97. Emotions and Learning

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

John: Welcome.

Sarah: Oh, thank you.

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

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

Rebecca: So many coffee drinkers on this show.

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

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

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

Sarah: Mmmm. That sounds tasty

John: It’s very good.

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah: Yeah, coffee. [LAUGHTER]

John: …or tea.

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah: Yeah.

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

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

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

Sarah: Oh, good. I’ll check that out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah: Yes, I love that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah: um hmm.

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

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

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

Sarah: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

Rebecca: …like the long tail idea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice place to be.

Sarah: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

Sarah: Yep. September 3,

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

Rebecca: Yeah, September 4.

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

96. Inclusive Pedagogy

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

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

Amer: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

John: Are you drinking any tea?

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

Rebecca: Yum!

John: I’m drinking pineapple ginger green tea.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds yummy.

John: It is.

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

John: …for a change.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, where are you from?”

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

”No, where are you originally from?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amer: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amer: Thanks so much.

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

92. Diverse Classrooms

The student population in most colleges and universities is becoming increasingly diverse during a time when much public discourse is characterized by growing political polarization and divisiveness. In this episode, Melina Ivanchikova and Mathew Lawrence Ouellett join us to discuss a MOOC that is being developed at Cornell University to help faculty nurture a productive learning environment for all of our students.

Mathew is the founding Executive Director at Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. Melina is the Associate Director of Inclusive Teaching in the center.

Show Notes

Transcript

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John: The student population in most colleges and universities is becoming increasingly diverse during a time when much public discourse is characterized by growing political polarization and divisiveness. In this episode, we discuss a MOOC that is being developed to help faculty nurture a productive learning environment for all of our students.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guests today are Melina Ivanchikova and Mathew Lawrence Ouellett. Mathew is the founding Executive Director at Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. Melina Ivanchikova is the Associate Director of Inclusive Teaching in the center. Welcome.

John: Welcome.

Melina: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.

Mathew: Thanks. Delighted to be here with both of you.

John: Our teas today are…

Mathew: I’m drinking Sea Buckthorn and Siberian Blueberry from Mongolia.

Rebecca: Wow, yummy.

John: That’s impressive.

Melina: And I decided to go the rebel route and I am drinking coffee.

Rebecca: That is a true rebel.

Melina: I apologize to all of your listeners who might be dismayed to hear that there’s a coffee drinker here in the afternoon.

Rebecca: Again, yeah… [LAUGHTER]

John: About half or more of our guests are drinking coffee or something else.

Rebecca: I have my nice boring English afternoon tea again.

John: And I have ginger peach black tea.

Mathew: Black tea’ s always appropriate. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Can’t go wrong. So we invited you here today to discuss the teaching and learning in the diverse classroom course that you’ve been developing at Cornell. Can you tell us a little bit about the origin of the project?

Mathew: Sure, when Melina and I were introduced I guess, when we became colleagues back when I first got here, we were looking for a project that could play up to the strengths of the merger of our units. So part of being the founding director is two units came together. And I’ll spare you all of that, other than to say it was a great opportunity. So one thing was finding a project that had some heft for our newly formed unit. But second, and perhaps the primary part of this origin story was the inaugural address by President Martha Pollack, who was newly installed as President. In fact, the first thing I did when I got to Cornell, the first public thing I attended, was her inauguration. And in the context of her remarks that afternoon, she talked at length about the importance of creating an inclusive learning environment for all students. And I thought, well, I know just how to do that. And now we’ve got this fantastic staff. We have the skills and the expert knowledge that we can actually do something that would benefit our campus, but also might be something with a usefulness for people out on other campuses that might not have the same opportunities or resources.

Melina: And I’ll add to that to say a little bit about the context in which the course has emerged, which is that Cornell, probably like many other campuses across the US, was rocked by several events that happened both on campus and off campus. Moments of slurs being used in public… events that were very demoralizing and just strained the learning climate for students here. So, within that context, we’re also thinking about how to support our faculty and teachers in the classroom to be able to reach out to students and warm up the learning environment.

Mathew: Yeah. I would want to add, though, that this course is not in response to those. This isn’t a reaction to these sort of community and campus incidences. Mostly it’s to prove the point that at Cornell we’re as vulnerable to them as every institution in America. There’s really very little inoculation against it. And so what we thought is that if we could do something that had utility for our faculty that appeal to them and help them, that it might also appeal and be of use to faculty at other schools and colleges as well.

John: I saw a little bit of that at a presentation at a conference a few weeks ago, and I was really impressed. Could you tell us a little bit about how the course is structured?

Melina: Sure, we’re using a framework that has five different dimensions to it. And it’s the way that the course is organized. So we begin by asking instructors to reflect on themselves: “Who are you as an instructor?” And then who are students? How do you get to know who your students are? How do you help them get to know each other? What do you know about the students at your institution in general? And then how do you teach? What are the teaching strategies that you use? What is your pedagogy and part of that is talking about what you can do to prepare in advance for a hot moment that might arise, as well as what to do when there is a hot moment that arises. And then what is your curriculum? Both from the perspective of the content of what you’re teaching, but also how your discipline looks at the world, how has your discipline wrestled with diversity and inclusion at the broader disciplinary level. And then ending with really thinking about the learning environment and thinking about action planning, what are some changes that you can make to your course? And then what we’ve been seeing in those is that people think beyond the course level from changes small to broader and more systemic.

Mathew: So just to tag on to that, people have been thinking about their ongoing learning… things that they can do to continue to advance their own development, things that they can do at the course level, interventions that they might make at the departmental level. And that’s pretty exciting when they want to go out and talk to their colleagues. And then, third is thinking at the college and or the institutional level changes that they’d like to see happen in terms of the larger climate. They have actually been really ambitious and pretty exciting.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the timeline of the course?

Mathew: Yeah we, like everybody in higher-ed, are always looking for that sweet spot. And anyone who works with faculty or as a faculty member knows that there are about five or six weeks in the dead center of the semester where we might have half a chance of getting your attention. That’s it. That’s the sweet spot. And so the whole intentionality around the course being four weeks long was so that we could load it right in the middle of this semester, not right at the opening of the start of the launch of the semester, but also ending before the Thanksgiving holidays. Knowing that once people return to campus, faculty and students alike are all on the downhill slope and at that point it’s all about wrapping the semester up.

John: How many times have you offered it now at Cornell?

Melina: We’ve offered it twice, we just wrapped the second run of the course. And and I’ll just add to what Mat said earlier that we estimate that it takes people about 10 or 15 hours to get through the course. It’s asynchronous, and we release modules each week.

Mathew: And I should add too, just for transparency, we let people take as long as they want. So even though the course officially runs for four weeks, we can get tons of requests for extensions, and we’re happy to grant them. I mean, it’s just like teaching a group of undergraduates… we understand, mostly we want people to feel like they can complete the experience.

Melina: Yes, and we should say that the version that we’ve run on the Cornell campus is going to be transformed into a MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course, that’s set to run in November this year. So that will be open to anybody.

John: And you’re running that on edX.

Melina: That’s correct.

John: And there is a sign up form on your website and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes so people can be notified to join that when it’s available. I’ve already added my name to the list. Rebecca and I have talked about and we’d like to run a cohort here, through that as well.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’d be great. Can you talk a little bit about how faculty have responded in the last couple of cohorts that you’ve had?

Mathew: Sure. Well, I’m really gratified to say overall, we’ve had a very positive response and the only negative has come when people have run out of time when they said “You know, I’m just crazy busy and I wish I had more time to do a deeper dive.” So in terms of regrets, that’s one end of the continuum. But we also are, I think, assessing the utility of the course… of the usefulness of it… by people’s expressions of learning outcomes. So we do a pre-post with… this is just only for the on-campus cohort. But we’ve had fantastic responses along a whole range of outcomes, some we hadn’t expected, and others we had hoped for. Do you want to give some examples?

Melina: Sure. One thing I wanted to say that was interesting is that we also offer face-to-face opportunities. And we were wondering, were we going to get the same folks who come to those coming into the course? But instead, we’ve seen quite a range. One of the things that surprised me is that we asked people how many years they had been teaching. And so that range goes from zero years to 20 to 25, even 30 years of teaching and all along the continuum and quite a large percentage of people who have been teaching for more than 10 years. So that inspired me just thinking about how many people are committed to lifelong learning and willing to think about what’s happened in my classroom, my demographics have shifted, what is all this buzz around diversity? We’re getting folks who are really curious and willing to think and learn together. And so the response among faculty has been very inspiring because the core of the courses are these fantastic videos where instead of giving lectures through the videos, we’ve asked people to tell their stories about their lived experiences and their teaching practices. And we have faculty, staff, and student voices in the course…

Mathew: graduate students

Melina: …graduate students…

Mathew: and undergraduates

Melina: …and these testimonials, people they’re just… you have a visceral experience as you’re watching and listening to those. And so over and over, we heard the comment of faculty saying things like, “Well, I knew my students were people. But now after I’ve seen all these different points-of-view, I got to hear really personal things about them that I normally wouldn’t ask my own students. I have a much deeper sense of the challenges that they’re facing.”

Mathew: And the reverse is true, too. We’ve had graduate students say to us, “I had no idea my faculty member had anywhere near that sort of experience.” So, referring to a video where two of our colleagues talk about being first-generation college students, and having come from very poor backgrounds, or very poor working class backgrounds, and it was a revelation to our undergraduates that there might actually be faculty here who’d come from a similar kind of lived experience. The other thing that’s just been, I think, really a good metric for success is that people have often talked about wanting to go back and talk to their colleagues. And I think that, as Melina is talking about the nature of the videos, is that there’s so few opportunities to talk about this aspect of one’s teaching. You might, for example, sit on a curriculum committee or you might get into conversations about grading or end-of-semester evaluations, but rarely do you get invited into a more authentic, deeper, personal link between who you are as a human being… fully… holistically… and what you bring to the classroom. So I think the videos do a fantastic job and I want to put a little bit of a pitch in here. Melina facilitated all of those videos and I think she just did a fantastic job in getting people to relax and warm up and feel comfortable telling their story. It’s really powerful.

Melina: Thank you. The other core piece of the course is reflection. So throughout the course, there’s moments where we prompt participants to think about their own lived experience or their own socialization. And it becomes a very personal contemplative process. So I think that’s also one of the things that I’m seeing among the faculty participation is that yes, they’re active on the discussion board, but they’re also just really active and looking at the pages and reading the material. And it’s nice that you can track all of that information in online courses. You can really see how people are interacting.

John: How have faculty responded? Has it been growing? Does there seem to be a lot of interest? And I seem to remember something about there being a fair amount of administrative support there too.

Mathew: I’m really happy to report from the first time we offered it to the second time there’s definitely what I would call an upward trend line. We have far more people register in the spring. So that was a huge sigh of relief from Melina and I because of course, you know, if word on the street was negative, no one would have signed up. So we were immediately gratified that we probably have a 25% jump in registrations. And interestingly enough, we’ve had a number of department chairs who have been genuinely engaged as participants. We’ve had some Associate Deans… and I’m very proud of this fact, our president and provost both worked through the course themselves, because they wanted to be able to talk about it in a first-hand way. And it’s hard to express my gratitude to them for setting the tone as our senior academic leadership cohort to really send the message that this is something we all want to pay attention to. And I think we’ve had also the other group that can particularly be challenging in faculty development work to get to get engaged with this, senior post-tenure folks. And as Melina mentioned, we have a number of people who are full professors who’ve been teaching for quite a while, who said, “Yeah, I’m going to swing back around and take this course.” And both semesters we’ve done almost exactly a third, a third, a third. Graduate students and post-docs. Tenure line or laddered faculty and a full range within that from pre-tenure to post-tenure. And then about a third academic administrative staff who have teaching us some component of their job:, folks from academic advising, the Learning Services Center, other sorts of student activities related positions. But it’s made for an extremely interesting conversation. And I think everyone would say that they’ve benefited from that.

Melina: Yeah, one of the things that we made available as an option was for self-selected groups to take it as a cohort. So this is something that we were also hoping that when the MOOC comes out that some faculty development centers might offer a cohort experience for their own campus. And so those groups have been able to have leaders emerge from their own group and they have their own face-to-face sessions where they discuss the content of the course and take it just one step further.

Mathew: So we’ve had two experiences of that, that I think maybe would be interesting. I’ll share them. One is we teach an introduction to teaching in higher-ed course for graduate students, doctoral students, and post-doctoral students and they participated as a cohort. And that’s a natural affiliation. And just as you’d expect, they loved it, they got a lot out of it, it was enormously interesting for us to have them in the course. The other group that’s been equally interesting have been the department chairs who have been coming to it for a variety of different reasons. But the one I want to highlight is the idea that as you hire new faculty into the department… thinking about their orientation and onboarding, both to the department, but also to the institution. And that’s been a really interesting goal. And I thought, really, if I can say, this is a kind of a selfless goal, people really are thinking about the community writ large, and how to help people accelerate their integration into the values and the priorities of our institution. That was not something Melina and I had anticipated. We thought, sure, this might at some point contribute to new faculty development. But we really didn’t think of it as an orientation for department chairs in which they could then begin to think about their approach to teaching and learning and a way to communicate that with their new colleagues.

Rebecca: That sounds really interesting. Can you also talk a little bit about some of the specific ways that, through reflection, you’ve seen faculty talk about how they have changed their teaching or the impact that the class is actually having on their own classroom?

Mathew: Sure. Melina loves this question. Yeah.

Melina: So we did some interviews to explore…

Mathew: … just that…

Melina: … just to ask that question. So we have a testimonial video, which we can show you later. There’s a couple of stories that really stood out in my mind. One was a woman who went back to her guest speakers list. This was out of the Business College and realized that all of her guest speakers were white men. And she thought, “Wow, I can’t believe this happened to me. I thought that I was aware of this issue, but I really need to actually have a systematic way of looking at my curriculum so that I make sure that I have a diverse offering. I can try harder. There certainly are some women business leaders I can reach out to.” So that was one and another comment was somebody saying, “I do so much work in the community around advocacy for women’s issues, but I never bring that part of myself into the classroom, because I just don’t know how to do it. But now I’m thinking that it’s actually important to show this side of myself and I want to be able to share that a little bit more with my students.” Those are kind of my two favorite but…

Mathew: … there’s there’s a third one I love. One of our colleagues who’s a full professor here, talks about how she flunked out of college initially, and probably wouldn’t have finished except that another faculty member of hers reached out to her… and really encouraging and supportive of her and helping her figure out a way to finance her way back into school and to complete the program. And I think that’s sort of visceral level of authentic crisis, that undergraduates can often feel like they’re in that alone or that no one else has had that experience before them, or just that they’re in it alone. And so I think her willingness to sort of frame that, she used the course and the reflection exercises to frame that out as her story. And then she actually, this spring, shared it with her students. She had, I think, 12 or 15 people show up in office hours literally crying their eyes out in gratitude that she had shared that story because the amount of stress that they were feeling and isolation they had been feeling and that no one else in the community had put themselves out in a way that resonated that deeply for them. So I thought that was a moment where, of course, we’re not advocating that everybody just stand up and start babbling. But I think in a thoughtful way, she picked the right time and the right place, and the right amount of self-disclosure, and it had a genuine, immediate impact on her students. She teaches a large lecture undergraduate section, and as we all know, that can feel pretty anonymous to begin with. So I think that was just really lovely.

Melina: So one of the questions that comes up for folks is when and how much information to share about themselves and their backgrounds and identities. So she felt like, “Oh my students aren’t going to care about this part of me.” But midway through the semester, she noticed that some students seemed to be having trouble in class. So that was when she strategically shared this personal story and then had folks coming in and just thanking her for being open about herself and sharing.

Mathew: It was really a beautiful moment. So one of the outcomes, one of the ways I think we know the course of success is when we hear these kinds of stories back… because most of our colleagues, I would say, 99.9% of our colleagues have a good heart. They want to do the right thing. They want to connect with their students, but they just don’t know how to do it in a nuanced and appropriate kind of way. So this colleague is an excellent example of someone who was willing and ready… just needed a strategy to shape it in a way that was appropriate to the academic environment and to her role as a senior faculty member. So, I think one of the things Melina and I have been surprised about is the amount of willingness coupled with the amount of trepidation. There’s just a lot of self-consciousness on people’s part about wading into these issues because as we know, faculty are deeply socialized to not get out of their realm of expertise, you know, “stay in your lane,” as they say. And so we’ve heard over and over and over again, “I’m not trained as a therapist. I’m not trained as a diversity expert.” Well, welcome to the world. Most of us are not trained therapists or trained diversity experts, and so the exercises and the content of the course is really meant to build a sense of efficacy, just a way to get started. So we’re very clear with participants that this is not meant to be an activity that’s an end in and of itself. It’s meant to be a bridge onto further deeper relationships and experiences.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some other strategies in addition to self-disclosure that are revealed in the course that might get people itching to take the course once it becomes a MOOC?

Mathew: Well, one aspect of the course that I love is we focus a lot on active learning and student centered pedagogical strategies. That’s not the same as focusing on social justice and diversity issues, but it’s a predicate for it. It’s a super helpful way to get started. So we have just loaded the course with all sorts of very practical pedagogical strategies that act to warm up the learning environment by making it more active learning and more student centered. And we’ve tried to keep these things sort of discrete enough that you could peel off one or two of them. So we’re trying to break down this idea that either you go in and you do everything and all of a sudden you’re our diversity expert, or you don’t do anything. And by trying to give people options of two, or three, or four, or five different things that they might consider doing even in just one class session, it doesn’t mean you have to reframe your entire semester long course. But what our experience has been is that the response from students is so overwhelmingly positive when you move in that direction, that there’s a lot of internal motivation to keep moving in that direction to keep layering in active learning strategies. A lot of these are pulled from the PCAST report in 2012. And for a lot of our STEM colleagues, it’s helpful or there’s utility in being able to suggest the pedagogical strategy and then link it immediately to the research that supports its efficacy. And that’s been helpful on our campus.

Melina: Another thing that’s persuasive is hearing it directly from the students. So instead of having this giant checklist of “here’s all the little pedagogical tricks, tips, and tricks,” we try to be pretty thoughtful and reflective so it doesn’t become advice giving or something like that. But in the interviews, we did ask students to answer the question, you know, “Do you have an example of a time where you really felt a sense of belonging that was created or facilitated by a faculty member in your time here at Cornell?” And so the feedback we got from faculty talking about those stories was things like, “Oh, now I really understand.” Like, for example, we had a young, gay Asian male student who took a course where a faculty member just acknowledged that don’t expect to see any references to gay relationships in this literature, because this was a time where that was just severely censured. And so he just felt so glad to have it be acknowledged that it was an absence. So that’s something you might not think of, but you hear a student talk about it, and then you start to slowly get a picture. You hear lots of little stories like this, of a black student talking about what it feels like to be at a primarily white institution, and what has made a difference to ameliorate the stress that comes with that… hearing it from students and often the strategies that go with them are incredibly practical. Like break the ice, offer a genuine opportunity for students to get to know you as a person, have office hours that are kind and open, be really clear and transparent about how you’re grading. Some of the strategies are super practical and you wouldn’t even think of them as diversity strategies necessarily, but they do reach students well.

Rebecca: We had a similar experience with a cohort of faculty that I’m working with related to accessibility. And we met with some students who take advantage of some disability resources we have available on campus. And so we met with some of those students and talked about their experiences in their classrooms and what has made them feel welcome and not. And we had some very same positive reactions like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that a discussion class could be more tricky for you if you’re taking notes and things because you might not always know what the clear takeaways are if we don’t go back and summarize what was it that we just talked about.” So sometimes it’s just really small, easy things that a faculty member could do. We just don’t necessarily think about it. So I think those student responses are just so powerful and really helpful.

