shifted. The ways that I think higher ed is going to think about what constitutes the higher education experience differently, this blending of face-to-face and residential and experiential and online, that could look quite different than the patterns that have always existed. Why do classes have to be 16 weeks long? I think there’s going to be a lot of deconstruction ahead and reconstruction. What I’m hoping is that as we turn our attention to building something newer and better as we emerge from this, that we’ll put relationships at the very center of what we intend to create. That’s, I think, the big challenge before us, that’s what really matters. I think Peter and I both believe that, when students look back on their undergraduate experience, when the two of you, john and Rebecca, look back on your undergraduate experiences, probably what means the most to you are a set of people that helped you become who you are today, professors and peers and advisors, and people that tapped you on the shoulder and helped you discover something about yourself, or gave you confidence that you didn’t know that you had. This is what needs to be prioritized. And I hope that whatever we build will be built around this idea.

John: We always end with the question, what’s next? Which is a very good question at this time.

Peter: So two things I would like to say. One is that, again, the interviews we did, especially with students all over the country, are so inspiring that I’ve just really personally committed to asking these kinds of questions of the students I encounter and asking them about their education and just making that part of my work. And then a second thing Leo and I have been talking about, and we’re eagerly brainstorming about, is it recognizing that students need to be the primary actors in this… creating their own relationship-rich environment, right? Institutions can do a lot, but just like we can’t learn for them, we can’t build webs of relationships for them. We can put them in these environments that are rich, but they need to act. So we’re trying to think about ways that we can create resources and encouragement and support for all students to see themselves as actors in this kind of educational experience. So, whether that’s some sort of book or online resources, or what, we don’t know. But we’re going to partner with some folks, including students around the country, and say: “What can we do to really help students, especially first-gen students who don’t understand the ways and the whyfors of higher ed, come in and not learn by the time they’re seniors that I should have paid attention When my professor said, “Do you want to have a cup of coffee?”

Leo: I would add to that by saying there were times where Peter and I were struck, whether it was students at Brown, or the University of Michigan, or the University of Washington, or LaGuardia Community College, or Nevada State College, we were struck over and over again, about the power of the question: “How are you?” I remember a phone conversation probably in an airport where we were talking back and forth to one another, in our respective places in the country, and having this dialogue about should we call the book: “How are you?” …and then decided that’s probably [LAUGHTER] not a smart idea. But that is such an important question. And students, and especially today, during this COVID crisis, want to be heard. Students want to be heard. They’re not necessarily looking for us to solve all their problems for them, but they want to be seen, and they want to be heard, and they want to be recognized. So I think a part of what’s next for all of us is going back to this very basic idea of not losing sight of this enormous privilege that we have to be on college campuses and to take five or 10 minutes with students to listen generously, after asking the question: “How are you?” It makes all the difference in the world, everywhere. And, in our busyness, and in the craziness of COVID, it’s really easy to forget that. But, some days, it’s the critical question that keeps a student in school, we were struck about how many students acknowledged that at one time or another in their career, again, including at the most prestigious institutions in the country, were one conversation away from leaving school, and “How are you?” …can be the gateway to keeping a student in school and successful, and motivated and inspired… very simple stuff.

Rebecca: Thank you both for such a great conversation and a really powerful book. If you want some positive moments in your life, you can read some of the great stories in this book.[LAUGHTER]

Peter: Our goal was to do justice to the stories people told us, because if we could do that, we knew the book was going to be helpful. And it was going to be powerful, because the stories were just an amazing gift.

Leo: There’s great work going on in higher education in this country. It is rich and deep and powerful and lively. And faculty are working so hard, and students are working so hard. And so much of the Chronicle coverage and the broader media coverage of higher education is so not on point in terms of… you know that… and describing what’s really going on in the halls and corridors and classrooms of our institutions. And we were inspired by how many wonderful, wonderful things are happening all over the country. We have a great system of higher education in this country. It’s something to be proud of. And it’s changing lives every day, and we shouldn’t take our eye off that fact either.

John: Your book does a wonderful job refocusing your attention away from educational technology and back on the things that are most important, the relationships among the participants in the process.

Leo: Thank you

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

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

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160. Inclusive Communication

Communication in academia has hidden and unwritten rules that present barriers for students. In this episode, Kristina Ruiz-Mesa joins us to discuss inclusive communication strategies we can use as teachers and mentors to help students feel like they belong in the academy.

Kristina is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University – Los Angeles. Kristina previously worked in diversity, equity and inclusion research at Villanova University, and as a communication and diversity consultant. Her research on these topics has been published in a variety of academic journals and in book chapters. Her forthcoming textbook Inclusive Public Speaking: Communicating in a Diverse World will be available in late 2020 through Fountainhead Press.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Communication in academia has hidden and unwritten rules that present barriers for students. In this episode, we explore inclusive communication strategies we can use as teachers and mentors to help students feel like they belong in the academy.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare , a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Kristina Ruiz-Mesa. She is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University – Los Angeles. Kristina previously worked in diversity, equity and inclusion research at Villanova University, and as a communication and diversity consultant. Her research on these topics has been published in a variety of academic journals and in book chapters. Her forthcoming textbook Inclusive Public Speaking: Communicating in a Diverse World will be available in late 2020 through Fountainhead Press.

John: We can also note that we just saw you recently in ACUE’s webinar on Preparing an Inclusive Online Course, which was released in early October and is available online. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: Welcome, Kristina.

John: Welcome, Kristina.

Kristina: Thank you so much for having me.

John: Today’s teas are:…Are you drinking tea, Kristina?

Kristina: I am drinking carbonated water.

Rebecca: …out of a tea cup I might note.

Kristina: I thought it was appropriate. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s a beautiful tea cup.

Kristina: Thank you.

John: That’s close enough. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking Scottish afternoon tea.

John: And I’m drinking a mix of peppermint and spearmint tea.

Kristina: Lovely.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your work on inclusive communication. First, though, could you tell us how you became interested in this area of research?

Kristina: Absolutely. So, the research actually started in my own life, a little more than 30 years ago. And so I grew up in southern New Jersey, in a really diverse town in a Caribbean family. And so my dad’s Cuban, my mom’s Puerto Rican, and lived in this really diverse place. And I went to an inner city Catholic School, where I was one of a few students of color and started noticing differences, differences between how our families communicated, how our teachers communicated with our families. And that sparked an interest in me in saying, “Eell, communication seems to not be one-size-fits-all, we all have different ways of communicating.” And yet, when I was studying communication, and when I was in learning, it was like a one-size-fits-all, like “if you do these communicative practices, you will get the same response.” And that was not the case. I didn’t find that to be the case. And so I wanted to know, how culture, how identities, how intersectional experiences impact the ways that we communicate, the ways that we construct messages, the ways that we analyze our audiences, and think about ways that we can train students to most effectively communicate. So, how they can most effectively communicate in different audiences in different places to achieve their personal and professional goals.

Rebecca: Colleges and Universities have become increasingly diverse, and the composition of faculty, though, not so much so… What sort of challenges does this present for communication between faculty and students?

Kristina: I think this is such an important issue, and one that we are feeling as faculty as well, as in “How can we best serve the needs of all of our students, and recognizing that representation matters in the classroom, and that communication matters in the classroom?” And so when I think about how do we address mentoring? how do we address teaching? And how do we address the practices that we are using in the classroom? What do our materials look like? And so we can’t change our racial identities, we can’t change who our students are, and we wouldn’t want to, right? And so how can we make sure that we are teaching all of the students and so one of the things that I always stress is your course materials. Regardless of subject, you have examples, and you have data sets that you use or readings that you’re using. And so, how are you incorporating more voices, more experiences more identities into the course. And so that can be a way to really show your students’ representation. If you feel like you are not representing all of the identities of your students, which none of us are, no matter what our identities are, we can never fully represent all of our students. So how can we bring in this idea of polyvocality? Lots of different voices, lots of different experiences. And sometimes that means thinking about the datasets that you’re using. Are they representative? Who are they speaking about? Who are they speaking to? Who are the scholars that we’re bringing into conversations? And so I think these are all ways that we can help address diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom, and make sure that our students see themselves in the course and see themselves in the materials. And obviously, yes, increasing faculty diversity, staff diversity, making sure that our students feel their experiences and their identities are a part of academia and a part of their institutions. Absolutely. And, there are things that we can do immediately in each of our classrooms to make sure that we are making our classrooms as inclusive as possible.

Rebecca: I like how you’re emphasizing our role or our ability to curate, and not just kind of be everything to everybody, but we can curate experiences that include many points of view.

Kristina: I love that you said curate. So, I always, when I teach my graduate students, I say we have like the coolest museum in the world, right? We get to pick all of these scholars and authors and examples and bring them together into one exhibit, whether that exhibit’s in a face-to-face classroom, in a virtual classroom space, we get to showcase different voices experiences, theories, and applications.

John: That can enrich the conversation by bringing in a diversity of examples and leveraging that diversity in the classroom to provide a richer learning experience.

Kristina: Absolutely. My mantra for teaching and thinking about teaching and what my course materials are, we always start by planning backwards. What do we want our students to know at the end of this course? What do we want them to remember? And I always think about how can I challenge the canon? So the canon that we all learned in graduate school, that we have been reading for decades, some for centuries this material has been going on. How do we challenge and think about ways to expand that knowledge, ways that we can incorporate new voices? And I think that that’s so important.

Rebecca: One of the things that I found really wonderful, and I feel like it’s actually happening more right now because we’re trying extra hard to include students in conversations and make them feel included in a virtual environment to allow them to co-curate with us and to pick sources and to share materials. And my reading list got really long this semester… [LAUGHTER] … ‘cause based on all the things that students have brought to the table, podcasts that they’ve introduced me to, videos that they’ve introduced me to, I have a long list of homework to do.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I love that right. I love that idea of “Okay, we’re co-learners here.” And there’s such a reach. And Rebecca, I love that you say that with podcasts. And my students have introduced me to so many artists and performers and theorists that I was like, “Okay, yes.” And they’re seeing it in social media. They’re seeing up and coming scholars whose work perhaps hasn’t come out and those big journals yet, but that they are releasing blogs, they’re doing podcasts, and I love the perspectives and identities and experiences and new knowledge that’s being incorporated through these venues and avenues.

John: Let’s go back to the mismatch between the diversity of the faculty and the more diverse student body that we’re finally getting in most colleges and universities, now. What’s the impact of that, say, on persistence rates for first-gen students and students from underrepresented groups?

Kristina: Absolutely. So, the research has consistently shown us that mentoring and inclusive pedagogical practices matter. I teach in East Los Angeles. And so, as a Latina scholar teaching a predominately Latino student population, as the only tenured or tenure-track faculty who is Latino, who is Spanish speaking, who can connect with families at graduation and at different ceremonies, I find that I have a very easy time connecting with my students and their experiences, even though our families are from different Latin American countries. I grew up on the East Coast, not the West Coast, I’m Caribbean. And so like all of these differences are still under this umbrella of, I think about, like, cultural norms. And I think about cultural values. And one of them that I stress in my teaching is this idea of familismo, this cultural commitment to family and the family role. And I think about how that influences student persistence. And we’re seeing it very clearly now on our campus. So, my role at Cal State LA is that I’m an associate professor, but I’m also the Director of Oral Communication in Communication, which means we have 4000 students taking a standardized general education oral communication course. And so my instructors see 4000 incoming freshmen every year, and we are hearing consistently this semester that workloads combined with having your classroom now be your living space with your families, how do we negotiate and how do we navigate these spaces? And that is absolutely going to impact persistence and graduation rates. And so I think, for faculty, understanding not only how your students are coming in, what knowledge they are coming in with, but understanding the cultural context in which they’re living, and how that may be impacting the learning experience, the needs of the students in terms of… I always think about applied skills, I teach communication, and so when I came into Cal State, LA, one of the first things I did was say, “How can we get an interview assignment into oral communication?” It’s not part of the general education requirements of the state. And so I went to the chancellor’s office, and I said, here’s my pitch. 80% of our students are first gen. We know that interviewing skills, so much of it is based on these unwritten rules and laws that you learn kind of through family, through friends. But, if you’re your first person in your family who’s gone to college, you might not get those experiences kind of organically. And so we needed to embed it into the general education requirement so that all students benefit from it. And again, the universal design we’re talking about, no one’s going to be disadvantaged from learning interviewing skills and practicing interviewing. And so, I think, thinking about persistence in really applied ways and material realities matter. How are we going to get students to get those internships to get those jobs? And so thinking about how our skills can be taught in a way that is problem posing, and that can be applied to students lives as soon as possible.

Rebecca: What I like about what you’re talking about in terms of the oral communication piece is that it’s such a big part of being professional in every discipline, but we often teach public speaking classes as if it’s a very separate activity. [LAUGHTER] Like, I want to stand up and give speeches. I don’t stand up and give speeches, and most people don’t, the kind of communication you do is different. So, putting it in context like that, and providing a clear application of how those skills can be used somewhere, I think is really helpful, especially for students that don’t have that kind of context to build from.

Kristina: I totally agree.

John: And you mentioned some of the challenges associated with students interacting with families in their homes. One of the issues that faculty keep raising is “Our students won’t turn on their cameras.” And we address that regularly with faculty. But, it’s an issue where faculty are used to seeing faces on the screen. And they’re really upset when people choose not to. How do you respond to that?

Kristina: This is something that I have been hearing in my circles as well. And well meaning faculty are frustrated, because we know that a large percentage of our communication is nonverbal. So, if we are missing those nonverbal cues of understanding, of confusion, it is limiting our ability to be able to connect with our students that way. I get that. And the hard truth is that it’s not about us. And so that’s one of those tough kind of answers. Because, right now, it’s about our students and their success, and whatever we need to do whatever practices that we need to kind of adapt to, it’s about them and about their learning. And so one of the things that I have done is incorporate more of the thumbs up, thumbs down, type in the chat. So you can do a popcorn response by giving an emoji. So offering students various ways of interacting, I think is huge. Also, normalizing the ways that we communicate. So, for a speech, for example, we do want to see them in terms of their nonverbals, we want to see your gesturing, we want to see the ways that you’re connecting. And so we normalized giving speeches in bathtubs, giving them from parking lots, giving them in cars, doing our own mini lectures from like, on the floor in the bathroom, because if we’re doing it, then you can do it. And so kind of modeling, that it’s okay, and that we don’t all have these perfect offices that look like they came off of HGTV, and that there might be a dog barking in the background or someone crying. And that’s okay, this is a global pandemic, there are more important things than whether you can hear a baby crying, or a dog barking, or someone in the background. And so I think also being realistic about our expectations, and as empathetic as we can. And one of the things that I often think about is that many of us teaching at the college level, we’re in the top 5%, top 2% of higher education attainment, how we learned and our experiences and how we are now… We have to remember. We have to remember, what was it like to be an undergrad? And for many of us, that meant “Where are we studying? How could we study, if you don’t have the privilege of going to a library right now or a quiet space?” …then being empathetic enough to know that you don’t understand all of the experiences and lives of your students and give them the benefit of the doubt. that they are trying their best. and they’re doing the best we can… all of us.

John: One of the things I asked my students was to share some of their challenges in a low-stakes discussion forum. And I’ve been amazed at how many students talk about just how difficult it is to find time that’s quiet. They may have a spouse or a partner who’s playing live video games, or more typically, they may have small children or they may have siblings in the rooms or in the dwellings with them. And that makes it very challenging where some of them are saying “I wake up at six in the morning, just so I can find some quiet time in order to do my work.” Or, “I have to wait until everyone’s asleep after midnight or at one in the morning.” And it’s something I think we do need to be a little more cognizant of… even just asking them what sort of challenges they face, perhaps, can help faculty adjust to this somewhat challenging environment we’re all in.

Rebecca: Are you sure those are students talking? Because I feel like you just describe what I’m doing. [LAUGHTER]

John: Faculty have had very similar challenges since last March.

Rebecca: I do think, actually, the struggles that faculty are having with family and things being in the same space as them has actually really, really helped start to connect to some of the real challenges that students face regularly, and not just during a pandemic.

Kristina: Absolutely. And then we compound that with housing insecurity, food insecurity, and the things that our students are experiencing. Just every time my students come into my class, I thank them. That’s the first thing I do. Thank you all so much for being here. I’m excited to have our conversation. And I think that goes a long way. And at the end of every class, acknowledging that, and say, “I know that you’ve got a lot going on, and I am really proud of you.” And I think that that transparency of saying, “This is why I need you to do this assignment. This is why I gave you three readings instead of two.” And I think really explaining the “why” is going even further than it has in the past. And so thinking about the ways that we can make our assignments and our assessments as practical and applied as possible… really helpful right now… as well as checking in with students. I’ve been doing the first kind of 10 minutes of class checking in. Now, I know that’s not possible for all classes, and for all students and for every class, but when it is and when we can or a discussion post, tell me the best thing that’s going on in your week. Just connecting, and having this connection in the classroom, I think, is really important now for maintaining not only community and engagement, but also persistence.

John: Ggiven the challenges you’ve mentioned with communications between faculty and students, one of the issues that may come up is microaggressions. And I know you’ve done some research on that. Could you tell us a little bit about your research on microaggressions in the classroom?

Kristina: Sure. I did a study on microaggressions at a predominantly white institution of higher education and looking at racial microaggressions that students of color were experiencing on campus. And so, just as a quick recap, Wing Sue defines microaggressions as kind of brief commonplace verbal behavior, or environmental indignities. And they can be intentional or unintentional, and they communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults. But microaggressions can be about sexuality, about social class, about gender. So, they can be across identities. And my research showed that African-American males and Latino males experienced microaggressions at the highest rates of any students. And the experiences oftentimes lead to what we’d call student misbehaviors in the classroom. If students are feeling disrespected by an instructor or by other peers, there was a few paths they would take. One is they would act out in the class. So, they might say things, they might be seemingly disrespectful about the material about the course. They would drop out, and you would never hear from them again. You wouldn’t know why they weren’t engaging the class, they were just gone. And we also saw psychological stressors. So, higher instances of isolation feelings, that they didn’t belong on campus. And again, this was a predominately white institution, and so students of color have these feelings of belonging, questioning of belonging. And so when they experienced microaggressions, these feelings were exacerbated, and they increased experiences of anxiety, depression and social isolation. What my research found was that, if we could inoculate against microaggressions by offering micro-practices and services on campus, that was where we were able to support students in building academic habits that would help support their success. And so this inoculation came in the form of having Diversity, Equity and Inclusion centers, having counseling resources, having safe spaces and inclusive and brave spaces where students could share their experiences. So that it wasn’t just one person saying,”It must be me. It’s something I’m doing.” But, recognizing that these were structural and systemic, and these were problems that were permeating throughout the campus. And so that was something that we found in the research was that primarily African-American males and Latino males were experiencing this more often on campus, and that the ways to minimize the academic impact was to offer services early and often, having male mentoring groups on campus was helpful and having spaces where students could share their counter-narratives and counter-experiences on campus. All were beneficial.

John: And that’s a useful form of remediation, but what can be done, perhaps, in the classroom to address those as they occur?

Kristina: Absolutely, that is my number one piece of advice for faculty is when you see something, when your, like, hairs on the back of your neck are standing up, you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t good,” you need to say something. And that is something that is scary. And for many of us, particularly folks who are not tenured, who are contingent faculty who are hired by the quarter or semester, that can be really scary, because we know that student evaluations matter. Having grievances can affect your job. And so that, and I’m in a privileged position, I’m a tenured state university professor. So I recognize that. And I think that it’s important that if we are going to have inclusive conversations, inclusive learning environments, we have to intervene. Now, knowing how to intervene takes practice, and knowing that you’re not going to get it right every time is humbling, and knowing that we’re always learning and that’s one of the things that I always stress to faculty is that we are literally trained for this we are trained to learn. That is our job, our job is to learn as much as we can, figure out new, innovative, cool ways to apply it, explain it, expand it, that’s the gig. And so this is another area of knowledge that we need to learn, that we need to just say, “Okay, I needed to learn a new computer system, I needed to learn how to teach online, I need to learn what my students are experiencing, so that I can be a better teacher. So that I can learn what has already worked, what practices are embedded.” And so one of the things that I’ve done in the last few years, and that I found to be helpful is to write down what are the specific practices? …not just saying “You need to be an inclusive educator.” Cool. What does that mean? And what does that look like in my classroom. And so, one of my most cited articles is this quick, best practices piece that I can share the link with. It’s a free download. And it’s 10 Best Practices for Facilitating Difficult Dialogues. And it’s tips, for example, like we disagree with ideas, not people. So we focus on the idea not the person, the other is maintaining immediacy, so making sure that we’re talking at the end of class, you don’t leave conversations undone or unsaid. So keeping track of time and recognizing that you might need two or three minutes at the end of class to do relationship repair, to do community check-ins, to do that repair… really important. Also making sure our language is inclusive. So, thinking about the ways that we, from day one, are establishing inclusive language. Are we getting rid of kind of gender binaries and making assumptions about student genders? Are we asking students: “What is your name?” I never read out of rosters. I always have students introduce themselves. Tell me your name. Share your pronouns with me, and modeling that for students. I also include a pronunciation guide because much like we want our students’ names to be honored, we want our names to be honored and said correctly. So, offering tools and resources and normalizing this in communication, whether you’re teaching comm, psychology, math, chemistry, normalizing that this is how effective communication works. And I think that’s really helpful in the classroom. And of course, setting the ground rules, setting the tone, the things that we know as faculty that we ought to do. But those are some of the big ones. And also, the “oops,” and the “ouch” rule is something that we use a lot and saying that, again, in a single 50 minute, hour and 15 minute class, I’m going to say thousands of words. The chances that one or two of them are wrong, or came out too quickly. Or I didn’t mean to say that? Likely. So, recognizing and having the humility to say, “Okay, if I’m going to say an oops, that was my bad. Let’s start over. Let’s take that again.” And, recognizing that if I miss something, having a mechanism in place with the “Ouch,” to say “That was hurtful, I didn’t appreciate that. Can we talk about that for a second?” And pausing and saying, “I’m sorry. How was that hurtful? I’m sorry.” And acknowledging the moment. And I think these are practical things that can feel super awkward if we don’t establish them on day one. But, if it’s just how things are, the beauty of being a college professor, is that every 10 weeks, 16 weeks, quarter semester, we get to start over. And so, re-establish the norms, re-establish how we communicate and how we want to communicate for an inclusive environment.

Rebecca: If you think of it that way, we get so many do overs.

Kristina: Exactly.

John: Eventually, we’ll get things right. I’m still waiting.

Rebecca: That’s empowering. Yeah, I really love the idea of the oops, and the ouch, and really establishing the idea and reminding ourselves that we’re learners too. And we make mistakes, and it does take practice. But just like we want our students to take that first try, we have to do it too. Boy, we should listen to ourselves sometimes,

Kristina: Right, once in a while. [LAUGHTER]

John: Would you recommend that, perhaps, when you have those rules, you give students some say in discussing them and establishing the ground rules?

