- Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering
- Some of Julie’s studies on the influence of social capital:
- Martin, J. P., Simmons, D. R., & Yu, S. L. (2013). The role of social capital in the experiences of Hispanic women engineering majors. Journal of Engineering Education, 102(2), 227-243.
- Martin, J. P., Miller, M. K., & Simmons, D. R. (2014). Exploring the theoretical social capital “deficit” of first generation college students: Implications for engineering education. International Journal of Engineering Education, 30(4), 822-836.
- Trenor, J. M., Shirley, L. Y., Waight, C. L., & Zerda, K. S. (2008, October). Influences for selecting engineering: Insights on access to Social Capital from two case studies. In 2008 38th Annual Frontiers in Education Conference (pp. F4B-1). IEEE.
- Martin, J. P. (2015). The invisible hand of social capital: Narratives of first generation college students in engineering. International Journal of Engineering Education, 31(5), 1170-1181.
- Miller, M. K., Martin, J. P., & Orr, M. K. (2014). Toward determining changes in engineering-related social capital: Resource composition as students make decisions about college. Journal of Education and Training, 1(2), 72-91.
- Brown, S. H. A. N. E., Street, D., & Martin, J. P. (2014). Engineering student social capital in an interactive learning environment. International Journal of Engineering Education, 30(4), 813-821.
- Pfirman, A. L., Miller, M. K., Alvarez, G. A. S., & Martin, J. P. (2014, October). First generation college students’ access to engineering social capital: Towards developing a richer understanding of important alters. In 2014 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) Proceedings (pp. 1-7). IEEE.
- Martin, J. P., Gipson, K., & Miller, M. K. (2011, October). Developing a survey instrument to characterize social capital resources impacting undergraduates’ decisions to enter and persist in engineering. In 2011 Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) (pp. F2H-1). IEEE.
- Martin, J. P., & Newton, S. S. (2016). Uncovering forms of wealth and capital using asset frameworks in engineering education. In ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. https://doi. org/10.18260 (p. 27087).
- Women in Engineering Proactive Network (WEPAN)
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.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The traditional college model of full-time face-to-face class attendance does not work well for people with difficult work schedules, those that live at a distance from campus, or who face other barriers to attending classes on campus. In this episode, Judith Littlejohn joins us to examine how the HyFlex course modality can break down these barriers and allow more people to realize their potential.
Judie is an instructional designer and historian from Genesee Community College in Batavia, New York. She is a 2014 recipient of a State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Professional Service and a 2015 recipient of a State University of New York FACT2 Award for Excellence in Instruction. Judie chaired a committee that established procedures for HyFlex courses at Genesee Community College.
- Beatty, Brian (2014). “Hybrid Courses with Flexible Participation: The HyFlex Course Design” in Kyei-Blankson, Lydia, and Esther Ntuli, Practical Applications and Experiences in K-20 Blended Learning Environments. IGI Global, 2014.
- Bowen, Ryan S., (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/understanding-by-design/.
- Brame, C., (2016). Active learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.
- Brinthaupt, Thomas M; Maria A. Clayton, Barbara J. Draude, and Paula T. Calahan (2014). “How Should I Offer this Course? The Course Delivery Decision Model (CDDM)” MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. Vol. 10, No. 2, Junes 2014.
- Cambrian College Teaching & Learning Innovation Hub (2018). “Cambrian College HyFlex Course Development Guide.”
- DelGado Community College. “HyFlex Introduction Handout”. 9/15/15.
- Educause (2010). “7 Things You Should Know about the HyFlex Course Model”. Educause.edu/eli
- Genesee Community College HyFlex Development Guide (on bottom of page)The Hanover Research Council (2009). Best Practices in Online Teaching Strategies. July, 2009.
- McGee, Patricia and Abby Ries. “Blended Course Design: A Synthesis of Best Practices.” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Volume 16: Issue 4.
- OSCQR Course Design Review
- Tea for Teaching podcasts mentioned in this episode:
John: The traditional college model of full-time face-to-face class attendance does not work well for people with difficult work schedules, those that live at a distance from campus, or who face other barriers to attending classes on campus. In this episode, we examine how the HyFlex course modality can break down these barriers and allow more people to realize their potential.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Today our guest is Judith Littlejohn. Judie is an instructional designer and historian from Genesee Community College in Batavia, New York. She is a 2014 recipient of a State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Professional Service and a 2015 recipient of a State University of New York FACT2 Award for Excellence in Instruction. Judie chaired a committee that established procedures for HyFlex courses at Genesee Community College. Welcome, Judie.
Judie: Thank you.
Rebecca:Today our teas are:
Judie: Mine is a blueberry green tea.
John: I have Tea Forte black currant tea.
Rebecca: I have Prince of Wales tea.
John: We invited you here to talk about HyFlex courses. But first, perhaps you could define what a HyFlex course is.
Judie: A HyFlex course is a regularly scheduled course in which all the content is provided online so that students can choose to participate in the classroom live, or they can video conference into the live class, or they can participate asynchronously online. So, students can also choose every week or during each class time which way they’re going to participate. So, if a student regularly attends class, and then has a medical appointment, and has to miss class, they can catch up later on online. Or if somebody has to travel in this class, they can participate online. Or if somebody registers, planning to take the course online but then decide they’d rather be in the classroom, they can change their mind and come to class. So, it’s literally highly flexible, in that the student has full choice of exactly how they’re going to participate from course session to course session.
Rebecca: Sounds to me like if you’re going to have something that’s that flexible for students, then there’s a lot of planning that needs to go up front on the part of the faculty. Can you talk a little bit about what the requirements are for a class like that, and what some of the things are that a faculty member might need to think about to have a good experience across all those different options?
Judie: So that’s exactly the most difficult part, I think of a HyFlex course, is just the amount of preparation the faculty member needs. So literally, you have to create the entire online course, so that you can think of it as two course preps really, because you have your full face-to-face course and your full online course. And it’s key that before the course even opens, you have the entire course schedule all fully developed so that the students can look ahead and see, week to week, or if you’re meeting two or three times a week from one class session to the next, exactly what’s going to happen in the classroom, or how they would have an equivalent learning experience online if they chose to be online. So it’s tons of work. And then on top of that you have to be comfortable with the equipment. So you have to have students video conferencing into your live classroom, you have to manage those remote participants; you have to be able to include them in what’s going on. So if you’re having a debate, you need some virtual attendees to be able to participate in a debate or in small group work. And you just need to be able to manage all that… respond to questions from virtual participants, and pay attention to your face-to-face students too. And make sure that the students in the classroom and the virtual participants can all see each other.
Rebecca: Why would I want to do this?
Judie: So, it is a lot of work. But the faculty who do it say that the students get a lot out of it, because they do have that freedom to choose how they’re going to participate. The way our college is set up, we have our main campus in Batavia. And then we have six, we call them campus centers. So they’re like little satellite campuses in our region. And we have a four-county service area; it’s about the size of the State of Delaware. From one corner of our service area to the other is almost a two-hour drive. So if you think about how spread out our students are, if they’re in our area, and then the size of some of our programs, or how complex some of the equipment and materials are in the programs, we can’t offer every course at all those campus centers. So many times the students will be driving over an hour, just to get to our main campus to take a one-hour class. And it just doesn’t make sense. So we struggle with enrollments in some of these programs. But if we offer the courses this way (HyFlex), the students can stay where they are and still participate in the class. Some of these rural, remote areas don’t have very good wifi access. So the students can just drive to their nearest campus center and participate from there. So it does help with student access to the courses. And just with work schedules, family life schedules, it helps people stay in college, even if work and family are disrupting what time of day they can participate.
John: You mentioned the ability to go to other campus centers, would there be separate meeting rooms where students might meet in or would they have to do it on their own from some location on the campus center, if it’s not offered at that site,
Judie: Well, there’s a mix of that type of thing. So if you’re at a campus center with an empty classroom, you could go in and watch it from there if the staff help you get set up for that. If you have your own laptop and headset, you could participate from just about anywhere. It’s funny that you mentioned that because currently, the Dean of Distributed Learning is working with the Campus Center’s Associate Deans on a grant project where they would come up with funding for eight or 10 little workstations, like semi-private workstations, at each of the campus centers so students could participate in this type of course in the future,
Rebecca: Especially because of high speed internet and things, it would be really important if you’re going to participate synchronously remotely, that all students necessarily have that available to them at their homes.
Judie: Yeah, exactly. So, these workstations would be excellent for them.
John: What sort of software are you using for doing the live streaming in the remote sessions?
Judie: Right now we have a small group that is using WebEx who had been using it historically for other purposes. But the college as a whole uses Zoom. So Zoom has been working out really well. There’s a Zoom learning tool integration with Blackboard. And so we can have it set up right in the course so it’s seamless for the students to access it. We also use the Ensemble video server, and there is a Zoom to Ensemble link. So they call it ingestion. So when you record in Zoom to the cloud, then ensemble will ingest your video and publish it for you. So it’s right there in your Ensemble library ready to pull into Blackboard into your class. There’s an additional step where you have to trigger the captioning, and then go back through and double check the captions. But other than that, it’s pretty seamless.
Rebecca: How many classes have you offered in HyFlex method so far? And can you give us a sense as to how they’re working or what’s unique or really exciting about some of those classes,
Judie: Just off the top of my head right now I’d say we have about a dozen running. So right now our Computer Information Systems and Computer Networking, people use HyFlex in their program. And we also have Paralegal Studies offering all of their courses this way, so that they can extend their reach. Paralegal in particular, had trouble with those students who lived about an hour from campus and weren’t able to make the drive to all the classes. The way this all came about was: our Provost… her name’s Kate Schiefen, and she’s our Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs… she came up with this idea last fall to really kind of get our hands around HyFlex, because faculty were trying to do it independently, and they didn’t have much guidance or support. So we put a team together to come up with guidelines or requirements for what has to be present each course and what you need in each classroom that’s going to offer courses this way. What are the expectations? Where are the definitions? We looked at it holistically because we need our registrar to be able to schedule these courses with the meaningful code, so that when we report to SUNY what types of classes we have, they’re coded correctly. Everything from that to how the courses are posted on the website in the schedule so that students understand what kind of course they’re getting into, and what kind of equipment they need, and what the student expectation is. We looked at everything from top to bottom, how it affected the whole college and all the different offices… So like our success coaches, and how do they explain the course to the students that they’re advising… and put together a big manual, it’s a 43-page guidebook, that should be referenced in your show notes, I think, for anyone who wants to take a look at that. And we do have condensed versions for people, so they don’t have to read all of that.
John: I thought the 43 page was the simplified version. [LAUGHTER]
Judie: So yeah, we have the whole process the faculty member has to go through to make sure that their course meets the online course quality standards and all accessibility standards, and has all the content and schedules that they need… and then how we have the room setup with the microphones and the carpeting and soundproofing and things like that, and how the messages get out to the students. At this point, we use Banner as our student information system. And so we have it set up so that once a student registers for a HyFlex course, then within 24 hours, they receive an email that explains “You just registered for a HyFlex course that means…” …you know, and then this explanation. So the student knows that they should have a headset or a webcam and a microphone. And if they choose to participate remotely or of course they’re welcome to come on campus. So a lot of different things are going on right now. In our college in Batavia, we’re working on getting two rooms a year upgraded to be labeled HyFlex classrooms. So that carpeting is coming in, different furniture, desks on wheels, so that people can form into small groups easier… just more useful and versatile learning spaces are being created. So that’s helpful. And in the meantime, we have to train the faculty and make sure that they’re comfortable and come up with their whole timeline of development. Because on our campus, I’m the instructional designer, but I’m the only one. So I can’t really develop a dozen HyFlex courses at a time. But I can work with the faculty who are developing their own materials. So we have a couple different timelines depending on if you already have a fully developed online course that’s already been through all the different review processes or if you’ve never taught online at all. So there’s a big spectrum of faculty that are interested in teaching in the HyFlex modality but have different levels of experience with all the technology. So you might be looking at a year and a half, like three semesters of development, before you finally have your HyFlex course. Or you could start developing today and have it ready in the spring if you’ve already been teaching online and are comfortable with that.
John: And it sounds like the pathway is from online teaching to this rather than primarily from face-to-face to HyFlex…where it would be an easier pathway. Is that correct?
Judie: Absolutely, that’s an easier pathway. And we see it, we can see it in the courses that we have running now. Because there’s a couple of faculty members who have been teaching online historically, who are very student focused and very aware of the importance of active learning, and are used to working with students that they’re not seeing right in front of them. And their courses are fine, they had them set up, they had their schedules ready, a nd we really didn’t have much of a problem. We have other faculty who have never taught online before and are unfamiliar with active learning, and really unfamiliar with some of the changes in learning theory that have come out over the last 20 years…
John: or more.
Judie: Yeah…. That’s a struggle. They’re sort of unaware of the deficiencies in their courses. And it’s hard to help them understand how much better the students would do if they could change some of their faculty-focused materials into student-centered active learning projects or activities.
Rebecca: I can imagine that no matter whether it’s a HyFlex, or just moving to online, anytime you’re changing, and now you’re re-looking at the class as a whole, we don’t always do that. This forces us to have to look at it and a lot of faculty don’t have training necessarily in teaching. And so maybe someone that’s been teaching for a long time, now they’re like, “Oh, we’re having some assistance in moving into something, someone else is taking a look at it, I need to get familiar.” So there’s a lift of having to get from familiar with learning science, then getting familiar with a new modality, whether it’s online or face-to-face, it really could be either. And then on top of that layering in an idea of HyFlex, which they’ve never experienced as a student.
Judie: Yeah, and some of these particular people probably have never taken an online course either. So they have very limited exposure to much of this, they may have strong opinions about it, but they don’t really have any personal experience of it. So that can be a little challenging.
Rebecca: I can imagine it being a really exciting experience, trying to set something like this up, but also like a real brain puzzle in some ways. As someone who doesn’t really teach online, I teach mostly in person, I can imagine the complexity of that. And when I’m teaching in person, and I don’t have people also online or in other places that I’m also having to worry about, we can easily make a decision in class, “Oh, we’re all struggling with this, we’re going to pause in what we already have planned…”
Rebecca: …to do this other thing. So I can imagine that that ends up being much more of a challenge, or that flexibility in that way becomes a challenge in a HyFlex course.
Judie: Right. So part of what we encourage and what we’ve seen, especially in paralegal, the faculty do is start the semester before they want to be in HyFlex. And they’ll be in there face-to-face classrooms and they’ll say, “Okay, next week, how about if half a dozen of you stay home and try to log in and join the class from home.” And so they’ve practiced incrementally week to week, got used to seeing themselves on camera, hearing their voice in the video, and managing the students that are accessing the course remotely. And other faculty have been practicing just using Zoom as just a recording tool to make small informational videos. So they’re getting more familiar with the Zoom software and recording and all of that. So I think all those little steps that people take, before they start the HyFlex helps a lot too. And they’re always invited to stop in to watch a live HyFlex course and see how the instructor is managing. And frankly, part of what our team recommended at the end of our work was that, particularly, new HyFlex instructors have some sort of technical person in the room with them for the first few weeks until they feel confident that they can manage this on their own. Unfortunately, that recommendation requires funding that we don’t have at this time. But that is the hope, that one day faculty would not have to worry about that layer of the technical aspect and know that there’s somebody in there to support them
John: …until they get comfortable themselves.
Judie: Right now, when they start it up we’ll try to walk by or they know who they can call. But it’s a little bit different when somebody’s standing right there and can help them.
Rebecca: It just provides this whole layer… like anxiety just goes away… someone else will solve this problem and I can just deal with the other things that come up in the first day of class that aren’t technical issues.
John: One can only wish. [LAUGHTER] But, going back to Rebecca’s point, I think one of the difficulties for people, especially those transitioning from face-to-face to a HyFlex format is that in face-to-face classes, you’re used to be able to adjust on the fly so that if students are stuck, you can stretch something out; if they’re able to pick something up more quickly, you could accelerate some things. But those teaching online are already used to a structured format where the tasks for the week are set in advance; students know where they’re going to be. So it seems like that would be a more natural transition. But I could see some problems in adjusting the first time you’re doing this in terms of coming to class expecting to have a whole class period worth of activities, and students either get stuck on something and you’re not able to finish it in that class period, or students just breezed right through it, they picked things up really quickly and they’re ready to move on or to leave. Have people had many issues with that.
Judie: These are courses people have taught before. So it’s not like they’re going through this material with students for the first time. So they know where the stumbling blocks are for the students. And they’re pretty prepared, they’d schedule in extra time for those content parts that students need extra time with. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with having a scheduled course and with your online component and then decide to make a change and then post that in the online part of the course for the people who aren’t attending right on the spot. So I think that may not be as much of an issue as it may seem.
John: If people are having trouble with it in face-to-face classes, it’s likely it’s also a bit of a stumbling block for the online classes so that alignment between the two might make it easier to identify those issues and adjust the pacing, particularly for future iterations of the course, too.
Judie: I teach online, and I can see when students are struggling with something and I can send out a clarifying announcement or add some additional content or extend a deadline. And there’s no reason you couldn’t do the same thing in a HyFlex course,
John: Are some courses better suited to HyFlex, and others. How do faculty decide if HyFlex is right for their courses,
Judie: it all just comes back to the learning outcomes. If you have some sort of a course, where students can do a lot of independent work that might be ideal for HyFlex, if you want students to work in small groups a lot, there’s really no problem with that in HyFlex either. I would say big challenges would be if you had wet labs and things like that, that are difficult nuts to crack in the online only format too. And some courses, honestly, I think don’t need to be HyFlex. There’s nothing wrong with just offering them 100% online, if students are just engaging with the material and kind of doing independent work. But really the beauty of HyFlex is that the students can be 100% asynchronous, but still be part of that community and they can see the class and they can feel like they’re part of the group and they can interact with the students. It’s just so important that all that is built in correctly from the start, that the student-to-student engagement is all built in. Because I think that when we tell students, if we advertise that you can take the course from wherever you are anytime of the day and have an equivalent learning experience, and then when they get into that experience, they’re not feeling engaged, and they’re not communicating with the other students. I just think that we can do a lot to recruit students. But really, it’s once they’re in the course and having that experience, that’s what’s going to retain our students and help them be successful and stay with the program. So it’s just a matter of ensuring that all those pieces are built in so that the students aren’t isolated and they’re not passive learners. One of the pitfalls that I think people fall into is they think that all I have to do is lecture and we’re going to throw that video in the class. And then that’s good enough, the students can watch my lecture, and they’re going to know what they need to know. And we’ll move on. And that’s just a huge issue, because that’s just passive learning on the part of the student and they’re not engaged and they may have it on and be washing the dishes or doing other activities and it’s just not a good learning experience for students. There has to be that attachment, that engagement, has to be built in to make sure that students are successful and feel like they’re part of the learning community.
John: It’s’s also a requirement for federal funding too, that there’ll be some degree of interactivity in the classes.
Judie: And we use the OSCQR rubric, that’s the Open SUNY course quality rubric that OLC, the Online Learning Consortium has also adopted. And it’s one of the requirements in OSCQR too, that the students have active learning and student-to-student interaction.
John: One practical thing that you touched on a bit earlier, but I think might be worth emphasizing a bit, is that with demographic shifts, which have lowered the number of college-age students in many areas, particularly in community colleges, this provides a way of offering courses where there may not be enough students face-to-face or online for the courses to carry. And it provides a way of maintaining a larger variety of courses that might not work at any one of the campus centers.
Judie: Yeah, that’s exactly right. For years, we’ve had what we call video linked courses. So you could be in the main campus and link it to one of the campus centers where they might have six or seven students. And we may have six or seven students in ours, but together, it’s enough to have the course run. And so that works pretty well. And in some instances, I think faculty have thought maybe they would turn a course into a HyFlex course, and then decided that really all they need is a video linked course, so that their students don’t have to drive to campus but they’re all participating at the same time. And that’s absolutely fine. There’s nothing wrong with a video linked course. And some people think that they may want to offer their course HyFlex, because they want to record their lectures and have them all in the course. And basically all they really want is lecture capture to have as a resource to subsidize what the students are already doing. And there’s nothing wrong with that either. It’s just not a HyFlex course.
John: But this type, of course, would seem to benefit a lot of students who might not be able to take the other formats…
John: …the students who have more challenging schedules, people doing shift work, or who are taking care of ill parents or relatives, or who just can’t have a regular schedule. Are there other students who might benefit besides those who can’t meet synchronous times regularly?
Judie: Well, the students who are not in the area, really. We do have online learners from all over the place. Occasionally, we’ll have an international student who has to go back home for a time for whatever reason, and you know, that would be excellent for a student like that, who’s starting off on campus, and then having to move elsewhere geographically later on. But yeah, it is good for what we call, in air quotes, are truly distant learners, then they can participate in a HyFlex course just like they would in any other online course.
John: Or even sometimes distance students, those who are in the National Guard and may get called away for a few weeks, or who might travel a lot for work.
Rebecca: There probably are some challenges that do arise. Have you had any experiences where there’s maybe not enough synchronous students to do synchronous activities? Like too many students maybe have decided to just be online or be asynchronous? So what about that inconsistency there? One week, there might be a lot of people synchronous. And then another week, nobody’s there.
Judie: You’re absolutely right. A couple years ago, I was helping out a new adjunct who was trying this out for the first time, and he only had one student in the room when I was in there helping them get started. And then a second student came in and all the rest of them were online. So in that kind of situation, it would be tough to do a group project in the classroom. And I think that could be problematic. And you’d have to, depending on what you’re using, like Zoom has a groups tool. So if they’re all tuned in at the same time, you can easily put all your virtual students in small groups with each other. The tougher problem, I think would be when you want to do the group projects, and then all of your students decide to be asynchronous, because that can be a little bit trickier. And you need a little bit more time. So one of our recommendations was to schedule a HyFlex courses that only meet once a week, or twice a week at the most. Because if you think about what you have to do as the asynchronous student, so if you have a monday, wednesday course, on Monday night, they’ve got to try to watch that recording and do all that work. So Tuesday, do whatever reading and prep to get ready for the Wednesday course, it would be tough to try to fit in a small group asynchronous project too. And I also think that with HyFlex, it’s kind of like a catch 22, because you need to schedule the course. Typically, our cap is 32, because we have 32 desks in a room. So now you’re scheduling for 32. And you only have three, and you still have this big empty classroom and maybe another class could have been scheduled at that time. But the minute you try to move it into a smaller location, what if all 32 show up? You always have to be ready to have the 32 students, regardless of how many show up.
John: In economics, we call that a peak-load problem… that you have to be able to meet the peak demand period.
Rebecca: HyFlex is just more resource intensive in general, because you have to support all those things all at once. Right?
Judie: Yeah, absolutely. I think it is resource intensive. And I don’t think it’s for every faculty member. But the people who’ve been doing it for the last couple of years really seem to enjoy it. And so I know the Director of our Paralegal Program is just thrilled that now she has a course that last year at this time was in danger of being cancelled from low enrollment. And now she’s got 25 students in it, and it’s HyFlex. And that’s exactly what she was going for. And as she grows more comfortable with it and adds more resources and other materials to the online part of the course, the course becomes more robust each time she does it.
Rebecca: Do faculty get additional resources if they’re doing a HyFlex class, because now they have to be constantly checking their online version of their class as well as the in-person? You kind of mentioned that it’s almost like having two preps? How was that accommodated for faculty?
Judie: I think it is two preps, honestly, and how faculty are accommodated or compensated for it is something that’s always under discussion between our faculty and our union and the administration. Currently, there’s no additional compensation for a HyFlex course… down the road, hopefully some of that can change. But right now, it’s just considered one course.
John: Could you give us an example of some private projects or activities that might be done in classes, where students are getting the same learning objectives in different formats?
Judie: Well, one of our team members, her name is Karen Wicka, and she teaches criminal justice. And she has not taught HyFlex yet, but she’s preparing right now to do so in the spring. And she’s already been working on her schedule. And she said that she does a lot of debates in their criminal justice classes. And she sees now in the face-to-face class that she has students who struggle with the debate because they’re really not comfortable speaking in front of their classmates and having all the attention on them. So now in her face-to-face class, she’ll say “The debate is Thursday, and you have to be prepared, and if you do not come to class on Thursday, then before we meet again next Tuesday, you have to turn in an essay…” and she gives you the parameters of the essay, which would be the alternative assignment. And she said she would easily transfer that to the HyFlex course so that the students who are participating synchronously virtually or in the class room would all be having the debate and the asynchronous online students would be writing the essay.
John: So it has some aspects of universal design to it, that you’re providing multiple formats and multiple means of people demonstrating their competency on these particular skills.
Judie: Exactly. And the students in the HyFlex, they’ll be able to look ahead and say, “Gee, there’s a debate, two months from now, I don’t need to get stressed out about it, I can choose to stay online that week and write the essay,” or “Gee, that’s an essay, I’m not comfortable writing the essay, I’m much more articulate. So I’m going to go to the class and I’ll participate in the debate.”
Rebecca: I can imagine that that would motivate some students to just make choices like ”Oh, I really want to be in class for this,” whatever it’s going to be or that I’m going to schedule my life around this particular couple of times when I want to be in class, and then also make choices about “I would really like to avoid that.”
Judie: Exactly. That’s why I think that schedule at the beginning is so important, so that students can make those choices and make those plans.
Rebecca: I can imagine that with all the time and energy that would need to go into the HyFlex course the thing that would draw faculty in the first place is probably the rewarding experience of students having such a positive experience or having positive outcomes. Is that what you think motivates most of the faculty? Or is there something else also.
Judie: I think that has a big part of it, because we see students who we know they want to come to class, and they can’t because of different life situations. So definitely the faculty want to see the students be able to be successful, no matter what kind of format you have to teach the course in. And honestly, I do think that declining enrollment has something to do with it also, because we are trying to find more ways to reach more students. And we’re trying to reach out to adults who want to change their careers or have never been able to finish college in the past. And this could be a way that they could continue working their full-time jobs and still participate in courses. Some people honestly like the technology, and they just want to try all different things. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of different motivating factors. But definitely, the faculty generally have the students’ best interest at heart and they want to do whatever they can to help the students be successful and meet their goals.
Rebecca: Of course, embedded in my question, was the assumption that students are responding positively. [LAUGHTER] Can you talk a little bit about how students are actually responding.
Judie: Yeah, the students… they are happy to be able to have the choice. And students have commented on different things like some have said, “I thought I would just stay in the classroom. But as I got comfortable with the learning materials and the format, then it was easier for me to stay home and just tune in virtually.” And where we live in western New York, especially in the spring semester where it’s, you know, January, February, March, the weather’s so bad that it’s great for students to be able to stay in a safe location, and not have to drive to campus. And those students particularly are happy to have that choice. So if we wake up in the morning, and there’s a whiteout or something, and in being in such a big region, we can have a whiteout in one county and have a sunny day in another county, then they’re still expected to come to school. So the students don’t have to take those risks of driving in bad weather. But, yeah, they have responded favorably. We’ve also had students who thought they would stay online and then saw what was going on in the classroom and really felt like they wanted to be there and be able to participate live with the group. So they came to campus more often than they had planned. So I think it works both ways. But they definitely like the choice. There were surveys that I read in one of the articles that are mentioned in the resources list, where students were more satisfied with the class, just knowing there were those options, whether they took advantage of them or not. So the students definitely are pleased with that.
Rebecca: I can imagine that for students who are a little bit tentative about returning to school, or going to school for the first time as an adult maybe, that online learning can be really intimidating. So, getting to know your faculty in person and having some exchanges with students, I could understand that first student you’re discussing, like the idea that I have an experience in class, and now I feel comfortable being online, or those that felt really confident that they could be online and maybe it just wasn’t a format that they were familiar with. They could go in person, get some feedback, or get some help where they feel stuck, get un-stuck and then go back online.
Judie: Right. Yeah, I think that’s good …that flexibility.
John: In several of our recent podcasts, including those by Linda Nilson on specifications grading and on self-regulated learning, and the podcast with Sarah Rose Cavanagh, where she was talking about the role of emotions, a concept that’s come up quite a bit is the notion that students tend to learn more when they have a greater degree of autonomy, and this type of class environment seems to provide that. And that’s very consistent with what you were just saying, I think.