Mathew: I totally agree. Another example that we’ve gotten very positive responses to is that when there’s been a national or regional or a city-wide or a campus-wide incident that’s happened that we know has resonance for our students, we have sent out some strategies for faculty to use in the classroom, beginning with just acknowledging that it was rough. This was rough to experience this, whatever that is, fill in the blank and letting students at that point know, you just acknowledge that this happened. And you don’t have to go any further than that. Just acknowledging, “Over the weekend such and such happened in downtown or it happened on campus and I want to acknowledge that and ask you to be sure to take care of yourselves… reach out to your friends… your family… reach out to services on campus, and here’s a short list of services that you might take advantage of.” But just that aspect of acknowledging it, students find profoundly helpful. So if you’re not making, as Melina’s example was so eloquent about, taking it out of invisibility, and making it real and bringing it into the classroom environment. Because one of the things that we know is that students care most about how their faculty interact with them. So in the college experience, we know there are two key predictors of undergraduate success. One is meaningful relationships with their faculty. The second is meaningful relationships with peers. And so even though the student affairs folks and the residence hall folks are wonderful people, and they do a fantastic job. If they’re not hearing acknowledgement from their faculty, if these issues aren’t coming up in class, then there’s a huge gap for that… they really feel the absence intensely. So we in the course try to give participants strategies depending upon their level of comfort. So I always say, “You don’t have to go one step further other than say, “Wow, rough weekend, be sure you take care of yourself.” And then move right into your content.” But just that moment, those two or three minutes of acknowledging the moment and acknowledging students are real people and they have significant feelings about these incidents can make a huge impact on their experience of the environment. All the way to the other end of the continuum where we have a wonderful colleague who will literally throw out the curriculum for the day, put people into individual writing exercises, and then into dyads and then into small groups and into a large group to process what the implications are for whatever happened for them individually, and for us as an academic community. It’s a continuum in what we try to reassure people… as anywhere along there is useful. Anything is better than simply ignoring it, and starting with where you feel ready.

Melina: Yeah, so one of the outcomes we’ve heard from faculty is them saying, “Well, you know, I sort of got the message from the senior administration that I should acknowledge but I wasn’t fully convinced. But once I took the course, I realized, Wow, it really does matter to them. They really do care about this, it really does make a difference. And now I have to figure out how to do it.”

John: Bringing that in through student voices, I think is a really effective way of doing that. And I was very impressed with the sample videos that you showed at that conference a few weeks ago.

Rebecca: I think the time and space that you give faculty to reflect on those moments is really important. Just in the conversation that we’re having, I was thinking back to moments as I was a student when things like that had happened. And there was one moment that sticks out in my mind that I don’t remember any other faculty handling an incident. I was a student during 9/11 and I remember one faculty member in particular did that throughout the curriculum thing. I was in a creative degree so the conversation was, “Hey, it’s really hard to make when you’re scared and things are going on, and you’re not sure what’s going on in the world. Sometimes it can be difficult to make, but sometimes it can be therapeutic to make.” But we talked through what that means is a professional when things like that happen in the world. And that stuck with me forever since then. I think it can be really powerful, whether big or small or a big amount of time or not. And I think taking the time as a faculty member to remember some of those moments that you had as a student is also really powerful.

Mathew: I love your story. And it’s one of the learning outcome goals for the course which is that you do not need to be an expert. You don’t have to have an answer. You just have to hold the conversation and facilitate a moment of reflection and connectivity. And I think in faculty lives, there’s such a drive towards being an expert and delivering an expert’s answer, or solving the problem that I think one of the big takeaways from the course is that with this sort of engagement, you really just have to be present and be authentically yourself. And that in and of itself is the work.

John: One of the issues that many underrepresented groups have to deal with is stereotype threat. Are there any particular strategies that are addressed through the course to help faculty reduce that?

Mathew: We do explicitly address both stereotype threat and also other sort of key concepts that I’ll come back to in a moment. But in particular, with stereotype threat, some of the ways that that can get triggered is unconscious and unintentional. Where you, for example, ask someone to answer on behalf of what you perceive of their community to be. And so some of the discussion guidelines that we give people and some of the resource materials that are a part of the course go explicitly in setting up environments where you can anticipate and ameliorate stereotype threat from the very beginning. And part of that is making really public your perception around mindset. And this is one of the most popular strategies, but also really effective… to make it clear that you believe that intelligence isn’t inherited, and it’s not static, that we get better at things by practice and by application. For example, we often say, “We wouldn’t have accepted you as the university if we didn’t believe you have the acumen. But having acumen is not the same as having all of the prior preparation that some of your peers might have had. And so figuring out what you need in terms of strategies and learning how to learn, those are things that you can achieve, that we would expect that you would need to work at them.” So even being at Cornell University was extremely interesting. We have a very well prepared undergraduate student body in many respects, just pretty spectacular people already. But a proportion of, a group of them, have come through high school just sailing through. They never really had to develop really coherent strategies for learning because they were just always ahead of the curve. They get here their first semester, their first prelim or mid-semester exam and it’s often quite shocking. And I think for many of them very destabilizing. For example, the first year I worked here, the daughter of a good friend of mine was a first-year undergraduate student as well. She got an 80 on her first exam and literally collapsed. I mean, she literally thought she wasn’t cut out for college. She shouldn’t be here. This was too big a reach for her. She was never going to be successful. And I was still trying to wrap my brain around, “How is an 80 failing?” But this is a kid who never in her life had ever seen the 80s. She lives in the 90s or the hundreds. She’s never seen the 80s before, but all of a sudden the level of competition across the institution is at such a level. And I think that’s true in many institutional settings from community colleges right up through university. And so helping students learn some concrete strategies for, at sort of at a meta-level, learning about themselves as learners is another way to ameliorate that. So we have a lot of strategies like that in the course too.

Melina: Yeah, and I’ll add to that even when we don’t say this is how to ameliorate stereotype threat ABCD, a lot of the strategies are doing exactly that. And we’ve just put them in the course where it makes the most sense to have them. So at the beginning of the course, we talk about things things you might consider as you’re establishing your learning community within your classroom, including how to help students get to know each other. One of my favorite all time icebreaker exercises is to invite people to tell the stories of their name… like the origin of your name story. When we think about bringing the whole person into the class… just allows people to share some cultural information because our names are encoded with all sorts of cultural information, whether you’re married or not, whether you’ve changed your name, immigration patterns, history of oppression… are also encoded in names. We also have a very high percentage of international students on campus so that enriches the name stories as well, because you get different naming traditions. Names tend to mean different things across different cultures. So over time, you also get a bigger picture of how the world works based on people’s name stories. So that’s just a little example of that. We had another faculty member who sort of shares how he uses an identity pie activity to share a little bit about his own identity. So not just a single identity axis. So that also helps to ameliorate stereotype threat because you prompt someone to anchor themselves in the complexity of their identities and then you’re not just a Latin-X student in the classroom, or a person speaking with an accent that sounds different from most, or a person with a disability. You’re just much more than that. And I think that’s probably one of the strongest features of the course. Because it’s sort of something that comes out throughout every aspect of the course… is just people are more complex. Here’s ways to welcome that in.

Mathew: Yeah, social identities pie is a great example of what we try to do in this course, both giving people an opportunity to reflect on their own growth and development, but then to have an exercise that they can peel off and use with their own undergraduates. So that we would expect that that would be useful to you personally, but also it would be a fantastic tool to carry away and use in the classroom. You know, of course, depending upon your subject and your specialization. And so through the whole course, we try to develop what I would consider sort of heuristics or models that help you individually, but also, I think could be really useful for you as a teacher and instructor in helping your students grapple with these issues as well.

John: So modeling, in the course, how courses can be delivered to address these issues effectively.

Mathew: Yeah, that’s exactly our goals

Rebecca: How incredibly meta. [LAUGHTER]

Mathew:But that’s some of the fun of it, I think. And we try to be really transparent about that in the course. So we have what I would call annotations all along in the course. “Here’s something we’re going to ask you to do that we also think would be useful to carry over into a classroom as well.” And some of the discussion questions are really about, “What was this like for you? And do you think this would work for your students as well?”

John: I’m going to throw in a reference to a past podcast we had. You mentioned how building a growth mindset can be really effective. We did an interview last year, I believe it was, with Angela Bauer at High Point University who uses growth mindset messages, weekly in classes, and it’s been found to have a significant effect on reducing performance gaps in the classes there… effectively eliminating them.

Mathew: It’s amazing what a few well chosen messages can do. And as Molina mentioned, it’s a great way to prime students, but it also makes transparent what your values are. So one of the exercises in the course that we asked our participants to do is to craft a multicultural or a diversity and inclusion statement. You can call it whatever you want. But just to put out there for students to read in the syllabus. Here’s what I think an inclusive classroom looks like. And these are the attributes of it. And these are the behaviors associated with it. And this is why I think it’s important in the context of the course but also in the context of the discipline. And it’s remarkable how effective that is. If you do nothing else, but that to strike out and make your own values transparent to your students, it can be pretty amazing.

Rebecca: So when can we start taking this class?

Mathew: Oh… the fall… we would be delighted to have you participate. And also we really hope to stay in touch with people who do take it and use it as a learning experience for a faculty learning community on their campuses. To be quite honest, that’s been one of my number one goals all along, of course, has been to serve my own institutions community here at Cornell. That’s our number one priority. But we think there’s relevancy. We think what’s going on here is pretty common. And in fact, a lot of campuses and a lot of faculty are likely starting at similar places. And so our hope is that you can take it yourself, but also grab it and bring in a bunch of colleagues at your own institution and have a shared experience, primarily because we think that you will be able to tailor this to your institutional context. I think it’s really important to make it personal and make it authentically linked to your legacy, your history, your current demographics, whatever the initiatives are on campus. We hope that this will be situated within a more robust conversation at the campus level.

John: When I was seeing the initial presentation on it, I texted Rebecca about this and said, we should run a cohort on this in the fall. We’re very excited about the possibility.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

Mathew: One thing I would just want to add is that we’re going to design the MOOC so that people can take it individually, as well as as a cohort. And I want to reassure people that we’re deeply aware of how constrained faculty are for time, it’s just really tough to carve stuff out. Even if your heart is there and your intentions are gold, it can be really challenging. So we’re really going to try to send the message that it’d be ideal if you could do this within the context of a group, but you could also just grab and go. You could jump in and hopefully it’ll be a benefit to you individually as well.

John: We’ll share links to information on that in the show notes.

Mathew: One thing I would say is that I think people have found it a lot less scary than they thought it would be. It’s very important to know that we don’t have a subtext or a secret agenda of hunting for the racist. That’s not our goal. It’s not how we facilitate the course or how we facilitate the MOOC either. And so Molina and I were laughing about the fact that a lot of people have had prior experiences with diversity related training or professional development or workshops. And we were laughing because I’ve heard this since the 90s from people saying, I took a consciousness raising workshop in the 70s. It was horrible, and I hated it and I’m never going back. Or these opportunities come to people as mandated top down HR related expectations. So you have to take this course and sign it before you can get your contract. And we’re the antithesis of that. This is strictly voluntary. It’s strictly collegial. And it’s meant to be an opportunity, as you were saying, to get meta… to just step back from the doing and have a chance to think about resources that are useful in shaping our thinking, which in turn will shape our behaviors. And for most of our colleagues in the faculty, I just want to underscore it’s not that there’s a lack of willingness. There’s just time to get the resources and have some focused time to think these things through and apply them in a tailored bespoke manner to their own context and discipline and courses. And I think that’s what the course really offers. It sort of gives you this lovely little bubble of a garden in which to sit and reflect and think in ways that you don’t typically have in the course of a day.

Melina: You know, one of the things that we’re seeing in our survey data is that people’s sense of responsibility around this issue increases… goes from “The university should do this, but I don’t have to do” this to going to “Oh, yes, this is about me and what I do.” There’s just a much higher level of awareness and excitement about being a part of it.

Rebecca: …probably speaks a lot to the idea that reflection is a very valuable teaching tool.

Mathew: Yes, and one that as instructors, we know this, we know this, but it’s easier said than done a lot of times.

Rebecca: I’m really curious about… behind you under window. There’s a tomato.

Mathew: Yeah.

Rebecca: …it looks like a tomato.

Mathew: It is a tomato. Thank you. [LAUGHTER] I’m going to tell my husband who’s an artist who doesn’t think I can draw that you recognize it as a tomato. So, thank you. It’s the pomodoro technique.

John: That’s what we were wondering, actually. I think Rebecca and I both had that thought.

Mathew: I cherish when I can get literally five minutes in a row to complete a thought. And so I’ve taken to taping over the class and my door with a tomato to signal my colleagues. I’m here. I’ll be available in a moment, but I’m just trying to get one thing done.

Rebecca: So you’re human then.

Mathew: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh my gosh, yes, yeah.

John: So since you’ve created the course, could you tell us a little bit about your background in the area and your experiences related to the course?

Mathew: One thing I love, which is completely accidental… is that Melina and I are both from New Mexico. And that has absolutely nothing to do with anything except it’s extraordinarily rare to meet another person from New Mexico. So I just love that… that’s just as sort of a weird thing we have in common. She actually grew up there. But I was born there, but didn’t really live there in my childhood, but you lived there. The other thing that we share in common is we both have traveled a lot internationally our entire lives. Melina and I have both been, what I would call third-culture kids where we’re American by citizenship, but also culturally, it’s much more complicated than that. And I’ll let Melina tell her part of that story. But I think that’s been really important in our growth and development and of our approach to these issues. So my father was a pilot in the Air Force. He was a fighter pilot in the Air Force for his career, and we moved a lot and we moved all over Western Europe and all over the eastern seaboard of the United States. So in my own lived experience, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to both be an insider and an outsider. And that has, I know, shaped my approach to this work as sort of a specialization level. I have a doctorate from University of Massachusetts Amherst, in multicultural organization development. So it’s my research area, as well as sort of my lived experience. And I’ve been out as a gay man for a really long time… since probably high school… early high school and growing up in a military community and also State Department community, my dad was a military attache, I think that really shaped me… sort of that fitting in, but not fitting in, that a lot of times it’s called code switching where you have to sort of adopt a certain set of behaviors or certain narrative form to fit in whether that’s your home base or not.

Melina: … What about being a white man… [LAUGHTER]

Mathew: Oh, yeah. Yeah… John and I have this in common… we’re both greying a little bit or at least I’m greying and so I walk into the classroom and I get an enormous amount of privilege, a benefit of the doubt. People automatically assume I belong at the front of the classroom. I’ve never been mistaken for our grad students, even as a grad student… people always thought I was faculty. But because I teach in social work, my specialization areas and my practice was in social work. And so I taught at Smith College in the School of Social Work for about 10 years. And always, whenever I do this work, I have to lead with “What’s a white guy know about diversity? And who am I to be at the front of the classroom?” And so I have, of course, as you’d imagine a pretty comprehensive response to that. But mostly, I like to lead with the idea that this is everybody’s work and that white men have a role in this as deep and as important as women of color. It’s just two ends of the continuum. But if white guys aren’t involved, and we’re not taking it seriously, particularly with a privilege that comes from being an academic, than I think we perpetuate misogyny, and patriarchy, and racism in deep ways. So I think I can see when I do that when I start right off with, “Okay, I know the first question on your mind is, ‘What’s a white guy know?’” I can see the visceral level of relief in the room because it was on everybody’s mind and until we address that I know we can’t get on to the work of the course or the session or whatever. So it’s pretty fun.

Melina: So a little bit about me. I’m an Associate Director of Inclusive Teaching here at the Center, which is a new position… a new role since last July. And before that, I was focused on supporting global and intercultural learning at Cornell. And my interest in this particular area has been sort of bubbling and growing throughout my entire life as Matt alluded to. I grew up bilingual and bicultural, Argentinian-American and spent part of my childhood living in Uruguay, where my mom and her family still live. And doing that kind of cultural code switching of realizing I was an American at I think age 10… having these moments of self awareness that sort of continue to grow. And I still continue to have the moments where I realized “Oh, I had a blind spot in relation to not really understanding this particular other way of being in the world.” So and I’m a poet by training, which I think has honed my observation skills. And I’m a former faculty member, I used to teach English at a community college in Massachusetts where I was specifically hired as a bilingual bicultural faculty member to do quite a lot of teacher training and faculty development, actually, around that particular identity category. So I also had to contend with the complexity of being a white identified Latina woman and what that means and seeing my Latin-x students eyes get really big and be like, “Wow, I didn’t even know there were white Latin-x people.” When they didn’t believe I could speak Spanish until I would speak Spanish to them. And that would sort of challenging the assumptions of who we are and I love the discomfort that comes from being in the soup that is the complexity of identity and learning from how people’s experiences of being misread or mislabeled or misunderstood inform us about how to do better in terms of building inclusive communities. So the work at Cornell… there’s a lot of work to be done… but it’s also an exciting moment because there’s a lot of people on deck thinking about this. So the response we’ve seen from the faculty and then the President… also being able to speak about this is incredibly inspiring. And then also going out to other campuses and meeting you in New Paltz and seeing other people are hungry for these conversations too, and students have a lot of place to think about their identity formation. And faculty, they’re not often necessarily asked to unless there’s suddenly an occurrence or an opportunity or an invitation. So I like being able to offer those moments of invitation to think about this together.

John: We’re glad that you do. It’s a very nice resource.

Rebecca: Yeah, we’re definitely excited to explore it with our colleagues here.

So we always wrap up by asking: what’s next? [LAUGHTER]

Mathew: Well, now that we’re concluding the second iteration of the on-campus course, the next is to actually write the MOOC. And we’re also going to write a Course Guide. So for folks like yourselves who might host or facilitate a learning group there, this is a genuine invitation to feedback. We think that we’re going to have a really fine course… it’s going to be worthwhile… but we also always know there’s room for improvement and so we’re hoping that this will be a sort of a virtuous loop of feedback from participants. And the course from the fall to the spring changed a lot… we learned a lot… and I expect that the same will be true of the MOOC as well.

John:That’s something we all should do with our courses, which is, again, a nice practice to share.

Rebecca: Oh look, reflection comes back again.

Mathew: Absolutely. [LAUGHTER] Absolutely.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us today.

Melina: Thank you

John: Thank you. We’re looking forward to continuing the conversation through the MOOC this fall.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

Mathew: Absolutely. It’d be really fun in another year, assuming that we get it written and published, and that you get a chance to convene a cohort… it’d be really fun to come back and do it again and talk about what was it like, from your perspective, your experience on the ground? That would be really, really solid.

Melina: We can interview you for your own podcast.

John: Yeah,that would be a nice twist…

Rebecca: That would be fun.

Mathew: That would be fun, yeah.

John: We did have someone do that. It caught us by surprise because we weren’t ready for that.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: But fortunately, we have the ability to edit. [LAUGHTER]

[MUSIC]

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

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

89. Teaching About Race

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

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

Cyndi: Thanks.

John: Welcome. Our teas today are:

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

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

John: That’s a new one.

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

John: And I have blueberry green tea today.

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

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

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

Cyndi: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyndi: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: or hiring…

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: um hmm.

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

Rebecca: I can’t draw.

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

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

Cyndi: Absolutely.

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

Cyndi: Creativity. Yeah.

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

Cyndi: Oh yeah.

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

Cyndi: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Cyndi: Yeah.

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

Cyndi: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: And when is your book coming out?

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

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

Cyndi: I hope so.

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

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah, Definitely.

Cyndi: Cool. Thanks.

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

Cyndi: Yeah, thanks so much for asking.

John: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

87. Social Presence in Online Courses

Interactions between students and faculty in online classes are mediated through a digital interface. Students are more successful in classes, though, when they feel connected to their instructor and classmates. In this episode, Allegra Davis Hanna and Misty Wilson-Merhtens explore a variety of methods that can increase the social presence of all participants in online courses.

Allegra is an English professor and the department chair of English and Humanities at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. Misty is a history professor and social sciences chair at Tarrant County College. Allegra and Misty have been running The Profess-Hers Podcast since October 2018.

Show Notes

John: Interactions between students and faculty in online classes are mediated through a digital interface. Students are more successful in classes, though, when they feel connected to their instructor and classmates. In this episode, we explore a variety of methods that can increase the social presence of all participants in online courses.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guests today are Allegra Davis Hanna and Misty Wilson-Merhtens. Allegra is an English professor and the department chair of English and Humanities at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. Misty is a history professor and social sciences chair at Tarrant County College. Allegra and Misty have been running The Profess-Hers Podcast since October 2018.