Kristina: Absolutely. I usually have a few rules that I propose. And then I ask students to add to them, and we do a Google Doc in class, and they can add them in real time. And then I also say from now until next week, review them. If something doesn’t feel right, if you want further explanation, let’s write it out, and let’s talk about it and see how we can come to this together.

Rebecca: One of the things that I really recognize teaching more online than in person is how much more time there really should be to do some of those things at the beginning of the semester, in any semester. But I took the time this semester, and it was really helpful.

Kristina: Love that, that is one of the benefits of teaching online is that I feel like if I miss something, I can make a video, there’s time to kind of fix it. Whereas in face to face, I can send an email, but it’s not the same. Whereas, if everything is built into my learning management system, it’s another opportunity.

Rebecca: So, we talked a little bit about privilege, and how that might impact the kind of experiences you have access to. And one thing that I think we don’t always consider is how our own race, gender, social status and ability status, impact our own social norms. And we don’t necessarily recognize them as being social norms, or that somehow we learned these behaviors, what are some things that we could think about as faculty to better understand what those practices are? And to undo some of them maybe, or at least recognize that there are norms and invite students in to understand that?

Kristina: One of the kind of keys for me is when I hear the word “ought,” like “it ought to be this way,” or “it ought to be…” and I’m like, “Hmm, says who? A really important part of being a good teacher is recognizing that we cannot be all things to all people, and that we have to be critically self reflexive. I read a lot of Bell Hooks work and think about the ways that Hooks asks us to be kind of these self-actualized beings. How do we model the vulnerability and the space? And again, I recognize, I teach communication, I’m humanities professor, I have kind of more flexibility than my spouse who teaches chemistry. And so this idea that it’s going to look different in different classrooms. Absolutely. And, thinking about the ways that we come up with examples, I think, is a way that reflects our own identities. And so one of the ways that I think about that is psychological noise. And so, am I giving an example that is helping students move along in their understanding of a concept? Or have I just put up a giant roadblock because I used an example that’s not clear. And now they’re thinking about the example and they’ve forgotten the concept. So recognizing which examples are from a privileged experience… If you’re giving an example in your like, “So, let’s say you’re in Paris eating a croissant,” and you’re like, “Cool, I saw Emily in Paris, does that count? That was a good show.” And now they’re starting to think about a tangent, that they forgot what you’re teaching. And so, thinking about the ways that our examples can demonstrate our own privileges, and recognizing that talking about more privileged experiences, like, I was thinking about this the other day, when students were talking about having to go to the grocery store, and I was thinking about how many people in my circle were like “Groceries have been delivered since March” and the privilege that that reflects about saying, “Oh, no, I’ve been perfect. I have not had to leave my house.” That’s a privilege. And recognizing that we have paid positions, we still have jobs. And so recognizing that how our examples are privileged, I think, is really important for all of us. And I find the longer that I’m teaching, the more I have to kind of check myself, the more I have to say, “Is this a universal or pretty broad experience? Is this the example resonating?” Is this, as my students would say, “Is that just really boojie?” Like, is this just a really privileged expensive thing, and I’m like, “You caught me.” And I think being humble enough to recognize what our own racial financial gendered positions are, and how our experiences may be tied to those identities and experiences and how that may differ from our students. So, I think that’s something. Examples are one way that I think are really something we can all work on. The other is the ways that we make assumptions about what students ought to know. I’m big on saying that we don’t have underprepared students, we have underprepared teachers, because our students are who our students are on day one. And that’s where we teach them from. What they know is what we know and we’ll build. And I’m very big on understanding that it is my obligation in these 16 weeks to teach them as much as I can. But I have to start where they are. And that’s my job. And if it means that I have to go back in week one, and stay up till midnight, redoing my course schedule, so be it. That’s my job, to make sure that my students are learning and recognizing that where I think they ought to be doesn’t matter. It’s where they are that matters. And that’s our starting place.

Rebecca: So, the way we prevent too much workload at the beginning is we just don’t plan the like last five weeks of the semester, so that if you need to add stuff in the beginning, you can just shift everything.

Kristina: Well, I have my syllabus, and it has the first five weeks, and I always say tentative at the top, and I say this is going to serve the needs of our students and we’ll adjust. And, I think, Rebecca, you hit the nail on the head. Yes, being flexible and adapting and saying, “If we need to take two weeks on this, but you learn it, that’s more important to me than just kind of checking off my boxes, like, Oh, good, we’re in week eight now or week nine.” Absolutely.

Rebecca: I had a conversation with my students this week about projects that they were working on, and they were getting frustrated because they weren’t being as productive as maybe they would be in a non-pandemic situation. Imagine that.

Kristina: Right?

Rebecca: And so they’re like, “But I don’t know how I’m gonna get it done.” It’s like, well, because you’re being unreasonable. Let’s take that back a couple notches, the thing you’re talking about, that’s your next revision. That’s next time. That’s not this time. And I think having those conversations with students about kind of a reality check of what’s even reasonable right now is helpful, because there are these norms of what maybe a normal semester is like, that’s just unrealistic. And maybe it’s unrealistic all the time.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I think for ourselves, too, as faculty, I mean, I have found myself, I don’t know about you all, but I’m working seven days a week. And I’m like, this is not healthy. This is not sustainable. And I’m telling my students, and I’m really open with them. I teach mostly graduate students, but I’m really open with them saying, “Please do as I say, not as I do, because I’m still learning, and I’m still a work in progress, and I’m still trying.” But, I don’t want them to fall into the same patterns that I’m falling into where it’s midnight, and we’re still working. And it’s all the time. And I think that that leads to burnout. And. I know I have been meeting with many more students than in a typical semester. And it’s more one-on-one meetings. And I appreciate that, and I value our time together. And I also am recognizing that I’m making appointments, like from seven, eight in the morning, all the way until late at night. And so our days are kind of blending. And I think that that’s really stressful. And my colleagues who have young children, I feel for them, because they are just working nonstop. And I think we have to be kind to ourselves, we have to show ourselves and our students and our colleagues grace. And to say, Rebecca, I think as you say, this is a pandemic world. So let’s all chill with our expectations, here. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: And I think along those lines, emphasizing still how much learning is actually happening.

Kristina: Yes.

Rebecca: …because, what I’ve discovered, is not that students are learning any less. They might be producing less work, but the quality is actually quite good.

Kristina: Absolutely.

Rebecca: And they’re demonstrating that they’re meeting the learning objectives. It’s just maybe there’s some things there that didn’t need to be there.

Kristina: And I don’t know if you all are seeing this, but I’m finding there’s like a decentering of faculty because I’m not lecturing for three hours in a graduate class. I’m, again, curating materials, making mini-lectures, and then using our time together when we have synchronous time, for discussion. And so I’m finding it to be really enriching. Our conversations are great. The chat… students who I have not heard from in previous semesters are now super engaged and participating because they feel more comfortable. Perhaps there’s communication apprehension, and they didn’t want to speak up in front of everyone, but they can chat and they can type in the chat, and that is another avenue. So, I think we’re also seeing opportunities for further engagement and students really taking on the ownership of saying, “I need to do the reading, because I’m not going to get a three-hour lecture, and so I can’t depend on that. I have to depend on myself.” And I think we’re going to see on the other end of this, perhaps, stronger practices of self efficacy and engagement.

Rebecca: I had a whole class of people who read their stuff today. It was amazing.

Kristina: Amazing. [LAUGHTER] Love that. Love it.

John: I haven’t quite gotten there with everyone. But I have somewhat larger classes, too. But yeah, some of the things that we’ve been doing in terms of having people have the chat capability as a backchannel has been really enriching. And I’m hoping that that becomes more widely adopted later. And also, the move to online discussion forums also gives more students a voice than would occur with synchronous communications, because there’s always some people who want to think and process things a little bit more before they jump out there and say something. And I think in that way, at least, we’ve moved to somewhat more inclusive environments. In many ways we haven’t, but at least that’s one area that I think can be useful moving forward.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I think that, John, exactly to your point, I think that we are creating some more opportunities for engagement. And I see the big barrier is getting folks in the classes and making sure they have the WiFi making sure they have a device. I think that’s the big challenge at the beginning of the semester. And so thinking about planning for next semester, for many of us who already know that we are going to stay remote, is thinking about how those first two weeks can be really flexible, because it might take students a while to get access after the holidays and after the New Year. Depending what happens with the election and different things that are happening, they might need a little bit more time to get their financial aid checks. And so thinking about how those first few weeks can be caught u, I think is gonna be really important for the spring

Rebecca: I think that’s a nice lead into how we normally wrap up, which is: What’s next? {LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Who knows? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s it, that’s all there is.

Kristina: Who knows? What’s interesting to me is when I think about the possibilities for higher education, I think this is really exciting. So, when I think about the different, you know, 1636 and Harvard’s founding, we have seen really slow change in higher education. And all of the slow change was laughed at in March when they’re like: “Guess what? We are going from moving the battleship to like a jet ski right now. We are going fast, and we are hoping for the best.” And so I think we’re gonna see some rapid and lasting changes in US higher education that would have taken decades had there not been a pandemic. And so my hope is that we are going to increase hybrid offerings, we’re going to increase our capabilities of serving more students by offering more online options. And my hope is that institutions will respond by creating tenured and tenure-track lines or online, totally online, programs and teachings. And we’ve got more than 3000 institutions of higher education in this country, that we can really create more access and engagement and higher education achievement in this country. That’s my hope for what’s next.

Rebecca: I think ending on a hopeful note is a good thing. [LAUGHTER] It’s a time when we need a lot of hope.

John: Certainly.

Kristina: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Thank you so much, Kristina. You’ve given us lots to think about and actions to actually take.

Kristina: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity. This was super fun. I enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed our conversation

John: We have too and we hope we’ll be talking to you again in the future.

Kristina: Anytime. 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.

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153. Structured for Inclusion

Learning spaces that are effective for all students require careful planning and design. In this episode, Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan join us to discuss ways to promote inclusion in the way we structure our courses, activities, and feedback. Viji is a Teaching Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC – Chapel Hill and Kelly is an Associate Dean of Instructional Innovation, Quality Enhancement Plan Director, and Teaching Professor of Biology, also at UNC – Chapel Hill.

Show Notes

  • Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2017). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work?. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453-468.
  • Poll Everywhere
  • Hogan, K.A. and Sathy, V. (forthcoming, 2021). Embracing Diversity: A Guide to Teaching Inclusively. WVU Press.
  • Hogan, Kelly A, and Sathy, Viji (2020). “Optimizing Student Learning and Inclusion in Quantitative Courses.” in Rodgers, Joseph Lee, ed. (2020). Teaching Statistics and Quantitative Methods in the 21st Century. Routledge.
  • Panter, A.T.,; Sathy, Viji; and Hogan, Kelly A (2020). “8 Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching.” Chronicle of Higher Education. April 7.

Transcript

John: Learning spaces that are effective for all students require careful planning and design.
In this episode, we discuss ways to promote inclusion in the way we structure our courses, activities, and feedback.

[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.

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John: Our guests today are Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan. Viji is a Teaching Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC – Chapel Hill and Kelly is an Associate Dean of Instructional Innovation, Quality Enhancement Plan Director, and Teaching Professor of Biology, also at UNC – Chapel Hill. Welcome.

Kelly: Thank you.

Viji: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Kelly: I’m drinking LaCroix… seltzer.

Viji: Yes, me too. I’ve got my sparkling water right next to me.

Rebecca: That’s my second favorite thing to drink, over tea. [LAUGHTER]

Viji: In our writing last summer, we would get together, when we could get together. We would get together and write, and we often had a nice cold sparkling can of LaCroix with us, and one time we tweeted about it and LaCroix contacted me and sent me some water. So…

Rebecca: Nice…

Viji: …it’s become our official working drink.[ LAUGHTER]

John: Somehow tea has for us, as well. I have blueberry green tea today.

Rebecca: I have “Special” English Breakfast tea.

Kelly: What makes it special?

Rebecca: The package? [LAUGHTER]

John: The label? [LAUGHTER] Okay, and where did that come from?

Rebecca: It’s a Harney’s and Sons tea.

John: You’ve both been working together for quite a while now on inclusive teaching practices and have done a really good job in providing lots of workshops and lots of materials for people who would like to improve their teaching practices. What prompted your interest in this area? And how did you start working together on this?

Kelly: For me, I think I started getting really interested in what it means to be a good teacher based on data. So I had seen some data in my own course. And I saw some pretty large discrepancies based on race and ethnicity. And I thought a lot about what it means to be effective. And it really got me thinking about: are there ways that I could narrow and reduce those achievement gaps in my own class? And not long after that, I was in a faculty learning community for teaching large classes, and that’s where I met Viji. So, we were both in this faculty learning community together, paired up in a group, and we quickly recognized ourselves in each other. So, just our style of teaching, our personalities are on the more introverted side, we recognized that we really enjoyed learning how students learned, but weren’t always going to be the most charismatic and funny people. And we felt really strongly that funny didn’t equate to good teaching, and so we really built a friendship and collegiality around really learning, with each other, what good teaching looks like.

Viji: Yeah, and I’ll add that we had the opportunity, in that faculty learning community, to watch each other teach. And up to that point, the only time I had been observed was really for what I deemed sort of high-stakes purposes, like for renewal of my contract or something like that. So this is the first time we got invited to just sit in a classroom for no other reason than to just see how another instructor operates in that classroom and it was very eye-opening experience, because not only was it a chance to do this without sort of a weight around it, but also that it wasn’t a topic that I didn’t know anything about. So, it became a really fun activity to sit in the classroom and just be a student and see it from a student’s perspective. And especially not knowing the content, specifically, it was not about critiquing the content or the delivery of the content, it was really just the mechanics of teaching and what that looks like. And that was a really helpful thing for me to see and experience being a student in Kelly’s classroom.

John: Is that something that was done for just people within the learning community, or more broadly throughout the institution?

Kelly: Those observations were part of the faculty learning community. We have since tried to build programming around that same idea, campus wide. And so we have a peer visits program that we help the Center for Faculty Excellence run and faculty can go into other people’s classes, they can see a menu of people that are available that they can go visit, some rubrics available. So, I think it’s spun out of that, as something really transformational for us that were involved early on.

John: We were just planning to introduce one of those beginning in late March of this year. And then it kind of fell apart because people were no longer interested in doing that when they were panicking in terms of the transition to remote teaching. But, we’re going to be meeting next week to talk about how we might be doing that here. So, it’s something that I’ve been encouraging… I’ve been trying to get some motion on for a while now. And it looks like we’re moving in that direction. And it sounds like it was a really productive experience for both of you. And for the rest of us, given your collaborations since then. Many people have been concerned about the growth in income inequality, and economists have done a lot of work showing that one of the main reasons for that is the growth in the rate of return to education over the last few decades. What we’re seeing are some very unequal outcomes, as you mentioned, in terms of success in courses, persistence, and so forth by race, and in the STEM fields, also by gender. So, it’s really nice to see people working in this area, because it’s an area where I think we need a lot of help. To what extent are they These differences that we’re seeing the result of systemic racism and sexism.

Viji: There’s a lot in that question. Well, racism, sexism, any form of discrimination… In essence, these are learned behaviors, and these are things that we grow up with without really even thinking about sometimes. And the classroom is no different from being in life. And so we have to address them in the classroom in the same way we need to address them in life. And for me, when I think about it, it’s really about sort of concrete things sometimes, like who is speaking up in a certain space? like who feels comfortable speaking up? Who feels comfortable speaking without really having much time to think about their answer? Who gets to see instructors who look like them in the classroom? We already know that, especially for our students, it can be difficult sometimes for them to identify with their instructors, to feel like they’re just a normal person. Sometimes we hear that, right? Like “You do the things we do? That seems so strange. I never would have thought a professor would do those things.” Right? So even identifying with a professor, like adding that layer of seeing somebody who looks like you in the classroom just makes it feel even more unattainable, right? So, there’s a lot in thinking about a lot of aspects of teaching that are barriers for our students. And I often, when I go to a professional conference… when I was able to go to professional conferences… I looked out into the room and what I see in my professional meetings doesn’t look like what I see in my classroom, in terms of the diversity of participation, and I asked myself why that difference exists. And my course is the first course that leads people on a path in what’s called quantitative psychology. So, if I want them to have more people, more interested people, in the field, they have to succeed in my class to then have the interest and the goal to keep going on that track. So, it starts with my class, but it actually starts way before my class and all the messages they get before they even show up at my doorstep in my course and how I can work to counteract some of the messages that tells them they don’t belong, and that there isn’t a place for them in STEM. These are things that they hear either subconsciously or consciously and we need to address that.

John: What can we do to create a more inclusive learning environment for our students that will work well for all of our students?

Kelly: Well, I think we have to recognize that these historical differences, as you said, systemic racism and sexism, that those are things that existed before we met our students, and they lead to differences in who our students are. But, we have to be careful not to blame our students for those differences. You know, diversity is a strength, and we have to find ways to feel empowered to work with the students that we have, to build on that strength that is the diversity, but also not, as I said, blame students. So, the way we like to think about this is by adding structure to everything that we do, and we like to think about it as structure in the course design as well as the facilitation in live sessions. So, a lot of times our students, especially, see teaching is just what we do sort of face to face or in this day and age our live zoom sessions, if we’re doing them… and who’s not speaking up and who’s not participating if we only use low structure, and by that, I mean, like maybe one mode where we expect volunteers all the time. But, we also have to think about course design and a low structure course design might be one that doesn’t have a lot of practice and assessment built in, where students actually learn how learning works. And so we want to think about building structure in everything we do, and asking ourselves constantly: “With what I want to do, how can I add more structure so it’s not left up to chance. Who’s going to know what to do with this? Who’s going to know how to take notes? Who’s going to know that there should be routine practice in learning? Who’s going to know that they could participate in different ways? So, that’s kind of the way in which we think about it, but I’m sure we could get into more specifics with each of our courses.

John: And you’ve both done some research that have shown that there are significant effects of providing that structure in terms of encouraging student success, as well as perhaps reducing that gap, I believe.

Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. Work that I published with a colleague, Sarah Eddy years ago, we looked at my teaching in a much lower, less inclusive structure where I did a lot of talking… you could call it a pretty typical teacher-centered classroom… and then looked at three semesters of me shifting to something far more student centered, a variety of ways of interacting with my students, and basically a higher structure classroom. And even in those first few semesters where, you know, you’re just getting used to something and don’t feel proficient yet, it made a big difference. It closed an achievement gap for first-generation college students, it narrowed the achievement gap for black students, continued to see students talk about an increased feeling of community, among other things. So, it continued to get better as I got better. And I continued to see ways I could put more structure into my course. And I kept asking myself, how can I add more structure?

John: Maybe we could talk a little bit about some of the ways in which you’ve added that structure in each of your classes.

Viji: Sure, I’ll provide some examples of that. When I redesigned my course, and, like Kelly, I had landed as a study to look at how, at that time (it was about maybe 10 years ago), recording micro lectures and having students watch them before they came to class, and using class time to do more polls and some of the assignments that they were struggling with. And that was the challenge I had in my introductory statistics course was I was using the class time to explain ideas and then sending them home to do hard homework problem sets. And oftentimes, that led to a lot of frustration, because there was no one around to help with the questions that they had in real time. So, I wanted to switch the order of that so that they were watching the videos where I’d explain how you might calculate something at home, and then in class, we might practice doing some of those problems together, with peers, with graduate students, with undergraduate learning assistants. So, that’s an example of a structure that’s in place, right? …having the videos available so students can watch them before class. And what I learned was it became a really incredible resource for students to access throughout the semester. I anticipated that they would get used right before the class session where we’d be using the material. And indeed, when I look at the learning management, the site provides some statistics around that. Yes, there were the most clicks right before class, because I had a quiz in class that day on that material. But there were also clicks right before that first exam on some of those videos. There were also clicks before the final exam. There were clicks in random days in the semester when I didn’t think it had anything to do with what we were talking about. But, they went back to watch something. And what that taught me was that they need to see that material more than one time. And when I was doing it in class, it was once, it was ethereal, right? …it was once and it was gone. But, now students could rewatch, they could hit pause, they could work as slowly or quickly through the problems as they wanted to. So, it provided a resource for being able to do that. And again, that’s the example of, by providing it, not all the students need to watch it multiple times. But, it’s available to those who needed to do that or wanted to do that.

John: So they’d watch a video and then you had a quiz at the beginning of the class or was it before the class started?

Viji: The way I implemented it, and there’s lots of different ways people have this piece, how they would structure that requirement, but I wanted it to be done. And so I wanted students to have shown me that they’ve done it through a quiz at the start of class. It helps keep them accountable for doing the work. And I do a fairly good job of what we call, it’s like “the warm demander.” I’m the warm demander in the classroom, and I do a pretty good job of coaching them and asking them to do this work so that we can do hard things together in class, making the argument that it’s the most efficient way we can be together, when we’re together. And then there’s peer pressure, right? Like if they’re the only one, they look around, and everybody else came to class prepared. We’ve all been in meetings where we didn’t do our homework, whatever the homework was. So, if you build this culture, I think people really do take to it and they do learn that it is efficient. And more importantly, like in Kelly’s class, they see results, they do better on an exam because they’ve kept up with it all along. So, that’s when you know, the proof is in the pudding, when they see things that they’re pleased with and they keep going with it.

Kelly: Yeah, and that’s an important point Viji just made… that these kinds of techniques help all students, they disproportionately benefit some students, which makes a difference in terms of equity, but they definitely help all students. My own experience with structure is one that Viji alluded to with the flipped classroom, which is another way of thinking about the learning cycle, that students need to be required to do things before, during, and after class. And that adds a very high structure to what we would consider the learning cycle. So, if I ask students to do some reading before class, I don’t assume that all students know what to take away from a reading. And so for this, I give students guided reading questions and it helps them know where I’m coming from and what they should focus on, and what they might want to use as a study guide. And it helps replace the lecture so that I’m not going to talk to them the whole time that we’re together. When we are together, I want to use the time for collaboration and a variety of things. And so, I also don’t assume that students know what to take away from that. And so I provide class outlines, to make sure that, whether a student has learning differences, is multilingual, distracted, whatever, that all students leave with some basic outlines from class. So, already you’re starting to see how the structure can help all kinds of students. And then in class, I added a lot more active learning, and it quickly became apparent to me that, if I don’t put the instructions in multiple modes, so verbal and visual, that students were not going to be with me, and we were going to waste a lot of time with instruction. So, it’s something I think we don’t think about a lot. Like, if we want them to do something, then we have to be very clear about that, whether it’s in an assignment, a breakout group online, or active learning together in a classroom, providing more silence time for thinking. And then, for me, a lot of it has come down more recently to group work and equity around group work. And I kept thinking to myself, how do I add more structure to the group work because students were telling me if I just said, turn and talk to a neighbor, that certain students always were left out or they were with friends and they weren’t being pushed to really do the learning and feel the rigor of what they were being asked to do because the friends would just sort of agree and then chitchat, And so I thought about structuring groups, assigning groups, and giving people in the groups, roles. So, all of these are just different ways to think about how do I bring more structure to my classroom for all students. And it’s not going to hurt the students that already know how to take notes. And it’s not going to hurt students who know how to take notes on outlines, and all of that, but for the ones that need that, it’s going to really level the playing field for them.

