55. Open pedagogy

Imagine an academy that values a public knowledge commons and supports and recognizes the academic labor required to develop, maintain, build and evolve that commons. Imagine your students actively contributing to that commons. In this episode, Robin DeRosa joins us to discuss open pedagogy, free textbooks, and the building of such  a commons.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Imagine an academy that values a public knowledge commons and supports and recognizes the academic labor required to develop, maintain, build, and evolve that commons. Imagine your students actively contributing to that commons. In this episode, we discuss open pedagogy, free textbooks, and the building of such a commons.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Robin DeRosa…

Robin: That’s me.

John: …Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Plymouth State University. Robin is an editor of Hybrid Pedagogy and is a co-founder of the Open Pedagogy Notebook. She has also published on a wide variety of topics, including the Salem witch trials. Welcome, Robin.

Robin: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Robin: Oh, I thought we were talking about teasing people for a second and I was like, I don’t have a tease. [LAUGHING] What am I teasing?

Robin: No, I actually have two cups of tea in front of me, which is how I like it. One is a ginger tea and one is a sunny orange because I have to stay away from the caffeine at a certain hour of the day, so I’m all herbal.

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice combination.

Robin: I know, I’m just taking one and then the other; it’s perfect.

John: And I have a Tea Forte Black Currant Tea.

Rebecca: I have a Jasmine Earl Grey, that wasn’t there before, so I gave it a try.

John: It’s been there for a year.

Rebecca: Wow, it’s been hiding under the big pile of tea that we have.

John: In exactly the same tray…

Rebecca: No…

John: I just refilled it today.

Rebecca: Oh, you know what, it was the box sitting on top that you didn’t take back after we refilled the tray.

John: Okay. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s where I got it from.

Robin: But your listeners are probably like, how could you not see a box, but if they saw this table, my jaw was on the ground; it is a really quite an impressive tea table that you’ve assembled here. You should be very proud.

Rebecca: We don’t mess around.

Robin: You do not mess around. I would use even other words but I know… public… this is some serious hardcore tea happening here. [LAUGHTER]

John: We invited you here to talk about your work with Open Pedagogy. For those that are unfamiliar, can you explain what is meant by Open Pedagogy?

Robin: Sure, which is such a funny question really because if there is a thing—and I could just say it—because there’s a lot of productive disagreement in the community about what Open Ped is; it’s one of the reasons that my colleague Rajiv Jhangiani and I started the Open Pedagogy Notebook because it’s more of a collage approach to defining Open Ped by people doing and practicing in different ways and then sharing that, but if I had to boil it down I would say it’s really about access, both to knowledge and to knowledge creation… so, the idea that we remove barriers to sharing resources and helping people access conversations and find pathways into education, but then we also try to find ways to amplify student voices to make them contributors to the Knowledge Commons and not just consumers, and I think it’s pretty salient right now as students are really in some ways maybe being pushed into these kind of training and competency models that are really about kind of downloading information and instead Open Ped suggests that we really want students to interact with knowledge and shape the world that they’re going to graduate into, not just train for it.

John: So they’re more actively engaged in the academic conversation?

Robin: That’s the idea. Right. In some ways there’s a lot of kinship, I think, with connected learning and with the idea of involving students in their academic and professional networks. Right from the beginning, because even as people who are new to our particular field, they have so much to offer and as an interdisciplinarian, we talk about that all the time that the outsider’s perspective is beneficial—it’s part of the reason you assemble an interdisciplinary team to tackle a problem and newcomers to a field ask sometimes questions that really can illuminate the challenges that a field is facing in new ways, so I have found that even the most beginning introductory students in a particular area have something to contribute both to the field itself and also in terms of helping their peers in terms of, for example, making educational materials. Students are really well positioned to make great educational materials ‘cause they understand better than anybody what’s hard to understand about a certain area.

John: They’re not subject to the curse of knowledge…

Robin: The curse of knowledge. [LAUGHTER] I have that curse, John.

John: We all do to some extent.

Robin: But it is true like when especially when I was teaching Early American Lit and you just finished your PhD and you start teaching and then you teach something for 15 years and no matter how gifted of a teacher you are, sometimes you’re like, “I don’t understand how they don’t understand this,” like “what’s hard about this?” and of course they really understand what’s hard about it, so when we did student projects where students were working on a textbook that we were crafting together, they really made some great materials for each other that I think were far better than some of the lectures I would have prepared or had prepared over the years.

John: So tell us a little bit about how you got involved in that first project you had?

Robin: I was at, ya know, one of those faculty development events that you guys might be aware of and they had brought in, ya know, a keynote speaker, and I don’t want to say I wasn’t prepared to be impressed, but it was a technology oriented conference and I was definitely one of those curmudgeons that was highly skeptical about how useful… or actually more skeptical about the ways technology was being deployed, so I was prepared to be mad, that was how I came in the room, and I actually still think that’s generally my positionality with technology is like, I’m pretty prepared to be skeptical at all times. But the keynote speaker happened to be Cable Green from Creative Commons and I had this really just pivotal “aha” moment when he was talking about the Creative Commons licenses where I realized that my students were paying 90 bucks every semester, each student, for access to public domain Early American Literature and my heart just sort of fell on the floor. It’s like why are we paying commercial publishers when all of this stuff is out of copyright. So, some students and I spent that summer before the next fall’s class rebuilding the Heath Anthology of American Literature out of public domain texts that we found online and we did not build a hearty replacement for the Heath, but we built a sufficient replacement and when we got into the class the students were super psyched that I had saved them 90 dollars, which is totally real money to my students and makes a big difference. They were grateful but they did not like the book, because it had nothing except public domain literature, so there were no introductions, no maps, no footnotes, no glossaries, no “Don’t worry, I know this doesn’t make sense to you, but let me walk you through it” kind of ancillary scaffolds. So, of course, it seems obvious now but at the time we thought we were rock star smart when we figured out like, hey, the students can make this stuff for the book, and so the students worked ahead, different pods of students would work ahead a week or two and build wrap around materials for that chapter and we got there the rest of the students would use it and, of course, it just ended up being 500 times better than the Heath Anthology of American Literature, partially because they were excited that their classmates were reading their work instead of putting it in Moodle or Canvas or Blackboard, where things go to die. So, they got excited about doing what David Wiley and others have called these non-disposable assignments and then they start getting creative, they start making little videos. Ee’d drop those in… two-minute intro to the Haitian Revolution or whatever. I put a little app in the sidebar called Hypothesis where students can annotate and so they liked that and then at the end of the semester people are like, “The best part of this class was the textbook,” which…

Rebecca: Which they made.

Robin: … they made… and they never said about the Heath anthology. So, that transformed my pedagogy partially because I was excited about making all sorts of access oriented changes in our program; we opened a food pantry at the same time as we did this, so we were thinking about lots of things in terms of accessibility of resources for students. But, in terms of thinking about not dumping my student’s work down the digital toilet every semester, it gave me stomach cramps when I first thought about what I had been doing. Every time I taught the course it was the same course, the student’s contributions weren’t transforming anything—it was no wonder that some of it felt dry to them. There was a lot of hoop jumping, and I still think I was a good teacher, that wasn’t like I was bad, but this idea of really empowering students to really, truly engage with the fields and the materials and shaping how the course runs has really changed everything for me.

Rebecca: There’s something that you’re talking about… the idea of building the textbook together, but then the course material is sort of the same from semester to semester and the materials are created by the students, so how does that continue to transform semester to semester so it doesn’t feel like it’s a one-off project… that it continues to evolve and it continues to be a value and that students continue to learn new things?

Robin: Such a great question and I get it a lot because people—I think in some ways mistakenly assume—that that first build was the exciting build, but totally that first build was the annoying build, right, because we got to do a lot of legwork tracking down these texts. We had to do a lot of copyright discovery, like “Can we use this version of Thomas Jefferson or not” and it wasn’t all that exciting, and that’s still ongoing. So Rebus community, who’s working on that textbook now, they took our version and they’re building it out; they’re still doing that kind of discovery in that initial work, and to be frank, that will never end. Even with Early American Literature you’re constantly discovering, changing excerpts, building things out, but to me what’s even more exciting is, for example, there’s a whole unit at the beginning of Native American Oral Tradition and asking critical questions about what’s the genesis of American literature. So, at the same time as I was teaching that that semester we had the Dakota Pipeline stuff happening and lots of stuff about water protectors and about native history so you can relate things to current events that way, but also think about when I finished the course, my colleague Abby Goode, who teaches Early American Literature, but very much from an environmental and sustainability perspective, she kind of remixed the whole book so that now it was about the environment in Early American Lit; they chose some different texts, they reframed the introductions. Her book, in my opinion, is quite a bit more coherent than ours was, which was more of just a collage of things. So, there’s all sorts of opportunities for how you shape and reshape, and, of course, what students are learning there, which is really the point of those survey classes in English is that there is no American literature; there is only the canon that you intentionally assemble. There’s a lot of politics and a lot of editorial choices and each semester it could look different and that’s an important lesson because the Heath anthology was not a neutral objective collection either and I think that’s been a helpful way for them to encounter the building of canon.

Rebecca: I think it’s really easy for people to imagine how this works in the humanities. Can you provide some examples or ways of thinking about being open in the same way in STEM or in business or other disciplines that might not latch on quite as quickly?

Robin: Yeah, and my colleague at Keene State, which is one of our sister institutions, Karen Cangialosi, published a wonderful article recently called “You Can’t Do That in a STEM Class,” which is basically the answer to your questions. We should just stop answering questions and you should go read that article now. But really, the open dcience movement is a huge movement, in some ways dwarfs open education and I think climate change is a really good example of this, but also just open access publishing, the idea that in order to have scientific breakthroughs we need to have the public sharing of scientific knowledge and collaboration in science and so bringing our students into that early as opposed to saying, “Here when you’re a student you’ll be confined to this one class and stuck in this one book, but then when you become a scientist we assume you’ll just understand how to become part of this larger, more public scientific community.” That makes really little sense. So, what you’ll see in classes by people who work this way in STEM, and Karen’s a good example, is that their students are working on issues that are of critical importance and they’re putting their research and ideas into the commons and asking mentor scientists to engage with them. So, we understand that our students are not always going to be doing top-level research; the next breakthrough in diabetes research is not necessarily gonna come from a sophomore. Although occasionally you hear those stories, right, but really what they’re gonna do is they’re gonna ask for guidance, they’re gonna ask for help, they’re going to amplify other scientists’ work and translate them for their communities so that a new generation of scientists can get access to the issues and that’s how we’re going to assure that our scientists are working for what I might call the public goods. So, we’re seeing lots of people using blogs for this purpose instead of just doing their labs in a vacuum or whatever, sharing some of that work and creating sites together, or working in experiential ways through internships. This is why I sometimes bristle about OER being kind of like a cheap or free textbook movement. It’s really very much about a public knowledge commons and how we bring students authentically into that, so when my students are out in the field… and I teach interdisciplinary studies now, so my students are pretty much not in the humanities, to be honest. I have lots of business students, lots of students working in marketing, lots of students in allied health, physical therapy; they’re all in my program, and the work that they do in our open textbook and with OERs is one thing and we do create all of our own materials for the program, but beyond that they’re also creating capstone projects that are generally online, often openly licensed; of course they hold the autonomy to make those decisions for themselves. At that point they’re pretty educated about how open they want to be and then they’re also working on applied projects out in their fields and I see all that stuff as part of the same way that we engage our students in the public world of knowledge.

John: And science is often taught, or at least it’s perceived by students, as this body of knowledge they have to memorize rather than this ongoing dialogue and a series of active research projects, and when they are more engaged in the process of making those connections it’s likely they’ll learn it better and they’re likely to become much more interested in the subject, because one of the main problems in the STEM fields is that students give up early on. But if they can see the relevance, I would think they’d be much more likely to continue onward.

Robin: Yeah, I think it’s a great point. I’m also the mom of a teenager right now who—is this gonna make my whole family sound bizarre? I’m not sure… but she’s got an obsession with taxidermy, so if you go into her room it’s all—I’m not joking; we’ve got boars, we’ve got bison, we’ve got deer, we’ve got every pelt you could imagine, and then her bookshelves are filled with skulls and bones…loves it. She’s out there digging for bones from the time she was little, researching which skull is this, what skull is that; she doesn’t like science, though; that’s what she tells me: she doesn’t like science. I’m like, you do like science, you nutty kid.

John: You’re kind of doing it; this is where a lot of science started.

Robin: That’s right, and so I’ve been waiting for her and she’s had great teachers here and there, but she really did finally have a biology teacher last year who helped her understand that she does love science, but before that she thought, I don’t really like these worksheets and I don’t really like memorizing these tables, and she’s an interactive person. So, I think there’s a lot of compatibility between open and active learning and experiential learning and high-impact practice and all these buzzwords. People call me an advocate for open, which I am, but really I’m an advocate for learners, like paying attention to the kinds of things they are constantly telling us that they need in order to be successful. While we’re over here shopping for some kind of software program, they’re sitting right here telling us, I’m hungry or I can’t afford my materials or I don’t feel like my voice matters or I don’t know enough to be useful here, so you just tell me what I need to know.

Rebecca: Or I’m not represented.

Robin: I’m not represented. That’s a huge one because when you transfer to this mode of learning, it’s a little bit the sort of Wikipedia model, although Wikipedia is a horrible example because of representation in Wikipedia and the stats we have on that, but the idea that you can pay attention to all the voices in your community but the open movement is really wrestling with this right now to figure out how much is about open and licenses and sharing and how much is about creating an ecosystem of inclusivity, access… the kinds of things that truly do shape a commons, which we mostly don’t have in education, so the commitment, I think, is for me is less to the technicalities of open and more towards the long-game vision, which is really about how do we bring more voices to the table to engage in the community for whatever the community’s needs are.

John: I wanted to go back to a point you made earlier; it reminded me a little bit about some behavioral economic studies and I haven’t thought about this before, but I think it’s relevant. There was some interesting experiments done by Dan Ariely a while back. Dan Ariely calls this the IKEA Effect and he notes that when Duncan Hines first started selling cake mix they sold horribly and the reason was you just added water, you stirred and you baked and people didn’t feel that they had created something, so they changed the mix so you had to add an egg to it and stirred and mixed in and baked it, but by the simple act of breaking an egg and mixing it in, it felt like they had created something in a way it wasn’t where they just added water. One of the experiments he did was he had people create these origami by following directions… of paper cranes and he asked them to evaluate how much they thought their creations were worth and then he swapped them and he asked them to evaluate someone else’s creation and people valued their own at roughly twice as high as the others across the board, and then he changed it in another iteration of this and he took some of the directions out… so it was really hard to replicate and objectively, when people evaluated the other people’s that time they rated the value of them much lower in terms of how much they were willing to pay, but because they put more work into building these things themselves, they rated their own creations much higher, and the simple act of creating something gives you this feeling of ownership and value that I think would be a useful part of this in terms of getting students much more engaged with the process and more engaged with their own learning.

Robin: Yeah, so I would say two things about that super fascinating set of stories that I’m totally going to use all the time, maybe tomorrow, when I speak with your faculty. So the first is that we run a customized major program where students create their own majors and the cake mix effect is enormous in our program; we have almost a hundred percent retention in our program, which I think is so very much attached to this idea that if you create it yourself that sense of ownership is huge. So, the one way I would revise your stories is the Duncan Hines model is kind of a slight of hand, right, you know, we could of just put the egg in there, and so that’s the part that I’m always wrestling with is this no hoops and mean it, so it’s actually kind of a big leap because in education we’ve known for a long time that we want to build student ownership, but we do a lot of tricks to kind of say, doesn’t this look like ownership, so how do we authentically do that instead of just sort of fake removing the egg and that’s where I think you see a lot of institutions push back—they are happy to make their students feel empowered, but they are not happy to empower their students.

John: That’s scary.

Robin: Yeah, it’s very scary and we talked about student-centered learning; when I started doing student-centered learning I was like, “Chumps, you are not doing no student-centered learning because once you center your students the whole course changes, falls apart a little bit.” It’s also the magic of tenure; it’s very risky to do a lot of the things that I’ve been blessed enough to be able to experiment with it, which have paid off, I think, hugely for our students, but there’s a lot of pushback sometimes from students and oftentimes just from institutional structures that can’t really accommodate learning that looks like this very easily, so that egg is kind of the whole thing there, right, and I love your metaphors; I’m gonna borrow them.

Rebecca: When you want to be authentic that also means that you have to be ready to completely change any plans; it’s like, oh, now we’re going down this rabbit hole that I didn’t know we were gonna go down, but I guess we’re going there and we’re all gonna go together and be open to that.

Robin: Some people are like wired for that, like my husband is a sculptor and that’s kind of the studio ethos, but so not how I came to teaching. I mean, I didn’t have my lectures written out but just super organized and when I would come to an epiphany it was always an epiphany that I had planned for many weeks… I think, “Oh my gosh, this reminds me of this thing, can you believe it?” And of course I knew all along that we were gonna be arriving at that epiphany, so when students would move in a different direction, even if I could tell at the time it was brilliant, you would have to pull them back to the place that you were going, but I have definitely changed my mode of operation because the content, really whatever you teach, it doesn’t exist in the world in 14-week packages, so the idea that you can’t do such-and-such because you’re going to miss this key fundamental thing is just bizarre when you think of the scope of knowledge, so I understand people wrestle with accreditation and we wrestle with standards and all these things are realities. But, for the most part, I think really radically meaning a lot of those buzzwords that we use is revolutionary. If you read your mission statement for your university and then you actually do some of that stuff, it’s gonna be crazy; nobody’s actually doing the things they say that they do, in my opinion.

Rebecca: A couple of weeks ago we had an episode about metaliteracy, which expands the idea of information literacy to include the idea of creation, so the idea of becoming more literate in the making of things as part of that information literacy process, which is clearly very connected to the idea of being open, especially when your students are creating this content and creating knowledge. The question that I have is one that I’m wrestling with currently as an educator who’s really about access as well, but I’ve been focusing a lot on access for people with disabilities in thinking about accessibility in that way, digital accessibility and learning those skill sets and where those come in and how do we make sure that things are visually organized and consistent so that an experience through these things that students are making is a good one for everyone who comes afterwards as well?

Robin: I am so happy that you asked that question because this has been my last three weeks; I have barely slept because I’ve started getting so excited. So, for probably the last year or so my own personal challenge has been to think about accessibility in terms of making our materials more accessible, so I’ve been learning about how screen readers actually work in order to fix my own syllabus to redo a lot of annoying things because I didn’t realize you had to use the headings to make things easier. So, I’ve just been learning that basic stuff and that’s been just a long, slow and interesting process. One of the last things that I really hadn’t learned about at all or hadn’t even really thought about was in giving presentations, which I give a lot, I had to think about slides… and so at Open Ed ‘18 in Niagara Falls… I wasn’t there, which is actually an important part of the story because one of the keynoters was Jess Mitchell, who is kind of a mentor of mine in terms of accessibility stuff—she’d be a great guest—and Jess gave a really moving and powerful keynote focusing mostly on inclusion in open and she is very much an accessibility advocate and what was amazing to me as someone who was not there and didn’t see a recording was when I looked at her slides afterwards I was able to experience really the whole keynote because they were designed to be accessible to folks who were in the room, text was organized in a certain ways and things were very clear and I came away really grateful for how she had set up these slides, which was interesting because they were really different than the kinds of slides I make. I had always prided myself on like “Robin made some fancy slides,” you know, they’re like just pretty and like visual impact and bold images, but because they were, I think, graphically designed in a lovely way, I mistakenly thought that that meant that they were actually accessible because they were clear in certain kinds of ways, but they weren’t, they weren’t set up well, so what happened was when I learned and saw in action some of the techniques that she was using, I started to look at this keynote that I was giving the other day—I had like two days left—and now the keynote was ready to go, all the slides were made; I looked at the slides and I was like, oh, crap, you know, no… So, I thought I’ll just redo these slides real quick, but what I ended up doing was really learning about the accessibility changed everything about how I approached the making, which actually ended up changing all of the ideas in the keynote in this dramatically productive way. So accessibility for me, of course, is not really just about like, oh, you have low vision or whatever; it’s very much part of this access broadly-writ idea… that openness… But beyond that because it’s built into how we build; it’s really about how we’re gonna design infrastructure and that is actually my passion right now; it’s less about making these materials—okay, so great, here’s an accessible material, great, they should be—but beyond that it’s about let’s just design an ecosystem now with access at the heart. So, in terms of accessibility, none of that sort of retrofitting one-by-one whatever, but also just what would happen with everything if access for the broadest array of learners was key. I was recently in Providence, Rhode Island at College Unbound, which is just a very cool program for adult learners completing college—they have to have least nine credits to start—but many of them have many more… and there are mostly students of color, mostly poorer students and mostly, I’d say, they seem like over 30 in age and they start their seminars with a hot meal and then after the hot meal they go into their different cohorted seminar rooms and tons of those students have their kids with them and the kids are just a normal part of the learning environment there and the whole place is designed around what kinds of access people needed, what times of day and what services in order to come here to learn and I just feel like everything about the content that we’ll produce and the ways we’ll set up schools and just everything will change if that’s how we build—we build around what I might call human beings, right, which is like the most innovative idea of all, right, it was not technology, it was humans.