John: Welcome.

Allegra: Thank you.

Misty: Thanks for having us.

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

Allegra: I am drinking Earl Grey tea.

Misty: I didn’t know tea was a requirement. I have coffee. [LAUGHTER]

John: Someone hasn’t listened to our podcast. [LAUGHTER]

Misty: Sorry!

Rebecca: We have this debate all the time. Nobody’s ever drinking tea with us. [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: I am!

Rebecca: So I appreciate it, yeah. We appreciate that there’s coffee drinkers in the world too.

Allegra: Yeah.

Rebecca: I’m drinking Christmas Tea today.

John: And I have Ginger Peach Black tea.

We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about social presence in online instruction. While listening to one of your podcasts a while back, I heard you were presenting on this at a conference in Texas. Could you tell us a little bit about the importance of social presence in online instruction and what social presence is?

Allegra: Social presence is everything that’s non-instructional in an online class. And when we give this presentation, we start by saying, “I know what you’re thinking… that everything in an online class should be instructional. But everything in a face-to-face class is not instructional.” Everything that makes you seem like a real live human person with likes, dislikes, and interest is social presence. So there’s kind of two layers. One is the social presence of the faculty member, so that’s showing your students that you’re a real person, and the other is allowing students to create social presence so that your classroom becomes a community of learning and a place where students feel like they belong and can relate to each other both in the curriculum and outside of the curriculum. There are lots of strategies that faculty use to create online presence and so that’s really the focus of our presentations that we gave four or five times a semester at various conferences, some in Texas and some not in Texas. We went to Las Vegas, Colorado, and then a few places in Texas.

Rebecca: Can you give a couple of examples of social presence in an online environment, like specific ones?

Allegra: Oh, yeah, I can give you a lot. So, if you think about your in-person students, your in-person students get to see your face and facial expressions, they get to see your nonverbal cues, your body language, they get to hear your voice and your inflection, your tone of voice, and they get a sense of your personality. They know if you’re a funny or a not funny person and they know if you’re a serious or not so serious person. They see your office, they see your book bag, they see what kind of books that you have on your bookshelf, and your students get to see you make and correct mistakes when you’re speaking and when you’re writing, and so they get a sense of you as a real person. And so we try to teach our faculty to replicate the same kinds of experiences in an online class. And some specific ways of doing that, like the basic critical thing that you have to have is you have to let students know how long it will take you to respond to them and that reduces anxiety. Even if your answer is sometimes it takes me two days to respond to emails, letting students know what to expect, is absolutely critical. Obviously, I would recommend that you don’t take 48 hours to respond to student questions, but letting them know what your timeline is. And if you say, “I’m traveling this week, so I’m going to take a little bit longer to respond” … just to let them know and ease their anxiety. And it’s fine to say I’m traveling because again, you’re letting them know that you’re a real person and you have things that you do in your life. You need some kind of substitute for facial cues and personality indicators so we, on our campus, are really big advocates for bitmojis which are…

Misty: um….some people are…

Allegra: Misty doesn’t like them. [LAUGHTER] Misty is a very serious person. But some of us are really big advocates for bitmojis, which are like little avatars you can make of yourself. I use them all over my class, and a lot of people do. And if you want to make one, you just go to bitmoji.com, or you can download the app on your phone. You can download one that’s a little avatar view that says, “It’s Tuesday,” and then you can post it an announcement on Tuesday. And they have some reading books and things like that, that you can post in your class. Some people just use emojis and some people use words as substitutes for facial cues. Like they’ll just say, “JK” for “just kidding” or something like that.

Misty: And some of us use pictures. So my announcements have a lot of pictures of me at historical places… such as those me at Independence Hall.

Allegra: As Misty pointed out, we’re not all the same. And we definitely don’t advocate that all faculty take the exact same steps because the whole point is to show that you’re a real person, and so it should be authentic…

Misty: …and individual.

Allegra: In my introduction video, it’s really goofy and elaborate. And I show a picture of my child, I show them the books that I’m reading, I show them a picture of me on vacation. And some people aren’t comfortable sharing that much information with students and so it has to be authentic and it has to speak to who you are as a person. Because the point is letting your students know how approachable you are and what kind of person you are and what kind of professor you are. Whatever works for you is what will work for your students. And students are very, very savvy when it comes to being genuine and they know when a person is being inauthentic. They always can tell when a person is being fake. So it’s really what is most authentic for the instructor. And of course, beyond the basics, we have lots of things that we do training sessions on to teach faculty how to increase social presence incrementally, because we don’t say you have to completely revolutionize your class. But those are the basics.

John: You mentioned videos. I happen to have seen your intro video, and it’s really well done. And if you don’t mind, we’ll share a link to that in the show notes.

Allegra: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

John:Do you use other videos in the class to provide feedback or instruction or other aspects?

Allegra: Absolutely.

Misty: For my class I have a lot of historical videos a little more like history.com, and they are more like me narrating and I use historical pictures and backgrounds and maps. And I know Allegra’s are a little bit more personalized than mine.

Allegra: I actually don’t use video. I don’t create video for my classes. My classes use curated videos from places like Ted-Ed. I use a lot of audio. We make a podcast, and I edit the audio for the podcast. And so I do a lot of audio for my classes. So my students can download… they’re like five-minute mp3s and they’re lesson introductions. When we start a new lesson on plot or on writing a research paper, I give them a rundown of what’s important as an mp3 file. Students could, if they wanted to, download that file and listen to it on their phones. I don’t know why anyone would ever want to do that. But when they open the class up in Blackboard, there’s just a play button so they can choose to read it, they can choose to listen to it, or they could choose to do both.

John: So you meet accessibility requirements.

Allegra: Yeah, and our instructional designers tell us it’s better to have a script. So, if you make a video or an audio file, just to start with a script and then you automatically have a transcript. And of course I find myself, as I’m talking, changing a little bit of what I’m saying or adding in an example or changing the way I wrote something. And so it’s really easy to go back and make five little changes. And then I have a transcript and I don’t have to transcript it after I do it. Plus, it sounds better if it’s planned out and it’s written and it’s scripted. We have a video studio on our campus because we’re a fully online campus. So we have a video studio for faculty to come and make videos. And the one thing our instructional designers say is, “Come with a script. Even if we change it, you need a script,” It helps take out a lot of the pauses and the “ums.” If you’re really nervous it helps to have a script, it kind of eases your anxiety…

Misty: …and it helps with your pacing.

Allegra: Absolutely. You don’t know in the moment whether you’re rambling or whether you’re on point. So if you have a script and you can stick to it, it makes it a higher quality video and of course easier to transcript for accessibility.

John: Do you use some type of teleprompter or big screen behind the camera,

Allegra: They have an iPad that’s dedicated to teleprompting, and they have an app on there. So they load up the word file and it, I don’t know how exactly how it works… but yeah.

Misty: So it flips it like a mirror, and it paces with you. And I have a tendency to talk really fast. So they’ll always say, “Slow down.” If the words are going too fast, they aren’t going to understand you.

Allegra: Yeah.

John: On most of the apps, you can adjust the speed as well. I’ve used Teleprompt+3… and there’s another one I’ve just heard about, I don’t remember the name, that actually syncs to your voice so it will recognize your voice and pause when you get to a new place or will keep up with you.

Misty: That’s what we use.

Allegra: Oh, wow… that’s cool, but kind of creepy. [LAUGHTER}

Rebecca: So social presence is really important to the learning. I think sometimes faculty don’t necessarily think of all these little details that aren’t part of the curriculum as being important. So can you talk a little bit about how students knowing you as an individual, and knowing that you’re a real person, impacts how they learn or how they perceive the class as a whole?

Misty: The first is it’s a requirement that students and faculty are interactive in a course. As you had on your podcast in April or May I think, someone was talking about the federal regulations for regular and substantive interaction. And so that’s where we start with faculty. I say, “This is not me being like a touchy-feely, Kumbaya faculty member. This is me telling you, you have to be interactive with your students or we could lose federal financial aid funding, not to mention that our accrediting body would also have a problem with you running a course that isn’t interactive.” Beyond that, it is important to students that they feel like they can reach out to you. And that’s the number one thing students say back to us when they watch our introductory videos, or they listen to a few of my audio files. They say, “I feel like you’re a real person, I feel more comfortable sending you an email.” And they also say that it really matters to them because they can tell that we took a lot of time to make these things for the course. Or they can see that we’re spending a lot of time corresponding with them in the course. And it matters to them. They take note of the fact that we’re doing what they perceive as going above and beyond. They say, “I really appreciate that. Because not everybody’s doing that.”

Allegra: The thing I get in my student reviews that I really like hearing online is, “I can tell she cares about us…”

Misty: Yeah.

Allegra: “I can tell that she cares that we’re learning.” And I think when I first started teaching online, I didn’t know how to do that effectively. And I get that pretty commonly now in my student evaluations.

Rebecca: Can you elaborate on that a little bit and talk about some of the things that faculty often miss or don’t do when they first start teaching online. Or where you found that you’ve tweaked things to get a little bit better at this.

Misty: Some of them are really, really easy. So welcome announcements, having a “start here” area on your online class so that students know exactly where to go when they first open it. Remembering that everybody’s online class looks different and students who are fully online students, which is about a third of our students, they’re taking four different online classes that all look and feel differently. So helping them with navigation and making things redundant. One thing that’s really easy that makes a huge difference with very high impact is using announcements. I post at least one announcement a week. I tell my students at the beginning of the semester, “You’re probably going to get tired of the announcements but you’ll also get used to them.” And so I use announcements, to remind them, things that are coming up that are due, to congratulate them on finishing a big project. If several people are commenting on the same thing in the discussion board, I might make an announcement and say “This is a really good topic of conversation and here are some things I want to point out.” I might say, “Everybody go read so and so’s point in the discussion board because I think it’s really, really important to the discussion.” I use them for keeping everybody on track and say, “We’re moving toward this big project, here are the things you want to keep in mind.” And if students are making a common error, if they’re six or seven students are making the same mistake or have the same misunderstanding, I can post an announcement, and correct that. Because if six students have a misunderstanding that I noticed, chances are, 15 students really are having the same problem.

Allegra: So, something that I do in my class is in the introduction week, I have them fill out a Google survey, and it populates it as a spreadsheet for me, and I tell them if there’s a name you want to be called, so if it’s Tim instead of Timothy…. So it populates into a spreadsheet for me, and I keep that on the side of my computer all semester. So every time I respond to them in a discussion board, it’s Tim, not Timothy. If they go by completely different name, they really notice. And the other thing that I do is halfway through the course, I send out a personalized email to the students who are getting A’s, because everybody corresponds to those students who are C or below. But I give special attention to the ones that are getting A’s and say, “This is what you’re doing well, this is why you’re getting an A in my courses, what’s working for you, continue with these strengths.” And if they respond I’ll say, “And these are things you can work on.” But I don’t put that in the initial email.

Rebecca: I’m sure students respond really positively about that. I think that’s true in face-to-face classes too. The students that are really excelling often are the ones that kind of get overlooked at some points during the semester.

Allegra: And discussion boards are just important places for interaction to happen. And I think a lot of times, people set the discussion board up and then they let students run the discussion. And the only time faculty look at it is when they go into grade a student’s participation. And it’s very hard for me as a chair or when I’m conducting these trainings to really push people and say, “You should engage in the discussion, you should respond. Now, can you respond to every student and every discussion board every single week? Probably not. But you should be responding to about five students per class per day.” And that doesn’t take very much time. Students know that if you’re constantly in the discussion board, that if something is a muddy point or two people are unclear about something that there’s a strong chance that you will be in the discussion within that week, and that you’ll see that and that you can help correct or clarify the point for them. Faculty really don’t want to have to do that because they say, “I read the discussion board posts when I grade them. And so I don’t want to have to read them twice.” But I think it makes a really big difference.

Allegra: Well, if two students in your in person class were debating, you wouldn’t just let them fight it out. You would step in…

Misty: We would hope. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, we would hope that you wouldn’t just let them argue and just watch. Yeah, that’s the equivalent. And, you know, everything that’s in your class is kind of your responsibility. So you should know what the ongoing conversations are. And I’ll say, when I started jumping into discussions I noticed that the discussion posts tended to be longer and more substantive. Because first of all, you’re setting a model for them, right? They see you talking and they see what kinds of things you’re saying and what kind of detail you’re going into. So you’re posting a kind of model of posts, but also, if they know you’re going to read them, they put them at a higher standard, at least in my experience.

Allegra: I do think early on, though, when they see you in there, it freaks the students out a little bit, because maybe they’re not used to professors doing that. And so it takes a minute for them to like, adjust.

Misty: Yeah, absolutely.

John: I know some faculty are reluctant to do that. Because sometimes when they’ve tried they said it tends to shut down the discussion when they come in, and maybe they’re coming in with perhaps too heavy of a hand in the discussion.

Misty: One thing I do is that I ask questions. I never just get in there… And this is what I think. And that’s it. I’m the professor, we’re done. It’s “Have you considered this?” Or “Have you thought about this?” Or “What about this point?” And it’s up to the students to lead themselves there. I’m just kind of putting the guide post up.

Allegra: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. The other thing you can do is you can read the discussions. And then you can do like a whole class response in an announcement so that students don’t feel like you’re directly responding to them. But you can just say, here’s some great things I read on the discussion board this week, and kind of highlight some comments in an announcement. And that way you’re not in the discussion, but students still know that you’re there responding to and interacting with them, and that might be a happy medium for people who don’t want to full fledge go into the discussion themselves. But, as Misty said, if we were doing an in-person class, and we had an in-class discussion, surely you would be facilitating in some way.

Misty: You hope.

Allegra: Yeah, we would hope.

John: …and nudging people sooner might be more productive than after the discussion has wandered far afield.

Allegra: Absolutely, yeah. And if you’re grading it, it’s after it’s over. So you have no chance to redirect the conversation at all.

Rebecca: For faculty who maybe are hesitant to do other things… we’ve talked a little bit about hesitation of being in discussion forums. Sometimes faculty are hesitant about having their face on screen and don’t want to do intro videos and things like that. Have you found other areas that faculty might be hesitant, but once they try something, they’ve been pleasantly surprised?

Allegra: If you watch my introduction video, you notice it’s not me talking, because I’m very aware of my facial expressions.

Misty: It is your voice.

Allegra: Yeah, it’s me talking.

Misty: Mine is not my voice.

Allegra: No, it’s my voice. But it’s not a video of me talking because I’m very aware of my facial expressions. So it’s a slideshow of pictures, and me narrating over it. So I was reluctant to speak on camera. And so we found a creative way for me to have an instructor video. And that’s the other reason I have a lot of audio files is because I don’t want to speak on camera. We have faculty who say, “I don’t want to put a picture of myself in my class.” And so then I just google them. And I say, I’ve just found 20 pictures of you by googling your name. So, your students can find out what you look like. We have professional headshots. So why don’t you just put a picture in the class? You’re not giving them top-secret information about yourself. But, absolutely, if you force faculty to do something, if we were to say you must create five videos for your class, some of them would be the most boring videos of all time because they would be forced. So what we would say is find what works and run with it. And so Missy has videos. I have audio. Other people have a combination of them. Some people make their own videos on their back porch using their iPhone. Some people do lecture capture. Absolutely, if we try to force one specific thing, then our faculty will comply, but it will be not as high quality, and so it won’t be the impact that we’re looking for.

Misty: So in my introduction video, I am aware that I’m very awkward on film. Like it’s awkward for me, it’s awkward for the students… everybody doesn’t want to see that. So mine is pictures of me, but other people are narrating it. And actually, Allegro is heckling.

Allegra: Yes.

Misty: And making funny comments during mine. But then when I’m speaking on historical topics, I can do that all day long. I just can’t talk about myself. So people will find what works for them if they’re given the ability to do so. One of our instructional designers who’s very good at working with reluctant faculty says everybody’s favorite subject is themselves in some capacity. So if you don’t want to share pictures of your family, which I understand… if you don’t want to talk about your vacations, that’s fine. Talk about your research, talk about what you’re reading. And if you don’t want to make a video, make an audio file. The software that we use to edit our podcast, which is what I use to edit the audio in my courses is free. It’s freeware… and so our school did buy us nice microphones. So that is an investment. But, for a long time, I was using a Logitech headset with a microphone. It’s not a huge monetary investment to make audio files, and students respond to it. So it’s whatever really works. And sometimes you need a little coaching to know: “What do faculty need? How can we kind of get them comfortable with the medium?” But we have people who said: “No way. Never. There’s not a chance…” and they watched a few videos, and they got to know the instructional designers who helped make the videos. And so they’re coming around and they’re like, “Okay, maybe I’ll make one for the fall.”

John: Do you have students do something similar? Do you have them share bitmojis or audio or video files?

Allegra: So we do have some faculty who use Flipgrid. The instructor will make a video on Flipgrid. And it’s basically a discussion board of little videos. Our speech faculty requires students make videos of them making speeches and presentations. And I asked students to post pictures in their introduction. And I say, if you don’t want to post a picture of yourself, post a picture of your dog or your favorite sports team, or a screenshot from your favorite TV show… just a visual that helps us get to know you. Sometimes I asked students in discussion boards to respond to things with names. So to add a little personality and you can just think about ways to make your discussion board a little bit more open. So, in my lesson about setting, I have a formal writing assignment where they analyze the setting of a short story. But then I have a discussion board where they just write about the setting in their favorite movie, and how the setting helps augment the theme or illustrate something important or relate to one of the main characters. And so I say tell us about the setting in your favorite movie, and then put a screenshot of the Hogwarts castle, or the stuff in Hunger Games. So then they’re like, “Oh, my God, I love that movie, too.” And so they’re talking about the subject matter. They’re relating to each other more personally. And so I don’t know that there are ways easily to do that in every subject matter. But I know that there are ways that you can give students less formal assignments sometimes that allows them to interact in that way.

Misty: So I do hidden bonus discussion boards. If you get all the way through my notes, there’’ll be a link, “click this,” and it’ll take you to a hidden discussion board and I do “favorite things” as one of them. So they go on and they get to post a picture of their favorite things. So I get a lot of like Dunder Mifflin logos. [LAUGHTER] I get a lot of memes, and it’s a reward for them for actually reading the work. And then they get to do something fun at the end, and they get bonus points.

John: It’s an interesting idea.

Misty: Yeah, we have a lot of Easter eggs in our online classes; a lot of faculty make use of that. And so at the very end of my syllabus… this is a very basic one… it just says, send me an email with this subject line and ask me a question… anything you want to know… and I’ll answer it and give you bonus points on your introduction. So, if they read the whole syllabus the first week of class, not only do they get this chance to get bonus points for reading the syllabus, but they’ve already sent me an email and once you’ve sent your instructor one email, it’s much easier then when you have a question to send them an email, because that line of communication is already established. And they ask me the goofiest questions. You know, they asked me like “What’s my favorite TV show?” Or do I think dragons are real? [LAUGHTER]. They they have fun with it.

Misty: Do you have tattoos?”

Allegra: Yeah, I mean, that’s in my intro introduction video because I got that question so many times. I’m like, “Yes, I’ll just tell you, I have tattoos. They’re obsessed with tattooed professors. So I just went ahead and let them know Yes, I have tattoos and they’re all related to books in fact. So it’s sort of related to the course.

John: Have you done the AMAsa on Reddit yet? [LAUGHTER]

Misty: We should do that. We should try it.

John: That could be a podcast episode with your students.

ALEGRA: Yeah. Oh God… [LAUGHTER]

Misty: I’m scared.

John: It could be dangerous. But, you can edit it.

Allegra: Yeah, that’s true. We do tell faculty to use humor if they’re actually funny. And what I say in presentations is if people don’t laugh at you in real life, they’re not gonna laugh at you online. So….

John: …or at least not for the reasons you want them to….

