128. Cultural Acclimation

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

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

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

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

Don: Hi. Glad to be on.

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

John: Are you drinking tea?

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

Fiona: Oh.

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

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

Don: I am looking at Green tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don: Right.

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

Don: Oh, that’s got to be tough.

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

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

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

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

John: Is lecture capture used there at all?

Don: I don’t use it.

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

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

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

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

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

Don: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

Fiona: That’s great.

John: Sounds really good.

Fiona: Good luck with all of it.

Don: Thank you.

Fiona: Sounds like a very worthy intervention.

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

Don: Thanks for having me, so much.

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

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

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53. Teaching faculty

How do faculty learn to teach? In many graduate programs, the emphasis is on research and publications—yet, many of these graduates end up in teaching positions. In this episode, Kristina Mitchell and Whitney Ross Manzo join us to discuss the structures and incentives that undermine good teaching and explore ways to help grad students and new faculty prepare for their careers in higher education. Kristina Mitchell is a faculty member and Director of the Online Education Program for the Political Science Department at Texas Tech. Whitney Ross Manzo is an assistant professor of Political Science and the Assistant Director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: How do faculty learn to teach? In many graduate programs, the emphasis is on research and publications—yet, many of these graduates end up in teaching positions. In this episode, we discuss the structures and incentives that undermine good teaching and explore ways to help grad students and new faculty prepare for their careers in higher education.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[Music]

Rebecca: Our guests today are Kristina Mitchell, a faculty member and Director of the Online Education Program for the Political Science Department at Texas Tech, and Whitney Ross Manzo, an assistant professor of Political Science and the Assistant Director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Welcome, Whitney and welcome back, Kristina.

Whitney/Kristina: Hi, thanks for having us.

John: It’s good to have both of you here. Our teas today are…

Whitney: I’m actually drinking water.,

Kristina: I have my usual Diet Coke.

[LAUGHTER]

John: …as on two previous episodes. One of our most popular episodes, by the way, the one on gender bias and course evaluations is in our top three, I think.

Rebecca: Yep.

Kristina: Great!

Rebecca: John, how about you?

John: I am drinking ginger green tea.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking my usual. [LAUGHTER] English afternoon tea once again.

John: I was gonna ask you if it was Dragon Oolong

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah. Sounds like most of us are drinking our usuals, huh? So it’s not uncommon to have conversations about job preparedness and transitioning from student to professional and undergraduate education. What is more uncommon is challenging whether or not PhD or other advanced degree programs prepare students for the work that they will be doing like both of you did in a recent Inside Higher Ed article. What do you think prevents us from having that conversation?

Whitney: I think that there are incentives for professors at R1 universities to recreate themselves. So, I think that it’s an uncomfortable conversation for many R1 professors to even want to start because they probably don’t want to look too closely at this issue because I think to do it correctly might call for a pretty radical change in how we structure a lot of grad programs.

John: Is this because the prestige of the institution or the department is tied to the placements in our one universities and the publication record of the graduates?

Whitney: Yeah, very much so.

Kristina: I definitely think so as well. I think that a lot of times when PhD programs are advertising their programs to potential students, one of the things that students want to see is what kind of placement their graduates are getting. So programs that place their students really well attract the top graduate students and those graduate students, because they are great graduate students that have chosen this program, they get good placements which then continues to attract the best graduate students. So it can be really difficult for sort of mid- to low-level PhD producing institutions to attract good students because of this sort of self-perpetuating cycle. But the incentive is still there to try and compete with the top-tier institution that each faculty member who’s sponsoring a PhD graduate, they want their student to get the highest placement possible which means training them like a researcher.

John: Because we don’t have a similar sort of ranking system in terms of teaching productivity.

Kristina: Not at all.

Whitney: Exactly. We could have a whole conversation about how there should be two kinds of professors at R1 universities: the research professors and the teaching professors. But in the current climate in academia, teaching professors are not considered as prestigious as the research professors for a lot of the reasons that Kristina just outlined. So there’s no reason for an R1 professor to learn how to be a good teacher or to keep up in current pedagogy because what they need to be keeping up on is current research practices.

Rebecca: One of the things that the two of you outline in your article is that there’s a very small subset of people earning PhDs who actually go into R1s and do this academic research. But most of them end up in positions where teaching is a big part of their workload. But as we just mentioned, very few of them have been trained to be teachers. So why do you think there’s such a disconnect other than this prestige piece? Is there anything else to the puzzle?

Whitney: Well, I would argue that many R1 professors, because of the research incentives, haven’t really learned how to be good teachers themselves. So they might feel as though they don’t have the qualifications to teach someone else how to be a good teacher.

