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.

[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. Editing assistance from Nicky Radford.