Allegra: Yeah, laughing at you. So I say if you’re funny, and you can do it well, absolutely use humor. You have to be careful that you’re not making fun of people, obviously. But self-deprecating humor is always a winner. So, I tell people that. I do advise them like “Don’t try if your jokes don’t land, they’re definitely not going to work online.”

John: Do you include any social media in your classes outside of the LMS?

MISSY: I have tried. It has been an abject falure.

Allegra: Missy is remedial at social media. But, I tell my students that they could find me on Twitter. The Twitter page that I have is a professional Twitter. So I post things about online teaching, or about our podcasts or articles about education, or about cool books or things just having to do with authors, so it’s professional related. It’s not like me posting about my favorite TV show. But I don’t use it for the class. So, students sometimes will follow me on Twitter, which I tell them, you’re going to be really bored, but that’s fine. But I don’t use it for the class. We do have instructors in the English department who use Twitter for their classes as a way to ask me a question or to get more information as just an additional contact method. We’ve had some teachers try to use it as a discussion forum. And they said that they just would rather use the discussion forum in the LMS.

Misty: Some of our government instructors have been able to do it pretty well, because it’s easier to share news articles on Facebook… and they put them in a closed group, then they kick everyone out of the closed group at the end of the semester and start a new closed group for the next semester. But government’s kind of unique in that way. I don’t know if it would work for other disciplines.

John: You’ve mentioned bitmoji. Are there any other tools you use to create content in your classes that perhaps faculty should explore?

Allegra: So audacity is the software that we use for editing audio files, and our instructional designers showed me how to use it in about 10 minutes. And so then I’ve gotten used to the tools and the buttons and how they work. He says it’s like a Fisher Price audio editing…. So he thinks it’s pretty straightforward and simple in terms of how to use it. I create a lot of graphics for my course. So I create banners. I create getting to know me things. I create things related to the subject matter and I use Canva that’s like Canvas without the S. It’s a free service. It’s a graphic design online tool. So if you wanted premium content, or better looking designs, then you could pay for those things, but it is free to use Canva as well.

Misty: Screencast-o-matic… I use that a lot to create where you’re talking over a PowerPoint video, or even pictures.

Allegra: Oh yeah, talking over a slideshow? Absolutely. Right now we’re using YouTube for videos. I don’t know what they’re using for video editing. I was trying to look and see if it was in my notes.

Misty: Camtasia

Allegra: Camtasia is what they’re using, but it’s not free, so I don’t recommend it to everyone.

Misty: Yeah.

John: For people who are on Macs or iPhones, there is iMovie. And there’s lots of Android editing tools that are free and there’s a few Windows ones as well.

Allegra: I would say the newest coolest thing to make videos is Apple Clips, which you can get on an iPhone or an iPad. And I don’t know if you’ve played around with it, but especially if you’re going to do like a talking-head video. You can change the background or you can make yourself look like you’re a comic-book character. And it’s auto captioning the same way that YouTube does. So it might be like 85% accurate and it’s very easy to go in and edit the caption file to make it 100% accurate. You can make a very cool looking, engaging, and dynamic video using Apple Clips and upload it to Twitter or to your LMS very, very quickly… very, very easily. And of course, the sound quality on just an iPhone itself with no microphone is pretty good. So if you’re in a quiet room, it’s going to sound really good and look really cool. Unfortunately, I don’t have an iPhone. So I’ve only played with it a little bit on the iPads at work, but I think Apple Clips is free, 100% free. And it’s a very cool tool, If you are an Apple person… and QuickTime you can also use on Macs to do screencast videos. I think that’s all my tools.

John: The nice thing about uploading things to YouTube is the captioning in YouTube has gotten very, very good. Is probably 97…98% accurate.

Allegra: Absolutely.

Misty: Unless you have an accent.

John: Yes, unless you have an accent or there’s a lot of background noise…

Allegra: …or you talk really fast. Yeah.

And something that is probably more for English faculty or people who have a lot of essays to grade, is you can do audio grading, which is you can record like a two minute you explaining to your student where they did well and what they could improve on. And I found that it helps me deliver information in a more softer personal way, the same way I would be able to do an in-person writing conference. In TurnItIn.com, which we use through our LMS, there’s just a button on the side of the paper that says record audio and I think can you can record up to three minutes. You have to ask students if they want to opt in or opt out of that because not all students respond really well to audio comments and some students need it to be written down. But it’s it’s a good way to be engaging and students hear from your voice and you can kind of use your tone and soften things and emphasize things, so audio grading is something we’re trying to get into more. Of course, you can do it in the LMS. You just have to record an mp3 and then attach it. So it’s a little bit more cumbersome.

John: And there’s a number of apps that you can use on iPads and other devices to do that on PDFs as well. And then just email them back or share them back.

Allegra: Absolutely, yes.

So we use a lot of Spotify playlists, and so Spotify is free, and students don’t need a Spotify account in order to listen to a Spotify playlist. They can just hit play in the LMS. So, I use them in three different ways. One, in my introduction, I just have a playlist of music that I like, and some students can really relate to you in that way. So I just like 15 of my favorite songs, and I might change it every now and again. And so I just there’s a way to embed Spotify playlists, you just get an embed code, and then you can embed it in an announcement or an item on your LMS. And so students can get to know you that way. When I teach metaphors and poetic devices, I have a playlist of songs that are like riddled with metaphors and poetic devices, imagery, symbolism… metaphors, of course, very prevalent in music. So I have a playlist of songs, and I link it into my lesson on poetic devices. And so then students can listen to songs. And hear examples, like, Collecting my Jar of Hearts, right? Like that’s a metaphor and a song that they all know. And so it helps them understand that concept in a little bit more of an accessible way than the Shakespeare sonnet that they’re going to read for that lesson. And then Misty uses them…

Misty: …for every historical era. So it helps them connect with the pop culture of the time.

Allegra: So, she’s a 40 playlist and a 50s playlists and a 60s playlist in her history class.

Rebecca: That sounds like a lot of fun.

Misty: I actually have a Civil War playlist.

Allegra: A Civil War play…. I don’t…

Misty: Yeah, marching songs.

Allegra: They’re free accounts of students want you they can connect to your playlist but they can just play them right through the LMS.

Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting option that maybe a lot of faculty haven’t considered.

It’s very easy. And Missy was the first person on our campus, I think, to think of using Spotify for teaching. So it’s really simple and straightforward. And students really, really…

Misty: Are you saying that if I can do it, anybody can do it? Because that’s kind of what it sounds like. [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. [LAUGHTER]

And there are opportunities maybe to have students create Spotify playlists in certain classes. So, that’s an option as well.

Misty: I want to say one more thing. Make sure that your social presence doesn’t overwhelm the actual instruction in your course. Because we have seen that mistake a couple of times, where it’s so heavy on the means or it’s so heavy on the bells and whistles that they forgot to actually teach the material. [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yeah, I think that was really kind of an error. You know, we had a whole conference that was really about like increasing engagement and presence. And so I think a lot of people took away the message that that was really, really important, which it is. But, obviously, the subject matter instruction is what’s most important. And students can get lost in a sea of images. If you have a lot of stuff in there that’s not directly related to the content. So honestly, the best thing to do is to look at the way different people use different things and to find a good balance of what works for you, and really go with what students are telling you. So if students are getting lost in your class, if students are getting confused in your class, then you have to go back and make it a little bit more simple and easy to navigate.

Rebecca: Details, details.

Allegra: Yes.

John: But tying the social presence and the images and the playlist and so forth to the content reinforces the learning without distracting from the learning.

Allegra: Yeah, exactly.

John: How have students responded to your increase in social presence in classes. I’ll say about 50% of them have not mentioned it at all. So, we get feedback from students on student evaluations. So that’s like solicited feedback. And I have only ever taught online this way. So I don’t have anything to compare it to necessarily, but I get a lot of unsolicited feedback from students in the form of emails. A lot of them say I really don’t like English class. I was really anxious about English class. And watching your video or listening to the first lesson really helped me feel more comfortable. A lot of them say you seemed more approachable. I really feel like I can ask you questions. And it shows because students will send me emails halfway through the semester and they’ll just say, I don’t really even know what question I have. I just feel like I’m getting lost and I’m not doing very well. And I guess, can you just help me? And so a student will only send you that kind of email, if they’re really comfortable sending you that kind of like, “Just help me. I don’t know, am I doing okay?” if you’re an unapproachable instructor, if you are somebody who doesn’t consistently respond to emails, if you are somebody who seems like a robotic behind the computer grader, students don’t reach out to you with that kind of question. So, that tells me it’s important to cultivate this kind of sense of community in a class so that students feel comfortable when they are lost at sea. And they’re sitting at home all by themselves, they don’t have classmates they can turn to you and say, “Do you know what’s going on?” You have to really create that sense of community very intentionally. And it shows. I get about 15 to 20 unsolicited emails a week in the first six weeks of class when students are orienting themselves to where things are, and they all say the same thing: “I feel comfortable. I feel less anxious. I appreciate this.” And then on the evaluations, they say I can tell that she did extra work. She always responded to my messages, which it’s heartbreaking to me when students thank me for replying…

Misty: Yes….

Allegra: …to them.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Yeah, I know.

Allegra: Because I’m like, “Does that mean you have faculty who don’t reply to you?”

Misty: Yes, it does.

Allegra: But it does show… and I don’t mean this like in a bragging, like, “look at me, I get all this great feedback” way… But I do get a lot of great feedback. And it’s because of all of these things. It’s not because they all love reading poetry.

Misty: So, all the research shows that if you create community, students will stay in your course and will stay in college, and all of the research for years and years and years focused on in-person classes. So, we’re trying to take that research and adapt it to our online classes. And as chairs, you and I both get success rates every semester. And I can tell you, immediately when I look at the success rate I know who’s creating a social presence in their class and who isn’t because if a student feels connected to you, they don’t want to drop your course. And they want to try to do well for you. And the high success rates generally usually typically correspond to courses where the instructor’s engaged, involved, and has an actual dialogue with the students.

Allegra: Absolutely. Everybody has good semesters and bad semesters, including me. But if somebody consistently has a low success rate in an online class, then that is a person that we start to intervene. And we say, like, “Let me help you. Let me give you some strategies. Let’s talk about ways that you think you could do better, because my job is not to change the way you teach. But my job is definitely to make sure students are as successful as possible.”

Misty: And that doesn’t mean 100% success rate’s a good thing either.

Allegra: No, no. Just definitely not. [LAUGHTER] But we’re kind of sorting this out in terms of making our online classes as good as they possibly can be while at the same time evaluating our faculty’s online classes in a formal way, and also mentoring online faculty to improve their classes in a less formal way. And a lot of times they ask us, like, “How can my students just feel like disconnected for me? How can I fix that?” And I’ll say, “Why don’t you try… just post an announcement every week. Just start there. It’s very easy, doesn’t take very much time. And you’re reaching out to every single student and then we can talk about individualized emails, reminding students who haven’t submitted something, all those kinds of things. The other thing is, in an online class at a community college policies like I will never take late work under any circumstances, no matter what, I don’t care who died, it’s not going to work. And students perceive that from you. And to be that rigid and inflexible in these circumstances is a breakdown and that is what I number one thing I get student complaints about is: “I submitted it five minutes late,” or “I was in a car accident and my teacher didn’t care.” And those kinds of things we can’t accept anymore. That’s just not the nature of online teaching. And that’s not the nature of community colleges.

Rebecca: These are really good points. We want to make sure that our students succeed, and putting artificial barriers in their way is certainly not going to help that.

John: It’s a serious issue. As we’re getting a broader spectrum of society entering college, many of the students are ones who are on the threshold of deciding whether to go or not. And when they’re turned away with because of major life issues and they get discouraged, they often just disappear… and being welcoming and dealing with real-life situations in a realistic way (in the same way that they’d be dealt with in a workplace) isn’t really unreasonable.

Misty: Yeah, absolutely.

Allegra: That’s what I say to faculty. I’ve had a circumstance where a student forgot to attach the document and the faculty wouldn’t accept it. Even though the student submitted it, it was just blank… I attached the wrong document, and I can pull back an email from that same faculty member and say, “Here are three different times you sent me an email, and you forgot the attachment.” Be realistic, we don’t have to cut everybody a break. But like you said, people make the same kinds of mistakes in the workplace. And we don’t have this artificial rigid system where there are no exceptions, and zero tolerance for anything. And when there are students who are on the border of whether or not they want to continue in college, or whether they have enough support, or whether they feel confident enough to become successful, your attitude can make or break that student’s experience.

Rebecca: That really does tie back to this whole idea of social presence in a lot of ways because these are the things that aren’t really about the content of the course, but really about how it’s delivered. And that’s really what social presence is about.

Allegra: Absolutely and if you have a student who says “I felt anxious, and you’re silly video and your bitmojis helped me feel more comfortable,” that is a student who maybe would have dropped when they had the first difficulty with an assignment. But instead, they felt comfortable enough to reach out and say, I’m really struggling, I don’t have any idea what’s going on. And I can just explain it in a different way. Or say, actually, it seems like you really do know what’s going on. And you just needed me to kind of build you up a little bit. And that’s what my job is supposed to be. My job is not supposed to be to enforce a bunch of rules, and to be the arbiter of what’s on time and not on time. And to just sit in a room and grade your paper, like my job is to build you up and help you learn.

John: It’s nice to see two people who are department chairs using these techniques in their classes. [LAUGHTER] Because that sets a nice role model which we don’t always see in all departments at all institutions.

Allegra: It does help to be a fully online campus, so we have a whole campus culture. Our administrators support this, our instructional designers help us with all of this. There’s no way I could have made that video without them. And they really emphasize it and reward it.

Misty: Well, and to some extent, we’re still the Wild West, right? So we’re still getting to determine the culture, whereas brick and mortar campuses, maybe that culture has already been set. Maybe it was set in the 1970s. And that’s kind of hard to change.

Allegra: Yeah.

John: Or the 1870s, as the case may be, [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yeah.

Misty: Yeah.

John: Your podcast…. Tell us a little bit about how that got started.

Allegra: Our campus administration said, “We have all this equipment, and we want to make sure that it’s getting used.” Our campus President, I think, is the person who said somebody around here should make a podcast.

Misty: Well, no, what he said was, “You guys need to make radio shows.”

Allegra: Yeah.

Misty: …and I didn’t understand.

Allegra: So it was Misty’s idea, because she teaches history and I teach English and you can tell we don’t agree on anything or everything. But we do have shared passions for feminism and for social justice, and we’re both very passionate about the things we like. We don’t like the same things. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s a great blend, though.

Allegra: So, I will talk about Grey’s Anatomy, and she will talk about the War of 1812. No… but it’s a great integrative learning model. So we, in almost every episode, are able to integrate history and literature, or history and information literacy. And we can also talk about how the same ideas of textual analysis apply to Grey’s Anatomy and Game of Thrones, or how there are historical figures who are similar to the figures that you see in Game of Thrones. That’s actually episode we’re going to record later today is about history and Game of Thrones connections…

Misty: We also want our students to see the connections between their subjects.

Allegra: Yeah.

Misty: Because we think that they leave a history class, they don’t see how it touches literature, or they leave a literature class or they don’t see out to just psychology and so having the podcast can help bridge that gap. And it can kind of wrap them in this world of the humanities.

Allegra: Absolutely.

Misty: I mean, we try math and science, too. But it’s not our strong…

Allegra: It’s not. So yeah, in our math episode we have historical women in mathematics. And then I’m like, “Here are some great books about women in mathematics.” But we the two of us are certainly not experts in math. And because we’re a community college, we don’t have like a gender studies program. So it’s a great way for students to get exposed to some of those ideas that if they’re transfer students to universities, that will be more prevalent on the university campus. So more cultural studies, more applications of history, English, sociology, and all those kinds of things together. And we sometimes have our Dean as a guest star on our podcast, because she was a speech professor and now she’s an administrator, and she has new perspectives to add as well.

ALLEGRA And the other thing… it lets our students see that were people, that we’re actual real people and they can hear us joke with each other and they can see the difference in personalities. So, I’ve started including these in my course, especially the ones that relate directly to a historical era.

Misty: Interestingly, our most popular episode is called “The Trouble with Tropes,“ which is about tropes of female characters in TV, movies, literature. And so obviously, that directly relates to literary analysis, and I teach tropes in literary analysis. And I think it’s hilarious that it’s one of the most academic episodes of our podcast, and it’s the most popular. But I definitely, when I talk about stereotypes and archetypes and tropes, direct students to that, and beyond that there’s a link to the podcast in my “About Me” section in my course. So students want to listen to it, they can have some students say, “You know, I listened to your podcast.” I’m not going to give them extra credit for listening to me talk for an extra hour because that seems a little self serving, but I do tell them about it and like Missy said, if it directly relate to the content, I will add it as an additional resource in that lesson. Absolutely.

John: I know we mentioned this at the beginning of the episode, but could you remind our listeners of the name of your podcast?

Allegra: It’s the Profess-Hers Podcast, and its history, literature, pop culture, sports, through a woman’s perspective and a feminist perspective.

Rebecca: And we can download it where?

Allegra: Everywhere you get podcasts: Apple, Stitcher, Google, all those places that you get podcasts. They’re in all of them. Yeah, it’s in a lot of places. I didn’t know how it got there.The same places you can get the Tea for Teaching podcast.

John: Are you on Spotify?

Allegra: Yes.

Rebecca: Well, they have to be, right, they’re promoting Spotify. [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yeah, I should be getting a check from Spotify any day now. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. We all wish, right? [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yeah.

John: Our Spotify take up just doesn’t seem quite as high as the others. But we do get a few every month.

Allegra: Yeah, I think it’s 50% from iTunes and Apple.

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

Allegra: Well, next we are recording two episodes of our podcast because our semester is coming to a close. So we will have a few weeks where we’re not on campus. So we’re also trying to record ahead a little bit so that we have the consistent podcast releases even while we’re not at work. I took Misty’s answer because as soon as we’re done with this we’re going to eat some nachos, and then record some Profess-hers podcasts…

Misty: …and beg our teachers to get their grades and on time. Please submit if you’re listening. Always submit grades on time. Thank you.

Rebecca: Public Service Announcement. Yes. From every department chair ever.

Allegra: …of all time. Yes, indeed.

Rebecca: It’s been really fun. Thanks so much for joining us.

Misty: Thank you.

Allegra: Thank you.

John: And I’ll keep enjoying your show. And Rebecca will be listening to your show.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

John: It’s been a lot of fun.

Allegra: It has and I’ll get Misty to listen to yours. I’ve been listening to it.

Misty: New subscriber.

Allegra: Yeah, you’ve got one here.

[MUSIC]

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

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

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

64. How Humans Learn

Small children are innately curious about the world around them. This curiosity, though, is often stifled in traditional educational pathways. Dr. Josh Eyler joins us in this episode to discuss how research on how humans learn can help us build a more productive learning environment for all our students. Josh is the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Rice University.

Show Notes

  • Eyler, J. R. (2018). How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. West Virginia University Press.
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Peters, R. A. (1978). Effects of anxiety, curiosity, and perceived instructor threat on student verbal behavior in the college classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 70(3), 388.
  • Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of personality and social psychology, 1(6), 589.
  • Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(3), 575.
  • Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(6), 601.
  • Bandura, A. (1969). Social-learning theory of identificatory processes. Handbook of socialization theory and research, 213, 262.
  • Vygotsky, L. (1987). Zone of proximal development. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, 5291, 157.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Reacting to the Past – This site describes the Reacting to the Past methodology.
  • Yue, C. L., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Reducing verbal redundancy in multimedia learning: An undesired desirable difficulty?. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 266.
  • Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). The scientist in the crib: Minds, brains, and how children learn. William Morrow & Co.
  • Eagleman, D., & Brandt, A. (2017). The Runaway Species: How human creativity remakes the world. Catapult.

Transcript

John: Small children are innately curious about the world around them. This curiosity, though, is often stifled in traditional educational pathways. In this episode, we examine how research on how humans learn can help us build a more productive learning environment for all our students.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Today our guest is Josh Eyler, the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Rice University. Welcome, Josh.