John: And they’ve also been hired because of their expertise and their publications, which doesn’t put much weight on the quality of their teaching. So, what can we do about that?

Kristina: That’s a great question. So, right now I am at an R1 institution with a PhD program in Political Science and we’ve had this conversation. It is a difficult conversation to have because a lot of times, I think professors view that if their students get placements at full time at a community college or even at a teaching institution, that that’s not a good placement—that there’s something “less than” or something “failure” about that kind of placement. So I think one of the most important things is just to change the culture about the way we talk about these things and that’s something that can’t change overnight obviously—this is a really slow process. But instead of telling our graduate students “You need to publish so you can get a really good research placement,” asking students to tell us why they’re here, “Why are you in graduate school? What do you want to do afterwards?” and sometimes that can result in really difficult conversations with my undergrads who want to go into graduate school. When they say, “I want to go into graduate school, I want to be you when I grow up, I want to be a professor, I want to do research—this is something I want to do,” I tell them, “then you better make sure you go to a top 20 program.” Because if you aren’t in one of those programs, the likelihood of you getting an R1 research professorship is really low. And so if we have PhD candidates who are saying, “What I really want to do is work at an R1 institution,” we need to be candid with them about what their odds are and how they can go from a mid- or low- tier PhD producing institution up to an R1—it’s gonna be a long process with a lot of publishing and you can kind of publish your way out. But alternatively, it’s also important to value the students that say, “What I want to do is teach” or “What I want to do is go into industry or paid consultant—that’s what I want to do with my PhD.” If we can change the culture enough to not view teaching as a low- end placement instead of to start thinking of it as a legitimate career opportunity, then maybe that can help us think about how we can better prepare PhD students.

Whitney: I think that that’s a really important point to encourage the people who come and get a PhD because they want to be teachers at teaching institutions. Not only because that’s the more likely job that they’ll have, but also because of actually the tweet that started this whole thing, which we referenced in the article from Simon Hix who said that over the course of his career, the thing that has been most meaningful to him have been the interactions he’s had with students and the teaching opportunities that he’s had with them. So I think that if we have this mindset that the only thing that’s worthwhile is being a proph at an R1 and doing high-level research that’s cited all over the place, but that’s not the only thing that is meaningful in academia. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with acknowledging that… yeah, you can be a really awesome teacher and lead students to be the next generation of leaders themselves.

Rebecca: One of the things that you’ve both mentioned is the change that would need to happen takes a lot of time. So, for students who are in the position where they might want to be a teaching faculty member and they want to emphasize teaching but they’re at a university that doesn’t provide those kinds of experiences, what kind of advice or guidance can we give those students to gain the experience that they might need to actually get a job at a teaching institution, because if you don’t have experience then you often can’t get those positions either.

Kristina: Absolutely. So one of the things that I do at Texas Tech with our graduate students… So I do a lot of publication and research on pedagogy, so they’re hearing messages from their graduate faculty—which I don’t teach grad students, I only teach undergrads—but they are hearing the messaging from the graduate faculty that they need to focus on publishing and then they’re also having a realistic expectation of the kind of job they can get. So oftentimes what I do is offer—if they want to co-author a pedagogy piece with me—then that can kind of kill two birds with one stone and I can pull some of those publication expectations while making them more marketable in the teaching faculty job market. So, having a pedagogy piece—a published pedagogy piece—can send a signal to a search committee for teaching intensive position that pedagogy is something that you care about and that you’re applying your research skills that you learned in your PhD program to the way you’re gonna teach.

John: Some of this, I think, carries over a bit to undergraduate institutions where most of the people coming out of grad school tend to emphasize research that often seems to carry through through the promotion and tenure process because even at undergraduate institutions where their primary focus is on teaching, much of the promotion, merit pay, and so forth is tied to publications and it seems like it may be part of a broader cultural issue, not just at the graduate program level. What do you think?

Whitney: Well, so I’m at a teaching institution and I was actually that student that you just referred to, Rebecca; the one who knew they wanted to do teaching right off the bat. My adviser kind of discouraged me from it, but once he could see I was serious he helped me get teaching assignments at my R1 institution so that I could have that on my resume, which I would say is the number one piece of advice I could give anybody who wants to get a teaching job is have a class that you were the primary instructor on. So, at my institution now, I got my job, I’m tenure track and I am still expected to publish, but I do get credit for those pedagogy pieces that Christina was referring to, which don’t always garner the same kind of promotion credit at an R1. So I am expected to publish and be active in my field but what that means is a lot different than what it means at an R1. It doesn’t mean I have to land pieces in the top three political science journals. if I’m getting the name of my institution out in the media in something like this or if I am quoted in an op-ed, then it doesn’t count as much, but it’s kind of an incremental count because one of the things that teaching institutions often deal with is they’re smaller and they have less budgets, so they need the media attention, and that can be even more valuable than if I publish something in JOP.