Judie: Well, I think any of us, as humans, we like to know we have options, because things happen. You just may not feel well one day and not feel up to the drive. And then now you know, you don’t have that pressure to make the drive no matter what, you can still stay home and earn the A where you would have been penalized, otherwise, if you didn’t show up to class,
John: As part of the planning for the HyFlex courses, what types of support are being provided by the college?
Judie: Well, we have a team that works together with the faculty, we have myself as the instructional designer, and we do have a person who is an accessibility technologist, and that helps a lot. We have media, our media department, and our librarians will help out with any resources that we need. And our computer services people will also work with faculty, if they need particular software, things like that. Our media people will work with the faculty one-on-one in the classroom that they’re going to use. So they have some mandatory training before the class starts. And we already said that they become familiar with Zoom ahead of time, but we will activate it, you know, fire it up in the room prior to the course starting so they are used to where they should stand and what the cameras are picking up and what the students will see from their view. We also have a group of faculty who are really interested in sharing ideas and supporting each other. So that is our HyFlex Users Group, which is the “HUG.” [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: That’s cute.
Judie: So, yeah, I think that’s cute. But they that way they can talk about what’s working well and particularly the nuances in the different classrooms. If you’re sharing the same room and you know that this particular microphone isn’t working very well or whatever, or picking up too many student noises, then that’s the kind of information you can readily share with each other. So it’s good. It’s nice that there’s some faculty like cross-departmentally working together to solve some of the technical problems and to support each other as they try to do this, because it is a lot to take on. But I think they find it rewarding in the end.
John: Very good. Well, this has been fascinating. And I think this is something that probably more and more colleges would adopt and it seems like you’re probably a little ahead of the curve on this as compared to many other campuses.
Judie: Well, the articles… some of the research that I read has come out… It’s Brian Beatty, who wrote, I thin, what we think of as the seminal article about HyFlex, and they came out in 2014. And he was doing it before then. And some of the research that he refers to was even earlier than that. So I think it’s probably been around a good 15 to 20 years, but is really starting to take off now as the technology becomes more readily available. And students have this equipment, you know, you can Zoom from your phone, they don’t need that much of a setup, if they’re comfortable with the devices that we have now. But yeah, I think it’s great. I’m glad that it’s an option. I like seeing that we have full programs going this way so that a student doesn’t just start off in an introductory course. And then they’re left high and dry when they can’t access the rest of the courses to finish their program. So the commitment, I think by these program directors to do their full program HyFlex is just great, so that the students know when they come in the door that they can really finish the entire program and be successful. So I think our next thing is to get some of the general education requirements online because the programs that are online now are AAS programs. So they’re applied associates where students are preparing for the workforce. But I think if we can get some transfer programs and general electives in the HyFlex format that could be helpful.
Rebecca: Yeah, it sounds like an exciting time and some interesting things getting developed. I can imagine that, from your seat, it can be kind of interesting seeing the different kinds of classes evolving, and what’s working and what’s not working.
Judie: That is interesting. Sometimes as an instructional designer, you can get bogged down in watching somebody’s video or you start reading these articles like ”Oh, I didn’t know that about…. Well, wait a minute, what am I supposed to be working on here?” [LAUGHTER] But we’ve seen it over the years with online… and so many courses and programs are online and I think that’s wonderful because you have access from wherever you are. But for the students who really want more of the community experience in the classroom, I think HyFlex is a good choice for them.
John: I think that one thing that makes it easier from the faculty side is that there are so many workshops online and so many meetings that are being run through Zoom or other systems, that faculty are just necessarily getting more used to that type of interaction. So that should make the transition a little bit easier for many people.
Rebecca: …or even that type of flexibility, like attending a department meeting virtually is becoming a thing.
John: We’ve done that many times. We had a member who is in Pennsylvania for much of last year and so she came in through Zoom. We’ve also used it for all of our workshops here that where nearly every workshop is available through Zoom. And we have a lot of faculty attending remotely. So that familiarity is growing.
Judie: Yeah, I think it’s good. And I think as far as administration goes, or while you’re planning, looking ahead to course scheduling and program scheduling, you just have to think about who are your adult learners? They’re you and me, they’re your neighbor and your brother, and they can’t drop everything and run to the classroom and sit there from 10 to 2, or 8 to 11 or whatever it is. They have to be able to have that flexibility if they’re going to stay with the program and finish it. So I think it’s great.
Rebecca: Well, we always wrap up by asking, “Well, what’s next?”
Judie: What’s next in the world of HyFlex?.
John: …or in general for you.
Rebecca: …for you.
Judie: For me, we’ve got a lot of different projects going on in our area. We have an Accessibility STARS program, we call it. We’re trying to create different modules to help faculty and staff be able to create accessible digital content from the start instead of trying to retrofit everything for accessibility later on. So that’s exciting. We have that about a third of the way completed right now. And I think that’ll be a good program. We’re also working a lot on open pedagogy projects and trying to get some of our faculty working with students online to develop their e-portfolios and different things like that through the SUNY Creative Grant.
John: The IITG grant.
Judie: Yeah, that is based at SUNY Oneonta. So that’s exciting too. I know you guys are working on that also.
John: We now have 10 faculty members who’ve joined into that.
Judie: Yeah, that’s great. And SUNY Geneseo is also involved.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s really interesting.
Judie: Thanks for having me and thanks for sharing tea.
John: Thank you, Judie. It’s always great having you here. We’ll have to get you back for some future podcasts too.
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.
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.
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.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The student population in most colleges and universities is becoming increasingly diverse during a time when much public discourse is characterized by growing political polarization and divisiveness. In this episode, Melina Ivanchikova and Mathew Lawrence Ouellett join us to discuss a MOOC that is being developed at Cornell University to help faculty nurture a productive learning environment for all of our students.
Mathew is the founding Executive Director at Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. Melina is the Associate Director of Inclusive Teaching in the center.
- Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom Online Course
- President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)- 2012 Report
- The Tea for Teaching Podcast- Ep. 49 with Angela Bauer
John: The student population in most colleges and universities is becoming increasingly diverse during a time when much public discourse is characterized by growing political polarization and divisiveness. In this episode, we discuss a MOOC that is being developed to help faculty nurture a productive learning environment for all of our students.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Melina Ivanchikova and Mathew Lawrence Ouellett. Mathew is the founding Executive Director at Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. Melina Ivanchikova is the Associate Director of Inclusive Teaching in the center. Welcome.
Melina: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.
Mathew: Thanks. Delighted to be here with both of you.
John: Our teas today are…
Mathew: I’m drinking Sea Buckthorn and Siberian Blueberry from Mongolia.
Rebecca: Wow, yummy.
John: That’s impressive.
Melina: And I decided to go the rebel route and I am drinking coffee.
Rebecca: That is a true rebel.
Melina: I apologize to all of your listeners who might be dismayed to hear that there’s a coffee drinker here in the afternoon.
Rebecca: Again, yeah… [LAUGHTER]
John: About half or more of our guests are drinking coffee or something else.
Rebecca: I have my nice boring English afternoon tea again.
John: And I have ginger peach black tea.
Mathew: Black tea’ s always appropriate. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Can’t go wrong. So we invited you here today to discuss the teaching and learning in the diverse classroom course that you’ve been developing at Cornell. Can you tell us a little bit about the origin of the project?
Mathew: Sure, when Melina and I were introduced I guess, when we became colleagues back when I first got here, we were looking for a project that could play up to the strengths of the merger of our units. So part of being the founding director is two units came together. And I’ll spare you all of that, other than to say it was a great opportunity. So one thing was finding a project that had some heft for our newly formed unit. But second, and perhaps the primary part of this origin story was the inaugural address by President Martha Pollack, who was newly installed as President. In fact, the first thing I did when I got to Cornell, the first public thing I attended, was her inauguration. And in the context of her remarks that afternoon, she talked at length about the importance of creating an inclusive learning environment for all students. And I thought, well, I know just how to do that. And now we’ve got this fantastic staff. We have the skills and the expert knowledge that we can actually do something that would benefit our campus, but also might be something with a usefulness for people out on other campuses that might not have the same opportunities or resources.
Melina: And I’ll add to that to say a little bit about the context in which the course has emerged, which is that Cornell, probably like many other campuses across the US, was rocked by several events that happened both on campus and off campus. Moments of slurs being used in public… events that were very demoralizing and just strained the learning climate for students here. So, within that context, we’re also thinking about how to support our faculty and teachers in the classroom to be able to reach out to students and warm up the learning environment.
Mathew: Yeah. I would want to add, though, that this course is not in response to those. This isn’t a reaction to these sort of community and campus incidences. Mostly it’s to prove the point that at Cornell we’re as vulnerable to them as every institution in America. There’s really very little inoculation against it. And so what we thought is that if we could do something that had utility for our faculty that appeal to them and help them, that it might also appeal and be of use to faculty at other schools and colleges as well.
John: I saw a little bit of that at a presentation at a conference a few weeks ago, and I was really impressed. Could you tell us a little bit about how the course is structured?
Melina: Sure, we’re using a framework that has five different dimensions to it. And it’s the way that the course is organized. So we begin by asking instructors to reflect on themselves: “Who are you as an instructor?” And then who are students? How do you get to know who your students are? How do you help them get to know each other? What do you know about the students at your institution in general? And then how do you teach? What are the teaching strategies that you use? What is your pedagogy and part of that is talking about what you can do to prepare in advance for a hot moment that might arise, as well as what to do when there is a hot moment that arises. And then what is your curriculum? Both from the perspective of the content of what you’re teaching, but also how your discipline looks at the world, how has your discipline wrestled with diversity and inclusion at the broader disciplinary level. And then ending with really thinking about the learning environment and thinking about action planning, what are some changes that you can make to your course? And then what we’ve been seeing in those is that people think beyond the course level from changes small to broader and more systemic.
Mathew: So just to tag on to that, people have been thinking about their ongoing learning… things that they can do to continue to advance their own development, things that they can do at the course level, interventions that they might make at the departmental level. And that’s pretty exciting when they want to go out and talk to their colleagues. And then, third is thinking at the college and or the institutional level changes that they’d like to see happen in terms of the larger climate. They have actually been really ambitious and pretty exciting.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the timeline of the course?
Mathew: Yeah we, like everybody in higher-ed, are always looking for that sweet spot. And anyone who works with faculty or as a faculty member knows that there are about five or six weeks in the dead center of the semester where we might have half a chance of getting your attention. That’s it. That’s the sweet spot. And so the whole intentionality around the course being four weeks long was so that we could load it right in the middle of this semester, not right at the opening of the start of the launch of the semester, but also ending before the Thanksgiving holidays. Knowing that once people return to campus, faculty and students alike are all on the downhill slope and at that point it’s all about wrapping the semester up.
John: How many times have you offered it now at Cornell?
Melina: We’ve offered it twice, we just wrapped the second run of the course. And and I’ll just add to what Mat said earlier that we estimate that it takes people about 10 or 15 hours to get through the course. It’s asynchronous, and we release modules each week.
Mathew: And I should add too, just for transparency, we let people take as long as they want. So even though the course officially runs for four weeks, we can get tons of requests for extensions, and we’re happy to grant them. I mean, it’s just like teaching a group of undergraduates… we understand, mostly we want people to feel like they can complete the experience.
Melina: Yes, and we should say that the version that we’ve run on the Cornell campus is going to be transformed into a MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course, that’s set to run in November this year. So that will be open to anybody.
John: And you’re running that on edX.
Melina: That’s correct.
John: And there is a sign up form on your website and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes so people can be notified to join that when it’s available. I’ve already added my name to the list. Rebecca and I have talked about and we’d like to run a cohort here, through that as well.
Rebecca: Yeah, that’d be great. Can you talk a little bit about how faculty have responded in the last couple of cohorts that you’ve had?
Mathew: Sure. Well, I’m really gratified to say overall, we’ve had a very positive response and the only negative has come when people have run out of time when they said “You know, I’m just crazy busy and I wish I had more time to do a deeper dive.” So in terms of regrets, that’s one end of the continuum. But we also are, I think, assessing the utility of the course… of the usefulness of it… by people’s expressions of learning outcomes. So we do a pre-post with… this is just only for the on-campus cohort. But we’ve had fantastic responses along a whole range of outcomes, some we hadn’t expected, and others we had hoped for. Do you want to give some examples?
Melina: Sure. One thing I wanted to say that was interesting is that we also offer face-to-face opportunities. And we were wondering, were we going to get the same folks who come to those coming into the course? But instead, we’ve seen quite a range. One of the things that surprised me is that we asked people how many years they had been teaching. And so that range goes from zero years to 20 to 25, even 30 years of teaching and all along the continuum and quite a large percentage of people who have been teaching for more than 10 years. So that inspired me just thinking about how many people are committed to lifelong learning and willing to think about what’s happened in my classroom, my demographics have shifted, what is all this buzz around diversity? We’re getting folks who are really curious and willing to think and learn together. And so the response among faculty has been very inspiring because the core of the courses are these fantastic videos where instead of giving lectures through the videos, we’ve asked people to tell their stories about their lived experiences and their teaching practices. And we have faculty, staff, and student voices in the course…
Mathew: graduate students
Melina: …graduate students…
Mathew: and undergraduates
Melina: …and these testimonials, people they’re just… you have a visceral experience as you’re watching and listening to those. And so over and over, we heard the comment of faculty saying things like, “Well, I knew my students were people. But now after I’ve seen all these different points-of-view, I got to hear really personal things about them that I normally wouldn’t ask my own students. I have a much deeper sense of the challenges that they’re facing.”
Mathew: And the reverse is true, too. We’ve had graduate students say to us, “I had no idea my faculty member had anywhere near that sort of experience.” So, referring to a video where two of our colleagues talk about being first-generation college students, and having come from very poor backgrounds, or very poor working class backgrounds, and it was a revelation to our undergraduates that there might actually be faculty here who’d come from a similar kind of lived experience. The other thing that’s just been, I think, really a good metric for success is that people have often talked about wanting to go back and talk to their colleagues. And I think that, as Melina is talking about the nature of the videos, is that there’s so few opportunities to talk about this aspect of one’s teaching. You might, for example, sit on a curriculum committee or you might get into conversations about grading or end-of-semester evaluations, but rarely do you get invited into a more authentic, deeper, personal link between who you are as a human being… fully… holistically… and what you bring to the classroom. So I think the videos do a fantastic job and I want to put a little bit of a pitch in here. Melina facilitated all of those videos and I think she just did a fantastic job in getting people to relax and warm up and feel comfortable telling their story. It’s really powerful.
Melina: Thank you. The other core piece of the course is reflection. So throughout the course, there’s moments where we prompt participants to think about their own lived experience or their own socialization. And it becomes a very personal contemplative process. So I think that’s also one of the things that I’m seeing among the faculty participation is that yes, they’re active on the discussion board, but they’re also just really active and looking at the pages and reading the material. And it’s nice that you can track all of that information in online courses. You can really see how people are interacting.
John: How have faculty responded? Has it been growing? Does there seem to be a lot of interest? And I seem to remember something about there being a fair amount of administrative support there too.
Mathew: I’m really happy to report from the first time we offered it to the second time there’s definitely what I would call an upward trend line. We have far more people register in the spring. So that was a huge sigh of relief from Melina and I because of course, you know, if word on the street was negative, no one would have signed up. So we were immediately gratified that we probably have a 25% jump in registrations. And interestingly enough, we’ve had a number of department chairs who have been genuinely engaged as participants. We’ve had some Associate Deans… and I’m very proud of this fact, our president and provost both worked through the course themselves, because they wanted to be able to talk about it in a first-hand way. And it’s hard to express my gratitude to them for setting the tone as our senior academic leadership cohort to really send the message that this is something we all want to pay attention to. And I think we’ve had also the other group that can particularly be challenging in faculty development work to get to get engaged with this, senior post-tenure folks. And as Melina mentioned, we have a number of people who are full professors who’ve been teaching for quite a while, who said, “Yeah, I’m going to swing back around and take this course.” And both semesters we’ve done almost exactly a third, a third, a third. Graduate students and post-docs. Tenure line or laddered faculty and a full range within that from pre-tenure to post-tenure. And then about a third academic administrative staff who have teaching us some component of their job:, folks from academic advising, the Learning Services Center, other sorts of student activities related positions. But it’s made for an extremely interesting conversation. And I think everyone would say that they’ve benefited from that.
Melina: Yeah, one of the things that we made available as an option was for self-selected groups to take it as a cohort. So this is something that we were also hoping that when the MOOC comes out that some faculty development centers might offer a cohort experience for their own campus. And so those groups have been able to have leaders emerge from their own group and they have their own face-to-face sessions where they discuss the content of the course and take it just one step further.
Mathew: So we’ve had two experiences of that, that I think maybe would be interesting. I’ll share them. One is we teach an introduction to teaching in higher-ed course for graduate students, doctoral students, and post-doctoral students and they participated as a cohort. And that’s a natural affiliation. And just as you’d expect, they loved it, they got a lot out of it, it was enormously interesting for us to have them in the course. The other group that’s been equally interesting have been the department chairs who have been coming to it for a variety of different reasons. But the one I want to highlight is the idea that as you hire new faculty into the department… thinking about their orientation and onboarding, both to the department, but also to the institution. And that’s been a really interesting goal. And I thought, really, if I can say, this is a kind of a selfless goal, people really are thinking about the community writ large, and how to help people accelerate their integration into the values and the priorities of our institution. That was not something Melina and I had anticipated. We thought, sure, this might at some point contribute to new faculty development. But we really didn’t think of it as an orientation for department chairs in which they could then begin to think about their approach to teaching and learning and a way to communicate that with their new colleagues.
Rebecca: That sounds really interesting. Can you also talk a little bit about some of the specific ways that, through reflection, you’ve seen faculty talk about how they have changed their teaching or the impact that the class is actually having on their own classroom?
Mathew: Sure. Melina loves this question. Yeah.
Melina: So we did some interviews to explore…
Mathew: … just that…
Melina: … just to ask that question. So we have a testimonial video, which we can show you later. There’s a couple of stories that really stood out in my mind. One was a woman who went back to her guest speakers list. This was out of the Business College and realized that all of her guest speakers were white men. And she thought, “Wow, I can’t believe this happened to me. I thought that I was aware of this issue, but I really need to actually have a systematic way of looking at my curriculum so that I make sure that I have a diverse offering. I can try harder. There certainly are some women business leaders I can reach out to.” So that was one and another comment was somebody saying, “I do so much work in the community around advocacy for women’s issues, but I never bring that part of myself into the classroom, because I just don’t know how to do it. But now I’m thinking that it’s actually important to show this side of myself and I want to be able to share that a little bit more with my students.” Those are kind of my two favorite but…
Mathew: … there’s there’s a third one I love. One of our colleagues who’s a full professor here, talks about how she flunked out of college initially, and probably wouldn’t have finished except that another faculty member of hers reached out to her… and really encouraging and supportive of her and helping her figure out a way to finance her way back into school and to complete the program. And I think that’s sort of visceral level of authentic crisis, that undergraduates can often feel like they’re in that alone or that no one else has had that experience before them, or just that they’re in it alone. And so I think her willingness to sort of frame that, she used the course and the reflection exercises to frame that out as her story. And then she actually, this spring, shared it with her students. She had, I think, 12 or 15 people show up in office hours literally crying their eyes out in gratitude that she had shared that story because the amount of stress that they were feeling and isolation they had been feeling and that no one else in the community had put themselves out in a way that resonated that deeply for them. So I thought that was a moment where, of course, we’re not advocating that everybody just stand up and start babbling. But I think in a thoughtful way, she picked the right time and the right place, and the right amount of self-disclosure, and it had a genuine, immediate impact on her students. She teaches a large lecture undergraduate section, and as we all know, that can feel pretty anonymous to begin with. So I think that was just really lovely.
Melina: So one of the questions that comes up for folks is when and how much information to share about themselves and their backgrounds and identities. So she felt like, “Oh my students aren’t going to care about this part of me.” But midway through the semester, she noticed that some students seemed to be having trouble in class. So that was when she strategically shared this personal story and then had folks coming in and just thanking her for being open about herself and sharing.
Mathew: It was really a beautiful moment. So one of the outcomes, one of the ways I think we know the course of success is when we hear these kinds of stories back… because most of our colleagues, I would say, 99.9% of our colleagues have a good heart. They want to do the right thing. They want to connect with their students, but they just don’t know how to do it in a nuanced and appropriate kind of way. So this colleague is an excellent example of someone who was willing and ready… just needed a strategy to shape it in a way that was appropriate to the academic environment and to her role as a senior faculty member. So, I think one of the things Melina and I have been surprised about is the amount of willingness coupled with the amount of trepidation. There’s just a lot of self-consciousness on people’s part about wading into these issues because as we know, faculty are deeply socialized to not get out of their realm of expertise, you know, “stay in your lane,” as they say. And so we’ve heard over and over and over again, “I’m not trained as a therapist. I’m not trained as a diversity expert.” Well, welcome to the world. Most of us are not trained therapists or trained diversity experts, and so the exercises and the content of the course is really meant to build a sense of efficacy, just a way to get started. So we’re very clear with participants that this is not meant to be an activity that’s an end in and of itself. It’s meant to be a bridge onto further deeper relationships and experiences.
Rebecca: Can you talk about some other strategies in addition to self-disclosure that are revealed in the course that might get people itching to take the course once it becomes a MOOC?
Mathew: Well, one aspect of the course that I love is we focus a lot on active learning and student centered pedagogical strategies. That’s not the same as focusing on social justice and diversity issues, but it’s a predicate for it. It’s a super helpful way to get started. So we have just loaded the course with all sorts of very practical pedagogical strategies that act to warm up the learning environment by making it more active learning and more student centered. And we’ve tried to keep these things sort of discrete enough that you could peel off one or two of them. So we’re trying to break down this idea that either you go in and you do everything and all of a sudden you’re our diversity expert, or you don’t do anything. And by trying to give people options of two, or three, or four, or five different things that they might consider doing even in just one class session, it doesn’t mean you have to reframe your entire semester long course. But what our experience has been is that the response from students is so overwhelmingly positive when you move in that direction, that there’s a lot of internal motivation to keep moving in that direction to keep layering in active learning strategies. A lot of these are pulled from the PCAST report in 2012. And for a lot of our STEM colleagues, it’s helpful or there’s utility in being able to suggest the pedagogical strategy and then link it immediately to the research that supports its efficacy. And that’s been helpful on our campus.
Melina: Another thing that’s persuasive is hearing it directly from the students. So instead of having this giant checklist of “here’s all the little pedagogical tricks, tips, and tricks,” we try to be pretty thoughtful and reflective so it doesn’t become advice giving or something like that. But in the interviews, we did ask students to answer the question, you know, “Do you have an example of a time where you really felt a sense of belonging that was created or facilitated by a faculty member in your time here at Cornell?” And so the feedback we got from faculty talking about those stories was things like, “Oh, now I really understand.” Like, for example, we had a young, gay Asian male student who took a course where a faculty member just acknowledged that don’t expect to see any references to gay relationships in this literature, because this was a time where that was just severely censured. And so he just felt so glad to have it be acknowledged that it was an absence. So that’s something you might not think of, but you hear a student talk about it, and then you start to slowly get a picture. You hear lots of little stories like this, of a black student talking about what it feels like to be at a primarily white institution, and what has made a difference to ameliorate the stress that comes with that… hearing it from students and often the strategies that go with them are incredibly practical. Like break the ice, offer a genuine opportunity for students to get to know you as a person, have office hours that are kind and open, be really clear and transparent about how you’re grading. Some of the strategies are super practical and you wouldn’t even think of them as diversity strategies necessarily, but they do reach students well.
Rebecca: We had a similar experience with a cohort of faculty that I’m working with related to accessibility. And we met with some students who take advantage of some disability resources we have available on campus. And so we met with some of those students and talked about their experiences in their classrooms and what has made them feel welcome and not. And we had some very same positive reactions like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that a discussion class could be more tricky for you if you’re taking notes and things because you might not always know what the clear takeaways are if we don’t go back and summarize what was it that we just talked about.” So sometimes it’s just really small, easy things that a faculty member could do. We just don’t necessarily think about it. So I think those student responses are just so powerful and really helpful.
Mathew: I totally agree. Another example that we’ve gotten very positive responses to is that when there’s been a national or regional or a city-wide or a campus-wide incident that’s happened that we know has resonance for our students, we have sent out some strategies for faculty to use in the classroom, beginning with just acknowledging that it was rough. This was rough to experience this, whatever that is, fill in the blank and letting students at that point know, you just acknowledge that this happened. And you don’t have to go any further than that. Just acknowledging, “Over the weekend such and such happened in downtown or it happened on campus and I want to acknowledge that and ask you to be sure to take care of yourselves… reach out to your friends… your family… reach out to services on campus, and here’s a short list of services that you might take advantage of.” But just that aspect of acknowledging it, students find profoundly helpful. So if you’re not making, as Melina’s example was so eloquent about, taking it out of invisibility, and making it real and bringing it into the classroom environment. Because one of the things that we know is that students care most about how their faculty interact with them. So in the college experience, we know there are two key predictors of undergraduate success. One is meaningful relationships with their faculty. The second is meaningful relationships with peers. And so even though the student affairs folks and the residence hall folks are wonderful people, and they do a fantastic job. If they’re not hearing acknowledgement from their faculty, if these issues aren’t coming up in class, then there’s a huge gap for that… they really feel the absence intensely. So we in the course try to give participants strategies depending upon their level of comfort. So I always say, “You don’t have to go one step further other than say, “Wow, rough weekend, be sure you take care of yourself.” And then move right into your content.” But just that moment, those two or three minutes of acknowledging the moment and acknowledging students are real people and they have significant feelings about these incidents can make a huge impact on their experience of the environment. All the way to the other end of the continuum where we have a wonderful colleague who will literally throw out the curriculum for the day, put people into individual writing exercises, and then into dyads and then into small groups and into a large group to process what the implications are for whatever happened for them individually, and for us as an academic community. It’s a continuum in what we try to reassure people… as anywhere along there is useful. Anything is better than simply ignoring it, and starting with where you feel ready.
Melina: Yeah, so one of the outcomes we’ve heard from faculty is them saying, “Well, you know, I sort of got the message from the senior administration that I should acknowledge but I wasn’t fully convinced. But once I took the course, I realized, Wow, it really does matter to them. They really do care about this, it really does make a difference. And now I have to figure out how to do it.”
John: Bringing that in through student voices, I think is a really effective way of doing that. And I was very impressed with the sample videos that you showed at that conference a few weeks ago.
Rebecca: I think the time and space that you give faculty to reflect on those moments is really important. Just in the conversation that we’re having, I was thinking back to moments as I was a student when things like that had happened. And there was one moment that sticks out in my mind that I don’t remember any other faculty handling an incident. I was a student during 9/11 and I remember one faculty member in particular did that throughout the curriculum thing. I was in a creative degree so the conversation was, “Hey, it’s really hard to make when you’re scared and things are going on, and you’re not sure what’s going on in the world. Sometimes it can be difficult to make, but sometimes it can be therapeutic to make.” But we talked through what that means is a professional when things like that happen in the world. And that stuck with me forever since then. I think it can be really powerful, whether big or small or a big amount of time or not. And I think taking the time as a faculty member to remember some of those moments that you had as a student is also really powerful.
Mathew: I love your story. And it’s one of the learning outcome goals for the course which is that you do not need to be an expert. You don’t have to have an answer. You just have to hold the conversation and facilitate a moment of reflection and connectivity. And I think in faculty lives, there’s such a drive towards being an expert and delivering an expert’s answer, or solving the problem that I think one of the big takeaways from the course is that with this sort of engagement, you really just have to be present and be authentically yourself. And that in and of itself is the work.
John: One of the issues that many underrepresented groups have to deal with is stereotype threat. Are there any particular strategies that are addressed through the course to help faculty reduce that?