Josh: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: We’re really glad to have you. Today’s teas are:

Josh: [LAUGHTER] I’m not drinking tea. I’m afraid I’m more of a coffee person. But I have water today.

Rebecca: We still have to stay hydrated. So waters good.

John: I’m drinking bing cherry tea.

Rebecca: I’m drinking Christmas tea mixed with Prince of Wales tea because I just kind of re-upped with a different tea bag.

Rebecca: On campus, we have a reading group that we have in the fall. So a lot of our faculty have read Minds Online, Make it Stick and Small Teaching. And I was hoping you could address how your book is a bit different in approach to those. I know that you know those authors and have worked with some of them. So can you talk a little bit about how How Humans Learn, which is your new book that just came out is a bit different?

Josh: Sure. Well, I think I’ll start with a similarity. And I think that the one similarity that connects all of them is that we all try to weave in practical suggestions for the classroom as well, taking the research and heading in that direction with it. I do think the one of the things that separates my book from the others is that I look at science very broadly. So the great thing about Make it Stick is that it engages cognitive psychology, the testing effect, desirable difficulties, ways to remember and to encode things in memory more deeply. And I think that’s very important and fascinating. But my book goes in a different direction to look at the evolutionary history of learning, developmental psychology, other biological views on learning. So it takes a different track on science and I think with Small Teaching and Minds Online, they also touch on cognitive science as well, which I do too. But I’m very interested in placing our students into a much larger conversation about the development of learning over time.

John: And you mentioned that your daughter played a role in influencing your decision to write this and investigate this. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Josh: I did. Sure. So right around the time that I began moving into the world of teaching and learning centers, and was doing a lot of research and wondering about why certain teaching practices work, and others don’t. I also became a dad and got to experience the wonder of seeing my daughter explore the world for the first time, a baby trying to figure out and explore. …this curiosity in the flesh… and everything is driven by curiosity. And it just really started to make me wonder about these fundamental ways of experiencing the world and learning about the world. And really, two big questions emerged. Number one, it was pretty clear that some of these were consistent over time, this natural curiosity about the world… we continue to have that and continue to learn from it. The other thing was this what happens to some of these learning strategies that are so prominent when we’re at our youngest ages and It’s clear are so important for learning about the world. How do those shift? Where do they go? How can we utilize them and tap back into them as college instructors. So she was a really important part of this book.

Rebecca: It’s funny that the first thing that I commented to John, after having read some of your book was “Man, this is so fascinating,” because I also have a small child. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and I had two. It was a few decades ago, but I remember seeing the things that you talk about there.

Josh: Right.

John: You mentioned though, this evolutionary perspective, and you use the term Evo Devo to capture that which I think you made a reference to a bad alt-rock band. Can you tell us a little bit about what Evo Devo represents?

Josh: Sure. Evo Devo isn’t my term; it’s one that I, to my great delight, discovered as I was looking at the research on this. And so as a preface to this, in the humanities and exploring fields that I never engaged in before. And so it took me five years to write this book, because I was teaching myself how to read these papers, the methods, etc. It was really important to me that what I said would be credible with scientists. They didn’t have to believe me or agree with me, but they had to find it credible. And so part of the research then led me into this, I don’t want to say is brand new, because it’s been around for a few decades, but in terms of scientific sub disciplines, is pretty new, evolutionary developmental biology. And the practitioners of this call it Evo Devo, for short. And it just struck me as the name of a bad band that you might have heard of in the 90s. But at the core of that research is the study of how developmental processes evolved over time. And so if we think about young children again, why do they do what they do? What evolutionary advantage did it have? What kind of adaptation? Which parts of the brain develop first? And why is that important for understanding cognition? …things like that. So they tackle big questions both in humans and in other animal species. But yeah, it was the name that really kind of jumped out at me.

Rebecca: One of the things I really love about your book is the interdisciplinary nature of it. And that you are tackling all these scientific principles, but really putting it into plain language that faculty from any discipline (and other people who are not faculty) can easily understand. So I immediately got sucked into the language that you were using, because I understand it, I could put it into practice. And so I think other faculty will really enjoy that as well.

Josh: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that. I really was trying hard to take what I saw as really important concepts and make them accessible to all.

John: So you take a number of broad themes and you investigate that and talk about ways in which faculty can use these principles to help improve learning, and the first one you start with is curiosity, which is certainly apparent in small children. Could you talk a little bit about the role of curiosity in learning?

Josh: Definitely, I start with this one for two reasons. The first is that as individual learners, it becomes clear that curiosity is a prime driver for the way we learn new things the way we experience the world. The other reason, though, is that when you begin to look in these various corners of scientific research, it’s also clear that curiosity has been explored in great detail in many different disciplines. And so it’s one of those that I think is a great example of why I wanted to write the book in the first place. Lots of fields are talking about it. And if we just kind of brought those conversations together, we might be able to utilize that information. So curiosity was a fundamental element in the evolution of some of our cognitive processes. It defines us as a species, that we are a curious species, if nothing else; that the way we approach the world and try to figure out the world is driven by needing to know something and seeking out the answer. And then as we see that play out in our own lives, we’ve already talked about children but some of the most famous developmental psychologists (Piaget and others, actually), began a long time ago, studying curiosity by looking at children’s questions like the kinds of questions that they asked. And early on, they were particularly interested in how many questions they asked. So you can see large catalogues of quantitative data on the number of questions kids ask. But more recently, people have really been looking at the kinds of questions and what that might say about different developmental stages. And so what I took from all this, I took several things, but I think the most important thing for college teachers is that the question itself is the unit of curiosity. To what degree can we utilize questions and inquiry to tap back into this natural curiosity that has faded over time as students have learned what they needed to do in educational systems in order to succeed. …and sad to say that curiosity is in some ways a prime casualty of those educational systems… and so, how can we tap back into questions become a really important way for us to do that.

John: In terms of questions, you suggest that when we give students questions to address, that we try to use open-ended questions to allow students perhaps more direction in that. Could you talk about that just a little bit?

Josh: Sure. And open ended questions that can really fascinate them and engage them as well… some of which might come from them. But the distinction I made primarily is between open-ended versus closed-ended questions in designing discussions and closed-ended questions… questions to which there is one distinct answer can shut down discussions pretty quickly. They’re okay for warming up discussions. I think they do have some value. If we really want to get to a place where we’re using questions and discussion to help students collectively generate knowledge, they have to be questions that are open enough to prioritize multiple interpretations or multiple approaches, and in some cases, they can be questions to which we don’t know the answer… that we’re all just sort of exploring possibilities together. And so one of the things I recommend both in the book and in my work with faculty here at Rice, look into questions that you generally ask or have designed for a discussion and see if there are ways to take some of those close-ended questions and push them into more open-ended questions. Not “What is the name of this thing?” but “Why is this thing so important for our understanding?” …approaches like that.

John: You also discussed in this chapter, the trade off between novelty and anxiety. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Josh: Sure. And there’s some researchers who have built their career looking at this curve, the novelty-anxiety curve. Some novelty, because of our curiosity, is very important. But when we get the curve up to the point where it becomes so new and unfamiliar that it kicks in some anxiety, the learning process begins to shut down… so you start to move back down on the other side of that curve. So anxiety has been shown in a variety of learning settings to shut down the cognitive processes. It’s at an emotional level and the psychological level that if we’re anxious or fearful, we can’t really focus on the subject at hand. It’s adding a cognitive load that just becomes insurmountable in terms of learning. There’s the study that I cite in that chapter from 1978. I still think it’s really fascinating. I’d love to see people try to replicate it. A researcher named Ruth Peters was looking at evidence of curiosity in classes where students had rated their instructors based on how intimidating they found those instructors and even those students who had rated themselves as being relatively high on the curiosity scale, asked fewer questions and engaged in fewer incidence of curiosity in those situations where they were intimidated or felt that the instructor was intimidating. Now an important caveat that I don’t, I think, do as well as I could have done in the book in making is that the issue of intimidation and how students feel about faculty members can differ greatly depending on who the students are and who the instructors are, and how that dynamic plays out could be very gendered. And there are lots of dynamics, I think, that complicate the notion of intimidation that I didn’t dive into that chapter. But they’re very important, I think, to think about. On the whole, though, the point remains, and there’s a lot of consensus on it I would say, that anxiety shuts down curiosity.

John: And one of the points you used to emphasize that is a recommendation to not be scary.

Josh: Right.

John: …which is not a bad suggestion for faculty. Because I think sometimes we can be and making sure that students see us as more open to them could be useful.

Rebecca: …or even as human.

John: …even as humans… [LAUGHTER] … that we could appear human to them. They don’t always see it that way. But it would be nice to encourage that more personal connection.

Rebecca: One of the other topics that you tackle as a theme in your book is tied to failure and risk taking, and I often think about curiosity and failure and risk taking together as someone from the arts. So I often see curiosity feeds risk taking. And if you don’t have failures, you don’t continue to learn and get excited about what you’re doing.

Josh: Right.

Rebecca: But I also know that students often (and all of us often), if we fail, can feel really bad about that and then not continue to propel forward. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between curiosity and…

John: …the fear of failure.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Josh: Yes, definitely. And I completely agree with you that there’s a link there between those two, because curiosity often takes us into places where we don’t know the answers. This is how great research happens, right? We want to know the answer to a question. So we pursue it but there’s a lot of failure along the way. And so it has the potential to open great doors, but those kinds of intellectual risks that follow curiosity, we haven’t necessarily developed educational systems that value taking those intellectual risks. In fact, as researchers and scholars and artists know, there’s so much trial and error along the way, but we’ve set up the opposite system for our students where they have these high stakes assessments, they get one shot. And that is the kind of environment that will cultivate a fear of any kind of failure or mistake. And so the linkage then, in order to try and help them take those intellectual risks, is to build opportunities in our courses for students to be able to utilize that natural learning process: to make mistakes, to learn from them to get feedback, and to move on. So there’s a variety of ways that we can do it, but it runs counter to traditional modes of teaching and course design.

Rebecca: If we think about being in an institutional structure that imposes certain kinds of systems on us like grades that can cause anxiety, and maybe shut some of this down, what can we do within that system to still foster risk taking?

Josh: Right. That’s in some ways the hardest question to answer and it’s the hardest thing to wrestle with if you’re suggesting to faculty that we can, within our own courses, create opportunities for students to do that. So I have two answers. And the first is that one thing that we can do that will pay students dividends down the line is to help them divest learning from grades. This is the absolute foundation for our work in this area. And one way to do that is to have more assignments with lower stakes. So if you have five assignments each worth 20% of the final grade, breaking that up a little bit more and including smaller assignments in there. The other is to have assignments where you give feedback, but no grades. And this takes some conditioning over time. But eventually students can begin to see learning as an opportunity for feedback, not evaluation. The other thing that I would say that I recommend in the book… The people who are experimenting with alternative grading models, I think, are leading the charge on this question. And so things like contract grading or specifications grading, portfolio grading. There are even some well known folks are experimenting with student self grading, self assessment, peer assessment. And so those are models that shift the value and the meaning of what is a grade. And those systems a grade is not necessarily an evaluation, but it is a culmination of feedback, a culmination of learning over time. The emphasis becomes, in those systems, much more on feedback and development and on evaluation of selected attempts at a task.

John: You also emphasize the roles we have as social creatures in the chapter on sociality and in particular, one of the things you talked about there is imitative learning. Could you talk a little bit about that and how that can be implemented in the classroom?

Josh: Sure, yes. The book began with curiosity because that’s individually how I think we’re driven to learn but sociality, I think it’s one of the most important topics that we can think about with education. We are deeply social beings at heart. And in fact, humans are among the most social creatures in the world. And so that greatly influenced how we developed over time and how we’ve learned. And so a lot of the evolutionary biologists who study, for example, language point back to our imitative gestures. They either preceded language or they co evolved with language. There’s a lot of disagreement about that. But there are fundamental aspects of the way we communicate with people and ultimately teach and learn from each other. And so, the extension of that to our work as teachers? It can be as basic as the gestures that we make and how we communicate the importance of a particular topics. I’m making gestures right now… maybe you can’t see… but that underscores… to hit the emphasis to underscore the importance or to communicate to the students in ways other than verbally, and I was blown away by some of the fascinating research on gestures to prove how important they are to learning. There was one study, for example, of foreign language learning where students were watching videos of a speaker speaking and fully making the normal gestures that you would have in teaching. And then other students were watching videos with no gestures, the speaker was taught to eliminate all gestures as much as possible. And on the assessments afterwards, the students in the gesture condition scored far better than those in the non gesture. So that’s a fundamental level, but there is a social psychologist in the mid 20th century, Albert Bandura, who talks about modeling. And so imitative learning can really connect in an essential way to our modeling for students. They imitate us, even sometimes our manners of speech, but really what I’m most interested in is the way we engage with them. They will often use that as a model for engaging with each other… the way we engage with our subject matter… relative enthusiasm or lack thereof,… they will use us as models for that. And so imitative learning, I’m not going to say that necessarily enhances the content to a large degree, but it does influence the learning processes that are underneath the mastery of the content.

Rebecca: How does sociality relate to group learning and group work that we might do in our classes? So it’s peer instruction, but also other collaborative work that we might do.

Josh: This is a topic that I think is really important to many who teach in college and so it’s one that I wanted to spend some time covering and if we are going to utilize our social natures to maximize learning, we have to design collaborative assignments that, out of necessity, students must work together in order to generate the knowledge in order to fulfill the goals of that assignment. Too often, and I am guilty of this myself, group assignments are designed in such a way that students can “divide and conquer.” And so they say “I’ll take this part, you take this part and you take that part and we’ll come together right before the presentation and we’ll debrief each other.” Certainly they can learn some things individually from that if they’re well designed; that is not making use of our social natures to enhance learning, that is just creating an avenue where they’re talking to each other and making a plan for presentation. The assignments where they have to actually work together to develop the new knowledge, to construct it, those are the kinds of assignments that are taking advantage of our social natures to really enhance it.

Rebecca: Why is it then that students, even in a situation where it might be that they need to collaborate to come up with that new knowledge or information, there’s still this tendency to try to figure out how to divide and conquer even if it doesn’t match up? [LAUGHTER}

Josh: Right.

Rebecca: How do we help students understand the differences in those different scenarios or even how we help faculty understand the differences that happens in committee work and stuff as well?

Josh: Right. Yes, it does. Well, I think some of that is that they’re simply trying to employ strategies that have worked for them in the past. And so even if the assignment isn’t designed for divide and conquer, they’ll try it because that’s what they’ve done in the past. There’s also some reticence often to working together initially. So faculty need to communicate the value of the nature of the assignment as a group assignment: What will you gain from working with each other? I do think there are some examples here in my home campus, and many campuses across the country, have faculty who do a lot of work up front on the team and group dynamics in order to make those assignments and activities more productive. And so bring experts on team dynamics into the classroom to talk to groups and to maximize the way they’ll work together… assessment systems where people are evaluating themselves and each other… warm-up activities or shorter, very small activities over time to help students in the group learn to trust each other before we give them the big assignment… trying to clear some of those social hurdles in order to really use those social elements for their gain.

Rebecca: I think that’s an important piece there… that we put them in groups, or they even put themselves into groups and we just assume that like, “Oh, now they’re a happy little group.” [LAUGHTER] But unless they get to know each other and develop that trust that you just emphasize, really, things can fall flat really quickly.

Josh: Right.

John: But there’s other types of assignments where you can do that such as you mentioned in your book: the Reacting to the Past methodology and many forms or peer instruction where that sort of collaborative work is inherent in the process. When they’re not presenting something they can divide, but when they all have to debate something or present something from different perspectives, it naturally brings them together. So I think you do provide some suggestions on ways to do it, but it doesn’t work with all projects. If they’re writing a paper or presentation, you have to cultivate that. And it may not always work.

Rebecca: …especially if it’s something long term. There’s a difference between peer instruction and class that might happen over a short moment or two versus something that might take weeks.

Josh: Yes, definitely.

John: You also have a chapter on emotion. Could you talk a little bit about how emotion influences learning?

Josh: Yes, in some ways, this is the heart of the book from the start… thinking about our interactions with students at this level. For a long time, psychologists believed that emotion and cognition were entirely separate. And then they thought that they were connected, but one was dominant. But now biologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, they have really shown us that emotion and thinking are completely interlinked. I described them as dance partners in the book and really, that’s what they are. When everything’s going well, the two are working hand in hand, the primed emotions enhance the learning and the learning imbues the emotion with different levels. So, when everything’s working really well, they go hand in hand. And that can look at the span of what we’re talking about, the spectrum of utilizing emotion in our teaching is very broad. And so it can be everything from being enthusiastic about what we’re teaching to using humor, helping students see the joy of the subject matter; it can be that. But it can be also finding the emotion at the heart of the content that we’re teaching. So I’ve used an example a lot of two biology classes both teaching about cancer; one is teaching it entirely about the cellular level and another’s doing that but also showing videos of survivors and talking about the disease at the human level. That kind of scenario primes the students’ emotions which helps them in turn remember that material more effectively… develop better conceptual understanding: “Oh, here’s the long term resonance of this disease and there’s the human impact of this.” And so finding the emotional aspect of our content… And then simply, I think if I had to get one message out about that chapter, and maybe even about the book. is students will learn more if they think we care about them as learners. And that doesn’t mean that we have to tear down professional boundaries that might be important, but it does mean that students have to see us as being actively involved with their learning, as actually caring about their success in the classroom. And if that were the only thing that we did, we’d be making a lot of headway.

John: You mentioned just learning their names could be effective in helping to show that.

Josh: Yes, in fact, often I say that probably the easiest thing we could do to initially show students that we’re invested in them. And often people say rightly that teaching huge classes, it’s really hard to remember names, things like that. …an easy suggestion about that (and I got this from my friend Bethany Usher, George Mason University), hand everyone a table tent… a name card… at the beginning of the semester… have them write their names on it. So even if you can’t memorize all 200 names in your class, you can refer to people by name, which accomplishes in many ways, the same purpose.

Rebecca: Sneaky… It sounds very sneaky. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s not a bad idea. Actually, when I teach small classes at Duke in the summer, I do that for the first couple of days until I get to know their names. In the class of three to four hundred, it may be a little tougher, at least to get them to come back and do it. I can imagine my students swapping the names just to mess with me a bit. Mybw… I’m not so sure. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Bethany uses it… and others do for attendance purposes as well. So everyone has to put their name card back on the table when they leave and the date on the inside that they were there. So it’s a way to take attendance too.

John: You also talk about the importance of authenticity, of creating assignments and tasks that are authentic for the students. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Josh: Yeah, and authentic and authenticity have a wide range of meanings in higher ed these days. But what I was particularly looking at is the research on what folks have called cognitive authenticity or situated cognition, and that’s the degree to which our brains pick up on a learning environment as either being artificial or real – authentic. So the degree to which we can help students to engage in work that mirrors the work of scholars in the discipline or has relevance to their lives or application to their careers or application to the world writ large, we’re moving closer to authenticity and the kinds of learning environments that the brain responds to really well. It’s a ruthlessly pragmatic organ that will quickly turn this attention elsewhere if it doesn’t think what is happening is necessary for it. So I talked a lot about undergraduate research or projects or even shorter projects that we do in the classroom where students are doing what actual historians or sociologists or artists or biologists really do. The difference between memorizing the names of a hundreds insects and going out in the field and combining that information with finding them. I think that’s an authentic activity, an authentic learning environment.

John: In your book you Bjork and Bjork’s “desirable difficulties,” which suggest that students learn the most when they’re faced with this feasible challenge… where if something’s really easy, they get bored; If something’s too difficult, you have anxiety and things that interfere with learning.

Josh: Right.

John: One of the problems that people have in implementing that, is the range of backgrounds and skills of students. Can you suggest any ways of trying to reach that zone for all students when students come in with very different prior knowledge and skills.