John: And you mentioned the scholarship of learning and teaching; that’s an area that’s grown quite a bit in, I think, most disciplines. That seems to be perhaps an avenue by which some of this problem could be addressed (as Kristina just said). When I was a grad student, there was very little research being done on teaching and learning and now most academic disciplines have journals and group meetings or sub group meetings where they focus on these things. So, maybe that’s an area where we’re making some progress.

Kristina: I definitely think so. While the scholarship of teaching and learning pieces certainly aren’t as highly valued or are considered as prestigious at this point, I’ve been saying that graduate programs are missing a big opportunity to develop a niche in what kinds of tracks they offer. So most political science graduate programs will offer… you’re an international specialist or you’re an American politics specialist, perhaps you’re a method specialist; graduate programs are missing an opportunity to offer a track where you’re a teaching political science specialist. If we had faculty members who are publishing and experts in the teaching scholarship of political science, that program could market themselves as “we are the program that generates people who are going to teach political science,” and that could be a great way to start getting your graduate program—maybe you’re a mid-level or low-level R1—but if your graduate program gets nationally liberal arts colleges; that’s just as many state tuition dollars for PhD students as a student who’s studying international relations.

John: …and it could give those students a bit of an edge when they go into the job market too.

Rebecca: I also just want to add that these same issues apply to art schools in places where faculty might be getting other kinds of terminal degrees as well, where their focus might not be on traditional research but they’re doing scholarly activity or creative activity, like doing music or art or whatever and they’re focused so much on their studio practice that they don’t focus on teaching either, so most of the conversations focused specifically on PhD programs, but the same issue applies to some of these other contexts as well.

Whitney: Well, and I think another thing that’s important if you’re in a social science, especially, you’ve been heavily trained in methodology and we have some world-class research skills and I think it’s important to apply that to the scholarship of teaching and learning as well. Actually, Christina and I’s whole publishing relationship started because of an instructional designer at Texas Tech who gave Christina evidence that Christina was like, wait a second, I’m not sure I believe this, let me go look it up. And we were disappointed to see the lack of consistent rigor in the scholarship of teaching and learning and so I think because we’ve already been working on these really rigorous methodological skills, it makes sense that we could also apply them to the scholarship of teaching and learning and ensure that we really are achieving the learning outcomes that all of our colleges and accrediting institutions want us to achieve.

Rebecca: One of the things that we haven’t addressed much but I think is worth addressing is the role that colleges who hire PhDs as teaching faculty—what role they play in helping these new faculty members develop teaching skills and what their responsibility is in relationship to the R1 institutions who are producing these potential candidates.

Kristina: I have seen a growth in professionalization courses in PhD programs and most universities and colleges at this point do have something that resembles like a center for teaching and learning or something similar to this that’s trying to systematize the way we teach our teachers. Oftentimes these are geared toward new faculty, maybe not towards graduate students but typically they try to make them available. I think that we could do a better job at requiring them and at encouraging them as valuable for graduate student’s potential careers. I do find that a lot of the professionalism courses and sessions that I observe are more about the professionalization in terms of publishing and going to academic conferences and getting your CV ready to go on the job market and give job talks. So, we’re moving in the right direction in terms of learning to socialize our graduate students into what to expect, but I still think we have some disconnects between the job market as they will experience it. Now, maybe if you’re at one of the top 10 or 20 programs in the country this isn’t gonna matter, but if you’re not, then this could be the difference between you getting a job and having to adjunct seven courses a semester.

John: Now I think some disciplines have made some progress: chemistry and physics, for example, and math have tracks in math ed, or chemistry education, or physics education where people actually focus on research in that, but it hasn’t made it through all the disciplines. I’ve been the chair of our recruitment committee in my department for 30 years or so now roughly, and I have noticed though that more and more students are coming out with some background, even at R1 institutions, and I know when we go in the job market—maybe because of my position in the teaching center here—one of the things we look at is what sort of background they have in evidence-based teaching practices and so forth, and the people who generally come out in the top of our searches are people who have at least considered these issues or are aware of these issues. I’m not sure how widespread that is though in other departments.