Mathew: We do explicitly address both stereotype threat and also other sort of key concepts that I’ll come back to in a moment. But in particular, with stereotype threat, some of the ways that that can get triggered is unconscious and unintentional. Where you, for example, ask someone to answer on behalf of what you perceive of their community to be. And so some of the discussion guidelines that we give people and some of the resource materials that are a part of the course go explicitly in setting up environments where you can anticipate and ameliorate stereotype threat from the very beginning. And part of that is making really public your perception around mindset. And this is one of the most popular strategies, but also really effective… to make it clear that you believe that intelligence isn’t inherited, and it’s not static, that we get better at things by practice and by application. For example, we often say, “We wouldn’t have accepted you as the university if we didn’t believe you have the acumen. But having acumen is not the same as having all of the prior preparation that some of your peers might have had. And so figuring out what you need in terms of strategies and learning how to learn, those are things that you can achieve, that we would expect that you would need to work at them.” So even being at Cornell University was extremely interesting. We have a very well prepared undergraduate student body in many respects, just pretty spectacular people already. But a proportion of, a group of them, have come through high school just sailing through. They never really had to develop really coherent strategies for learning because they were just always ahead of the curve. They get here their first semester, their first prelim or mid-semester exam and it’s often quite shocking. And I think for many of them very destabilizing. For example, the first year I worked here, the daughter of a good friend of mine was a first-year undergraduate student as well. She got an 80 on her first exam and literally collapsed. I mean, she literally thought she wasn’t cut out for college. She shouldn’t be here. This was too big a reach for her. She was never going to be successful. And I was still trying to wrap my brain around, “How is an 80 failing?” But this is a kid who never in her life had ever seen the 80s. She lives in the 90s or the hundreds. She’s never seen the 80s before, but all of a sudden the level of competition across the institution is at such a level. And I think that’s true in many institutional settings from community colleges right up through university. And so helping students learn some concrete strategies for, at sort of at a meta-level, learning about themselves as learners is another way to ameliorate that. So we have a lot of strategies like that in the course too.
Melina: Yeah, and I’ll add to that even when we don’t say this is how to ameliorate stereotype threat ABCD, a lot of the strategies are doing exactly that. And we’ve just put them in the course where it makes the most sense to have them. So at the beginning of the course, we talk about things things you might consider as you’re establishing your learning community within your classroom, including how to help students get to know each other. One of my favorite all time icebreaker exercises is to invite people to tell the stories of their name… like the origin of your name story. When we think about bringing the whole person into the class… just allows people to share some cultural information because our names are encoded with all sorts of cultural information, whether you’re married or not, whether you’ve changed your name, immigration patterns, history of oppression… are also encoded in names. We also have a very high percentage of international students on campus so that enriches the name stories as well, because you get different naming traditions. Names tend to mean different things across different cultures. So over time, you also get a bigger picture of how the world works based on people’s name stories. So that’s just a little example of that. We had another faculty member who sort of shares how he uses an identity pie activity to share a little bit about his own identity. So not just a single identity axis. So that also helps to ameliorate stereotype threat because you prompt someone to anchor themselves in the complexity of their identities and then you’re not just a Latin-X student in the classroom, or a person speaking with an accent that sounds different from most, or a person with a disability. You’re just much more than that. And I think that’s probably one of the strongest features of the course. Because it’s sort of something that comes out throughout every aspect of the course… is just people are more complex. Here’s ways to welcome that in.
Mathew: Yeah, social identities pie is a great example of what we try to do in this course, both giving people an opportunity to reflect on their own growth and development, but then to have an exercise that they can peel off and use with their own undergraduates. So that we would expect that that would be useful to you personally, but also it would be a fantastic tool to carry away and use in the classroom. You know, of course, depending upon your subject and your specialization. And so through the whole course, we try to develop what I would consider sort of heuristics or models that help you individually, but also, I think could be really useful for you as a teacher and instructor in helping your students grapple with these issues as well.
John: So modeling, in the course, how courses can be delivered to address these issues effectively.
Mathew: Yeah, that’s exactly our goals
Rebecca: How incredibly meta. [LAUGHTER]
Mathew:But that’s some of the fun of it, I think. And we try to be really transparent about that in the course. So we have what I would call annotations all along in the course. “Here’s something we’re going to ask you to do that we also think would be useful to carry over into a classroom as well.” And some of the discussion questions are really about, “What was this like for you? And do you think this would work for your students as well?”
John: I’m going to throw in a reference to a past podcast we had. You mentioned how building a growth mindset can be really effective. We did an interview last year, I believe it was, with Angela Bauer at High Point University who uses growth mindset messages, weekly in classes, and it’s been found to have a significant effect on reducing performance gaps in the classes there… effectively eliminating them.
Mathew: It’s amazing what a few well chosen messages can do. And as Molina mentioned, it’s a great way to prime students, but it also makes transparent what your values are. So one of the exercises in the course that we asked our participants to do is to craft a multicultural or a diversity and inclusion statement. You can call it whatever you want. But just to put out there for students to read in the syllabus. Here’s what I think an inclusive classroom looks like. And these are the attributes of it. And these are the behaviors associated with it. And this is why I think it’s important in the context of the course but also in the context of the discipline. And it’s remarkable how effective that is. If you do nothing else, but that to strike out and make your own values transparent to your students, it can be pretty amazing.
Rebecca: So when can we start taking this class?
Mathew: Oh… the fall… we would be delighted to have you participate. And also we really hope to stay in touch with people who do take it and use it as a learning experience for a faculty learning community on their campuses. To be quite honest, that’s been one of my number one goals all along, of course, has been to serve my own institutions community here at Cornell. That’s our number one priority. But we think there’s relevancy. We think what’s going on here is pretty common. And in fact, a lot of campuses and a lot of faculty are likely starting at similar places. And so our hope is that you can take it yourself, but also grab it and bring in a bunch of colleagues at your own institution and have a shared experience, primarily because we think that you will be able to tailor this to your institutional context. I think it’s really important to make it personal and make it authentically linked to your legacy, your history, your current demographics, whatever the initiatives are on campus. We hope that this will be situated within a more robust conversation at the campus level.
John: When I was seeing the initial presentation on it, I texted Rebecca about this and said, we should run a cohort on this in the fall. We’re very excited about the possibility.
Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.
Mathew: One thing I would just want to add is that we’re going to design the MOOC so that people can take it individually, as well as as a cohort. And I want to reassure people that we’re deeply aware of how constrained faculty are for time, it’s just really tough to carve stuff out. Even if your heart is there and your intentions are gold, it can be really challenging. So we’re really going to try to send the message that it’d be ideal if you could do this within the context of a group, but you could also just grab and go. You could jump in and hopefully it’ll be a benefit to you individually as well.
John: We’ll share links to information on that in the show notes.
Mathew: One thing I would say is that I think people have found it a lot less scary than they thought it would be. It’s very important to know that we don’t have a subtext or a secret agenda of hunting for the racist. That’s not our goal. It’s not how we facilitate the course or how we facilitate the MOOC either. And so Molina and I were laughing about the fact that a lot of people have had prior experiences with diversity related training or professional development or workshops. And we were laughing because I’ve heard this since the 90s from people saying, I took a consciousness raising workshop in the 70s. It was horrible, and I hated it and I’m never going back. Or these opportunities come to people as mandated top down HR related expectations. So you have to take this course and sign it before you can get your contract. And we’re the antithesis of that. This is strictly voluntary. It’s strictly collegial. And it’s meant to be an opportunity, as you were saying, to get meta… to just step back from the doing and have a chance to think about resources that are useful in shaping our thinking, which in turn will shape our behaviors. And for most of our colleagues in the faculty, I just want to underscore it’s not that there’s a lack of willingness. There’s just time to get the resources and have some focused time to think these things through and apply them in a tailored bespoke manner to their own context and discipline and courses. And I think that’s what the course really offers. It sort of gives you this lovely little bubble of a garden in which to sit and reflect and think in ways that you don’t typically have in the course of a day.
Melina: You know, one of the things that we’re seeing in our survey data is that people’s sense of responsibility around this issue increases… goes from “The university should do this, but I don’t have to do” this to going to “Oh, yes, this is about me and what I do.” There’s just a much higher level of awareness and excitement about being a part of it.
Rebecca: …probably speaks a lot to the idea that reflection is a very valuable teaching tool.
Mathew: Yes, and one that as instructors, we know this, we know this, but it’s easier said than done a lot of times.
Rebecca: I’m really curious about… behind you under window. There’s a tomato.
Rebecca: …it looks like a tomato.
Mathew: It is a tomato. Thank you. [LAUGHTER] I’m going to tell my husband who’s an artist who doesn’t think I can draw that you recognize it as a tomato. So, thank you. It’s the pomodoro technique.
John: That’s what we were wondering, actually. I think Rebecca and I both had that thought.
Mathew: I cherish when I can get literally five minutes in a row to complete a thought. And so I’ve taken to taping over the class and my door with a tomato to signal my colleagues. I’m here. I’ll be available in a moment, but I’m just trying to get one thing done.
Rebecca: So you’re human then.
Mathew: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh my gosh, yes, yeah.
John: So since you’ve created the course, could you tell us a little bit about your background in the area and your experiences related to the course?
Mathew: One thing I love, which is completely accidental… is that Melina and I are both from New Mexico. And that has absolutely nothing to do with anything except it’s extraordinarily rare to meet another person from New Mexico. So I just love that… that’s just as sort of a weird thing we have in common. She actually grew up there. But I was born there, but didn’t really live there in my childhood, but you lived there. The other thing that we share in common is we both have traveled a lot internationally our entire lives. Melina and I have both been, what I would call third-culture kids where we’re American by citizenship, but also culturally, it’s much more complicated than that. And I’ll let Melina tell her part of that story. But I think that’s been really important in our growth and development and of our approach to these issues. So my father was a pilot in the Air Force. He was a fighter pilot in the Air Force for his career, and we moved a lot and we moved all over Western Europe and all over the eastern seaboard of the United States. So in my own lived experience, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to both be an insider and an outsider. And that has, I know, shaped my approach to this work as sort of a specialization level. I have a doctorate from University of Massachusetts Amherst, in multicultural organization development. So it’s my research area, as well as sort of my lived experience. And I’ve been out as a gay man for a really long time… since probably high school… early high school and growing up in a military community and also State Department community, my dad was a military attache, I think that really shaped me… sort of that fitting in, but not fitting in, that a lot of times it’s called code switching where you have to sort of adopt a certain set of behaviors or certain narrative form to fit in whether that’s your home base or not.
Melina: … What about being a white man… [LAUGHTER]
Mathew: Oh, yeah. Yeah… John and I have this in common… we’re both greying a little bit or at least I’m greying and so I walk into the classroom and I get an enormous amount of privilege, a benefit of the doubt. People automatically assume I belong at the front of the classroom. I’ve never been mistaken for our grad students, even as a grad student… people always thought I was faculty. But because I teach in social work, my specialization areas and my practice was in social work. And so I taught at Smith College in the School of Social Work for about 10 years. And always, whenever I do this work, I have to lead with “What’s a white guy know about diversity? And who am I to be at the front of the classroom?” And so I have, of course, as you’d imagine a pretty comprehensive response to that. But mostly, I like to lead with the idea that this is everybody’s work and that white men have a role in this as deep and as important as women of color. It’s just two ends of the continuum. But if white guys aren’t involved, and we’re not taking it seriously, particularly with a privilege that comes from being an academic, than I think we perpetuate misogyny, and patriarchy, and racism in deep ways. So I think I can see when I do that when I start right off with, “Okay, I know the first question on your mind is, ‘What’s a white guy know?’” I can see the visceral level of relief in the room because it was on everybody’s mind and until we address that I know we can’t get on to the work of the course or the session or whatever. So it’s pretty fun.
Melina: So a little bit about me. I’m an Associate Director of Inclusive Teaching here at the Center, which is a new position… a new role since last July. And before that, I was focused on supporting global and intercultural learning at Cornell. And my interest in this particular area has been sort of bubbling and growing throughout my entire life as Matt alluded to. I grew up bilingual and bicultural, Argentinian-American and spent part of my childhood living in Uruguay, where my mom and her family still live. And doing that kind of cultural code switching of realizing I was an American at I think age 10… having these moments of self awareness that sort of continue to grow. And I still continue to have the moments where I realized “Oh, I had a blind spot in relation to not really understanding this particular other way of being in the world.” So and I’m a poet by training, which I think has honed my observation skills. And I’m a former faculty member, I used to teach English at a community college in Massachusetts where I was specifically hired as a bilingual bicultural faculty member to do quite a lot of teacher training and faculty development, actually, around that particular identity category. So I also had to contend with the complexity of being a white identified Latina woman and what that means and seeing my Latin-x students eyes get really big and be like, “Wow, I didn’t even know there were white Latin-x people.” When they didn’t believe I could speak Spanish until I would speak Spanish to them. And that would sort of challenging the assumptions of who we are and I love the discomfort that comes from being in the soup that is the complexity of identity and learning from how people’s experiences of being misread or mislabeled or misunderstood inform us about how to do better in terms of building inclusive communities. So the work at Cornell… there’s a lot of work to be done… but it’s also an exciting moment because there’s a lot of people on deck thinking about this. So the response we’ve seen from the faculty and then the President… also being able to speak about this is incredibly inspiring. And then also going out to other campuses and meeting you in New Paltz and seeing other people are hungry for these conversations too, and students have a lot of place to think about their identity formation. And faculty, they’re not often necessarily asked to unless there’s suddenly an occurrence or an opportunity or an invitation. So I like being able to offer those moments of invitation to think about this together.
John: We’re glad that you do. It’s a very nice resource.
Rebecca: Yeah, we’re definitely excited to explore it with our colleagues here.
So we always wrap up by asking: what’s next? [LAUGHTER]
Mathew: Well, now that we’re concluding the second iteration of the on-campus course, the next is to actually write the MOOC. And we’re also going to write a Course Guide. So for folks like yourselves who might host or facilitate a learning group there, this is a genuine invitation to feedback. We think that we’re going to have a really fine course… it’s going to be worthwhile… but we also always know there’s room for improvement and so we’re hoping that this will be a sort of a virtuous loop of feedback from participants. And the course from the fall to the spring changed a lot… we learned a lot… and I expect that the same will be true of the MOOC as well.
John:That’s something we all should do with our courses, which is, again, a nice practice to share.
Rebecca: Oh look, reflection comes back again.
Mathew: Absolutely. [LAUGHTER] Absolutely.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us today.
Melina: Thank you
John: Thank you. We’re looking forward to continuing the conversation through the MOOC this fall.
Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.
Mathew: Absolutely. It’d be really fun in another year, assuming that we get it written and published, and that you get a chance to convene a cohort… it’d be really fun to come back and do it again and talk about what was it like, from your perspective, your experience on the ground? That would be really, really solid.
Melina: We can interview you for your own podcast.
John: Yeah,that would be a nice twist…
Rebecca: That would be fun.
Mathew: That would be fun, yeah.
John: We did have someone do that. It caught us by surprise because we weren’t ready for that.
John: But fortunately, we have the ability to edit. [LAUGHTER]
First-year students are often enrolled in survey and introductory courses that offer limited interactions with full-time faculty. In this episode, Mya Brown and Ajsa Mehmedovic join us to discuss a model in which students have the opportunity to explore interesting and complex issues in a more intimate setting in their very first semester.
Mya is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at SUNY Oswego who developed the Blackish Mirror first-year seminar course. Ajsa was one of Mya’s students in this class.
- SUNY Oswego First Year Signature Courses- Black·ish Mirror: A Study of Black Characters on Television (THT 198) – (a short video introduction to this course)
- Where do good ideas come from? Freakonomics podcast, episode 368.
- Fredrickson intensive on rapier dagger training
John: First-year students are often enrolled in survey and introductory courses that offer limited interactions with full-time faculty. In this episode we discuss a model in which students have the opportunity to explore interesting and complex issues in a more intimate setting in their very first semester.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Mya Brown, an Assistant Professor of Theatre at SUNY Oswego, and Ajsa Mehmedovic, one of Mya’s students. Welcome.
Ajsa: Hello there.
John: Our teas today are….
Mya: I actually am not drinking tea. I have coffee and water.
Ajsa: I’m drinking chocolate mint. It’s a great experience. I definitely recommend
Rebecca: Yumm. I think I’m leaning on my old favorite of English afternoon tea.
John: And I have blackberry green tea.
Rebecca: You’re both here today to discuss your first-year signature course, Blackish Mirror. Mya, can you talk a little bit about the class and then Ajsa, maybe you can talk a little bit about your experience in the class?
Ajsa: Of course.
Mya: Absolutely. I was really excited when I heard about the opportunity to create a first-year signature course. I’m on the task force for this new pilot program that we brought in here to SUNY Oswego. It was started by our Provost Scott Furlong… and Julie Pretzat, the Dean of the School of Communication, Media, and the Arts, reached out to me as a potential professor for a course, as well as someone to sit on that task force to help develop this pilot program. The thing that really drew me to it was the opportunity to get in with brand new students to the university and help them discover how much Oswego can be their home and also discover who they are as individuals so that they can contribute to society in a positive and impactful way. When it was presented to us instructors, it was presented as an opportunity to teach students how to be students. But, obviously, we don’t want to condescend students, right, or make them feel like they just absolutely have no idea of what they’re doing… what choice they made to come here… So we wanted to empower them through this course. And you know, they say a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. We thought, let’s teach how to be a student through something that the instructors are really passionate about and something that students would potentially be really passionate about. And I always, as a theater instructor, am trying to focus on social justice issues through plays that I read and introduce in my courses. Also, I’m on the play reading task force here. So I’m contributing to the season that we choose at Oswego. And I’m constantly looking for content that speaks to social issues that we find in the community. I looked at this as an opportunity for me to incorporate some social justice issues, specifically in relation to the African-American community in the classroom, while also teaching students how to be successful in college. So, I really wanted to focus on the evolution of the black character on television. So in the course, we went all the way back to Ethel Waters, which is the very first African-American character that’s seen on television. And what we were reflecting on was things like how much screen time our minority actors getting on television. Also, what kind of occupations are we seeing them in? What kinds of relationships are they engaging in? So we went all the way back from the 30s to present day. And I think the discoveries that we made in class were some really awesome discoveries. And we saw this trend in television where it was really kind of kid gloves with the character and introducing this new kind of character to the general public. And then we saw the gloves come right off, and we saw lots of “in your face” when we got to about the 1970s, the 80s, the 90s. Then we noticed this trend of kind of going away from taking the gloves off and putting them back on and we thought that that was actually quite interesting. Kind of early 2000s is where we saw this character almost regressing.
Rebecca: Like whitewashed
Mya: Yeah, definitely getting whitewashed and regressing back to what we saw
Ajsa: the norm…
Mya: …originally, right, with what was appropriate, what was inappropriate content for these characters. It was a great opportunity for us to have open discussions about what we were seeing, these trends we were seeing. And I think one of the major questions that I asked the class… you help me with this Ajsa… “Are the images that we see in the media influential in our thinking about a specific group of people?” That was the major question we wanted to answer over the course of the semester. And I think we all agreed…
Ajsa: Yeah, we came to a conclusion, and we definitely agree with that statement. And we got to see how the social norms are first ever made with the first ever character presented and then going into the gloves. And that whole aspect is really interesting to see that whole give and take aspect.
Mya: Even I was shocked and surprised by this trend that we saw in the evolution of the character. I think when I came up with this concept in my mind, I thought that it would be this very clear upward trajectory. But I found that it was not, it was definitely this kind of roller coaster ride that we went on with some really great highs, but also some really kind of low lows. And yeah, the most, shocking thing was discovering that some of those low lows are occurring now and in the most present time that we have. In this time where we think that we’re so progressive right now, and “we’ve come such a long way” since segregation and things like that. I don’t know how far we have actually come when we reflect truthfully on society, the images we’re seeing. We also ask things like, what’s the responsibility of media to tell truthful stories, to tell diverse stories to uplift the community through their outlet? What is that responsibility? Is there a responsibility also with the creators? …so we talked about that as well with the directors. Should they be checking their biases, because this is being presented to the community as a whole.
Ajsa: We actually had a moment where we talked about modern-day society, we talked about different things that are arising during Halloween and the whole cultural appropriation. And it was really exciting because we could see how the course was outlined. But there were definitely moments where we would stop and talk about real-world applications. Definitely reflecting what you’re talking about how it still matches society now. And it was just a whole experience that we all as a whole were learning together. Because this was like her first pilot having this class and it was just a really over the board genuine class.
Mya: Yeah, thank you, Ajsa. I was hoping that that’s what the students would get from it. So it’s really great. And I knew that you did.
Mya: But it’s always great to hear that reflected and see it reflected in what you’re doing now. So one of the major components of this class is community and making sure that the students feel a sense of home here at Oswego. We did a scavenger hunt…
Mya: …in the very beginning in small groups so that they were able to get to know each other a little bit better before we dive into this really deep kind of content and subject matter and I think that was useful. Also…
Ajsa: We had check-ins.
Mya: We had regular check-ins.
Ajsa: Yeah, during the semester we’d talk about like our applications with that, or in the sense like how you’re going to college, and different relations with the dynamic of having a roommate, the dynamic of coming from home. And it was just so interesting because we had this setup of the class, we were able to get into deeper content and not just say, “We’re good. We’re having a good time. This class is boring.” We actually had reflections on how we feel emotionally and how we feel like biased in a sense. And it was a really great experience.
Mya: It was also nice too, they had an opportunity to reflect on “how’s it going in the dorm?” What are maybe some things that you could do? What are some problem-solving skills that you could develop, and we just shared openly. So it was great to hear these varying opinions on how to address situations and people would say, “Oh, I never even thought about that. I’m going to try that next time.” So they were teaching each other, as well as me teaching them, as well as them teaching me.
Rebecca: So, it sounds like you had a really authentic experience and around some really tough issues. Both personal issues of that transition to college, but also about some really interesting questions around race, which is never an easy conversation to have really. So how do you each think that the class was set up that really supported the ability to have those authentic, deep, real conversations that everyone felt trusted and safe?
Mya: Yeah, I think that’s a really great question. And I do this in all of my classes, I really try to set it up in the beginning, I let them know that, “Hey, I was once in your seat and I am an advocate for you. I am an ally for you. And this is a safe place.” So I really try to reinforce that through my actions and I model that behavior in the classroom. Would you agree Ajsa?
Ajsa: Mm-hmm. I feel like Mya is actually one of those professors that actually cared, has such this in depth interest in how you’re going as a person. She was always easy to find outside the classroom or have independent conversations with the content was affecting their lives. It was just so interesting to have that bond with her because she is a Director. So sometimes students don’t always have that connection. So, I definitely see her as such a genuine authentic person, it really reflected in the course
Mya: Yeah, I think it’s really important. If you are transparent with the students then they will buy in, you know. I mean, and honestly, there’s nothing to buy into. It’s just more of they’re comfortable and they’re confident that they can be who they are because they see you being who you are. It is empowering.
Ajsa: I think we’re definitely lucky that our class was 19 people. And we had such a diverse group. In the first day we had discussion, we went around the room saying, Why did you take this course? And it was so interesting seeing everyone be so raw, because you never get asked that question like, “Why are you in this Gen Ed? …but this course was so different, because no one expected it to be so in depth and be such a good scan of society. And I always said when I came to this course. I was like that general expectation of college, like “I’m in college now, I’ll talk about politics and this whole aspect.” I was like, “This is this course.” And I think it was great that everyone was so diverse and so willing to be open and we all came to class… our favorite class. We also sat in a circle…
Mya: It was really important to me for us to sit in a circle and typically in a lecture-style course that’s not the way we handle things. However, in theater courses, we are constantly in circles. So I think I took that for granted because it’s just the nature of what I do. But once I incorporated it in this course, I realized how powerful it is to be in a circle. And not only would the students sit in a circle, but I would join the circle as well. I think it’s very important that they saw me as someone who was a part of the whole, not someone who was this outside force who was like regulating what they were doing, but as someone who was engaging with them. So in order to do that, I sat in a circle with them as well. And this idea of the circle, it allowed us to have eye contact, there was definitely more unity that was already just… it’s implicit in this format. Also, and I didn’t realize that this was happening at the time, I’m not sure if you realize this, but Jen Knapp, our Associate Dean, she came in and she observed the course and one of her reflections… that I was like, “Oh, wow, I totally take that for granted, I didn’t even think about that…” was how we were able to have this civil discourse in class and she noticed that students always said their names when they were referring to what someone else in the course said. If they were reflecting on or responding to something that Ajsa said they would say, “Oh, well, when Ajsa this thing…” and that was commonplace in the classroom, did you even notice that? It’s not something we planned it just organically….
Ajsa: We never said like, “Okay, if we talk to someone make sure we say ‘Tom’” …it just happened. And I always say this course actually made friends in this course… after I see a lot of them… We’ve been in shows together or in general, we say “hi,” and I’ve never had a course especially not a Gen Ed. You’re like, “Oh, there’s Mike Gold in the back.” It’s like, “Oh, I know, his beliefs. I know his values.” And it was just so exciting having that circle because you could hear and see everyone’s voice, you could see the distinction. And it was just really great having that connection with different students because everyone had different opinions on different topics. So I think that was definitely a strength of the course.
Mya: I actually was really concerned with whether we would be able to have a civil discourse on these kinds of topics and I was so impressed with the class because there were definitely some differences in opinions and some very strong conflicts that happened in the course. But they handled them very well. It was always respectful. And there was always an acknowledgement of the other and their perspective and then just a “Yeah, but I think … and the reason why is because of my experiences…” and we all were open to listening to each other in a way that I’ve not seen in a classroom before.
John: Did you have a class discussion on ground rules for the discussion before the discussions commenced?
MYSA: We did but it was really brief. Honestly, it was like “Respect each other. This is a free space. It is very comfortable, that kind of like general basis…” but I think it happened naturally. Because once a professor sets the tone, you kind of realize what the course can be… what’s appropriate. And I always say there’s some professors who just teach by the book, they don’t really look at the subject material, but I feel like Mya was always ever changing. Always you could tell she had her heart in the class. She always tells her own experiences, but the episode she chose… or next semester she’s going to take this episode out…. And I think it was really genuine having that reflection with the teacher and having her have her own opinions in there, too. It was just really ongoing.
Mya: I think it’s important that students understand that professors are not infallible. And it’s important for professors to present that as well. And again, just be transparent. But if they understand that their opinions matter, which is what I made sure I implemented from day one, then I think they feel more free to voice their opinions.
John: Did it help that you were looking at this through the lens of fictional media, rather than dealing with circumstances that people were directly involved in?
Mya: I think so. I think it creates a sense of distance that makes it…
Ajsa: …comfortable, yeah…
Mya: …a little easier to approach. Yeah, but with all of that subject matter, even though it was fictional, it’s all based in reality, due to the nature of it. And so everyone could relate in some way or form to at least one character in each episode. And it’s like, “Oh, I know that girl,” or “Oh…”
Ajsa: “I am that girl.”
Mya: …”that is me.”
Ajsa: Yeah. I think it was also a great experience because while we had media, we also had our own personal reflections. So it was like a mix. The episode set the tone. So, it wouldn’t be anything to touching… nothing like triggering that we have to like vocally say our experience first. And then after, naturally, people would speak up, and it got to a point that at the end of the semester we all raise our hands. And we all want to talk at the same time because we were just so into it and really involved. And it always felt comfortable to just talk in that class about whatever the subject material was.
Mya: And if for some reason an opposing idea didn’t come up, I would play devil’s advocate. And I really find it important that students are able to form some kind of sense of empathy so that they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes, see it from someone else’s perspective. And I always say listen for understanding, not to rebut. So I think they really absorbed all of those lessons and they use them really well in the class.
John: You mentioned that people came in with some strong opinions. Did you see those opinions evolve in response to the dialogue?
Mya: Yes, actually.
Ajsa: Yeah, I did.
Mya: Yeah, that happened a lot.
Ajsa: Yeah, people would vocally say, like, “I never thought about that before. Okay, you’re right. Or they would say, “That’s not my personal view. But I understand where you’re coming from now.” And it was just great, because there’s not many times people will take theirselves out of that out-of-body experience and listen to the other end. So… just a really good experience going through that.
Mya: Yeah, I agree.