John: Audience matters, as Rebecca is fond of mentioning on this podcast.

Rebecca: I almost did it earlier but I…

John: Well, I did it for you this time.

Rebecca: …I contained myself. [LAUGHTER]

John: But, It is important.

Robin: And it’s exciting, I mean, honestly, it’s just exciting because you do realize when you start thinking this way that it is again gonna change everything, right, you’re not just gonna put a caption on your video, it’s gonna be like every single thing is gonna change and that’s why it’s also important to say like, “Here’s how I still suck,” because you can’t just decide to do this and then be done. I’m just learning every single day, I’m messing up every single day and I think it’s better to kind of own that and think of it as a process, which is really invigorating.

Rebecca: To speaking about the process, how would someone get started? What advice would you give someone who is inspired to be more open in their process and the way that they teach and what they put out in the world? What’s the first step?

Robin: Well, the first thing I might encourage people to think about is what excites or interests you here? I think starting with a thing is not really the way to start. So, for example, a lot of times people will come down into our teaching and learning center (where my office is co-located—in the teaching and learning center). So, people will come down—“I need to start a blog with my students”—“Oh, okay, we can help you with that, why do you want to do a blog? “I don’t know; everybody’s blogging.” “Okay, we got to blog.” You really don’t have to blog; you could blog, we could help you, but I think having a sense of the goal: do you want to connect your students out to their communities? Do you feel like that would be valuable for your students? Would you like to lower some access barriers for your students? For me, there’s a lot of excitement that happens when I think about the hardships that we face in public education and trying to make a case for working in more public ways and what public work looks like, so I tried to start with what might excite faculty. So, you can do that on a one-on-one level or when I talk to large groups of faculty I usually start by helping them understand some of the implications of the high cost of textbooks, so if you just say to a faculty member, “That textbook costs a lot,” it’s too abstract. Usually they’ll just say, okay, this was 200 dollars and this one is $180; I’ve picked the 180 dollar textbook, I’m a good person… and they are… but showing them some of the data on what happens to students who can’t afford textbooks, and we have that data collected now and you can reach out to your librarians to access that data really quickly, talking about that with faculty and helping them see this as a social justice issue that impacts whether their students will pass classes, take credits, graduate from college, that I have found is persuasive, but then also talking about engaging their students in the world, really helping them to contribute rather than just consume, become better critical thinkers, all of those things are persuasive. Saying faculty don’t care about cost… I think first of all is not super true, but it’s also like we’re told all the time as faculty, cut costs. Cutting costs does not do wonderful things for learning most of the time. The things we’re asked to cut, especially in our public institutions right now. The age of austerity is decimating to innovation, in my opinion.

John: And the cost of textbooks has been rising at three to four times the rate of inflation for the last several decades?

Robin: Yeah, If you graph it out, I think the thing that I found most shocking was there’s the Consumer Price Index, you know, down below and then there’s the spiky line of the textbook cost and then if you map healthcare—it’s actually in between—it hasn’t been rising as fast as textbook costs, so I think people sometimes find that alarming.

John: Shocking, because that was also rising much faster than the inflation rate.

Robin: Exactly.

John: Going back to the issue of access, the students who have the most trouble affording textbooks often come from households where the parents have less education. Because there’s less early human capital development in those households, those students are already often starting at a bit of a disadvantage and many of them will choose either not to buy the book or wait as long as they can before buying the book. So, they’re far behind when they’re starting their classes and that would be a major factor in their retention on campus.

Robin: Yeah, actually some of this data that you’re talking about comes from the Florida Textbook Study in 2016, which is very persuasive for faculty, I think, but there’s some really new data—Eddie Watson out of Georgia, I believe, that just came out that shows that the benefits of switching to OER in terms of things like course throughput rates, grades and passing and…

John: the drop, fail, withdrawal rate, yeah.

Robin: …that the benefits are especially pronounced for students of color and for Pell eligible students. Some of our most vulnerable learners stand to make the biggest gains when they have access right from day one, and faculty recognize this when you talk to them about it because they are very used to having the small number of students in this side of the room saying, “My check isn’t in yet; I need to wait two weeks until I get paid,” or “I ordered a cheaper version that’s gonna be here in six to eight weeks” or whatever, so nobody’s surprised by it, but to realize that you are actually empowered to solve a problem in higher education is surprising to people and OER actually solves a pretty concrete problem and pretty quickly and the data shows us it solves it pretty well.

Rebecca: So what you’re saying is that OER is the gateway to open pedagogy?

Robin: Well, it’s so funny… [LAUGHTER] I have actually become maybe more famous in the community for saying the opposite because that is actually the party line: catch them with the OER and then show them the pedagogy, but as you’ll see in the faculty development talk that I’ll do here at SUNY Oswego tomorrow, I do that a little bit but definitely I think people are kinda like, “Okay, I’m in, yeah, sure,” and then you start talking about the teaching and learning and that’s when people really kind of come alive and then they shrink back again because they say, “Well, that’s you, because you’re techie and you’ve been doing this forever” because it looks overwhelming and I just want to tell them, first of all, I’m an early Americanist; there is nobody less oriented to this work than I was when I started, but I only heard about Creative Commons maybe like four years ago, like that was the first time I heard of it and now every single thing I do is related to this stuff. The learning curve is overwhelming at the very, very beginning, but the tools that you use and the ability to make these kinds of changes, especially if you do them incrementally. It is really within anybody’s ability and people should trust me when I say that because my husband is a sculptor—he’s a studio sculptor, teaches welding and that kind of stuff and he’s doing all of this now. So, he does OER, but he’s also doing lots of connected learning and his students have their own domains and he is somebody who for the most part does not really even enjoy email, so anybody can engage and I think we need good librarians and good instructional designers and we need to keep funding teaching and learning centers because paying big money to fancy software programs and outside contractors, these are sort of Hail Mary passes to save education. But, in my opinion, teaching and learning and instruction shows real benefits, but we don’t invest in it and we therefore can’t expect to get the full rewards that we could get if we were really focused on working with our faculty.

John: And a lot of the really powerful tools used in these courses are free, like Hypothesis, as you mentioned before. Do you recommend, for example, the use of Pressbooks for OER materials?

Robin: Yes, I’ve been very inspired by the Critical Digital Pedagogy folks out of Hybrid Ped and one of the things they talk about is analyzing your tools and I’ve been really trying, along with my work in accessibility—the other kind of learning curve for me right now has been trying to go through my own tools and gravitate towards not just free but open tools and that’s challenging in some ways; in other ways we’re all ready to go. I favor nonprofit companies like Hypothesis and Pressbooks is Open-source software; I use it through Rebus Community, which is a non-profit OER publishing community that’s developing now under the direction of Hugh McGuire, who was previously with Pressbooks and developed Pressbooks. So, I think the tools should not stress anybody out because the tools will be different next week, right? So, it’s not worth getting too worried if you’re like, this tool it makes no sense, okay, well wait till next week; they’ll be another tool, but it’s good to ask critical questions about if we’re really trying to not just save some cash but to maybe transform into more of a learning ecosystem that focuses on the public good, then we need to build infrastructure that has similar commitments to the kinds of content we might look at or the kinds of processes we might use in our pedagogy. That’s my goal now, is to transfer whatever I’m using into tools that have the same sort of investments that I do.

Rebecca: Speaking of infrastructure… We have infrastructure for students in teaching and learning the classroom kind of side of things, but we also need infrastructure to support faculty who want to be open and do open publishing and do this public good or public discourse methods in general. So what recommendations do you have for helping us move in that direction for public scholarship?

Robin: Yeah, but there’s a lot of myth-busting that needs to happen around open access publishing. Mostly faculty do have some pretty good autonomy, so the promotion and tenure processes that faculty will tell you, “I can’t publish in this journal because it doesn’t meet the impact factor regulations for my field.” Well, those are mostly coming from, like that old joke, “It’s coming from inside the house,” right? Really what this is is about faculty education to help faculty understand that it’s not in the best interest of faculty or knowledge to have the commercial publishing industry stranglehold on academic publishing, but of course faculty are concerned that there are quality issues, they think open access publishing sometimes is like, “I self-published this on Amazon” or whatever, so helping them understand that there are definitely low quality, predatory open access presses just like there are low quality, predatory commercial presses and helping people understand that what you’re really talking about is not whether it’s open or closed but what’s the peer review and what are you looking for in peer review. I think we’re seeing lots of institutions move towards open access policies that give faculty lots of autonomy in how they control their materials, but we need to do a better job educating ourselves about what’s wrong and broken in academic publishing right now.

John: SUNY has just introduced an open-access policy for the whole SUNY system very recently, and (at least at our institution) the upper administration, including the President, the Provost, and the Deans, have generally been very supportive, but it doesn’t always make it down to the departmental chairs and personnel committees and that’s a barrier that, as you said, we’re imposing on ourselves and it’s tough to get through, especially if you’re a junior faculty member coming up for tenure.

Robin: That’s right, and usually I tell administrators that I work with, it’s great that you’re supportive; please don’t tell anyone, you know, because we don’t want these to be top-down initiatives, they have to grow from the faculty and I don’t mean that again in the kind of Duncan Hines egg sense—like a fake way; it’s important that faculty steward the new era of academic publishing—that matters; that should not come from administration, should not come from state legislators. The state legislators are only too excited really to say, everyone must use OER. I went to our board of trustees and they were really happy to give us money for open and they said, we’re gonna pass a resolution that everybody needs to consider an open textbook—I said, thank you, I don’t want your resolution; I’m very grateful… Because it really is important that we do the education at the source which really is for the most part with faculty and actually with students, I think, is where it matters and we’ll grow it that way and the reason I have hope is that I’ve never talked with anyone for any length of time and had them say at the end, well that’s horrible and stupid. There’s lots of nitty-gritty problems to iron out and the open access community does not yet know exactly what the best path is for funding open access presses or all sorts of issues, but it’s very hard to find someone to say to you what you’re saying is horrible, so I think that we will see huge transformation in both OER and open access publishing in the next five to ten years, but we need to grow it with our people.

John: And some of the STEM fields have led the way there; the National Institute of Health and all their grants require

Robin: NASA, the White House….

John: …that things be publicly available and in public access.

Robin: Yeah, and of course those publishing models are a little bit different because there’s so much grant funding in science and the public has a right and that might be a little bit different than, say, a monograph by a historian. When we talk about open we always want to talk contextually, I think, and specifically about what makes sense for, I think, two groups: the public and the knowledge—thinking about both knowledge and users for every different example.

John: Where do you see open pedagogy as going in the future? It’s a relatively recent area and you’ve been very actively involved in this, but where do you see things going in terms of new and interesting directions?

Robin: I cannot answer that question because it boggles my mind… the question you’ve asked and I don’t think I can answer it and it wouldn’t help me to go away and think about it. I think what I could answer is where I hope things are going, and I feel very strongly that there needs to be a robust connection between open education and public education, and I feel like we are in a very dark time where our public education channels are being insidiously co-opted for private profits, and even in some of our public institutions you’re seeing the language of public just dissolve, so we’re seeing college presidents saying, “Yeah, that’s over, that era is over; we’re not going to get any more public dollars; it’s dried up; we need to get corporate money, we need to do partnerships, we’re gonna fund ourselves in these new private ways.” I think this is our chance to intercede in what I see is a very downward trend and I think open education has some really incredible possibilities for helping us articulate what public practice looks like and if we can articulate what public practice looks like, the fact of the matter is, and I do not think this is an argument, I think it’s a fact;—it’s true—I really think it’s true that it is in the public’s benefit for the public to fund the kinds of public work that we’re talking about here for both students and researchers and if we could help explain why by being a little more coherent for ourselves with what it means to work in and at public education and research, I think we’d have a better chance at making that case for the public. So that’s where I’m hoping to take all of this is to say really what we’re talking about here is a resurgence for public education at the K-12 level, resistance to the charter takeover and higher ed to say it’s time to reclaim a public mission for our public universities and fund them appropriately and realize that innovation comes from people and not from private, gated… Right now, the idea is that all things innovative thrive in the market and I think that’s because we’ve been intentionally starving and strangling our publics. Wow, that was like really radical.

Rebecca: That was good, yeah.

John: And it’s an important message.

Robin: I think it’s coherent and I think it’s persuasive; I feel people come alive when I talk about it, but we need also some national leadership on this both from inside education and inside government and I don’t just mean nationally,—the United States is in a squalid mess right now, which it is—but just even in the Obama years and whatever like who are our champions for public, where is that coming from? I’d like to see more mentors and like to see our college presidents use this kind of language—if you’d like to hire me to be your college president… [LAUGHTER] Call me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Maybe that’s a “what’s next.” [LAUGHTER]

John: So, we usually end these podcasts by asking, what are you doing next?

Robin: Tomorrow, I will be here at SUNY Oswego. You know, the question of next is a really hard one; My own personal life has been changed so radically by this. I never saw myself leaving the English department, I never saw myself having a whole in some ways second career. I used to be asked to be department chair because it was your turn, not because I was anything special, and I would go under the table, you can’t make me do it. I declined everything. I really think, though, people with a grassroots passion for doing this work need support at higher levels in higher education. In terms of me personally, I started thinking about trying to step into some of those roles and I can’t say I feel sort of super personally excited about some of the aspects of that work, but I know that even though I see this as a grassroots movement,—and I do use that word—it’s really hard to change institutions, and in order to do it we’re gonna need to get people at every level to care about these kinds of things and so I’m inspired by people like Tressie McMillan Cottom and Sara Goldrick-Rab and they’re faculty, but they step out to set a national example, and I’d like to maybe think about trying to move this stuff a little bit more institutionally, as opposed to just inside of programs or with particular faculty development events. I’d like to see some institutions really step out and lead. SUNY is doing a great job. You guys have about 48 of your 64 institutions, I think, actively engaged and you are careening towards some system-wide impacts, partnerships with CUNY, statewide conversations; this is where I think things really get exciting to me.

John: The community college and SUNY have really been leading and they’ve been very active in doing this. The four-year colleges have been moving, but not quite as quickly and the university centers have a bit more inertia. So, SUNY has been making some really great efforts in providing incentives and doing a lot of encouragement and the workshops they’ve been funding have helped to try to get more grassroots movement, but it’s not as quick as many of us would like, but it’s much faster than it was a few years ago.

Rebecca: Incremental change is still change?

John: It is.

Robin: It absolutely is. Someone was telling me… Is this an economics thing about the parable of the ant, that ants are going up a hill? Okay, somebody on Twitter, you just sent me this,—I’m losing my brain now—but anyway, an ant is going up a hill and when because of the position of the ants eyes they can’t assess the whole hill, so all they do is at every point they could assess, I want to get to the top of the hill, and all they can assess is, okay, this is the next step that I take, so then the ant gets to the next step and it assesses again and that’s the kind of way incrementally the ant will get up. In that sense the ant doesn’t really even have to know where it’s going; it is just able to constantly resurvey and take one more step and I found that really reassuring when someone sent that over to me today. That’s kind of a metaphor for how you can keep going when you don’t always know exactly where you’re going, and also to your other point, community colleges are clearly the national leaders in this work and I find that really good for education because community colleges are actually really good at teaching and learning and it’s important to look at what they’re doing with open to learn our lessons, but also we can just learn a lot from partnering with our community colleges more effectively.

John: And they’re often the first point of access for first-generation students who may find it difficult to go directly into a four-year college, and they have many of the students who most need that sort of access.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for spending time with us and engaging us in this really great conversation; I hope that incremental change becomes much bigger increments as we hear more people and more people get on board.

John: And if you get one person in department doing it, it’s a whole lot easier to convince others to try.

Robin: There’s no secret trick or no secret sauce, it’s just people, so every time somebody as a human gets invested you actually get a lot closer to where you’re going, I think. It’s exciting, it’s exciting, and thank you guys for having me because this like fancy stuff and I feel very listened to and I’m gonna put all sorts of pictures on Twitter of myself in front of these microphones. [LAUGHTER]

John: Okay, well thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

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

[MUSIC]

51. Engaged scholarship

Many of us live and work in communities where there is a strong town and gown divide. Building trust, engaging authentically, and developing deep understanding through intergroup dialogue takes time, patience and the right structure. In this episode, Dr. Khuram Hussain, an Associate Professor of Education and Interim Dean at Hobart College, joins us to explore a model of engaged scholarship that challenges the academy to engage in dialogue with and work alongside the community to address pressing local issues.

Show Notes

Transcript

John:Many of us live and work in communities where there is a strong town and gown divide. Building trust, engaging authentically, and developing deep understanding through intergroup dialogue takes time, patience and the right structure. In this episode, we’ll explore a model of engaged scholarship that challenges the academy to engage in dialogue with and work alongside the community to address pressing local issues.

[Music]

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

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

John:…and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[Music]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Khuram Hussain, an Associate Professor of Education and Interim Dean at Hobart College. Welcome, Khuram.

John:Welcome.

Khuram: Thank you for having me.

John:Our teas today are:

Khuram: I’m actually drinking coffee. I hope that’s ok.

Rebecca: You and most other people. [LAUGHTER] We’ll let it go.

Khuram: I will end the day with tea.

Rebecca: Ok, perfect. I think we had a recent guest who also ended the day with tea. Today I have chai.

John:And I have pineapple ginger green tea.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good. You always are far more adventurous than me.

Khuram: If it’s any consolation, I have a little cardamom in my coffee, which I typically put in my tea, but I really like it in coffee as well.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I should try that.

Khuram: I highly recommend it.

Rebecca: Do you have an advice about how much?

Khuram: One. One is good.

Rebecca: One is good. [LAUGHTER].

Khuram: If you want it a little stronger you can crack it and then let it sit and it’ll be even more cardamom(y). [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Perfect. [LAUGHTER]

John:We see you’ve done some work with engaged scholarship and service learning. Could you tell us a little bit about what is meant by engaged scholarship for those who aren’t familiar with it?

Khuram: Engaged scholarship is essentially the integration of community needs with learning and it involves addressing community needs along with whatever respective disciplines and skills a scholar may apply to a particular condition. It could be anything from developing a literacy program that is also being useful and utilized in a community, but drawing from that community in order to make sense of what questions you want to answer. So, you’re not drawing it just from a review of literature or from a body of scholarship that emerges from conferences or a community of scholars, but in fact from a variety of voices within the community itself. It’s a much more community relevant approach to even designing research before you actually do it, and it spills out into community engaged teaching as well.

Rebecca: What got you involved in engaged scholarship?

Khuram: I first had the opportunity to do engaged scholarship as a professor of education at Hobart William Smith. I was teaching a course on the civil rights movement and a colleague approached me about volunteering to serve as a professor at a maximum-security prison, and the program there was run by a Bard Prison Initiative where long term inmates were given the opportunity to enroll in an undergraduate program. And so I taught the exact same course that I was teaching on campus within the educational space that they had created for prisoners (maximum security prison) and that was my first chance to think about the ways in which the needs and realities of communities outside of campus and inform the work in learning on campus and could also inform my notions of scholarship.

John:Your work is a form of service learning in terms of the student involvement in it. How does your approach differ from the more traditional service learning approaches?

Khuram: I think that a lot of what I have seen in traditional or conventional service-learning approaches is that there’s a great focus on the ways in which our students will learn by “doing for” communities. So how can we help children learn how to read? How can we provide food to food-scarce areas? And that becomes such a central narrative and the assumptions that young people have about what service-learning is is that we’re gonna learn through service for, and what I think is unique and special about the kind of work that many folks are doing today and I hope to be a part of that (and I hope I have been a part of that) is to do service with. To move from that model means we are required to collaborate and to take a much more team-based approach to service work and the learning then moves both ways. The service then moves both ways, and that I think is the fundamental difference between what we’ve been trying to do the last few years and what we’ve often seen provided to students.

Rebecca: How does your engaged scholarship relate to the service-learning projects and things that you do with students?