Viji: Yeah. And I’d add to the idea that the technology can help us here. We have a lot of good platforms, not a single one that would do everything, but we have good platforms that help us accomplish these goals. And I’ll give the classroom response system, or polling, the example that I use… that’s something that’s something that I was using, even before I redesigned the course… and the reason I loved it so much was because I could hear from every student in a classroom, right? I didn’t have to wonder if it was just the brave one who raised their hand who understood it and looked and scanned and tried to make sense of the confusion of the faces, right? There’s no ambiguity. If I know that 97% of the people got the question right, then we can move on. That’s a pretty good response. So, thinking through what technology exists to help us help all students is really important in this work.

Kelly: I’m currently really enjoying… in our learning management system,there’s something called lesson tools. And it’s a way to build each lesson for students. And it’s such an easy way to think about building something before, during and after. And I feel like a lot of people are starting to realize that building an online class just requires so much more structure that, as that translates back into the face-to-face classroom, that structure will be built. Yes, it takes a lot of time and effort to build it, but once it’s there, you’ve got all these online homeworks and resources and videos. We’re going to have a lot more ways to say to students, you can learn this this way, or this way, or this way. And that is the basis of universal design, something I think we should all strive to do. But, we know it takes time and effort to get all those resources together.

Rebecca: These are a lot of things that are very dear to my heart too… really thinking about flexibility and making sure that we can engage students in a lot of different ways.

Viji: There are many things about this emergency transition, the change to remote instruction that I think we’re all learning that that flexibility, and the structure, is really important. And sometimes people think that they are at odds with one another, but they’re really not… that we need to think about multiple ways to have assignments be late, for example, because things are happening in life. I think for far too long. we’ve ignored the differences that our students come to the classroom with, and now it’s in our face when we see that a student doesn’t have a good internet connection, for example. So, those differences are becoming very clear in this transition. And, like Kelly, I’m optimistic that many of the things we’re designing and learning will stick beyond this transition, because we are building things that will last… hopefully they’ll last in the courses… the notes you make, the videos you make, these are all things that can be helpful to students in the future as well.

John: That was something we emphasized with our workshops for helping people prepare for the fall back at the beginning of the summer, telling them that “Yeah, this is going to be a lot more work preparing your course then many of you have ever done before, but the people who already were teaching online really didn’t have many problems because they had a lot of the things built. And if you do this, even if this pandemic is gone in a year or so, everything you’ve created can still be used as long as you create them in ways that are modular and that can be adopted for continued use in the future. I think that helped convince a lot of people that it was a good time to start devoting to those activities, because it wasn’t just for a one or two semester emergency, but it was going to be a change that could actually improve their classes indefinitely. At least, that’s what we tried to convince people… there are a lot of really panicked and worried people.

Viji: It’s an investment. It’s a heavy investment, in a short amount of time, in a very panicked way. And we’re sympathetic to my colleagues who are doing this while also caregiving and that there’s a lot… it’s not just life as normal, that we’re asking a lot of a lot of people in a short amount of time.

Kelly: And I like your use of the word modular because for me, that’s really key. I build everything by lesson objective. So, it might only take me 10 minutes to make a video, so I can pop in and out of my life, I don’t have to worry about creating this awesome video with no outtakes, right? …it’s just much quicker. And then students can also say, “Okay, I see I have six videos to watch today, but they’re all five or 10 minutes, I’ll do three now, I’ll do three later. So, I do think it fits nicely with the time we’re in, but it also helps alignment across the course, too, for students to know exactly what they need to do, and then use those modules as the basis for your assessment.

Rebecca: I agree, Kelly, I’ve been spending a lot of time making sure that the modules that I’m creating can actually act as standalone things and don’t connect [LAUGHTER] between them, so that I could mix and match them in the future, because there’s some things that, in a virtual environment, I’m doing in an order that I might do differently if we were in person. And so, I think that’s ending up working really well. I’m having to articulate what I want to articulate really concretely about a particular subject and break it down into smaller pieces. And I think you’re right that that structure is going to stick later on. I’m going to keep doing that in the future and it’s definitely causing me to think about things differently. We’ve talked a bit about the structure of classes and ways that we can be more equitable and inclusive. But what about the way that we evaluate student work and grade student work?

Kelly: One thing that we often talk about in the workshops we do at a lot of institutions is we think about the growth mindset. And the idea that it takes practice to get good at something. And we like to share with students that it takes practice for us and mistakes are part of learning and we hope all educators buy into that. But then when you ask educators, where in your syllabus in your grading policies is the growth mindset. We’ve seen so many faculty just scratch their heads and say like, “You’re right.” This is a philosophy I believe in, but it’s not built into what I actually do. Because we have hard deadlines. We count everything a zero if it’s not there. And so, Viji and I have some ways that we’ve done it, and we’re always trying to think how much more can we put into our grading and our policies that really account for that growth mindset. So, for me, an example is I allow students to drop their lowest exam. And with first-year students in a STEM course, many of them don’t do well on their first exam. And it helped me think about, “Oh, let me give them an earlier failure. Let me give them a hard quiz earlier on so it doesn’t hurt them a lot.” But, allowing them to drop an exam gives them the sense that “Okay, I didn’t do well, but I don’t have to leave the major.” And honestly, students think that… they get one low grade, and they think they’re done with that entire discipline. So, that’s one way I’ve dealt with that growth mindset.

Viji: Yeah. And that point that Kelly made about leaving the major… to some faculty, that might sound ridiculous, like we’ve certainly been knocked down a few times and picked ourselves up. But, there are some students for whom they’ve been told their whole lives, they don’t fit. And if you get that early piece of feedback that, indeed, you don’t fit, and that’s the way they interpret it. It doesn’t mean that that’s what’s actually happening. What’s actually happening is they’ve made a mistake in terms of their preparation, or maybe they didn’t have the right types of study strategies, whatever it is, but we want to convey in our courses that you can recover from that early mistake by using the right approaches. Let’s sit together and talk about what you did do and what we might do better next time around. And so having this grading structure where you drop a grade… In my course, I have a cumulative final in statistics… it’s easy to have a cumulative final, everything sort of builds on one another in terms of content. And I say that if you do better on the final, it can replace one of the earlier exam grades. So again, it builds that opportunity for being able to understand the material at some point, it’s okay, if you don’t get it by the exam date one or exam date two, we’ll get there and it’s not a race. It’s not about getting there at a certain time. It might not even happen this semester, it might take several semesters of chipping away at a certain topic, but that you give them a little bit of grace in terms of the timeline with which they might understand that material. And then again, like does it really have to be a zero if you don’t turn something in versus a 60 or 70 or 80? Right? The mathematical average of that is terrible. So, let’s think about ways in which we can assign grading such that a single late assignment doesn’t harm you greatly or a single low grade doesn’t harm you greatly and bake that into the grading scheme of our courses.

Kelly: And on a bigger scale, when we say we look out into the conferences of our disciplines, or we ask where’s the diversity in our own disciplines, it comes back to these little decisions. This is anti-racist teaching, when you think about these things. By having really hard first exams, that’s a barrier that excludes people, and if we really want diversity in our disciplines, these are the little decisions that we make that are really powerful in terms of the effect and impact they have on students.

Viji: Yeah, we’ve all heard that “Look to your left, look to your right. Some of you will not make it” and then we say as educators “Well, that’s terrible. Why would somebody say that?” But, then you look at our syllabus construction, and really, it’s just a different version of that kind of statement.

John: And I think another thing you advocate is keeping most of your assessments low stake so that way any one thing they may not do well on… besides dropping the lowest grade from a set, just keeping pretty much everything low stakes could also take some of the pressure off and reduce some of that effect.

Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. That’s another great strategy.

John: What are some of the things that faculty do in class that makes class discussions less inclusive? And what can we do to make these discussions more inclusive?

Kelly: Now this is a question near and dear to our heart because Viji and I are often at meetings together and either quietly texting each other or giving each other a look. And we know each other well enough to give a look and know exactly what it means. And a lot of meetings we’re in are just not inclusive. If you’re not the person that’s just going to raise your hand and say something potentially controversial in a room full of ranks and hierarchy. Our students feel that way too. Whether it’s actually ranks and hierarchy, there are lots of reasons why a student doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up. And so a great way to do this is to take the volunteer aspect out of it in a large classroom and put them into smaller cohorts. And many students are very comfortable talking to each other in small groups, verifying their ideas, building their confidence that what they are thinking has merit, is a great way to start building community and to have students start feeling comfortable. And once they’ve gotten that affirmation in a small group, more people are willing to represent what their group said. So like, for instance, I never call on an individual student… cold call and say, “What do you think?” I always give them a chance to talk first. And then I say, “Okay, group number 63, it looks like your numbers up, what is your group talking about? Fill me in.” And so I’m hearing a diversity of voices, but I’m also trying to make the environment a safe place where people can build their own communities as well as contribute to the larger community.

John: And people would feel more comfortable when they’re representing the group discussion than presenting their own. So that takes a lot of the pressure off, I think,

Kelly: Yeah.

Viji: Yeah, no one wants to be wrong, and especially in front of the professor and their peers, right? So, they’re simply reporting for the group and that’s the group’s discussion. And as skilled educators we all know how to turn a wrong answer into a learning opportunity in a classroom, but it still doesn’t take the sting away for that person who feels like they may not speak up again because of it. So, anything we can do to make it feel comfortable to be incorrect, because it’s still a learning opportunity or to say, “Well, that’s a common misperception. Let’s break that down a little bit and talk about it some more.” Those kinds of things really go a long way to building the confidence of the student. I remember one student, in particular, who wrote me just such a kind note at the end of the semester talking about how this is a common refrain in my course… they have not been looking forward to taking a statistics class… Shockingly, there’s not a lot of people who say that they are looking forward to it… But, in this case, she wrote to say, beyond any sort of content lessons I provided, what I provided to her was the opportunity to understand that she was right a lot of times in her group discussions, even though her peers tried to convince her she was wrong. And she began to doubt herself. And she’d pull in her answer because the group had a different answer, and then she realized originally she was right. So, she built confidence, but she also learned that she really knew what she was doing and she didn’t understand that about herself and she had more conviction after she left that course to be more forthright about her opinions in other settings. So, these are the kinds of things we can do when we add structure for giving people a chance to reflect on who they are as a learner and who they are as a person and how they can contribute in their groups and in society.

Kelly: I’d also like to add that we don’t have to have people speak up to be part of a community, that there are lots of other ways to contribute and writing, and using anonymous polling systems, these are all such great tools, and they’re the ones I certainly would have gravitated to as a student, had I ever been given the opportunity. I spent four years as an engaged high achieving student in college and never once raised my hand to participate, it just wasn’t what I was going to do.

John: Yeah, and polling gives people the same instant feedback, so they know whether they were right or wrong, but from a class’ perspective, it feels anonymous, that they’re not putting themselves out there where they risk the embarrassment of appearing to be wrong.

Rebecca: One of the things that I have certainly seen a lot of conversation about currently on Twitter, and I know that you’ve both engaged in these conversations about, is how to community build at the beginning of a class, especially in virtual environment where you have that really awkward online silence, and nobody really knows what to do with. [LAUGHTER] And you’ve offered some interesting ideas, would you mind sharing some of those?

Viji: When we are used to teaching in a classroom space like, in the same building together, I hesitate to say in person, because we’re still in person in this environment. But, when we’re together in a classroom, there’s a buzz that is at the beginning of the class time, right? …so that people are chatting with their neighbors; it feels like a warm environment, oftentimes, when you walk into it, at least the classroom where the conditions are right. You feel a warmth when you come in, that you’re going to be learning, and when you’re online, it’s really hard to simulate that kind of buzz because of the nature of the tool. So, thinking about ways you can have that kind of chitchat is really helpful. So, I use polling in this environment, as well, right? I can have a question posed on the screen and students can respond to that question either in the chat window or through Poll Everywhere. I like using Poll Everywhere because I use it anyway. The downside to using chat in some platforms is if you join late, you don’t see the previous responses. So, if you could use something where students can scroll through and see their peers responses, that’s a nice way to kind of get warmed up for the class session. It might be something about, you know, what they’re grateful for today. Or maybe they could tell you a little bit about something that they ate recently that they really enjoyed. But, just getting some small talk in before having something in place that gives a little structure. I’ve heard people talk about playing music, just any small ways you can to try to bring some sense of community in those moments before class start, I think is really helpful.

Kelly: And I would agree, Viji started teaching in the spring online with some synchronous sessions. I was doing asynchronous, so she told me to do it. I did it, and it works. It’s a nice anonymous way to have that chit chat too without owning it in the chat box. I’ve used it selfishly this semester already to find out how students are doing, if there’s something I could do better for them, just taking the pulse. So, a bit of a survey question as well. My daughter is in high school. She just started high school and, of course, it’s online high school. And I keep asking her, “Did you get into your session on time?” And she goes, “No.” And I said, “Why? Why not? [LAUGHTER]She goes, “Well, I want to be a little bit late.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to be the first one there.” She’s so afraid of like, how awkward it is that she can see on the platform there on how many people are there. [LAUGHTER] And at some number, that’s when she jumps in.

John: As long as everyone doesn’t do that, then we’d have a bit of a coordination failure. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I don’t know, as a faculty member, I don’t want to be the first one there in an awkward silence either. [LAUGHTER]

Viji: But, that’s just the point. It doesn’t have to be awkward. Why not just design it so it’s less awkward? We all know it. We all go into these things. And we’re like, “Oh, it’s another one of those starts to the meeting,” right? But let’s just make it so that we have something that we respond to, that we see on the screen, everybody can see it. It’s also awkward, I think, when you walk into a meeting, and they’ve started, and they’re talking about something, but you have no idea what they’re talking about or how to jump into that conversation. So, having a prompt on the screen is one way where everyone, even those who come late, can still see what the conversation is about.

Rebecca: I’ve had a couple of colleagues who are also using whiteboard features in video conferencing software to have like a doodle board where people can collaborate or Doodle… we teach art classes… doodle on the board, and collaborate as a way to silently do something together. That seems to be pretty effective as well.

Viji: Yeah, I love that idea.

Kelly: That’s a great idea. I’m gonna do that next time. Thank you.

John: In the chapter that you wrote for Teaching Statistics and Quantitative Methods in the 21st Century, you mentioned using polling tools to provide challenging questions to students. Do you do that in a single-stage process? Or do you have students vote first and then discuss it in smaller groups or with pairs before voting again?

Viji: That’s a great question. A lot of it has been through trial and error, understanding what was a hard question and then breaking it down to something that’s a little bit simpler. So, if it’s a multi-step problem, I’ve learned to scaffold the problem through multiple polls and then get them to the right answer. It’s very helpful in quantitative work because people do work at different pace. And so this can level that playing field by getting everybody at the same stage of the problem through the scaffolded polls. But, there are some polls that I know really work very well as a “Give me your thoughts first.” And then let’s do it now where we talk to one another, we do a bit of peer instruction, and then we re-poll. And I love showing them the results from round one to round two… I call them round…, because then I say to them, “See, you don’t actually need me here.” But the truth is they do. They need me to pose the question, they need to get in there and tease out the problem that I know that they’re going to have challenge with, but they can do the work of teaching each other the material and getting through the problem together, and on the whole getting it right. So, those are fun ones for me, because it’s also about building community and they love it. They know that like my goal for every poll is that 100% of them get it right. And so that’s another way I convey that it’s important to me that all students learn the material

John: If we’re teaching remotely, synchronously what can we do besides meeting with them at the beginning of class and just chatting with them and maybe at the end of class, what else can we do to make that environment more inclusive?

Kelly: Well, one of the things I love about this environment is everybody’s name is up on the screen, which helps me a lot as an instructor, but it helps them know each other, too. So, it can be community building. And it’s a great way for people who have names that are difficult to pronounce to put a phonetic spelling, to ask people if they would like to add a pronoun there. I think these are advantages that we just haven’t figured out quite as easily in the face-to-face classroom. I use note cards in my class for the same reason. But, I can’t tell you how many times they either refuse to take them out or forget them. So, it’s never the hundred percent I get on a Zoom screen with names. But, one thing I’ve noticed people talk about often is the back channel. So, having the chat going, and it seems to be universal that people are feeling already a little bit sad about when we lose chat, when we go back to the face to face or in the same room environment that there’s a lot of good discussion that happens in that backchannel. And I know people do use backchannels in classroom spaces too. That’s one aspect of this environment that’s unique and helps bring more voices to the table. I think another thing that is worth mentioning is, I would hope people are using their live sessions for doing those difficult things together and not talking at students because that could be better served with a video. I’m sure we all find ourselves explaining and talking at times. So, I think one thing we could do is to help our students is to say you don’t need your camera on right now, although I’d love to see you and it helps us build community, this could be a time when you could turn your camera off. I also have invited my students to use virtual backgrounds, because when I’m teaching, I’m in my bedroom, and I think it’s odd to see your professors’ bedroom, so I use one, but I think it’s a nice talking point too. If students feel more comfortable, if they are going to share their camera, then maybe they don’t want to share their surroundings. So, just not just assuming students all know that, to be very explicit and say to students, “Here are all the different ways that you can access this course. You don’t have to turn your camera on, but here are the ways that I think I would love to see you engage.”

Rebecca: You’ve both written a bit about the hidden agenda, or the hidden curriculum, of using these kinds of tools and technologies, and you have a Student Guide for using Zoom. And I took all of that to heart too, and made sure that I made some videos about the different kinds of tools we were using this semester, and actually built in the whole first week of just like, this is how we do the things. And like, let’s try them. [LAUGHTER] And then there were some ways that I was planning on using some tools, and we’ve actually already pivoted, because it didn’t quite work the way that I had hoped. And now we have something that’s working a little bit better for everyone. So, I think that’s also an important piece to point out. Can you point out some of the features maybe of the guide that you created for students?

Viji: Yeah, I mean, what you’re talking about is what we’ve been talking, about adding structure to these tools, right? So, just because it’s in front of them doesn’t mean that they know how to use it. We all saw a car before we knew how to drive, that doesn’t mean we knew how to drive it. And everybody thinks it’s very intuitive, but again, what do you do when you start a meeting? Do you turn your camera on or off? Do you mute… on or off? What does it look like to say goodbye in a Zoom meeting? There are certain things like that, that I, at least when, as Kelly mentioned, I switched to synchronously meeting because we were doing all these problem-solving sessions. I wanted to keep that as what our synchronous meetings were. And I was anticipating that some students would have questions like that. This actually started with somebody tweeting about having a dress code for showing up to a Zoom session, and I just thought, are you kidding? There’s a pandemic going on, and you’re thinking about what the student is going to wear to come to class, when they’ve been moved out of their dorm, sent home, barely have internet, there were so many things where I thought I just need to let them know that that is not on my mind. I don’t care. I’m just grateful that you’re alive and you’re continuing to learn. So, those are examples of things that I wanted to think through and Kelly helped me think through like, “What kind of questions will come up?” …and we brainstormed ways that we could just communicate it in ways that students, hopefully they find them to be just the synched answers to questions that they might be wondering and not sure how to ask or if it’s appropriate to ask and what to wear was one of those things.

Kelly: And that’s a good example of the shared brain we have some times, because I called Viji one night and I said, “You know, we should write something up about being more inclusive with Zoom.” And she goes, “I was just writing a guide for my students.” And so we just quickly put it together and had a lot of the same ideas around that. Coming back to the idea of the hidden curriculum, I think that same idea where a lot of us are new to using Zoom and these different tools, that we remember how hard it was to get on and what the rules of it were. And they’re constantly changing, the settings and all of that. So it might seem obvious to make a guide for your students about how to use Zoom. But, what are the other aspects in our teaching that we take for granted? We’re such experts, and we’re so comfortable with the college classroom, I think we always have to be asking ourselves. “What other guides should we be writing that seems so obvious to us?” We forget that we’ve been here a long time and we don’t want students to feel like there’s this culture they don’t know about.

John: I actually put a note in my syllabus telling students that while they’re invited to use their cameras, they’re not required to. and if they’d prefer, they could put up a picture of themselves or of their pet or of anything that they’d like to use as a symbol for that day, because it probably would look nicer to see images of people than those just little black boxes on the screen. And they responded pretty positively to that. I did send out a note to our faculty before classes started this semester suggesting that faculty should invite students to use cameras ift they felt comfortable, but should not require it. And the response was not quite as positive. A lot of faculty seem to believe that they need to see their students to make sure that they’re there, to make sure that they’re engaged, and to look into their eyes to measure whether they’re learning, [LAUGHTER] because apparently their eyes provide secret signals to some faculty about the amount of learning that’s taking place. It generated a lot of emails,

Viji: They have some tools that I don’t even know about. I didn’t know there was such a tool that I could use,

John: it does suggest perhaps the need for more inclusivity training for faculty.

Rebecca: I had one last question about Zoom environments and things and that’s about microaggressions. We know that we need to shut them down when they occur, but I think that faculty, if they’re not used to being in a virtual environment, whether an asynchronous online chat or discussion board, or in a Zoom session, figuring out ways of handling situations just seems different. Do you have any advice for how to handle those kinds of situations in those different types of environments?

Kelly: Well, I think you hit on it already. One thing that’s common in all of these environments is don’t ignore them. Right? If it’s asynchronous, then like, say something was put on a discussion board. I personally would feel like ‘Oh, phew, I have a minute to think about this without everybody staring at me.” Right? And so each case is going to be a little bit different in terms of how you deal with it. You also can’t pull aside the people after class who may have been impacted by that. So, we have to remember, whatever we do to deal with it, should also include really reaching out and being mindful of who those students are that might have been impacted. I would say live online is probably not that different from in a classroom. because we have to do something at that moment. And that could be saying like, “Let’s take a pause, let’s stop.” My instincts and teaching are always to turn it into a teachable moment and to turn it back on them and say like, “This is what just happened. Can we all take a moment to maybe reflect? to put into writing the impact this could have on a student?” You know, something where I personally just need a moment to think, and I’m not going to be embarrassed about that, and I think that my students will come up with a lot of things I wouldn’t have come up with in a very eloquent way of dealing with it.