Rebecca: I was just re-listening to an episode of Freakonomics about where great ideas come from. And they were talking about some research related to dissonance or people that disagree. And that when you have a room where someone feels comfortable enough to disagree, the ideas and the depth of a conversation or a deliberation like in a jury, considers much more evidence. And so, I think it’s kind of interesting, if you were playing devil’s advocate, if no one had brought up a different point of view, and you brought it up, then that was always present in your classroom. So I wonder if that helped the conversation evolve.
Mya: I think it absolutely helped.
Ajsa: It did.
Ajsa: It was like throwing a wrench… it was so exciting.
Mya: Yeah, and then they had to deal with it, right? Instead of just everybody could pile on… they had to actually deal with the opposing side of things. And we couldn’t just ignore it because we all felt the same way.
Ajsa: Yeah, it’s like a whole theme of the class was once an opinion is said you can’t ignore it. You have to have reaction to it. It just happened naturally. But the whole experience… listening to other people and always valuing everyone’s input… which is such an interesting things in modern society now. I feel like people just talk over each other or don’t really have the time to think about actually what’s going on. So I think it was great having everyone’s voice heard in that class.
Rebecca: So a key learning point was listening?
Mya: Active listening.
Ajsa: Active Listening.
MYSA: Right? Yeah, it was very clear that listening is not just “You hear it.” [Overtalking] but “You hear it, you process it, you form an opinion on it.” So actively listening to the other… again, for understanding and not just so that you can rebut or prove them wrong or something, but to actually get in their shoes and see it from their point of view, so that I can maybe soften your heart a little bit or expose you to something brand new that you had absolutely no idea about. And that’s why I think the diversity in the class was something that really helped as well. I do wish we would have had more diversity of gender, it was a pretty female heavy course. And there were no non-binary students in the class either. So maybe a little more diversity in that area would be nice. So that we could address some of those topics as well. [Overtalking]
Ajsa: We had a lot of different majors. because it was a gen ed course. There wasn’t any one that was all theater or anything in that sense.
Mya: …and I think it definitely served its purpose. I’m excited to teach it again next fall.,
John: What would you do differently?
MYSA: I feel like I might have missed the boat a little bit on the opportunity to introduce some time-management skills. We did a little bit of that, but I think we could have done a lot more, so I would incorporate more of that. But the biggest change that I have for this next fall coming up, is I’m going to have a TA which I’m really excited about. Yeah, so I recruited someone from the course to assist. I’m actually going to call her a peer mentor instead of a teaching assistant… But I think to have that element of someone who’s sat in that exact same seat, and not too long ago, will really be helpful for the students. Even though I’m pretty good at getting students to feel comfortable with me and open up to me and use me as a resource for absolutely anything, I feel like it is easier for you to talk to someone in your own age, who has a more recent and current experience with the class, the subject matter… the transition into the university. So having that peer mentor component, I think it’s going to really enhance the course and I’m excited about that.
Ajsa: I also feel like you mentioned resources. This course was really heavy in depth of resources on campus. She taught us Blackboard… I never knew about that… That was so in depth learning about that because we had our first journal that was due. We had journals with personal reflections in them. And also we had this whole experience going to the Writing Center, your reflection, one of them was going to an involvement fair. They’re having extra credit if you go to these are in musicals or different productions. It was just really great having that full over the board experience, because I feel like I’ve never had a course taught me the resources on campus, but this one did. And it was really good for freshman.
Mya: Yeah, I think the scavenger hunt really helped with that, would you say?
Ajsa: Um hmm.
Mya: So I sent them to places like the Women’s Center, the library, the Writing Center,
Mya: …literally just everywhere on campus you could think of that has a support component to it for the students. I made sure that they went to those places, just so that they knew there are so many resources on campus. I remember when I was a freshman, first semester and I was just completely overwhelmed. Like “What is this new world?” …because university… it’s very much of a bubble of its own world. And the rules are totally different than what we’re accustomed to from high school. They’re also different than what you’ll experience in the real world….
MYSA: …just to let you know.
John: …unless you choose to stay….
Mya: Unless you stay? That’s true.
John: Which many of us have done.
Mya: Yeah, but just introducing them to all of the awesome opportunities here. And I’m so proud to see them take advantage of those opportunities beyond the classroom Ajsa was just in the main stage production of Fun Home that we did here. She also is in directing scenes, she did them last semester. She’s also doing them this semester. Another one of our students was in Fun Home. Yeah, from that course. Two of the students from that course actually traveled with me to London. So they really are getting exposed to the university. And these great resources and opportunities that we have here, in a way that they wouldn’t have been exposed had they not taken this course.
Ajsa: Just in general, I see them involved in different things. One of them is my Psych class. I just think it’s so exciting having that connection, because it’s not like a regular class… you just had calm… it’s like you actually had to hear each other, so it’s like, these are my friends even if we weren’t close. You just know who they are as people.
Rebecca: Mya, can you talk a little bit about what you learned teaching this course that you’re applying in some of your other courses?
Mya: Yes, absolutely. The major change that I’m making in my other courses is to the syllabus. I’ve learned how important a tool it is, I think before I just kind of looked at it as a necessary evil or something. And the style of my syllabus was totally archaic. I mean, it was literally nothing but words, white piece of paper with black words on it, there’s nothing. But now for this one, I actually incorporated pictures… there’s color… I used a graph to do the grading breakdown. So for my rubric before it was just columns, and these are the assignments these are the points that are allotted, this is what you need to get. But this time I used to color and I put it in a pie graph and I tried to state things as questions. I’ve added a lot more personality to the syllabus than I ever had before. Before, it was just pure facts. This is what you need to do for this. But this time I engaged it in question formatting, so that they would have to think about things that were on the syllabus versus “Oh, this is a bunch of information. I hear it all on the first day. I forget about it. I don’t ever look at it again.” But it was an actual tool that they were able to use in class. And I placed things on there, like little tips for success in the classroom, that they could apply to any class, not just this class. And so hopefully they could use it in their other classes. I also had a form that we use that kind of guided them when they did their reflections on the shows that we watched in class. And I heard from an advisor that one of my students shared it with them and said, I’m using this in my other courses. So that made me say, “Oh, I’ve got to use in my other courses.”
So definitely changing the syllabus to make it a little more welcoming… opening… add a little more of my personality to it… adding some color… some pictures… some visuals… so that it’s exciting. It should excite them instead of make them feel like “Oh, here’s another syllabus, recycle this thing.”
Ajsa: That was our one requirement: to have the syllabus on us. The first day, we went through the whole syllabus and she was teaching us this is what a college syllabus is. And these are the dates. And it was actually so useful because in high school, you have a syllabus that doesn’t mean anything but in college, it’s like yes, this date, that’s your paper, no changing. But this one obviously was ongoing, but it was really exciting having to learn that tool in the course because as freshmen you don’t really realize how important it is. And it was just really great seeing those tips reflecting on it. And I think that’s something that definitely taught me the importance of syllabus.
Mya: Another thing Rebecca… you will be excited about this. I’m going to work on this this summer… is making my syllabi accessible.
Rebecca: Big smiles on my side.
Mya: I know. I knew you would love it. Now, I’m going to come to you for assistance with that as well, because I’m not well versed in how to do that. But I think it is absolutely necessary. And that’s the next steps that I would like to take with all of my classes.
Rebecca: Thumbs up. Ajsa, can you talk a little bit about what you got from the course that you’re using in your other classes?
Ajsa: I definitely understand the whole perspective of hearing everyone’s voice and definitely seeing the other side to any issue… any conflict. I think that’s definitely useful in the real world. And in general, any communication you ever have with any other person… and I think definitely getting involved. Not many courses tell you “These are the resources, please go to them.” And I think this course like Maya was saying definitely gave us all the foot in the right direction and made us all student leaders in a way… and confidence. I think it definitely made us feel comfortable talking and feel comfortable with our values.. our morals, I think it’s definitely something that has taught us growing up in maturity I feel like personally. And of course tools in my other classes like Blackboard and the Writing Center.
Mya: Another element of the entire program, the pilot program was that we do attend these outside of class activities. And so some professors and I got together. These other professors were also teaching first-year signature courses. And we thought, “Okay, how can we combine our courses in one single event?” So we had the Luke Cage event. Do you remember that one?
Ajsa: Yeah, I went. I had a free t shirt… it was great.
Mya: Yeah, it was really great. That was Allison Rank. Jessica Reehar, Margaret Schmull, Amy Bidwell. We all got together and we were like, “Okay, how can we incorporate social justice and the black character on TV and comic books from yours and gender identity from yours and health from yours?” And so we came up with a viewing of an episode of Luke Cage and then a talkback afterwards. And the students in my class all reflected on the event and said, “We felt so prepared for it.” What I noticed is that my students were the ones who were the most engaged in that talk back. And I think it is because it was a very similar format to our class. So they felt empowered. But what was really awesome is that through them speaking up so freely and confidently, you literally saw it trickle off to other people and other students within that audience. And they all started to feel empowered to speak up and quite confident to do so. And it was really a great event and an awesome opportunity for me as a faculty member to engage with other faculty members from other departments that I would never typically get a chance to do something like this. And also for the students to engage with other faculty members from other departments, especially at this young time in their careers here at Oswego. They were introduced to some faculty who now it’s like, “Oh, well, Allison Rank is awesome, I think I’m going to take a class with her.” So it was a really great opportunity for us to introduce these students to some of the other opportunities on campus outside of theater, and outside of these resource and support services, but also these academic opportunities that they could have with fellow faculty members. I really appreciated that we were able to do that. And we’ll do much more of that in the future.
Ajsa: It was actually pretty funny. I sat next to this girl who’s in one of the other courses and she was like, “Oh, my God, I don’t know how to do this. I have to do a paper for this course, with what we’re doing a reflection on. And I was like, “My Professor, she’s right up there.” And I was like, “We do this all the time.” And she’s like “That’s your Professor?” And I was like, “Yeah,“ and she’s like, “Wow, that seems like a great course.” And we’re just having this whole” discussion and I sat a little bit away from my class so I could see all of them. And I was like, “Yeah, all those people talking like in the second row, that’s my whole class.” And I actually saw it trickle down to everyone else. And in the event we also had trail mix being passed around for the health and wellness and there was on it, how you can make this trail mix in the dining hall and how accessible it would be. And it was just such a good experience. You could just tell everyone was like genuinely involved. It’s so authentic and really just good experience all around.
Mya: Yeah, that was Amy Bidwell. She’s “Okay. How do I use my nutrition course in relation to this Luke Cage thing?” and she had that idea of “Oh, we can provide a healthy snack…” and it was a great opportunity to teach the students how you yourself can go make this healthy snack just right here in your residence hall.
John: It also saved on the budget too
Mya: It did. [LAUGHTER]
Ajsa:I just know that personally, in my own life, I always talk about this course and tell everyone and all the theatre students come up to me and they’re like, “I really wanted to take that class with Mya. It sounds great.” And this is my first ever experience with Mya. I never had a theatre course with her it was just this. So I think my experience with her was so different than other theatre students because I saw her more discussion wise and more about like her own values. So, It was such a good experience to see a professor like that. And also my regular students that I tell this course about always like, “That’s a great course. I wish I was a freshman so I could take that course.” So I would love to one day, see it open to everyone. But I also think it’s a really good application for freshmen. It does its job.
Mya: Yeah, I actually had lots of students who were like, “Hey, I want to get in that course… that Blackish Mirror course that I heard about. And I’m like, “Oh, sorry. Only first semester freshman.” …which I think is a necessary part of that formatting because of what it is exactly that we would like them to leave the course with what the…
Ajsa: course objectives
Mya: …course objectives are.
Rebecca: I just heard a student say course objectives
Ajsa: Mya Brown taught me that… that’s how I know what course objectives are.
Mya: Yes, Julie and Scott will love that. [LAUGHTER]
But, see, I think those are the things that you take for granted that are they actually absorbing these kinds of things? So using that first semester to make it very clear and very plain to them… the importance of those things is changing for your experience in university.
Ajsa: Yeah, when I took this course, on the first day, when I said, “Why are you in this course?“ I had a friend in theater department recommend… like, Oh, I was “Do you know anything about this course? I’m just a freshman.” And they were like, “Mya Brown’s teaching that course” and I was like, “Yeah…” and they were like “I didn’t know she had the course… she’s an amazing teacher… take anything Mya Brown has.”
Ajsa: …and I just remember being able to feel like “Yeah, this is a great experience. I don’t know what she’s like in her other classes, but this one was a great experience… always recommend. So I think it’s just nice having such a beloved and caring teacher teach this course because it makes a whole welcome and friendly setting in a….
Mya: I think that’s an absolute necessity in whichever faculty member is teaching, they must have a passion for it. We actually initially started calling this program “passion courses” In the beginning, but then it was like,”Mmmm, I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s appropriate, let’s maybe go away from that.” But it is true that you have to have a passion for the subject matter. And you have to have a passion for reaching young people, and helping them to discover who they are as people so that they can optimize their potential, and then give back to society. If you’re not interested in doing that, you’re just interested in the subject matter, you’re probably not the right person to teach this kind of course. I think you definitely have to have a full investment in the student as a person, not just as a student in your course. Can I help them discover who they are?
Ajsa: It was a really good experience because while she does theater, she was also involved in everyone else also. There were students that were like, “Oh, I’m doing this I’m doing a civil service trip or I just got involved in this position on campus.” And typical “Oh My God, tell me more about it. That sounds great”. It was never just like a focus on a theater driven students it was always focused on everything all across the board, just really inspirational and just really supportive. And I think we can all relate that Maya was our like mom and like support system on campus when we came here and no other professor cares about what you’re doing on campus or how is your dorm life. She always cared.
Mya: Oh, thank you. They made it easy, though. I mean, I just loved this class.
Ajsa: We’re so lovable, yeah.
Mya: And I think if all freshmen could have this kind of experience coming in, it just will increase their chances of graduating… of being successful at the university level… and then taking it beyond university.
Ajsa: Student leaders… the whole aspect.
Mya: I do have an idea for a new course as well, which my rough working title is Revenge of the American Pie. And for this one, I would like to do a survey of films, specifically 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. And the way they are approaching some issues and relationships and what’s appropriate… how that is affecting society. And we’re seeing the results of it now with the “Me too” movement. Women feel like they have to protect themselves and they have to dress a certain way. And they’re taught these things based off of what they see in media. It’s your fault is
Ajsa: …how sexualized they are.
Mya: …if something happens to you… Right, how sexualized they are. And then men are kind of empowered to, or embolden to feel like they can do whatever they want with a woman because of some of these films that we saw early on. And I call it Revenge of the American Pie, because Revenge of the Nerds, and American Pie kind of inspired this look and this survey. So I always try to do a little play on words with the titles. But I really feel like we’re seeing the results now, of those harmful images that we saw in films from the 80s and 90s and early 2000s. We’re seeing the results and the effects of those images. And that messaging that was in some of those movies, we’re seeing that now Again, this Me Too movement era. And I think it’s important that we address that and we have to address it with young impressionable minds because that’s where the change happens. This is why I thought Blackish Mirror was so important. And why I would love to, maybe in the future, do the Revenge of the American Pie. I definitely think that’s really important because a lot of people notice the 80s 90s, mid 2000s are very raunchy and modern days very PC and every once in a while… I don’t get it like back then it was appropriate when it’s like the question is, was it appropriate or was it too much? People don’t ever know the line. Allso, I would love to say about Blackish Mirror was that we never just focused on the black minority, we focused on everything. One of the things we said right off the bat was “You know, you can always notice sexism… you can always notice anything in there… any kind of bias… any kind of minority… feel comfortable talking about it and definitely like the African American everything in a whole sense was a big focus, but we’re always open to anything you want to discuss… always like social norms and social constructs. I definitely feel like this course was over the board just inclusive.
Mya: Yeah, there were several things that we picked up on that were social thinking issues. There was a episode of Benson that we watched…
Ajsa: That’s what I was thinking about.
Mya: Is that the one you’re thinking about?
Mya: And there was lots going on there with gender inequality. Also with some immigration issues that came up… and Blackish Mirror, we used it as this opening to discuss any biases that we saw or social injustices that were present, and how we can reflect on them today. And it was not just “Can you identify these things?” And “Can we reflect on these things?” We took it further and said, “What can you do about these things to impact society?” So the final project was a public service announcement. They had small groups and they identified issues from the episodes that we viewed and discussed throughout the semester. And they then had to choose something as a group that they wanted to address and create a public service announcement to hopefully inspire some change towards that issue. And how do you think that assignment went?
Ajsa: It was so interesting because we had to get cameras from the library. And a lot of us are not media majors, not cinema. So, we’re just like, “How do you wear a camera? Is she like for real?” And it was just such a cool experience, because the product and results were actually really good. They’re great content… we watched them in class. And it was just really interesting where everyone took it and how we didn’t choose our groups… we were put into the groups… so it was like universal thought. It wasn’t one person was leader. You had your friends saying “I’m interested in this.” So are you. This is our group. We had to sit there and kind of spit ball and talk about like, “What do we collectively want?” And that was just a great experience having, and I think it was appropriately challenged. It was definitely something that is intimidating at first and then you do and you’re like, this is doable. This was really great.
Mya: I think that’s what university is. It’s intimidating at first. But then once you get into it, it’s like I can do this. I can totally handle this. I think that that’s like the broader message that they were able to leave the course with is “Yes it might be difficult, but there are support systems… reach out… be confident… and also allow yourself to make mistakes. No one’s perfect. So allow yourself to make some mistakes and understand that you’re not alone in this. I think that’s another thing that was helpful with all of the group work. Nearly everything we did was group work.
Ajsa: Yeah. And also something that I remembered a student said was “Once you have this course, I can never look at media the same. It rewires your brain… You thought to look at it as like a whole inclusive thing because while we look at the episode and expect a minority then we would notice different things of sexism, etc, in it that we would never even pick up on naturally before this course. And I think it really helps open your mind and just makes you better human beings.
John: We always end with the question: What are you doing next? You’ve already addressed some of this, but what are some of your next projects for each of you?
Mya: Well, I am actually going to the University of Michigan for the Fredrickson intensive on rapier dagger training. I’m prepping for next season… I’m directing She Kills Monsters, which is this excellent play about this girl who finds herself in a position where in order to get to know her little sister, who unfortunately passed away, she plays her D&D module, her Dungeons and Dragons module. So she meets her sister in this D&D world. They fight all these monsters… they bond… and it’s this really great look at grief, and how we can overcome it.
Ajsa: Personally, for me, I’m really involved on campus. I’m hoping to be a summer RA this summer. And also I am really involved in the civil service trips. I did one for Alabama. And I built a house in, Alabama and it was great and I’m really getting involved and would love to do another one. So I’m planning that and, in general, I’m just doing all these different aspects that I am involved in on campus and just having this whole touch on campus life. I certainly love that whole aspect.
John: Thank you for joining us. This was a fun conversation and I’m looking forward to hearing about more iterations of the course in the future.
Mya: Thank you.
Ajsa: Thank you.
Rebecca: Thank you so much.
Class discussions of race and racism can be difficult for all participants. In this episode, Dr. Cyndi Kernahan joins us to discuss ways of building a classroom climate in which these issues may be productively explored.
Cyndi is a psychology professor and Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. She’s the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor, which will be available from West Virginia University Press in Fall 2019. The book will be part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Series edited by James Lang.
- Dr. Cyndi Kernahan
- Kernihan, Cyndi. (2019). Teaching About Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor. West Virginia University Press.
- Mindset Scholars Network
- Friedrich, Alex (2013). “MCTC Instructor: I was Reprimanded for How I Handled a Racism Debate.” Michigan Public Radio News. (A discussion of the case involving Shannon Gibney)
- Rabin, Roni Caryn. (2019) “Huge Racial Disparities found in Deaths Linked to Pregnancy.” New York Times Upshot. May 7.
- Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), 613.
- Radio Replay: The Mind of the Village – Hidden Brain Podcast – March 9, 2018.
John: Class discussions of race and racism can be difficult for all participants. In this episode, we discuss ways of building a classroom climate in which these issues may be productively explored.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Cyndi Kernahan, a psychology professor and Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. She’s also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor, which will be available from West Virginia University Press in Fall 2019. The book will be part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Series edited by James Lang. Welcome, Cyndi.
John: Welcome. Our teas today are:
Cyndi: I actually I just have water although I am a big tea drinker usually.
Rebecca: I’m drinking golden-tipped English Breakfast tea.
John: That’s a new one.
Rebecca: I know I’m branching out! [LAUGHTER]
John: And I have blueberry green tea today.
Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your forthcoming book, Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor. Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
Cyndi: Yeah, the book is essentially my answer to a question to my earlier self. So when I started teaching about the psychology of racism about 20 years ago, when I first started here, I felt desperately in need of help, because I’d always wanted to teach about the psychology of racism but it was much more difficult than I anticipated, as most teaching often is. And I was very young and new and I wanted a guidebook and there really wasn’t one. And so I kind of have had it in my mind for a long time and about five years ago, I started thinking seriously about how to do it. So the book is meant to be sort of a guidebook. It’s got both my own experiences, but also a lot of evidence in it. I’m a social psychologist, so there’s a lot of evidence from my field that I think is very easily translatable to the classroom in terms of how to learn and how to think about these issues because they’re hard to teach. It’s hard to teach about racism, I think. There’s a lot of difficulty in it. There’s a lot of evidence and also just sort of my overall philosophy about how we can teach it in compassionate but very honest ways. And so that’s my overall thinking…making sure that you tell the truth but that you tell the truth in a way that doesn’t alienate your students and keeps them engaged, which I think is kind of a can be a difficult line to walk. So, that’s kind of what it’s about. It covers a lot of different things, student resistance, creating a good climate, how to take care of yourself as an instructor when you teach this sort of stuff. But, those are some of the basic ideas.
John: A few years ago, with the election of Obama, there was some people who claimed that we had moved to a post-racial society. I think evidence since then has shown that that hasn’t quite been the case.
John: And I think the book is particularly well timed because these issues are in the forefront with the news all the time. How do you begin to address issues of race in your classes?
Cyndi: First of all, I think that idea of the post-race thing is really interesting, and I see it a lot in students. I mean, I’m just finishing up teaching this class now. We’re in our last week of classes now, it’s finals next week. And when most of my students, most of whom are white, came to the class a lot of them just have this colorblind idea, which is similar to the idea of post-race, like we’re done…sorted that out in the 60s, it’s all good. And it’s obviously not…and so they believe that we’re in this equal playing field, which we’re not really in obviously. And so that’s kind of a starting point. I talk about that in the book, this colorblind ideology that most Americans share. The first order of business is sort of getting through that. And so there’s, I think, two main things that most students and most people (especially white people) need to understand. One is that colorblindness isn’t really possible, even though we think it should be the norm, it’s not really the ideal. So that’s one thing, but then also that there is this larger structure of what people in my field would call institutional racism or structural racism. And that’s the piece that I think most white people, most students don’t really get: that racism is not as people said, individual acts of meanness, it’s also these bigger things that affect us that we don’t think about. That’s usually where I start. We talked about what race is and what it’s not, what institutional racism is, and what it’s not. So I think that mostly answers your question as to where we start.
John: And that feeling of colorblindness is that more unique to white students, perhaps than students of color?
Cyndi: I think it’s more unique, but it’s not exclusive to white students. Students of color can often struggle with that understanding of institutional racism, and structural and cultural racism, as well. If you look at attitude surveys, it’s not unusual for people of color to say that they don’t necessarily see it in institutional or structural terms. Or you’ll see surveys, they’ll ask, “What’s more important? Individual behavior or institutional laws and policies?” And almost all Americans with the exception of really recent immigrants and Native Americans, I think, say that the individual behavior is more important. And as a social psychologist, I would say, actually they’re both important. But as far as what impacts your life more, it’s those big, broad institutional, cultural stuff. So I think white students are more likely, but not only.
John: How do you make students more aware of those issues? How can you help get them past that notion of color blindness?
Cyndi: One answer is a lot of evidence, but it’s how you deliver that evidence. My usual way to try to get these things across is to combine a lot of statistical evidence, a lot of broad evidence, with stories and examples that are representative. So I try really hard in my content, like I don’t just cover a bunch of psychology experiments, and I don’t just cover statistics. I try to have that together with individual stories of people’s experiences. And I also think discussion is really key. So I don’t lecture in this course, really much at all. I’ll do some mini-lectures. But, that’s never the main thing that I’m doing because I think it’s really important for them to read, and then come to class and process all that stuff. Because the number one thing that happens, again going back to the misconceptions they come in with, is that they realize that there’s all this stuff that they didn’t know. So we cover a lot of history, for example, and there’s all this history of how we got to the racial categories that we have now that they’re just like, “No one told me this.” And they need to hear other students say that too. That’s part of also creating that climate is like, “Oh, I’m not weird or stupid for not knowing this. All these other people didn’t know it either.” And we talked a lot about, “It makes sense that you wouldn’t know because we don’t really teach it in our K-12 system very well for most students.” So, I think it’s a bunch of things. I think it’s what the content looks like, it’s how the class is structured, it’s how the evidence is presented. I think all those things matter.
Rebecca: Many faculty members avoid talking about race, especially in classes that are not about race specifically.
Rebecca: So can you address maybe why faculty do that, and how to help faculty overcome that fear?
Cyndi: I think fear is the main reason. And there’s different types of fear. One is: I don’t want to be the bad guy and I don’t want to be confrontational, which is understandable. Many years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who taught in our English department, and she was teaching something called ethnic film and literature. And at the time, I was coordinating ethnic studies, and I really wanted her to teach that class again so that I could get it back into the rotation. And she just told me…we were at a party and she said, “I’m not teaching that anymore.” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because I have to fight with them about whether or not racism is a real thing. And I don’t want to do that anymore.” She didn’t want to put up with the resistance, essentially. And she didn’t want to have to be what she felt like was the bad guy to deal with that resistance. And so I think that’s a big piece of it. If I try to tell students the truth about this stuff, they’re just going to resist and then I’m going to have to deal with that discomfort. And that’s a real fear, particularly for instructors of color. I mean, they’re all these national examples, right? …of people getting called out by their universities for basically just telling the truth in their classes and trying to teach institutional racism. The most famous example was Shannon Gibney over at Minneapolis Community and Technical College near where I live, and she was officially reprimanded by her University, basically for teaching what I teach, because she was getting pushback from white students, essentially. So I think that’s part of it. Also, it creates a lot of dissonance in students which was related to the resistance, so knowing how to deal with that dissonance can help students feel okay about themselves even as they recognize that they hold a lot of these beliefs and they haven’t really been very critical about it. So I think that all those things, all those types of fears play into why you don’t see people covering it.
Rebecca: How do you suggest maybe faculty get over that or feel prepared for that resistance or can actually deal with that in the classroom and not feel shocked or distressed or overwhelmed.
Cyndi: The big key, I think, is being prepared and feeling like you know how to talk about it. I’ve also heard a lot of instructors say, “I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge.” For white instructors, they feel like they don’t have the right or the credibility to talk about it. So that’s sort of an issue, and for instructors of color, there’s a whole other set of things. If you look at the research for them, there’s just a ton of microaggressions that they often have to deal with. They’re also seen as not being credible purveyors of this information. So that’s an issue. So I think just a couple things: one being as prepared as possible. So knowing your subject really well…being clear that when you teach the class, you’re gonna be clear with the students like, this is the evidence we’re going to use. So you’re not coming at it, like it’s all people’s personal experiences or opinions. That I think is where it gets especially hard. But if you know that, you’re going to come back to this scholarly base of evidence that usually makes most of us more comfortable, because that’s how we roll. …and people had this misunderstanding of teaching about race: “Well, it’s all just opinion.” I once had a student say, “How could you possibly give us a test on this? I mean, it’s just all people’s opinions.” I was like, “No, not quite. [LAUGHTER] There’s definitely evidence there. There’s psychology, there’s sociology, and there’s history and we’re going to use all of those things.” So I think that part of it is knowing that you have this common base of information. And also knowing what to expect…how to deal with the resistance, knowing what the resistance looks like, I have a whole chapter on what resistance looks like and how it manifests in white students versus students of color and how to think about it and how to deal with it. So I think that can be helpful too.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about maybe one or two ways that we tend to see resistance and a couple of strategies that we might be able to use to overcome that?