Khuram: In part, the ways in which engaged scholarship works is by providing students and faculty and community members an opportunity to create knowledge out of the questions and concerns that emerge in community related work. So for instance, we started an initiative known as “Tools for Social Change” some years ago, and before we looked at any kind of service project we looked at the ways in which the community saw itself. How did long-term residents see college campus residents? How did college campus residents in the same city see long-term residents of the city? And put them into intentional dialogue, first through interpersonal relationship building and then talking about social and structural issues that have informed their understanding of themselves within the city. And within larger structures of identity, race and class particularly. After they developed that understanding we asked, “Ok, what does this community mean to you? Where do you feel empowered? Where do you feel isolated?” Based on the answers to that, we were able to map out a different kind of geography. Even though we had developed a sense of connection and collectivity as members of a community that had been dialoguing all semester, we were operating within a city that was deeply segregated and divided, and so it was from there that we looked at scholarship. We looked at research that we could pursue, and one of the first things that became really important for us to consider was the way in which the economics of the city and the capacity of some to gain access to jobs opportunity was very different than it was for others. And so we ended up taking that initial group and developing wider groups that would go out into the city and inquire… essentially do a self-study of the city about the economics and economic opportunities that were available. And so essentially it was these two stages: first of engaging in dialogue; coming to an understanding of what shared community work could be and then going out into the city with the same participants and essentially conducting appreciative inquiry and having students and faculty and community members (long-term community members) interviewing members of the community, and we were out at the Salvation Army, we were in barbershops, we were in laundromat, we were in every corner of the city and particularly in corners of the city that didn’t often have a strong voice or were not well represented, I should say, in conversations about economic development. We were able to take those, transcribe them and give them to members of the working group that are trained qualitative researchers. They synthesized that, summarized it, and we were able to present it to the city. So, here we’ve created knowledge and we’ve created it through a certain kind of process, right? You might want to call it bottom-up, but I like to see it as horizontal; it’s relational knowledge, and that, I think, is one of the most powerful things about service-learning with as well as engaged scholarship with.

John:That group that was doing the analysis of the data… Were they faculty? Were they students? Was it some mix?

Khuram: It was some mix, but here you do have kind of a hierarchy of knowledge and skill, I should say, in terms of how to do this, and so students and community members were trained by ethnographers and researchers on how to hold a tape recorder, what kinds of questions, and how to ask questions, the ethics of confidentiality, and then they went out and they conducted (after receiving a few weeks of training) these interviews in the community and it was the researchers, mostly faculty, that then booked and analyzed that data and ultimately synthesized that data, but every turn there was some part of this that was democratic and collaborative. Even the questions themselves were questions that the participants generated in concert with other community members. What is it that we want to know about ourselves? And so those were the questions that were ultimately used when we did the broader interviews.

Rebecca: Sounds like a really powerful way of breaking down the town-gown divide that happens in a lot of communities where there’s an institution of higher education.

Khuram: I think that it was transformational for all of us. I don’t think anyone could truly have appreciated what was going to happen, and I think part of it is because it was an open conversation and we sustained a certain level of openness, curiosity, and vulnerability to each other as well as what we hope would come out of it, and I mean for me it’s transformed the way I think about everything from teaching to service to even social action and the role of institutions of higher education in really engaging in communities, and so the power of it, I think, was also to reveal what’s possible that we are capable of operating on different terms and the institutions of higher education do not need to be paternalistic in their engagement with communities and they do not need to take a charity-based approach in their supportive communities; they can be collaborative, it just requires us to match strength to strength to define the things that are going to be valuable for college students and faculty and staff to learn from communities and what communities will benefit learning with their work with institutions of higher education.

John:It strikes me too that this type of project could be much more sustainable. Many service-learning projects or one-off projects where the students work and do something in the community or to the community or for the community, but when you get the community itself engaged it swould seem that that could, at least for some types of projects, set the stage for continued collaboration, either with later groups of students working with them or with the community itself. Has there been much success in continuing the efforts once the classes ended?

Khuram: I first off want to say that I absolutely agree that service-learning is conventionally structured as a one semester project-based or hour-based experience, and it’s usually focused on alleviating one particular social issue, and what we have found is that it’s necessary to do year-long initiatives and we’ve been very fortunate to see that this initiative has been able to sustain itself for over three years, but that’s required us to allow it to evolve into what it needed to and one of the biggest parts of that has been that it has been untied from any particular course. It used to just be tied to my classes and so students would do service learning project were tied to classes they were taking with me. Now, students are participating as participants in independent studies, they’re participating in different working groups that sustain themselves a little bit more autonomously, and that is also true for a lot of long-term community residents that have joined smaller working groups. There’s a working group on food insecurity, there’s a working group on political representation, there’s a working group on economic empowerment and economic opportunity, and so any one of these working groups becomes its own kind of autonomous community that intersects with long-term residents and college students and faculty and staff and that, I think, is a sign of progress and health, is when the institution of higher ed that’s tied to these projects doesn’t need to own it, control it, and manage every aspect of it. If it can become a little bit more fluid and have its own purpose outside of a predetermined purpose from the institution, it becomes more organic and more impactful often.

Rebecca: The continuity that set up in a structure like that of “community who doesn’t go away” versus students who drop in and out as they go through four years—they’re a member of the community but then they often leave—seems like it’s a really useful model for not only making the learning better but just making the impact better. Can you talk a little bit about the community’s response to these projects.

Khuram: Yes, drive-by service-learning isn’t the way to transform communities or students; it requires a real, authentic engagement, and I think when you put people in real situations you get real outcomes and that’s across the spectrum. So you’re going to get people that are going to collaborate, develop great friendships, but you’re also going to get friction and struggle and honest expressions of frustration with one another. And so that becomes a part of it too, so our students need to learn or end up learning—whether they need to or not—the ways in which their participation is both important but sometimes limited. They are going to sit and be witnesses to long-standing struggles in a community; for instance, long standing struggles between law enforcement and communities of color, and they’re going to find their own footing in those spaces; they’re going to need to make sense of how to be an ally, how to be an advocate for an inclusive community that they now belong to, so the stakes become a little bit more real. But I would be a little bit disingenuous if I was going to imply that it’s neat and tidy. I’ve received pushback at times. I remember we were holding a dialogue and I had said that we’re really starting to build some really empowering opportunities here and someone coughed and said, you’re from the colleges; you have all the power. It was a great check on my own assumptions about how I was being seen in that space… that participating in a community activity while still being associated in some ways representative of a very wealthy, multi-million dollar institution in a post-industrial Rust Belt City is not going to play out in someone else’s mind the way that it might in mine. Now what I’m proud of in that work is that someone felt that they were in a space where they could call out people’s unseen or unacknowledged privilege, and that I thought was really important for other people to see, and for me to experience, but it also means that tension in real relationships is ongoing. Honestly, we are not dealing with a utopian situation where we’re all playing on equal terms; we’re coming with different levels of capital and different levels of support within that community, so even as we do this work, my students are good to remember, as am I, we cannot be tourists in other people’s lives, that if we have certain privileges this is a place to take responsibility for some of them.

Rebecca: In a situation like this where tensions can be high, differences big sometimes, and you’re trying to dialogue, how do you set up that environment so people feel safe, like the situation that you’ve just described.

Khuram: Always sit in a circle. Always begin with some expectations. What do we need from each other to have respectful and productive and meaningful conversations? Let’s create those standards together and revisit them every time we sit in circle together. Have people that are prepared to facilitate, that have training or are getting training in facilitation; that needs to be, I think, a critical piece of that, because while it is important to hear from everyone, there is a lot of value in having someone who can reflect back some of the bigger messages and patterns that are emerging in the conversation, someone that can point to the standards that we’ve set for ourselves and what we expect as our best way of engaging, and to remind people that there are strategies that we’ve identified when things get really heated where we want to go with that. So, I think being very intentional about creating a dialogical space, and for us, the use of intergroup dialogue and a lot of the pedagogical strategies developed by the University of Michigan Intergroup Dialogue were very important and helpful resources to get started.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that I was hearing here that I want to just note, is if you’re having one of these conversations that you should have a facilitator and that the facilitator is not really participating in the conversation but rather facilitating the conversation. I think that can be challenging if we want to be involved in those conversations, but you need to make sure that you’ve picked that person and that person is staying as a third party.

Khuram: Yes, absolutely. And we typically have two people that will facilitate and that way there’s still some opportunity to give feedback or response or to slightly move out of a facilitator role, at least in terms of being able to share some ideas. But yeah, it does require you to pull back a bit. But having two facilitators… and it isn’t something that can’t be learned; I don’t think that people have to be lifelong professional facilitators. Most teachers are facilitators, and most of us have some experience facilitating or mediating conversations between others. As much as it’s important to start with people that have a background in facilitation, I think ultimately you want to end in a place where many of the participants feel comfortable and can contribute to the facilitation process over time, so we would meet every week. Ideally, we wanted to prepare people for their opportunity to do some facilitating. At this point we’ve seen dozens of participants go on to do much more formal facilitation in other spaces. That’s something that I’m very proud of and I’m very proud of them, I should say, for what they’ve accomplished.

John:You had mentioned some broad categories of tasks and working groups. What were some of the specific projects that were undertaken by people working in these projects in the community?

Khuram: All of these emerged dialogically as members of the campus community and long-term residents of the community talk through ways in which they felt connected and disconnected. We had four big ones, I’d say. We had community police relations, economic opportunity, food justice and food insecurity, and political representation. I’ll touch on each of them a little bit and then if you want to know a little bit more about any one of them I can pause. So, for food justice and insecurity, part of the challenge was an immediate one where it was about galvanizing community members to glean food and to increase access to fresh food, so we had volunteers doing gleaning. In the midst of that they were also looking at the president’s food deserts and dialoging along with community members about their access to nutrition and presenting some of those findings to the City Council and the Mayor. Or police community relations, we had two dedicated members who were part of a standing committee known as the Community Compact that met with different members of law enforcement and city government on a regular basis to talk about police-community relations and to develop programs to engage the community as well as to address certain policies. Then we have political representation, and for that what we saw was a wonderful volunteer energy of members of our entire group that went out and facilitated dialogues between political candidates and community members. Unlike conventional town halls where you’d have people sitting behind a table or behind a podium, we chat in circle with political candidates, and we had facilitators asking questions and facilitating dialogue in a pretty different kind of environment than I think a lot of us have when we engage with people that want to be elected, as well as elected officials. So we ran those, along with giving people an opportunity to register to vote. For economic empowerment, we trained facilitators to go out into the community in pairs and to hold circles in different corners of the community… in laundromats… in a variety of public spaces… to ask them what were the ways in which they were experiencing opportunity and what were the ways in which they were limited from economic opportunity. We also explored with them if they could wake up tomorrow to a different city, what would it look like? What opportunities would exist? And we took all of that and made it a final document called the “Big Talk in a Little City,” which has become an important and integral part of the city’s long-term commitment to economic empowerment, and so, not only are those voices and stories included in an official document, those voices and stories are now helping to shape policy and resource distribution in the city.

John:How have students reacted to this? Have any of them considered careers as working with communities and such things?

Khuram: For some of our graduates this has been life-changing. I think that one of the most fundamental things that we did well was simply to put people that would otherwise never have encountered each other in the same room and to ask them to share their stories and to talk about themselves. Developing those personal relationships between people that would otherwise pass each other on the street without a glance. People that had age differences, 40, 50, 60 years, people that had racial and socio-economic differences and geographic differences were suddenly having dinner at each other’s table, knew the names of family members, and knew the smallest things about one another were coming to their respective graduations and ceremonies and really becoming participants in each other’s lives. So, for a lot of our undergraduate students, having an opportunity like that is so deeply transformative because now policy is not just a matter of abstract equity and justice; it’s a matter of empathy and equity. You feel differently for someone who feels like a friend or family when they are in need and that informs your approach to policy and your approach to work in a community differently. So, we’ve had students that have gone on to do some really powerful work in law clinics, AmeriCorps and have stayed in the community to do some of that work because it was so transformational and they committed so much of their learning to this kind of engagement that they want to continue it. We do have a few folks that took a gap year between graduate school and stayed on, or decided to pursue a different kind of professional path because of the work they did.

John:That’s impressive.

Rebecca: It’s really exciting.

Khuram: I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it.

John:Could you give us some idea of the scale of this—how many students are involved and how has it grown?

Khuram: We started with a relatively small group of about 20 students and 20 long-term community members, and in terms of active participants, it never really went much bigger than that, but it sustained itself over time and it also engaged a lot of other students and long-term community members for months at a time. What I mean by that, for instance, is a lot of our sustained participants would engage their friends, their roommates, their neighbors to come to our weekly sessions. So, we would oftentimes have topical session that were open to the public and those open sessions we could have up to 60, 70, 100, 200 people at those sessions, and so we had an active presence for quite a long time in the community when the courses were running, and now that we have the working groups there’s smaller numbers, but again, their impact, I think, in some ways is deeper because they’ve sustained some really deep work. One of the most incredible things that I saw the students do was they developed a course that would involve high school and college students learning together; so they essentially wanted to do what we were doing through these community dialogues in the high school. They wrote a course proposal, they submitted the course proposal, and after a few revisions and edits it was approved by both the college and the high school and we had a small group of about a half-dozen college students and a half-dozen high school students that took a course together at the high school. And that’s not a lot of people—but that doesn’t—what an incredible experience that they’re participating in something they helped codesign in order to address an issue that they perceive to be real across these age differences and community differences; that these teenagers and these college students together identified this town-gown divide and saw high school and college as a way to build bridges and constructed a course to do that and then participated in that course together. To me, that’s a kind of deep, transformative, impact that doesn’t quite reflect big numbers, but big experiences.

John:It’s certainly a testament to the impact that it had on those students that they were willing to do this and interested and motivated to do this.

Khuram: Absolutely.

John:How have your colleagues responded?

Khuram: I think that my colleagues have been excited, and I think that for many of them it created a new opportunity for them to engage. So, we’ve had faculty that have come in as participants, we’ve had them lead certain workshops and activities. They’ve come in with their expertise within their respective disciplines and fields. So, we’ve had a really great showing of faculty support. And part of it is we did not host this work on campus. We were very intentional about finding a place and space that was both a place that could be shared as well as a place that was easily accessible for long-term community residents, and so we found ourselves at the oldest black church in the city and a place that many of my colleagues had never been… that many people in the community had never been, and it was in the part of the city that is still segregated across a number of lines of race and class, and yet it was one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse spaces that you could sit in in the city and here it was in a historically or at least currently segregated space… and so I think the opportunity for faculty and for staff to engage with a community that they’re really caring about in a context that seemed more inclusive was really exciting and affirmed a lot of their values. I think this is something that people really want, it’s just a matter of creating the opportunity so that they can engage in it. I don’t think that most faculty or staff want to engage in these kind of vertical relationships with communities. It’s just how we’ve been doing things for so long.

Rebecca: Seems like your background in teaching about equity and teaching about intersectionality and doing some research in the classroom about these topics set you up really well to do this work. Are there tips or other things that could provide faculty who don’t have that same background that you could share to give us a doorway in?

Khuram: I think that in some ways having a background as a scholar in any kind of social justice or equity field can be a barrier, and here’s why. That work is always in your head and it is disembodied in the institution, and the institution is, by its very nature, disembodied from the communities that it surrounds. And so you can very easily be a deft and prolific scholar of social inequity and convey and facilitate inequity in your actual life. So really it’s not a guarantee of anything. I think the measure of your capacity is in the doing, and I think it’s really about addressing questions. Who am I inviting to the table? Where is the table? Who is not here? What do I need to ask now to get who’s not here, here? Those are the more important questions, and I think if we don’t presume that there’s a certain kind of institutional privilege that comes even with being able to wax philosophical about questions of equity, then we’ve already lost the plot. We’ve got to honestly think about the spaces and places in which we’re doing our work and the kinds of privileges that we need to interrogate about ourselves before we can do any of this work in equitable and meaningful ways, and so I would say this work is for everybody, and this work is for anybody who is willing to really work with community members and to find shared purpose with community members. It’s willing to listen and learn from… and is not just interested in providing to.

Rebecca: Those are such great reminders… and empowering to make sure that we can all find a way to help and work with the communities that we live in.

Khuram: Yeah, and sometimes it does mean maybe rethinking a service-learning project that’s a semester long and seeing if you can map it out over a year. Would you spend a semester just creating relationships between students, yourself and long-term residents of a community just in that exploratory project? and then say, “Ok, out of this what have we identified collectively as a community need that we can address as a class?” …so that you get, of course, that buy-in, which is so important, but there’s a truly transformative possibility that is emerged that simply wasn’t there until you took the time to really connect and build that relationship, so I’m also in practical terms a really big proponent of year-long service-learning initiatives and moving away from the pressures of a semester-long initiative, unless you’re willing to do half a semester of really just relationship building and collective meaning-making and then cut the service piece a little shorter.

John:We usually wrap up the podcast with a question: “What are you going to do next?”

Khuram: What I would like to do next is to start preparing and supporting students to be the initiators of this work. I am currently working with a couple student groups that are creating their own curriculum and their own activities to engage people in the community with. Right now it’s a youth-to-youth, college student and high school student initiative, and the aim there is to just be a guide on the side, to really maximize whatever space and context I can help create for students to develop their own initiatives for engagement. Again, along these principles of working with, but to see our students become the guides that they need that our students can be the leaders that they’re looking for and that they can help develop leadership in their communities, and so for me right now what that involves is again having college students and high school students connect and collaborate and learn from each other with really very little use of faculty and take from us what you need and build what you must.

Rebecca: Sounds really exciting. Thank you so much for all that you shared today; I think it gives us all a lot to think about. Not just think about it; we need to take action too. [LAUGHTER]

Khuram:Thank you.

John:Thank you.
[MUSIC]

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

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

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.

23. Teaching with comics

Looking for ways to increase student confidence in their ability to learn? Or their ability to see themselves as professionals in the field? In this episode, Carly Tribulli, a Biology Professor at SUNY-Farmingdale, joins us to discuss how comics may be created and used to meet students where they’re at, draw them in, and help them develop mental models of complicated processes and concepts.

We discuss Carly’s plans to create an OER biology textbook in which biological processes are represented using comic strips, her planned research on the effectiveness of instructional use of comics, as well the positive role model that she provides in Carly’s Adventures in Waspland, an instructional comic that Carly created for the American Museum of Natural History during her graduate study there.

Show Notes

Carly’s Work

Topics mentioned in the podcast (in order of their appearance):

Economics comic books:

STEM web comics recommended by Carly:

Transcript

Rebecca: Looking for ways to increase student confidence in their ability to learn? Or their ability to see themselves as professionals in the field? In this episode, we’ll explore how one faculty member uses comics to meet students where they’re at, draw them in, and help them develop mental models of complicated processes and concepts.

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.

Rebecca: Today our guest is Carly Tribull, an assistant professor at Farmingdale State College, where she mostly teaches general biology for non major students in entomology. Her interests include bugs, biology, and of course, comics. Welcome, Carly.

Carly: Hi, nice to meet you guys.

John: Welcome. Today our teas are…

Carly: I’m actually drinking… a kind of cold coffee. But, but it’s good. I like it.

John: Yeah.

Rebecca: …and it used to be warm.

Carly: It used to be warm. I got it about an hour ago, so I knew this was going to happen, but I was like “You know, this is my only opportunity to get coffee, and I know you guys like to talk about what we’re drinking…”, and I was like “ooh, yeah a coffee, cool… I could have lied…”

Rebecca: That’s true. I have a Paris tea.

John: and I have blueberry green tea.

Rebecca: So, Carly, can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve been able to combine your interests in art and biology in your educational and career paths?

Carly: So, I’ve always been interested in both art and biology ever since I was a little kid. I grew up in a very science-forward family. There was a lot of interest in me becoming a biologist and my parents were both very encouraging, and my dad always sat and watched those sort of Wild Animal channel, Discovery Channel shows when I was a kid, with all like this farming animals and stuff like that. So, I was always interested in the animals and eventually that led to drawing animals. By the time that I was in high school, I was taking formal training in art and doing AP art and things like that, but also very much maintaining my biology education. By the time I was later in high school, I was drawing comics. I had discovered comics around early high school. I read a lot of manga, and then I started reading more graphic novels, never a lot of the superhero comics, but more of the weird offbeat stuff like the Sandman, and a bunch of manga series. So I started drawing comics, and I drew a bunch of weird comics and then I entered college at UC Berkeley, and I was a double major in art and biology, and I just continued that path all the way through. And I was really stubborn about not giving up art, despite the fact that I had chosen not to go to a traditional art school. I knew at that point I was going to go into biology, but I was very much stubbornly holding on to art, and so what happened when I was at Berkeley, is that I was actually able to do biological illustration as an undergraduate researcher. And that was the very first research experience I ever had, doing biological illustration for a paleontology lab. This has always made sense to me as a biologist, because there’s a really, really huge history of biology and art meeting together. Especially in entomology, when you consider the work of Maria Sybilla Marian, who is one the famous female entomologists of her time (probably the only major female entomologist of her time) and she was really the first person to study metamorphosis. And much of the way she shared that information, since this was obviously way before photography, was by these really elaborate illustrations that were shared with other entomologists at the time. So to me, it’s always made sense that there is some sort of crossover between biology and art, and I think while I was in college I was very stubbornly imagining myself as becoming that type of natural historian. And then when I was in graduate school there was a lot of encouragement for me to continue doing comics, weirdly enough.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about your graduate program?