Viji: Yeah. And I think the only thing I’d add to that is it feels scarier in this online environment, because oftentimes, we are recording sessions. People can snapshot even though we might set good intentions with our students about what they can and can’t share with an outside community, we can’t control it entirely. And so it can feel even scarier, I think, to feel like there’s some level of posterity around that moment or your reaction to that moment. So, I think, if anything, I mean, we’ve had a lot of discussions in the world about different kinds of discrimination and all aspects of life that are harder for some students… not ignoring it is definitely the first step. I think there’s even the step before that, which is, I might not recognize it. So, how can I support you as learners. And as peers, if you see something, I’d like to know what it is, even if I am the one who’s doing it. I want to know because I want to do better. So, really being open to that kind of criticism from students or just acknowledging that you’re a human being like all other human beings, and you’ll make mistakes and inviting them to help you become a better person by suggesting that this is going to happen. It’s inevitable that something like this will happen, but we should be models of how to deal with that situation and be productive in our conversations about it and to move forward on it, right? We don’t want to shame anybody for doing something that might not have been their intent, but the impact is no less to the people who have experienced that microaggression. So, really thinking through and planning for it happening and talking about what you’d like to do as a community of learners. But yeah, as Kelly mentioned, if it’s asynchronous, you’ve got a moment, you can gather yourself, you could talk to your peers and say, “Hey, this happened, what do you think is the best approach?” But, if it’s not asynchronous, I think it’s fine to just say, “Hey, let’s hang on a second, I need a moment to just think about what happened here, and how we might respond to it.” And it might be, we might need to come back to this at the next class session, and give yourself that time to think through it. But, I think even the students who may have felt slighted by it will appreciate that you hit pause for a second, and you’re willing to work through it and that you trust them to make the right decisions moving forward to learn from it. And I think going on what Viji said about maybe a little bit of prevention, some practical ways you can invite that feedback in an anonymous way is to use a Google form that is always open. You can set it up so that you get an email if there’s something there and students can report on anything relative to the class, but especially microaggressions that you may have performed without knowing or classmates, if they’re doing group work, you certainly can’t monitor everything, you’re not in all of those spaces. And then coming all the way back to setting up group contracts and respect and civility in whatever kind of mode and classroom you have that semester. Hopefully, you get to a place where you’re preventing some of these things, but also recognizing that they will happen.

John: You both have a book coming out from West Virginia University Press. Could you tell us a little bit about what the book will be about and when will it be available?

Kelly: Well, the book is definitely about inclusive teaching. And spoiler alert, it is definitely about structure. [LAUGHTER] And we really walk through course design, facilitation, but we’re also really thinking about all aspects of a course. So, whether it be office hours or communicating with students or bringing in undergraduate learning assistants, whatever parts of a course that enhance learning, we really want to think about structure in all of those areas.

Viji: Yeah, and one of the challenges we faced is we’ve both read a lot about good teaching, right? So, a lot of these practices are good teaching, but we wanted to apply the lens of how it promotes inclusive teaching through this book, so that, ideally, the reader would then be able to take some of these themes and see them and apply them in other areas that we didn’t explicitly talk about. So, just a way to view the world as you’re teaching and thinking about how to add more structure, and the idea that if we leave things to chance that some students will be left behind, and that’s really not acceptable.

Kelly: As far as the timeline, we’re not sure. Our first draft is in, snd that’s all we can say.

John: Excellent. So. that’s a fair amount of progress, because you just signed it not too long ago, if I remember seeing it on Twitter.

Kelly: Yeah, it was fun to write together. We definitely get in a groove with writing some sentences together. And then sometimes it was just you write this, I’ll write this, and we’ll swap. But, it’s certainly a way of knowing someone pretty deeply when you write a lot together.

Viji: Yeah. And we often talk about the benefits of diversity, right? And so doing these projects of writing, but also, when we do our workshops, we speak a lot. And when we come up with ideas about what we might do, it’s always great to be able to bounce ideas off of each other and to say, “But what if we tried this” and “we did this” and well, you get that second person really reflecting on some of the ideas, and it’s really helpful to be able to do that and you get a better product, quite frankly. No matter what it is, it’s better when more people can critique it and give you feedback about it.

Rebecca: And we’re all going to benefit from that collaboration because we’re all looking forward to your book.

Kelly: Thank you.

Viji: Thank you.

Rebecca: So, we always wrap up by asking what’s next? So, we teased you [LAUGHTER] You already said about your books. Now you have to come up with something else.

Viji: You mean what’s my next beverage after I finished this LaCroix, or…

John: It could be.

Rebecca: It could be whatever, yeah… I’m gonna go take a nap, whatever it is…

Viji: Well, literally what’s next is I’m going to get out of my seat because I’ve been in it for a long time and I’m probably going to take a walk with my son who’s home, this his home day. He is learning from home today, and then I’m sure I’ll sit back down at the computer and answer some emails and, I feel like these days, it’s one day at a time and eventually I’ll get to the point where I can look a few months ahead. But, for right now, it’s one day at a time.

Kelly: For me, I guess I’ll take a much broader view, and an optimistic point of view, that I think what’s next is, once we get through this crisis, that teaching and the way we educate our students, I think, is going to come out better for what we’ve been through, because I see people doing the best they can in this environment, but really paying attention to how learning works. And I think our students will be winners in the long run in that, however we come out of this.

John: Thank you. It’s wonderful talking to you. Thank you for all the work you’ve been doing in supporting instructors all over the world for quite a while now. We’ve appreciated it and we share a lot of the things that you’ve done with our faculty.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much. It was really wonderful hearing from all of you.

Viji: Thank you.

Kelly: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

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

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

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121. Persistence Scholars

A college degree generally results in higher incomes, more pleasant and more stable jobs, greater life satisfaction, and lower unemployment probabilities. Many students that enter college, though, leave without a degree, but with high levels of student debt. In this episode, Dr. Michelle Miller joins us to discuss an innovative program she helped develop at Northern Arizona University in which faculty members work together to discover ways of helping their students successfully complete their educational goals.

Michelle is the Director of the First Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She is the author of  Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence based pedagogy and scholarly as well as general interest publications. She has been working with a Persistence Scholars program at NAU for the past two years.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: A college degree generally results in higher incomes, more pleasant and more stable jobs, greater life satisfaction, and lower unemployment probabilities. Many students that enter college, though, leave without a degree, but with high levels of student debt. In this episode, we discuss an innovative program in which faculty work together to discover ways of helping their students successfully complete their educational goals.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Michelle Miller. Michelle is the Director of the First Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence based pedagogy and scholarly as well as general interest publications. She has been working with a Persistence Scholars program at NAU for the past two years. Welcome back, Michelle.

Michelle: Hi. Thank you. It’s great to be here.

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

Michelle: I sure am. I’ve got a… I think it’s some type of green tea. It’s actually imported from China, so I can’t read the label, but it tastes great. [LAUGHTER]

John: I have Forest Fruits green tea, which I picked up at the OLC conference in Orlando.

Rebecca: And I have vanilla coconut tea.

John: We invited you here to talk about the Persistence Scholars program at Northern Arizona University. Could you tell us about this program?

Michelle: Yeah. So this is a faculty professional development experience that works very much as a blended course, and it’s run for the past few years. And it was something that we developed and designed right in our institution to address, as you can probably guess from the name, student persistence, and broadly speaking, student success. And to do so in ways that would complement programs that we already had in the works, as well as some other more traditional kinds of faculty professional development programs and courses that focused more exclusively on teaching or course design. So, that’s how we brought this into this space. And it’s been a really exciting experience to get to build this from the ground up and to run it with a number of cohorts of our faculty at Northern Arizona.

John: Could you tell us a bit about how the program was structured?

Michelle: Maybe I should back up a little bit and tell you a little bit more about some of the roots of this program and why there was such great support for it from the beginning. This came out of some real brainstorming. I was in a group a few years ago that was charged with just really open ended brainstorming about this topic of student persistence. And as you can imagine that, from an institutional standpoint, that fits into some very important questions, such as retention, especially retention from the first to second year which, those who are in this arena know is a really critical area for ensuring that we keep the students who we recruit to our institution and ensure that students can accomplish the goals they set out to when they sign up with us. So, I was in this group and as I said, we had this very open ended charge of saying “What else could we do to support student persistence?” And because of my background with the First Year Learning Initiative, which is another kind of student success initiative at Northern Arizona, my perspective is always “What about the faculty? What about the academic side of student persistence and engaging faculty in advancing that, and getting excited about that question?” So, together with some of the other folks I was working with, notably John Doherty, who I’ve collaborated with a number of times on student success initiatives, we got to thinking, “Well, how could we reach out?” I had seen quite a number of programs or appeals to faculty, which really came at it from a very emotional, or sort of heart perspective, saying, “You know, really think about your students, have compassion for the backgrounds that many of them come from and the challenges they’re facing.” And I think that’s wonderful. That’s great and conventional wisdom about how to recruit people and get them excited about something. They say “Speak to the emotions, get to why.” Well, I think that’s true. But, faculty are a bit of a special case. I think that we’re wired a little bit differently [LAUGHTER] in some ways. And I think that we have to come at this intellectually as well. So I said, “What if we had some kind of a program that would bring people in and really engage them in this very rich scholarship that’s around, not just teaching and learning, but also everything we’ve come to know about the factors… institutional factors… psychological… social factors… all these things that play into students persisting until they do attain that degree?” So, that was the idea. Now it sort of went down on paper and sort of stayed on ice, stayed in a file drawer for a few years. But then my leadership came back to me and said, in the context of some other things we were doing, they said “Wait a minute, what about this program that we had thought up?” And at that point, we were able to really put it together and make it happen.

Rebecca: What are some of the things that you covered as part of this program that would be different than the first- year program that you’ve ran, or other things that are focused on pedagogy?

Michelle: We tell faculty when we recruit them in that this is not the place to start if you do want that traditional, like, “How can I improve my classroom?” teaching, or “How can I brush up on these skills?” We have lots in place for that. So, what is different about this is that it does focus on the scholarship of persistence. And you know, from my background, I’m a psychologist, I’m a research psychologist by training. So I actually didn’t know, and I started to get into the course design and student success game. I really wasn’t aware of just how much really good quality scholarship has gone into this and how people have thought about and really committed to many books and articles, all this knowledge that they’ve come up with, or what impacts student persistence and what institutions can do, what faculty can do. So, it does have that flavor of a slightly different content area that, again, many of us are just not aware of, even if we care a lot about teaching in our own discipline. And I think what’s also different about it is that it doesn’t take a traditional kind of workshop or book group kind of approach. I think those are really, really great. We all see great examples of those in faculty professional development, but this was structured as a blended course, specifically. So it’s designed with a kickoff workshop that lasts about a day. And then we go online and do just some very structured weekly modules, largely focusing on some readings and discussions and one culminating project. So, I think that, as well, is something that faculty rarely have the opportunity to engage in. I think there’s some national programs out there, for example, ACUE’s program… that’s online, but that’s also a full year. And this is a little bit more compact, and I think it’s designed in a way that’s a little bit more manageable with a typical teaching and research load that faculty have.

John: And you also had people do some visits to various places on campus too, as part of that, I believe.

Michelle: Right. This is the culminating project which we tried in the first few iterations to kind of refine this and I think we ended up with something that’s really a standout and here I have to credit my leadership K. Laurie Dickson. Dr. Dickson is a colleague of mine and part of the upper leadership at Northern Arizona University. This was her idea and she really encouraged me to develop this. We didn’t want to have, as a culminating project, kind of a very typical five paragraph essay or research project or something like that. We wanted to push faculty out into some areas that were particularly new. And we wanted to have them engage in some perspective taking on angles and aspects of the students experience and the university experience that they just normally would never do. So we called this the field project… so, a very generic name, but here’s how this played out. It was up to them to design an experience. It didn’t have to be lengthy… didn’t have to be some gigantic multi-day thing, but just something that they could go and do and experience, and then write about it from a very first person, very subjective perspective. And also, we did ask them to kind of tie it back to some of the readings that we had done and some of the concepts that we had seen over the course of the experience. The examples of what faculty came up with were just… it’s mind boggling, the creativity that people brought to this. Now one of the popular ones was to simply go on a campus tour. Now, how many times do we as faculty ever do that? And I mean, I work in a building where the campus tours originate. So, I see them every single day going and coming, the parents, the students and everybody, the student tour guides. And it’s just never occurred to me to ask, “What are they saying? What’s the little back conversation? What’s the mood like among people who are on these tours? What do we tell students and their parents, as they’re coming into our campuses?” So people could opt to go on one or more of these tours, you could also go on a department specific tour, which is also a fairly popular twist, and then reflect back again on “What does this tell us about what it’s like to be a student here?” and to start taking that perspective as a student and thinking about “What would affect my likelihood of persistence?” So that was one, but we’ve also seen many other options on this as well. One very creative faculty member decided to go out physically to these different student support spaces and organizations. And we all read about those, I know I do, I get the email that says, “Oh, here’s the center that we have for veterans. Here’s the center that we have for Native American students. Here’s where you go, if you need help with writing.” Well, we see those, but what do they look like? What do they feel like? Are students there when you visit, and what sorts of activities are taking place there? And she actually put her reflections together as a photo essay. So, she took pictures of the spaces, she thought about the look and feel of the spaces, and through that she demonstrated that she was taking this new perspective. And this was not an art or design professor, by the way, her specialization is in foundational math, so you can see they’re crossing out into other disciplines. So, even something like observing a class that’s not yours outside of your discipline, you can make that work as well. If you come at it from this perspective, not as like “I’m here to critique the teaching and get ideas for my own teaching,” but “What’s going on in the back row? What’s more clear, what’s less clear, how might the mood or the feel of the classroom change if I come over a couple of different weeks of the semester, and how does that seem to me?” So those are some of the things that faculty actually did to experience some of these things from the other side.

John: How many faculty were part of this program?

Michelle: We usually have run cohorts between about 12 and 20 faculty per semester. And I think we’re about four semesters in, so it’s not an enormous program. But you could see over time with a concerted effort and continued dedication to the program, continued support for it, that we’ve now directly engaged quite a few faculty from around the university. And I should say as well, here’s another little twist that I was not anticipating when we sat down to design this program, is that it’s not entirely all faculty either. We’ve also reached out to staff members, for example, people who work within our advising center or our academic support centers, which function as our tutoring centers on campus. In the first cohort or so I just received a request of somebody’s saying, “Hey, my staff would really benefit from this, do you mind if we have a person or two participate in it?” First I said “Well, okay, I wasn’t planning on that. But I can’t see why not?” Well, I soon learned that having that mix of individuals in the cohort is part of the power of it. Because you think academic disciplines are siloed, we are tremendously siloed in terms of units of student support across campus. To see the interplay in discussions and in meetings between people who work in these more direct student support roles, and people in more traditional faculty roles is really amazing. It really cuts across several of those silos as well just in the participation.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the content that participants were surprised by that was counter to what their assumptions were?

Michelle: One of the challenges in pulling the content for this was that I did have to be really, really selective. Being excited about this, of course, I’ve got 100 articles and things that I want to share, and all these concepts to lay on them, and I went with just a very, very few that I felt were the most powerful and the most backed by research. I would say that one of the ones that surprised them, maybe pleasantly so, is some of the academic work around lay theories and belongingness, which is related to mindset. And probably a lot of your listeners are familiar in some way with those. But, in particular, the work of David Yeager, he’s one of the major researchers in this area. His work focuses on how you can communicate to students that things like intelligence and the potential for academic success are not fixed, they’re something that can be built up through effort. A piece of this is normalizing struggle in a way that, just because you get to campus and you feel lonely, and you feel overwhelmed, that a lot of successful people start out that way, so don’t quit. And what’s I think surprising to faculty and definitely was to me as well when I started reading the work is just how powerful some relatively small interventions can be. Just going through, say an online module that exposes students to some of these mindset concepts can result in statistically significant changes to the likelihood of persistence, retention, and things like that later on down the line. So, I think I was surprised, and I think many faculty are surprised by that as well. And that that work is really high quality in terms of the scholarship behind it, the statistical analysis, how the studies are set up. That’s another kind of pleasant surprise too.

John: A while back, we had Angela Bauer on the podcast, who’s now at High Point University. And she had an intervention in the chemistry department there, where just growth mindset messaging that was delivered by slides that were used by all the people in the department eliminated the achievement gap there. So it was a remarkably powerful effect, which is very consistent with what you’re describing there.

Rebecca: Can you talk about a couple of other small interventions that faculty can implement that are really powerful?

Michelle: Another theme that’s come out of the work on this has looked at the effect of structure… increasing course structure so that, for example, instead of the two midterms and a final, we have those distributed smaller assignments over the course of the semester. And that’s one of those things that there’s got to be a dozen good reasons, from the memory research all the way down to mindset, why this is a really good and powerful thing to do. Now, whether that’s a small intervention or not, that could be a matter of perspective, because for some people, if their course is designed in a completely different direction, that could be some major overhaul there. However, I should say that many of the faculty, in fact, most of the faculty who participate in this, are part of our First-Year Learning Initiative already. In fact, that’s kind of why we decided to develop the program as strongly as we did, is we felt it was a really good complement to those courses that were already part of this initiative we have to ensure really best practices in design for key first-year courses. So, many of those courses are already supposed to have that type of design. But this is a way to continue to engage faculty, particularly those who maybe weren’t on the scene when that course was first designed, they show up and they’re saying, “Why do we have all these grading quizzes?” or “How come it’s set up this way?” Well, this gives them some of the backing behind doing that. I think as well, some of the things that we can look at are simply the communications we have with students. So, that’s another area where I think it may be a little bit under the radar, just how important this stuff is for student persistence, that it’s not even the course design or how the course is taught, just the words that get exchanged in, say, office hours, or the tone of the email that you send to a student to respond to them when they write to you with a question. I think that an experience like this gets us to stop and think and say, “How can I tweak my phrasing or bring in some of that good perspective taking to make those communications either more compassionate or gentle?” or to communicate something like a growth mindset that, “Hey, it’s not a matter of whether you got it if you don’t, we’re just going to jump in where you’re at. And with effort, you can succeed at this.” So, I think those are some of the key things that we can bring in as faculty to affect this very big issue of persistence.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about things that you do in the kickoff workshop? Can you talk a little bit about some of the things that faculty come in knowing or not knowing or mis-knowing?

John: Mis-knowing, is that a word?

Rebecca: I don’t know, I just invented it. [LAUGHTER]

John: It is now.

Michelle: Yeah. I love that term. So, there’s that kickoff workshop where we most directly start to query people’s assumptions, knowledge, and misconceptions about persistence, and to introduce them to this idea that yeah, this is a serious area of academic inquiry that’s interdisciplinary, and we can all access it for the benefit of our students. And in a blended course, it’s generally a good practice to offer face-to-face bonding and group cohesion experience first, before we all go off to our separate online corners. At this kickoff workshop, there are elements of it that are recognizable to anybody who comes to faculty development workshops, but I think there were some novel components too. I mean, one of the things that we do is, it’s simple, but it’s a really effective kickoff exercise. So, we would have either a sticky wall where people can put ideas, or we’ve sometimes bedded rooms that have whiteboard walls, and we have pens, and I say, “Okay, what are some things you’ve heard about why students don’t persist? Just give me reasons. You don’t have to endorse them. They could also be the things that we do here in the faculty meetings.” So, that’s a nice kind of permission giving, kind of opening, I think, to let people say things that they know that are maybe not backed up or they’re not sure, or they don’t agree with them, but they think they’re important to put and they’re also encouraged to put those ideas in groupings. So, there’ll always be some around economic factors, or psychological and social emotional factors, family support. So, we all write on the walls and have these things in front of us for the rest of the day, statements about what barriers there are… to keep that in the front of our minds of what really is affecting our students. As we engage with this work, there is a presentation component, but I really center that around five key claims. So, I think too, it’s important to come with this not just like, “Well, here’s some tips that you can have and some things that some people believe.” I say, “I am not neutral on this. And here’s my five beliefs and these underlie everything that we’re going to do. And you can agree or disagree with these, but I can back them all up, that this is what drives us” and you know, as faculty I think that’s appealing. We want to know what are those assumptions and just to list them off real quick, there are academic persistence matters, so this is important. There are disparities that both reflect and perpetuate inequalities, ethnic class, economic, that we do know a lot about how persistence works. So, that knowledge base does exist. That there are effective strategies for addressing those disparities, although they’re not easy or cheap, I’m not there to sell faculty on magic bullets or “Hey, if you just tweak with this one thing, everything will be fine,” because we all know that’s not the case. And then lastly that faculty do have the ability to positively affect persistence through their teaching, but also through those interactions that they have informally advocating for certain kinds of policies with the institution. So, I really present that. And then lastly, we have a hands-on data exercise. Now one of the things that I think can be a barrier for faculty as they want to get involved with this is we think, or we really don’t have, access to the information that is specific to our campus. So we also have an exercise where I bring in librarians, this is really great. They’ve supported me a great deal in this and we get people on laptops and say, “Alright, here are some sites to explore, national sites about student persistence, databases, article databases you can look at. Use these to uncover solutions, facts about student persistence right here, right now, just do this right now.” And we also get them access doing some basic working knowledge of our institutional dashboard for looking at things like pass rates or grade breakdowns which you can do, you can do it by course, you can do it by semester, you can do even more fine grained by student characteristics. This is all out there, but the vast majority of faculty just do not either know that or they don’t have that working knowledge. So, what I envision is okay, a faculty member can, if it comes up in their department, “Oh, hey, what can we do about this course that’s maybe a bottleneck or we think we’re ready to redesign this one over here?” They can pull the data for themselves and say, “Well, here’s how things changed when we brought in, say, a courseware system, or here are the students who are having the most difficulty, or if a student passes this course, here’s their likelihood of succeeding in this one down the line.” Faculty love that. And once that power is in their hands, I think that they really can carry that out. That’s all the stuff we do, and the kickoff that we have right there and how we establish that grounding for them.

John: It’s great that you have that data. Many institutions are very protective of data, even though it could be really useful in helping us learn about what works.

Michelle: Then to turn around and say, “Well, faculty are kind of in the way here, faculty are this or that?” Well, yeah, we do have to look at what have we empowered faculty to be able to do reasonably and in ways that are appropriate to their own discipline?

John: What are some of the myths that people come into this with in terms of what leads to students dropping out, or failing, or withdrawing?