Cyndi: Yeah, I think, in general, what you see with the research is that white students tend to be more resistant than students of color in general. They tend to be more vocal about it than students of color. One sort of broad distinction you sometimes see is that students of color are more likely to leave if they’re the minority in the classroom. So, if you have mostly white students (which is a lot of what I deal with, and maybe I have a few students of color), you might get more passive resistance on the part of the students of color, they sort of withdraw a little bit more, because they don’t want to be the one student saying things in the class and then being really looked at or targeted in that way. And for white students, they just tend to be more comfortable speaking up about this, particularly in the primarily white environments. So I think the ways to get around resistance are: 1. always sort of coming back to the evidence that you’re using. And if you set the table at the beginning of the class that can usually work so you can come back to: “Okay, here’s what we’re going to focus on.” So for example, I’ve had students say in class, when we talk about wealth disparities or something, they might bring up a particular person that they know who doesn’t fit that. And so what I found is useful as I don’t fight with them about whether or not their story is true. I don’t know the wealth of this individual family of color. So if I tell you that the wealth disparity is like 10 times… white families have on average 10 times the wealth that black families have…and they say, “No, no, there’s this one family I know. And they’re, they’re really, really rich…,” you know, as sort of an anecdotal thing. That’s a way you see resistance manifest, right? And so instead of arguing back and forth about whether or not that family is rich, which is useless, you can just undercut that and talk about the general wealth disparity. So, that’s one way to do it. That’s obviously pretty mild resistance. If you have consistently students questioning evidence, which doesn’t happen as much as you might think, bt it can happen, but it can happen, then I sometimes will take that out of class. For students of color, the way I try to work with the resistance you often see there, which is that sort of passive withdrawal because again, they don’t want to be targeted within a predominantly white classroom, one technique I use is to send an email really early in the semester that says something along the lines of, “We’re going to be talking about racism all semester. Your classmates may look to you to be a representative, just know that I know that you don’t need to do that. That’s not your job. And I’m not going to expect that of you, because I want to try to make those students especially feel as safe as possible. And I also recognize too, I reinforce to them: “I’m a scholarly expert on this. But this is your lived experience and I recognize that. Not saying that one is better than the other, but just I see you and I see that your experience is going to be different than the white students in the class. And so that’s the way I try to short circuit that withdrawal from class as much as possible. And most students, at least so far, have appreciated that…and also just acknowledging way up front that this is going to be new to you. You’re going to be uncomfortable, I put it in the syllabus: “You’re going to feel uncomfortable, this is not comfortable stuff to talk about, and so just know that it’s coming.” So those are a few things.
John: Do you recommend having the class come up with rules of engagement or discussion on these issues.
Cyndi: I definitely do. I mean, I have some that I think are important, but I let them drive that discussion. And then I add them in if I feel like maybe they’ve missed them, or something. And I usually have them. Actually, I think I learned this from an earlier version of your podcasts, someone was on talking about having the students working groups to develop their rules of engagement. And so I did a little bit of that on the first day this semester, let them talk about it in small groups before we talked about it in large groups. And then I just take a picture of what those agreed upon discussion groups are and I post them up on Canvas, so that that way they can come back to them. Yeah, we have a whole discussion about discussion: about what it should look like in our class, how we want to engage. One big question we always talk about is do you want to raise your hands or just talk? How do you want to handle somebody upset? They always think it’s going to be more contentious than it actually is, at least so far in my experience. I haven’t had a whole bunch of anger or confrontation. So that’s been so far that’s worked well.
Rebecca: What are some of the consequences of not dealing with race specifically in classes or subject matter that doesn’t directly indicate that race is going to be a part of the conversation? So we often hear this from faculty in math or science, or I would even say in my area of design where it’s not obvious that race might be something that should be discussed. What are the consequences of completely avoiding it?
Cyndi: Well, obviously it marginalizes it. So, it turns it into something that only some people can do. Only some people can cover these topics, only some people are allowed to on some level. And it’s interesting you ask that because this has come up on my campus in the last couple of years in a couple of different ways. Because we have, I don’t know if you all have it, a diversity requirement, but we do. So we have one course, American Cultural Diversity, that students are supposed to take. And there’s been sort of a…fight is a strong word, but…argument over who should be teaching those courses. And I don’t think just anyone should be teaching them. But I do think people can develop an expertise within their own field. So for example, I have a colleague (and we have a very big agriculture college on my campus), and she teaches soil science and crop production and all that sort of thing. So that’s an area where you think, where’s the race going to be that but it’s deeply in it because she’s teaching these future farmers and folks working in that industry. And there’s so many immigrants that work in farming. So she developed and she developed the expertise on this. And she developed a class on immigration…migrant farm workers, essentially. She and I talked about that course many times when she was in the process of developing and starting to teach it. She teaches it regularly. And I think the advantage of that is that, for the students who are majoring in that college, that’s going to feel very relevant for them. And so again, I think people have to develop some expertise to do it, and then they need some tools for how to teach it. But we all need tools for how to teach it because it’s hard. So, I think it’s important because it allows people to be more motivated to see how it relates to their specific field. I also have a colleague in math, who has talked a lot about trying to develop some courses around race and whiteness and math. You may recall, there was a math professor, I think, in Illinois, who was writing about white privilege and math and got a lot of haters online, essentially. Basically a really good scholarly analysis about the way white privilege works in math. And that stuff is really useful for students. It helps them connect in ways that are relevant to them.
John: You mentioned using narrative. While evidence is useful, it doesn’t always reach all of the students. I’ve been teaching about discrimination in my labor economics classes for decades. And it’s remarkable how resistant people are to facts. Because they rely on the sort of narratives: “My third cousin twice removed is this exceptional case. And it means all this evidence is wrong.” But you mentioned using narrative perhaps in a constructive way to help students understand that. Could you give us some examples of that?
Cyndi: Yeah, sure. Like the example that pops to mind right away was a really powerful piece that I used this semester on black maternal death rates, you may know that they’re wildly disparate, right? There’s a huge health disparities when it comes to race and healthcare. And so there was a really nice piece that was actually in the New York Times Magazine. That was this really good combination of a personal story of one woman and her experience. She lost a baby and then she was pregnant again and dealing with that… and there have been all these famous cases. Serena Williams most famously talked about her complications during birth and not being believed by doctors. So this piece was really great because they both had her story but then woven into it, it was a really well written piece. It had all the statistics, the differences…And the students…I gave it to them over a two-day period, because it was pretty long, and we discussed it for two days. And I just used it as this larger example of implicit bias in the healthcare industry. And these larger statistics on the disparities, the wealth gap…it illustrated a bunch of things that we had already covered. And the students loved it. It was hard for them to read, but they were very engaged with it. And some of the questions I got were excellent. And I’ll just say, too, I think one important thing is that when you come into a discussion, it’s really important to have a base to discuss with. And so, every day they have to read and post questions. I don’t give like reading quizzes, but they have to post questions so that I know that they read or at least mostly read, and I grade them. Because if you don’t do that, then your discussion is not good at all. If people don’t have a base of evidence to work from, you’re not going to get anywhere. And so those types of materials…I’m always looking for them…where they have that combo of the broad statistics and also the individual stories…and yeah, I know economics, it’s really tough to get those pieces. It’s the same for psychology can be really hard to find, but they’re useful.
John: Well, certainly in immigration and discrimination in labor markets, there’s a lot of examples out there and lots of good content.
Cyndi: Yeah, there definitely is. You just got to always be on the lookout.
Rebecca: So, what happens when it’s a conversation where the discussion point wasn’t going to be race, but then it becomes race. There isn’t a piece that you’re going to discuss ahead of time. But it pops up in conversation, it needs to be addressed. Do you have any strategies for handling those more impromptu situations that occur?
Cyndi: Well, for me, I think I always go back to then, either being honest that I don’t know enough to comment on it. What that question makes me think of are when students will bring up current examples, either that I don’t know or that I don’t know enough about. And so I will always try if I can to find some relevant psychological data or evidence or sociological data or evidence that I can bring it back to. And there have been times when if current events are happening, and I feel like I don’t know enough, I’ll just say, I don’t think we know enough. So if we have time, maybe we all spend a few minutes on our phones trying to find some information and you can do that right in class sometimes. But I always see myself as sort of a guide in terms of helping them sort through what the larger patterns are in terms of that evidence. And I think if you create a decent enough climate where they trust you, that usually can work. But yeah, the impromptu stuff can be tough, particularly if it’s not your area. I think that’s where, again, being prepared is hard. And I think you can just say, if this isn’t your area, like, “Let me go and find some more. Let me go find some stuff out and then we’ll come back to it.”
John: On dealing with things in the moment, how would you recommend people respond if someone makes a comment that somewhat racist without realizing the impact of that?
Cyndi: A really good example of that happened actually in a colleague’s classroom on campus this semester, and he called me after it. I forget what the term was, but a student had used a term in class that he found offensive and he was pretty sure other students found offensive and he didn’t really deal with it in the moment. And so he called me and asked what I thought. And I think one of the strongest ways to deal with that is, oftentimes, students don’t realize or people don’t realize that a turn might be offensive, or it might seem offensive. And so a lot of times, and what I advised him (and he said, it worked pretty well) is to go into those conversations, discussing it in terms of kind of a growth mindset idea. You know, here’s this term that was used…it’s offensive for some folks, but some folks might not understand why and then maybe talking about why that is. The word “colored” gets used a lot… “colored people.” And it makes sense in some ways that white students now who are very young wouldn’t know that that was an offensive term in the 50s and 60s. And so they use that term because they hear people say, people of color and then so colored people seems like a normal permutation of that, right? But it’s really not. It has this very unique history and so you could talk about how “Here’s this history that you may not have understood. And here’s this term that people didn’t use to describe themselves, it was used about them. And so that’s part of what makes it offensive.” And it’s normal that language changes and it evolves. And there’s plenty of examples you can bring up around that, like we talked in my classes about the word queer and the way that shifted over time…and language evolves…and so just sort of accepting that you’re going to make mistakes, you’re probably going to say things that might be offensive, but what’s the mindset that you bring to that? Do you bring the mindset that it’s normal, and you’ll figure it out, and you have to make your classroom safe for that too. So that it’s not like people are being called out and told that they’re saying the wrong word. We talked a lot in class about the difference between willful ignorance, like, “I know it’s wrong, but I’m gonna say it anyway” and just ignorance…like just really not knowing and coming out that and I give examples of my own, like times I screwed up…things I’ve said that were wrong, as a way to help them see that you’re never finished. I’ve been doing this for like 20 years, and I still make mistakes. I think that helps.
John: When you’re setting the classroom discussion rules, would that be a good time to bring that up?
Cyndi: Yeah, I think so. I think that you could, you could talk about expecting people to make mistakes. In the rule setting phase, you can talk about not expecting perfection, and how people will make mistakes and that’s all right, and ways to sort of come back from that, and gently talk about it rather than calling people out.
Rebecca: How do you handle microaggressions or other behaviors that might happen in class, that aren’t just like a word or whatever, but it’s something that’s happening or you see a pattern of behavior with a particular student. And maybe it’s something that you feel like you need to handle one on one. How do you usually handle those kinds of conversations?
Cyndi: Dealing with those. It’s usually much better one on one, because again, just like anybody, if you if you were to call someone out in class, then you’re likely to just get defensiveness and nobody’s going to be able to hear it. So what I’ve done in the past has been to talk to students one on one rather than to frame it as “You’re a bad person for doing this,” it’s like, “This is what I’m seeing. This is the pattern that I’m seeing. This is how I think it could be perceived” …and then just listening to what you hear. And you have to have a fair amount of trust with a student to be able to do that. But in general, I think whenever it comes to talking about someone’s racist behavior, it’s always better to focus on the behavior rather than the person. This is why when you hear national conversations about is that person a racist, I always want to throw my radio or my phone or whatever because it’s so frustrating to hear it framed in that way. “Is someone a racist?” is not a useful question. And I never quite sure what that means, because the goalposts always move, in terms of like how we think about what that word means. So, instead, focusing on the behavior, this is the pattern I’m seeing this is a problem. And I think if you’re in a moment where (this would be less with students, but more with colleagues) where you’re seeing this happen, and it’s directed at a person who has a lot less power in that moment… so like, a person of color, for example…you could step in and say, “This is what I’m seeing, and this is how I think about it.” So you’re not putting it on the person who was maybe the target of it. But you are saying in that moment, I see this and I see that this is a problem. That can be harder to do and less with students, I think more with colleagues. But, in general, it’s just sort of noting that it’s happening and being honest about it without necessarily saying you’re a bad person for doing this.
John: Last fall, we had a reading group addressing some of these issues. And one of the issues that came up in a lot of discussions is how to address these issues with colleagues, particularly those who are evaluating you for retention, promotion, and similar issues…
Rebecca: or hiring…
Cyndi: That is so hard when someone is in a position of power. Because if you’re the job candidate, there’s just no way that you’re going to be able, in that moment, to be able to do that.
John: What if you’re a junior faculty member on, for example, a recruitment committee and you observe comments or behavior that seems to be biased in some way. What would you suggest to a faculty member in that position?
Cyndi: I think you could go back to the sort of something called micro resistance. And there’s been a little bit written about this. In terms of how to deal with it, again, not making it about the person but just saying like, this is what I’m hearing, this is what I’m seeing. This is how I feel about it. And so you make it more about yourself. In extreme situations, and I’ve certainly been in them and seen them, you could go to other people that you trust on the committee and say, “This is what I’m seeing. This is what I’m hearing.” This is slightly different, but I had a slightly different but I had a student come to me last week and say that she’s in another course. And she’s hearing this from an instructor. And so then I was able to go to that department chair and say, what’s happening? So, I think using your mentors, using your colleagues, if you’re in that lower-power position; and if you’re in a higher-power position in those same spaces, try not to make the target responsible for that. If you’re a man, and you’re seeing sexism, it’s useful to just call that out. And again, not calling the person out, but just saying, “This is what I’m seeing. This is the pattern.” We talked about this actually, there’s an interesting anecdote in my class this last week. We were talking about this micro resistance thing and one of the students is a softball player and she’s on the softball team. According to her, there’s one black softball player on the team and everybody else is white. And, according to my student, whenever racist things will come up, like, they’ll all look at the black student to ask her “Is this okay?” And we talked in class about like, maybe that’s not fair to put that on the student of color. This white student feels like she really wants to be an ally, like she really wants to be an advocate. So we talked about, well, maybe you just say what you think about it, rather than asking her “Is it okay?” or going to her afterwards and saying, “Do you feel okay about this?” Because what is she going to say in that moment? I mean, she’s in the minority…the black student is, and so I think that can be a useful way to think about it too, because a lot of times we want the person who’s lower in power to like, excuse it and make it okay. And that’s really not fair. And I think it happens just because people don’t think about the power dynamics at all. They just don’t think about it. It doesn’t occur to them. And so trying to be more intentional about what is the power in this situation and trying to be more fair.
John: One of the issues if there’s a small number of minorities in a class, one potential issue might be stereotype threat. What are the consequences of that? And how can we address that perhaps by making it a more supportive environment?
Cyndi: Yeah, stereotype threat is really interesting. I know a lot about this. Actually, I’ve given lots of workshops on this, in addition to like implicit bias and stuff, too. And it’s a real problem. The consequences are…they’re sort of short term and long term. So the short-term consequences of stereotype threat is that you have students who underperform. So in a test situation or on a writing assignment, where you have a student who is feeling stereotype threat as a result of race or gender or social class. And so then it just create that extra layer of anxiety and stress, essentially. And it’s not always apparent. And you don’t necessarily know that that’s what you’re experiencing. But we know from the neuroscience research that, you just have less working memory in those moments because of stereotype threat. And so the short-term threat is that you underperform. The long-term consequence is that students disengage from the area altogether. So this is why we hear.…I’ve heard it so many times from my female advisees…“I’m not a math person. I’m not a science person. And I think it happens in art as well. I don’t know about design specifically…
Rebecca: um hmm.
Cyndi: …but you’ll get like, I’m not an art person. I’m not creative.
Rebecca: I can’t draw.
CUNDI: I can’t draw, yeah, that’s it. That one’s, I think, less about race, maybe a little bit more about gender, but it’s a very similar thing of like, “I don’t feel like I can do this. I’m not creative.” And so I’m just going to withdraw from it altogether. And so you see what Claude Steele calls dis-identification. So I’m just going to dis-identify with that field. It’s just not my thing. I’m going to go get my self esteem somewhere else. And obviously, that has serious consequences if the thing you’re dis-identifying with is school altogether. And so that’s why we see this underperformance over time with students of color and with women in math and science. The ways to get around that…there are a few. There’s a whole set of interventions that social psychologists have developed that can be really powerful. I guess I would send listeners to the mindset network web page. I don’t know if y’all have ever seen that. It’s mindsetscholarsnetwork.org. But it’s a bunch of social psychologists who have gotten together to create these really pretty low-cost interventions around increasing belonging…using values affirmations… Utility value is another one…growth mindset. There’s a bunch of them and there’s a little tweaks that you can do in your classes to help that. The other big intervention, and you can sort of call that active pedagogy. So there’s really good research that the more active your class is, that’s going to be good for everybody. But, it’s especially good for your students of color your first-generation students and your students who are women in math and science and engineering courses, where they’re more likely to feel that thread. That as an intervention itself is really great. There’s a ton of really nice discussions of that, and studies of that that you can find in terms of active pedagogy being an inclusive pedagogy. Because, in general, you want students to have a sense of belonging and you want them to feel included, and that’s going to help to undercut that, because really all stereotype threat is about is about a lack of trust. So everybody thinks it’s a lack of confidence in the student. It’s not. They don’t trust the environment to be fair, and so that’s why they disengage and they pull back. And so you want to you want to do everything you can to keep that trust.
John: …and they build more of a sense of community with their fellow students.
John: I’m going to our conference in a few weeks, and one of the activities there is something called “sip and paint.” A friend of mine tried to convince me to do that. And my reaction was “No, the last time I painted I think I was seven years old.” [LAUGHTER] So, there’s a gender issue perhaps with the artwork thing.
Cyndi: Creativity. Yeah.
John: You mentioned implicit bias. My labor classes are online and one of the things I do is I have them take some of the Implicit Association tests, and then discuss them. And they tend to be pretty comfortable discussing many of them, but they tend to be much less comfortable discussing race.
Cyndi: Oh yeah.
John: But one of the things that led to some really good discussions are the associations between gender and careers.
John: And a lot of female students remark on how surprised they are that they associate women with home activities and men with careers. But, one of the things I note from the students who tend to perhaps have the more resistant attitudes towards facts in general, from other discussions, is that they tend to question the tests themselves and say, it’s clearly set up to demonstrate a bias when that bias really doesn’t exist. And those students are really hard to reach and we can keep giving them facts. But I’ve never been completely successful in getting through that barrier, at least in any one course. Any suggestions?
Cyndi: It’s really tough. As a social psychologist, I feel pretty comfortable talking about the Implicit Association test, but it is really hard to describe well, so that’s one problem with it, because you try to explain “No, no, like 25 years of research…” When I still had paper versions of the literature, I gotta bring in my big giant folder and I just sort of slap it on the desk and be like, “They’ve been studying this since 1995. But, like you said, the facts don’t always help. One thing I think that helps with them understanding implicit associations, is to depersonalize i… and I have some great podcast and book suggestions and article suggestions on how to help them understand what implicit associations are. But really, it’s not about them as a bad person. And that is one way I found to get at it. There’s a phrase that gets used by Mahzarin Banaji, who was one of the test co-creators and she talks about implicit associations as the thumbprint of the culture, which is really accurate, you know. So it’s not you’re a bad person, you have implicit bias… like, we all have it and it’s the thumbprint of the culture. You’ve been learning since you were a baby, what’s associated? what’s good and what’s bad? I mean, it really is that crude. It is your brain saying, “This group is bad. This group is good” over and over and over again, you get those messages. So if you can de-personalize it, I think that can help a lot. I have found that using the podcasts that I have on it, and some of the more newsy articles and they cite the researchers, that can be really helpful, too. But yeah, it’s they want to criticize the test all day long. I’ve gotten to where I don’t have them take the test until after they have a decent grounding in the science because they’re very resistant to the idea. They think the test just sucks.
John: At least those who have their preconceptions not confirmed in the way they’d like them to.
Cyndi: Yeah, because again, they think this means I’m a bad person. They think it’s the racism test. There’s a King of the Hill episode. I don’t know if y’all have ever seen that show, but I used to love that show. And there’s an episode where Hank has to go take the racism test, because he’s worried that his dog is racist or something. I can’t remember the full thing of the story. But, that episode is one of my favorites because it’s like, “Okay, let’s see if he’s racist.” But, that’s not the way it works, folks. I’ll have students sometimes say like, “We should just have all cops and all teachers and all judges take this test. And then we’d know who to hire…” and I’m like, “There’d be nobody left. There wouldn’t be enough people left to do all these jobs.” And I think if you talk about it in that way, it can make it so that it’s not a moral failing, which is, I think, why they’re so resistant.
Rebecca: I’ve done something as a follow up to doing some of the tests in my classes where I had students look at their portfolio of design work, and just see who was represented in the materials that they made. And what they usually do is discover that either it’s a lot of people that are just like them, or that it’s white and young….
Rebecca: …which some of the people in the class may not fit that particular group, but that’s what they’ve still represented. And that helps a lot, because we talk about, “Well, it’s easier to design for a group of people that you’re around all the time, perhaps”
Rebecca: Or, You know, know what, like this particular population, maybe preferences, if that’s a group that you’re a member of. And that sometimes helps too because it kind of breaks down some of the total ownership or blaming a student for something. It becomes more of that cultural identity piece.
Cyndi: Yeah, you can ask them, like, “Who’s most of your friends? Who’s in your environment?” I have them write journal entries all semester. I don’t say “Go find the racism and tell me about it” I just say like, ”Just tell me what you observe in terms of both race and gender.” Just like “What do you see? Who’s doing what jobs? Who’s in what space?” and that helps them too to start to see the stuff that they just sort of take for granted, because it’s the water that we all swim in. We’re all very segregated. And so I think it’s good for students to recognize that and then how that plays itself out in who you select to design, for example, and who comes into your consciousness. So again, thumbprint of the culture rather than moral failing…bad person.
Rebecca: I also do an activity in my capstone class where I ask students like, who are there five designers that inspire them, and then I end up with a pretty small list when we aggregate all of them together. And then I say, I’m going to ask this question again later in the semester, and I expect these lists to be really different. [LAUGHTER]
Cyndi: Yeah, that’s good…makes them explicitly think about it.
John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next?
Cyndi: I want to write more about these issues. What I really want to do is run some workshops for faculty. I’ve done a couple. Most of my workshops have been on stereotype threat and
implicit bias. So I would like to run more workshops on this topic in particular, like how do you teach about racism rather than teaching inclusively. That’s fun to talk about too. But how do you how do you teach about race and racism? I would love to do more of that. And I would also like to write more about these issues. Because I think it’s hard to do. And so I would like to just have more conversation. I’m also hoping eventually to maybe write a different book about inclusive pedagogy. We’ll see. I’m not sure. it’s a ways off.
John: And when is your book coming out?
Cyndi: It’s supposed to be November, I believe, November or December.
Rebecca: Well, I know that will probably have a line of people now that really want to make sure they get their hands on your book, because…
Cyndi: I hope so.
Rebecca: …there’s a lot of books that deal with these issues conceptually, but not in a practical way.
Cyndi: I could not find a lot on teaching about it. Like I said, I wanted the guide that I wish I had for myself 20 years ago, but I there’s just there’s not a ton. There’s a lot of good chapters on it in some edited books, but there wasn’t a lot that had sort of an overarching idea. So that’s what I wanted to try to do.
John: We were looking for that just last year. So, we will have it on pre-order very soon.
Rebecca: Yeah, Definitely.
Cyndi: Cool. Thanks.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. This was really great.
Cyndi: Yeah, thanks so much for asking.
John: Thank you.
Teachers at all levels often play an important role in influencing the educational and career paths of our students. In this episode, Dr. Marcia Burrell joins us to discuss how math teachers play a critical role as gatekeepers who may either welcome students to or provide a barrier to student success in all STEM fields. Marcia is the Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department at SUNY Oswego.
- National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM)
- Budapest Semesters in Math Education
- Polya, G. (1973). How to solve it: A new aspect of mathematical method. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- The Polya Approach Used at the University of Idaho
- Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
- Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
- Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
- Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
- Miller, L. & Spiegel, A. (Hosts). (2015, January 23).Invisibilia: How to become Batman pt. 1 [Radio broadcast episode].
- National Research Council, & Mathematics Learning Study Committee. (2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. National Academies Press.
- Brandsford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.
- Larson, M. (2016). The Need to Make Homework Comprehensible. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
- Stinson, D.W (2004). Mathematics as gate-keeper: Three theoretical perspectives that aim toward empowering all children with a Key to the Gate, The Mathematics Educator14 (1), 8–18.
- Burrell, Marcia (2016) Gatekeeping in Mathematics TEDx talk at OCC. January 29, 2016.
John: Teachers at all levels often play an important role in influencing the educational and career paths of our students. In this episode, we examine how math teachers play a critical role as gatekeepers who may either welcome students to or provide a barrier to student success in all STEM fields.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Marcia Burrell, the Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Marcia.
Marcia: Thank you.
Rebecca: Welcome. Today our teas are…
Marcia: Earl Grey with caffeine.
Rebecca: Extra caffeine. [LAUGHTER]
John: Mine is just a pure peppermint tea today.
Rebecca: And I have a jasmine green tea.
John: We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about the work you’ve done on math instructors as gatekeepers. What does it mean to be a gatekeeper?
Marcia: Well, I like to use the word gatekeeping because sometimes gatekeeping has to do with an open gate, where you can just slide right through, or someone gives you the key, or they’ve given you the secret password, or it’s a barrier, where if you don’t really know what the hidden curriculum is about passing through the gate then you could stay there and be turned away. And in mathematics a lot of times people are afraid of math or they’ve been socialized to think they cannot do math and it’s really a gate that’s been created either by themselves through socialization or it’s been created by a math person or by someone like a parent who said, “oh, don’t worry, I wasn’t good at math either.” So, when I think about gatekeeping and mathematics it’s really about barriers that are created by us or barriers that are created by others, or for people who are really successful in mathematics, they have an opportunity to open the gate; there are certain things that they can do that will make people pass through the gate more easily.
Rebecca: I think our students can empathize with the idea of gatekeeping when it comes to mathematics—you hear them talking about these stories of certain situations where the barriers have been in place for them, or sometimes that’s faculty. For example, I’ve heard many times in creative fields where the creative faculty might say, “yeah, we know you’re not great at math but you have to take math,” or I had a situation when I was a kid in middle school—I remember distinctly middle school teachers saying “the women in this class aren’t going to do as well” and then I remember the few of us banding together and then we got really good grades on this final exam that we were told that we wouldn’t do well in. I think that those narratives are certainly there and it’s interesting to think about it not only from the person coming to the gate but also from the gatekeeper perspective, which leads me to the question of, what are some things that gatekeepers do that keep people out?