Josh: Yes, that’s a really great question. It get really happy when I talk about Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development… maybe others don’t, but I think it’s fascinating and deeply important and it ties to desirable difficulties, I think. Simply because what Vygotsky was saying was that each of us for… pick a topic… but for any type of each of us has a zone in which we can learn as individuals, but eventually we will hit a point… the end of that when we need what he called a “knowledgeable other” to help us develop mastery beyond that… and so that’s going to differ depending on topic and depending on individual… and as faculty, if we were in our best position… if we know our students well enough to understand where each of them are within those zones… The “desirable difficulty” by the Bjork’s… things like spaced practice or interleaving… which means don’t study in blocks… study a little bit of topic “A” a little bit of topic “B,” a little bit of topic “C” et cetera… then go back. It’s really hard, but in it’s being hard, the brain encodes ot more effectively… and that matches up well with the zone of proximal development because it is a way for us to design activities where: number one we can see a little bit better where students individually are; number two. though. it helps push past those ending points or the sticking points that students can encounter when they hit the wall with a particular topic.

Rebecca: After writing this book, and spending five years deep into all this material, what have you found most useful as a teacher?

Josh: This has been such an amazing process for me. I’ve learned so much. The chapter on failure, though, has been the most eye opening for me. I’ve certainly redesigned discussions based on curiosity. And I tried to build more stories into my teaching to draw on those emotional social connections. But partly because we’re not taught in graduate school to privilege failure and errors and mistakes… and it’s not necessarily a fundamental element of any pedagogical training that we get even as faculty… I found that research to be extremely important for me as a teacher. And so it has changed the way I designed courses, I have more assignments and more opportunities to just give them feedback in order to manage the load that that brings with it. I have more face-to-face conversations, quicker sessions to give targeted feedback. I have activities like reading responses where all they have to do is complete the set number that I have for them. If you do 12 reading responses over the course of the semester you get the “A” for this activity… really to engage them in the thinking process in ways that will contribute to their work, but without the necessity: “I have to get it right.” I can just think and explore some ideas. In my undergraduate courses. I’ve switched entirely to portfolio grading for all of them. It does take time I have found to help students see that this isn’t a trick or you’re not trying to pull the carpet out from underneath them. But it has really transformed the way I work with students. More of them come see me in office hours because there are no grades. So they just want to talk about the feedback that I’m giving and ways to revise and improve. And I would say that the grad courses that I teach… we team-teach those courses on pedagogy… and those are all contract grading. And so we want the emphasis to be on mentorship for them as new teachers and not evaluation. So that chapter has really made the most difference to me as an individual teacher.

Rebecca: Can you elaborate a little bit more on what it means to portfolio grade.

Josh: Sure.

Rebecca: I think people have a general idea of what that means in like a writing class, something that might not have a clear idea of what it might mean in a different kind of course.

Josh: Right. Sure. And actually, I know that there are very specific models of portfolio grading too… some of which come out of writing studies. I take a very broad look at… actually my wife, teachers art as well… and so I borrow some of the notion of a portfolio from what artists do and how they grade student work over time. And so my own definition of portfolio grading is a developmental approach where all assignments are turned in but only given feedback on… multiple opportunities for revision… and the only thing that gets a grade is the final submission of all the revised work. Even quizzes and exams, you can think about in a portfolio model as adapting and revising answers over time within certain constraints, and then giving a grade on the final product that also includes a reflective introduction. How did I learn over time? How did I improve over time? What areas do I still have left to explore?

Rebecca: Thanks. That’s helpful. I have a question about when you’re writing the book, as someone who’s not a scientist and you’re digging into all this science stuff, it seems interesting that you’re writing about learning where you were probably also actively engaging in all of these things. I’m wondering if that writing process influenced and that experience influenced how you wrote this book?

Josh: It did. Yes. I think part of the process was being in uncomfortable territory, novel territory for myself. In many ways. I was in the same situation as an introductory student in a lot of these disciplines and certainly having patience with myself. As I was writing what I was doing my work with faculty and then with students was understanding (because I was going through it myself) a little bit better how someone from a different discipline might be hearing and responding to another disciplinary approach with an unfamiliarity… not a resistance to… but an unfamiliarity that we need to kind of break down and have a common language for. And so that was a part of it. The other thing, though, was being in that position, kind of like a student myself, I reached out to colleagues here at Rice. So when I had questions about evolutionary biology, I would call up my friend Scott Solomon and say: “Here’s what I’m thinking, am I on the right track?” And he would say: “Well, not really. But why don’t you look at this and this…” and eventually, through those interactions with him, I can get to something that I thought that folks would find credible and that process also helps you to see that students, especially those who are new to a subject, there’s the vulnerability and having to say, “Am I right about this? Do I know what I’m talking about.” And I think that’s worth taking very seriously. And I haven’t been in that role for a very long time. And so it was really helpful, I think, to be in that situation again for my own teaching, and to be able to talk about that with faculty. It was fun to write it. One of the reasons I wanted to move into working at a teaching and learning center was the opportunity to work with faculty from all disciplines. And this really helped me in that role, and that I was learning the contours of a lot of different disciplines. And I learned different kinds of questions to ask and different kind of perspective.

Rebecca: Cool.

John: Yeah, we enjoy that for much too.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Are there any aspects of your book that some readers might find controversial? The argument that I make in the book that as adults, we still learn in the same ways that we did when we were children. And I wouldn’t say that that probably will be one the biggest points of argument or discussion over time. Certainly not everyone agrees with that. But what I simply mean by that is that our processes for learning really don’t change that much from the time when we’re very little as we grow older. Our brains certainly mature. We have different life experiences that we’re bringing. Our ability to regulate our emotions is not the same as the three year old that’s very, very different.

John: Usually.

Josh: …at least hopefully. [LAUGHTER] But, the way we learn remains relatively the same. And I draw on the work of a fabulous psychologist named Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, and she’s done a lot of papers on this. But she wrote a pretty popular book with two others, Andrew Meltzoff and someone else (his name is escaping me). And that book’s called The Scientist in the Crib. They make the case very clearly. They say something almost to the effect that scientists can develop the knowledge that they can and experiment the way they can, because they’re utilizing processes and structures that were designed for children. So we are still learning in the same way that we did when we were very young. We’re just approaching it a little bit differently and we’ve matured along the way. So I really hope we can use that information in our work in the classroom to say, “There are things about learning that we know will work and have always worked because this is who we are.” And so if we can use that, if we can build pedagogies that tap into those things that we know that never change about learning, then we will always be serving our students well.

Rebecca: I think that’s a good point.

John: It makes sense. We evolved to learn in a certain way. We take things in from our senses, we encode it, and we’re still using the same processes ultimately.

Josh: Yes, I agree.

John: We always end the podcast with the question, “What are you doing next?”

Josh: I recently gave a talk called “Teaching as a Creative Endeavor.” So kind of the other side of the coin… the creativity that goes into teaching… teaching as an art and some of the things that actually can’t be measured, but that we hope we might be achieving. And so I think that I’ll probably continue down that road… a bigger project on the creative art of teaching… what that means… and the research on creativity and how that can apply. I’m not sure if it’ll be a book yet, but I’m definitely really interested in that aspect of teaching as well.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s something that faculty here have expressed some interest in, as well… of creativity and what that looks like. So I thank you might have an audience

Josh: Well, that would be great.

John: In our past reading groups,that is one of the questions that came up the most: “How can we encourage the development of creativity?” And I don’t think there’s a lot out there on it that we’ve seen at least

Josh: No, I don’t think that there is. I think that there are faculty in the arts who are thinking a lot about it. A number of books, not related to education, but that have come out in the last 10 years on what is creativity. And in fact, one of my colleagues here, Tony Brandt wrote a book with David Eagleman on creativity and the creative brain and humans as the creative species. So I think there’s a lot of room to really use that information to think about our work as teachers.

Rebecca: Excellent. Look forward to finding out what you end up doing with that information and how you explore it.

Josh: Thank you.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. This was a fascinating conversation and I really loved your book.

Josh: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Both those kind of comments and also the opportunity to talk with you today.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for taking time.

[MUSIC]

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

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

50. Diversity and inclusion

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.

Show Notes

  • 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..

Transcript

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.

[Music]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[Music]

John: 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.

[LAUGHTER]
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.

Rodmon: Absolutely.

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?

Rodmon: Sure.

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: Thanks.

[MUSIC]

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

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

49. Closing the performance gap

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.

Show Notes

  • “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)

Transcript

Coming Soon!

47. First-year classes

The first semester of the first year is pivotal in helping students see themselves as scholars. In this episode, Dr. Scott Furlong, a political scientist and Provost at SUNY Oswego, joins us in this episode to discuss how first-year classes may be used to captivate student attention and ignite a passion for learning.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: The first semester of the first year is pivotal in helping students see themselves as scholars. In this episode we explore one strategy for captivating student attention and igniting a passion for learning.

[Music]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[Music]

John: Our guest today is Dr. Scott Furlong, a political scientist and our Provost at SUNY Oswego. Welcome Scott!

Scott: Thanks John, I’m glad to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Scott: My tea is coffee because I stupidly forgot that they serve tea here. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: We’ll accept coffee drinkers too.

John: And I’m drinking a blend of peppermint, spearmint, and tarragon tea.

Rebecca: I reverted back to my old good time…

John: English afternoon?

Rebecca: Yeah [LAUGHTER]

John: SUNY-Oswego is introducing a series of new first-year courses this fall, and before we talk about what we’re doing at Oswego, could you tell us a little bit about what your own experiences with first-year courses at Green Bay?

Scott: Sure, back probably almost 12 years ago at Wisconsin, Green Bay, I was director of our first year programs on our campus. We had recognized that we have some pretty good first-year programs, but we were missing what I would have considered the most critical part, which was the academic aspect of it. I had been to a number of first-year conferences, had done a lot of work, reading, in first year and we were behind in that area. We did not really have any type of academic course for our first-year students. So, a number of our faculty (myself and about five others) decided we were going to do this on our campus. And, literally a colleague and myself… we’re sitting on an airplane coming back from a first-year conference and literally on an airplane napkin sketched out what we wanted to do in development of a first-year seminar for our students. And when we started at Green Bay, we needed to deal with some of the traditional questions around resources: How are we going to afford to do this? So, we made a conscious decision that we were going to take some of our existing general education courses that our basically introductory to the major and bring those larger sections of classes down to a smaller seminar size class, but we wanted to make sure that we were also going to infuse into these courses some amount of co-curricular activities and programs a student would have to go to that were diversity based, leadership based, health and wellness based, and academic lectures. And then we also incorporated interdisciplinary exercise where we would bring the students from the six classes together in a big room and and break them all up and have them solve what we thought was going to be a very interesting interdisciplinary problem using their disciplinary perspectives that they were learning throughout their normal semester. So, that was the birth of our first-year seminar courses. Those courses grew in terms of the number, we offered six the first year, twelve the next, fifteen the third year, and eventually got up to 20. And we got to a point where we were assessing the heck out of these things and it was clear that they were making a difference in terms of student engagement. We got up to the point where we were adding it to our general education program. The courses at that point were a lot different than how we originally initiated them, they were not Intro American government, they were not Intro to Psychology, they were what we started calling passion courses at UW-Green Bay and we stole that term that came out of Millersville University down in Pennsylvania. And they were courses that were interdisciplinary in nature and in topic, but they basically were around topics and areas that faculty cared a lot about and some of them were very much within their research or teaching interest; others were really far afield, where they would bring their discipline and other interdisciplinary perspectives into that course and in those courses we found were much more amenable to a first-year seminar than trying to ensure that we got all 26 chapters of an intro psych book in addition to everything else we wanted to do. When you can actually build the course around some of these activities, we found it to be a much more successful process.

Rebecca: Did you maintain those classes as part of the general education requirement or did it shift to being something else?

Scott: Two years into the first-year pilot, I had become Dean by then. The provost at the time had asked me to lead a general education reform effort. We knew pretty early that we wanted… because we had already collected a lot of very positive data that adding a first-year seminar would be something that would be a strong aspect of our general education. We really followed some of the AAC&U perspectives around general education: that your gen ed should be mission-based, should be based on what you’re most proud about at your institution. And again at Green Bay we were really strong around interdisciplinarity and almost all of these new freshman seminars were interdisciplinary based. So it ended up being sort of its own three credit requirement not meeting any type of disciplinary or domain type requirement, but just the idea that you had to take a first-year seminar.

John: Did that interdisciplinary requirement stay as part of the program?

Scott: It was when I left. [LAUGHTER]

John: Ok. …and you said there was a there were multiple classes that work together on a general problem.

Scott: Yeah, that didn’t last as long. There’s a great story there that I’ll tell. The faculty got very excited. One of the things that I most enjoyed about the process at Green Bay was the informal faculty development that sprouted up around the first-year seminar development. So, we would meet about every other week in our coffee house and pitch ideas and develop ideas and sort of frame what we thought the common learning outcomes ought to be. And one of the things we did is we came up with this common learning assignment and the idea we had (and at the time we thought it was a great idea) was that a new planet was discovered. And we had to send people to this new planet and teach them about the planet Earth. And how would you do that? And how would you set up a institution of higher education in a way that would teach these this new alien race about planet Earth? And we got cute and the name of the planet was trahe (that’s earth with a little bit of turning around of the letters) and we thought it was the coolest thing since sliced bread. The students hated it. [LAUGHTER] They couldn’t get it. They weren’t sure what they were doing. Although I will tell you the presentations they gave were dynamite given that they were first-year students that didn’t really know what they were getting into. They really give some really dynamite presentations, but we found out a little later in the semester that they had actually created a Facebook site called “I hate trahe.com”.

John: So, it was a unifying experience for them.

Scott: It was a unifying experience… and so we tried that one more year, realized it wasn’t working, shifted the interdisciplinary assignment a little bit, where it was a little bit more problem focused and probably more lecture oriented. We looked at issues and had different faculty from different disciplines try to talk about a problem or an issue from their perspective and then eventually we moved away from that sort of common group assignment. It became a little bit unwieldy as we got to 12 classes, 15 classes, to try to get those that many classes together or even as subsets of classes.

Rebecca: You mentioned that you did a lot of assessment related to the first-year passion courses, can you talk a little bit about what your findings were? You mentioned student engagement, but can you dive a little bit more into that?

Scott: One of the things that I’ll say right off the front is we went into this project knowing from our NSSE scores that our student engagement was pretty bad compared to the rest of the UW comprehensive campuses. So we knew we had a problem that we needed to address. We entered into this first-year seminar not so much around issues of “We need to address retention…” which is often a reason that’s put forward for bringing forth the first-year seminar, but rather we wanted to improve engagement. With the idea, and again research bears this out, if you increase your engagement you’re going to have a positive impact on retention. So, I had become friends and known some of the folks that work at NSSE… and specifically, Jillian Kinzie, who’s one of the lead researchers in the NSSE movement in Indiana. And I wrote to her and I said “Listen, I know we’re not on cycle for NSSE” (we were on, I think, a three-year cycle much like Oswego I think is now) and I said “…but we’re starting this new pilot program, we’d like to pull some of the NSSE questions and not only ask our pilot, but also ask some of our students who are not in the pilot. And what we found was engagement scores that were significantly greater across the board for the first-year seminars. And I had a colleague that used to talk about this when we would go to conferences of red bars reaching to the sky because we had a nice little bar chart that we would show on our PowerPoint which very dramatically showed the increase in engagement across a number of the NSSE criteria that they were looking at. We also found, and it didn’t hold, but in the first year we saw an 8 percent increase in retention as well for those students. Now, I know there was some selection bias there in terms of the students who were going into those courses, but we never saw anything less than 3% increase in all the years of the pilot. …and so we knew we had found something that was going to work, at least at Green Bay.

John: …and you taught one of these first-year courses. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Scott: Sure, well I taught my first one, it was an intro to American government. And that was the the first year or two that we were doing this… and that was fun and it was great, and it’s always nice to teach a class with 19 students rather than 120 (which is what I was teaching). So you got to delve into some issues in a lot more detail, a lot more discussion based. But, when I became Dean, one of the things that I wanted to do (at least occasionally) is try to stay in the classroom a little bit. And it’s sometimes hard as an administrator to carve out the time because you never know when your boss is going to ask for you. So, I worked with a colleague and we team-taught a course around issues of Disney and we got cute and I came up with the name of “Inter-Disney-planarity” as the title of the course to sort of highlight the interdisciplinarity aspects of the class. She was an experimental psychologist and we used our various perspectives to really examine issues of Disney both in terms of the parks, the films, the culture. For example, I did a couple of different sections around how, at least Disney World, the one in Orlando, really is set up as its own government. Almost like a Vatican City in Florida, because they have their own police force. They have everything. Their own regulatory bodies, things like that. My colleague did a lot of work around architectural and planning background and planning theory… looking at people like Frank Lloyd Wright and others (names I’m not remembering) in terms of how they did some of the urban planning and suburban planning in the United States. And how Disney really pulled a lot of those issues in the building of the parks, and why they were doing it, and why it works the way they did. And then together the two of us taught class a part of the class on racial and gender issues around Disney, particularly some of their early films, still to this day… but it was really biased in the early years. So, it was a lot of fun. It was always a great way to engage academically in a fun topic. I will tell you, the students who signed up, they all thought they were watch Disney movies. We showed clips, but we rarely would show full films and so I think they were disappointed in that. But I think they had a lot of fun in the class.

John: And they were learning things.

Scott: They were learning about the disciplines, we did have some common learning outcomes: we had a writing requirement, we had an oral communication requirement and we had a critical thinking requirement. So, all of these sort of skill based activities that we all value as part of a strong liberal arts education is what we were introducing to them, and it was a way for them to engage in college-level work around topic areas that students find interesting. So, you mentioned before we started about zombies, we had courses on zombies, and what would happen in a zombie apocalypse and we had students who would put together basically action plans and where would you go on our campus in order to survive a zombie apocalypse. And why would you do that? and so on and so forth, and it became competitive within the faculty in terms of the titles of the courses and whose course would fill first as part of the registration process.

John: This is a nice follow up to last week’s podcast with Wendy Watson, where we talked about writing a constitution after a zombie apocalypse.

Rebecca: As an instructor how did you find the experience of teaching this passion course to be different from other courses that you taught?

Scott: Well, you go into your other courses, if you will, your normal course load, at least after a few years, you go in relatively easily to these courses… at least I found… and in the case of one of my classes. I’ve taught an intro to public policy class for 20 years, and actually wrote a book on it. So, you kind of walk in there and you don’t need to think too much about what you’re doing. I mean, that sounds terrible, but you get into a rhythm of your teaching and you keep current but some of the theories remain the same. The highlights of the course remain the same. This course, there was all a whole new set of readings because I was working with a colleague, it was not just making sure I was up-to-date on what I was worried about and taking lead on. But, at least having some type of knowledge on what she was talking about because a lot of the class was discussion based. Which again was probably a bit different compared to some of my lower level-classes in the past which, because they’re large you have to do a little less discussion in those situations. The other thing I would say is different when you’re teaching a first-year seminar compared to classes that have first-year students in it is that it’s a rare situation for most faculty to teach all freshmen or all first-year students… and there is a dynamic change, teaching a class like an economics class or a American government, where you’re going to have a lot of freshmen but you still have upperclassmen… and there is a dynamic that changes in that classroom in terms of modeling behavior and things like that. They’re not too far away from being high school students. You’ve got to get them focused. You really need to engage them as: “You are college students now. There’s an expectation we’re not going to go through every page of the textbook. We really expect you to do a large part of this work on your own so that you can bring your own perspectives and ideas to the classroom.” And again, that was something that was different for me and a lot of our faculty other than our English comp faculty that did this.

John: Because they’re used to small classes.

Scott: They’re used to small freshman classes. Most of us, we’re not used, so that was a difference.

Rebecca: …having that experience right now. We have a freshman colloquium in my department that I’ve never taught before until this semester. And it’s like: “Yeah, alright. We have to do these things that I don’t generally do in my other classes.”

Scott: And you’ve got to be really intentional with the students, which is a good thing anyway… but you can’t just assume that they know how to do college work.

John: That’s one of the benefits, I would think, of these courses… that it provides that bridge where you can focus on that without losing the upper-level students and that intentional focus on their needs could be really helpful in getting them acclimated.