Carly: I went to the Richard Gilder graduate school at the American Museum of Natural History, and that’s a pretty long name, but historically the museum has always funded graduate students from the City University of New York, and from the Bronx Botanical Gardens, and from NYU and Columbia, but only within the past seven or eight years or so, did they decide to start their own in-house PhD program. So, we still have all of those students that are coming from other institutions, but only recently where we like, we’re going to create our own graduate program. It was very, very, very different from your standard evolutionary biology PhD program. Usually the big state public schools, and a few of the private schools that are strong in the sciences, have an evolution in ecology, biology grad program that you spend five to six years and that you TA undergraduates to support your stipend. But at the AMNH, because it’s a museum, there are no undergraduates for you to TA. and you also have to finish in four years. So, because you had no formal TAships, and the funding was very good so you didn’t really need them, you were very much encouraged to do these informal teaching assistantships, and to find your way into the outreach education side of the museum, or working on exhibits and making yourself part of the contributing community to the museum. That is basically how the grad school ran, and I did my PhD in the evolutionary systematics of these parasitoid wasps that I study.

John: It sounded like a really natural blend of your interest and a superb educational path for you, in terms of giving you a way of continuing your earlier interest.

Rebecca: Before we jump forward I’m really curious, Carly, as an art faculty member, if you could talk a little bit about that first project, that first opportunity you had as a student and how you got that opportunity to combine your interests. Was it something that you pursued or was it something that your faculty helped to nurture?

Carly: Kind of a combination of both. My freshman year at Berkeley, I took an undergraduate symposium with Kevin Padian, who is a vertebrate paleontologist, and it was very much your standard freshman seminar. It was actually very small, it was only about 10 students. We did some readings, we did some talking, and around that time I think I was looking for research opportunities, and so I started talking with him and I started trying to get myself into the lab as an undergraduate researcher for future semesters, and it came up that I’m a biological illustrator, or that I was interested in biological illustration, and I think at some point he was like “okay, show me what you got, go draw the T-Rex,” because there’s a big T-Rex in the center floor of the Valley Life Sciences Building at Berkeley. And I went down and I drew it as best as I could and apparently he was pretty satisfied with my work. So, I joined the lab, and I was assigned to a current PhD student at the time named Katie Brakora, and I actually drew some of the images that were used in her dissertation. And that was excellent. I didn’t become Kevin Padian’s biological illustrator, but I was working with grad students that were going through grad student life, finishing their work… and at the same time I was taking the core art classes, because I was a double major and I knew I was going to be a double major for my freshman year. So, I was doing all of your standard intro to drawing, intro to painting, techniques classes, and things like that and it actually worked out really well for me to be a biological illustrator, as sort of a side biology undergraduate researcher, because Berkeley’s art program isn’t really focused on illustration or comics. It’s actually much more of a fine arts program. So, sometimes I was actually butting heads with the other art faculty, because I was very illustration focused and they’re very studio fine arts, and I was like not all of us are going to become studio painters. So, illustration seems like a skill that I should be investing in.

Rebecca: What a great story. Thanks, Carly.

John: While you’re in grad school, one of your projects was developing Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land, and we’ve looked through that and it’s superbly drawn and fascinating. Could you tell us a little bit more about some of your work with illustrations and developing comics while you were at the American Museum?

Carly: I guess this goes back to how Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land started, which by the way is not the title I came up with it, that was the title that the museum folks came up with it, I was just like, “okay.”

John: Did you have a title?

Carly: No, I did not have a title, that was probably an error on my part. I was opening myself up there, I think it’s a fine title. It’s a little bit goofy that it has my own name in it, but, whatever. In my interview to get into grad school, I had actually brought my portfolio in biological illustration, which was very unusual. Of course, evolutionary biology does attract people who can draw, but I think I was the first person who had come to that relatively new program with a portfolio. [LAUGHTER] I was kind of a scrappy undergraduate. I didn’t do that great in my courses. I’m a terrible memorizer, which allows me to sympathize with other students that aren’t doing that great in intro biology, especially my own students, because I actually didn’t do all that well for the first two years. And part of making myself an attractive student to graduate schools, was actually building up my research curriculum. I did a lot of research with Marvelee Wake at Berkeley after the Padian lab, and then also building up this biological illustration thing early on. I interviewed with Jim Carpenter, he accepted me to his lab, and I think he was very impressed with the fact that I did illustration and apparently it stuck with him enough that when he got a grant from the NSF, he came to me about helping him out with the broader impact section of that grant, and broader impacts is where you actually have to make your grant meaningful outside of academia. So, it’s where you would have outreach education. He remembered from my interview that I like to draw, he came to me and he was like “do you want to work with the digital outreach education side of the museum, and create a project with them? “And I was like “yeah, sure,” and as long as it was about teaching kids about wasps, and the different types of wasps, I pretty much had free rein. I started working with Ology, which is the digital outreach section of the museum, and a lot of what would happen is collaboration between me, Jim, and the Ology folks, especially when it came to writing the script for that comic, because the Ology folks have way more experience in writing for middle school readers than I did. So there was a lot of modification of my script but mostly I had free reign when it came to the illustration side of things, and I also mostly had free reign when it came to the creative decisions, like the decisions to make the wasps anthropomorphic and have them talking with you, that was something I decided on, even though it isn’t truly a hundred percent scientifically accurate. It was something that both the Ology folks and Jim signed off on.

John: I liked it.

Rebecca: I thought it worked well for adults too, I don’t think it’s just for middle schoolers. I’m just saying… I know way more about wasps now than I did before I read it.

John: Me too, and it was much more engaging than reading a textbook description of those things.

Carly: Thank you so much!

Rebecca: I also just really love that you’re like a superhero in the story. What a great way for little girls and boys to see a strong female scientist… taking on the wasp. I just thought it was a really great way to frame the story.

Carly: Yeah, and I think the first chapter in Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land doesn’t actually talk about wasps but it sort of talks about me and how I became an entomologist. That wasn’t part of the original plan, but me and the folks at Ology, and eventually Jim was totally on board with this, felt that it was important that part of the broader impacts, should be showing young girls that they too could be an entomologist, this field that is commonly associated (at least by other people who are outside of entomology) as being male-dominated and being a career for boys… showing them that, that’s not necessarily the case. So, that’s when the strengths of comics especially when it comes to showing girls and underrepresented minority students that they can envision themselves also as scientists. That’s one of the things you can do with comics that I find really engaging… is that, in your choice of narrator, you can make those decisions.

John: I believe you’re releasing some of your materials under an OER license. Is that correct?

Carly: Yes, not Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land. That is an OER in that it’s freely available, but it’s going to stick with the museum’s website for the time being (as far as I know). What I’m putting on an OER license is actually the comic textbook that I’m going to be eventually making for the Farmingdale State general biology students, but it’s certainly going to be available to any SUNY professor or any professor anywhere.

John: Have you requested an grant for that or are you doing this on your own?

Carly: So, I’ve requested a summer stipend and I should be finding out about that soon. As you might guess drawing and writing comics takes a lot of time, much longer than say a written textbook would take, and there are certainly many professors that are working on written OERs for their class. So, I’ve requested a summer stipend and SUNY Farmingdale has recently announced that there’s going to be an OER incentive grant, so I’ll be applying for that too.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: You’ve also done some writing about using comics for science specifically, can you talk a little bit about the research that you’ve done in this area?

Carly: Yeah, so I think when I accepted the job at Farmingdale, I knew that I was going to be very, very, interested in making comics and researching the impact of comics… part of the research that I do for my tenure decision… and luckily the faculty here have been very supportive of that. Farmingdale is a primarily undergraduate institution, so there’s actually lots of professors that are also not only researching their scientific field or their artistic field, but are also researching educational techniques in their field. Part of preparing for that was actually some work that I did last year. I was actually invited to an open access issue from the Entomological Society of America, on educational communication in the sciences …and they had known over the years, because I kept presenting on comics, that my interest really lied in the use of comics as outreach education. So, I began actually searching through the literature because this was something I wanted to continue doing as a professor once I moved to Farmingdale, and it was also something that I just wanted to continue just as someone who was going to keep making educational comics regardless. And so what I found in doing this big review paper called “Sequential Science” is that there is much research in how comics impact the interest and attitudes towards the material, at students at a variety of levels, but there isn’t so much research in actually measuring their gains in content knowledge. So there’s lots of research to show that comics makes students at all levels more interested in the material, but not a lot showing and quantifying how much more they’re learning and retaining. So, I think that’s an area that I actually want to put more research into myself… but yeah I spent a lot of time for that paper reading a bunch of other papers about studies that had been conducted.

John: Have you started this research or is this a plan for future research?

Carly:This is definitely a plan for future. So the development of the OER textbook for gen bio is just happening right now, and anecdotally I’ve certainly seen students are more interested, so I do incorporate comics into my slides right now. They’re not my comics necessarily, they’re comics from a lot of different sources like Beatrice the Biologist or Your Wildlife, those are popular webcomics that are biology focused. I also make some drawings for them for the slides as well. In reality, any comic is just a set of sequential images. So, I can draw a set of sequential images that are explaining mitosis and meiosis. My students might not necessarily read those as comics or recognize them as comics, but they’re still comics because they’re telling an ordered set of events. So when I do that, anecdotally, I can tell you that the students are more interested… especially if there’s just been a slide with the textbook image and some complicated information, if I can show them that slide and then be like “oh let me break it down into these steps that I’ve drawn out” it seems to help them. But have I actually started measuring the impacts? No, not yet.

John: So do you have a research plan on that?

Carly: Yeah, so as the OER textbook is going to take some time to make. It’s probably going to take a couple of years to finish in its entirety, but there’s no reason that I can’t start exposing the students to the chapters as I complete them. So, until the OER is finished in its entirety, and given that I usually teach multiple sections of gen bio, I’m going to start setting up testing control groups just looking at small chapters, as I complete them. So, one class will receive the comics, the other class won’t receive the comics, and since both classes have the same test, I can actually see if there’s any improvement. Now, once the comic is finished in its entirety, that’s when I’ll actually begin the full-scale research… and what’s going to happen there is… again I teach multiple sections of gen bio… I can set up a test group and a control group. The test group will get the comic textbook and then the control group would get a traditional OER (probably the OpenStax gen bio textbook) and I can give them the whole textbook at that point and measure what their differences are in terms of performance using their midterms and their quizzes and their homework assignments. But I also plan on surveying them on interest, because although the interest and the attitudes might not seem as strong a topic as actual performance, I think when you’re teaching non major biology students (many of them who feel like they’re just there to check off a box), many of them who have prevailing biases against science… many of them who don’t feel like they can connect to science… I think it’s so important to measure those attitude changes.

Rebecca: Why does a sequential format work so well for a topic like biology? What do you see the benefit of being sequential in that way? This sequential art form.

Carly: So even in general biology, intro biology for non-majors, there’s still lots of processes that are multiple steps. So, I don’t know if either of you remember learning the Krebs cycle or photosynthesis. These are very complicated multi-step processes where something has to happen and then there’s a result… and then another thing happens and then there’s some sort of result. So, there’s plenty of stuff, even in the entry level biology classes, that lend themselves really well to a narrative. Comics really are any progression of images that build a narrative… now, that narrative doesn’t have to be fiction. The point is that there’s an order of events and together that order of events makes sense. You actually don’t have to add words for it to be considered a comic, but obviously the words help in the context of a biology class. I think given that there are so many multi-step processes whether you’re studying the Krebs cycle… or photosynthesis… or mitosis… or meiosis… or even natural selection or ecology… sequential comics… so these images, where you have processes that are laid out in order and broken down into steps, really help intro students.

John: Do you have an anticipated timespan on your textbook project?

Carly: I suspect that it’s going to be this summer. I probably have two and a half months that I’m not actually teaching, but I’ll also be doing research on my scientific stuff (on my wasp studies) at the same time. I suspect that I’ll be able to draft out the first half of the textbook and probably be able to complete about three to four chapters of it. So, I’ll have those chapters ready for the fall semester and then I’ll try to get some work done during the fall semester and keep building that project. I suspect in total it’s going to take me at least two summers and also the semesters between, where I’m actually doing much more work on sort of my regular school requirements to actually finish it.

John: Do you have any people who’ll be working with you on reviewing this and giving feedback?

Carly: Not yet, but I recognize the need for that. I want to have this textbook be one of the contributions that I have for getting tenure. Making a textbook is a common contribution for the tenure package, but to make a textbook you actually have to have some form of peer review if you’re going to go through a publisher. So, when you’re making your own OER and you’re publishing it on your own website, you might lose some of that aspect of peer review. The plan right now is to actually enlist a set of beta readers who are also science educators in their own field and have criticism from them. This isn’t quite the same as having peer review, but I think for now it’s the very best that I can do, but I’m certainly open to suggestion and open to constructive criticism and changing things up. One of the challenges of creating your own OER is that at some point you might lose the more rigorous aspects of submitting a textbook to a standard publishing company.

Rebecca: Will you have an editor working with you for this project?

Carly: Currently no one is lined up, but that’s a valid suggestion, to actually pay an editor… probably someone who works in science textbooks. But, I think before I can even get to that point, I actually have to have a fairly large body of material to show them in the first place.

John: I would think that one thing that would be useful is, once you have this material, adoptions and response from adopters could be used in place of the peer review.

Carly: Oh yes, certainly. And when I put it up on the website there’s definitely going to be a forum for educators to be like “You know what, this didn’t make a lot of sense. Can you change the wording on this?” So, treating this as a living body of work instead of: “oh, I published that, it’s done…” because there’s no cost associated with changing and the material outside of my own time cost because there’s no physical version. So, it actually wouldn’t be all that difficult for me to have those changes be something that’s constantly happening, especially as we find out better ways to teach say homologous chromosomes, or mitosis, or things like that. But even before I launch it, I still want to have beta readers that can give it a read-through even before that, but having the ability for educators to constantly give me comments would be something that’s on the main website.

Rebecca: What software are you using to manage the process?

Carly: The website build itself is through SquareSpace and that is because I have absolutely no training in making a website, whatsoever. So that’s the actual platform that I’m building the website through. In terms of drawing, I start a lot of stuff out by hand and then I usually draw it in Photoshop on a tablet. Certainly, there are times when my tablet is down and I have to draw it by hand, and then scan it… that’s also a possibility. There is something else I’m interested in and this is more of a conversation about OER versus publishers. On the major publishers textbooks right now… so, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Cengage, stuff like that… I think they’ve recognized that students can get OERs for free, professors can get OERs for free. So, what these publishers are doing now is that they’re offering adaptive learning systems, where you have assignments that get harder or easier as the student does better or worse, where the grades go automatically into the professor’s LMS which (if you’re at a school that doesn’t have grad students) is great because you don’t have a TA to do your grading. The publishers are offering these adaptive learning systems that go seamlessly into your Blackboard or your Angel (or whatever you’re using), but if you’re developing an OER you don’t have that capability. You can make standard multiple choice quizzes on Blackboard and give them to your students, but that’s not the same thing as an adaptive learning system that tracks your students progress. So, I would also be interested in working with someone (or maybe even SUNY at large) to develop platforms that actually make these adaptive learning systems… because then I think they’ll actually be able to convince more professors to adopt OERs.

John: Some of the publishers do have that. I know that Cengage, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill have been putting together packages of OER materials, where they add other resources to them (including some adaptive learning tools) that they release under a fairly inexpensive license. Another option might be to investigate Lumen Learning. Lumen Learning works with OpenStax and they package OER materials with some other materials they’ve created through a variety of grant-funded activities. But that might be worth doing and SUNY does have a contract with Lumen Learning on these things.

Carly: Yeah, I would like to work with someone that is not just SUNY…

John: Right..

Carly: I’m a SUNY professor but I would like people at the University of California system to be able to use my comics.

John: Lumen Learning is not restricted to SUNY.

Carly: OK.

John: SUNY happens to have a contract where they get a discounted price on the bundles when colleges adopt the Lumen Learning platform, but it’s basically a bundling platform that works with OpenStax and other OER materials.

Carly: Yeah, so that’s worth considering, because not only do I want to make the comic, I also want to make assessment tools… so that whenever professors are using my comic they also have a test bank… a way to create these adaptive learning assignments and things like that. So, this is something I’ve talked about before in my presentations at the Entomological Society of America… that you can’t just make a comic and put it out there for educators, you actually have to provide study tools, study guides, teaching plans, teaching lessons, to actually make it useful for educators.
I really like the idea of there being a platform where a professor could create their own test bank and then assign levels and topics to those questions and then just be able to import those into something that is automatically going to make adaptive learning assignments.

John: I don’t think we’ve got that yet, but there are a couple platforms out there: CogBooks and Acrobatiq. Both are do-it-yourself platforms for creating adaptive learning solutions and based on the Carnegie Mellon system,… which they’ve been doing for quite a while there. But it’s a lot of work, and it automates some of the process so you don’t actually have to do the programming, but you still have to work through most of the structure yourself. I noticed that you give students the option of making their own comics for extra credit. Could you tell us about that? how have students responded? and how has that worked?

Carly: Sure, so this has really come out of a desire to actually start generating and using comics in my class while getting the OER ready… because I have people who are asking me “What results do you have already? How have students responded?” And I’m like, “I haven’t finished the comic yet.” So, I’m aware of that and so that’s where incorporating comics into the classroom right now, while I’m preparing, comes from. General biology is a very difficult course for most incoming freshmen (which is the vast majority of the students I have). What it feels like to me is that I give all of my students the benefit of the doubt… I assume that they’re all studying… and when they do poorly on their first test I don’t say to them “Oh, it’s cause you guys didn’t study enough.” I say to them “No one has taught you how to study.” So a lot of my students, when they do poorly on their exams and they come to me during office hours, I ask them how did you study? And inevitably the answer I get is “I reread the PowerPoint notes, I reread the slides,” and so I’m like “No, no that’s not how you study, that’s just reading”. I try to emphasize that studying is the active reorganization and recontextualization of all of the information sources I’m giving you, not just my PowerPoint slides, but the lecture notes your hopefully taking in class, the textbook itself, the homework assignments. There are all these different forms of information that I’m giving you, and what I’m hoping you’re doing is actively reorganizing it. So, we talk about rewriting your notes. We talk about how to actually make flashcards that are effective. We talk about making flowcharts… and really from that last one… making flowcharts… that’s kind of like making a comic already. With the making comics as an extra credit, I’m really just encouraging to do another form of studying, where they have to take all this material for a midterm and they have to draw their own comic. So, usually what I do is I start the first couple of pages for them. So, on my Twitter right now I can actually send you an image of this first page I’ve made to kickstart their own process. So, spring break is coming up and they have a midterm, not the day after spring break that would be cruel, but the Thursday after spring break. That midterm is going to cover mitosis, meiosis, inheritance, and DNA transcription and translation. And these all seem like different topics but in reality they’re all very interconnected topics. You really can’t talk about mitosis until you can talk about alleles, and genes, and Mendelian inheritance and things like that. So I’m trying to encourage the students to conceptualize that these are all interrelated things because I think that I’ll actually help them memorize things better than just treating them as separate slides that they’re just reading through. At the end of next week’s Thursday lecture, the one right before spring break I’m going to introduce this project and hopefully I get some results from it. Previously I had done this at my last teaching position, which was at Sam Houston State University. I was a visiting assistant professor there, and for extra credit, I offered students the opportunity to make a comic on the same set of materials and I get responses… but the problem is that I get responses usually from the students who don’t need the extra credit. I think this is something that’s a common problem with offering extra credit… that inevitably many, many, many times it’s the students that don’t actually need the extra credit that turn in the extra credit assignments. Now. I still enjoy reading them and they still say that it was helpful and it’s a new study technique that they’re going to do, but reaching out to the other students is one of the challenges I’m facing as a young professor.

John: We all do that, it’s not just related to age. I know in my class I give them lots of chances to retake tests… the people who do it the most are the students who are already doing best in class. So, it increases the variance in the outcomes quite a bit when that’s not entirely the goal, you’d like to have everyone rise up but not necessarily spread out further on that continuum.

Rebecca: So, I’m curious with a project like this, do you use the opportunity as being a scientist who also as an artist to sneak in some art teaching as well? Do you use things like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics or anything as a tool to help students understand how to put together a comic and the medium of a comic?

Carly: I love Understanding Comics, it was like one of my foundational books when I was an undergraduate taking my first comic drawing class. I actually tried to avoid situations like that because I don’t want to discourage the students that feel like they don’t know how to draw. Which is a silly thing because everyone can draw… drawing well is a different thing. I don’t want them to get hung up on how good their drawings are. I want them to get hung up on how much conceptual sense that it makes. So certainly Scott McCloud talks about this, about how you can still have a comic that’s just stick figures. And so for me, I don’t want them to freak out about the fact that I’m an artist, and that I’m pretty decent at drawing, and that I expect them also to be pretty decent at drawing. But the funny thing about teaching non-majors is that inevitably some of them are art majors. So, that’s that’s always fun, they’re always surprised to find out when they come to my office and they see that I have paintings that I made as an undergraduate up on my walls and things like that. I would love to refer classic comic making literature, but it’s just something that I don’t have enough time when I’m just spending five minutes to introduce something. But, certainly… the students that come to office hours… we do talk about you know what makes a comic because I also have students that read a lot of comics. I have lots of students that are going on the Manga reading websites and a lot of students that talk about superhero comics with me when they find out that I like comics. So it does come up, but it’s usually not something I have time to make part of my already jam-packed lecture.