Marcia: I’m gonna focus on math people mostly, where sometimes they say things like maybe in a beginning level math course, “Why didn’t you know that? You should’ve learned that before. I don’t understand why you can’t do fractions.” So, there’s vocabulary built into a lot of us where we send out messages which get people to realize, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me; I should know how to do this.” So, they start imposing those same messages on themselves. The other thing that I think is important is in mathematics there’s always been a stratification about who can do math or who should do math and who can be successful in math. Often, as you just said, women have stories about fighting to get into a advanced math class because they didn’t do very well on some class but they were willing to work hard. So, certain populations are harmed because they’re socialized that way that when women have trouble in mathematics we say, “Oh, we should make it easier; you should do a group of courses that are not gonna lead you to calculus in high school,” but sometimes when men struggle we go, “Oh, struggles perfectly fine.” In the U.S., teachers make it easier for students to learn; they give them answers, they work out all the details. When I say give answers, I mean they work out all of the problems so that it’s really just rote, as opposed to in other countries, struggle is actually honored—hard work and struggle is part of the mathematics learning process, where in the U.S. sometimes we don’t allow people to struggle. If you got a B in Algebra I, well, you don’t really need to take Algebra II because the minimum requirement in New York state is Algebra I, and the fact is struggle is a part of the learning process. Historically, we’ve always stratified who is successful in math or who can take math and the level of courses that people can take. Plato 2,300 years ago believed that everybody needed arithmetic, but the advanced math was relegated to philosopher guardians, and in the 1920s the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics argued to have mathematics part of the curriculum, and between 1890 and the 1940s there was a growth in public schools and the perception was that sometimes they weren’t sure that students had the intellectual capability of doing some of the mathematics that NCTM thought was important. But remember in the 1950s the business world and industry said, “What are you guys doing in schools? The people that you’re putting out there can’t do mathematics.” Well, that was mathematics for a purpose and then Sputnik happened and all of a sudden math became this subject that we wanted to make sure people had. But think about how many English classes do people take—one or two in high school, but in high school students often take four or five math courses. I’m not saying they’re not important, but it really forces us to think about mathematics as an elite subject when gatekeeping from my perspective is it’s not about an elite subject, it’s everyone can do math; people are born mathematical and everyone should have an opportunity to do the subject and not fail at it, but struggle and make movements towards whatever learning they need to do.
John: So a lot of this sounds like our society is creating or emphasizing or encouraging the development of fixed mindsets in math where many messages coming through (as you both have mentioned) in early childhood discourage people from thinking that they’re able to do math and only the elite can get through. Is that common in other cultures?
Marcia: I mentioned earlier that in other cultures hard work and struggle are honored and I witnessed in Budapest, when I was visiting there as part of my sabbatical, that students were asked to go up to the board and struggle through a problem, even if they had no idea. And we do a lot less of that because either you know the answer or you don’t; that doesn’t really work that way—it is an iterative process. I used to work on problems and maybe get a little frustrated, put it away and the next day I’d look at it and I go, “Oh, now I get it.” It’s really about process. The NCTM standards talk about process and product, and if you want people to learn mathematics then you really have to emphasize process, working in teams, giving people a chance to try things and fail but also collaborate with others to ensure that maybe there are multiple ways of approaching a problem, but if you’re not allowing students to talk with one another and work it through, then sometimes they think there’s only one way to do it and it really doesn’t improve their mathematical abilities. Mathematicians are about process—there are certain skills that mathematicians use. Good mathematicians persevere through problem-solving. They check their answers using different methods, they plan how to solve a problem versus jumping into a solution, and they justify the answers and communicate with others. Good mathematicians don’t just know the answer; it’s a process, and there’s even collaboration between mathematicians, but when we teach it on the K-12 level, we say, “This is what you need to learn and you need to learn it in a specified amount of time,” and so a lot of times students are turned off by the way we teach mathematics. Opening the gate is really about helping teachers rethink how they actually teach mathematics. We have a lot of data about how to successfully teach math, and it’s about problem-solving, reasoning, communication, connections and representations, but if you’re just gonna stand at the board and write the answer to a problem, that doesn’t help people really connect to how you came to that problem. So, gatekeeping is about getting teachers to rethink how they’re teaching mathematics and what they think is important. Process and products are important, but process is actually more important.
Rebecca: You mentioned mathematics as a collaborative process, but in my experience in K-12 I don’t think I ever worked with another person once.
Marcia: It’s funny you mention that. Again, the stratification stuff is huge. I attended a program called Budapest Semesters in Math Education and it’s geared for Americans, Canadians to come to this program. They’re interested in both juniors and seniors to come and learn about the problem-solving approach to mathematics. These are students who are mostly math majors, but they could be math ed majors, and they are sent to these schools where they’ve selected the top students in mathematics to use a problem-solving approach and what happens is they give them a problem with no background and they ask them to work out these problems. They can use their textbooks, they can use calculators, but the fact is our students—Americans and Canadians—get to witness students almost trying anything to work out these high-level mathematics problems—sometimes they’re theoretical, sometimes they’re applied. But what the students say who are in this particular program—and I got to be in these classes with them—was, “Why can’t we have all students use some of these processes?” And the processes are really just the things we already know that good mathematicians are supposed to do, sort of George Pólya, you know: analyze the problem, look at all the facts, try something, test your answer. But you actually get to witness that. So, when you asked me “None of the classes I ever went to that were collaborative and problem-based and working in teams,” well we seem to have an idea that only the gifted and talented or special programs will allow kids who already show aptitude to do mathematics in that particular way, and the fact is I visited a school in Budapest where this teacher who’s been working with the gifted and talented students got permission from the parents to try this problem-solving approach for a ninth grade through 12th grade. They had to get sign-offs by parents, because of course, in our system, if kids don’t know certain things by the end of certain grades then their opportunities—another gate—for getting into the university and going through the career path are cut off. So, these parents had to sign off that they were going to risk that what she was gonna to do over the next four years was gonna be helpful to their students and that they wouldn’t be harmed by doing this problem-solving approach. I witnessed several math classes where this teacher had been working as part of her dissertation to have students go through this problem-solving approach—it’s not just Pólya; there are other… Pósa there’s a Pósa method—I met this gentleman who, he was in his 80s and he invented the Pósa method and he’s one of the top mathematicians in his age… in his day, but he devoted his life to teaching problem-solving to kindergarten through grade 12. But the point that I’m making is, I witness students who had been through this process, and they were explaining problems to their peers on the board in ways that I haven’t seen good math teachers explain. But they built these kids up from start to finish to be confident about what they knew, to work in groups, not be afraid to make mistakes, and I think that we can do more of allowing students to learn not just at their own pace, but learn what mathematicians do—the process of engaging with one another if we weren’t so afraid of the whole accountability—what do kids know at the end of 12th grade? What do they know at the end of 11th grade? It’s recursive. Some things they learned in ninth grade in Algebra I will come back in Algebra II and when they’re college students they’re gonna pull the algebra and geometry together, if we allow it, as opposed to looking at these areas as completely separate things. One of the things about gatekeeping is that teachers have to think about students as already being competent; they’ve got to provide students with scaffolding so that students that are in different places have an opportunity to demonstrate what they know. I also think that we have to have high expectations, but we have to let students understand that they can extend the learning if they take some risks; that’s what good mathematicians do, and then we have to exhibit in depth knowledge as well as subject matter knowledge. So there are certain things that gatekeepers—math teachers—can do, but they’ve got to trust that students can learn, and we’ve got to keep the expectations high, but also scaffold for them so that they’re successful.
Rebecca: …a lot of evidence-based practices.
John: Yes, I was just going to say a lot of what you’re talking about, there’s a tremendous amount of research supporting that, not just in math instruction but across the board. In terms of providing students with challenging problems—you have the desirable difficulties of Bjork and Bjork, for example, and in terms of learning from mistakes, that shows up in all of the research on teaching and learning and it’s something that Ken Bain talked about when he summarized some of this research in What the Best College Teachers Do, and it’s also shown up in several of the books we’ve used in our reading groups, Make It Stick and Minds Online, for example: that retrieval practice, low stakes testing, where students can make mistakes and learn from mistakes, is effective in all types of instruction. So, these are really good practices that seem to be mostly neglected in math instruction.
Rebecca: I was expecting John to also mention something about growth mindset. [LAUGHTER]
John: I think I already did a while back, but treating math as something you’re either good at or not good at by teachers and by families and by our culture discourages the development of a growth mindset, and that’s really important. This year I’ve completely flipped my large microeconomics class and one of the things I had them do is before each class I asked them to do some readings and then I asked them to work through some problems in the readings; I have students submit a short Google form, where I ask them just two questions before each class. The first question is: “What have they learned from this reading assignment before that day’s class?” And also, “What are they still struggling with or what don’t they fully understand?” And half to two-thirds of them before each and every class list, “I have trouble interpreting graphs;” “I have trouble understanding graphs;” or that “I have trouble computing these things,” and that’s all basic math, and of course they have trouble doing it when it’s the first time they see it, but they see it as a barrier— “I’m just not good at it,” and every day in class I’ve been trying to encourage them to say, “Well, you may not do it now, but you can get better at this;” “You haven’t yet mastered this;” “You’re not yet good at this, but the more you do it the easier it gets,” and we’re not always seeing that happen, and we see that in lots of areas.
Marcia: Yeah, I think that students are more willing to say “I’m not good at math; I don’t have any experience with math,” but they would never say, “I can’t read; I’m not good at reading.” They might say it, but it’s socially acceptable to say “I’m not good at mathematics,” and the fact is when you look at a group of kindergarteners and they’re in a classroom, they’re all learning for the first time how to add and subtract and they slowly… I’m sorry, through some of their elementary school teachers who often are afraid of mathematics, and they say little things, “Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s okay to not be able to do that, we’ll work on that later on,” but they say it in a way that sometimes gives students permission to say, “Oh, I don’t have to learn that—I’m a girl, I’m a student of color, I don’t have to learn that because the teacher said she doesn’t know it either,” and so one of the concerns that I have for how we train childhood educators is we force them through, at least on our campus, these two math classes where they go kicking and screaming, but the fact is we almost need to reprogram them to think about the things that they can do mathematically and then build curriculum around them. It’s not always about the fact that the way you learn is the same way that all the kids that you’re teaching learn; it’s more about how do you change your perceptions about mathematics. There’s something on NPR, and I’ll have to find the reference a little bit later on, where this young man who was blind learned how to ride a bike, was sent to school, and people couldn’t even really understand why he was able to do all of these things as a blind person—well, his mother decided to treat him like he was a sighted person and it’s a Batman series, where the fact is, if you convince someone that they can do something and you believe it, then all of the things that you do to work on their perceptions about their capacity will come through. But first the teacher has to believe it and then they have to do all of these things to scaffold it. The fact is that, and again, I’ll have to find the researcher, but he did this study where he told all of his researchers that these mice were smart mice… these mice were everyday the same mice… what happened is the researchers came in and they treated those mice like they were smart—they handled them differently, they had them run through whatever people do in psychology with mice, and then he came back later on and said “All of these mice have exactly the same capabilities.” Well, that works in exactly the same way in the math classroom; students come, and if we believe that they’re capable and we come off and treat them with respect about what they have learned and how to build on that, then we’re gonna see better progress in their learning. I have to come back to the gate because the teacher has a lot of power to make the gate accessible or make the gate a barrier, and the barrier is really just the messages that the teacher says to the students and to herself about success in mathematics, and we lose entire generations of people when the gate is closed to them mainly because of perception.
Rebecca: So much discussion of gates it should be important to note that in front of Marcia is this picture of so many different kinds of gates in our conversation. Can you talk a little bit about the gates that you have in front of you?
Marcia: Yeah, I decided to Google different kinds of gates and when you think about the Brandenburg Gate or you think about gates like this one —remind me what this is called; this is in Cincinnati—the arch; this is really a gate, but this shows an opening to something, so when you think about gatekeeping in mathematics, I want us to think about people being gatekeepers for accessibility. So when you look at those pictures you think of when you’re going through the turnstile to pay with an EZ Pass. That is a barrier. If you don’t have money, you don’t have an EZ Pass, you’re not getting through, but if you look at the door to no return like in Benin it’s an opening to the next world just like certain pictures of gates just have you think differently about openings and closings.
Rebecca: There’s some like the dog pen where there is no way in or out; it looks like that one’s just closed forever.
Marcia: Yeah, which one is it? This one or this one? Right, I mean this has a gate, but often people are closed inside of thinking that they can’t do math and they can’t be successful. The job of a teacher would be to help them jump over that particular gate or find a different way to think about opening that particular gate. If you’re a dog and you’re inside of a pen, I think you’re just gonna need somebody to lift you up over that gate, and I think about that with teachers that what they have to do with each individual student is completely different, but their responsibility is to help them understand that they’re all mathematicians and they all have capacity for success in mathematics.
Rebecca: You’ve talked a little bit about how gatekeepers can open the gate or provide the leg up over the wall, or whatever it is, right, that’s there. Can you talk a little bit more about how to be inclusive and how faculty and teachers can really support this environment that would allow for problem-solving and allowing students to fail and try again and to iterate and eventually succeed?
Marcia: I’ve thought a lot about elementary school students and middle school students, where you’ve probably heard about the Montessori Method. The Montessori Method, you work with individuals to build from what their interests are and it turns out that students without a lot of direct instruction can complete whatever the curriculum is for that grade level by mapping to their interests, their strengths, and projects that they do where they’re learning the mathematics in ways that might be considered non-traditional. In the Montessori Method, they’re not just looking at memorizing times tables; they’re looking at multiplication as repeated addition, they’re looking at visualizations instead of just looking at a text. And the fact is that sometimes, I think, that if we allowed students to individualize their learning, especially in middle school and high school, that there’d be more progress than forcing students through the curriculum where each week they’re expected to learn something but they’re not learning it, they’re sort of just being dragged through the mud. And I have a lot of respect for my peers who are math teachers. I was a math teacher where I felt like I know what that kid needs, I need to take time to help that kid through what they need, but I didn’t have the courage to stop what I was doing and figure out how to individualize or make them work in small groups. I was a successful K-12 teacher, but I feel like I started to figure out what was needed when I made the decision to leave. So, part of my job as a math educator is to help our candidates who are gonna be teachers in schools to have the courage to do what they know is right: think about their love of mathematics and give kids problems that are theoretical and have them try it; give them applied problems, give them things where they have to use visualizations and not just know the procedures, but also understand the concept.
John: And also perhaps to use peer instruction, as you talked about, where students explaining things to each other reinforces learning for each student.
Marcia: Yeah, and sometimes the things that we expect of what we call the gifted and talented are exactly the things that other students can do but we’re afraid to take a risk, and I met earlier this afternoon with one of our adjuncts that’s teaching math methods to our graduate students and she said her job is to teach her candidates how to be good teachers, and sometimes that means forgoing what they think they wanted accomplished on that day and building something fun that’s gonna get students to see that math has many openings, not just following things through rote or through memorization. So, I had a really nice conversation with her because she does work in the school systems, but she’s teaching a course for us and she uses constructivist approaches. I have many peers that are still engaged in this math war that it has to be rote, it has to be step-by-step. In the constructivist approach, you care more about the process that students engage in and there’s a program that I listen to on Sunday morning it’s on NPR where it’s a puzzle and the puzzle is usually related to a vocabulary puzzle as opposed to a math puzzle, but the type of thinking that you have to engage to solve those puzzles really is mathematical thinking, so I love those puzzles, but they’re all couched in word puzzles… but it’s really mathematical thinking… and so I think the teachers need to use more of those word puzzles to bring people in so that they understand that they’re engaged in mathematical thinking—it’s just not called mathematical thinking. One of the other things that I wanted to mention before I run out of time is we are heavily tracking students into particular tracks. Sometimes you’re in the track where you’re just going to do Algebra I, and sometimes you’re in the track where you’re gonna get to do Algebra I and Algebra II, and maybe you’ll get to do Geometry, but some of the best learning occurs when there’s heterogeneous grouping and there’s less tracking. This gate stuff, these gatekeeping, really reinforces tracking, which when students come to SUNY Oswego and they’re in a remedial class and don’t know why they’re in the remedial class, because they may have been tracked in a particular way and cut off many, many job opportunities or majors because they were tracked in a particular way, and that is gatekeeping that occurs in fourth grade. And again our responsibility for our childhood educators is to get kids to think more broadly about what mathematics is; it’s not just arithmetic, it’s not just geometry, it’s not just theoretical problems; there are many types of problems that childhood people could engage students in that wouldn’t shut the door to possibilities 10 or 12 years later when students find out that they were tracked in a way that makes it so that they could never do graphic design or they could never do engineering or something else that they didn’t really understand was possible because somebody closed the gate early on.
John: …and that’s really important because most of the growth in income inequality is due to differences in educational attainment and the returns to education. And the returns to education in the STEM fields is far above the returns in other areas as well. So, keeping people out of those areas means that the people with those areas end up doing really well, but the people without those skills end up in jobs that are perhaps overcrowded with lower job prospects, lower prospects of growth and it helps reduce social mobility and economic mobility. It’s a serious problem in our society; it’s the worst we’ve ever seen it in the U.S.
Marcia: Yeah, I can’t connect it completely to perceptions, but a long time ago I taught a remedial math course at Clinton Community College and I had a student in that class and she was a smart person—I think everyone is smart—but I walked through how to study math, how to approach it: you are capable, work hard, keep asking questions, and about 10 years later I got a postcard from her—this flabbergasted me; she was in a remedial class and she had entered a PhD program in mathematics and she said it was just about the fact that somebody finally showed her how to study math—it was read the textbook, try the problems, come to class, listen maybe to the lecture, don’t be afraid to make mistakes; when you’re tired take a break. There are certain things We know that people can be successful in mathematics but we keep thinking that it’s this magic wand thing; it’s not a magic wand thing. We actually know —there’s research from Adding it Up —where we know exactly how people learn math well. The stuff research from Bransford, which how to study mathematics, how to learn mathematics, it’s written in black and white from large-scale studies, but then we return to the rote memorization, follow these steps and that’s not the beauty of mathematics at all.
Rebecca: One of the things that I think is really interesting about what you’re saying is that societally we might think, “Oh, fourth grade teacher… not really gonna have a big impact,” but you’re really talking about this fourth grade teacher is not a gatekeeper of the little gate around the garden; this is like the gate to the universe.
Marcia: Absolutely, and most of our math candidates who are not math concentrates—they’ve got to take these two four-credit math courses—will say, “I just need to get through this class; I hate math.” If you hate math it comes through loud and clear in your teaching; it’s really difficult to mask that. I taught a math for diverse learners course that the School of Education and Arts and Sciences Math Department and Curriculum and Instruction collaborated on and it was a math for diverse learner, so some of the things that I’ve been talking about here was in a full graduate course, and students would say, “Well, I never really thought about that; I thought everybody was gonna learn math the same way I learned math”—you’re a math person, I shouldn’t even say that. You’re a math person—you came through the system and you were successful in the current system, but if you want to build the next generation you’ve got to think about some of these other factors—you’re gonna be in a system, and as we’ve talked about systems, you are part of the system and you do have power to make changes to it, even if it’s perceptions, even if it’s just giving students the perception that you care about their learning and that they can succeed, and so this is really important to me. There are three principles: teachers must engage student misconceptions, understanding requires factual knowledge and conceptual understanding, and a metacognitive approach enables students self-monitoring. If I think about gatekeeping, if teachers kept those three principles in mind, they’re not mine—it’s in the research. This is sort of revolutionary because we don’t want to restrict people to thinking that only certain people can do mathematics, but if math teachers, whether they’re childhood or adolescence, or university teachers think about what good mathematicians do, they’ll follow these three principles and it might move us forward. I know it’s a big deal because the successful people want to keep what they have to themselves, but I think we miss out on the potential of entire generations if we don’t give them access to opening the gate through mathematics. When the Common Core came out teachers had the perception that they had to give these problems to students and parents would call and complain—“I can’t even do these problems; these aren’t the problems that I did when I was a kid”—well, the fact is we weren’t supposed to be sending these problems home; we were supposed to be doing those problems in class, and so a lot of the Common Core mathematics was supposed to be using manipulatives and getting kids to talk about how they think through the arithmetic problem. They were sending home problems and parents were complaining they were spending two or three hours to work through these problems, and there was an article put out—it was an NCTM—where they said what is your problem? No, don’t send these problems home for kids to fight with their parents, ‘cause that’s just gonna reinforce, “Oh, I couldn’t do math either;” it was supposed to be completely done in the classroom in collaborative groups, but we’re still not interested in teaching in that way. So, we sent home the homework—well, you could have been sending home memorize these timetables just as we did 20 years ago or 30 years ago, so finally NCTM put something out to help math teachers in the K-12 area not to send home these problems that would take parents two to three hours, but to rethink the organization of their classrooms where students could work on problems and have fun with mathematics, and the fact is that there are reforms that mathematicians fight about; there are a whole host of mathematicians that said Common Core was bad; Common Core is not bad, the way it was implemented was bad, so now we’ve done some backtracking to think about the fact that when you carry, when you’re subtracting or you’re adding, why do we do that? And the Common Core got students to make sense out of place value and make sense out of what it means when we carry this is about the tens place or the hundreds place and whenever you have new curriculum, Common Core or what was the curriculum in the ‘50s, I can’t remember… the new math… there’s always new math, it’s just an approach to make it more inclusive, but sometimes the way we roll things out makes it difficult, at least for the next generation of teachers, so I’m pro-reform movements, but we have to take the time and the energy to implement it in a way that’s actually gonna be useful—we just keep going back to the way we taught math a hundred years ago.
Rebecca: It sounds like what happened was faculty who knew how to do things a particular way get handed something that’s different but not a way of demonstrating or doing the different, right, like…
John: …without the professional development needed to allow them to implement it effectively.
Marcia: Correct. That’s correct.
Rebecca: The method doesn’t match the material.
Marcia: Exactly. At the same time they were putting out that students have to take a main assessment in fourth grade and eighth grade, but those assessments didn’t really align to this new Common Core curriculum, and so lots of things have changed over the last, I’d say seven to ten years, and we’re sort of coming out of that. When students come to the university level we still expect them to know mathematics. Do you remember twenty-five years ago they changed the math curriculum to be Math A and B, Course I, II, and III? New York state was the only state that was really thinking more globally about, “Wow, it doesn’t always have to be about algebra—it could be about statistics, it can be about more applied,” but the fact is universities didn’t change and we were still expecting students to know this narrow curriculum but it did broaden what people thought about mathematics, but it didn’t really help a lot of those students because then they were closed out of particular career areas because they might have been in a school that embraced applied math or embraced business math or something that might not connect to what they would do at the university level.
John: You’ve also been involved with Project Smart here at Oswego. Could you you tell us a little bit about that and how it relates to math instruction.
Marcia: Project Smart was a thirty-year project where teachers came to SUNY Oswego for summers to do professional development, math, science, technology. There are some teachers retiring over the last couple of years that came to Project Smart right from the beginning. We brought people in like Damian Schofield in the early days to learn about human-computer interaction. We brought people in from music and from art to help teachers integrate other things into their teaching, so they used to come for three weeks, then they came for two weeks, then they came for one week, then we built it into the department where faculty got released time to go into schools and work with teachers from the bottom up to think about how to improve teaching in their classroom. Project Smart really honored the work that teachers did because we would say, “What do you want to improve in your classroom? Are there particular things that you know students are struggling with?” This past year, funding for Project Smart ended, but the institution is still supporting individual faculty to go into schools and work with teachers to build classrooms that connect with the learners that they have in front of them. It’s more connected to what’s called a professional development school, where at the university we have the latest about how to teach, whether it’s math or English or social studies or modern language, and then we go into schools where they’re dealing with kids every single day and we try to help them figure out how to improve as a teacher; we meet them where they are; we build from there, so Project Smart is over—I’m not gonna say it’s dead, but we have a different system to work on professional development schools but just in a different way.
John: So you’re still doing the same thing even though it’s not under that official title?
Marcia: Correct. Correct.
Rebecca: We always wrap up our episodes by asking, what next?
Marcia: Oh my goodness, thank you for asking what next. After returning from my sabbatical, where I had the opportunity to be part of Budapest Semesters in Math Education where I got to see classrooms where students were using Pólya’s problem-solving approach in addition to something called the Pósa method, I worked with Josh McKeown, who’s from international education to reduce the cost of the Budapest program, so we’re working to recruit math students, both childhood and adolescence teacher candidates, as well as straight math candidates to consider going to Budapest over a winter course for one or two weeks over winter session or during spring break. What would they experience if they went to a short course? They would visit classrooms using the Pósa method, they would sit in on some of the math courses at BSME, where teachers are actually showing how to use a problem-solving approach in mathematics, where sometimes our students say “You talk about problem solving, you talk about the constructive approach, but no one is doing it so we don’t really know what it is.” The next step is to work with international ed to get a group of students to do the BSME program.
Rebecca: That’s really incredible.
Marcia: I’m excited about it too and I hope to also re-institute my math for diverse learners course because through that course I reinforce that I believe students should have access to high-quality, engaging math instruction. I believe all students should have mathematically rich curriculum. I believe all students should have high expectations and strong support, and we’re all gatekeepers— we are change agents and we control the gate. I think it’s ambitious because many people don’t agree with me saying that mathematics needs to be more inclusive, but that’s what I’ve been working for my entire career and I hope to continue that way.
Rebecca: Your work is incredible and we’re really excited that you’re doing that work.
Marcia: Thank you.
Rebecca: I know as someone who’s in a field that you don’t always associate with math—I believe in math and so I hope we can all help support your initiative.
John: It’s a major social justice issue.
Marcia: It’s a huge social justice issue because, again, what happens is often students of color, students that come from poor families may or may not have had the best math instruction. I mean, it’s a big cycle, and when they come here we should be able to help not just convince them, but this is a public institution. We should be able to provide access for them to reach whatever goals they hope to. We should be able to take students where they are and help them achieve whatever their focus is, whether it’s math related or not.
John: Well, thank you.
Rebecca: Thank you so much.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.
Many of us live and work in communities where there is a strong town and gown divide. Building trust, engaging authentically, and developing deep understanding through intergroup dialogue takes time, patience and the right structure. In this episode, Dr. Khuram Hussain, an Associate Professor of Education and Interim Dean at Hobart College, joins us to explore a model of engaged scholarship that challenges the academy to engage in dialogue with and work alongside the community to address pressing local issues.
- King, R., Hussain, K. & Wattles, J., (2015) Claiming the Right to the City Through Intergroup Dialogue: The Tools for Social Change Initiative in Geneva, NY., The SOJO Journal. 1(2)
- Hayes-Conrad, Jessica (2016). Big Talk in the Little City: Findings and Analysis
- Hussain, K. (2015). A Dream for service. In Tinkler, A., Tinkler, B., Strait, J. R., & Jagla, V. M. (Eds.), Advances in Service-Learning Research Series.
- Walker, Kelly. (2017) “Let’s Talk Economic Opportunity with Tools for Social Change. WEOS Public Radio, July 24.
- Shaw, David (2015) PAYING ATTENTION: At Tools for Social Change meeting, group zeroes in on city issues they want addressed. Finger Lakes Times. October 21.
- The National Intergroup Dialogue Institute
- Hussain, Khuram and Wattles, Jeremy. (2017) Can Intergroup Dialogue Combined with SLCE Answer Today’s Call to Action? The SLCE Future Directions Project.
John:Many of us live and work in communities where there is a strong town and gown divide. Building trust, engaging authentically, and developing deep understanding through intergroup dialogue takes time, patience and the right structure. In this episode, we’ll explore a model of engaged scholarship that challenges the academy to engage in dialogue with and work alongside the community to address pressing local issues.
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: Our guest today is Dr. Khuram Hussain, an Associate Professor of Education and Interim Dean at Hobart College. Welcome, Khuram.
Khuram: Thank you for having me.
John:Our teas today are:
Khuram: I’m actually drinking coffee. I hope that’s ok.
Rebecca: You and most other people. [LAUGHTER] We’ll let it go.
Khuram: I will end the day with tea.
Rebecca: Ok, perfect. I think we had a recent guest who also ended the day with tea. Today I have chai.
John:And I have pineapple ginger green tea.
Rebecca: Well, that sounds good. You always are far more adventurous than me.
Khuram: If it’s any consolation, I have a little cardamom in my coffee, which I typically put in my tea, but I really like it in coffee as well.
Rebecca: That sounds good. I should try that.
Khuram: I highly recommend it.
Rebecca: Do you have an advice about how much?
Khuram: One. One is good.
Rebecca: One is good. [LAUGHTER].
Khuram: If you want it a little stronger you can crack it and then let it sit and it’ll be even more cardamom(y). [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Perfect. [LAUGHTER]
John:We see you’ve done some work with engaged scholarship and service learning. Could you tell us a little bit about what is meant by engaged scholarship for those who aren’t familiar with it?
Khuram: Engaged scholarship is essentially the integration of community needs with learning and it involves addressing community needs along with whatever respective disciplines and skills a scholar may apply to a particular condition. It could be anything from developing a literacy program that is also being useful and utilized in a community, but drawing from that community in order to make sense of what questions you want to answer. So, you’re not drawing it just from a review of literature or from a body of scholarship that emerges from conferences or a community of scholars, but in fact from a variety of voices within the community itself. It’s a much more community relevant approach to even designing research before you actually do it, and it spills out into community engaged teaching as well.