Scott: Getting them acclimated, being intentional about the type of work that you expect, the type of writing you expect. That you can’t just copy and paste a wikipedia thing and call it a paper, and the acclimation to the rest of the campus was a big deal for us as well and is for the Oswego courses. There are a lot of resources here, there are a lot of events that happen here, and yes, we’re going to make you go to some of those, but the hope there is not that we’re making them do it, it’s once they get there they understand “Hey, I actually enjoyed this and I’m going to another one, just without being required to do it.”

Rebecca: Part of it is just figuring out the logistics if you’ve been doing it or where to find the information. Some students, if they don’t have that guided experience, might never discover it. There are so many other things going on.

Scott: Yeah, and we got to a point, at least for the first few years, where we actually were creating sort of cheat sheets of events, so that they had a calendar in front of them, so they didn’t have to worry about finding those of those types of things.
REBECA: This year, we’re piloting a first-year program at Oswego. Can you talk a little bit about that program?

Scott: Sure, we’re piloting nine first-year signature classes. That was the title that they wanted to put on our group here at Oswego. The program was developed by a committee of faculty and staff that developed a number of common learning outcomes that are very similar to what we did at Green Bay: strong communication, critical thinking issues… and then we recruited nine faculty from across the campus to engage in these ideas of, I won’t say common pedagogy, but some common learning outcomes. …and structure classes, and we did call them passion courses, at least internally. What is it that you want to teach? Is there something out there that maybe doesn’t fit traditionally into your curriculum but is of interest to you? Be creative about it. It’s okay to have fun. Be fun about what you want to do… and then really think through how you’ll get at these common goals, but also the goals of the class itself. So, we got a good group of nine courses… diverse courses… and they did just a great job in the development and even went above and beyond in terms of how they pitched and advertised their courses to the incoming students. They all did one- to two-minute videos… that our students actually did, which is great… and it really comes across as very professional. You can see the passion in their faces and I’ve already been told that a number of the faculty that have developed these first-year courses, it’s affecting how they think about their other courses as well.

John: That came up at several of the meetings (because I’ve been attending those too) and many of the people are saying that once I’ve learned how to do these things or I’ve tried doing these things, and some of it was credited to workshops that Rebecca did in the spring, but it’s changing how they’re teaching all their classes.

Rebecca: The conversations around the first- year class has been really interesting. Hearing those faculty talk through what they’re doing and work together has been really interesting, and so what you described at Green Bay as being that informal learning community certainly evolved here as well.

Scott: Well, that’s my sense too. Again, I specifically tried to stay away from it a little bit because I didn’t want my perspectives to fully guide what was happening and I wanted this to be a bottom-up faculty-led thing. But everything I’m hearing, is that the faculty are getting a lot out of those discussions and to really engage in teaching in a different way and around some different types of topics. And I think also to really think through the entire learning environment that we are providing here at Oswego, not just what’s going on within the classroom. I think all the faculty (I know at least one or two) require their students to go to the info fair over in the arena last week and actually I got passed on an email from a student who really credited “I never would have gone to this unless I was required to and by going I actually signed up for four different organizations.” …and this is exactly why we do these types of things.

John: …and that type of connection makes a big difference in retention and student success and engagement.

Scott: Yep.

Rebecca: How did the students end up in these courses?

Scott: They self selected as part of the information that goes out as part of the registration process. Late spring, early summer, these were offered up as an opportunity for them to sign up as part of their process of submitting their list of desired courses or preferred courses for the Fall. If they wanted to be in one of these courses or any of these courses, they put it on and then our our first-year advisers then made their made their schedules much like they do now… but they just included that particular course. I think there was a little bit of a concern initially since these courses count, but they’re electives. They’re electives within our 120 graduation requirements, so I think there was some concern upfront: “Why would students take these courses?” They don’t count for Gen Ed, they don’t count for the major but they filled pretty quickly, which I think speaks to both the marketing but also the topic areas that students find interesting. …and I think there are mechanisms for us to move forward to think that some of these courses could fit general education in a traditional way.

John: I’m not sure if this has changed, but in the early discussions of this, the goal was to have students request these courses with the hope that there’d be more people requesting courses than there would be slots, and then the students who applied for them but didn’t get them could serve as a control group so that you could get a benchmark without that self-selection issue. Has that been maintained?

Scott: I don’t know if that’s been maintained or not. I wasn’t part of those discussions. There are other ways of getting at some of the control groups if we need to do that, whether it’s simplistically students who did not take those courses or even pulling or surveying students that might be in like the English comp classes or the introductory math classes and using them as a pseudo control group. I’m gonna let IR worry about about how to get at some of those assessment issues. …and I will say that some of the issues around assessment… some of the issues around the success of this program… won’t show up immediately, and they won’t necessarily show up in data. We had a situation at Green Bay our first year where a student did not come back her second year and the faculty member actually got a letter from the student that said: “I want you to know that I really noticed how much time you spent with me, I noticed that you were paying attention to me and trying to get me involved and I’m not gonna be back in the spring semester, but I had a great experience here. This is just not the place for me.” That’s going to show up as a non-retained student and not a good statistic, but in many ways that’s a success story, and that’s something you can’t do in a lot of normal classes because you don’t have the ability to really engage with students in that type of a close way.

Rebecca: Do any have sense with the launch of the program this year whether or not the students in those classes are in the same major as the faculty member teaching them or do you think it’s more mixed?

Scott: I don’t know. I think it’s more mixed, but it’s a great question, and I’m going to guess they’re mixed, but I haven’t actually seen the the enrollments. And the reason why I’m going to say they’re mixed is that an incoming student would really have to pay attention to the bio of the faculty member, the description of the course, to be able to figure out “Is this course really within some major that I’m interested in? The courses themselves do not scream communication or business or any of that, so you’d a student would have to do a lot of sort of… not digging, it’s all there… but they’d really have to pay a lot attention to that. I’m sure there were some that did, but I’m not sure if that would be the majority or not.

John: Could you give us a few examples of some of these courses?

Scott: Sure. We’ve got nine as I mentioned and they are from all across campus. So Kat Blake is doing a course out of anthropology entitled: “The Talking Dead: Understanding Life from the Human Skeletal Remains.” …and I actually did print out the description a little bit here and what she had written was: They help forensic anthropologists investigate murders, bioarcheologists reconstruct life in the past, paleopathologists examine past disease and trauma… These are the bones of the human skeletons and they have stories to tell and students will learn about the scientific techniques for evaluating skeletal remains… so on and so forth. Who doesn’t want to play with bones, right? That’s great. And then another course that that is being offered is by Alison Rank out of the political science program and the title of her course is “The Witches are Hunting: Contemporary Feminist Activism in America” and she’s looking at the #metoo movement and feminist theory, and how these things have developed. And the interesting thing that she’s doing with her course is, she is occasionally (I think once a week) linking up with Mary McCune’s course out of history, and Mary’s teaching a course entitled “How New is the #Metoo? The history of Gender Activism in the United States.” So, those students will have the added benefit (at least from my perspective it’s an added benefit) of having some of these discussions in an interdisciplinary way. These are all highly engaging type topics. We have a course on how comic book characters are portrayed, and why is it that we turn to comic book characters when we’re looking at issues of justice? Why aren’t we doing these things ourselves? We have a course out of theater that’s looking at how black characters are portrayed within the arts and how that has evolved culturally. Another one out of theatre that’s actually looking at the interconnection between theatre and sports. Again, these are all topics that frankly students coming into a college/university setting would never think that they would be able to study. Frankly, a lot of things that we offer in the first year, students would never think about [LAUGHTER] studying coming out of high school. But, I really believe strongly that wrapping these accessible topics around college-level work is a really effective way to get students to think like college-level students and to do that get them prepared for the type of work that we want them to do as they’re moving through their years on campus.

John: When I heard some of the topics, I wanted to sit in on all of those classes. They all seem fascinating.

Scott: I think I’m going to, I’m gonna try to make some time to just sit in on these and try to get a sense of how they’re going.

John: They sound like a lot of fun.

Rebecca: They sound like a lot of fun. Yeah, definitely, and the videos are pretty fun too.

John: Yeah.

Scott: The videos are great. There’s a balance of the the funness. I’ve had people… frankly, I had a former Provost, when we’re really implementing our first-year seminars at Green Bay, talk about these courses as fluff courses. And I really had to push back on her, because I think, in many cases, these courses are more rigorous than some of the courses they would be taking otherwise (or in addition). They’re doing much more writing than they probably would be otherwise. I know, compared to an old large lecture class, where you’re taking a bunch of multiple-choice tests (because that’s the only way you can keep your sanity sometimes as a faculty member), that these are much more rigorous. The expectations are higher… and you’ve got to be present in order to do well in these types of classes, and I think we’ve all experienced situations with larger lecture halls, where it’s not unusual for a third of the class not to be there because they can get what they need out of a book or by copying notes.

Rebecca: As soon as you start tackling a topic that’s not traditionally a textbook, then you don’t have a textbook to rely on and you’ve got a start thinking about things differently.

Scott: …and it’s that’s a great exercise in and of itself to be, to move into sort of OER/direct digital access type things. There are all sorts of things out there that are not textbooks but are still primary source type materials or even current events type topics that you can really pull into these classes… and even the theoretical aspects of the discipline. How does psych address some of these issues? How does art address some of these issues? How does economics address some of these issues. Even around things like the #metoo movement or how comic books are portraying justice issues.

John: …and it shows students perhaps that these are really useful methodologies for approaching and analyzing things in the world that they may not generally see those connections, I think.

Scott: That’s right. I agree with that. You start looking at some of the popular culture issues through a different lens. I hope that the class that we taught on Disney really opened the eyes of students in terms of how Native Americans are portrayed or had been portrayed in Disney films, or black Americans or how gender issues are dealt. I mean it’s fine to just sit there and enjoy a movie, but at some point you want to start thinking through the larger social context that the film is being produced in and shown in as well.

Rebecca: I think it’s when you start hearing the students say things like well I can’t go to an experience like that without thinking X, Y, & Z now… or I can’t help but seeing… whatever it is… and I think that’s it’s a good sign of success.

Scott: It is. That’s what we’re about generally on our campus, is beginning to open up their mind and open up different ways of observing and interacting with the world.

Rebecca: Which, I think, leads into a good question about how are you gonna assess this particular program?

Scott: This program was started probably with a little bit more intentionality around retention, so we’ll look at retention rates. We’ve again been in contact with the NSSE folks to see if we can pull in some of their questions, even though we’re not in a NSSE year, and we’ll look at that as well. We’ll do some self assessments or surveys of the students and their experiences and what they thought of those experiences. And, frankly, I want to get the faculty response. I want to see how they reacted to the course. How did they think it went? How did they perceive the students responding to these classes? These classes do not necessarily automatically, just because they have interesting topics, lead to high faculty evaluations. Oftentimes new course development does not lead to high evaluations. You got to do these things a few times before you sort of get in your rhythm and really know what you’re doing. So, I’m hopeful that they’ll start looking at student outcomes and and are they maintaining connections with the students beyond the course? Which is something we saw on our campus that even though they weren’t their formal advisors, they would continue and seek out those faculty member for other courses. They would seek them out as they were walking across campus; or, if their office door was open, they would just stop in in a much more relaxed way than you might expect any other student to do that.

Rebecca: …sounds more like a mentorship kind of role, in some ways.

Scott: Yeah… that mentorship is probably a little strong, but it could develop into something like that. It’s the connection… it’s really focusing on what I feel is the most important connection that students can make, and that’s with the faculty member… that’s what’s going to keep them here… that’s what’s going to lead to their success. Yes, of course, it could lead into the mentorship as well but that’s where they’re spending their time… it’s with the faculty across campus. So, to the extent that we can facilitate that relationship… sometimes it’s good to bring them down to equal levels. We need to remain some level of distance and we have to ensure that the faculty is respected, but we’re also people and sometimes students don’t see that [LAUGHTER]… that we’re people. But, if we can get them in a small environment we can encourage them to talk. I used to require them to come to office hours initially just to make sure they at least stopped in a couple times. Those are all things that we can do to to help make that connection to SUNY Oswego.

Rebecca: …a strong connection to the episode that we had with Jennifer Knapp, talking about interpersonal relationships between faculty and students and that some of those outside of class relationships that are built (often through the classroom) are really important and really powerful. So, I think what you’re describing is exactly some of the research that she was describing in that episode.

Scott: I’m passionate about this area generally, and in this project in particular. I think there’s room to grow this, I actually think from a resource perspective, SUNY Oswego is in a better place than Green Bay was in terms of sort of scaling this; not that we go from 6 to 40 in a year. But, I think as we move forward if we find the type of success that I think we will find, we’ll need to have some good conversations around: How do we scale? How do we engage more faculty, more departments in this? How do we sort of expand these informal faculty dialogues around these important issues? …and we’re always going to be focusing on retention here. It’s an important element in student success. All of these are our building blocks to what I think is already s strong SUNY-Oswego education, but this is the beginning of the experiential learning that we’re trying to promote within our students.

John: Those informal discussions among the faculty are really incredibly important. In many of the meetings, when people were asked about what they were doing in their courses, many of them said: “Well, I stole this idea from Allison…” or “I stole this idea from Maggie…” or “I stole this idea from one of the other participants.” …and it was nice to see that sort of informal discussion.
So, we always end with this question of what are you going to do next?

Scott: Ooh… Well, clearly we are going to assess and look at this very strongly, and I’ve already mentioned that we’ve had some discussions around: “Can these courses be structured around general ed learning outcomes as well,” so that students don’t feel as if it’s a… I hate to use the word a “wasted” course, but sometimes that’s the way they’re looked at because they don’t count in GenEd… they don’t count in the major. It’s hard to explain sometimes to students that it doesn’t matter, you need 120 credits. That’s a harder discussion for a new first-year student than it is for a sophomore or junior. We’ll look at expansion. There are some things behind the scenes in terms of that expansion that I need to get a handle on in terms of numbers, and what would it take, and who’s doing what and how do we do that. I think, generally, the other thing we’ll probably start thinking and doing about is how can this seminar be the anchor to perhaps a more engaging elaborate first-year program for our students? How can we improve our advising process for our first-year students? How do we make that transition from that first year to that second year for students? How do we really get the faculty to engage with the idea that the entire campus is a learning community? There are resources out there that not everybody knows about, but people can tie into. Those types of discussions, I think, will be some of the things we’ll think about as we move forward.

Rebecca: Well, thanks for sharing.

Scott: Oh, this is great.

Rebecca: Some great stories.

John: Thanks for joining us.

Scott: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

41. Instructional Communication

There is often a misperception that being a well-liked, kind and caring faculty member comes at the cost of rigor or high expectations. In this episode, Dr. Jennifer Knapp, an expert in the field of instructional communication, joins us to discuss strategies we can employ to make the classroom a positive and productive learning environment.

Show Notes

  • National Communication Association instructional resources
  • Mottet, T.P., Richmond, V.P., & McCroskey, J.C. (2006). Handbook of instructional communication: Rhetorical and relational perspectives. London: Routledge.
  • Chesebro, J.L., & McCroskey, J.C. (2002). Communication for teachers. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • The journal Communication Education also contains many useful articles.

Transcript

Rebecca: There is often a misperception that being a well-liked, kind and caring faculty member comes at the cost of rigor or high expectations. In this episode, we turn to an expert in the field of instructional communication to provide us with strategies we can employ to make the classroom a positive and productive learning environment.

[Music]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[Music]

John: Our guest today is Dr. Jen Knapp, an associate professor of communication studies and an associate dean in the School of Communication, Media and Arts at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Jen.

Jen: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Thanks for coming. Today, our teas are:

Jen: Black raspberry green tea.

John: Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: I’m having Prince of Wales tea.

John: We’ve invited you to join us today to discuss your primary research area, instructional communication. What does research in instructional communication tell us about creating a productive classroom environment?

Jen: So, I’ll start by telling you exactly what instructional communication is… and what we do. Essentially we’re talking about communication between instructors and students that enhances learning or perhaps in some way affects the learning process negatively. We’re more interested in how messages are delivered than the actual content of the course. So, we’re talking purely about communication behaviors by instructors and students and how that affects what goes on in the classroom, which should be learning.

Rebecca: Is your area of research focus only on in-classroom communication or does it expand beyond the classroom?

Jen: One of the things I research is out-of-class communication and I think maybe at some point we will talk a little bit about that, but primarily I focus on what is going on in the classroom – specifically what instructors are doing in terms of communication and how that affects students.

John: What can instructors do to create a better classroom environment?

Jen: There are a lot of communication variables related to instructional comm. The primary instructional comm bread-and-butter concept is this idea of immediacy – and immediacy has to do with increasing physical or psychological closeness between instructors and students… and the bottom line is, if you, as an instructor, engaged in these verbally and non-verbally immediate behaviors, there’s going to be more positive outcomes in the classroom for your students… specifically learning… but ultimately, what I think is really interesting, is that even on a nonverbal level, you can influence what’s going on with your students and how they are perceiving your messages… but also how they’re wrestling with the content. So, it comes in two flavors: verbal and nonverbal immediacy. We were talking about nonverbal communication… we’re talking about everything but the words. People will commonly refer to it as body language, but it’s also your tone of voice and how you use space and touch and things of that nature. E ven something as simple as eye contact can make a difference in terms of what’s going on between instructors and students in the classroom… engaging in vocal variety… but also using humor… calling students by name… all of these things can help increase the connection between students and instructors. Most people believe that the instructor-student relationship is an interpersonal relationship, or a type of an interpersonal relationship, which means you’re connected to each other in some sort of meaningful way. All the things that you value in terms of how you communicate with your friends and your family… a lot of that plays into what goes on in the classroom as well. People want you to make eye contact. People want to be around people who are funny. So, there’s a lot of research that suggests instructors that use humor in the classroom tend to get more positive evaluations, but also there’s more learning that occurs in the classroom if an instructor is using humor effectively.

Rebecca: Does that shift with culture?

Jen: Yes. All communication occurs within a context. Culture is our biggest context. Immediacy, in particular, is very culturally based. It is something that you need to be careful of. Most of the research that I do and that I’m familiar with has been conducted here in the United States with traditional college-age populations, but certainly if you were to travel abroad and perhaps you were to teach a semester away then these rules may not apply.

John: …and it might not also apply if we have foreign students here who have not adjusted to U.S. classroom climates.

Jen: Of course. Yes.

Rebecca: So, what are your biggest secret secrets? [LAUGHTER]

John: …related to teaching.

Rebecca: …related to teaching.

Jen: Oh… no one warned me that I had to divulge my… my biggest secrets today.

Let me go back to immediacy for a little bit and talk a little bit more about that and why that essentially is a positive thing. I don’t think I listed the outcomes. You’re perceived as more approachable… you are perceived as more student-centered… more responsive… you’re friendly… you’re open… and you are essentially inviting communication. So, if you engage in these types of behaviors you are going to invite communication. If you are an introvert, I don’t recommend that you try to be overly immediate because students are going to pick up on that and then they’re going to think: “Oh, well this person is friendly. This person is a good listener, so I want to spend time with them. I’m gonna visit with them. I want to get to know them.” So, you are inviting communication when you engage in these behaviors. But something you should also keep in mind, in terms of immediacy, and this is probably more of a personal choice for me… and other people may not agree… is that it decreases the status differential between you and your students. You are trying to give the perception (hopefully it’s not just a perception and it’s reality) that you care for your students… you are engaged… you are enthusiastic… they see that you’re passionate about your content… you’re moving around the room… you kind of work the room when you engage in these physical behaviors… and so it decreases the status differential between you and them. For me, I like that in my classroom. I don’t want to give the air of being the professor who has all the knowledge and the expertise and I’m looking down on everyone and being condescending. For me, I like to have… not an equal partnership… but I want my students to feel like they are a partner in what is going on in the classroom and anyone can share an idea. I can share an idea. It’s open. It’s friendly… and that’s important when you’re teaching something like interpersonal communication. You’re talking about relationships. Sometimes that class turns into a self-help class and everyone’s talking about their problems with their partner or their family. Everyone’s telling personal stories. You can’t not tell personal stories when you’re in that class. You don’t want anyone to feel like you’re being judged or that you are judging other people. So, I like to have low status differential… low power distance between me and my students… and I can get to that point by engaging in these types of behaviors. I don’t know if that’s a secret, necessarily.