Michelle: I don’t know if I’m ready to quite call it a myth, but there is perhaps a sort of counterproductive concept, which is the old “If we would just admit better students” who are, and I’m going to use a terrible phrase, “college material.” I mean, that phrase is awful on many different levels as we look at our students, who are these complex human beings, who’ve come to us willing to step up and try to do these incredibly challenging things to accomplish goals that benefit them and benefit our whole society. There is that. And I think an associated belief is, all of this should just be addressed in K-12. And aside from the practical issues there, especially if you teach at a public institution, which we are, I don’t think that’s right to just say “This has to be sort of repaired as a problem by the time it gets to me, or I can’t… or shouldn’t… do anything.” So that whole complex of beliefs about something didn’t happen before this student graduated from high school therefore kind of what’s the point and if the school wants to retain more students, we need to admit the more academically skilled students from the beginning. I say I’m not ready to call that a myth, that is because, yes, absolutely, things like the accomplishments and achievements, academic experiences you’ve had before you come to college. Yeah, those are all great predictors of retention. It’s not that that doesn’t matter at all. But a great deal of other things do matter. And I think that those are maybe where we want to redirect students. And I think as well among faculty who still have themselves a form of fixed mindset, that is really problematic too. And, you know, this really hit home for me. There’s a recent article by Elizabeth Canning and her colleagues at Indiana University Bloomington, titled “STEM Faculty who Believe Ability is Fixed Have Larger Racial Achievement Gaps.” Wow, just think about that for a second. They were looking at the beliefs that are in the heads of the faculty, not even their teaching or what they selected, or what they said to students overtly, but the beliefs they have about who achieves and why, and whether that capacity, that potential is fixed. That plays out in accentuating the exact types of gaps and disparities that we are here to shrink and get rid of. That is surprising and disturbing. And they also find there’s less student motivation overall in those courses. So, I think that that’s maybe another constellation of very counterproductive problematic beliefs that, “Oh, the students aren’t motivated. They don’t want to do the work, but maybe they can’t do the work, maybe they aren’t cut out for this.” If that’s in my head, that is going to leak out and infuse the teaching that I do. And then we have more of these gaps at the end of the day. Those are some of the beliefs that I think are more of an issue. I think less frequently, we’ll see some version of “Well, we’re maybe trying to come from a place of compassion and look at things like oh, family issues, caregiving responsibilities, jobs that students have to hold down in order to be able to support themselves and their families as they go through their education.” It’s great to acknowledge that, but then I think that sometimes faculty can then have this very kind of dead end view of it and say, “Wow, I don’t know if there’s any way this could work.” And yeah, there are only so many hours in the day and we can’t just say, “Oh, education can happen on the margin, no big deal.” But I think too, what we need to step back and look at those beliefs and say, “Well, what are some institutional policies? or “What are even some things written into my syllabus that accentuate that barriers, or put barriers up for students who have those responsibilities? Do they all have to be there? What can I take away that doesn’t get in the way of what students are accomplishing or what’s expected of them, but simply make some of these much more possible?” So that’s kind of a set of those ideas too.

John: One other point there is that students who are most at risk often end up leaving with a large amount of debt and have the most struggle trying to pay for it, putting them at further disadvantage. So, the more we can help these students to be successful, the better off they’ll be.

Michelle: Right. And so many faculty, I mean the faculty who I’ve talked to, and I’ve talked to many at this point, I really believe that they care. They do care about that issue… that deeply disturbs them and deeply bothers them, the idea of somebody leaving with tremendous amount of debt that’s going to limit their lives, and what if they leave with that debt and without the degree that they came for? That’s a tragedy. And I think that we can take that intention and that reaction and channel that into positive action.

John: What types of incentives were there for faculty to participate in this program?

Michelle: For those of us who do work in this space of faculty professional development, we know that that’s an issue. There’s so many demands on faculty time, and so it’s important to have that. So, quite simply, we have a small honorarium. And in fact, it’s small enough to where at first I thought, “Well, do we really need this?” but the feedback I got from my staff and also from faculty was that yes, this is important, if only as a gesture, that we realize this takes your time. So that was $150, and they came in the form of professional development funds. So it’s just enough to plug in, maybe get some books or help make up a gap in some funding for a conference. Those are some of the typical things that faculty use that for. So we have that, and as a kind of a less tangible, but still very important incentive was, as I said, this is part of the First-Year Learning Initiative. And so courses that want to maintain their presence in that program and kind of stay in good standing have to demonstrate this ongoing engagement. So, especially after the first semester or two, we started to say, “Yeah, this is a powerful program, and we really want to make this First-Year Learning Initiative participation contingent on doing this.” So many of the faculty who are there, they do come in because it’s really required for their participation in this bigger program. But, then we have some who come because they’re simply interested and they’ve heard good things about the program as well. So there’s a spectrum of those incentives, both tangible and intangible.

Rebecca: What are some of the students that are the most at risk for persistence? What students are we really helping by engaging in this literature and these methodologies?

Michelle: I think that for people who have some familiarity with the area of student persistence, no surprises here. It’s students who are first generation, as a large proportion of our students at Northern Arizona are. So there is that, there is kind of a constellation of socio-economic factors which can play out in everything from just simply the financial resources one has to attend college, all the way down to the quality of the schools, and the preparation, the pre-college preparation that you were able to get as part of the education you were provided in K-12. So, there is that. Students of color, students of color definitely are going to have a number of barriers and challenges that are going to play out in terms of persistence. And then there are, within particular disciplines, as many of us are familiar with… in particular disciplines where the gender representation or representation of women is relatively low, there can be some persistence issues there as well. So, in the more traditionally male STEM fields, engineering, mathematics and so on, but really, largely these issues of class, of race, and economic opportunity are what all are coming to a crux when students are in these crucial early semesters of college participation. That’s what we’re seeing.

John: It’s fairly early. You’ve only been doing this program for two years, but do you have any evidence of its success in terms of impacts on students?

Michelle: This is a very faculty- and staff-oriented initiative. And there are so many different factors that impact retention and that all go on at once. And by the way, that’s something that I’ve definitely learned as… when I got into this as well… is that there are just this enormous number of options, and even outside of the classroom. Then you have things like learning communities, residential communities, bridge programs, mentorship opportunities, all of these things are kind of getting into the mix sat once, which is probably not a bad thing to have all of these, but it does make it difficult to tease that apart when you look at something like overall retention rates or persistence rates for an institution. However, we have gathered some really systematic assessment data through our participants specifically. So what we did over the past few semesters is we brought in a kind of a pre-assessment so we could capture some very key things about participants’ knowledge and commitment to and ability to advocate for student persistence at the beginning… at the outset of this… before we did anything, and then at the end, after they’d done this about six to eight week program, and so there we do see some pretty dramatic changes and some really dramatic improvements. So, one in particular that stands out is that we asked participants how capable they feel to discuss and apply concepts from the research literature on persistence. And that is very, very low at the beginning. It’s about two and a half on a scale of one to five. And that went up to a little bit over an average of four on that same scale of five after the program. So, that’s something where faculty said, “Yeah, I feel like I can come into this as an informed advocate.” Knowledge about student persistence, that’s another area where the self-rated capability goes way, way up. And also, another thing we asked them is how capable they feel to identify and dispel some of the major misconceptions about attrition and persistence. So there too, the numbers are very, very similar. So we get positive comments, but I also feel like those quantitative ratings have really targeted what I wanted to change as a function of this program.

Rebecca: We talked a little bit about institutional concerns about retention and persistence. Why should faculty be engaged in this piece? We often think, “Well, that’s not our responsibility.” But, why should it be a faculty responsibility, in part?

Michelle: So here’s the thing. I think that this really fits with my experience over about 10 years of working on this at the institution. I think that so many of the initiatives that institutions spend all this money and their political and social capital on setting up, those live or die in faculty meetings. And I think that there’s very limited realization of that on the part of leadership. And it’s understandable because that’s one place where they don’t get to go. But I’ve sat in many, many, many such a meeting over my career. And here’s the thing, in my experience, it can just take one person who thinks that this initiative is misguided, or they think we ought to just admit better students that that should be fine, or they only care about retention for financial reasons. It only takes one highly vocal person to shut that down in that department and there may be other people who are sitting there who are interested in this… they’re saying, “You know what, I care. I think that social inequality is perpetuated when students don’t persist. I see real disparities, and I’m not comfortable with that. And I think this is a social justice issue.” Well, especially if that person is more junior or is not tenured, and the person who’s highly vocal is senior and is tenured, that initiative is not going anywhere. And I don’t care how much money you put into it, or what kind of big stipend is attached to it, it’s not happening. So that’s where I really had this vision as a designer of this program that I wanted people to be able to kind of raise their hand and say, “Well, actually, there’s some research that shows this”, or “I learned about this one concept,” or “Have you thought about how inequality is perpetuated, and maybe we should care for those reasons.” So, to equip and emboldened people to do that… Now that’s always up to them. They can take persistent scholars and come away with whatever conclusions that they want. I honestly come at it that way, that it is up to them to draw their own conclusions, but I do feel, especially given those things they tell us on our assessments, that we’ve done the best we can to equip them to go in to be those advocates. And it isn’t just teaching too. Don’t forget faculty, even though we can’t always affect things like financial aid or how drop/add policies are handled or any of that, we do have faculty senates, and sometimes we can weigh in on those issues. So, if we can bring pressure to bear in a positive way on our administrations, we usually think about it as “Oh, the administration is kind of leaning on us to support student success,” well that runs the other direction, too. And it can. And how does that happen? When we have the information because, again, faculty, we run on evidence… that’s baked into our culture, and that is who we are. So if you are the person at the meeting, you can say, “Well, I read this entire book by Vincent Tinto, who’s the most respected researcher in this area, I’ve actually read that book. And here’s what I took away from it. And so here’s why we should maybe give this initiative a second thought.” That’s what I think can be very, very powerful for creating change.

John: Faculty are well intentioned, but they don’t always know what they can do to be effective, and it’s really easy to blame the students when students aren’t successful. And we see that in lots of departments and lots of people. Providing them with information, I think, could start to make a big difference.

Rebecca: I think a lot of faculty are overwhelmed. They might be interested in these topics, but don’t have time to dig around and find the research and sort through it. So, having a curated opportunity like this is a good way to engage deeply with some key materials and come out of it with that perspective, which I think is really valuable. And we see that in other areas too, where we want to learn more about memory, or we want to learn more about learning strategies or whatever. If we can curate those things, then it’s often easier for faculty to engage and think about how they can individually commit to those ideas because they don’t have to sort through all of the information. It’s collated for them.

Michelle: And that’s just such a perfectly articulated way of describing what our design philosophy really was. And yeah, to say you can make a website or a giant compendium of “here’s a lot of suggested resources,” but it’s a different challenge to say, “Okay, you can assign three things. You can select three things for us to read over this three-week period. That’s it, what are those three things going to be?” And I did, it really did force me to really focus on quality and what was powerful. Yeah, that belongingness mindset lay theory piece was one, transparency was another that I selected. And really the last iteration to it, I also selected an excerpt from Lisa Nunn’s book, 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty. It is oriented towards first generation, but it really crossed over into so many practical applications of the research we were reading about. So that was a huge hit with the last cohort of participants as well. So being selective, having one targeted experience that you can simply share in a very informal way, rather than sitting down to write the giant literature review, I think that’s the sort of thing that we do need. And we did design it with that blended approach with that idea of maximum flexibility. Every week was its own modular piece where we did the same thing, so there wasn’t a whole lot of thrashing around about “what are the expectations” and so on. Even things like designing it so that it starts up about three weeks or four weeks into the semester and wraps up, like in the fall, we wrap up before Thanksgiving. That’s a big, big deal to faculty. If you coordinate it with the students’ semester, that’s just going to be too much. And you’re going to hit people with way too many demands right at their busiest time. So, that was also really appreciated as a factor that promoted faculty participation.

John: In an email exchange prior to this conversation, you mentioned something about the AR program at NAU that you’ve been working with and some results that were relevant to this discussion. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Michelle: It’s so funny, this faculty professional development program ended up intersecting with a completely separate piece of my research agenda right now. I’ve been working for the last about two years with our amazing cross disciplinary group here, the Immersive Virtual Reality Laboratory at NAU with Professor Norman Medoff and Professor Giovanni Castillo. They had designed, already, this program for organic chemistry so students get to actually manipulate with molecules and they worked with a chemistry professor to make actual meaningful assignments that would use that program in this really cool way. We even set up kind of a almost experimental study where we did the classic flip a coin and one section has access to the VR and the other section does not… it has a substitute assignment instead. Of course I’m interested in looking at the impact on student success. Well, I got into the data, and I looked at the overall impact and there is, there’s a reasonably consistent trend towards better grades in O-Chem. And also better final exam scores if you have access to this particular technology and way of interacting with the material. But then I started doing the subsidiary analyses and I was really surprised. We broke it out by first-generation status and first-generation college students, which was about half of our participants, in this case, experience improvements, positive impacts of this intervention that were larger and more consistently they were significant. All the measurements that we looked at were consistent in terms of the advantage that they got. And we’re working on writing this up for publication right now, and we did present them at a conference over last summer. And it’s really stretching my mind as well to try to say, “Well, why is that? What does that maybe communicate to students when we offer them this? How might it actually maybe shore up the experiences of students who have not had access to as good of a chemistry education, most likely, before they got to our university, compared to students who come from continuing generation families?” I was so surprised. And now there’s something that once again is telling me persistence has a lot to do with these other factors. Can we control them? Can we address them? Of course we can’t, as faculty, but we can look to discover ways that extend what we’re doing in the classroom or take particular approaches, and like so many of the interventions that we do in course design, this is one that doesn’t bring anybody down. I mean, if I’m from an advantaged background, I’m from a majority group, I’ve had this great background when I come in, I can benefit too, that’s fine, but somebody else is going to experience disproportionate benefits. And it’s maybe in a way, replicating a pattern that we’ve seen time and again with other ways of approaching these challenging foundational level courses.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Michelle: Thank you.

John: I’m looking forward to reading that.

We always end by asking, “What are you doing next?”

Michelle: Well, I have handed off the Persistence Scholars program. So while I’m still very proud of the work and feel very engaged with it, I have stepped away from the First-Year Learning Initiative, and as part of that the Persistence Scholars program is going to be led by a colleague of mine, Cody Canning at NAU, and I’ve handed off that program before as part of sabbatical and so on. So it is neat to build a program from the beginning that can be taken on and have it structured in depth enough to where you could take it on and then bring your own expertise and particular perspective to it. I’m still very engaged nationally though with spreading out these ideas about student persistence, learning and success in the first year, and looking at how we can take those and develop those in other places and really spread those efforts out, since I know so many of us nationally are just really fired up about this. So that’s where that stands right now. I’m working on a book right now with West Virginia University Press, with a very dynamic editor and a group of writers who are all working right now on writing about different issues in pedagogy in higher education. So that’s an honor, and I’m having a lot of fun with that book. So, memory and technology is what I’m writing about, and that’s something that springboards off a lot of the teaching that I do and some other writing as well. And that is something that I think is an issue that we see recurring now as being a very timely issue for people who are teaching. So that is taking a lot of my intellectual effort right now, and I’m looking at ways to keep engaging people in Minds Online, which, although it does have that specific technology angle, I think does pick up on many of these issues of promoting student success, and reducing disparities, and finding sometimes very surprising things that happen when we start to teach in new ways. So, that book came out around five years ago, it’s hard to believe, but I’m also looking at all the ideas and research that’s come out since then, and new applications that faculty have come up with. So, I’m looking at some new ways to keep that percolating along and kind of harness some of that energy we all have around that topic. So, I would say with that, just stay tuned or contact me to learn more, and we’ll see how that develops over the next year or so.

John: And when is this new book coming out?

Michelle: Oh…

John: Tentatively?

Michelle: It’s coming out after I write it. Let’s just say 2021. So it is well, well underway. We’re in striking distance of having that out in 2021.

John: And that’ll be part of the West Virginia University Press series edited by James Lang.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s always a pleasure.

Michelle: Likewise, it’s always great to talk about these issues with both of you.

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

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

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115. Tangelo Park

Unequal access to educational opportunities in the United States has helped to create a poverty trap from which it is difficult to escape. In this episode, Dr. Chuck Dziuban and Harris Rosen join us to discuss a remarkable program that demonstrates how students and communities can flourish when educational barriers are eliminated.

Chuck is the Director of the Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Central Florida (UCF) where he has been a faculty member since 1970, teaching research design and statistics. He is also the founding director of the university’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. Harris Rosen is the owner of several large hotels in Orlando and a philanthropist who has invested heavily in the Tangelo Park and Parramore school systems.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Unequal access to educational opportunities in the United States has helped to create a poverty trap from which it is difficult to escape. In this episode, we explore a remarkable program that demonstrates how students and communities can flourish when educational barriers are eliminated.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guests today are Dr. Chuck Dziuban and Harris Rosen. Chuck is the Director of the Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Central Florida (UCF) where he has been a faculty member since 1970, teaching research design and statistics. He is also the Founding Director of the university’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. Harris Rosen is the owner of several large hotels in Orlando and a philanthropist who has invested heavily in the Tangelo Park and Parramore school systems.

Welcome.

Chuck: Thank you.

Harris: Yes, welcome. Thank you.

John: Are teas today are:

Harris: I have the blueberry and it’s caffeine free. That’s what I drink: blueberry tea, caffeine free.

Rebecca: Yum.

Chuck: and I have orange spice.

Harris: …and is it okay if I put a little honey in it? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: You have our permission for sure.

Chuck: Thank you.

Harris: Thank you so much.

Rebecca: I’m drinking royal English breakfast today,

John: I’m drinking Tazo Refresh Mint tea today. The first program that you worked on was the Tangelo Park Community school program that began in 1993. And the more recent preschool program was instituted in the Parramore Community schools. Could you tell us about the origin first of the Tangelo Park program?

Harris: Yes, well, we go all the way back to 1993. And I remember, very vividly, sitting in my office and thinking about how incredibly fortunate I’d been… from New York City’s Lower East Side to college, in the army, and then ultimately working for Disney, and then after Disney purchasing a tiny little motel here in Central Florida. And at that point of time, in 1993, the owner of five hotels with my sixth under construction… and planning and dreaming about another property, a resort property they I always dreamed about having. And it occurred to me that I’ve been blessed beyond anything I ever imagined. And that a voice said to me, “Harris, it’s time for you to offer a helping hand to those in need and to say thank you, God.” And so I thought about that for a while, and I remember growing up in New York. My mom would be very, very strict with my brother and myself in terms of doing homework and getting good grades, indicating that if we did well, one day we wouldn’t live in the neighborhood we lived. And the neighborhood we lived in was between the East River, Little Italy, the Bowery, and Chinatown. Not exactly a gated community. And so my brother and I certainly dreamt one day that we wouldn’t be living there. And so, here I was sitting at my desk with all of the things that have occurred in my life being so incredibly blessed. So, I called a couple of friends of mine, because education was something that was always very important growing up, Bill Stone and Sarah Sprinkle. Sarah, an early childhood expert; Bill, a Principal of one of the top high schools here in Orlando. And we met several days later, and I said, “I want to do something that has to do with education. What do I do? I can give college scholarships. If you think that’s probably the answer.” But the answer was a little bit more complex. It was “Let’s put together a program that is a little bit different, Harris. Let’s create a preschool program for 2-, 3-, and 4-year olds and then let’s offer fellowships, complete scholarships, for those who are accepted to either college or community college, or perhaps a vocational school. And I said, “God, that sounds beautiful. That sounds really simple. Let’s think about doing it.” And so we thought about it. And we ultimately decided that all we really needed was a community. And so I called Orange County Commission. And I spoke to Commissioner Mabel Butler. And I said, “Mabel, this is where I am right now with a thought, all I need is a neighborhood, an underserved community.” She said “I’ll be right over.” I said “Really?” [LAUGHTER] She said “Yup, I’ve got something in mind.” And she did. She came right over, then drove me to a community not too far from my office. And she said, “Harris, welcome to Tangelo Park.” I said, “Well, wonderful.” And she said, “Well, not wonderful. This community is under siege. It is in terrible, terrible straits. Crime is out of control. Drug abuse is absolutely outrageous. Teachers that teach here at the Tangelo Park Elementary School have to leave with security. As soon as classes are over, they’re not permitted to stay.” I said, “Oh my God, that’s awful.” But she said “The neighborhood wants to change. And that’s a good thing.” So I was introduced to some of the neighborhood individuals, and I just introduced myself as who I was without going into any detail. And then I was introduced to the Principal of the elementary school, Bob Allen. And I shared with Bob what I had in mind. He said, “Harris, look, let’s have a neighborhood meeting, and you share with the neighborhood what it is that you have in mind.” And I said, “Fine.” So, several days later, I was asked to go back to Tangelo, which I did, and there were about maybe 100 people there at the meeting, and I indicated what it was that I had in mind, and the reception was not what I had anticipated. People, I think, just didn’t understand what the program was, but they were wondering “If I have a child that 16 or 17, I guess he or she won’t be able to take advantage of this scholarship, but if they’re 2, by the time they’re 17 they’ll be able to go to college for free.” And I thought that that might be something that was puzzling them. And I said, “Well wait… in June, those youngsters of yours who are in college, I will pay everything. Those of you who have youngsters in high school and are graduating and are contemplating college, community college, or vocational school, I’ll take care of everything.” Well, the place went crazy. [LAUGHTER] And that was the beginning of the Tangelo Park program. We’ve been doing Tangelo Park now for 26 years. And Chuck can give you all of the data in terms of how many kids we’ve sent to college, what the graduation rates are, what the return on investment is, all of that stuff, but that was it. It wasn’t complicated. In the army, we learned K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) and we kept the program simple at Tangelo. We had a challenge because we didn’t know where to put the preschool, because the Tangelo Park Elementary School certainly was not able to accommodate a preschool. So we drove around the neighborhood and spoke with individuals who owned homes (they were all single-family homes), and we asked them if they might mind if we converted a little part of their home into a tiny little preschool accommodating about six children. And we would pay for all of the refurbishing, provide all of the material, and they would be certified, we would certify them as certified caregivers. Well, within a very short period of time, we had 10 volunteers. So, we had 10 little preschools, and that was the beginning of the Tangelo Park program. Boy, that was a long babble, wasn’t it?

John: That’s wonderful.

Rebecca: No, it’s a great story.And I really love the idea that it bookends. We tend to think about interventions being K-12. But it’s interesting that the intervention is really a before school, and then after K-12. Can you talk a little bit about some of the results that you’ve seen by having the interventions at this early stage

Harris: Before Chuck will provide you with all of those details, you mentioned preschool two, three, and four. What we have discovered, and I think it’s fairly common knowledge now, the brain develops more in 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-year olds and then at anytime else in their lives. So, Isn’t it wonderful to begin education then to what a wonderful advantage these youngsters have in kindergarten, and elementary school, and middle school, and high school, and in college. And so that’s why we decided to do 2, 3, 4 programs, because it’s a perfect time to do it.

Rebecca: I have a two year old so I deeply understand what you mean. [LAUGHTER] She’s rich in learning everything. She’s in preschool and you can just see her brain exploding with new information and new ideas. She’s a sponge.