Rebecca: What got you involved in engaged scholarship?
Khuram: I first had the opportunity to do engaged scholarship as a professor of education at Hobart William Smith. I was teaching a course on the civil rights movement and a colleague approached me about volunteering to serve as a professor at a maximum-security prison, and the program there was run by a Bard Prison Initiative where long term inmates were given the opportunity to enroll in an undergraduate program. And so I taught the exact same course that I was teaching on campus within the educational space that they had created for prisoners (maximum security prison) and that was my first chance to think about the ways in which the needs and realities of communities outside of campus and inform the work in learning on campus and could also inform my notions of scholarship.
John:Your work is a form of service learning in terms of the student involvement in it. How does your approach differ from the more traditional service learning approaches?
Khuram: I think that a lot of what I have seen in traditional or conventional service-learning approaches is that there’s a great focus on the ways in which our students will learn by “doing for” communities. So how can we help children learn how to read? How can we provide food to food-scarce areas? And that becomes such a central narrative and the assumptions that young people have about what service-learning is is that we’re gonna learn through service for, and what I think is unique and special about the kind of work that many folks are doing today and I hope to be a part of that (and I hope I have been a part of that) is to do service with. To move from that model means we are required to collaborate and to take a much more team-based approach to service work and the learning then moves both ways. The service then moves both ways, and that I think is the fundamental difference between what we’ve been trying to do the last few years and what we’ve often seen provided to students.
Rebecca: How does your engaged scholarship relate to the service-learning projects and things that you do with students?
Khuram: In part, the ways in which engaged scholarship works is by providing students and faculty and community members an opportunity to create knowledge out of the questions and concerns that emerge in community related work. So for instance, we started an initiative known as “Tools for Social Change” some years ago, and before we looked at any kind of service project we looked at the ways in which the community saw itself. How did long-term residents see college campus residents? How did college campus residents in the same city see long-term residents of the city? And put them into intentional dialogue, first through interpersonal relationship building and then talking about social and structural issues that have informed their understanding of themselves within the city. And within larger structures of identity, race and class particularly. After they developed that understanding we asked, “Ok, what does this community mean to you? Where do you feel empowered? Where do you feel isolated?” Based on the answers to that, we were able to map out a different kind of geography. Even though we had developed a sense of connection and collectivity as members of a community that had been dialoguing all semester, we were operating within a city that was deeply segregated and divided, and so it was from there that we looked at scholarship. We looked at research that we could pursue, and one of the first things that became really important for us to consider was the way in which the economics of the city and the capacity of some to gain access to jobs opportunity was very different than it was for others. And so we ended up taking that initial group and developing wider groups that would go out into the city and inquire… essentially do a self-study of the city about the economics and economic opportunities that were available. And so essentially it was these two stages: first of engaging in dialogue; coming to an understanding of what shared community work could be and then going out into the city with the same participants and essentially conducting appreciative inquiry and having students and faculty and community members (long-term community members) interviewing members of the community, and we were out at the Salvation Army, we were in barbershops, we were in laundromat, we were in every corner of the city and particularly in corners of the city that didn’t often have a strong voice or were not well represented, I should say, in conversations about economic development. We were able to take those, transcribe them and give them to members of the working group that are trained qualitative researchers. They synthesized that, summarized it, and we were able to present it to the city. So, here we’ve created knowledge and we’ve created it through a certain kind of process, right? You might want to call it bottom-up, but I like to see it as horizontal; it’s relational knowledge, and that, I think, is one of the most powerful things about service-learning with as well as engaged scholarship with.
John:That group that was doing the analysis of the data… Were they faculty? Were they students? Was it some mix?
Khuram: It was some mix, but here you do have kind of a hierarchy of knowledge and skill, I should say, in terms of how to do this, and so students and community members were trained by ethnographers and researchers on how to hold a tape recorder, what kinds of questions, and how to ask questions, the ethics of confidentiality, and then they went out and they conducted (after receiving a few weeks of training) these interviews in the community and it was the researchers, mostly faculty, that then booked and analyzed that data and ultimately synthesized that data, but every turn there was some part of this that was democratic and collaborative. Even the questions themselves were questions that the participants generated in concert with other community members. What is it that we want to know about ourselves? And so those were the questions that were ultimately used when we did the broader interviews.
Rebecca: Sounds like a really powerful way of breaking down the town-gown divide that happens in a lot of communities where there’s an institution of higher education.
Khuram: I think that it was transformational for all of us. I don’t think anyone could truly have appreciated what was going to happen, and I think part of it is because it was an open conversation and we sustained a certain level of openness, curiosity, and vulnerability to each other as well as what we hope would come out of it, and I mean for me it’s transformed the way I think about everything from teaching to service to even social action and the role of institutions of higher education in really engaging in communities, and so the power of it, I think, was also to reveal what’s possible that we are capable of operating on different terms and the institutions of higher education do not need to be paternalistic in their engagement with communities and they do not need to take a charity-based approach in their supportive communities; they can be collaborative, it just requires us to match strength to strength to define the things that are going to be valuable for college students and faculty and staff to learn from communities and what communities will benefit learning with their work with institutions of higher education.
John:It strikes me too that this type of project could be much more sustainable. Many service-learning projects or one-off projects where the students work and do something in the community or to the community or for the community, but when you get the community itself engaged it swould seem that that could, at least for some types of projects, set the stage for continued collaboration, either with later groups of students working with them or with the community itself. Has there been much success in continuing the efforts once the classes ended?
Khuram: I first off want to say that I absolutely agree that service-learning is conventionally structured as a one semester project-based or hour-based experience, and it’s usually focused on alleviating one particular social issue, and what we have found is that it’s necessary to do year-long initiatives and we’ve been very fortunate to see that this initiative has been able to sustain itself for over three years, but that’s required us to allow it to evolve into what it needed to and one of the biggest parts of that has been that it has been untied from any particular course. It used to just be tied to my classes and so students would do service learning project were tied to classes they were taking with me. Now, students are participating as participants in independent studies, they’re participating in different working groups that sustain themselves a little bit more autonomously, and that is also true for a lot of long-term community residents that have joined smaller working groups. There’s a working group on food insecurity, there’s a working group on political representation, there’s a working group on economic empowerment and economic opportunity, and so any one of these working groups becomes its own kind of autonomous community that intersects with long-term residents and college students and faculty and staff and that, I think, is a sign of progress and health, is when the institution of higher ed that’s tied to these projects doesn’t need to own it, control it, and manage every aspect of it. If it can become a little bit more fluid and have its own purpose outside of a predetermined purpose from the institution, it becomes more organic and more impactful often.
Rebecca: The continuity that set up in a structure like that of “community who doesn’t go away” versus students who drop in and out as they go through four years—they’re a member of the community but then they often leave—seems like it’s a really useful model for not only making the learning better but just making the impact better. Can you talk a little bit about the community’s response to these projects.
Khuram: Yes, drive-by service-learning isn’t the way to transform communities or students; it requires a real, authentic engagement, and I think when you put people in real situations you get real outcomes and that’s across the spectrum. So you’re going to get people that are going to collaborate, develop great friendships, but you’re also going to get friction and struggle and honest expressions of frustration with one another. And so that becomes a part of it too, so our students need to learn or end up learning—whether they need to or not—the ways in which their participation is both important but sometimes limited. They are going to sit and be witnesses to long-standing struggles in a community; for instance, long standing struggles between law enforcement and communities of color, and they’re going to find their own footing in those spaces; they’re going to need to make sense of how to be an ally, how to be an advocate for an inclusive community that they now belong to, so the stakes become a little bit more real. But I would be a little bit disingenuous if I was going to imply that it’s neat and tidy. I’ve received pushback at times. I remember we were holding a dialogue and I had said that we’re really starting to build some really empowering opportunities here and someone coughed and said, you’re from the colleges; you have all the power. It was a great check on my own assumptions about how I was being seen in that space… that participating in a community activity while still being associated in some ways representative of a very wealthy, multi-million dollar institution in a post-industrial Rust Belt City is not going to play out in someone else’s mind the way that it might in mine. Now what I’m proud of in that work is that someone felt that they were in a space where they could call out people’s unseen or unacknowledged privilege, and that I thought was really important for other people to see, and for me to experience, but it also means that tension in real relationships is ongoing. Honestly, we are not dealing with a utopian situation where we’re all playing on equal terms; we’re coming with different levels of capital and different levels of support within that community, so even as we do this work, my students are good to remember, as am I, we cannot be tourists in other people’s lives, that if we have certain privileges this is a place to take responsibility for some of them.
Rebecca: In a situation like this where tensions can be high, differences big sometimes, and you’re trying to dialogue, how do you set up that environment so people feel safe, like the situation that you’ve just described.
Khuram: Always sit in a circle. Always begin with some expectations. What do we need from each other to have respectful and productive and meaningful conversations? Let’s create those standards together and revisit them every time we sit in circle together. Have people that are prepared to facilitate, that have training or are getting training in facilitation; that needs to be, I think, a critical piece of that, because while it is important to hear from everyone, there is a lot of value in having someone who can reflect back some of the bigger messages and patterns that are emerging in the conversation, someone that can point to the standards that we’ve set for ourselves and what we expect as our best way of engaging, and to remind people that there are strategies that we’ve identified when things get really heated where we want to go with that. So, I think being very intentional about creating a dialogical space, and for us, the use of intergroup dialogue and a lot of the pedagogical strategies developed by the University of Michigan Intergroup Dialogue were very important and helpful resources to get started.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that I was hearing here that I want to just note, is if you’re having one of these conversations that you should have a facilitator and that the facilitator is not really participating in the conversation but rather facilitating the conversation. I think that can be challenging if we want to be involved in those conversations, but you need to make sure that you’ve picked that person and that person is staying as a third party.
Khuram: Yes, absolutely. And we typically have two people that will facilitate and that way there’s still some opportunity to give feedback or response or to slightly move out of a facilitator role, at least in terms of being able to share some ideas. But yeah, it does require you to pull back a bit. But having two facilitators… and it isn’t something that can’t be learned; I don’t think that people have to be lifelong professional facilitators. Most teachers are facilitators, and most of us have some experience facilitating or mediating conversations between others. As much as it’s important to start with people that have a background in facilitation, I think ultimately you want to end in a place where many of the participants feel comfortable and can contribute to the facilitation process over time, so we would meet every week. Ideally, we wanted to prepare people for their opportunity to do some facilitating. At this point we’ve seen dozens of participants go on to do much more formal facilitation in other spaces. That’s something that I’m very proud of and I’m very proud of them, I should say, for what they’ve accomplished.
John:You had mentioned some broad categories of tasks and working groups. What were some of the specific projects that were undertaken by people working in these projects in the community?
Khuram: All of these emerged dialogically as members of the campus community and long-term residents of the community talk through ways in which they felt connected and disconnected. We had four big ones, I’d say. We had community police relations, economic opportunity, food justice and food insecurity, and political representation. I’ll touch on each of them a little bit and then if you want to know a little bit more about any one of them I can pause. So, for food justice and insecurity, part of the challenge was an immediate one where it was about galvanizing community members to glean food and to increase access to fresh food, so we had volunteers doing gleaning. In the midst of that they were also looking at the president’s food deserts and dialoging along with community members about their access to nutrition and presenting some of those findings to the City Council and the Mayor. Or police community relations, we had two dedicated members who were part of a standing committee known as the Community Compact that met with different members of law enforcement and city government on a regular basis to talk about police-community relations and to develop programs to engage the community as well as to address certain policies. Then we have political representation, and for that what we saw was a wonderful volunteer energy of members of our entire group that went out and facilitated dialogues between political candidates and community members. Unlike conventional town halls where you’d have people sitting behind a table or behind a podium, we chat in circle with political candidates, and we had facilitators asking questions and facilitating dialogue in a pretty different kind of environment than I think a lot of us have when we engage with people that want to be elected, as well as elected officials. So we ran those, along with giving people an opportunity to register to vote. For economic empowerment, we trained facilitators to go out into the community in pairs and to hold circles in different corners of the community… in laundromats… in a variety of public spaces… to ask them what were the ways in which they were experiencing opportunity and what were the ways in which they were limited from economic opportunity. We also explored with them if they could wake up tomorrow to a different city, what would it look like? What opportunities would exist? And we took all of that and made it a final document called the “Big Talk in a Little City,” which has become an important and integral part of the city’s long-term commitment to economic empowerment, and so, not only are those voices and stories included in an official document, those voices and stories are now helping to shape policy and resource distribution in the city.
John:How have students reacted to this? Have any of them considered careers as working with communities and such things?
Khuram: For some of our graduates this has been life-changing. I think that one of the most fundamental things that we did well was simply to put people that would otherwise never have encountered each other in the same room and to ask them to share their stories and to talk about themselves. Developing those personal relationships between people that would otherwise pass each other on the street without a glance. People that had age differences, 40, 50, 60 years, people that had racial and socio-economic differences and geographic differences were suddenly having dinner at each other’s table, knew the names of family members, and knew the smallest things about one another were coming to their respective graduations and ceremonies and really becoming participants in each other’s lives. So, for a lot of our undergraduate students, having an opportunity like that is so deeply transformative because now policy is not just a matter of abstract equity and justice; it’s a matter of empathy and equity. You feel differently for someone who feels like a friend or family when they are in need and that informs your approach to policy and your approach to work in a community differently. So, we’ve had students that have gone on to do some really powerful work in law clinics, AmeriCorps and have stayed in the community to do some of that work because it was so transformational and they committed so much of their learning to this kind of engagement that they want to continue it. We do have a few folks that took a gap year between graduate school and stayed on, or decided to pursue a different kind of professional path because of the work they did.
Rebecca: It’s really exciting.
Khuram: I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it.
John:Could you give us some idea of the scale of this—how many students are involved and how has it grown?
Khuram: We started with a relatively small group of about 20 students and 20 long-term community members, and in terms of active participants, it never really went much bigger than that, but it sustained itself over time and it also engaged a lot of other students and long-term community members for months at a time. What I mean by that, for instance, is a lot of our sustained participants would engage their friends, their roommates, their neighbors to come to our weekly sessions. So, we would oftentimes have topical session that were open to the public and those open sessions we could have up to 60, 70, 100, 200 people at those sessions, and so we had an active presence for quite a long time in the community when the courses were running, and now that we have the working groups there’s smaller numbers, but again, their impact, I think, in some ways is deeper because they’ve sustained some really deep work. One of the most incredible things that I saw the students do was they developed a course that would involve high school and college students learning together; so they essentially wanted to do what we were doing through these community dialogues in the high school. They wrote a course proposal, they submitted the course proposal, and after a few revisions and edits it was approved by both the college and the high school and we had a small group of about a half-dozen college students and a half-dozen high school students that took a course together at the high school. And that’s not a lot of people—but that doesn’t—what an incredible experience that they’re participating in something they helped codesign in order to address an issue that they perceive to be real across these age differences and community differences; that these teenagers and these college students together identified this town-gown divide and saw high school and college as a way to build bridges and constructed a course to do that and then participated in that course together. To me, that’s a kind of deep, transformative, impact that doesn’t quite reflect big numbers, but big experiences.
John:It’s certainly a testament to the impact that it had on those students that they were willing to do this and interested and motivated to do this.
John:How have your colleagues responded?
Khuram: I think that my colleagues have been excited, and I think that for many of them it created a new opportunity for them to engage. So, we’ve had faculty that have come in as participants, we’ve had them lead certain workshops and activities. They’ve come in with their expertise within their respective disciplines and fields. So, we’ve had a really great showing of faculty support. And part of it is we did not host this work on campus. We were very intentional about finding a place and space that was both a place that could be shared as well as a place that was easily accessible for long-term community residents, and so we found ourselves at the oldest black church in the city and a place that many of my colleagues had never been… that many people in the community had never been, and it was in the part of the city that is still segregated across a number of lines of race and class, and yet it was one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse spaces that you could sit in in the city and here it was in a historically or at least currently segregated space… and so I think the opportunity for faculty and for staff to engage with a community that they’re really caring about in a context that seemed more inclusive was really exciting and affirmed a lot of their values. I think this is something that people really want, it’s just a matter of creating the opportunity so that they can engage in it. I don’t think that most faculty or staff want to engage in these kind of vertical relationships with communities. It’s just how we’ve been doing things for so long.
Rebecca: Seems like your background in teaching about equity and teaching about intersectionality and doing some research in the classroom about these topics set you up really well to do this work. Are there tips or other things that could provide faculty who don’t have that same background that you could share to give us a doorway in?
Khuram: I think that in some ways having a background as a scholar in any kind of social justice or equity field can be a barrier, and here’s why. That work is always in your head and it is disembodied in the institution, and the institution is, by its very nature, disembodied from the communities that it surrounds. And so you can very easily be a deft and prolific scholar of social inequity and convey and facilitate inequity in your actual life. So really it’s not a guarantee of anything. I think the measure of your capacity is in the doing, and I think it’s really about addressing questions. Who am I inviting to the table? Where is the table? Who is not here? What do I need to ask now to get who’s not here, here? Those are the more important questions, and I think if we don’t presume that there’s a certain kind of institutional privilege that comes even with being able to wax philosophical about questions of equity, then we’ve already lost the plot. We’ve got to honestly think about the spaces and places in which we’re doing our work and the kinds of privileges that we need to interrogate about ourselves before we can do any of this work in equitable and meaningful ways, and so I would say this work is for everybody, and this work is for anybody who is willing to really work with community members and to find shared purpose with community members. It’s willing to listen and learn from… and is not just interested in providing to.
Rebecca: Those are such great reminders… and empowering to make sure that we can all find a way to help and work with the communities that we live in.
Khuram: Yeah, and sometimes it does mean maybe rethinking a service-learning project that’s a semester long and seeing if you can map it out over a year. Would you spend a semester just creating relationships between students, yourself and long-term residents of a community just in that exploratory project? and then say, “Ok, out of this what have we identified collectively as a community need that we can address as a class?” …so that you get, of course, that buy-in, which is so important, but there’s a truly transformative possibility that is emerged that simply wasn’t there until you took the time to really connect and build that relationship, so I’m also in practical terms a really big proponent of year-long service-learning initiatives and moving away from the pressures of a semester-long initiative, unless you’re willing to do half a semester of really just relationship building and collective meaning-making and then cut the service piece a little shorter.
John:We usually wrap up the podcast with a question: “What are you going to do next?”
Khuram: What I would like to do next is to start preparing and supporting students to be the initiators of this work. I am currently working with a couple student groups that are creating their own curriculum and their own activities to engage people in the community with. Right now it’s a youth-to-youth, college student and high school student initiative, and the aim there is to just be a guide on the side, to really maximize whatever space and context I can help create for students to develop their own initiatives for engagement. Again, along these principles of working with, but to see our students become the guides that they need that our students can be the leaders that they’re looking for and that they can help develop leadership in their communities, and so for me right now what that involves is again having college students and high school students connect and collaborate and learn from each other with really very little use of faculty and take from us what you need and build what you must.
Rebecca: Sounds really exciting. Thank you so much for all that you shared today; I think it gives us all a lot to think about. Not just think about it; we need to take action too. [LAUGHTER]
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. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer.
As faculty, we want our classrooms to provide all of our students with a comfortable and productive learning environment. Stereotype threats, implicit biases, and microaggressions can have an adverse effect on classroom climate and on student learning. In this episode, Dr. Rodmon King, the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at SUNY-Oswego, joins is to discuss what we can do to nurture an inclusive and productive environment for all of our students.
- Kirwan Institute
- SUNY-Oswego Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching
- Sue, D. W. (2016). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. John Wiley & Sons.
- Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.
- Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), 613.
- Steele, C. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (Issues of Our Time). W. W. Norton & Company
- Project Implicit
- Bonilla-Silva, E. (2017). Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Rowman & Littlefield
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk, Project Gutenberg. – Du Bois discusses double consciousness in this work.
- Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..
John: As faculty, we want our classrooms to provide all of our students with a comfortable and productive learning environment. Stereotype threats, implicit biases, and microaggressions can have an adverse effect on classroom climate and on student learning. In this episode, we investigate what we can do to nurture an inclusive and productive learning environment for all of our students.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Rodmon King, the Chief Diversity and Inclusion officer at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome, Rodmon.
Rodmon: Great to be here. Thank you for having me.
John: Today’s teas are:
Rodmon: I’m not drinking tea. I have not joined you.
I am still drinking the one cup of coffee… I have now reduced myself down to one cup of coffee a day. I usually have tea in the evening after dinner, I like to have tea.
Rebecca: So, next time we’ll have to make sure we record in the evening so we can have tea.
Rodmon: I think everything’s better in the evening. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I have Estate Darjeeling.
John: … and I have ginger peach black tea.
Rebecca: … again.
John: … again. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Issues related to diversity and inclusion are on the minds of many faculty at our institution and many other places, too. We invited you here today to help us lay the groundwork to talk about these issues and also to help faculty think about how to have these difficult conversations in their classrooms. Many faculty indicate that they want to be more inclusive but don’t know where to start, or feel inadequate or unprepared and don’t know where to start. So maybe the best place to start is “Where should we start?”
Rodmon: Yeah, well, it’s not surprising that faculty members in our community will feel unprepared or inadequate when thinking about things like inclusive pedagogy or making a classroom environment a place that is inclusive, challenging, yet safe. And the reasons that it’s not surprising is that, for many of us, we don’t get training in these things in our graduate programs, even for folks who’ve been in the professoriate for a while, may not have had it as part of their faculty education or ongoing faculty training. And some of the work that I’m looking to do with members of the community is to look at some of the processes, especially new faculty orientation and ongoing sort of things—opportunities like this, exactly, where we can help educate people, equip them with tools, not only for faculty success but for the success of our community. To give credit, we’re not starting from nowhere. The first thing is to realize that you actually need help or that there’s a problem or there’s something that you need help with, and so it’s good to know that members of our faculty are there and understand that. A good starting place—and there’s multiple starting places; it’s not just like one place that you can start, but it’s a multi-modal, multi-level kind of way that we have to dive into diversity equity and inclusion work with respect to faculty. Know what the resources are. CELT is a good resource. I’m more than willing to sit down and meet with departments. I’ve done some of that… meet with individual faculty to talk about everything from syllabi to things that are going on in a classroom or a topic that’s upcoming that someone wants to think through how to make sure that this is a really positive educational experience for the individuals in the classroom. There are our colleagues that, some of them, their research is in this area, so engaging with colleagues. We have other resources. Kirwan Institute has publications and information about things like implicit bias and stereotype threat, it’s a good resource. CELT’s running the reading group for Dr. Derald Wing Sue’s book. That’s another great resource. Another thing I would add is a good starting place generally is to take ownership of the things over which we have the most direct control, and part of that is our own identity. As educators or professionals working in education, thinking about your intersectional identity, thinking about your life experience, sort of a self-reflection there, and thinking about what kind of perspectives or insights your identity provides you and your life experience provides you and what kind of experiences it doesn’t. What kind of blind spots or limitations that you may have because of the way your identities situates you in communities and in contexts. Think about syllabi or lesson plans for courses; those are things that faculty have direct influence over. Hopefully, as this conversation goes on, talk some about the ways in which a faculty member or members of a faculty department can use syllabi or activities in class to help address some issues related to diversity and inclusion. Also, I’m a big fan of using some of the existing structures as our way to use faculty meetings or things like that to jumpstart conversations or keep conversations going over time. One thing that I want to make sure that I emphasize also is it’s important for us to develop our empathetic capacity, to develop our ability to understand other ways of experiencing and being in the world, to be fully aware of and not just an intellectual sense but a full sense that our walk and the way we navigate this community is not gonna be these default or universal way. Often times so that other people have other experiences and those experiences are very often shaped by their identity, their robust intersectional identity. And the last thing I would maybe add to that is that a word, if not caution, but something to be mindful of is that when we talk about identity we’re not talking about sort of granite blocks, these monoliths. Identities, even as we think about dimensions of diversity, are these sort of really dynamic and robust things that evolve over time as a person of color who identifies as black. Blackness is not one sort of thing; it is actually very, very rich our understandings of what it is to be a black person, especially a black person in America are constantly evolving and blackness as a deep and rich concept and identity links into, intersects with other identities that informs it, so my black identity is connected to and shaped by in certain ways other facets of my identity being cisgendered, being heterosexual, various other sorts of things that are part of who I am. All of those things I bring into classroom settings or to other settings with me, those things give me awareness of some issues that give me power and certain kinds of contexts, but they also can limit my vision and understanding in other ways too.
Rebecca: Thanks. That’s a lot to start to think about.
John: Yeah, it is. [LAUGHTER]
Rodmon: Yeah, I know. It might be “oh my gosh” that’s a lot, but here’s the beauty of this is that people think, well, you know, I don’t know what to do, well, i n some ways we’re actually living this. Diversity and inclusion is part of our day-to-day lives inside of the professional world and outside of it, so it doesn’t have to be a mysterious sort of thing; there’s a way to connect into it and in very open and common-sense ways.
Rebecca: I really wanted to touch back on issues of power that you mentioned as you were laying the groundwork for things. When we’re in the classroom we’re certainly in power, more power than students, perhaps, although not all of us have the same amount of power or students don’t perceive us to have the same amount of power. A young female may have a different amount of power than an older white male, for example. Can you talk a little bit about things that we need to be aware of as people who have power in that position when we’re trying to deal with difficult issues or difficult conversations in the classroom?
Rodmon: Early in my faculty career there was a point at which I really needed to emphasize to the members of my department that I was not just a tan version of them, that being a person of color in the classroom changed the ways that I needed to function as an instructor. For some of my students this is the first time that a person of color would have some power to vet their work and there was some stuff under the surface about that and sometimes explicit things where people were not comfortable with that. As a cisgender person I come into a classroom setting with that privilege and there’s ways in which that allows me to navigate and do things, whereas other people’s identities may position them differently, and so one of the things that I think is important for both an individual faculty member and a department to understand is the ways in which that can play out over time. In classroom settings and things like that there are ways to be aware of the sort of larger discourse and the biases that are out in the society and the ways that may inform what happens in a classroom. The way that students may react to an instructor, the ways that students may react to other students or engage with other students. We live in a country and at a time where certain ways of being, certain ways of knowing things are privileged over other ways, and so that can actually work its way into our classroom. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to think about these kinds of things. Classrooms are not sort of a by default; these marketplaces of ideas. These are things that we have to actively construct. I’ve had a course, one of the, I think the last few courses I taught before I became an administrator and transitioned away from being a faculty member and it was a senior capstone on race and social justice—philosophy majors. So I’m in a room as the only person of color talking about racism, talking about other things like that. And so knowing that there was going to be part of that dynamic that students may not feel comfortable expressing all of their opinions to a person of color who’s going to give them grades and maybe decide whether or not they graduate. I use that as an opportunity to open up the discourse and say, look, here’s where we are. These are some of the barriers to us maybe having discourse here. I’m a person of color; we’re gonna be talking about racism. You here are white and the discourse is gonna be difficult, here’s what we need to open that up. And so faculty should be—I would hope thinking about these things both in the moment and beforehand, and that’s where things like syllabus design and thinking about the ways to start off of a course. You can signal to students the ways in which as an instructor and as an educator you’ll engage with them and maybe intervene if there’s bias present or other things like that. You can set the context for discourse as well, but being aware of who is gonna be in the classroom, what potential identities are there, what your identity is and then what power dynamics flow from that is gonna be crucial to creating a place where things like these buzzwords, inclusive pedagogy and all these kinds of things of transformational education can actually occur.
John: You mentioned syllabus a couple times. What can we do in our syllabus to make the course more inclusive or to help set the stage for that?