John: Students often have this perspective that they’re either creative or they’re good at quantitative skills in STEM fields, and it’s really nice that you’re modeling the possibility that you can be both.. That they’re not mutually exclusive.

Rebecca: That’s also why I like McCloud as a reference book too, because it’s not really about fine art in the traditional sense but rather about how to tell a story. Which is interesting and helpful and doesn’t really necessarily emphasize being able to draw.

Carly: Yeah, I think he has that… what does an expression look like, and it’s just like two dots for eyes, and then eyebrows, and then a line for a mouth, and you can get the full range of human emotion. And then I show students comics like XKCD, that is just stick figures and it’s really effective so, yeah. I try to avoid things where they feel like they have to be a professional artist, not to say that’s what McCloud does, you just pointed out that it doesn’t do that. But I try to focus more on the conceptual – like how does this help you study, you’re not just making this to impress me. And you get that a lot with extra credits, sometimes you feel like students are just doing those projects to get extra credit. Instead I’m trying to be like “Mo, no this is a study tool. This benefits you.”

Rebecca: Have you had any students follow in your footsteps and develop a love of both art and science and pursued you as a mentor?

Carly: At Sam Houston State, I certainly had students that like to come and chat with me and sort of explore those topics. But unfortunately, I had to leave there to start the position I have at Farmingdale, and unfortunately I just haven’t been here long enough to build those connections. One of the things I want to do, as I’m at Farmingdale a bit longer, and I get settled in, is actually propose a biological illustration class. So we have the ability as biology faculty to offer these topics in biology courses, and one of the ones I really want to do is biological illustration… especially since we share our building with art, or rather… I think it’s design communications… whatever the technical college…

Rebecca: Communications design… probably.

Carly: Yeah… but they’re still students taking drawing and watercolor and painting so..

Rebecca: How cool. That would be so fun.

Carly: Yeah, and you know what I actually kind of taught that course at Berkeley. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, there was this thing where students could actually teach one-credit non-graded courses. So, I actually offered a biological illustration course. Sort of one of those things to build my resume and make up for my not-so-great GPA, but I actually really loved doing it and it seemed like as long as you can get some specimens, and you can sit down, and you have a studio space, you can come up with some amazing work, and luckily I’m still a research associate at the Museum of Natural History, so hopefully they’ll let me borrow some animal mounts. But there’s also insects. Insects are great… they’re cheap and I’m also the entomology professor so it could just become entomological illustration and then of course Farmingdale also has a huge Horticulture Department and botanical illustration has always historically… much like art has been a big part of biology… art has been a big part of botany for a long time. So I think we have the ability to do this, and that there would be interest, and it’d be a cool collaboration with these two departments that are both in Hale Hall.

John: How have your colleagues responded?

Carly: I would say positively… extremely positively. I’ve been thinking more about transitioning into… not fully being a pedagogy researcher… but having it be a large part of what I do on the research side. So, I still plan on doing my usual wasp entomology taxonomy research, but I also want to do a lot of research that’s in comics and the use of comics. That was something that came up in my interview and I think it overall was a helpful thing, and even while I’ve been here I’ve talked about it a lot with my chair and she’s been extremely supportive, and my other colleagues have also been supportive. I haven’t received any negative pushback… which I think was something that I was expecting… because when you look at the literature about educators… whether they or not they want to use comics, there’s this fear… that comics have this bias against them. And so a lot of educators at the primary and secondary levels are kind of afraid of assigning them, and they’re afraid they’re going to be looked down upon by parents and by other educators. But I’ve been extremely fortunate, and I have faced none of that and largely the faculty have been very supportive.

Rebecca: I wonder if some people maybe perceive comics as just being not very rigorous. Which is crazy,because you can provide so much more information… because there’s a visual element as well as a text element. So they might actually be more rigorous.

Carly: Yeah. We talk about lack of rigor and lack of detail in textbooks anyways. If you look at a non major biology textbook it’s obviously not going to be as detailed as a major’s introductory biology textbook, and there’s a reason for that. You’re not teaching people who are going to continue in biology for the most part, so there’s less detail. But, still people harp on the lack of information and the lack of rigor. So, I feel like that’s going to be an argument that comes up no matter what assigned reading you’re going to use. Certainly with comics there’s another bias and that there’s a bunch of superhero comics… but comics are actually a lot more diverse these days.

Rebecca: Comics are probably a really great way to help students understand those basic concepts so that they can build their mental model because they probably come with all sorts of assumptions and things that are not correct, and I could see how demonstrating visually could help overcome some of that.

Carly: Yeah, certainly, and for me it really comes down to what is the point of general biology? What am I aiming to do? I still want my students to learn about photosynthesis, and the Krebs cycle, and mitosis, and meiosis. But I also want them to come away with an appreciation and a sense that they are able to understand it. I want them to walk away from the class with positive feelings towards science and not just- it’s a collection of facts I had to memorize.

John: I wish I had had a class like this when I was in college. it seems like a fascinating way of addressing this

Rebecca: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. I didn’t know I wanted to know about wasps, but maybe I want to know more now after reading your comic.

Carly: Yeah. So these are all like my lofty aspirations as an educator, but I’m pretty sure I’m still making common mistakes and it’s still a bunch of facts that they have to memorize, sometimes. But I feel an awareness of these of these issues is helping and hopefully I only get better at that process.

John: …and there’s nothing wrong with it being fun for them to learn those facts. ..

Carly: Yeah.

John: … they do need to learn facts but there’s nothing saying it can’t be engaging.

Rebecca: Well, providing those sequences might make it easier to remember, because you have a clearer understanding of how the things connect. The visual representation can help provide those connections that words don’t always help because it’s too abstract.

Carly: I think with biology, especially at the introductory level, especially when you’re a professor that doesn’t have graduate student instructors or TAs, you don’t have a lot of time. So we always talk about wanting to have critical thinking questions and essays, but inevitably just because of time constrictions it does largely become scantron multiple-choice questions, and in that way it does become a lot of memorization. Now I still think that memorization is valid. I still think it’s important to know the steps and the processes and be able to call up that knowledge. But for me, the struggle is making that memorization easier. And if comics make that easier then I’m accomplishing my goal…

John: One of the things that really impressed me, though just following you on Twitter recently since I saw your work, is how engaged you are in the scholarship of learning and teaching in your discipline. It’s nice to see people starting their careers doing that. What got you interested in doing research on teaching and learning?

Carly: I think it actually comes down to who professors are. Professors tend to have PhDs, and in my case, I didn’t take any classes about how to teach. So I think most of us are just kind of thrown into this process and we learned slowly along the way. I was like “Well, there’s a whole body of research out there…” and I started reading some papers about how to be a more effective teacher. We have our own center here for teaching that has workshops and stuff like that, and I think recognizing my lack of formal training, I have no teachers certification or anything like that, made me more interested

Carly: I’ve got the list of questions.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think is kind of interesting is the way that we started this whole conversation… and it ties nicely back to the scholarship of teaching and learning… is that your first research position was doing illustrations. And I think that in academia, we don’t often see those sorts of actions as being research. So I really love that that role was called researcher and brings all this sort of together. It doesn’t have to be traditional to be effective or useful.

Carly: Now certainly that first position as an illustrator in the Padian lab… I still wanted to do traditional types of research, but that experience (as someone who is already sort of hanging around on the graduate student level and hanging around the research labs) made me a person that was visible in a crowd of something like 2,000 undergraduate biology students. So from the Padian lab, I was actually able to transition into a more traditional research role that actually led me to parasitism, to studying parasitism, and that was in the Wake lab with Marvalee Wake, who is one of my most important mentors as an undergrad. But yes, my first research position I was called an undergraduate researcher was actually just doing illustration. And I learned a lot about vertebrate anatomy because that was what Katie Brakora studied.

Rebecca: People don’t realize that when you’re doing that kind of illustration work, what kind of attention to detail you need to pay, and how much you can actually learn by just looking at something very carefully.

Carly: Oh yeah, being able to measure something… getting proportions down correctly. There’s a lot of math that goes into biological illustration and serve a lot of rigor. And then you just spend hours stippling, and that was my life.

Carly: Yeah, I would just say if this sounds like something that a faculty member is listening to this podcast and they’re like, “Ah I want to either start making comics or I want to incorporate comics even into a STEM class, I have lots of resources and I can sort of talk ad nauseam about that. You know like, “What are some good comics if you’re teaching biochemistry? What are some good comics if you’re teaching literature?” So certainly if there’s anyone who’s interested in either making comics or choosing comics for their classroom, I’d be happy to talk to folks.
I think unless you’re a comic book reader you probably don’t realize just how much comics have grown outside of what you might have imagined they were twenty years ago, and you’d be surprised by the amount of some relatable materials… especially in the social studies classes… especially in history, there’s a lot of memoirs… a lot of historical memoirs right now in comics.

John: Actually right now, I can think of at least a couple of examples in economics of comic book series that were created for instructional purposes. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York created a series of comic books to help provide middle- and high-school students with information about the monetary system and the role of the Federal Reserve Board; the other, a series of comic books created featuring Captain Euro… this was originally created to provide support for the introduction of the Euro and for the European Union in general.

Carly: Medicine has really moved with this, especially when they’re thinking about “How do we make information that transcends language barriers?” I follow a Twitter that is just medical graphics and there are conferences on medical comics as well. So I think that’s a field that’s really sort of latched on to making comics as a way to share information with patients, and there’s actually been some research showing that it’s more effective.

Rebecca: It’s used a lot in areas where there might be outreach for really low income or people in poverty who need important information about health or resources and things, and that’s where literacy might be an issue, and so sequential images are often used in those contexts as well. When I was doing a project in India, I discovered all of these really interesting graphics that were used… sequential graphics… to get people to do all sorts of things because there’s so many different languages… to kind of overcome that barrier. It was really interesting.
So we usually wrap up our interviews with the question of what are you gonna do next, you’ve already talked about a number of things that are on the horizon, but is there anything specific you want to share as your your next step, whatever it is that you want to research or do?

Carly: Yeah, so we’ve talked a lot about comics, but I can tell you a couple of other things that are on the horizon for me. My field season… the actual going out and studying wasps that I do that’s going to start up in the summer… and I’m hopefully going to bring an undergraduate or two with me, and then hopefully bring that undergraduate to present at the Entomological Society of America. So, that’s sort of the science side of my life, but sort of the swing back I’ve been talking a lot at the Entomological Society of America about using comics in entomology research… and sort of more in line with what you guys do generally, my next thing is actually proposing a symposium on education for undergraduates. Since most entomologists that are at a university don’t just teach entomology, we also generally teach any biology courses. So, kind of swinging more strictly into undergraduate education instead of the broader community outreach education that I’ve been doing with comics outside of academia. So, that’s exactly next on the horizon for me outside of just keeping working on comics.

Rebecca: So, where do your wasps take you this summer?

Carly: They’re going to take me hopefully to Puerto Rico for about a week, down to Florida for probably a week or two, and also local collecting. There hasn’t been a lot done around the Northeast, so going out to the Pine Barrens on Long Island and then probably making it up as far up as you guys and things like that and further up and down the East Coast.

John: Well if you do get up here let us know

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: … and we’ll take you out to lunch or dinner.

Carly: Oh, thank you. Yeah. This has been great guys, thanks for having me and inviting me to this.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for sharing all that you’re doing it sounds really exciting, I can’t wait to see it all happen.

John: It’s great to have you here, and you’re doing some wonderful work.

Rebecca: And you have two fans here and two advocates here.

Carly: Oh thank you, that’s important. I want to like tour all of the centers for teaching and learning excellence, however it’s called at every university, and you know be like “Comics, comics, comics, comics!”

[MUSIC]

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

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

22. Transhumanism

Does teaching a course with a team of three instructors across two continents seem like an impossible task? Now imagine that same course examining how the boundaries between humans and machines are increasingly blurred? In this episode, Damian Schofield joins us to discuss an interdisciplinary intercontinental collaboration in which students from opposite sides of the globe examine what it means to be human.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Does teaching a course with a team of three instructors across two continents seem like an impossible task? Now imagine that same course examining how the boundaries between humans and machines are increasingly blurred? In this episode, we’ll look at one interdisciplinary intercontinental collaboration.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guest today is Damian Schofield, who is a Professor in the Computer Science department at SUNY Oswego, and he is also the Director of the Master’s Program in Human Computer Interaction here. Welcome, Damian.

Damian: Thank you.

John: Ginger peach white tea.

Damian: I’m drinking Yorkshire Tea (because I’m English) with milk.

Rebecca: Of course. [LAUGHTER] There’s no other way, right? I’m drinking a turmeric ginger green tea.

Damian: See, I would argue that those aren’t teas. They’re warm fruit beverages.

Rebecca: Yeah… Well, you know, that’s sometimes what you need.

John: A few times now, you’ve offered a course in transhumanism, which involved collaboration across departments and across continents. Could you tell us a little bit about that course?

Damian: Well, first what most people ask me is what is transhumanism?

John: …and I suppose that’s a good place to start.

Damian: So, transhumanism is the study of how, in the future, humans will merge with technology. It’s already happening to some degree. We often use the word cyborgs. I would argue that most of us are already cyborgs. Wearing glasses, you’re augmenting one of your senses, and it changes fundamentally who you are as a human being having that augmentation. Having a device in your hand that connects you to all the knowledge in the world, changes who you are. But in this class, we look into the future. With the ever accelerating rate of technology development, how we are going to merge with that technology and each other, and actually change from being human to what we call post-human. Humans are going to evolve into another species through technology eventually, and very few people are talking about this. So, that’s what the course involves.

I’ve been obsessed with this technology for a long time. I even have a computer chip implanted in my hand, so I wanted to do this course and when I tried to set it up I came up with this idea to do something a little bit special by interacting with multiple departments, with other universities, with international collaborators, and to run a course that was probably something different to anything we’ve seen on this campus before. Patrick Murphy, from the English department here at SUNY Oswego, did some lecturing on the course and he mainly dealt with philosophical aspects of transhumanism. We also linked with Lisa Dethridge from RMIT University in Australia, and she mainly dealt a lot with the media aspects of the technology.

John: What was the mix of students in terms of their backgrounds?

Damian: The first year we ran it, there was a mix of students from the English department and from the Computer Science department, and they were predominantly graduate students. Over the years we’ve evolved the program, and last time I ran it, they were predominantly from Computer Science, but we allowed undergraduates to take it as well, as an advanced topics course.

John: …and what were some of the things you did in the course? I seem to remember something about robots?

[LAUGHTER]

Damian: …a lot about robots. It was a fun course to teach because we make the students read science fiction. We watch a lot of science fiction movies. We use episodes from Black Mirror, before it was on Netflix and famous. We do a lot of teaching computer science theory about artificial intelligence and robots, but we also teach a lot about philosophy… media…. So, it’s a truly multidisciplinary course, with different aspects taught by different professors.

John: …and it pulled all the students out of their comfort zones at some of the times.

Damian: Absolutely… way beyond. It receives some of the highest feedback we’ve ever got for any class in the department. The students… the way the response of the class… One of them came up to see me the day after a class, and said: “I left the building and walked straight past my car, and carried on walking. I walked halfway across campus before I realized, because I was too in depth, thinking about what we’ve done in the class.” …and there was another student who was very quiet in the class and I remembered talking to her towards the end of the semester, asking if she was enjoying the course, and she said my mind is blown seven times every class. I just don’t feel I can say anything. I’m thinking too much. So, it really got them. They always told me that after each class they thought: “Well, he can’t beat that one…” [LAUGHTER] …and doing something else in every class… we’d take them somewhere further into this topic.

John: So, it was probably a bit of a stretch for people who were majoring in Computer Science or Human Computer Interaction to study philosophy, and then that reversed a little bit later, from what I remember.

Damian: I love taking students out of their comfort zones. In my introduction to HCI class, when I’m teaching colour, I teach it using art theory… which all the Computer Science students having to study paintings…. It’s a challenge for them. It’s something they’re not used to. It takes them out of that comfort zone, but I like that kind of bringing in these other disciplines. So what surprised me with the philosophy was how much the Computer Science students embraced it, and when Patrick would come in and and talk philosophy, the students would surround him at the end of class full of questions…. and we’d give them extra readings and they would read it all, and then come back with questions every time. A lot of the course ran through a kind of flipped classroom mechanic, where we were handing out readings and then discussing them in class. It runs in a graduate seminar format and it always amazed me that everyone in the class read every reading, and even the undergraduates. I’m used to it with grad students, but undergrads sometimes don’t always do the readings, but in this class they did.

Rebecca: In addition to discussions in class, what else did students do? …with the information? What were their outputs?

Damian: The traditional research paper was part of it, but one of the interesting things we started doing in this class, especially working with Lisa, is working on film scripts. So the students take some of the issues that they’ve been dealing with in the class, and have to write intelligent thoughtful narratives that deal with those issues that can be filmed… and we set different topics every year… and that’s where they work with the Australian students… on generating these scripts. …and then, in a number of years, we’ve actually made the films. Mostly the films involve our robots, and we use the robots as actors. One of the interesting kind of research outputs from this that we’ve published on quite a bit, it’s that if I talk about the play Romeo and Juliet, most people immediately imagine young, white, teenagers… male and female. If we remove the race.. remove the gender… remove the age… remove all of those cultural factors and you’re left with two non gender nonspecific robots, what happens to the play? Does it change? …and we challenge those questions a lot in this course.

John: So, the students had to learn (at least some of them had to learn) how to program the robots, and how to write scripts, and how to produce videos.

Damian: Exactly. Some of the students had to learn how to program the robots. Fortunately, there’s an easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface that they can learn rather than a programming language… and we don’t ask them to do too much of that, because this is not a programming course this is a theory… philosophical course… thinking about the nature of humanity and how it’s going to change. But, being able to do something practical as well is always an interesting thing for the students to experience.

Rebecca: You spark some people’s fancy about what transhumanism is, like what would you encourage them to read?

Damian: I’m a little biased because I have my favourites. So, the work of William Gibson, which is old now… but things like Mona Lisa Overdrive, Neuromancer, and were the ones that started everything… and Neal Stephenson Snow Crash. They’re the classic novels in this area. The film The Matrix was completely based on the works of William Gibson. So, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, those would be the ones to look up.

John: We’ll include links to these in the show notes, as well as some of those papers that you mentioned. Now, one aspect of this was that international collaboration. How did you manage a collaboration across the globe?

Damian: Well, I used to live in Australia and I used to work with Lisa Dethridge, our collaborator, so we have a good personal relationship. We know each other and trust each other, which always helps when you’re doing these sort of international collaborations. The kind of problems we encounter though, are… the main one being Australia is 16 hours time difference ahead… anywhere between 14 and 16 hours depending on daylight saving. So, it’s very hard to schedule synchronous time for Lisa to talk to my students or for the students to talk to each other. The students here at SUNY Oswego have been great, though. What we normally do is we schedule additional evening classes around 6:00 [or] 7:00 at night, which is early morning in Australia, and the majority of the students turn up to those classes to talk to the Australians. A few obviously can’t due to family commitments, but there’s no real way around this… that’s the only way to do it. Also getting the students to work together is very difficult, because I can’t just add the Australian students on BlackBoard or into some collaborative environment, so I personally use Canvas which means I can control who is within the learning management system. So, we can put the Australian students and the American students together. During each semester we do four or five video conference calls between the students, where the students talk to each other. It’s always worthwhile having two or three options in case some technology doesn’t work. So, we use Skype sometimes… we use the Canvas collaboration tool… and sometimes we use GoToMeeting. It’s always good when the students have that kind of ice breaking session where they meet each other and talk about their respective cultures, and we try and get them to do some… even on the video conferencing… some discussion of their culture as well as the academic activities… and to get to know each other a little bit, which becomes important later on when we run the study abroads.

John: So do the students collaborate in small groups, or individually in addition to the group collaboration or?

Damian: Absolutely, that’s how you the group assignments work. They’re assigned into teams with some Australian students and some US students, and they’re given assignments… and different years we’ve done different assignments. One year was working on film scripts. Actually the last time I run it… was writing robot scripts together to do little robot performances, and collaboratively, which the Australians being media students, really enjoyed that they were working on these robots. …and then, of course, once the robots perform the actions that they created, we had a video conference where they could watch the robots performing the scripts they’d written together.

John: …and, I think you recorded some of those too, didn’t you?

Damian: Yeah, we have a number of little robot films and videos, we also have little documentaries we’ve made about the collaboration, and so there’s a whole set of those we can…

John: So, if it’s okay, we’ll include the links to those in the show notes as well.

Rebecca: Is Lisa’s class the same subject matter? What is her class actually studying?