Harris: I had four for a while, a five-, a four-, a three-, and a one-year old. So, I know what you’re talking about. [LAUGHTER]

Chuck: Let me just review. I just love to hear Harris tell story. To be clear, in Tangelo, it starts at two years of age. quality education begins at two years of age, three years of age, four years of age, pre K, all the way through school that begins. But, all the way through the system, these children in Tangelo are supported. They get support all the way through the school. They start with a tremendous advantage coming into kindergarten. They come in and in many cases reading. It’s just a marvelous kind of experience. But, we also have a program in Tangelo for years where we work with the parents…. parent leadership… help them become advocates and help them learn how to become leaders in the school, help them how to negotiate with the school on their children’s behalf. Oftentimes these parents would go in and confront. That’s not the way to do it. The way is to learn how the school operates and then advocate for their children. Then, all the way through, we have a counselor at the high school who works with the children all the way through… prepares them for college… and the results are really amazing. So, they begin to prepare for college. We have an alumni association: students who have graduated from college and come back.. work in the community… and are activists. To be clear, not every student has to go to college. Harris pays for many other things. They can go to community college, they can choose to go to the military, God bless them. And if they want to go to vocational school and learn a productive trade, there is support for that as well, so they have lots of options. We understand that college is not for everyone. Given those kinds of things, given those bookends, as you said, Rebecca, the results are nothing short of amazing. Now I’ll say this about Harris, in the early years, he didn’t want to collect any data. And then what began to happen is people began to notice the program. And then they began asking for data. So, Harris said to me at one time, “Chuck, we need data.” So, we have data.

Let me give you some of the data. We know that the children both in Parramore and Tangelo are making tremendous cognitive gains from two to four years of age. They’re also learning things like executive function, how to control their anger, how to work in groups, all of the kinds of social skills that they need to function well in groups and work with college. They’re also learning social-emotional skills, how to communicate their feelings. So all of these wrap up around in this early childhood program. Now, 26 years ago in Tangelo, we reckon (as best we can tell) the graduation rate in high school from Tangelo was about 60%. Today, it’s 100%. Virtually every child within Tangelo graduates from high school. We’ll talk about the impact of that financially in just a minute. So, from 60% to 100% graduation. Now, if they choose to go to college, they can go either to community college and through our direct connect program move on to a State University of Florida college. And you have to listen very carefully to this. Mobility rates have gone down greatly in Tangelo. They used to move away, now they don’t. So, those children who are eligible, they just don’t move away. Those children who remain in Tangelo and are eligible for the college scholarship, graduate at a rate of 78% from college. Caveat, they remain in the community. Think about this. Because I’ll tell you right now, the national data show that if a student lives in the lowest economic quartile in this country, the chance of their graduating from college is 10%. The odds against them are 10 to 1. That’s unacceptable. And Harris will tell you, we are wasting millions of minds In this country, we raise that to 78%. Even if all the kids, even the kids who don’t graduate from college, they have college exposure, all the data shows they make more money in their lives than if they’ve never ended college at all. Crime rate in Tangelos is down 78%.

Harris: Correct.

Chuck: That is nothing short of amazing. Harris will talk to you about that as well. But preschool, college graduation, high school graduation, success in college has tremendous impact. So Tangela was fixed, in a way. My kids are older, they’d graduated, I’d move into Tangelo for the scholarship. Why not? Rebecca, move to Tangelo. [LAUGHTER] Your kids have a scholarship. So, that’s the general picture. John and Rebecca, have your listeners contact me. I will send anyone in the country all the data… the data, they are compelling. That’s what I have.

Rebecca: One of the things that you were mentioning is related to a lot of our previous episodes about first-generation college students and the lack of support networks that they might have or not knowledge about how to negotiate school institutions like college, but also their high schools to get the resources and things you need. So, I really love that your program includes educating the parents and supporting the parents and learning how to navigate those systems, especially if they’re not familiar.

Chuck: Well, sooner or later, you should ask him how much he‘s spending on this. [LAUGHTER] Because it is a bargain of the century. But, what we noticed in Tangelo to expenditures, preschool and college scholarship at the beginning of the program, most of the expenditure was for college scholarship, and then it crossed over. And Harris became concerned. He was saying “What’s going on here?” …and what’s going on here is, as the students know how to negotiate the system, they’re getting other scholarships. So the Rosen scholarship becomes a safety net. If they don’t get a scholarship, he pays the full ride, but they’re getting other scholarships because they know how to operate the system. They work with the counselor, there are transitions of all kinds.

Harris: Yeah, I must confess that I was really quite concerned. All of a sudden, I’m looking at data…. I can now pronounce that correctly, right? It’s not data [said with a soft “a”], it’s data [said with a hard “a”], [LAUGHTER] and I’m looking at data and I’m looking at a line that’s declining… a line that previously was skyrocketing. And I was like, “Oh, my God, we’re failing.” No! Grade point averages in high school have skyrocketed from let’s say, 2.00 to 3.7. And these youngsters are qualifying for so many other scholarships. Rosen, you have become a safety net. And that’s actually what happened. Now, there’s one thing that Chuck mentioned that I can touch upon, crime in the neighborhood down almost 80%. Oh, my God. So, about a year ago, I met with Sheriff Demings, and he said, “Harris, I have to tell you something.” “What’s that Sheriff?” He said, “Tangelo Park. We just have to thank you so much. I said ”What have I done?” “Are you kidding, we hardly get any calls over there. We now consider Tangelo Park to be an oasis. There’s less crime in Tangelo Park than there is most of the gated communities here in Central Florida. Thank you.” Amazing, isn’t it?

Chuck: One more thing about data. I love data. John knows I love data. [LAUGHTER] People ask the wrong questions, or ask the wrong metric. And here’s the question they ask: “How many graduated from high school? How many scholarships did you give? How many went to college?” How many graduated, divide.” The wrong metric. Let me tell you, given where Tangelo was of the 500 or more college scholarships that were awarded, the expectation would have been 45 college graduates. You know how many we have? 154. We have increased the probability of graduating from college in Tangelo Park by 300%. We have produced 216 college degree. Why? Because they’re getting multiple degrees. We have 26 graduate degrees. So, what they do is they they get an Associates, they get a bachelors, they get a graduate degree. We have doctors, we have lawyers. It is amazing. That is the right thing. You’re offering hope to this community. And when you offer hope, amazing things happen.

Harris: That’s so much positive stuff. But there is a negative component. We’ve been doing this now for 26 years, we spoke to some of the wealthiest individuals in America and some of the largest foundations in America… maybe in the world. Nobody else has replicated the program, despite all of this incredible data. Why? They certainly have the financial resources to do it. We cannot figure that out. Why, why, why, why? Out of complete frustration and because I wanted to continue to do good things, we adopted the Parramore community three years ago, and the same results are forthcoming and yet no one else in the entire United States of America has raised his hand and said: “Rosen, the results are amazing. We have underserved communities in Ohio. We have underserved communities in Chicago. We have underserved communities in Baltimore, we’ll do it.” Why not? I don’t understand. It’s driving me crazy.

Chuck: John and Rebecca, what I like to say is the funding crickets keep chirping in three-0year cycles. You have to understand this is a 26-year commitment. This is not a three-year funded cycle.

Harris: Oh, yeah. And I think Chuck raises a very good point, because I used to foolishly… when people would say, “Harris, how long do we do the program?” I said, “Well, in perpetuity.” I would see them almost wanting to throw up. Well, that’s a long, long time. And so we just say now until the neighbor transforms into perhaps a middle income community, but that might be the obstacle. We don’t know how long we have to do this. And we might have to do it for a very long period of time. How sad it is, though, that that is a hurdle that can’t be overcome.

Chuck: Yeah.

Harris: What is so wonderful about this, is that those individuals who have wealth can benefit. “Rosen, how do they benefit by doing something good.” They have a good feeling. Oh, no, no, no, no. Because every youngster who graduates from high school will earn over his or her lifetime, a half a million dollars more. So, I don’t care what business I’m in in that community, I’m going to benefit from that, right? If I can get all of these youngsters to graduate from high school, they’re all going to be earning a half million dollars more over a lifetime. They’ll come into my store and buy stuff, or they will avail themselves of the service I provide. And the United States of America is a beneficiary. Because for every dollar we have provided, and I think it’s about $16, $17 million so far, society receives a return on investment of $7. So we if we invest a a million, it’s $7 million; if we invest $100 million, It’s $700 million. My God, what a wonderful investment is that if you’re in business, if you’re in the private sector, and yet not enough to persuade people to say “we’ll hop on board.”

Chuck: And this 7 to 1 is not off of the top of our head. We hired an economist from the University of Chicago to do a return on investment study of Tangelo and he came back with a conservative estimate of $7 put back to society for every one that is invested in Tangelo and Parramore. So, the thing that’s a side effect that we’ve just begun to figure out is the economic impact of this philanthropy is tremendous. We were always working around, this is the right thing to do. But now we discovered amazing things that there are 1.2 million students who do not graduate from high school; they drop out every year. If we created a program that allowed them to graduate each year we would add $10 billion to the United States economy. Those are facts. The reduction in crime would be astounding. There is a huge economic impact of the Tangelo model. It’s not just the right thing to do. It will change the economy of this country. It costs far less to educate a student than it does to incarcerate them.

Harris: What is so amazing is this. It’s almost as if God is watching us and is tormented as we are by the lack of others to hop on board. And he said: “Maybe we have to change the equation, guys. Maybe instead of it just being a completely philanthropic initiative, we could infuse some economic benefits also.” Oh really God, economic benefits. My God. That’s amazing. A half a million dollars they graduate from high school, add another 200,000 maybe a million dollars of graduate from college, depending on the degree… crime will evaporate and save billions and billions and billions of dollars. The return on investment is seven to one. So, if you invest a bit and we as a society get back 7 billion and we’re doing something really good. Isn’t that the perfect, perfect, perfect scenario? Excuse me, I get a little bit excited about that.

Chuck: He does.

Rebecca: So, I’ll say it sounds pretty good to me. One of the discussions that happens a lot in K-12 and also in college settings is about diversifying student bodies and bringing underrepresented groups to college and then, of course, transforming different disciplines as a result… like careers and fields. And it seems like if we can get kids that would normally be in college to college that starts to actually solve or address some of those problems or those things that we really want to accomplish in higher ed and really in our society writ large.

Harris: So, this really is, if there is a perfect kind of philanthropy, this is perfect. Look at the wonderful things we’re doing. Yes. And I’m not patting myself on the back. It does accomplish some wonderful things. In addition to that, the private sector, the United States of America is the beneficiary. Look, if I were president of the United States of America, I would invite some of the wealthiest individuals in America and I would invite Harris and Chuck and some other people Lance Lochner and I’d say “Guys, talk about your program because we have people here who can hop on board in a heartbeat… people here from Baltimore, from Detroit, from Chicago. We want them to do as you guys have done and guess what? They will benefit from this also.” That’s my dream.

Chuck: We want your dream to come true. We believe, deep in our hearts, that the talent pool in our underserved communities is as deep as any gated community in this country. We know it. We’ve seen it all of the time. And the things that you say, Rebecca, are absolutely true. We have to reform our universities to understand better how to deal with more diversity. We have to help these students when they get to college. We’ve heard lots of things about these students as they come on to college campuses. It’s just not walking onto a campus and succeeding. They need support all the way through. You know what? I love Oswego. By the way, these people are sitting where I went to school, I went to school in Oswego, and you just bury yourself in snow. [LAUGHTER] But, you’re right. We’ve gotta support from that two-year old program all the way through, and then we’ve got to pay it forward. But we can’t understand and I said this again, and I’d love to do it again. The funding cricket keeps chirping in three-year cycle, you cannot fund for three years. It will not work. It cannot work. You’ve got to stay with it. Think about this… 7 to 1. And it’s only a conservative estimate. And now we’re going to put together an economic package. The data we have are astounding. We have some data that suggests that 75% of high school dropouts commit crimes. You can’t have it.

Harris: This is not very complicated. Not very complicated at all. If we can convince wealthy individuals and foundations throughout America, to do what we’ve done, adopt underserved communities… if we can make sure that every underserved community in America has a preschool component, and every single one of those youngsters stay in high school until they graduate, we will change America, one underserved community at a time. And we will not recognize what we have become: the perfect nation in the world.

Chuck: Yes, you can see, he’s not very passionate about this. [LAUGHTER] I want to repeat, I have all the data. It is clear, it is compelling. Please have your people contact you, I will send them the data, the return on investment study, any videos they want. And when you hear the testimony of these young people, how their lives have changed, it makes you want to weep.

Harris: And so Chuck,, we can invite them to Parramore and Tangelo Park.

Chuck: …anybody who wants to come.

Harris: You would not believe what you see. Two-, three- and four-year olds reading! …enthusiastic about school… can’t wait until they finish high school and go to college. It’s amazing, transforming these underserved communities by infusing hope. That’s all that we’re doing.

John: And that does require that long-term commitment that you mentioned. Now, you talked a little bit about those preschools. Could you tell us a little bit more about how they were set up? You said they were groups of five or six or five to seven children in each?

Chuck: Yes, the original Tangelo, as Harris said, the school was simply not capable of adding a facility that would be a preschool. But, there was some talk about this in terms of what would you do? How can you get around this program? So, what Harris did is he refitted houses, he trained residents. Now, we had 10 preschool residents who were trained to work with the school system. This is an education, but he was providing employment for them as well. So, he infused an economic component into this preschool kind of thing. And they were wonderful. We have all kinds of videos, you would love it. John and Rebecca, you should come down and sit with these kids… learning, learning, learning… We’ll send you videos, you can see them. But what happened is… we’ve been doing this for 26 years and most of the daycare provider educators are retiring. So, the natural thing to do is Harris simply build facilities in the new school. We have a set up now where we have two facilities. The preschool program was just wonderful. It was wonderful because it was in homes. The parents knew the providers, they trusted the providers. They were in the community, so if the parents who were little late getting home to pick up the kids, it was no big deal. It was a perfect, perfect scenario for the community at the time. And the new school in Parramore is phenomenal. It is just amazing. Because the model was like going into schools and houses in Tangelo, it is now built so every classroom looks like you’re going into a home. It’s amazing.

Harris: And that is something that we learned from Tangelo Park that the youngsters just loved the home environment. They did so beautifully. They were tranquil and they were eager to learn and the caregivers were so wonderful. So, we said: “Now in Parramore, how do we recreate that feeling?” If you come down and visit the Parramore preschool, you will not believe it. It’s almost as though you’re entering a beautiful area with little homes throughout, because each school room has a door that looks like a home door with a little mailbox next to it and you walk in, and it looks like a little part of a home. And we have preserved the integrity of the six to one. We have 12 youngsters, two teachers… two caregivers… and it works beautifully. So, we can replicate it. You don’t need to have that home, you can replicate the environment and the feeling. And we’ve done that.

Rebecca: It just sounds like the next step in maturing that idea.

Chuck: Oh, absolutely. We have talked to experts all over the country. And we know without a doubt that this education has to begin early. Our adage is “the first year of college begins at two years of age.”

John: There’s a lot of research suggesting that. I know in economics, that’s where most of the cognitive differences start to show up in test performance. That’s an ideal time to start it.

Chuck: John, I forgot you’re an economist. We’ll have you come down and do the next return on investment study. [LAUGHTER]

Harris: The United Negro College Fund… I think Chuck touched on this… says “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” We’re too great a nation to be wasting minds. We can do better than that. Preschool, and then the college scholarship program…, but make sure preschool and then high school graduation. That’s the key component. College… not required. Wonderful, but preschool and high school graduation… focus laser lik on that.

Rebecca: It’s clear where folks who could fund projects like this into the equation. What role do you see educators or higher education playing in advocating for programs like this or helping propel initiatives like this forward?

Chuck: Well, I can speak from the university’s side because I’ve represented the University of Central Florida 26 years and I can see that universities in many ways are going to have to change the way we do business. One, you need to ask about the organization of the Tangelo Park program. There is none. What we do is we make a decision every month in the community board meeting. That’s all there is. There’s no chart , no organizational chart. There are no CEOs, nobody is paid. We’re all volunteers. Harris provides the support that’s necessary, but it is the right thing to do. And it really puts organizations off because it’s so…. What did he use the term? K.I.S.S. That’s what it is. It’s very simple. It’s very informal. It’d be interesting for you to see Harris as the treasurer for the board. And his report is “I paid the bills, end of report.” [LAUGHTER] But the notion is, therefore then Rebecca, there’s no overhead. You know what I mean about grants in colleges and universities. Every dime goes to the program. So, universities are going to have to really change how they look at their notion of philanthropy. Our notion is to go to a foundation in the program and take our cut. There’s no cut in there. And then we’re working a great deal with adaptive learning. I did a podcast for you on adaptive learning. If you put a kid in college algebra for one semester, there’s going to be a difference in how much each of them learns. We have to rethink the way we deliver education. There’s no question. You can’t take a kid from Tangelo and put them in college and give them 21 hours, it’s the wrong thing to do. They have to acclimate to higher education.

Harris: So, we have been asked on occasion why, when we’re asked about the public sector, we say no. My understanding is that government now is about… is it 22… 23 trillion in the hole. They can’t afford to do anything like this. I’m a little guy, but our little company has no debt. I can afford to do this. There are thousands and thousands of thousand people like me out there. I want them to get off their tush. I want them to listen to what it is that we have to say, ask for whatever material or information they want, step out of their office, take a look at their neighborhood, find an underserved community and do what we’ve done. Now, I must confess that early on, 23 years ago, I wasn’t sure if the public school system would be able to do the job. They have done a brilliant job. I am so proud of them. We don’t need private schools, we can do it within the public school system. And what happens is when the teachers see these youngsters start school at two and enter kindergarten already reading and writing and knowing colors and numbers and everything, they’re motivated. And when they know that these youngsters will all graduate from high school, and some of them will go on to college and not have to pay a penny. So when they’re sitting around with their friends in college, and inevitably that conversation is “How much money do you owe?” and our kids silently smile. They don’t owe a penny. So, government doesn’t have to be involved. The public school system can do it. We, the private sector, might have to help with the preschool component, as we did. But, aside from that, let the private sector do what the private sector should do support this wonderful program.

Chuck: The lessons that have been learned, there is no question that this has worked. The lesson that is learned is that there is no question that it can be replicated in hundreds of communities across the country. We have people all over the country doing pieces of it: preschool programs, scholarships, but we have yet to have someone put the entire program together somewhere. We don’t give up. We’re going to keep trying. And I’m going to emphasize again, I have all the data, we have a template. If somebody wants to learn how to do Tangelo, we have it. We have everything. So, the lesson that we have learned is that we do have hope. We have so many stories we could tell you, but I know we’re getting to the end of the time.

John: I seem to remember in some of the documentation, some estimate of the cost per student. Do you have that offhand.

Chuck: I think it’s about $5000? Isn’t it?

Harris: Yeah, probably around that, yes?

Chuck: Yeah, probably around $5,000. Yeah.

Harris: I guess it’s something that I should know, but I really don’t… [LAUGHTER] We’ll get the number for you, but it’s close to $5,000.

Chuck: I have an interesting story, though, with the preschool. Harris has a graduation… preschool. When the students finish preschool, they have caps and gowns. They have a commencement ceremony, and Harris invites them to turn their tassels from the right to the left. And we do this by every preschool graduation. And I was in Parramore, and there were hundreds of students graduating and Harris said, “How long is this going to go on? He was flipping tassels. But, then at the end, a woman came up to me and said, “Thank you, this is wonderful.” “You’re welcome. Did you have a student graduating?” She said, “”No, I just live in Parramore, and I wanted to see.” That’s what this program does. It unites and supports and codifies the community. But it takes time.

Rebecca: So, you’ve already done so much. What are you going to do next? [LAUGHTER]

Chuck: We’re going to have you do a wonderful edit of this. It’s going to be broadcast all around the country, and we’re going to find someone else to do it.

John: That would be wonderful.

Chuck: That would be great.

Harris: That would be wonderful.

Chuck: Go Lakers.

John: Go Knights.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for sharing your story and your program with us today.

Harris: Thank you so much.

Chuck: Thank you so much. Have a good day.

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

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

104. Social Capital and Persistence

Students who are the first members of their family to attend college often arrive with less information about navigating the college experience than students who had a parent that attended college. In this episode, Dr. Julie Martin joins us to discuss the role that social capital plays in student success, retention and persistence.

Julie is an Associate Professor of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University, and former Program Director for Engineering Education at the National Science Foundation’s Directorate of Engineering. She has conducted a wide variety of studies on factors associated with the under representation of women and people from minoritized ethnic and racial backgrounds in engineering education, and she is a new Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Students who are the first members of their family to attend college often arrive with less information about navigating the college experience than students who had a parent that attended college. In this episode, we discuss the role that social capital plays in student success, retention and persistence.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Today our guest is Dr. Julie Martin. She is an Associate Professor of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University, and former Program Director for Engineering Education at the National Science Foundation’s Directorate of Engineering. She has conducted a wide variety of studies on factors associated with the under representation of women and people from minoritized ethnic and racial backgrounds in engineering education, and she is a new Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. Welcome, Julie.

Julie: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Julie: I’m not drinking tea. I’m drinking water.

Rebecca: Well, that’s a good healthy choice. [LAUGHTER]

John: That’s what tea is mostly anyway

Rebecca: Yeah

John: I’m drinking black raspberry green tea,

Julie: And I have Oolong today.

John: Wow! You’re really mixing it up this week

Rebecca: I know. I am out of control.

John:
We invited you here to talk about your research on engineering education, but could you tell us first a bit about your path to an engineering degree?

Julie: I think I really had two motivations for getting an engineering degree. And the first one was really personal. Since I was a toddler, I have had a pacemaker which was needed to make my heartbeat regularly. And somehow I grew up understanding that engineers, along with doctors and other folks, contributed to designing and making those devices and improving that technology that really affects my quality of life every day. And then the second part of it was that I also had adults in my life that were encouraging my interest in math and science. And it was something that I was good at and enjoyed, and they helped me connect those interests to majoring in engineering when I got to college.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what prompted your research interest on barriers for women and other underrepresented groups in engineering, specifically?

Julie: Well, the obvious first part of that is that I was a woman studying engineering. And then, early in my career, I worked at the University of Houston and that was a fabulous place to work. The student population there…. really diverse… there are many students who come from the Greater Houston area and that’s a really diverse city. So the students I work with, they came from a variety of cultural backgrounds and economic backgrounds. And many of them were first-generation college students. And my position was as the Director of Recruitment and Retention for the College of Engineering. So I was talking with students who were considering engineering as a college major and then I was working with those same students who were already engineering majors or the students that later came in as engineering majors. So, I started to see all of these, I guess I would call them structural issues, that were really making it difficult for them to succeed. So, there were students there that worked full time, on top of taking the full credit load of 18 hours of engineering courses, because they had to pay for their tuition or because they need to contribute to their family or both. And when I’ve talked about structural issues, one example of that is most professors’ office hours were only offered at specific times. So, if a student was working, in addition to going to school, they might not be able to get to the professor’s office hours, because they were working at that same time. So they couldn’t even get there when they had a question. This is, I think, an example of how a particular group, in this case working students, can unintentionally get marginalized in engineering education. Those professors weren’t trying to put up those barriers for the students who worked, but it was still a real challenge for those students.

Rebecca: Did you come across any other structural barriers other than some of these time conflicts?