Kristina: And to be fair, we are limited; we’re both political scientists, so we’re both limited to what our experience was and the experience of those in similar fields that we know.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a lot about two different tracks: PhD candidates from an R1 institution who might get those small select positions as a researcher at an R1 institution and then we’ve got the track of people who might become faculty at more of a teaching institution. What about the other PhD candidates and those that might end up in other kinds of roles like consulting or other things that you mentioned previously? What are we doing for them, or what do we need to be doing for them?

Whitney: I think that the research track doesn’t just have to be for people who want to go on to R1 professorships because the research skills that you learn you can use in a lot of places that really need researchers, especially in government. My backup job actually, in case I didn’t get a teaching job, was going to be a statistician just because of all of the stats that I’ve picked up along the way. So, I think that the research track could be just a research track and what you do with it after is up to you but I do think that there is a whole class of people who maybe want a PhD just because they enjoy learning and want the PhD or maybe they just need the credential to move up in their career and they don’t necessarily want to learn how to teach or they don’t necessarily want to learn how to do research at an R1 level and I think those people are definitely falling out of the grad programs and that’s a shame because I think that there are a lot of lower ranked PhD institutions that again, like Kristina was talking about earlier, that could be their marketing: come here and we’re not gonna bombard you with how to publish in APSR and we’re not gonna bombard you with pedagogy, but you can get the basic skills that you need and write a dissertation and get the credential that you’re looking for.

Kristina: I think there’s also some cultural shifts that need to happen here as well because if getting a tenure-track offer at a teaching institution or a full-time offer at a community college is considered a failure then even more so I think often leaving academia completely to go into industry is considered like the ultimate failure, and I don’t know how universal that is across disciplines. I would imagine things that have a little more practical application would have less of this problem than specific to academia disciplines like political science, sociology, psychology. But, thinking about leaving academia completely is sort of the ultimate failure when there’s plenty people that want to do that and are very successful at doing so. We have a department of public administration within political science at Texas Tech and it’s a terminal master’s degree and oftentimes I hear… well,like the culture in the department is sometimes that the students that are seeking this master’s in public administration they don’t care as much about the research methods, they’re not as interested in learning the statistics or, of course, definitely not learning the pedagogy. It’s much more of a professional and vocational degree and at the end of the day our graduates from that program are probably earning a lot more money than our graduates from our PhD in political science programs. So, thinking about how we can shift the way we view our students career goals and try to match what we teach them to that. That’s something that we talk about in undergraduate education all the time: what do our students want to be when they grow up and how can we give them those skills. There’s no reason why we can’t use that same logic to think about our graduate programs.

John: The same is certainly true in economics. A lot of graduate students, sometimes with PhDs, end up working in government research positions as econometricians, working for example for the Department of Labor or the Census Bureau and so forth… and while sometimes it’s seen as being a somewhat lower position, they get paid a lot more, but we call that compensating wage differentials. T hey have to do these jobs that may be a little less pleasant so they have to get paid more to compensate for the fact that they’re not in academia. They disagree on that feeling quite often. [LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Well they don’t get their summers off.

John: They don’t get their summers off. What prompted you to address this topic?

Whitney: I just want to be really clear that Christina and I had an overall pretty positive experience at our grad institution, so this whole conversation didn’t come out of a feeling of anger. The whole idea came to me first when I was looking on Twitter and I saw the Simon Hix tweet about how much he valued teaching and I was texting Christina and I was like, you know, that’s how I feel too. I really value my teaching but I think sometimes that’s not the most valued thing in all of academia and she was like, “yes, at my institution sometimes being at a teaching institution is seen as lesser than” and so it started this whole conversation about how different the cultures are in our work, but how ultimately we’re both satisfied with where we are and that’s where the whole idea for this article came from. Just thinking about the different cultures that there are in academia and how they can vary so much and yet we prepare students generally uniformly across academia.

Kristina: Yeah, that’s a really good way to put it. Whitney and I went to the same graduate program; we were just a couple of years apart. So we received essentially the same training, which had very little focus on teaching or on what you do if you don’t want to be a researcher or to go to an R1 institution. As I’ve spoken to faculty members at our institution since then; of course we warned them that this piece was coming so they wouldn’t think we were trying to trash our department. But they’ve said that they’ve done things since we were there to try and make that better, especially as they’ve seen where their students are ending up. So, while there’s still a big focus on research being an R1 institution, University of Texas of Dallas is never going to not train researchers, but they recognize that a lot of the students that are coming to that program are looking for non-R1 jobs. And our former professors. seeing where we’ve gone—Whitney’s at a teaching institution; I am a non-tenure-track at an R1, and so I think they’ve been able to look at that history and say, how can we better prepare our students for either one of these options.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’d really love to see more programs include is something that I had in my own graduate education which was a training program for teaching—which gave me a leg up in a lot pursuits that I had professionally. So, I went through the equivalent of the professional development for teachers like we do at our teaching learning center here. I learned about ways to evaluate student work, a little bit about assessment, designing syllabi to be inclusive. So, it’d be great to have those kinds of professional development opportunities for a wider variety of potential faculty. We learned about writing syllabi to be more inclusive, we wrote about evaluation systems, thinking about assessment, designing assignments and things. It wasn’t nearly as rigorous as it could have been, but it definitely was more than many other colleagues that I had that went to other institutions and ho w our different experiences when we entered the field.