Damian: Her class is a design class, but it’s focused towards technology and culture, technology and society, and particularly looking at designing for the future. It fits in very well. However, it’s very difficult in these situations to co-teach with an international collaborator for a full semester, because the curriculums have to line up enough for you to do that. With something like this just over two or three weeks, four or five videoconferences, it can be just a small chunk of your semester, where you can still get through all your other curricula during the semester.

John: …and you mentioned some travel…have you generally run travel at the end as an option for students?

Damian: Three times we’ve run this course, and every time at the of that, we run a study abroad to Australia. We usually have a group, between seven and ten students, who go on that. All three trips have been very successful. The students have really enjoyed themselves.

John: I’ve seen some other photos.

Damian: You’ve seen the photos… Yeah, I’ve put all the photos on Facebook. The students generally go for two weeks although some students choose to stay longer and explore other parts of Australia. The way I run it, I’m under no illusions, I mean we call it a study abroad but the students are going because they want to see kangaroos and koalas. So, we do around three four days work with the Australian students, and what’s really important is that the American students get to spend time with the Australian students. The work they do in three or four days is fairly trivial. It’s more important that they have the experience of spending time with the Australian students… and we then give them three or four days of what we call cultural activities, which are the kangaroos and the koalas. We take them on the world’s greatest drive, the Great Ocean Road, and we go and see some Aboriginal sculpture, and things like that. …and they also get around a week of their own time to explore and go around. And what has been really good is the American students make friends with the Australian students and in that week spend time getting to know the Australians and exploring the city and the culture with people who live there… which has been really good. This last time, a group of students went surfing, which the Australians thought was crazy because it was nearly the winter there, but of course these kids are from New York… [LAUGHTER]… they can handle the weather.

John: Didn’t some of the students do some later collaborations with Lisa Dethridge?

Damian: Yeah, we’ve worked on a number of projects with Lisa. Probably one of the most interesting ones was her dark luminance project. She created a set of digital two-dimensional and three-dimensional art works in an art gallery in Melbourne, Australia… in the city itself, in a physical gallery. …and people were going in and these artworks were interactive. You could touch them and they’d change. She then flew to New York City and an art gallery in Manhattan put the same artworks… where you could interact and switch them. …and then, she had an online virtual gallery where you could go in and interact with the artworks and touch them. And the interesting thing was if you were in Australia and touched a painting it changed in New York City and on the virtual world as well. And what my students did was they basically watched what people did in these galleries… and which artworks they interacted with… and why they interacted with some, and not others… and what did they do with the artworks… and how did they experience them in a different way virtually to the physical artworks. And we published a couple of books chapters and two journal articles on that, I think. It was a very successful project for the students who worked on that.

John: …an interesting form of human-computer interaction.

Damian: ….very interesting form…. It was a fascinating project. The actual idea for this project actually came from Lisa and I sitting in a bar in Australia, discussing the dimensionality of vision which then led us into this idea of the dimensionality of interaction with artworks and that’s what most of the papers talked about.

John: So, this course was offered as one of the COIL courses in the SUNY system (and COIL stands for Collaborative Online International Learning).

Damian: Yeah, the SUNY system, through SUNY Global, has this initiative for promoting collaboration with international colleagues in teaching. And we’ve started a number of COIL courses here at SUNY Oswego. I believe this was one of the first ones we did. And the COIL Center has this whole set of resources to help you set these up, and also to meet international partners, and help you get through the mechanics of physically doing something like this. However, I’ll reiterate again that if you are going to do something like a COIL course, you’d need to get to know the person you’re working with. It’s kind of crucial that you have a good relationship with the person overseas for this to work. The other thing I’d recommend by international collaboration, which made things a lot simpler, was separating assessments, so that I don’t assess the Australian students… Lisa doesn’t assess all students. From a administrative point of view, it just keeps everything a lot simpler.

John: When I taught a COIL course a couple of years ago, I did the same sort of thing. It’s much easier if you grade your own students, because each program. each institution, each department has their own grading standards. And it’s much simpler for you to apply those individually . I’d also like to re-emphasize the importance of having that good relationship. When I was working with my partner we were working on this course, we meet online for at least an hour every week to talk about how things were going, what we needed to change, and how to adapt things based on what was happening in the course. It’s really important to have that discussion because I know we’ve had some other COIL courses where those communications broke down and it didn’t go quite as well.

Rebecca: So we usually wrap up with questions about what you might be doing next. So do you have any new plans related to this class or other international collaborations?

Damian: What we’re trying to do at the moment… we run the trip to Australia every second year. It’s not something you can run every year because the same students are still in the system. So, in the year in-between we run different collaborations… couple of years ago, students went to Spain. This year we’re taking students to work with Jolanda Tromp, who used to work here in Computer Science, and we’re taking them to work in her virtual reality lab in Vietnam. So, we’ll be going over there in May with a group of students and we’ll be working on medical VR systems over in Vietnam this summer.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Damian: Yeah, it should be fun.

John: Jolanda is still working with a lot of people, she’s part of a SUNY task group on mixed reality and she’s been very active in that.. despite the time difference.

Damian: Yes, Jolanda’s still very involved in our department. She’s still supervising research students, and even delivering some summer courses for us.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for sharing your experience and hopefully inspiring other faculty to think about international collaborations.

Damian: You’re welcome.

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

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

19. Common Problem Pedagogy

Most colleges are organized as a collection of academic silos. Many challenging problems facing society, though, are multifaceted. In this episode, Leigh Allison Wilson joins us to discuss the use of common problem pedagogy, an approach that allows students to address a problem from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Leigh is the Director of the Interdisciplinary Program and Activities Center at SUNY-Oswego. She is also the author of two collections of stories, one of which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in the Georgia Review, Grand Street, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Leigh teaches creative writing at SUNY Oswego. In addition to the Flannery O’Connor award, she has received the Saltonstall Award for Creative Nonfiction, and a Pulitzer nomination by William Morrow for her collection Wind. Leigh is a Michener Fellow of the Copernicus Society and is a Henry Hoyns fellow of the University of Virginia.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Most colleges are organized as a collection of academic silos. Many challenging problems facing society, though, are multifaceted. In this episode, we explore common problem pedagogy, an approach that allows students to address a problem from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guest today is Leigh Allison Wilson. She is the author of two collections of stories, one of which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in the Georgia Review, Grand Street, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at SUNY Oswego. In addition to the Flannery O’Connor award, she has received the Saltonstall Award for Creative Nonfiction, and a Pulitzer nomination by William Morrow for her collection Wind. She is a Michener Fellow of the Copernicus Society and is a Henry Hoyns fellow of the University of Virginia.

Rebecca: Welcome, Leigh.

John: Welcome, Leigh.

Leigh: Thank you, John. It’s very nice of you to have me

Rebecca: Today, our teas are:

John: Ginger peach green tea.

Leigh: Mine is Constant Comment, a southern favorite.

Rebecca: …which Leigh brought for me to try, so that’s what I’m drinking, too.

So, Leigh you helped organize a number of community-based projects that bring faculty together across campus. What got you involved in this kind of work in the first place?

Leigh: Well, you know what? If I went back to the roots of it all, I have to say Amy Bartell in the art department. I have a flash fiction class that is my advanced writing class, and one semester she just suddenly said: “Why don’t your students write a very short piece? My students can illustrate it, and we’ll frame both things and put them side-by-side… and then we’ll have a show.” …which was so much fun, but it wasn’t just fun, it was my first taste of having a collaborative common problem project. Because, it turned out to be a common problem. We didn’t know it… we thought we were just writing our fiction… or, I thought they were just gonna be writing their fiction. But we’ve discovered that if there was going to be an illustrator paying attention to it… all of a sudden, it got more serious. The game got more serious. There was an audience who was really going to be checking it out, and there was also an audience that was going to be looking at the illustration and looking at their work at the same time, and all of a sudden the students were much more professional about their attitudes to their work. So, that’s the beginning of it. That was called Graphic Flash… and we’re still doing it, but now it’s expanded into a film class that’s taking the stories and making short films out of it… and a music class that’s taking the short films and scoring them… and ‘cause now I like working with local partners… local high schools have been making movie posters.

Rebecca: Great.

Leigh: …for the stories. So, that expanded… and because of that expansion, I started getting interested in – not just common projects that involved a common problem – but also collaborative projects in general… and the ease with which they could be expanded… which I think is one big factor in project-based learning.

Rebecca: The first big project was the Smart Neighbors project which is still ongoing.

Leigh: What happened was… I was doing Smart Neighbors and there was a notice from the Provost office and there was a call for participants in a SUNY wide grant. They wanted four SUNY schools to be involved in a common problem pedagogy grant… and at the time they were trying to get a Teagle grant which is an ExxonMobil grant. But the point of the Teagle grant was to get humanities to work with another discipline, usually a professional discipline, so that’s why it began in that way. I wrote in and SUNY Cortland and Oneonta and Plattsburgh were all involved in it. We all have different projects going on but ours became the Smart Neighbors project.

Rebecca: Please describe what that is for those that don’t know?

Leigh: Basically I have always….Well, I love Oswego as a town, and I’ve loved living here and I’ve always wanted to do something that could give back. But, I’m a creative writer and, short of putting it as a setting in a lot of short stories… which I have done… that’s not really giving back… I have always worried since I’ve been here about the economic difficulties facing any new business. This is a stat from a few years ago, but one statistic is that a new business in Oswego has a lifespan of about 13 months… and that’s a terrible statistic. I don’t think it’s true anymore… I think there are great changes going on in town now… but, I wanted to do something with the town. My concept for Smart Neighbors was to have a lot of different disciplines collaborate in the promotion of a downtown independent business. It was a simple concept, because I didn’t have elaborate blueprints for what they should be doing or what we should be doing. I had no elaborate plans for what each individual discipline should be doing. It should be promoting the business. Period. ….and that’s sort of continued to be how it is. People take it as they can imagine it… and so a lot of very imaginative things have come out of that… the things that are not traditionally considered promotional materials… which, in fact, really are promotional materials.

John: What are some examples?

Leigh: A literary citizenship class that Donna Steiner is working with, because they’re mostly creative writers, they tend to do digital essays… but they’re digital essays that often have a fanciful story involved in them. So, if it’s a bookstore… one digital essay took a book that the bookstore was selling… talked about the author ….did graphics about the plot of it… and then ended up back at the bookstore… and so you basically you were interested in the book… and then it began to talk about how the imagination could be served by the bookstore. Another one in the same class followed someone who bought a book to their home, took film clips and photographs of the person sitting where they liked to read with all of their books around them… and just talking about what it meant to be able to walk downtown and buy a book and take it home and start reading it. So, that was a nice little piece too. …but not things that you necessarily are expecting, or what an advertising agency would have put out.

John: …and how have the businesses responded to this? Have they been using these materials in their marketing?

Leigh: They have. One of the things that is a centerpiece is the banner… and the art students… the photography students have been at the heart of that… and all of the businesses end up displaying it. There are huge banners… they fill a whole wall… but all of the businesses have been using the banners. They love those… Also, every business nowadays… and this is one thing that we’ve been working with the businesses on… having an online presence… but that’s one of the reasons there’s so many digital projects involved. Because we want the businesses to be able to use them online. So, the digital essays do get used online as part of their presentation to the public.

John: …and how have the students reacted to doing something where their work is going to be more public? They’re not just submitting something read by their instructor and their peers, but it actually may have an impact on some business in the community.

Leigh: The impacts on our students are the impacts that I think they’ve found across the country when dealing with applied learning, civic engagement, volunteerism… well, basically best practices in general…. but, number one (this is the thing that I’m most proud of) is that the students leave that program, even though it’s one assignment in one course (for most of them… it’s not the whole course) but they leave having experienced that assignment with a sort of sense of social responsibility that I don’t think they had before… or a notion of philanthropy. One of the things I tell them…. All of the classes (this year we had 11 classes from different disciplines) and we all meet at the beginning of the semester in Marano Auditorium… and one thing I told them this year is that we think of social responsibility as as one thing and philanthropy as another thing… but really, I think, what we should be doing in these places we love (like I love Oswego) is actually contributing our talents… not just our money… but we should be spending our money locally too – but but also contributing our talents – to these businesses… even if we’re a business owner contributing to another person’s business is something that I think we’re obliged to do too – because the local success really is our own success… and we tend to think of businesses as competitive, but I think that’s a mistake. I think smarter neighbors…

John: …hence the name…

Leigh: …work together in these collaborative ways.

Rebecca: What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned from doing some of these projects?

Leigh: Well, I should tell more of what the students got out of it, but…

Rebecca: Yes.

Leigh: I think, other than just that sense of social responsibility and what notions of philanthropy, they leave knowing much more clearly what they know and have learned in their disciplines… meta-knowledge of what they’re capable of… which is huge for our creative writers. Because, I don’t think they’re clear on the fact that… they know they’re probably not going to immediately get the Pulitzer, but what can they do with this? …and it’s important for them to to learn that…. that they can write for multiple audiences in multiple ways. But, they also learn what other disciplines know and can do… which they haven’t thought about that deeply. It’s a mystery to them what, for instance, the marketing students do. They market things… maybe it’s advertising… something like that… but then they see them come in and actually take the business that they’ve been working with and figure out a plan for them… and how the college itself can be moved into that plan… and suddenly: “Oh, I can work with that…” and they start thinking of digital essays they could work with… and imaginary stories that take that marketing plan and actually enact it with characters (which they’re good at imagining)… And professional skills… just getting somewhere on time… being late or on time to a class seems less important, but if the interview that you needed to have… and you’re late for and you can’t now have it… that makes an impact forever. You tend to be on time for an interview… and they do have to interview the local partners. Preparations… They get there. Nobody’s going to be telling them what to do. They have to figure out what they need to know, and they need to find it out. So, they need to plan before they get there. I personally am very happy with my students learning what it means to write for a particular audience, as opposed to whoever they want to. It’s very good for them to try to please a certain person with a certain product.

Rebecca: Because it’s usually an audience that they wouldn’t have picked or imagined on their own.

Leigh: That’s right… that’s right. …and my point would be that, even when they’re writing their Great American Novel, they should be expanding their notion of what audiences they’re hitting, instead of just “this is what I want to read.” They need to think about what their vision of the world is and how to can pull as many people into it as possible. I just think it’s memorable to them. I think it’s life-changing to them to work, however briefly, donating their time to a place at least for a while they’re calling home.

John: Excellent.

Leigh: But, I think they’re things that the faculty learned too… not just the students, there are faculty outcomes, I think, as well. My whole idea in Smart Neighbors was to just get faculty’s feet wet with one assignment in one class… and if you can do that… once they see the effect on students… because, that’s one thing I really do believe about the faculty here… they really are committed teachers. Now sometimes you worry about how time-consuming is it going to be to work with another class as other disciplines… how time-consuming is this or that? Because we’re already putting a huge amount of time into our teaching. So, it seemed smart to get faculty accustomed, or introduced to, collaborative, or civic engagement, or applied learning kinds of pedagogy in the easiest possible way. So, one assignment… and not an assignment that necessarily requires interactions with a lot of other faculty to figure out how to do it. Now, I will say, for Smart Neighbors anyway, the faculty do have to connect with the local partners. But, they don’t necessarily have to figure out what everybody’s doing in all of the classes to make it work. They have their piece of the puzzle and they’re contributing it.

John: How many classes work with a particular business? Are there multiple businesses that they’re working with? or is it just one business each year?

Leigh: Well, it’s grown. The first year, we had four classes and they were working on the bookstore. The River’s End Bookstore.

Leigh: Tell me your question again.

Rebecca: Really asking whether or not there is more than one community partner at any given time.

John: Yes.

Leigh: Yes. I think what you’re asking is a good question because, once you get to a certain number of people… of courses… not people, but courses… you’re overwhelming a local partner and we got to that quickly last year. We worked with a candy store (and I think there were seven different classes involved) and an unbelievable generosity of time from that owner… but it was clear that we were gonna have to figure out other ways of doing this. So, last year we did the Farmers Market, which worked out, We had eleven courses involved too – and that worked out much better because there are multiple farmers bringing their goods to the Farmers Market and there are they’re in different groups with different farms. So that worked out a little bit better. Also, because the Chamber of Commerce is ultimately responsible for the Farmers Market, we were able to do some projects just for the Chamber. For instance, they needed a new logo and we sort of pulled that into the Smart Neighbors project as well. So, I’m trying to define what we’re doing a little wider. …and you’re right, have more local partners…. if we’re gonna have this many continue.

John: It sounds like it’s grown really quickly.

Leigh: It really has… and I will just say again I think the faculty discovered that there’s a certain ease of practice in getting used to this… and once you see the students and the effect on the students, then I think you’re hooked. And the reason it’s grown is that the courses who have done it in the past continue to do it; they want to keep doing it. And that is how I got the idea for Grand Challenges.

Rebecca: That seems like a nice segue right into it, right?

John: Yeah.

Rebecca: So, we’re launching the Grand Challenges. Can you talk a little bit about what the Grand Challenges are and what the goals are?

Leigh: There’s a line in our strategic plan that that’s my favorite line…. and I think it’s the most memorable line… and it talks about how we, as a community, are going to tackle the Grand Challenges…. find solutions to the Grand Challenges of our time… and I love it… because it’s aspirational for one thing. I really do want to believe that our students and our faculty can tackle the Grand Challenges of our time, and I think we can, frankly… but it’s also that notion of “tackling a challenge” is very project oriented. You get your hands dirty. You figure out something, and then you try to come up with solutions because of it… and, so it appealed to me just in terms of having a common problem. But, those Grand Challenges have to be tackled together. I mean, I don’t think there’s any challenge of any size in the complexity of our world today that can be done by a single person just sitting in their garage thinking. I think almost everything we do in the future is going to have to be collaborative and probably cross-disciplinary in some way. So, it just seemed to me a natural segue from Smart Neighbors to getting the whole campus to work on a single… it’s not really a single issue either…. it’s more… we were talking about this, Rebecca, I imagine the topics for Grand Challenges to be very concrete things, because I think, as academics, we tend toward a more abstract way of looking at things…

Rebecca: …which is particularly hard for our students to get their heads around. They need something tangible.

Leigh: Right, I think so too… and to come up with projects… actual projects that are going to take place in the world with local partners… or involving civic engagement or volunteerism… require a certain concreteness. So, at any rate, the Grand Challenges project was just something I began to think. The notion of having multiple disciplines work on the same thing… it’s just a short step to getting the entire campus to work as much as much together as possible on the same topic… One of the things I didn’t say about Smart Neighbors is that Oswego is already a very collaborative culture… and that we’re very far along in terms of faculty tipping into these kinds of projects very easily…. and I’ve found just talking across campus, the way for instance when I spoke to Faculty Assembly, and the reception there was so astonishing. People aren’t resisting it out of hand. It’s just such a pleasure to work with people who are willing to take on these new things without immediate misgiving. At any rate, as you know, the topic that we’ve that we’re working with this year is fresh water which is concrete, but also can involve a lot of sustainability.

John: …but fluid, too.

[LAUGHTER]

Leigh: Very funny, John…
But, one of the things that I like about that particular topic is that you can look out any window on campus and fresh water is exactly what you’re looking at… and that it should matter to us makes sense to me. But, to go back to the teaching culture here, I have found when I talk about this to any group of faculty, immediately ideas are popping. They’re thinking about it. They’re talking about it. They clearly already thought about it. The Grand Challenge doesn’t really even begin until the fall of this year… and I’ve got a list …I brought with me a whole list of like couple of dozen projects that people are already doing right now…. this semester…

John: In preparation?

Leigh: Just because they can. Not only in preparation, just… let’s begin… Why wait till the fall? I’ve spent the last week finalizing touches to a micro grant the Provost office has, thank goodness, very gallantly is going to put some money in a pot to give some grants to people to do these collaborative works. Well, let’s just put it this way… even if you’re just doing an assignment in your class, you can put in for one of these grants. But, I think we’re going to privilege, probably, the collaborative civic engagement projects… or they’ll get the higher money amounts, just because there are more people involved. The administration on campus has just been so supportive. The provost office is doing the micro grants. The Student Affairs has, I can’t talk about it because the contracts haven’t been signed, but they’ve got people who are well-known coming to speak on campus.

John: So, there’s going to be some other programming throughout the college.

Leigh: That’s right. Artswego has a special category for its grants this year that are going to privilege some Grand Challenge proposals.

Rebecca: What I like about that concept is that the learning doesn’t just happen in a classroom on a college campus. It’s happening from multiple perspectives and it’s happening in and out. It’s happening formally and informally.

Leigh: That’s right.

Rebecca: That’s nice that there’s a lot of systems in place to help support that and that idea because, if students are experiencing the topic of water, in a lot of different disciplines on and outside of class right then they’re gonna start seeing how all these things connect together…

Leigh: That’s right.

Rebecca: …and we have general education as a part of our curriculum, as many colleges do, and the students tend to not have any idea how that is relevant or important or what that does for them. and I think this might be a really great way for them to start seeing that all these things are actually connected and it’s important to know different points of view and the different disciplinary perspectives on things… so that there is that idea that we can’t tackle these really big problems…

Leigh: …by ourselves.