Julie: I think that that’s sort of an example that cuts across a lot of different groups of folks… students that are working. Some of the other kinds of things, I think had to do with generational status in college. So some students who were first-generation in their family to go to college or maybe the first person in their family to go to college didn’t necessarily understand how to navigate the university system. And that was from everything from the application process, filling out the FAFSA (Federal Application Form for Student Aid), and all the way to even necessarily understanding what office hours were, and that it was a time that you could go talk to the professors about anything related to questions that you had in class.

John: You’ve done quite a bit of work on the effect of social capital on persistence in engineering degrees. Could you tell us a little bit about what you were looking at? And as part of that, could you explain what is meant by social capital?

Julie: I was initially drawn to the idea of social capital because it’s really about relationships, and that’s something that’s really important to me in my life. So the way that I define social capital is the resources that you have in your social network, in the relationships that you have. And so this research that I’ve done is really based on my belief that everybody needs access and support to making informed decisions about their academic and career plans. So by studying social capital, what we’re really looking at is: how do people get the information and resources that they need to succeed? So to achieve their goals. And in the context of getting an engineering education, achieving their goal would be getting an engineering degree.

John: What did you find in terms of the impact of social capital on student persistence?

Julie: One of the things that I’ve looked at a lot in my research is studying social capital from the perspective of looking at students’ generational status in college. How is social capital similar or different for different groups of students? And when we look at students who are the first-generation in their family to go to college, first-generation college students versus students who have parents that went to college, which I call continuing-generation college students, there are some interesting similarities and some interesting differences as well. So, for example, for those two groups, students who are first-generation college students, and those who are continuing-generation college students, many of the same people are in their social networks. Many of them have teachers and family members and peers and other educational kinds of personnel. But sometimes the role that each of those different groups of people play can be different. For example, continuing-generation college students may have parents that know things like how to navigate the application system to get into college or how to navigate a university campus or a university system. And first-generation college students, their families may not have that same kind of what we call instrumental knowledge to help them succeed, but they have shown like really, really strong emotional support. And we call that expressive social capital. So when their families really encouraged them to get a degree… Many of the students talk about how their families are behind them 100%. And so they receive a lot of support for going to college and for getting an engineering degree from their families. It’s just a different kind of support than continuing-generation college students received from their families.

Rebecca: What role do faculty play in terms of social capital for these two groups? Because I imagine, in some cases, it might actually be really different without us realizing it.

Julie: Yes. So I think one of the really interesting things is that I think faculty have an important role to play for all students. And this can be especially powerful for first-generation college students. One of the things that we see is that sometimes first-generation college students experience a delayed access to resources because they don’t know necessarily how to navigate the campus system or the university or the educational system, they might not know for example, that there is an Academic Success Center or a tutoring center, or they might not know that it could be important to join study groups or student organizations. And as a result, it might be a few semesters before they figure that out, kind of to have to figure it out the hard way. And so professors and faculty can play really important roles in a couple of different ways. I think they can help make sure that some of what we might hear called the hidden curriculum of going to the university and some of that intrinsic knowledge that folks that work in the university system or have families that went to college might know, is available up front for all students, so they can do things like connect students to places on campus, like I mentioned for academic resources. They might be able to share opportunities that they have for undergraduate research or other kinds of things like that, that helps students get involved. Faculty can encourage students to join student organizations. That’s one thing that’s been really shown to affect students persistence and their sense of belonging… and encourage students to form study groups… and faculty can also help students build their professional networks. And this can be something that can be really important, not just while they’re getting a degree, but after they get out and get a job or during their college studies, if they want to do a co-op or an internship. And then some of the things that we may not think about as faculty have turned up to be really important. So, just faculty sharing their own academic and professional experiences are things that students refer to and say to themselves like, “Well, you know, if she can do it, then I can do it too.” Or it can also help normalize students’ feelings about maybe the difficulty of their courses or the difficulty of persisting in an engineering program. Those kinds of things can really be just as important as some of what we call instrumental actions that are actually connecting students to resources and information on campus.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve experienced in my classes…I’m a designer. So it’s related to engineering in some ways… we have some of the same kinds of behaviors in the field… is that students don’t always understand what professional development opportunities can be, or what the benefit of going to a conference is. And it may be just because the students never had a family who did things like that. It just wasn’t a part of their everyday conversation. So sharing what it’s like to go to one of those kinds of events and what you get out of it, and then personally inviting a student who seems hesitant, but might really benefit from it, nd then also helping them find the resources to go… can be really useful.

Julie: Exactly! Those are exactly the kinds of things that I’m talking about. So not only helping the students understand the value of it, but then putting that extra bit in there… making sure that it’s accessible and available to all students with respect to finances and those kinds of things.

Rebecca: It also sounds like the social capital things that you’re talking about would be particularly important in first-year classes or gateway courses into a major.

Julie: I think some of these things that we’ve been talking about with first-generation students may have delayed access to some of the resources that are on campus… it’s just because they haven’t been made aware that they exist. So, first-year courses can be really important for that. Absolutely.

Rebecca: What are some of the barriers that you find with continuing-generation students that we might not expect?

Julie: So I don’t know that I’ve necessarily identified barriers there, but one of the things that’s really interesting to me is the roles that families play, and how that is different for these two different groups of students. I mentioned that first-generation college students have really staunch support from their families often for going to college and feel like their families are behind them 100%. And that kind of expressive support, that emotional support, can be really important. And certainly continuing-generation college students report those kinds of things as well. Sometimes it has a bit of a different meaning because first-generation college students are often motivated to get a college degree to have a better life than their parents did. And they might define that as just a more stable job or more stable income or being able to work in an area where you’re not, for example, doing manual labor. So, what’s interesting for me, then, about continuing-generation college students is how often they start out with the family support that’s able to give them specific information and resources about applying for college, about going to college, maybe even about things like selecting their coursework. And what we see is that through time, students who have been in college longer report that the role that their families play changes during the course of the time that they’re in college. They’ve come to rely more and more heavily on their peers and actually, both groups of students talk about that… that the support that they get from their peers, the information and resources that they get from their peers is really important. And these family roles change from a parent who might be helping the student with everything, with filling out the financial aid application, with filling out the application,with selecting the courses in the early years, to the friends becoming the people who the student really relies on, and the families then providing the emotional support to persist and to finish.

John: It seems like helping to develop a strong network on campus is helpful. Could we do that perhaps by encouraging more group work and more peer interaction and peer instruction, especially in introductory courses, but perhaps all the way through?

Julie: Yes, absolutely. And even when it’s not something that happens officially in the class, it’s really important to help students form these networks outside of class as well. So, one of the things that I think is so interesting about studying social capital is that it’s studying the student experience in college, not just from the perspective of what’s happening in the classroom. That’s a really important part and we can apply the social capital ideas to what’s happening inside the classroom. But as soon as the students leave your classroom, after 50 minutes or 75 minutes, then what happens then? …and that’s really when the majority of the college experience takes place. And the majority of the learning and the majority of the things that can affect students persistent, so that part’s really important too. So anything that we can do that helps students connect with their peers, and their near peers, students that may be a few years ahead of them or graduate students in class, but also keep those connections out of class is really important, and that’s one reason I mentioned supporting and promoting student organizations. So that’s one thing that most faculty may feel like is not really part of their job description, is to encourage students to become involved in student organizations. But even doing something as simple as making announcements about when student organizations are going to meet in class can lend that weight from a faculty member to encourage students to do things like that outside of class as well.

Rebecca: So we focused a lot of the discussion on the difference in terms of first-generation and continuing. Can you talk a little bit about some things that might specifically impact underrepresented groups?

Julie: When we start thinking about social capital, the theory of social capital talks about the fact that typically people who are not in the majority position can have different kinds of access to social capital than people who are in the majority position. And in my work, we focused on the generational status in college because that’s where we have seen the difference. I’m absolutely not trying to say that being a woman in engineering where women are at best about 20% of the population or being from an underrepresented ethnic or racial group is not important. All of those identities are important for students and they intersect and have different effects based on whether you, for example, might be a woman who is from a minoritized ethnic or racial group. So I’m not trying to say that those things aren’t important, they absolutely are. What we are focusing on is generational status in college, because that’s where we see the biggest qualitative difference in the way that students talk about their experiences, selecting engineering as a major and then persisting in the discipline.

John: One of the issues that often come up is that, in engineering and STEM fields in general, we see a lot of people dropping out along the way; that many people start the discipline, and then they either drop out or change their majors into other areas. And the rate of return to students investing in education in these fields is pretty much the highest that we can get in any field. And yet we see a lot of people dropping out. Is that more common for first-generation students? And, if so, why might that be occurring?

Julie: I think that there’s multiple reasons that students leave the major. And there’s been a lot of work done, over the last at least 40 years, to study that. I think that the benefit of looking at it from the social capital perspective is that we’re able to think about how the things that happen in the classroom and the things that happen outside the classroom can help students be successful. And so I wouldn’t say that it’s more common or less common for first-generation college students. But when we think about it from this perspective, we can think about what are these ways in which we can help students tap into the information and the resources and the emotional support and all of the assets that they have in their social networks, in their relationships and then help them make informed decisions about what they want to do. Some students leave engineering because it wasn’t the best choice for them to start with. And honestly, I’m fine with that. I’m really interested in helping students make the most informed choices about what they want to do with their college major and their career.

Rebecca: So, for those who might not have families who are doing the rah-rah-rah-like support of education, there’s a lot of students who don’t necessarily have that particular support network, are the ways that we can help foster that on campus for students?

Julie: I think we can foster it on campus for students regardless of what kind of support they have at home. One of the things that we’ve seen in my research when we’re looking at first-generation college students in particular, is that there can be adults in the lives of K 12 students who are really important and even though they’re not their actual relatives, we call them fictive kin because they are really influential in their lives. So, this may be somebody who works at a STEM summer camp that the student attended, or at an after-school program. And those are people that are providing information and resources for the students about what they might want to major in college, and giving them information and resources to help them make informed decisions about what they want to major in in college.

Rebecca: I certainly felt that as a student… I had people outside my family… I was a first-generation college student. And so I certainly had people who were in that network of people. I had a faculty member in my high school who wasn’t even a person that I took classes with, but who just kind of took me under her wing and made sure I knew how to navigate certain systems because my family didn’t really know how to navigate those systems and supported me in the idea that I could do things that maybe didn’t occur to me.

Julie: And I think the really important lesson from that is that everybody can have a role. If you’re a scout leader, or you’re a summer camp teacher or you’re someone in the community, everybody can have a role in supporting students.

Rebecca: I guess the trick then becomes, how do we help everyone realize that?

Julie: Yes, that is the trick. And that’s one reason why I worked really hard in my research to try to provide a lot of implications for practice. So, you know, taking the research back to “What does that really mean for somebody who’s a faculty member? What does that mean for somebody who’s a scout leader? What does it mean for somebody who is an academic advisor?” And so really helping people understand that everybody has a role and maybe giving them some examples of the types of things that they can do, even if those are not things that you’re able to do in your own particular role. Hopefully, it can inspire you.

John: What are some specific things that faculty might be able to do to provide a more supportive classroom climate. We’ve talked about some, but are there any additional methods?

Julie: I think one of the things that faculty can do, and many of us don’t necessarily do very often, is talking about the kinds of things that are available for students outside of the class. And not just academic resources. So most faculty will say “well if you need tutoring, you go to this place and these times” but the kinds of things that can really help student persistence and really help them develop social capital with people all across the campus might be things that faculty normally aren’t really involved in. So those might be the student organizations on campus that I mentioned, or encouraging students to form study groups, so that they’re working with their peers, and developing those really important relationships that become critical. And those kinds of things are just as important as the kinds of things that happen inside of the classroom.

Rebecca: Sometimes I’ve had discussions with students who are struggling with time management or these other kinds of things that connecting them to the fact that there’s a gym on campus to relieve some stress or to build that into their schedule. And just pointing out that there are yoga classes or that there’s this other kind of group that has nothing to do with academics at all, might be a great place to find some relaxation and support in a really different kind of way. And I think they’ve always been surprised at me saying, “Well, did you schedule in something like that?”

Julie: Yeah, you know, what I love about that is that’s thinking holistically about the student as a person. That’s thinking about all the things that they need to be happy and fulfilled and ready to come to class and to learn and then to go be involved in other campus activities. And so I think that that approach of thinking about students holistically and not just thinking about what’s happening with them, in that brief time that we have with them in class, it can be really critical for student success for everybody.

Rebecca: I’m really curious about how someone who’s coming out of engineering comes across the idea of social capital as a way to study this.

Julie: That is an interesting question. So my degrees are in material science and engineering. And I actually, as an undergrad, did a minor in the humanities. And my reason at the time was very simple. I wanted to be able to have at least one class a semester that I didn’t have to bring a calculator to. [LAUGHTER]……But I have always enjoyed reading and writing and thinking about things that aren’t related to engineering. And it wasn’t until after I got my degree and started actually working in academia, teaching engineering, that I started to realize how I could sort of marry those two interests. My very first teaching job was at Virginia Tech, and I was there during the time that they were forming one of the first departments of engineering education. So even though at the time I was really focused on just teaching in the first Engineering program. It was really interesting because I was hearing all these things about this new area of research interest. And so I started to begin to get some training in that area and eventually, by a few years later, had moved my entire focus over to engineering education.

John: The reason I approached you about doing this topic, is I saw on Facebook that you had received an award recently for your work in this area.

Julie: I think the award you’re referring to was the Betty Vetter Award for Research from the WEPAN Organization (Women in Engineering Proactive Network). And that’s an organization that I’ve been really involved in over the past number of years, that is supporting culture change in the culture and climate in engineering education.

John: We always end with a question. What are you doing next?

Julie: I have just started my position at The Ohio State University. And I’ve just started my position as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. So those two things are going to keep me quite busy for the near future.

Rebecca: Well, sounds exciting, a nice new adventure.

Julie: Absolutely.

John: And you’re doing some really important work, and I hope you continue to be successful with this.

Julie: Thank you.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. This has been a great discussion.

Julie: Thanks. It’s been a lot of fun.

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

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

96. Inclusive Pedagogy

Many of us strive to be inclusive in our classrooms but may not have the training to be as effective as we want to be. In this episode, Dr. Amer F. Ahmed joins us to explore inclusive pedagogy and to encourage us to consider our roles as both instructors and learners in intercultural contexts.

Amer is the founder and CEO of AFA Diversity Consulting LLC. He previously served as Director of Intercultural Teaching and Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, as faculty at the Summer and Winter Institutes for Intercultural Communication, and as a member of Speak Out: the Institute for Democratic Education.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Many of us strive to be inclusive in our classrooms but may not have the training to be as effective as we want to be. In this episode, we explore inclusive pedagogy by considering our roles as both instructors and learners in intercultural contexts.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Today our guest is Dr. Amer F. Ahmed. He is the founder and CEO of AFA Diversity Consulting LLC. He previously served as Director of Intercultural Teaching and Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, as faculty at the Summer and Winter Institutes for Intercultural Communication, and as a member of Speak Out: the Institute for Democratic Education. Welcome.

Amer: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

John: Are you drinking any tea?

Amer: Not at the moment, but I like jasmine tea and green tea.

Rebecca: Yum!

John: I’m drinking pineapple ginger green tea.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds yummy.

John: It is.

Rebecca: I am drinking my good old English afternoon tea.

John: …for a change.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about your work on creating inclusive learning environments. Could you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing and what you recommend?

Amer: Yeah, well, in recent months, I’ve been spending a lot of time with various campuses, working with faculty, working with teaching excellence of faculty development units, and diversity officers, on building capacity around inclusive teaching and inclusive pedagogy at various institutions around the country. It’s a big area of emphasis and focus these days for a number of institutions. It’s a tremendous challenge that many institutions are facing in terms of the classroom environment for students in higher education. My work has been on diversity, equity, and inclusion in a number of different arenas within higher education. But more recently, beyond just the broader strategic and institutional strategies and efforts that I work on, there’s been a lot of focus on the classroom and working with faculty on building capacity around that.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by inclusive pedagogy. I think that that’s a term that’s being used a lot, but not defined often.

Amer: Yeah, I think that one thing I learned by working in a faculty development unit was that many faculty have not spent a lot of time in their training and development around teaching in general. Quite honestly, as scholars, we’re trained to be researchers. And then as a result, as a default, we often teach the way that we were taught. And the reality is that there’s historical systems of inequity that are built around who’s privileged in terms of what cultural norm feeds our privilege in the way in which teaching and learning has been traditionally occurring. And Paulo Freire talked about banking and depositing… just the faculty member and the teacher as an expert, just dumping information into students as passive recipients and regurgitators of that information and knowledge. And I think that teaching, really… many people say it’s an art and the idea of pedagogy as a process, right? …that we engage with our students. An inclusive pedagogy, I think, really emphasizes who we are as teachers and learners, and that we all are teachers and learners, but that who we are and our identities and our backgrounds and experiences are all resources for learning. And then the question becomes, what is the process for us to harness the benefits of all those unique backgrounds and experiences and identities that we each bring as related to the content of the course, or of what we’re focusing on in the learning environment? And so I just think that a lot of times, we’re really focused on the content, and of course we should be focused on the content, but less focused on who is in the room, engaging the process of learning.

John: How can we tap into students’ identities? How can we find out information that’s relevant for the course?

Amer: Yeah, well, I think where I try to start is recognizing that we can’t know everything about everybody, right? And again, that’s where we have to think of ourselves as educators as learners as well. We don’t know it all (about anything, certainly), let alone the idea of who our students are. And as a result, can we develop some core competencies and skills around understanding who we are in relationship to who we encounter and have some intercultural skills that position us to be able to learn who our students are, and to draw from who the students are. So then it gets even back to the course design of: have we designed our course to leverage who are students are… to bring that forward. And then to be aware of our biases, when we’re aware of we are in relationship to others, we might realize that, oh, maybe I have some pre-existent stereotypes or perception of what it means to be X, Y, and Z. And instead, can I build a process where students are really articulating who they are, how they understand what we’re engaging in the content of the course in relationship to their backgrounds and experiences. And so I think that, for faculty, I think a lot of the fear is, “I’m going to mess up, I’m going to say the wrong thing.” So can we create a learning environment where it’s okay to make mistakes, but we’re going to do the best we can to understand as much as we can about one another and position ourselves to be able to draw from that to learn?

Rebecca: You said something about designing your course to leverage identity and leverage who’s in the room and who the learners are. Can you give an example from a specific course of what that kind of courses I might look like that does take advantage of that?

Amer: So I taught a global implications of hip hop, race, and spirituality course last fall at UMass Amherst. And one of the projects that I had the students work on was, after we learned some kind of key principles and issues as related to hip hop, and learned some examples of hip hop in different places in the world. I asked them to bring in an example and share an example in the course of hip hop somewhere in the world, that met some of these principles and concepts and ideas that we were talking about. And for me, it was just so fascinating to learn about all these examples. I mean, I’m familiar with a lot of examples of hip hop in different places in the world. And there was plenty that I was not familiar with… examples from Russia, examples from Iran. And it was really interesting to see how students were drawing from their backgrounds and experiences as oftentimes, not always, as a rationale for why they picked that example. So for one student, his roommate was Iranian and he learned a lot about Iran from his roommate. And that’s how he learned about hip hop in Iran and so he wanted to share that with the class. We have other examples of the Dominican-American students wanting to share examples from the Dominican Republic. So not every example was drawn directly from their own personal identity, some of it was just from their experience, but they felt connected to it in a different way, because they had the room and permission to connect who they were. And then we did other things in the course, to really try to harness that. But they understood that their background, experiences, their trajectories, were valued. And then part of how that was also articulated in the course was in their reading responses. I made it very clear to the students that I don’t want just a summary of what the reading was, I’ve read it, you know, I know what’s in it. What I’m curious about is, how do you understand yourself in relationship to what you’re reading? How does it connect to your background and experience? And I think that creates way different responses from students, and for me to affirm when they’re connecting the content to their experience, when I’m validating that that’s what I want… that’s what I like to see. Because whether we like it or not, they’re going to elevate us as faculty members. So they need to know that it’s okay, that that’s what we want. And the incentive is in that. I think for us as faculty, the course becomes less rote. How many times have you heard a faculty member saying, “I taught the same course, again, last semester, I’m teaching it again, this next semester.” You know, no two courses should ever be the same, because you never have the same people in your class. So the question is, what have you done in the class to be able to harness who’s in the room… to make it a new experience every time for you, as well as, of course, a new experience with the students.

Rebecca: It sounds to me like you do a lot to set up a very safe space for learning and discussion. Are there some things that you do at the beginning of the course or in your syllabus to actually set that stage to have those conversations and make students feel comfortable about sharing those experiences?

Amer: Yeah, and “safe space” has become a little bit of a loaded phrase these days. Can you truly make a learning environment truly safe given some of the trauma and backgrounds and experiences that people are bringing into the classroom? And so obviously, many people have been talking about brave spaces these days. Can we find ways to be courageous? But part of how we do that is to try to create mechanisms of safety, to whatever degree we can, for students to want to be courageous and brave and sharing who they are in the classroom. And so for me as a person who started my career in student affairs, just norms… working through creating a set of norms and agreements with your students at the beginning of a course. And this is something that’s widely done in co-curricular learning spaces, as you bring folks together for dialogue. But what I’ve learned is that a lot of faculty don’t do that. And many faculty feel like that’s a waste of time, I’m trying to get to the content. And it’s just one more thing to do. But I think it’s important for students to feel like they’re able to articulate what it is that they feel like they need to be able to be their full, whole authentic selves… participating and engaging the classroom. And sometimes that means students being able to articulate their comfort level with verbal communication, whatever it is, confidentiality, different kinds of expectations that they put out. And as a faculty member, you’re not telling them necessarily, they might say exactly what you were thinking, but the sense of ownership of what’s happening in the classroom… and that I had some kind of say over how we’re going to engage, so that I can feel comfortable bringing myself forward. And so what I do is I create a Google doc. So whatever they come up with, I put that into a Google doc and I make that available to everybody throughout the course, if anybody has concerns about the list that was created by them, they can always let me know and revisit it if they feel like there’s something that’s not working or that I’m not ensuring that those agreements are being held to. But again, it means that I’m not telling them how I expect them to engage. They’re articulating that… again, different ownership over what’s happening in the classroom. And so that means that we’re decentering ourselves in the process, and more of a facilitator role of the learning that’s happening, I think, for a lot of faculty, that seems ludicrous. Like, I’m the expert, I’m the one that went and did all this work to be able to share. But I think the question is, what is the learning that we wanted to see occur? Is it about us downloading this information, and students may or may not grasp all of it, or feel connected to it and be disinterested and disengage in it? Or is there a way for them to connect to it, where they actively engage the learning where they’re more centered, and the idea of student-centered learning where who they is centered more. The faculty member may be decentered more, but that opens up the space to be able to bring more of who everybody is into the learning process.

John: It sounds like one of the important components then is devising learning activities that bring this out, that gives students the opportunity to express themselves and their identity through the activities or through the assignments. Is that correct?