Rebecca: …maybe a secret if you don’t know about it.

Jen: …it could be…

Rebecca: …not a secret anymore,

Jen: …it could be… but I think a misconception… and if you think of it in terms of power differential or having low power distance between you and your students… and some instructors might be uncomfortable with that setup…

Rebecca: Is there a difference in gender, related to this low power difference perception?

Jen: I don’t know if there’s a difference in perception but female instructors and feminine communicators… so those are two different things… are more likely to engage in immediate behaviors than more masculine communicators.

John: You talked a little bit about how instructors can create more of a sense of immediacy by walking around the classroom, by maintaining more eye contact, and by using humor. What else can faculty do to help create the sense of immediacy?

Jen: So, remember that it’s psychological closeness or also physical closeness… if you ever had a student approach you after class and they want to talk to you, and the desk is between you and that student… or the teacher station… or something like that. Something you can do in order to create that perception of closeness is to come out from behind objects. You don’t want to stand in front of the classroom. You don’t want to stand behind the little desk. If you’re in Lanigan 101 and you’ve got that teacher station, but you also have a couple of tables in the front… the student approaches, you don’t stand behind the table. You can move out from behind the table… trying to make eye contact with people in the room… smiling goes a long way in terms of just coming across as approachable and friendly… and the idea is, if people find you to be approachable and friendly, they’re going to engage in something like out-of-class communication. You’re not going to go to your instructor’s office hours if you feel like they’re an evil troll, but you will go to their office hours if it feels like “You know what? I got this thing that’s going on in my life. I need some extra time on an assignment. I feel like if I were to go see Rebecca, she seems like the type of person who would understand or who would at least listen to me” and you can do all of that just by modifying your behavior in the classroom.

Rebecca: What happens when that openness gets to a point where those conversations move beyond class-related conversations like you just mentioned?

Jen: Yeah.

Rebecca: So, that particular example is “There’s something in my life but it’s related to the class.” What happens when it goes past that?

Jen: Sure. That is definitely a risk. If you are engaging in this behavior and you are giving the impression that you are approachable and friendly and someone that listens, as I mentioned earlier, that invites communication. So, you will have students show up at your door for reasons completely unrelated to the class… and maybe it is to seek help or advice about the relationships because they’re in your interpersonal communication class… or it just might be they think you’re a friendly person to talk to. That has happened to me and I’ve sat through very awkward conversations or heard things from students that I felt like I had no business hearing. But, you know what? Maybe if you can be a force of good… or if they are disclosing something to you… if it’s something like a sexual assault or something like that, then obviously it’s much better… you don’t ever want to hear that type of message… but it’s better for them to feel as if that’s someone they can talk to you and they can confide in and then you could help them get connected to resources, or something like that. But, then there are also, on a much less serious note, students who are just looking for a friend and they’re hangers on… and they don’t understand leave-taking cues. So, you might be packing up your things to teach your next class and trying to give the signal that it’s time to go, and they might not realize that. Sometimes you have to have very direct conversations at that point: “I have to go. I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you about this any longer.”

Rebecca: You had mentioned a physical closeness, but you also said that there was verbal immediacy as well?

Jen: Right… psychological closeness… the verbal messages would be: using students’ names, using humor, telling personal stories, engaging in self disclosure. Those would be all examples of verbal immediacy… and then the nonverbal immediacy would be: moving around the room, using vocal variety, decreasing space between you and the students, using eye contact. That would all be examples of nonverbal immediacy… and ultimately this leads to affective learning… and my goal as an instructor is always to create more communication nerds. So, I did not start as a communication major, but once I fell into it, I absolutely fell in love with it and thought I cannot live my life without this… and everything I was learning in the classroom I could immediately apply outside of the classroom. Every day in the classroom that is my goal with my students: to get them to know something… be able to do something… to better their lives… better their relationships… find an internship… whatever it might be… and I just love helping to produce comm nerds… people who are quoting comm theories to me… who are analyzing their conversations or the relationships and then telling me about it… or having them explain how they taught their father about cognitive dissonance theory and then how they used it in a work situation or something like that. That’s something that I love… and ultimately affective learning, I feel, is really one of the best outcomes of immediacy and something that’s important to instructional communication: getting students to learn because they like what they’re doing… they see the value in it… they develop a positive attitude to what’s going on in the classroom and the content that you’re teaching them… and also a lot of these behaviors… instructor behaviors… Frankly, if you like your instructor, there’s a good chance you’re going to work harder for that instructor and that you’re going to do well in the class. You might get to a point where you don’t want to disappoint your instructor… but I’d actually like to ask you a question: if you could talk about some of your favorite professors and the types of behaviors that they engaged in that you really liked?

Rebecca: That’s a good question. I need a minute to think. It’s funny, but the first thing I can come up with are all the behaviors I don’t like… [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah… a strong emotional reaction, either way…

Jen: Sure. Absolutely.

John: I think, thinking back to my college career, which was a while ago… sometime last century… many of the professors that had the most impact on me did exhibit these behaviors. They interacted with you outside of class a bit and they demonstrated some sort of passion for the subject.

Jen: …and I think students want you to care about them… for sure. I start all my classes by asking them how they’re doing? What’s going on? So, many are in clubs and organizations, so I say “What are you promoting right now? What is your organization doing? What’s important to you?” and then finally “Does anyone have any good news?” I just like to hear good news and students appreciate that… and they sometimes, maybe once a month, remember to ask me how I’m doing, which is a win I think… to get that at least once a month? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: If you model it and eventually eventually it’s reflected back, right? [LAUGHTER]

Jen: Yeah, Eventually. I guess that’s the theory behind it.

Rebecca: The faculty that I remember the most, or that I had really good experiences with, are the ones that I had, probably, interactions with outside of class. Those are the faculty that I felt like I could go talk to. Who maybe pushed me harder because they got to know me a little bit, to know how to push me in a way that was positive rather than pushing in a way that would have a negative impact on me. They always got more out of me. So, I think everything you’re saying was completely true for me.

Jen: Yeah. That out-of-class communication piece is really important, and before we were studying it in communication and calling it out-of-class communication, people in education were calling them out-of-class experiences. There’s a whole program of research in education devoted to this… and they studied more the outcome of those events. In comm, we study what leads to out-of-class communication more than anything else. In education, they were saying “But here’s the good news… here’s all the good stuff that happens if students are communicating with you outside of the classroom.” So, whether it’s during office hours or whether they run into you at Price Chopper, the first time you see an instructor outside of the classroom can be a bit daunting or jolting. Students think that we just get put away in a closet overnight and brought back out the next day to teach. The first time they see you it might be a little bit weird, but ultimately if they see you, they see you as human and you stop and you say “Hi Rebecca. Hi John. What’s going on? I know you’ve been playing your bass lately. What are you working on? What are you excited about?” In those little things, like you mentioned, Rebecca, they add up and they definitely make students feel better about themselves. It really helps with their development of sense of self and can also help with motivation in the classroom.

John: How would this work in a larger class setting? Can these behaviors scale very nicely? Certainly walking around can, but what else can you do if you have a class of 400 students or so?

Jen: Sure. All of this can certainly be scaled up. Now I don’t recommend if these types of behaviors or being immediate does not come natural to you, that you launch right into trying to do all these things, because students will sniff out that…

Rebecca: inauthentic…

Jen: Yeah …lack of authenticity. They will definitely sense that. The same with verbal immediacy; using humor is an example of verbal immediacy, but if you’re not funny do not try to be funny. It will not go well. But, certainly you can scale this to larger classes. Whether you’re teaching Micro at 400 or I used to teach Comm 100 to over 200 students and I want to say (I’m sure it’s not true…)… I want to be able to say that my teaching style was not that different, whether I was in front of 20 students for a capstone or 200 students for a large introductory course, because ultimately I’m still teaching the way that I think students should be taught. I’m still engaging in these behaviors. I’m still aware of other instructional variables like clarity… like credibility. All of those things are still important. It doesn’t matter necessarily the size of your audience. We typically say “the bigger the audience, the more formal your communication needs to be.” But, I think there are exceptions to that as long as you are still being authentic in some sort of way. Any of our instructional variables that you might learn about can certainly be applied in a large lecture room. There’s no set of categories that “here’s what you do in a large lecture versus here’s what you do in a smaller studio level class.”

John: I know when I teach the large class I generally get in somewhere between 30 and 50 flights of steps every class and usually two or three miles of walking, because it’s a big ways around.

Jen: Oh my gosh. Yeah, Lanigan 101 is a big room. It’s a hard room to work too, because there’s a whole sea of people in the middle that you can’t get to. That’s where eye contact really makes a difference. You just try to make eye contact with them because you can’t physically get that close to them, but you still want them to feel as if you are speaking directly to them, and you’re not trying to be everything to 200 people in the room.

Rebecca: Other than immediacy, are there other theories or principles that we should be aware of as instructors?

Jen: There are a lot of instructional variables, and I think I’ll share some resources that maybe your listeners would be interested in taking a look at later on. Something else that is important to me is credibility. Credibility is essentially believability, and if you are a professor you should be in the business of being believable. It’s important to remember that communication is about messages, but at the end of the day meaning is in the mind of the receiver, and so you can do your absolute best to craft what you think is the perfect message. However, whoever is getting or receiving that message in decoding that message… it’s going through their personal filter. It might be a very benign message, but maybe they’re having a bad day… maybe they’re really hungry, so they’re not quite paying attention. You don’t have complete control over how people decode your messages. You have to remember that meaning is in the mind of the receiver. What you might find credible is going to be different than what John feels as credible. Credibility is a perception. Whether or not I am truly credible doesn’t matter. As long as you think I’m credible, I win. I might be a complete moron, but if you think I’m credible then it doesn’t matter because then everything I say is going through that credibility filter.

We usually talk about credibility as the three C’s: competence, character, and caring. …and for some people different elements are more important. Some people (who perhaps are more logically based) competence or that perception of expertise or knowledge rules the day, always. For some people, they just want to feel like you have some level of goodwill, and you have their best intentions in mind, and that’s the caring aspect of it… and for some people it’s character or it’s honesty and trust that you are being honest and your being truthful with them, and nothing else matters other than that character piece or that trust piece. For different people, different things are important, or they’re gonna pay attention to different aspects of the message based on what they value more… whether it’s the competence the, character or the caring. So, credibility is an instructional variable and it’s not just instructional it goes across different communication contexts. But, that’s something that I think would be interesting for people to know about and to learn about power… how you influence what’s going on in the classroom… also something that can be studied across communication contexts. But how ultimately are you influencing your students? Are you getting them to do what you want them to do because you are rewarding them? …’cause you’re punishing them? or are they doing it because they feel like it’s the right thing to do and they are internalizing your message and they believe in the value of the work? …and there’s some other types of power as well… and then just plain clarity. Clarity is another instructional variable that’s important, in terms of how you structure your messages for your students in the classroom.

John: The next thing we should probably talk about is: what might go wrong or what should faculty avoid doing that might create a negative environment?

Jen: There’s a program of research in the 90s that investigated teacher misbehaviors. So, I thought it’d be fun to ask you what some of those categories are. I bet you can come up with a lot of teacher misbehaviors. So, what are things that instructors do that students don’t like? Just rattle them off at the top of your head.

Rebecca: I’m thinking. I’m a thinker.

Jen: Don’t overthink it.

Rebecca: I know, but I have to still think. They don’t like it when when you’re condescending or like a know-it-all.

Jen: Sure.

John: …especially if you’re not only condescending but wrong. So, that competence is kind of important as a factor there.

Jen: Yeah. I do want to add a fun fact… yet, also our cross to bear as people who study communication. I love producing communication nerds. I love people who are analyzing their conversations. They are putting into practice positive conflict management strategies. However, you can often get accused of applying your communication knowledge in a less than savory way. So, some people get really upset because they feel like you’re Jedi mind tricking them with your communication skills. …something to keep in mind… that as comm majors, we often get yelled at for actually using what we’re learning in the classroom… because people don’t wanna fight fair. They want to get below the belt and say mean things when you’re like “Let’s be constructive. We don’t want to be verbally aggressive. Let’s try to just be argumentative… we’ll stick to the arguments.” That doesn’t go over very well when you’re having a fight with your girlfriend. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think being late…

Jen: Yup, that’s a big one.

John: …or not being prepared at the start of class is another thing.

Rebecca: I hate when the technology doesn’t work or there’s serious user error.

Jen: For sure. Anything else on your mind?

Rebecca: They don’t like it when you don’t know their name or… that extends to… it’s not just name but gender pronoun… pronunciation. There’s a whole slew of things that probably snowball onto that.

Jen: Absolutely. You got some good ones. I thought I would touch on a couple others that maybe you hadn’t been thinking about. You did mention being condescending… but sometimes being sarcastic and using put-downs is a problem for students, naturally. Unreasonable or arbitrary rules… If you think about your syllabus and what’s in there. Your syllabus sends a message on day one. You want to think about ultimately what you’re sharing with students based on your syllabus. Inaccessibility… Students want to be able to see you out of the classroom. They want to visit you during office hours. Being late… definitely. But one I think that’s interesting, that we probably don’t often think about, is information underload. Students want to be challenged. Most students want to be challenged, and this ties into something that we’ve been talking about previously. There’s this misconception that if you have a classroom that seems to be open and friendly and you are approachable as an instructor, that that means you are the easy instructor… and I have a major problem with that. I think it’s absolutely possible for you to do all of those things to be liked as an instructor, but to also have high standards… and frankly, if you set a bar for your students and they exceed it then you should continue to raise that bar. …and ultimately having or doing tasks that the students don’t feel like are getting them to the end goal of the course is actually considered by them a misbehavior. That’s something that you would want to avoid.

Rebecca: It was a good one that it’s most definitely overlooked… and you definitely hear those conversations: “Oh, take this class because so-and-so is easy. All we do is talk.”

Jen: Yeah, there’s certainly that misconception too… in comm studies, in particular, like “What do you do in that major? …and I come from what we call “communication and social interaction” or “communication,” “communication studies.” We’ve had different names over the years. We thought CSI would be super cool and hip and turns out people are like “I don’t get it. I don’t know that is.” [LAUGHTER] We’re changing it back to “communication,” but if I tell someone “Oh, I’m a journalism professor or public relations professor or a broadcasting professor” like everyone has an idea of what that means… and if I’m the communication professor they’re like “So, you just talk all the time?” I’m like like “No, there’s actually more to it than that.”

John: Well, you do talk all the time, but it’s about something. [LAUGHTER]

Jen: We’re communicating about communication. So, it’s all very meta. Yes. [LAUGHTER] It’s a good time.

Rebecca: It’s very deep.

Jen: Yeah, it is. Of course it is, all the time.

John: Where can faculty go to find more information about instructional communication?

Jen: Penfield [Library at SUNY-Oswego] does own the handbook of instructional communication. We asked them (we being the Comm Studies department) a few years ago to purchase that so people can check that out of the library. The National Communication Association has some great links in terms of instructional communication and what to do in the classroom and how to enact certain behaviors. That is a great resource. There’s another book that I like a lot called Communication for Teachers which summarizes a lot of instructional communication literature and also talks about how to apply that to a classroom… whether it’s K through 12 or in a college classroom.

John: We’ll share links to some of these materials in the show notes.

Rebecca: So, we mentioned earlier on about talking about communication that happens outside of the classroom and we’ve hinted at a couple things here and there, but could you talk a little bit more about those out-of-class experiences and that impact on learning?

Jen: It impacts student motivation, positively. So, they have those moments…and it can just be passing in the hallway or walking through the breezeway in Marano and it’s just a simple “Hello” to a student. That’s something that they can take with them, put it in a little pocket and store that. “Oh, Professor Kane remembers my name” or whatever it might be that makes a difference. But, ultimately it gives a student an opportunity to connect with you on a different level… in a different sort of time-space continuum, if you will. Everything is crazy before class… after class… lots of people want a piece of you… If they take the time to come visit you during office hours and that’s more that’s one-on-one time that they get to spend with you to develop those relationships and certainly that can help them. Students who engage in more out of class communication tend to do better in their classes than students who do not engage in out of class communication. But, it also has… besides classroom outcomes… has better outcomes for them personally. Networking, which you were alluding to earlier… as you met with your professors, you got to know them… they got to know you… now, when they get a call that someone needs an intern or needs someone who can do graphic design work, well you and I were just talking an hour ago in my office and I know that you have this skill set, so now I’m gonna pass this opportunity on to you… because I know that you’re interested and I know that you can do the work. So, that’s a tremendous outcome for students if they take the time to get to know their professors and their professors know them, when those opportunities come past, they can give those to the students that they’ve met and they’ve spent time with… and it just gives students another way to practice their interpersonal communication skills.

John: We always end with the question: What are you going to do next?

Jen: Something that is important to me, as someone who studies communication, 1. is to always correct people who say “Communications” instead of “Communication.” No “s” just “Communication” but also to show people the value of what we study, in what we know as communication scholars. One of the committees I sit on is the Title IX committee, and I’m also a Title IX investigator. One day, Lisa Evaneski was describing some of the cases that she was seeing as Title IX investigator and she said “These aren’t necessarily Title IX cases. We’re not talking about instances of interpersonal violence or sexual assault or anything like that. They’re just, I don’t know, messy breakups…” and I’m like “Ah, we can help with that.” So, in communication, and those of us that study interpersonal communication, we talked a lot about how to treat people positively… how to breakup constructively… how to just be a good human during those difficult times… and so there’s been a group of us that are working in comm studies to create a workshop that Lisa can potentially direct people to that maybe need a little bit of coaching about how to treat people or how to be in a relationship or how to break up… but also we would open it to the campus in general. So, anyone who’s going through a nasty breakup or thinking about “maybe it’s time for me to dump this person and move on. How can I do that in a healthy positive productive way?” …how to use social media or not use social media during during those those times… So, we’re working on building a workshop on messy breakups… which will maybe eventually have a different title, but so far we’re just stuck on messy breakups.

Rebecca: I think it works.

Jen: Yeah, and our goal would also then be to turn that into some type of research as well. Something that we could could share with our discipline, in terms of how we are applying and using our knowledge as communication scholars to help solve a problem on campus… something of that nature… A dream that I’ve always had, and that I know John knows about, is to develop some sort of instructor boot camp. It would go nicely with your badging program if we could have something where people would learn ultimately how to teach… or how to best employ some of these instructional communication variables, in order to get the best out of their students. We can also talk about how to build a syllabus… how to write a syllabus… how to structure assignments… how to ensure that your messages are clear to your students… those types of things. So, one real thing that I’m working on and one thing that I would like to at some point…
JOHN… an aspirational goal…

Jen: Yeah… actually launch…

John: oI think we’d like to see something along those lines to here.

Jen: …and I do think it’s important to say I’m not the only person that knows about this stuff and that studies it so I’ve got colleagues in Comm Studies Katherine Thweatt and Mary Toale, all three of us graduated from the same doctoral program in instructional communication, so there are a handful of us that are interested in this and that are dedicated to it, along with some other great interpersonal scholars in Comm Studies.

Rebecca: I think that what’s really exciting about your workshop idea… that hopefully is not just an idea real soon… is that students will see a discipline in action… and the more ways that we can do those sorts of things on campus, the more real it is for students about how these things that seem like they’re not applicable or they’re not applied somehow…

Jen: Right.

Rebecca: …in action. Some fields are maybe more obvious than others and so the more we can be visible as scholars in the community and sharing that knowledge with the community, I think, is always really nice.

Jen: Yeah, instructional communication is a great example of an applied field.

John: Very good. Well, thank you.

Jen: My pleasure. Thank you both very much.

Rebecca: Thank you.

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

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance from Nicky Radford.