Rodmon: Well, you can do signaling. In syllabi, and this is something that I think across the nation a lot of institutions have encouraged or required not just because it’s legally required but also because it is good practice for people to talk about accommodations and accessibility and have a statement like that in the syllabus. You can set community expectations in other ways. You can set terms of discourse, you can actually as a faculty member talk about how the class is gonna be managed as a community, and then outside of statements from the syllabus the sort of first day or first week activities, you can actually set the tone. One of the things I did in one of my classes was say, look, we’re gonna be dealing with some really tough issues and we’re people of a variety of life experiences and identities and things like this. One of the things that I am gonna do as an educator in this room if something happens where is potentially traumatizing for a member of the classroom, where the discourse could have the effect of marginalizing, if bias is coming to the fore, I’m actually gonna directly confront that. I’m gonna engage with that, and I’ll do it in a way where I’m gonna still respect people’s agency and humanity and understand them, but we’re gonna have to call these things out and confront them. We can do those things in a way that is educative.
John: Couple weeks ago when we were starting our race talk discussion, the book we’re talking about is “Race Talk” by Derald Wing Sue. The first couple meetings we didn’t really start with that sort of discussion but you suggested actually that we should start with setting the ground rules for discussion, and we did that and it opened up a much more active discussion. When people were reacting to things before they were very polite in our earlier meetings and we didn’t really notice a problem, but the politeness hid a lot of things where people just wanted to avoid those discussions and once we set the ground rules where people talked about the need to be open with these things it really opened up the discussion quite a bit and we saw a much more productive dialogue. So that type of priming that you talked about could be really effective, perhaps especially among faculty.
Rodmon: Yeah, most definitely. And again, the key bit I want to pull out of what you said. You might be thinking, well, geez, it’s great that this podcast happened—why didn’t we have it a few weeks ago when I was starting my class? Well it’s never too late, really. You can still set the terms of discourse, you can still have those moments in classrooms that are for classes that are currently running. It’s always good practice to revisit these things. Over the weeks of a term you may want to have moments where you remind people about the agreements and standards of discourse, especially as you approach really fraught topics or topics that people have a variety of feelings or opinions or can be impacted by the discourse.
John: One of the issues that we’ll be addressing and we’ve done past workshops on is implicit bias. Could you talk a little bit about what implicit bias is for the people who haven’t been exposed to it and the difference between implicit and explicit bias?
Rebecca: Especially because you hinted towards it in your groundwork by saying blind spots.
Rodmon: Yeah, and so let’s go with the clearest kind. There’s a lot of literature on it. Kirwan Institute has this, like I said, Derald Wing Sue. A lot of people, Claude Steele has written about a bunch of different things. A lot on stereotype threat. A lot about other stuff that connected with this. It is what it sounds like. An explicit bias is something that, it could be a stereotype that’s informing it. There’s a way in which people consciously hold a view, and that could be a positive affinity, like, people from Buffalo are just better people. You can have that bias towards them. A lot of times in the world, though, what we see are explicit forms of bias that hook into things like structural racism, sexism, heterosexism and things like that. Someone saying that they do not like racial or ethnic minorities or they do not want undocumented populations in this country, those are explicit bias; the person holds the belief, they know they hold the belief, they’re acting on an active knowledge of that belief, they’re articulating it in words, action, thought, and maybe even constructing environments where that is explicit. Implicit is a bit harder. It is sort of a subconscious way in which stereotypes or things like that become wired into us and affect our decision-making on an unconscious level. The hard part about implicit biases, whether those are positive or negative associations is often times they stand in stark contrast to our conscious beliefs. I’ve spent a good part of my life thinking about diversity and equity, I’ve taught it when I was in the classroom. I’m here as a CDIO, I’m working in this field and I still have biases that I have to combat. One of the things over time and taking some of the implicit association task tests, I realize that what I have is a skin tone bias. Now if you were to ask me, “What are your beliefs? What do you think about colorism?” I think colorism is horrible. I think it’s another way in which people are oppressed and marginalized and traumatized. I do not want to be part of communities that reinforce that I am my own actions and decision-making definitely want to be inclusive and open to all kinds of people. I don’t want to be a person who judges people on skin tone and everything else, but it’s there, and so having that bias does not make me a bad person; it’s part of the human condition that we have these implicit associations. Being aware that I have those things and doing nothing to educate myself about them and nothing to try and unseat them or challenge them, that makes me accountable and perhaps blameworthy.
John: We’ll share a link to the implicit association test. And I’ve actually used them in my classes for the last I think three years now, and their online classes, and the reactions have been interesting. Some students are very shocked by the results and it forces them to reflect on these. Others who get very strong results often tend to just believe the tests themselves or bias so they react against it, but at least it’s forcing them to consider the possibility.
Rodmon: In general, when I did that when I was teaching the first response is emails. Like, you know, I took this test and then I googled something and there’s the evidence that this does not work, and that’s evidence that the self-concept, right, so I think of myself as this person and I have this evidence that says I’m not that person and so it’s unsettling. For some people, as you said, they look at those results and are like wow, I had some idea that I might but now this really shows me evidence of the work that I have to do. More often than not in my experience when people get these results, especially as you do more of the tests, people are like, wow, there’s got to be something wrong with it—they want to externalize it—something wrong with the test, or there’s something wrong with something else and I’m not that person. Well, to a degree, all of us are in this common mode as human beings where we’re going to have these positive and negative associations. And really talking about power, the reason that this becomes so important is that some of us are in positions of power. Whether that’s in the classroom or in our communities or in departments and things like that, and when we intersect with processes and structures that we have influence over and that we shape and participate in, if we’re not careful our biases then become really blown up by those circumstances. So imagine me as a diversity and inclusion officer not challenging my skin tone bias and I’m going about my work. Now that skin tone bias that I have can get pushed into processes that I’m part of. Working into conversations and interactions and engagements that I have in our community, and really doing a lot of both structural and individual experiential damage. So for both the well-being of people and their experiences and for the type of community we’re constructing and maintaining, we need to really focus attention on those things. So yeah, implicit bias is a really, really, really big challenge, and whether or not we want to talk about it, it exists and it’s gonna be present where human beings are present.
Rebecca: I found it really useful to share with students that it’s like, I too, have implicit bias and to tell them what some of my results were on some of the tests and some of the checks and balances I put in place for myself to help make sure that I’m not reinforcing that bias in the things that I design or do. So one of the things I share with students often is that there is a stark contrast sometimes between an emotional response for something and that’s often the implicit bias that’s coming out, like judging or something that starts to happen and you catch yourself and say, wait a second, I shouldn’t be doing that; I don’t believe in that, that’s not what I wanna do. And I think that that helps students just recognize that there are things that we can do to improve how we relate to other people and how we improve the society that we live in by changing ourselves or improving ourselves.
Rodmon: Reflecting back on my comment on blind spots, some of it can be a self-check, but some of it we’re not always aware of our blind spots, and so it’s hard to figure these things out sometimes, so as a person of a certain age, socioeconomic class, racial identity that I embrace, being cisgendered, being heterosexual, all of these things affect how I navigate the world and what I see and what I don’t see, and so as I become more in-tune to myself, as I take more empathetic journeys where I’m actually trying to see the world through other lenses and experience the world as other people experience them and take their concerns on as concerns that I should share, I can become better attuned to the things that I am not just automatically conditioned to see. Some of that, though, we may need help with, right, and so this is where really having connections in with people that you can sort of like well, you know, I want to make sure that I’m doing the right thing, and whether that’s planning ahead for something that you’re going to do as an activity in class or if there’s something and you just want to reflect on it. And there’s resources. There’s, again, the same sort of resources we have are available out there for people to do that kind of reflection. We won’t always catch it in the moment, especially when it deals with ourselves. We might have a conversation or have an interaction and then later be like, I’m not sure I feel good about the way that I was present and active in that context. But maybe, and you can create opportunities to go back and revisit that and make it right. That’s the thing that I think is really important. It’s great to get it in the moment, and I think over time if we are vigilant in thinking about these things, practicing, doing the kind of proactive work, we’ll be better in those moments, but we also should be ready to and equipped to do that sort of restorative transformative work that can happen when we don’t catch it. Even at our very best we’ll miss things.
John: But you first have to be aware of the possibility so you can reflect on it and then work to do that.
Rebecca: I think that reflects a lot of things that have bubbled up in some of our reading group discussions about the guilt that you might have after a moment of realizing you didn’t handle something the way that maybe you would have liked to have handled it and you rehearse it over and over in your head but if you keep rehearsing it over and over in your head you’re not actually making any change, you’re not doing anything, so having that community to help rehearse that so that you can then reflect on it and then do something I think is key, so thanks for that reminder.
John: Going back to my class example; they’re very reluctant to discuss issues of race. But one issue that students were much more willing to discuss, particularly female students, was the implicit association test between gender and careers. And women in particular were very surprised to see that here they are in college working towards a career, but they still had this sort of bias between being female and home type activities, male and careers, and that brings us perhaps to the concept of stereotype threat. Maybe we could talk a little bit about that in general?
Rodmon: Yeah, this is a bit more complicated. Claude Steele has done a lot of work; his book “Whistling Vivaldi” is really good. He’s done a lot of publications and research, I think, in the hundreds in terms of things that he’s done on stereotype threat. The basic idea, and I’ll try to demystify this to make it as clear as possible, the idea is that people can be in circumstances or situations where they either are concerned about or they have evidence that they actually are confirming some generalized or stereotype characteristic about their group that they participate in, and that can be along racial or ethnic lines, gender lines, sexual orientation, various other sorts of things. Those things take a different set of skills to disrupt and to address whether in a classroom setting or not, so what happens is, and you know, look at some of the research. Women when told that some sort of a valued mechanism, be it a test or something else, was gonna have a component about gender, or that the test historically women don’t do well on it, score lower—score lower than when those kind of statements are absent. And so one of the things to be mindful of in practice is sometimes very well-meaning folks will hook into deficit ways of approaching and engaging students. You see it a lot with first-generation students. “I know you’re first-generation, you may need a lot of things,” and you just—it’s almost like stereotype confirmations. While we want to be aware of and sensitive to and open to the needs of different populations, we have to be aware of the fact that it’s not just deficits that they bring into our community; there’s strengths and resilience and things like this. Derald Wing Sue has some work on this in terms of the recommendations that he has. One of the ways to approach this instead of saying, here’s some tests or thing like this that people don’t do well on, and I can think of my own faculty career. I used to say things and like one of my classes was like, yeah, you know, historically in this class everybody does bad on the first paper, and guess what? [LAUGHTER]
John: You’re priming them to think that way.
Rodmon: Yeah, you know, and so that can get into stereotypes of people not thinking that they’re good writers, not having a facility with English; those kind of stereotypes that are placed upon communities. When you say things like, “I want to make sure everyone in this class is maximally successful on this paper and that there’s ways in which everyone can be successful, I’m invested in your success; I believe in your ability to complete this, let’s talk about ways to set up success.” You’re into a different place. Very, very subtle the way that stereotype threat can function, and some of it, some of the literature it has to do with sort of a Du Boisian and sort of double consciousness—people are aware of the ways in which society views the affinity group that they’re part of, and so they’re stuck in this space negotiating their own identity on their terms and knowing that society is actively trying to put them into a box, and so you worry about confirming that stereotype and it gets into the forms of self-questioning that undermine performance. Being aware that people can be experiencing that in a classroom, whether that’s during an exercise, during a class activity, during a test or as a part of a paper or something else like that, and during those sort of positive measures can make a difference, so micro affirmations is a term that’s come up.
John: So the opposite of micro aggression?
Rodmon: Exactly, yeah. And those can be both explicit statements, but sort of cues that can be like, yeah, yeah, I think that’s really good to think about or things like that. It takes practice to get those things right. The line between a micro affirmation for one population and a microaggression for another population can be very, very subtle. And so I’m a big believer in preparing just like you would for other things. I’m a—what you call –I’m a weekend warrior discount musician kind of thing; I love music, I love playing music, and I’m better when I have practiced and done those things so that when I’m playing I can be in the moment and do those kinds of things. We need to do the same sort of things. And thinking about diversity equity inclusion we’re now in the context where we can provide opportunities for members of our community to actually think about, practice some of these skills, so that when they’re in the situation they’re optimally prepared to function.
Rebecca: Can I ask a follow-up question on that?
Rebecca: I really like the idea of the micro affirmations, so if you’re noticing, I don’t know, like a trend in class, the students are struggling with X and you want to address that. Is there a way to handle that that’s not like, hey, I noticed that most people in this class are having this particular problem that might make someone feel like they’re in a box?
Rodmon: So let’s look at the heart of that. There’s maybe as part of an analysis or some part of the course that people are struggling with, and a way to come around that, instead of saying like, here’s the way in which everybody’s kind of turf’n, you know, crashing and burning on this, say, look, there’s an important aspect that I want us to think about: I want us to think about this because it’s an important part of the linkage of this course, and so some of the stuff that I did in philosophy was about thinking about arguments or thinking about ways to closely attend to textual material, close reading, things like that. And those are skills that people don’t always come to the table with, and so thinking about it in that way and saying instead of here’s a deficit you have, here’s this thing that I want to make sure that we build up as a skill area, and you can be successful. This is something that you’re capable of doing and I want to help make sure that we actualize that set of skills, and so it goes more from a, here’s the things that you’re doing wrong and the things that you need to correct to, here’s the things that I know and believe in you that are positive steps that can be taken, right, and it doesn’t have to target anyone like that. Philosophers have their own technical language; it’s a strange little fantastic world, philosophy. But one of the things that can be a barrier is the formal ways that sometimes arguments have to be presented in philosophy and students may struggle with that and coming at it from a point of appreciative inquiry. Here are the things that you’re already doing that are great, and then building from that is a different entry point of here’s the ways that you’re messing up the premises and the argument and not seeing the logical entailments.
John: What you’re just discussing here is very much what Carol Dweck is suggesting with a growth mindset, so we should focus on reminding students that they’re capable of doing this and working on building that sort of mindset.
Rodmon: Yeah. I want to be careful that we don’t give individual rated readings of this. We want to empower individual faculty members and members of our community to address these things. I think proactively about these things, but we as a community need to be thinking structurally, how do we create contexts where people can learn, have the skills needed to be successful to combat things like implicit bias and stereotype threat. We can’t leave it on the shoulders of individual members of the faculty or individual members in any constituency of our community.
John: One other topic that I think was mentioned a couple of times was microaggressions. What would be some examples of microaggressions that happen in academic settings?
Rodmon: Yeah, unfortunately, there’s a lot of them. Some of the ones that are very common are things like microinvalidations. There’s ways in which faculty will make fun of a student name that is not a very common sort of name or a difficult name to pronounce, they’ll nickname people, they’ll do other things. Those kind of things can be invalidating for people are ways of othering folks. There’s ways that people can fall into gendered language that can affect different populations and it’s just by default. There was a move years ago, and I mean many, many years ago, and I’m kind of coming back to my home discipline of philosophy; a lot of the examples and four-cross fields of philosophy of people who had either bad epistemic practice or everything else were gendered female. And so people became aware of that are like, we need to stop doing that because it really can affect people in a lot of ways. Other things that happen, and a lot of times in my experience, jokes, whether it’s a faculty member making a joke or something like that, those kind of things people retreat behind and say, well, it’s a joke, but the content of that joke actually marginalizes people and there’s a subtle—well maybe it’s not a subtle point—I think it’s an important point. When we’re talking about diversity and inclusion, when we’re talking about microaggressions, these kinds of things, they’re not just matters of etiquette, right, it’s not like chewing with your mouth open or not covering your face when you sneeze; these are deeper. The way the cumulative effects—there’s been research that these things can have on individuals and the way they feel or do not feel connected to a community; it can have a really huge impact. So it’s not a matter of etiquette or these kinds of things, it’s about respecting the rights of individuals and respecting their right to be in the world in ways that are different than to be in the world in ways that are different than the dominant population or myself or someone else as an individual. So there’s those. More specifically, there have been a really unfortunate incidents with faculty members trying to make a point about Immigration and Naturalization and having people who are not U.S. citizens stand up in class or disclose their status; those things are really traumatizing. And some of these are with the best of intentions. Faculty may ask students to represent some part of their identity and say, please give us the female perspective or please give us the other sort of perspective. Those kinds of things. There’s other ways to elicit that or present that material without placing students in the position of having to speak for their race or gender or other dimension of their identity. The last one I would mention, and I think this is one that unfortunately over my career had many of these is people invalidating someone’s identity because of assumptions they have about that way of being. So you have students who identify and are people of color by their history and so forth who are denied that, who a faculty members says, well you’re not positioned to speak on this, and specifically this was a student who was white passing who was a Latin-ex and a professor said, “you’re not on standing to speak for that,” and the student in that circumstance has to defend their identity. And so that’s a tougher one. Is it a general good practice for people to speak only from their experience and so forth? Yes, but the assumptions we make about who has the standing to do that can feed into stereotypes and end up setting the context for microaggressions.
Rebecca: What should faculty members do if students are making micro aggressions against one another, or if a student confronts a faculty member about their own microaggressions that the faculty member is doing something but a student has confronted them.
Rodmon: Yeah, that’s a microaggression. So let’s deal with the student-to-student first. Here’s some of the things that are a challenge. As an educator you will not hear everything that goes on in your class. Last academic year had an incident where very horrifically traumatizing thing happened: the instructor was unaware of it until it hit social media after the class had ended in the evening that explodes. In those circumstances the instructor had no knowledge, you know, the professor, that something had happened in the class, but again, that doesn’t mean that we don’t address it right away. And one of the good things for this instructor is that in the syllabus were community standards and things were clear there were reminders of that and so there’s a natural way to enter into that discourse, both by an email message to the class and some signaling about this is what we’re gonna address when we get into class tomorrow and the offer to meet with students in the interim to deal with that. A person also came to me immediately for help, so this is going on, it’s 9 o’clock at night and instructor is getting signals that there is something going on in social media and of course he emails me right away and says, “I’m really going to need help with this; can we meet in the morning?” I’m like, no, let’s have the conversation now. Talk about a strategy now and then let’s follow it up in the morning and let’s really stay close together so we make sure we’re helping the overall community and the students in this class process and understand what happens. In immediate circumstances where you’re aware, as the instructor I think it’s important to have developed the skills to call that out and say, wait a second, we need to take a pause here because there’s something going on that we have to address. Sometimes it can be something that a student says is a comment, sometimes it’s part of a presentation. I’ve had a class once where a student was making a presentation and saying, well, the blacks are and it was like, whoa, let’s stop right there. Ok, you have to understand that saying that the blacks as a terms of pejorative, those kind of things. And then the next step that is crucial, whether it’s coming back afterwards or something else, is unpacking what actually the microaggression is and why it can be traumatic and damaging. Even things that are sort of microaggressions that are disguised compliments, or are you a credit to your race, or you really speak so well; those kinds of things can be disguised microaggressions. We have to be aware to call those out as well and unpack those. Although it seems really positive, it fits into and reinforces stereotypes about different kinds of people. So acting in the moment can be terrifying, and this is why I think really the thing about getting practice and understanding how to do that, and it’s not like you’re gonna hit the ground running; it’s something that we have to work on constantly and get help with and use the resources available to help with. Even if you address it in the moment there is still most likely gonna need to be the need for follow-up in continuing dialogue around that. The one piece that I think is the question that I haven’t addressed yet is, what if someone calls you out? And one of the first initial reactions could be defensive, like wait a second, what do you mean I’m doing a microaggression or that’s a microaggression. That’s another moment to pause and stop and say, ok, I want to explore this and understand. Those kind of things can be tougher to parse out because you’re situated internal to it, and so some of my engagement over my career with faculty is to help them like, you know, what if you have this moment, well, to be open, right, to be open and not immediately go to default denials of responsibility; no, no, no, you’re taking this too seriously or other kinds of things like this you want to actually say, ok, I want to understand what I need to own here. Had a situation where an instructor—a student came up after class and said to them, I’m really hurt and traumatized by what’s going on class; you won’t call on me, and I think it’s because of my race. And that is a form of microaggression; ignoring someone because of their identity. It’s something that can happen. And the professor was really struck and said, I think some of the right things in terms of approaching the other person first and saying, I am really, really, really—and not just sad—but I’m really sorry that you had this type of experience in this classroom and I want to understand what I need to learn about it, and I want you to have a positive experiences from now on. What that person is experiencing is valid, the work of how to unpack that, what ownership the instructor needs to take is work that can happen. Part of the things that I can help faculty with is to negotiate those spaces. Approach those kinds of things, meeting with a faculty member and the student, things like that, those kinds of things. But I think the initial reactions to it have to be really important. Do not deny it, do not go into defense mode. If someone feels that way you can validate the feeling, then explore the value of the experience and explore what has to be helped.
Rebecca: Thank you. I think that’s a good reminder for faculty, and I think like there’s always a fear that something like that’s gonna happen, so rehearsing in your mind what you would do in a situation like that is important. One of the things that we talked about leading up to this conversation today were a lot of the terms that we’ve talked about today, like implicit bias, microaggressions, et cetera, but one that you had introduced me to that I wasn’t familiar with was lateral animosity, so can you explain what that is and share a little bit about that?
Rodmon: Yeah. So at least in my ways of thinking about where people are and where communities are, there is some discourse. In academia and outside academia about microaggressions and stereotype, and there’s increasing because of things that have happened in the world and the way community discourse is happening, stuff about stereotype threat and things like this. Lateral animosity or lateral violence is one of those things that is a bit subtler. In essence, what happens is you have, let’s say a group of individuals and in that group you have individuals who are marginalized populations, and what happens is instead of pressing a case or reacting to or having, not that you want animosity in the community, but animosity towards the dominant group. You have animosity to equally or other marginalized populations, and some examples of this are for people of color, especially African Americans, who sometimes react and say, well, you know, things like marriage equality, things like LGBTQ rights, well, you know, that’s not really what civil rights is about. The same sort of things we see the microinvalidations, the things like that can happen within communities and infinity groups and across them, right. Some unfortunate things in my career that I’ve had to work with populations is in particular some African American students saying clearly to other students of color and international students that their needs were not legitimate, that their oppression was not real and their marginalization. And so that sort of invalidation can be really damaging. Sometimes for people, and they make this natural assumption if you’re part of a marginalized community that you wouldn’t have a blind spot when it comes to another community, but sometimes we do. You can find it in other dimensions of diversity, you have people who are racial and ethnic minority populations talking in ways where accessibility and other forms of diversity are not things that we really should be thinking about or invalidating people’s identities, things like that. Those sort of things are very, very difficult, can be very, very painful, but the same sort of techniques that we use to address these sort of things need to be used in those contexts too. Internal to populations you have some tough experiences where domestic African American populations say to other students of African descent, whether they’re African Diaspora or they’re African international students, but they don’t qualify as—they cannot claim blackness, they cannot claim to be people of color, that their needs are somehow secondary or not as pressing as those of domestic African-American populations, and I think my sort of semi-sarcastic way of saying this is like, look, we’re not in an oppression Olympics where we need to battle one another to try and prove who is most oppressed.
John: There’s plenty of oppression to go around.
Rodmon: Unfortunately, plenty of oppression to go around, and in building community it’s gonna be important that we actually understand and appreciate and validate the needs of other constituencies within our community, so yeah, that is an emerging problem—it’s an emerging problem in higher ed as the demographics shift. Unfortunately, what you can see is when you have a minority population that becomes large enough that they have more structural power than other marginalized groups… So what we see in sometimes marginalized communities when they have enough either presence in terms of large enough numbers or enough structural power within the community; they reinscribe all the oppression that they’ve suffered and themselves and do it either internally or to other marginalized populations and it’s really, really, really very, very sad and damaging to communities. We need to have an awareness of that—this is again something that is a hard point of discourse and dialogue for folks—coming to a person who’s experienced marginalization and saying that you are not only the oppressed, but in certain contexts, you are the oppressor. Again, people get defensive, the walls go up—no, no, no, no, you’re miss reading this, no, that’s not it or whatever else, but taking ownership of that is important.
Rebecca: One of the things that’s come up in some of the reading group discussions is knowing the need to address issues like this, and I think you kind of commented about the oppression Olympics is maybe like one way to kind of go down that road, but faculty have indicated a tentativeness towards it because they’re not familiar with the histories or the details to fully unpack a particular thing that’s happening. What are your recommendations in those situations where you know that’s not right, you know kind of what’s happening, you can probably identify as maybe lateral animosity, but can’t really unpack the details of what exactly is going on and why?
Rodmon: Well, so, if it’s in the moment, I mean, I think you still call it out in the moment, but this is where—is in moments like this that really creative and dynamic people kind of act the opposite. It’s like I don’t know anything, I don’t know anybody, there’s no one who can help me. Again, we have people with expertise, so if it is about the history of African and African American populations, we’ve got people who teach and do research in those areas, right. If it’s about other dimensions of identity, we have people, both professionals who work here, fellow faculty colleagues that can help understand that history, ok. One of the things over time that I had to become much more knowledgeable about very quickly as I started doing diversity equity and inclusion work was the history of both oppressor marginalization of transgender populations, right. Had an understanding of some of it but really needed a much deeper understanding of that and reached out to people who do scholarship in those areas, reached out to individuals really looking to understand and learn. A lot of times negotiating these spaces is not something that we have to do alone—get help, bring the help in, use the resources that are available to you to help unpack that. And so there’s this way in which we can be like, well, you know, in the classroom I’m supposed to be the expert; that’s like yeah, that in some ways you are co-explorers. Simultaneously you have a letter of expertise and knowledge that students may not have, but you should develop enough comfort to say, this is wrong, and here’s the mechanics of it and what we are gonna do is actually get the resources to understand why saying things like, you know, this lateral animosity or violence kind of stuff, whether it’s through act or action, those things are not things that we need in our community. We also need to be aware that sometimes we’ve talked, you know, in very sort of human agency kind of ways, but structurally communities can reinforce implicit biases and things like that. You know, one of the ways that, you know, you can make someone feel welcome or unwelcome or things like that just by the very structure of the community around you and things that people have to deal with and counter. We are in the midst of this community really needing to do work on gender-neutral bathrooms throughout our community, and it’s a challenge and it’s one of those things that confronts people in ways, depending on your identity it may be well, yeah, we need those things, those are good, but it’s not something that on a daily basis you navigate spaces where the very spaces themselves are telling you that you are not valued as much as others as a part of the community.
John: So we always end our podcast by asking our guests “what’s next.” What are you going to do next?
Rodmon: All of it. [LAUGHTER] But not to be silly or whatever else, but to say this: there’s multiple levels of activity that need to continue. To say this: there are multiple levels of activity that need to continue. My door is not just sort of metaphorically open; I’m available to meet with faculty wherever that people have a need to do that dialogue about how to be successful, how to implement inclusive pedagogy, to work on things. I want to do work and started doing some work with departments on issues of diversity and inclusion. The thing that I really want to get us as a community further down the road on, we have these large institutional statements of value and mission, we have a diversity plan, there’s goals in there; there’s all these other types of things. I want to make sure that those larger things that are out there connect in real ways to the world that faculty live in and experience on a day-to-day basis, that’s something that I really want to make sure that as a community we’re doing that. And not just for faculty but for staff, for students, for all members of our community that these things aren’t just banner fodder—you put them on banners, they look nice, they’re on websites—but are part and wired into. People can see themselves connected to these goals and priorities.
Rebecca: Well thanks so much, Rodmon, for joining us today, and we’re so thankful to have you on campus now, right, like we’re glad that these conversations are really are happening and that the community is coming together to start addressing some of these issues.
Rodmon: I’m thankful for you as well; this is great. I’m glad to have the opportunity for the podcast. I think the podcasts have been great thus far and it covered a lot of different things; it’s a valuable way of engaging our community and communities within our community, so thank you for doing this.
John: Well thank you, and we’ll have you back soon.
Rodmon: Most definitely, love to. Thanks.
John: Thank you.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer.
Sometimes, as faculty, we are quick to assume that performance gaps in our courses are due to the level of preparedness of students rather than what we do or do not do in our departments. In this episode, Dr. Angela Bauer, the chair of the Biology Department at High Point University, joins us to discuss how community building activities and growth mindset messaging combined with active learning strategies can help close the gap.
- “Success for all Students: TOSS workshops” – Inside UW-Green Bay News (This includes a short video clip in which Dr. Bauer describes TOSS workshops)
- Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.
- Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.
- Life Sciences Education
- Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.
- Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), 613.
- The Teaching Lab Podcast – Angela Bauer’s new podcast series. (Coming soon to iTunes and other podcast services)