Amer: Yeah. And that’s the reason why faculty need each other as resources. And they need faculty development and teaching excellence offices and units as resources, because every faculty member cannot be expected to come up with all these different kinds of activities. Faculty need support, they need support to be able to do this. But there also needs to be incentive, there needs to be some kind of value in the institution for it to be worth their time. Because it’s like, why am I going to take all this time, energy and effort to be a better teacher, if my entire path to tenure and full professor doesn’t value that in any way, shape, or form, right? So that’s where my system lens comes in around that. So it’s a combination of faculty wanting to teach, and for our academic affairs areas to provide the resources and support a faculty to actually want to develop these skills,

Rebecca: You mentioned the role of teaching center. Can you talk a little bit more about the role that you see teaching centers in helping faculty move forward? What kinds of services or tutorials or what have you?

Amer: Yeah, this is a really evolving space in higher education from my purview. I mean, I’m fortunate that I get to see a lot of different institutional environments, situations in working across so many contexts. Again, we have so many different kinds of institutions, some institutions have really robust resources, and some have one person. And some of those one-person offices are understandable on a really small, private liberal arts institution, but maybe without a lot of resources. But I think what I see universally is that the resources that are made available to faculty are usually voluntary. And then the tendency is that we see junior faculty more likely to tap those resources and I think that it may create goodwill amongst faculty, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into reaching a broad swath of faculty. And so that’s really, I think the big question is, are we going to have resources that actually reach a number of faculty, and are there going to be some incentives and or expectation of faculty utilizing those resources. Increasingly I’m learning more about trying to make more resources available online, and not just links to articles, not just some basic resources, but literally full blown professional development… learning opportunities around effective teaching. But the next piece is the inclusion piece. So there’s a varying degree to which inclusion is focused on in these Teaching Excellence offices. And so what I found as a diversity, equity, and inclusion professional coming into that area, and finding myself to be one of the few people of color around in the field, I mean, obviously, around the country, you’ll find a decent amount. But generally, there’s not a lot, I didn’t come across a lot… So, I haven’t so far. There are some out there. Not to say that you have to be a person of color to advocate for inclusion. But it might be in a lot of context: “Oh, and by the way, we want to try our identities matter and we want to try to be inclusive in some kind of way,” as opposed to a real emphasis and real commitment to embedding it into every aspect of how we engage teaching excellence. And I think that that is something that is very much in process and a lot of places. I see there to be a lot of bifurcation between how we talk about teaching in general, like a lot of people don’t talk about student-centered teaching as a practice of inclusion. A lot of people don’t talk about backwards design of courses as a process towards making a more inclusive classroom, but it is… and so how do we connect in a more clear and articulate way how those mainline, mainstream, faculty development teaching excellence practices connect to broader efforts and work of inclusion? That bifurcation, I think, perpetuates faculties perception that the inclusion piece is not relevant, especially if they’re in a field that they think the content of their work is not relevant to those conversations.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting that in a series of episodes that we’ve had on inclusion, this kind of theme bubbles up frequently… that evidence-based practices are a good way to start to be inclusive. And focusing on teaching and being student centered is a good way to be inclusive. So it’s interesting that that kind of bubbles up once again in this conversation. I think it’s also interesting to hear you talk about because I feel like I’ve experienced this a bit, that there’s teaching center stuff and that’s like one silo. And then diversity/inclusion is another silo. And accessibility and disability is another silo. But they’re all interconnected and we don’t often interact necessarily or work on things collaboratively in a way that could be useful. I think your background in student affairs also is another area where that’s its own silo. And those folks don’t necessarily interact with the academic folks as often as perhaps they could, because there’s a lot of different expertise in both of those silos, essentially, that benefit from one another.

Amer: Yeah, the student affairs piece was exactly where I was going to go. It was just shocking to me to move across from student affairs to academic affairs, and find out that norms and agreements were just not something that most faculty did and was not even like on the radar. I just was shocked by that when I first encountered it. I’ll never forget my first staff meeting… and coming from a student affairs background, you’re student centered, you’re thinking about students all the time. And I just remember, it was just in a staff meeting, saying, “You know, why don’t we get a student perspective on what they think faculty need?” And I was just looked at, like, I was an alien. I mean they were just like, “What are you talking about?” “Why would we ever ask a student?”… you know, and it’s like, because they’re the recipients of what faculty do… you know what I mean? So they have another perspective that could be valuable in getting us to think about what faculty need, not just hearing from faculty about what they need, but hearing from students too. So there’s all these different ways in which se silos end up creating challenges and I feel blessed and fortunate that I’ve worked across them. And it gives me a lens and perspective, but I increasingly find that that’s not typical as I work across the country.

Rebecca: Do you have some examples of really successful ways that folks have worked across areas or have been a little more integrated in the way that they think about inclusion and evidence based-practices and student and academic affairs that are worth maybe sharing as a model?

Amer: Well, I would say that anywhere that that’s happening, there’s a robust diversity, equity, and inclusion apparatus, structural work that’s working collaboratively across the institution. Because those areas, if they’re going to be effective, they have to be collaborative with Academic and Student Affairs. A senior Diversity Officer at a cabinet level, needs to have a good relationship with the Provost, and needs to have a good relationship with the VP of Student Affairs. So most of the examples that I know, there was a robust infrastructure around that, and where that more synergistic work is housed varies. Sometimes that can be within a Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, where they’re doing some academic support resources, they may be working with a teaching excellence office collaboratively. I can think of Wake Forest as a place that I knew some of those things were happening. But I still think that, in a lot of places, too much of this is dependent on personnel-dependent relationships, and not structurally positioned to really create the expectation that these areas and some dotted lines in the org chart to really say that we think that these things are directly relevant and important and need to be connected. But yeah, too often teaching excellence and faculty development units are not at all connected to the diversity apparatus. I think it’s starting to happen because the Chief Diversity Officers are increasingly focused on the academic affairs area, and the need to engage that tough slog and the fact that students are protesting all over the country about their experiences in the classroom, but a lot of it usually depends on your Provost. And do they see the connection? Are they committed? Do they want to have a strong relationship with their senior Diversity Officer at a Cabinet level? Some institutions, their senior diversity officer is a Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion under the Provost and those are the places that I think you tend to see more of a natural connection because they’re within the same division of the institution. But oftentimes, in my experience, that silo between Academic and Student Affairs is a chasm, which is true in most institutions. But I think in a lot of those institutions, and they might have a separate focus on diversity within Student Affairs that is really operating almost autonomously from what’s going on the classroom stuff.

John: Let’s bring this back a little bit more to inclusion in the classroom. You mentioned a couple things that faculty can do. One is having students create rules for engagement in discussion and creating more activities that naturally bring students more in. Are there any other suggestions you have on what faculty who would like to start making their classroom more inclusive could do to make some progress in this direction?

Amer: Yeah, there’s obviously work that you can do in the content in terms of who are the authors, what perspectives they’re bringing of the content. Because if every single person that you’re citing for the content of your workshop is a white man, then at this point, most fields have a broader selection of people to draw from, or at the very least, highlighting key contributors to a field who are from backgrounds that have been historically marginalized, and noting their contributions. And so that’s a long way of saying there’s a curricular way to get it as well, that’s important. I’ll never forget my first English class in college, and it was a requirement, I went to Miami University in Ohio, and, you know, white male teacher, but he decided that all our reading was going to be World Literature translated into English from around the world. And I was writing my assignments, I thought, “Okay, whatever, I’m just going to do my homework and respond to these readings.” And again, it’s also about does the faculty member value the perspective that you’re bringing, and he made a point to make clear to me, like “You’re articulating perspectives, that are really different from anything I’ve ever heard, and from anybody else in the class.” And for me… and I think this is particularly true for younger students… is that I had never heard anybody say that to me before. Like, I didn’t think there was a value of being South-Asian and Muslim. I just thought it would made me different and weird from the majority, I didn’t think that was an asset. I didn’t think that there was something valuable to that. I didn’t know that what I saw and my perspective, that that was a resource for what was happening in the classroom, but he did. He valued that and he wanted to leverage that and he wanted to help me understand why it was valuable, so that I would be more willing to share my perspective, if I wanted to, towards what was happening in the classroom. And that’s why you have to set up the agreement about how we’re going to engage, so that I’m going to want to share that. Because I think, oftentimes, faculty in the desire for that student who might be a different background from everybody else to share, they may end up tokenizing, unintentionally, that student. And so that’s why it’s better to build it into the process, where you’re drawing it out from students, and they’re really making the connection on their own.

John: Because if you’re going to ask students to be representative of some group, you run the risk of stereotype threat and so forth, and making them feel more marginalized. Right?

Amer: Right. That’s part of those core intercultural skills and competencies we have to learn is that our identities are complicated. For students to be able to self articulate how they understand what they’re engaged in, in the learning, as related to their experience, it’s all about creating an environment where they’re going to want to do that.

Rebecca: I think kind of highlighting the idea of a personal note on an assignment. that is thoughtful… could be brief, but demonstrates that you’ve read, you understand, and that you’re interested,… that can go a long way in setting up the environment when everybody’s around so that private encounter can be really important to more public interactions. And I think that we don’t always think as faculty like the power in doing something, frankly, that’s fairly simple like that.

Amer: Yeah. So I had their weekly readings… and again, I made it really clear that I want to know about what you think, how do you connect your background experience to what we just read? How does this resonate for you? Don’t regurgitate it, because I read it. And the thing is that now they’ve spent some time connecting it to their experience before they’ve gone into class. And so for some students, they’re not comfortable just improvising in the moment in class. And so what I’m saying is that, when we engage in the conversation in class, you can draw from what you wrote, you don’t have to come up with it on the spot. Some students, they’re more comfortable with that; other students they’re going to want to look at what they wrote to really be their prompt. And here’s the other thing, as a faculty member, I know that they wrote it. And so if they don’t feel comfortable speaking or engaging, I’m not going to penalize them for that, because I know that they read it and I know they connected to their experience already. And obviously, you’re going to try to do what you can small group work, dyad work, other kinds of ways of getting them to engage, because some students are just not going to be comfortable engaging in a large group setting.

Rebecca: You mentioned a few minutes ago about intercultural competencies that faculty need to obtain. Can you outline what some of those are, so that faculty that are newer to this area, or really interested in inclusion but really haven’t thought about the competencies that they need to obtain… the little checklist of things to think about?

Amer: Yeah, and I will say that it’s really important to note that it’s a lifelong process, right? For all of us. We’re all learning, we’re all encountering, we all have assumptions and I think that sometimes I think it’s important to highlight that we all are in that process, because sometimes it feels like we’re saying, some of you have to learn and the rest of us, we already got it. Maybe because I was South Asian and Muslim, I had to adapt and adjust to more types that I’m more aware of more types of things automatically through my experience. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a whole lot to learn still. Let me just give you a quick example. I was at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity a couple weeks ago, and I’m sitting in the car with three Pacific Islanders and we’re going back to our hotel from a social gathering and I find out that three of us are Muslim in the conversation. Now, I have to admit, I did not think that I was going to be in a car with two other Muslim people, given that three of them were Pacific Islanders; that was just my assumption that I made that clearly turned out to be incorrect. Now, I didn’t articulate that until later… I mean, I told them, because I was like, yeah, I have to be honest. But there was enough trust in those encounters and relationships. But my point is that we all are capable, we all have that learning to do, we all are going to make our assumptions and so forth. Some of the core competencies around intercultural development are self awareness… for me, the foundation is self awareness, we have to be able to spend some time reflecting on who we are, how do we understand ourselves and our experiences, our biases, our styles, our identities, including social identities in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class. For folks from other countries, maybe race might not be something that they’re used to thinking about and that’s fine. So for somebody coming from India as a professor, okay, well, if it’s not race, then I know that there’s caste and there’s religion, and there’s other historically based systems of inequity. How does that shape your understanding? How are you positioned in relationship to those things? How does that shape your understanding of the world in their experience? I always find it to be interesting that we are asked to be self reflective as researchers, but not as teachers. I think that’s really an interesting thing. So absolute foundation… because to me, if you don’t have that foundational level of self awareness, you don’t have the reference point that you need to be able to empathize, which is the next key competency, and that when I say empathy, it’s validating someone else’s experience as true for them. We don’t have to agree and this is another area in which academics struggle, right? A lot of times we think that well, because I’m entitled to my point of view, no matter what, then I don’t have to be empathetic, because I don’t agree with you. And that’s not necessarily the case. So if a woman is saying to me, a woman identified individual, shares with me that she feels uncomfortable every time somebody is around, and I say that I’m sure they mean no harm, it doesn’t make me a bad person, it just means I’m not being empathetic. I’ve just dismissed how she feels and what her experience is and so it creates unnecessary barriers between us. If I did something like that, what’s the likelihood of that person’s gonna want to come to me the next time something’s going wrong for them? So when we work on it, it makes us more approachable. It makes us more trusted in these things. Another competency or skill is tolerance for ambiguity and I think this is a big one. Being okay with the fact that you don’t know all the details all the time and that’s okay. I did not know I was going to be sitting in a car with two other Muslims out of the three other Pacific Islanders in the car. But quite honestly, when they disclosed it, I wasn’t like, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” I didn’t do that because I’m like, okay, I didn’t know. I sat with the ambiguity, right? …rather than trying to make them feel strange for the fact that they’re Pacific Islander and Muslim. So for me, I get people asking, “What are you?”

And I’m a little bit racially ambiguous. And I’m like, “Well, I’m a person…” …you know.

“Well, where are you from?”

I’m like, “Well, I’m from Ohio, originally, and…”

”No, where are you originally from?”

And that can happen the first time you meet somebody. We don’t have a relationship… we haven’t established one… and I don’t necessarily feel like sharing my entire ancestral lineage with someone the first time I meet them. And some people are okay with that. Some people like being asked that. To me, I get asked that so often I’m like, “You know, I’m good.” I feel essentialized and tokenized in those situations and that creates a barrier… Again, unnecessary. So can we sit with that ambiguity? And that’s tied to things like patience, but it is good to be curious, a lot of people are like, “Well, isn’t it good to be curious and want to know”and I’m like “Yeah, that’s great.” Now with that curiosity, be patient and sit with the ambiguity as long as you can. But it’s important to be curious, because if you’re not curious, you don’t even want to know. So it’s important to be curious. These are some of the core competencies and skills that it’s helpful for everybody to work on, to position ourselves to be more likely to be successful. And then it’s like, knowing that we’re all going to make mistakes, and can we create an environment with enough trust to where we understand that mistakes will be made? And I think that’s important as well.

Rebecca: And the key there, right, is that there’s mistakes with both faculty and with students, right? Anybody can have mistakes.

Amer: Anybody is capable, so then it becomes how we navigate that and I think that’s part of those difficult conversations… concerns that a lot of faculty have these days.

John: How would you suggest faculty address that if they or a student makes an insensitive comment that offends other people, what would be a good approach?

Amer: Well, there’s a whole set of things tied to our whole conversation about how you create the environment. So there’s a prep in terms of how you create the environment for navigating moments like that. But then there’s like, what are you going to actually do in the moment? …and one of the things that some of my colleagues and I have talked about is that you’re allowed to pause… you know what I mean? …like to take a moment and really try to reflect. I think, also, it’s really helpful to ask clarifying questions. Can you help me understand what you mean by what you’re saying? Or where are you coming from? Can you help clarify? Because I think sometimes when we react, it’s not always necessarily operating from the clearest place and so asking the person who’s sharing to be a little bit clear about where they’re coming from, and the basis of their rationale for why they’re saying what they’re saying. That preps work and working on your intercultural skills, those are the things that are going to help you to be more likely to recognize that something is occurring. I think one of the number one things that students get upset by is it something that they view as problematic has come up and been said or asked and the faculty member didn’t notice it, didn’t recognize it, didn’t note it, didn’t say anything about it, didn’t address it, just kept on going. So there’s two things here. One is that if that happens, you’re allowed to go back the next class, if you reflect or a student contacts you and say, “Hey, you know, there was something that happened in the last class that I just want to address.” I know, folks are like, “I gotta get to my content,…” but you have to remember that you may have just lost a bunch of students in your class… they’re not going to trust you and they’re not going to go with you the rest of the course, if you just keep going. So you still have an opportunity to come back at the beginning of the next class, and to say, “Hey, I was reflecting” and to address it then, so that the rest of the students know that you are aware, and that it does matter to you, and that you’re going to try to do whatever you can to address it. And you may have to say we’re not going to resolve this here, but I do want to acknowledge that there were some concerns or x, y, and z. I think it’s important that we know that there were different sentiments or feelings or whatever. So those are some of the initial things that I really try to get folks to think about.

Rebecca: One of the things that I heard you say without directly saying it, I think, is that sometimes our gut reaction might be judgmental.

Amer: Yeah.

Rebecca: And it comes out that way, rather than from a place of wanting everybody to learn.

Amer: Yeah, I think this is an important thing for a number of people, of a number of trajectories and backgrounds. And what I’ve been talking about a lot is the difference between reacting and responding. Responding requires critical reflection, reacting is like that you have a stimulus, and then you do exactly whatever your response is to that stimulus. This is important for everybody. But I think if you’re from a marginalized identity, I think this is a big one, because students can say things that are triggering for you that you may have been traumatized or marginalized as a faculty member, I think that’s part of the reason why it’s important to do a lot of self work and reflection. And I think part of what we need to talk about is faculty getting the time to be able to be reflective, and that that being a value, that that is actually valuable for faculty to have the time to be reflective about who they are and what they bring to the classroom. Because the thing is that when we react, that’s when we’re more likely to draw from our implicit biases, that’s when we’re more likely to commit a micro aggression against a student, that’s when we’re more likely to do those things. And so we need the opportunity to reflect, to take the time to really understand who we are in relationship to other colleagues, with our students, so that we’re more likely to bring our best self into the classroom. That also involves faculty getting the opportunity to engage one another around these conversations. The number one thing I’ve noticed around the faculty development spaces around teaching is that they love the opportunity to talk to one another about what they’re experiencing, and what’s working for them and where their challenges are, and so forth. And they need the opportunity and space to do that. And I know that’s hard. Sometimes it involves faculty unions, and contracts and stuff, but I think we just got to make it part of what we do and ee got to create space for faculty to engage each other on these things.

Rebecca: Are there things that we think we should also address that we haven’t addressed yet?

Amer: I do want to note that I know that we’re in a very intense political and social climate in multiple trajectories and I don’t want to sound like I’m creating any false equivalencies. There’s hate, and there’s people being targeted for their identities and that’s a factor for what’s going on and that’s horrible. But there’s also, what I refer to as the culture of campus social justice elitism, in which I think we’ve created a new hierarchy around the language and discourse of social justice. Actually, there’s a reason why I talk the way I do around this stuff, and not constantly using an elitist form of discourse of social justice. And part of that, for me, is rooted in the fact that I was an activist before I came into the work… and more connected to grassroots activism. What I would say to my students sometimes is, let’s take all your big words, because they’re replicating what the academy is doing. It’s teaching them these words and languages and it’s like a way of showing that they know, which is where all the incentives are in the academy. None of the incentives are around not knowing, they’re all around knowing. So even around social justice stuff, I’m going to be performative around how much I know. One of the things I used to say to my students when I was at the University of Michigan, and I was like “let’s go to Detroit, where some people are organizing in the community. Let’s take all those words. And let’s just see how that’s going to go. These are the communities that you say that you advocate for and… you know what I’m saying?” …and I think they know. I think part of what we have to recognize is that it’s not just what students are doing, they’re being positioned to do certain things, whether it’s the impact of technology, whether it’s the way the Academy is structured, whether it’s where they are developmentally if they’re young adults, we have to continue to account for that. And so part of why we have to do our work is so that we don’t take it so personal. And yes, it’s hard. It is frustrating when students come at us in some of the ways that have been happening these days. And quite honestly, I think part of the reason why faculty are engaging these resources these days more is because they’re scared to death that they’re going to get blasted on social media, because they’ve heard it happen to a colleague or someone they went to graduate school, and they really don’t want that to happen to them. I wish that wasn’t the motivating factor for some faculty, but increasingly it is. So I’m not going to say that I have a magic wand. And I get, on a general level, the challenges of our time and the moment. But I don’t think that that’s a reason to not engage these processes and not to be committed to it. And we have to do that with authenticity, and recognizing that we also don’t have all the answers. So all we can do is just do the best we can. And if we’re committed to it, we can go down a path towards creating a more inclusive learning environment for all.

John: And whatever brings faculty to this if they create a more inclusive learning environment, it’s all to the good.

Amer: Yes, exactly. Absolutely. One of the reasons why I made sure that I prefaced what I said with “I don’t want to minimize the fact that there are people being attacked for their identities these days.” First of all, I’m part of one of those groups that gets attacked incessantly and demonized so I fully understand that. But secondarily, I think part of it is that we’re in this binary dualism of like, if you say one thing, that means you’re the opposite. Or if you say one thing that that means that you’re planting your flag in the ground. And this dualism means you’re either on one side or the other. And I think the academy shouldn’t be about dualism, I think it should be about exploration of knowledge, which is much more nuanced than dualistic camps on things. So I really do think that we need to actually start valuing and emphasizing not knowing, and I think that would actually make our teaching better.

Rebecca: I love that idea. Not knowing and being curious. That is really what the Academy is actually about. That’s what learning is about. It’s actually the not knowing.

Amer: That’s what it’s supposed to be about.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Amer: But I do think that the systems of the academy position us to replicate the idea that the only thing that matters is knowing; that critical thinking, even just epistemologically, we say that critical thinking is… in many cultural contexts, intellectual critical thinking knowledge is only one paradigm of knowledge, and that there’s other forms of knowledge that we can draw from. And that’s part of what we have to be open about. And that’s part of what our students are bringing from their various trajectories that they’re coming from… many different types of ways of knowing and being in the world.

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

Amer: Well, the most immediate next thing is that I’m, in terms of professionally, is that I’m giving a keynote at a Jesuit institution diversity conference, I’m really excited about that. I’m very interested in the idea of connecting more intentionally religion and spirituality to broader intersections of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think that oftentimes gets separated out. And I think for a person like me, who is part of a community that’s targeted, partially because of racism, but partially also because of faith, that I think is something that we need to spend more time being willing to engage. And I think too often in the academy we’re dismissive of religion and spirituality as something that is intellectually weak.. You know, weak minded or something. So it’s something that I’m particularly interested in, and I’m actually going to be co editing a volume focusing on that, which I’m really excited about as well.

Rebecca: That sounds really interesting and definitely fills a space that’s very empty.

Amer: Yeah. And particularly on a practical level, like how do we actually support and work with students and various constituencies on our campus around that?

John: Well, thank you for joining us. This has been a fascinating conversation, and I hope it helps lots of people in moving towards a more inclusive environment.

Amer: Thanks so much.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for your insights, This was really, a really productive conversation.

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

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