Rebecca: …without looking from multiple perspectives.

Leigh: Yeah.

John: …and faculty are often in their own silos and students see the classes as separate islands that are not connected in any way… and showing that we can look at the same issues broadly from a number of different perspectives might help them form better connections and deepen their learning.

Rebecca: …and even continue to update the curriculum to reflect this change in practice. It’s a move away from silos to things being a little more messy, and so how do you allow for your curriculum to embrace that messiness.

Leigh: I think you’re exactly right, Rebecca. …and I, for one, think the future (it might not be in our generation) but the future really will be a future that doesn’t necessarily have departments… doesn’t necessarily have disciplines separated in this way…. that in fact encourages cross-disciplinary activity. I think the School of Communications, Media and the Arts [SCMA] is already sort of moving toward that. They’re a very collaborative school and work very well… that just in my experience doing these projects, they work very well across campus with any discipline.

Rebecca: Go SCMA.

[LAUGHTER]

Leigh: I am on the board. It’s because of that that I asked to be on their advisory board, frankly.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Leigh: But, yeah. I think the beauty of the grant, of Grand Challenges, is that we’re already a collaborative school and this just puts the name on it. It puts a focus for that and it’s something I think we really ought to be celebrating here. …and to get back to the administration being supportive, the President from the beginning has been behind this and I think that, really more than anything, has been one reason for this to be a successful rollout.

Rebecca: Are there plans to research or study the outcomes of the initiative to measure what impact doing something like this has on our learning community and/or on the community at large?

Leigh: Well, one of the things that I hope from these micro grants is, because they have to give the proposal at the project proposal… and give what they hope the outcomes will be… and then when they do their final reports, what they think the outcomes really were. I’m hoping that that will be the first step toward being able to assess some of the things going on. It’s more difficult in the general population, One of the things I’m reluctant to do is add a layer that makes people hesitant to get their feet wet with these pedagogies. But, I think, just once this gets going… I think it will become easier and easier to get people to assess for what the outcomes are. To be honest, I think it’s so night and day what the students get out of these best practices that the faculty will want to start assessing and seeing what these outcomes are and what it means in their classroom.

John: In an earlier discussion, you mentioned that your work with the Digital Oz project grew out of your work with the Smart Neighbors project. Could you tell us a little bit about the Digital Oz project and how it relates to your work with Smart Neighbors.

Leigh: Digital Oz is a presentation… online presentation site… for SUNY Oswego students’ digital work.One of the things that occurred to me after doing Smart Neighbors is that these collaborative efforts on campus are here and gone tomorrow …because there’s no place to archive or curate the materials that the students produce… and so Digital Oz has become a space where the collaborative work can actually be presented. The students are doing such amazing work. It’s great that Digital Oz exists so that the students can have some sort of public presentation.

John: Could you describe Digital Oz a little bit for listeners who may not be familiar with it?

Leigh: One of the things that I’ve always liked about Oswego students is that they have authenticity that is almost indescribable… but once you see them tell a story, you feel it instantly… and so I think because our students all have these stories it’d be nice if we had a site that had them tell them. So, we created Digital Oz and it has different categories. One category… the students talk about how they ended up being passionate about what they’re passionate about here (whether it’s their discipline or some sort of co-curricular activity that they do) and what’s the story behind that. How do they become passionate about it? …and there’s some amazing stories there. Students who, for instance, work as EMTs on the ambulance service on campus have some unbelievably touching stories about why they care… about being able to go to somebody and help them. But, there’s another category that’s called “moments that change their lives” …the students lives, and they talk about them in very moving ways as well. But one of the categories, as I said is “Collaborate” and students who have worked together on projects put artifacts that they’ve created for those projects online… and those two are… I guess you don’t realize the range and creativity and professionalism of our student work until you start seeing it put together in the same place…. And Digital Oz, since we’re talking about it… I’ll just say it’s… digitaloz.oswego.edu is the website if you want to look at it. But, it’s a place, I think, high school students look at and find feel like they can have a home here.

John: Excellent, and we will share that link in the show notes.

Leigh: Thank you.

Rebecca: So usually we like to end with, “What are you going to do next?” So, you’ve got this big giant project.

John: It’s still under way…

Rebecca: You’ve got this big giant project. What’s down the road a little bit for you?

Leigh: Well, I really do think that the Grand Challenges is as grand as I’ll probably get.

[LAUGHTER]

Because I don’t know how I can get grander.

John: The very Grand Challenge.

Rebecca: Super Grand Challenges.

[LAUGHTER]

Leigh: I know… it will be like Mario. But, one of the things… I’m talking to the woman who’s in charge of applied learning at SUNY Central, and I’m gonna talk up the Grand Challenges just because I think it really is a harbinger of what the future is going to be, not only in terms of what you do in collaborative ways, or best practices but also in what it’s going to ultimately mean for what the shape of the university is. So, I guess I’m not going to become a traveling advocate across the campuses across SUNY, but I do think I really do think this is where the future is headed for higher ed. I hope so anyway. I do.

Rebecca: Great. Well, thank you so much for sharing what you’ve been working on, Leigh. I think everyone will continue to be inspired.

John:Thank you. It’s a great series of project.

Leigh: Thanks, you guys.

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

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

15. Civic Engagement

Real-world learning experiences come in a variety of flavors. In this episode, Allison Rank, a political scientist at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how she has built a course in which students organize and run a non-partisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaign. This project combines many of the best features of service learning and simulation.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Real-world learning experiences come in a variety of flavors. In this episode, we’ll explore ways to combine the best features of simulation and service learning to increase learning in a campus-wide voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaign.

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.
Today, our guest is Dr. Allison Rank, an assistant professor of political science at SUNY Oswego. Allison is an expert in the role American youth play in the electorate and the founder of voter registration initiative called Vote Oswego. Welcome, Allison.

John: Welcome.

Allison: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

John: Yorkshire gold.

Allison: I don’t drink tea.

Rebecca: It’s an epidemic…. like… this is the third one, John.

John: I know, three in a row

Rebecca: Three strikes you’re out. No more non-tea drinkers… All right… I’m drinking English Afternoon despite the fact that it’s still morning… because I need it.

John: Just barely morning, though.

Rebecca: Good, okay.

John: So, what is Vote Oswego?

Allison: Vote Oswego is a student-run, nonpartisan voter registration and voter mobilization drive on the SUNY Oswego campus in the Fall of 2016.

Rebecca: What led you to start Vote Oswego?

Allison: So, prior to earning my PhD in Political Science, I actually spent three years working as a political organizer. I’d worked for a presidential campaign in the state of Ohio and then had spent a couple of years working with college students on a variety of non-partisan campaigns. One of the things I learned from doing that work on college campuses, is that when students have an interest in doing political work, there’s a lot of skills that they can get out of doing that work but that they don’t necessarily think about. And so once I was here…. I was here first in the Fall of 2014… and saw what the voter registration drive looked like, it was clear that students were doing some volunteering for it, and some students were really excited about it, but I didn’t think they were really getting any organizing skills out of doing it. They were sort of more just sitting at tables and sitting out with voter registration forms the same way they would sit out with cupcakes at a bake sale… it wasn’t really about organizing skills. And so I wanted to start a course or something here where the voter registration drive would become more about students learning to organize rather than just being treated as widgets to be organized by other people.

John: Did you do this as part of a class or was it a set of classes or a separate activity?

Allison: I actually was able to get permission to run it as a special topics class in Political Science. I’ve since gotten it approved as an official course, but initially I actually just pitched it as a practical political skills class where the students would come in and learn about grassroots organizing techniques and then get to implement those techniques through a voter registration drive.

Rebecca: I would imagine that a course like that would be particularly helpful to campuses that are more rural than urban.

Allison: Yeah… for me, after a couple of years here, I had a lot of students that wanted to get involved in politics but I’d end up in conversations with them about how hard it was to figure out transportation to Syracuse, figuring out logistics or the cost of doing it– we have so many students not only in terms of being a rural campus, but also in terms of the student population that’s also trying to juggle working and paid work that they need in order to be here. And so then, taking time out to do a political internship, especially with the schedule around an election, can be really challenging. And so being able to offer that opportunity on campus, and also around something that can give them course credit or internship credit without leaving the campus, and for something that the campus is already gonna put energy and attention towards, I think, is really helpful.

Rebecca: Is running something like this as a class common on other campuses?

Allison: I don’t know of other places where a full grassroots campaign has been run out of a class. It’s fairly common in Political Science to have some type of activity based around voter registration, right? So, for us in Political Science, coming up with civic engagement projects where you can avoid partisanship and partisan issues, is a really big deal. And so non-partisan voter registration drives around elections are a great place to do that, but often it’s asking students to go out and volunteer as poll workers, or do exit polls, or maybe helping set up a campus debate with a couple of candidates rather than really digging into an on-campus, full-fledged grassroots mobilization campaign.

John: Was it easy to keep it non-partisan in the classroom?

Allison: Oddly, it really was. The very first day of class, I ran an non-partisanship training with the students. So what does it mean to behave in a non-partisan fashion? What does it mean to keep your social media non-partisan through this event? What are the conditions under which you need to be non-partisan, right? Students signed up for this class because they’re people who care about politics, right? So many of them, I am certain, had very deep feelings about what they wanted to happen in this election. They weren’t allowed to talk about them if they were at a Vote Oswego event. I think there was a guideline around however many Vote Oswego students were hanging out together, that they could be recognized as a group of Vote Oswego students. If they were wearing their Vote Oswego t-shirt, they could not both talk about something partisan and have any reference to Vote Oswego in, for instance, a online social media “about themselves” section. And I would actually, essentially, run pop quizzes with them where I would try to get them to do something partisan, right? I would come up to them and say some incredibly partisan statement and they would actually have to practice what the non-partisan response would be.

John: That’s a useful skill, today.

Allison: Yeah!

Rebecca: Probably one th at a lot of faculty could use some training on, too, because politics come up a lot in classes. Can you give us an example of something that you would do?

Allison: Sure. So one of the things that is often defined as partisanship is if you endorse an issue that is so clearly identified with one political party over another…

John: …like science….

Allison: …even if you don’t, we would use things like building the wall, right? If you say something like “you should register to vote because it’s really important that we build the wall,” that would be considered a partisan statement from the last election, regardless of not mentioning a candidate or a political party. And you would get individuals coming up to the table who wanted to register that would say things like, “it’s really important to me that I register because I really care about maintaining woman’s right to choose” or “I really care about building the wall…” something that you could clearly align. And so I would do that to students, and they essentially had a set of responses they were allowed to give. So things like, “I’m happy to hear that you’re excited about what’s happening in this election, it’s really important that you get registered to vote” or they’re allowed to not and say, “I acknowledge that that’s something that you’re really passionate about.” Vote Oswego is non-partisan, we just care that you’re able to express whatever you care about, right? It’s sort of acknowledging that that individual has something that they really care about, but not endorsing it yourself.

John: How did they do in those pop quizzes?

Allison: They generally did really well. The first day, they would get really awkward and nervous and not know what to do, but after sort of half an hour of drills, they got incredibly good at it. It also helped that it was in the syllabus and they signed a contract with me that if I caught you violating the non-partisan mandate after one warning, you automatically got fired from the campaign, which meant you failed the course. So they took it seriously.

John: So it was somewhat high-stakes.

Allison: Yes.

Rebecca: A little arm-twisting there?

Allison: Yes. But they did really well, and actually after the election, a student made a comment in class where he basically said it’s really weird to me…. I feel like I know people in this class so well and we’re really good friends and we’ve worked so hard and I have no idea how anyone in here voted and I said, “that’s great, that’s exactly what should have happened, please don’t talk about it.”

Rebecca: Can you talk about some of the other results that you saw in your class?

Allison: Sure. There’s sort of two different sets of results, right? We talked about the students as having two identities in this class. They were both students and they were staffers and they needed to be concerned about themselves in both of those roles. So as staffers, they had fantastic success. The campaign registered over a thousand students on the SUNY Oswego campus, they helped over 1500 students request absentee ballots, they came up with some really great campaign strategies in terms of helping students with absentee ballots… get those mailed in… get those stamped… helping students get to the polls… building a great coalition with other folks on campus. As students, I think what was great is that because the students were out in the field and they were known as Vote Oswego students on campus. Their friends all knew that they were doing it, they were in those t-shirts all the time, they were visible. They took a real ownership over this project, in a way that I have a hard time envisioning getting students to do about short-term volunteer work, or sort of asking them to go volunteer with another campaign, or even the type of simulations that political science professors can get really good results with, in terms of learning outcomes, the type of ownership that these students felt and how seriously they took it, I’d be hard-pressed to get that result in another way. Because they took it so seriously, and because they took such ownership of it, I think their critical thinking and analytical skills really, really improved. You could sort of watch as we went through the campaign, students go from looking to me and looking to the couple of interns that we had in leadership roles of the campaign, to figure out sort of like “all this thing happened and what am I supposed to do” and “please answer this question for me,” to like, “well, this thing happened while I was standing at a table and here’s what I did,” and I would hear about it three or four days later as opposed to getting a sort of frantic, “help me figure it out.”

John: they started taking more responsibility–

Allison: Exactly.

John: –and making more of the decisions then just reporting back.

Allison: Exactly. And then also being able to constructively critique each other’s decisions once we– we called classroom meetings campaign meetings, right? So in campaign meetings, being able to say, “Hey, I know this is what happened last week, actually I think we need to fix it in X, Y, & Z ways.” Which, for those of us who have tried to get students to give critical constructive feedback on each other’s papers, it’s really hard to get them to engage each other that way, and the students really took to that sort of analytical and critical work with each other in really constructive ways by the end of the campaign.

Rebecca: So in addition to students finding that kind of personal ownership over the experience, what are some of the other factors that you think made this particular project, in this particular situation, really successful?

Allison: I think there are a couple of things that made this project work really well. I think that, one, is that a non-partisan voter registration drive is something that students can get excited about, even if they’re really uncomfortable with the idea of the conflict around politics. So students that are interested in politics, but don’t really want to be in the debates around politics, can latch on to this as a project that they can get excited about. So, for instance, we had a number of students from PR who took this class because they saw it as that they didn’t really want to get into politics, but they want to know how to run something big, and so this provides that type of opportunity. The second thing is that the calendar just works. So I think it can be really hard to get students excited on a project if they can’t actually take it through the finish line. And what works about a non-partisan voter registration and voter mobilization drive is that in most states, the voter registration deadline is around four to six weeks after school starts, and then you get about another four to six weeks before the election itself, and then you’ve still got another four to six weeks before the end of the semester. And so it perfectly stages itself, provided that the faculty or some other set of students have done some of the set-up, for students to come in learn a set of skills, build skills, execute, get a couple of do-overs, and then still have time to reflect on the project before the semester is out.

Rebecca: I think that’s one thing that’s really unique about the timeline, is that a lot of kind of activity-based learning or community based learning projects, they go straight to the end of this semester and it really is hard to build in that reflection piece, so it’s nice to have substantial time to do that, and really think through that, and do post mortems and plan for the next time around so that the next set of students can learn from the previous set.

Allison: Yeah, it worked really well. I think that space allowed for a couple of assignments, both in terms of a post-mortem and having them really think critically about what they would have done differently in what advice they want to give the next group, but also for those students who want to go into this type of work, a lot of it is contract consulting work. So you’d run a campaign, and then that campaigns over, and then, what do you do next? And so one of the assignments for the class was actually to apply… mock apply for many of them. Though, a few students who are graduating did really apply for different types of political jobs. And so actually learning how to translate this real experience into a cover letter, and into a resume, and being able to pitch that what they had done was not just work for a class, but was actually work for a campaign.

John: Excellent. Did any of them end up working on campaigns?

Allison: A number of them have had internships. Someone received an internship, I believe, in Senator Schumer’s office off of the experience in her application, for that was actually what she submitted for the final project in that class.

John: Excellent. How did students, in general, respond to it? What sort of feedback have you had from students?

Allison: From the student population on campus or from…?

John: Or… well, actually from both within the class and also more broadly.

Allison: So students within the class thought that it was an immense amount of work, but also seemed very satisfied with the experience themselves. The sort of anonymous feedback sheets that I did with students over the course of the semester, students repeatedly talked about how much they were getting out of the experience in terms of learning what went on, quote unquote, behind the scenes of campaigns and how much harder it is then it looks like it is on television, comments like that. For this student population more broadly, it’s been interesting. There were definitely a set of students for whom having the voter registration and voter mobilization drive become something bigger on campus. I think it felt a little bit intrusive, though I’d argue that that’s what grassroots campaigning look like, you’re just gonna get asked if you’re registered to vote four times a day, in the days leading up to the voter registration deadline, and not for… even the students in my class who said, “I think we’re bothering people.” I said, “you are bothering people, you want them to register to vote.” So there was a little bit of that. On the other hand, students were really excited and I’ve actually had a number of students ask me if I’m running the class again, when the class is running again. Sort of having seen it happen, are really interested in getting that experience.

John: Very good. If someone were to stop in on your classroom, what would it look like?

Allison: I suspect it would initially look like chaos. [laughter]
The campaign classroom, I think, is a very different feel than a lot of other classrooms. After the first couple of weeks, I basically demoted myself to note-taker. I was technically the campaign manager, but I was really there to act as a check if I thought they were straying into something that potentially– this never happened, but I essentially was there to see do we stray into something that potentially smacks of a real problem, right? …in terms of their regularly… like election law regulations or guidelines for the campus, keeping track of the money that we still had, and what we could spend money on in the overall campaign calendar. But I would most frequently in that classroom, whoever was in charge of running a particular campaign team that was working on a strategy, would be running the meeting and I’d be at the front of the room essentially taking notes on the giant whiteboard in order to track the conversation and basically remind people of what decisions needed to be made before we left that campaign meeting. There’d also be a number of classes where you would have come to the classroom and no one would have been in it because there were either students out phone-banking, students were running a voter education program in one of our dorms, students were out running a training for other volunteers… sort of really being out in the field as much as possible and I was just running around trying to see what was happening in all of those locations and troubleshooting when it was needed.

John: So how many volunteers did they bring in from outside their class?

Allison: We ended up having over 250 unique volunteers from outside of the class that did work with Vote Oswego.

John: That’s impressive.

Rebecca: So you mentioned money and finances and so I think, I think that’s usually a big question for any sort of community project, campus project, etc. So how did you work the money side of things?

Allison: I think, one of the real benefits of the voter registration drive, is not only does it match the calendar, but it matches a place where campuses are already inclined to spend some money. So, I was able to put together money from a couple different places. One was actually from our Student Association. The student government here at SUNY Oswego put in it, ended up being close to $2,000, ultimately, that helped cover– it initially helped cover a bulk of the t-shirts actually, in visibility materials. I also put together money from our Community Services office, which is who had been coordinating the voter registration drive before. So instead of the money that they had spent running their own project, they were willing to put it towards this project. Which again, giving students access over how those dollars are spent I think was really important. I also was able to get resources from a couple different places as a faculty member, so I pitched Vote Oswego originally at a faculty academic affairs retreat at the start of a year and received $1000. The idea was voted as a best new innovation for teaching and learning at SUNY Oswego’s campus. And then I also received a Curriculum Innovation Grant here at SUNY Oswego that helped cover for me traveling to grassroots organizing training with the new voters project, to essentially get a refresher. It had been… let’s just say I was not text messaging…. that did not exist when I was last organizing… so getting a nice refresher on what sort of the the modern techniques were and best practices was really helpful.

Rebecca: How can others get involved like this particular project on this campus or run similar projects?

Allison: Yeah, so on this campus, faculty or students or staff that are interested should just shoot me an email. Definitely trying as soon as possible to start ramping up the plans for the 2018 midterm version and really starting to lay the groundwork for something big in 2020. Folks on other campuses that are interested in figuring out how this project worked, I actually just had a co-authored piece come out in the Journal of Political Science Education, it’s available as of yesterday online entitled “Vote Oswego: Developing and Assessing the Campaign-as-Course Model” that does quite a bit to outline how this project can run, where it fits pedagogically in sort of that space of taking some of the best parts of both simulations and service-learning. That article actually includes quite a bit from the course calendar, assessment strategies, as well as some student outcomes. And I want to point out that that piece was co-authored with Angela Tylock, who was one of the lead interns for the project. She graduated from SUNY Oswego in Spring of 2017.

John: Very good. We’ll include a link to that reference in the show notes.
What specific guidance might you give to other campuses trying to do similar projects?

Allison: I would just really encourage faculty and campuses generally, even if you don’t want to run it as a credit bearing course, to figure out how students can take the lead as organizers. I think, too often, students become the volunteers, right? There’s sort of a whole apparatus with lots of different nonprofits that are doing really good work to get students to vote and that’s really important, but I think on campuses, we’re missing really big opportunities if we treat elections as an opportunity to get students to vote, but not as an opportunity to get students the skills that they are gonna want and need for a whole variety of things. If you want to go work in a non-profit, you’ve got to know how to build a coalition. If you want to work for your kids’ PTA and make sure that they’re getting the resources they need, the ability to run a meeting and get petition signatures, is actually really important. And all of those types of civic skills are things that students can and, I think, should be getting by volunteering or helping to run one of these drives.