Whitney: I would have loved something like that whenever I started because I had no idea what SACS even was when I first began my teaching job, and they’re telling me about assessing learning outcomes and I was like, what are you talking about? And I think there is something to be said for throwing me in the deep end and making me learn for myself. And I definitely learned a lot in my first couple of classes, and I apologize to any of those students who are listening. But I think something like that would be excellent, even just like, here, you have to teach this class; write a practice syllabus. And having to think about what kinds of assignments you design is so enormously helpful before you’re actually on the job because, especially if you go to a teaching institution and you’re teaching a 3-3 or a 4-4, you’re not even gonna have time to breathe, nevermind thoughtfully construct a syllabus.

Kristina: I also think that this is a great place for the intersection of research training and teaching training because a lot of the things that they give us in teaching workshops—here’s what works best, here are best practices. Oftentimes I’m left with the question as someone who’s been in teaching for six years and publishing on teaching and learning, a lot of times I’m left with the question: how do you know this is the best practice? Who says? What’s the evidence for it? And there’s not very much yet. The literature is not robust enough at this time to really be able to say what works best. So if we can intersect those research skills that are social science, PhDs, that are even our humanities PhDs and our natural science PhDs, they’re getting some research training and an ability to think critically about what they’re being told. If we can intersect that with looking at what the evidence that does exist on the best practices in teaching and learning then we’re really just creating a positive reinforcement cycle of how these things all work together. None of these exist in a vacuum; teaching doesn’t exist in a vacuum, outside of political science they’re inextricably linked.

John: And even where there’s some areas where there’s a lot of research there’s often not a lot of research in specific disciplines to see whether the results in other fields hold up and there is a little bit of a replication problem in some of the areas. As you said, there’s just not a lot of research on a lot of topics that everyone takes for granted, so it’s a ripe area for research.

Rebecca: I think it’s a ripe area for interdisciplinary research.

John: When I was first teaching I had a fellowship and a faculty member left about two weeks before the semester, so the director of graduate programs came to me and said, hey, would you like some extra money in addition to your fellowship? You’ve got this class that starts in two weeks; you did really well in the graduate field, so here’s your class. And that was the extent of my training in teaching. It was the first time I was ever in front of a class.

Whitney: Well, and that’s actually a really good thing to bring up. If you are a struggling graduate student and you want to work at a teaching institution, not only is adjuncting at a Community College beneficial for your resume, but it can also help feed you for a little while. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s very true.

John: We always end by asking, what are you going to do next?

Kristina: I have a couple of pieces right now that are about to be ready to go o ut for review. They’re actually looking at some of these best practices. So we’re looking at—I don’t know if y’all are familiar with Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction. This is something that is often put out there as the best way to teach and I think it is useful to some extent, but when we examine whether it really made a difference in student performance, we found that students don’t necessarily know what order they want things then, nor does it really seem to affect their performance in the course. So we’re gonna be publishing that. Again, not with the idea that Gagne should be thrown in the trash, but with the idea that a lot of these best practices that we talk about really are just, if it works for you and speaks to you, then you should use it and if it doesn’t then there’s no reason why anyone should force you to use it.

Whitney: For me, I’m actually working on a book right now with the director of the Meredith Poll, David McLennan and a colleague at Coastal Carolina University, Kaitlin Sidorsky and our book is about women in appointed office. I’m at Meredith College which is a women’s college. Besides my passion for teaching I also have a passion for getting women into politics. 65% of women who run for office served in appointed office first and appointed office isn’t as well studied as women who run for office, so we’re writing a book on that.

Rebecca: Sounds like two really exciting things coming out soon.

John: And maybe we’ll get one or both of you back on in the future.

Whitney: Great.

Kristina: That’d be great.

Rebecca: Well thank you both for joining us this afternoon and giving us some good things to be thinking about.

John: It’s an issue that I think affects pretty much all disciplines.

Whitney: Thank you for having us.

John: Thank you.

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

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

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