John: So it’s very much an active learning exercise…

Allison: Absolutely, absolutely.

John: …where students played an important role in building it.

Rebecca: How did you get students to take that active role? I mean, it’s easy to assign tasks and be the leader, but how did that feel?

Allison: There was… definitely, I had to be fine with a level of loss of control that I am often not fine with in my classes. What I did is actually work to set up the first two weeks of the semester, I had the calendar planned out, so I had worked ahead of time to set up tables and events that were happening for orientation, had coordinated with faculty around campus to have individuals come in and give announcements and register students in that first 10 minutes that really, the first week of school, you can almost always, the first day of class, give up 10 minutes, after you review the syllabus, to get some students registered to vote. After that first two weeks, the students who were enrolled in the course, had had an opportunity to be trained in those skills, to get their feet wet in the skills, to get feedback on the skills and then I didn’t plan anything else. I basically said, “now it’s up to you, what are we gonna do?” And goals have been set for the campaign so the students knew, “here’s where we want to get, here are what we think our rates are gonna be. So if we want to register 500 people from tabling, here’s how many table hours we need scheduled, how are we gonna make that happen?” And I think two things then happened. One, I stepped back and basically told students, “you’re the expert on where students on this campus are.” I come here, I go to work, sometimes I go to events, and then I go home. I don’t actually know what dining halls are packed on what days. Turns out chicken sandwiches, big deal, chicken sandwich day at late night, right? There are all of these things that happen on campus that, as a faculty member, I don’t know about. So students basically learned that I wasn’t gonna tell them not to register students at 11 p.m. at night if that’s where they thought students were, they ran with it. The other thing that happened is they realized that I would let things fail. If students scheduled events and those events went poorly, they went poorly. And I wasn’t gonna fix those events for them– with the exception of confirming that registration forms were filled out correctly. We had an entire process for making sure that voter registration forms were correctly done. But in terms of the grassroots apparatus around that, if students didn’t plan well, they didn’t plan well, and they were the ones that had to stand there while the event went poorly. And I think between those two things, the students really became engaged around sort of their responsibility and taking ownership over the campaign.

Rebecca: Was most of the learning then taking place by “let’s try this, let’s fail, let’s try again,” an iteration rather than like doing readings or other kinds of … ?

Allison: Yes, there were minimal readings while the campaign was actually happening. There was quite a bit of reading and reflecting once election day happened, but prior to that, it was much more “these are the tried-and-true tactics, what do you want to get out and do? How do you think these tactics will best adjust to the environment that you’re in and the student population were working with?”

John: And students learn a lot more by making mistakes and recovering from them, and it sounds like you set up a mechanism where there was lots of feedback from each other.

Allison: Yes.

John: That’s excellent.

Rebecca: So, usually we wrap up these conversations by asking what are you gonna do next?

Allison: Next for Vote Oswego is an effort to improve the connections between the voter registration drive as a grassroots campaign to the voter registration drive as an overall campaign that involves lots of different components. So actually, Rebecca, had a class that worked on the website for Vote Oswego, it was a project for one of her classes we’re hoping to do, I think, much more of that for the 2016 campaign as well as trying to figure out what other faculty or other classes could also use a voter registration drive… benefit from that timing… benefit from the fact that it can be student driven and student owned in a lot of ways, to really get their classes involved with this as a project.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: Thanks for taking the time out and sharing your project. I think it probably has encouraged a lot of people to start thinking about those midterm elections and how they might be able to get students tapped into it.

John: And will you be doing this every other year now?

Allison: The goal is to do it every other year. I haven’t done it for a midterm yet, I think that will be different. I think there will be more actual campaign literature there just because it will be difficult to get it sort of as ramped up as a presidential election, but the goal is to do it every other year.

John: Very good. Okay, well thank you.

Allison: Thank you.

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

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

7. Student writing

Writing can be a struggle for students, especially when they do not see the value or relevance of the writing assignments. This perception is a barrier faculty often face in writing-intensive courses, including first-year English composition. In this episode we will explore how project-based writing can motivate students to want to write and revise in a writing-intensive course.

Stephanie Pritchard is a faculty member in the English and Creative Writing Department and Co-Director of the Creativity Lab. She is also the Writing Fellow for the School of Communication, Media, and the Arts at the State University of New York at Oswego. Stephanie was the recipient of the 2016 SUNY-Oswego Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Our guest today is Stephanie Pritchard, a faculty member in the English and Creative Writing Department and Co-Director of the Creativity Lab. She is also the Writing Fellow for the School of Communication, Media, and the Arts at the State University of New York at Oswego. Stephanie was the recipient of the SUNY-Oswego Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence. Welcome, Stephanie.

Stephanie: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Hi.
Today’s teas are:

John: Black raspberry green tea.

Stephanie: Earl Grey tea.

Rebecca: Jasmine green tea.

John: So let’s talk a little bit about your role here. You’ve worked for a while with the Writing Across the Curriculum program. Could you tell us a little bit about that program at Oswego?

Stephanie: Sure. Basically the idea behind it is to encourage students to be writing all across campus, so regardless of your major whether you’re a math major or an English major, graphic design, business, you are going to be writing in your major, and then every major on campus has five writing intensive classes that students have to take to hopefully help them develop their writing skills from their freshman year all the way up to their senior year when they graduate.

John: And they’re structured in levels from introductory ones to capstone type level, right?

Stephanie: Absolutely, yes. So they’ll be taking these writing intensive classes throughout their whole time at Oswego.

Rebecca: And this is how many Writing Across the Curriculum programs are structured at many different universities. We have found over time right, the faculty who might not be in a writing specific discipline like English for example, sometimes they’re a little tentative about wanting to teach writing, so our university – we started this writing fellow program, which Stephanie is one of our writing fellows, and happens to be the writer fellow for the School of Communication, Media and the Arts, which I’m in. So Stephanie and I have had the opportunity to work closely together in her role. Can you talk a little bit about what you do as a writing fellow?

Stephanie: Sure. I’ve been doing the writing fellows program for several years now. There are a few faculty members who act as writing fellows, as Rebecca mentioned I’m the fellow for the school of Communications, Media and the Arts or SCMA we also have two writing fellows for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, their names are Tony Kupuna and Ken Nichols we have one writing fellow for the School of Education, her name is Judith Belt and writing fellow for the School of Business and that is Melissa Web, and all of us work with faculty across campus in our different schools or in our different areas and we do a lot of different things. Through my work as a writing fellow, I happen to give a lot of in-class presentations to faculty, so that means I visit their classes and I’ll perhaps give a lesson on how to write an effective outline or I’ll talk a lot about things like MLA, APA style, how to use citations effectively, how to write thesis statements or how to develop effective arguments or more real-world writing experience, like writing or crafting email, writing thank-you notes, things like that. I also work with faculty one-on-one to help them create or revise different writing assignments that they’re using in their classes or just to help them brainstorm ideas about writing assignments that they could give their students. I like to talk to students a lot about writing resources that are available on campus to them that they may or may not know about. So for example I do get asked by faculty to visit their classes to talk about the Writing Center, which is a resource that not everyone on campus knows about and I think is really important, as well as the Write Way Series, which is a really, really wonderful series of writing related workshops that’s run by Steve Smith from the Office of Learning Services and basically the Write Way Series are different workshops that are every Friday afternoon throughout the entire semester and faculty from all across campus come in and give different presentations about writing and it’s a really wonderful way for students to come in and really get some first-hand information about writing skills that they are looking to develop.

John: Now just a minute ago, Rebecca mentioned that you work together quite a bit. Could you talk a little bit about how you’ve collaborated?

Stephanie: Absolutely. So in the Graphic Design Department especially, I’ve worked one-on-one with Rebecca quite a bit. We’ve done a couple of different exercises for her students at the three and four hundred level mostly. We have focused on professionalism quite often, so I visited her classes and we talked about email communication especially, we spent time talking about how to create effective thank-you notes and I gave a workshop on thank you note writing. We also did a workshop that was about… your other one, remember?

Rebecca: Yeah, we did a project about audience and really thinking about writing for different audiences and having multiple collaborative writers write together. So designers often have to write reports, where they might evaluate design and things for a client and so, Stephanie was so gracious to help us develop an exercise that was fun that got students thinking about how to write in a single voice.

Stephanie: It’s – I think it’s especially important when I visit classes to talk about writing, a lot of people have this perception that writing has to be tedious, or that writing has to be boring, or that it’s a lot of work, but when I try to visit classes I really make the attempt to make writing as fun as possible. Every time that I visit Rebecca’s classes I try really hard to bring some kind of creative spin to whatever it is we’re doing to make the assignments seem more tangible to students, which makes them more engaged and more interested. So for the collaborative writing example, I actually created four different short stories and then encouraged the students in small groups to continue writing the short stories that I had already begun, but the catch was they had to follow the same tone and style – if it was written in first second or third person, if I was using slang, if it was formal or informal, they had to continue to mimic that with a group of other people to try to get them to work on thinking collaboratively about a piece of writing.

John: And since most students will be doing some work in the future where they will be collaborating on projects that’s a really useful skill.

Stephanie: I think they really got a lot out of it and they did realize too, that while it is very, very difficult to write collaboratively, it’s a skill that they absolutely need. And this is something too that Rebecca and I have spoken to them about she and I have actually collaborated on a project together. We went and presented at a graphic design conference last year in Toronto about preparing students to write collaboratively and also preparing students to write for their future career, to think about writing as a professional skill that they really need to have before they leave school.

Rebecca: And thinking about really writing about what they’re doing to a non-expert audience, I know we spend a lot of time in our classes trying to get students to practice the vocabulary associated with the field, but don’t always practice how to communicate that to people outside of the field. So, I think that the exercises that we’ve developed together have really helped. So I would say that having access to a writing fellow has been such a blessing in a lot of ways because I knew that the students were struggling with a lot of these writing things and I was building a lot of writing into my classes, but Stephanie was able to come into the class and really show me some different ways of teaching some of those things. And so some of those exercises Stephanie still comes in regularly to kind of do with my students, but then there’s others that after having seen her execute that a few times I have a good model for it and I can do when she’s not available, I can do on my own, and so it really helped me actually build some confidence in that area where I wasn’t quite sure how to approach certain things and she was able to model it for me.

Stephanie: So kind of piggybacking off of what Rebecca just said as my work as a writing fellow for the School of Communication, Media and the Arts, it’s really opened my eyes to all of the different kinds of writing that happens on campus, especially professional writing and working to develop yourself professionally. So one of the things that I’ve done is based off of my visit to her class, I now regularly give a professional email communication workshop as part of the Write Way Series that’s attended by faculty, staff and students to kind of talk about why it’s important to use specific language in your emails and how you can really help yourself be professional, or seem professional.

John: Excellent, now let’s talk a little bit about what you do in your own classes that you teach, English Composition could you talk a little bit about the types of assignments you give and how you approach those courses?

Stephanie: Sure, so I’ve actually for the last couple of semesters, I had been doing much more creative writing so I teach poetry writing – and I’ve been really focused on that for the last couple of semesters. But this fall for the first time in a little while, I got a section of English 102 again and I was really excited to teach English 102 and to revisit that class.

John: And English 102 is the basic introductory freshman writing class?

Stephanie: Yes, yep that’s correct. Sometimes you don’t always get just freshmen in this class, sometimes you get a mix of students and my section this semester was entirely made up of freshmen. So what I wanted to do was really look at our English Composition class and look at the assignments that I could give these students and I really wanted to try to make this as practical of a writing experience for them as I possibly could. So typically, in an English Composition class, students will get a series of papers that may may not be related to each other, right? But we’re as teachers that soon as we go in the English department we have to give them four or five papers that they are required to write over the course of the semester, four or five writing assignments. They need to have opportunities to revise those writing assignments and there also needs to be some kind of digital component to the English Composition experience. So, before the semester started I really wanted to move away from that model a little bit and experiment more with like a project-based English Composition class, and that’s where I ended up going with this and now at the end of the semester my first time doing this, I can say that I’ve been really really happy with the results of it and I think the students have had a really positive writing experience. So instead of dividing up the semester into a series of unrelated papers, instead I divided up the semester into two projects, and each project was composed of a series of small writing assignments that really helped students develop their skills and build their skills throughout each project. The first project that I did was a podcast project. So that was important for English Composition because of the digital literacy requirement that we have to meet when we teach that class, as well as all of the different kinds of writing, very practical writing, that students worked on doing throughout the whole thing. So I can break down some of the different components of the project if that’s something that you’d like?

John: Yeah, tell us more about the project.

Stephanie: Okay, so before the semester started I was actually approached by Rebecca and a few other faculty members to find out if I would be interested in working with them on a collaborative interdisciplinary project. And this project would involve students from Rebecca’s web class, as well as Kelly Georgio’s publication class, Peter Cardones photography class, and my English Composition class. So there would be students from all these different courses working together. We also work closely with Ben Parker who is the coordinator for our veteran services on campus and we created a project called the Voices of Oswego Veterans. This was based on an exhibition that was in Tyler Art Gallery this semester that was called the Veterans Book Project- Objects for Deployment, which students from I think all of the classes who were involved in this project went to go see and experience, and the project is based off of a bunch of books that were authored by people who have had some kind of first-hand experience of or about war, and what that does. So, what our Voices of Oswego Veteran’s project was going to do, we wanted to work with student veterans who are connected to SUNY Oswego, and the idea behind this project was that we wanted to help those student veterans share their stories. Whatever their stories were. They didn’t necessarily have to be connected to their experiences in combat, or their experiences abroad, or their experiences even related to being a veteran directly if they didn’t want to.

Rebecca: And most of them didn’t really want to, like they explored a lot more about being a student in that transition.

Stephanie: Absolutely, absolutely. So anyway, we had all of these different classes who were working with this group of veterans who volunteered to do this project with us, and my English Composition students created a series of podcast episodes based on the voices of Oswego Veterans Project. Most of the students in my English Composition class, when I asked them if they knew what a podcast was or if they had listened to podcasts really had not, they really didn’t have any idea which I thought was really interesting.

Rebecca: I had the same experience! I’m teaching advanced web students and they didn’t know what a podcast was either, so we’ve introduced them all to a whole genre of work that they had never experienced.

Stephanie: It’s true, it’s true.

John: So what, did each of the classes do podcasts?

Rebecca: No, what we ended up doing was, Stephanie’s students did the podcasts, and then Peter students did environmental portraits, so they did photos of the veterans right in an environment that represented who they were, and then Kelly Dorizio’s class did a publication that took some of the images and some of the text from the transcripts from the podcasts to make a publication, and then my web students put it together to make a podcast website that has the transcripts, show notes, and what have you, together.

John: So it was truly a collaborative project where each class was developing skills relevant to their major.

Rebecca: Yeah, exactly.

Stephanie: The really cool thing too is that next semester a lot of this work is going to be on display in Penfield Library, so people can walk through and look at the photographs, look at some of the published material that Kelly’s class made, and look at excerpts from the podcasts that my students created, and then like Rebecca said they can also go online and check out the website that’s associated with the project.

John: And so each of the podcasts involved interviews with veterans?

Stephanie: So my goal was to have the entire thing wrapped up start to finish in about eight weeks. So we had a lot of work to do from introducing what a podcast is to students, and spending time really kind of exploring that whole genre, right? Because they weren’t terribly familiar with it. And then when you sit a bunch of students down and tell them, okay you’re going to go meet with someone you’ve never met before, and then you’re going to interview that person, and you’re gonna really talk to them and get to know them, it can be kind of intimidating to think about going to meet somebody who you’ve never met before. So this whole project was really working on getting students to be comfortable talking to other people who they didn’t know and quite frankly I mean, to people who they thought were quite different from themselves, right? Because even though everyone in this project was a student they all had very different experiences and they were all, they were all bringing different things to the table. So early on in the project after we established what a podcast was and spent some time talking about that, we worked on doing email. That was the first writing assignment that my students had to do, which was something that was directly based off of my experiences with Rebecca’s students in the past. So we talked about what it means to make a good email, they had to send two emails to their assigned veterans, my students were put into groups of two and each group worked with one student veteran on campus. So the first writing assignment was to compose an email, they got a chance to revise that assignment, they also had to have two separate meetings with their assigned student veteran, so before their first meeting we worked on creating skills like how to make good small talk, how to ask good interview questions,

John: We should have taken that course
[Laughter]

Stephanie: Spend time talking about things like body language, and like what that means, how people perceive you and how you can present yourself in a professional manner, we talked about what would be a good thing like a good wardrobe decisions to make before you have a meeting like that, you know when you’re meeting somebody for the first time who you don’t know. So a lot of it was really focused on establishing this repertoire with another person. And I think that that’s really important because a lot of people are losing those skills, in my opinion.

John: And we don’t provide a lot of formal training on that.

Rebecca: How did the students respond to like that time in class talking about these things that might seem like minutia, that might – maybe they don’t initially think is really relevant?

Stephanie: It was really interesting, it also served as a kind of a good series of icebreakers for them to get to know each other because we did some interacting in class where I had them after we spent some time – I mean because you can talk all day about how to do something, but until you actually have to go do it then that’s when things really start to change. So of course we spent time in class talking about how to make small talk and how to get to know somebody, but then I had them all stand up and go meet somebody who they didn’t know and this was like the second week of school, so they knew no one in class, and they had to make small talk with each other for five minutes and I timed it and I walked around and listened to their conversations and it was really intriguing because they really took it to heart, they were really talking to each other. It wasn’t any of that like nonsense “so what do you think about the weather today?” kind of thing, they really did a good job and they took it seriously.

John: So they didn’t see it as a meaningless icebreaker, they saw it as actually developing a skill that they could use.

Stephanie: Certainly, and then they were able to take those skills to their meetings with their student veterans and then when I asked them how their meetings went, I mean we had this huge discussion in class about what it was like to meet somebody who they had never met before and how maybe it was a little bit awkward at first, but how they remembered some of the things we had talked about in class like making eye contact and smiling and not having their phones out and all of those sorts of things, and I thought it was it was a really interesting experience for them. After they had the meetings and we talked about them, we then had to work together to develop a set of interview questions that my students would be asking their student veterans. And this was something else that we had to spend a lot of time talking about, we actually had Ben Parker come into our class to talk with my students about our population of student veterans, and he really helped prepare them to think about asking good questions and you know talk to them about what questions are and are not perhaps appropriate to ask other people. And we try to make this discussion more broad also right like if you take the student veteran component out of the question, what sorts of things, what kinds of questions are my students asked that might make them uncomfortable, and why are why is it important to ask good questions.

John: Some really good communication skills in general being developed there.

Stephanie: Sure. So after Ben’s visit to my English Composition class where he really helps students talk about some of the stereotypes especially, that our student veterans experience either on or off campus, we had a really wonderful class discussion about those sorts of stereotypes because this was really leading up to the interview questions that my students were going to be composing to ask their student veterans, and we wanted to make sure that they weren’t asking any questions that would be offensive which is really important. So anyway, after Ben left we had a really wonderful class discussion about how several of our students had a tendency to look at a student veteran as a veteran first, and perhaps not as a student first. And we then spent some time talking about well why it’s important, these are students at SUNY Oswego just like you, right? So like they’re majoring in something, they’re going to classes, they might be in your classes, they might have the same teachers you have, or have taken a subject that you’re thinking about exploring for the first time, and to really keep that information in mind which is interestingly enough, one of the things that our student veterans really spoke about a lot in the podcast was their learning experiences here and what they’re passionate about learning here, which I thought was really intriguing. So my students really had a they took a lot away from Ben’s presentation in his visit, and I think Rebecca students had a similar experience in class discussion.

Rebecca: Yeah, all of the faculty involved took our classes to that exhibition that was at Tyler Art Gallery at the beginning of the semester, and so students look through books that were written in part by veterans and also people affected by war. So that kind of primed them a little bit, we did that earlier before our piece of the project started so Stephanie’s class had to complete their part of the project before my students could start working on the web component. So we worked it on the last part of the semester. So there was some space between the exhibition and us starting the project. So when we started the project, I had everyone fill out a little worksheet that asked them what do you know about veterans? How do you know what you know? What questions do you have? And they all filled it out and then we shared back what it was so it was really interesting is that they had read these books that dispelled a lot of myths and stereotypes about veterans in general but they still held on to those stereotypes when they filled out this little worksheet, and so we talked about that. So what’s funny is that you people think about war, they think about older males, right, they think World War II, you know they don’t even think, they don’t even think about like contemporary experience at all. So they did that, and then I had all of them listen to the content of the website. So they had to listen to all the podcasts and then of course we had a quiz on it, so made sure everyone listened to it and then I asked some questions again about how your perceptions change and they were shocked, right, like the things that really stood out was one of the podcasts was about you know being a mother and also a student, and that transition. Or one that really wanted to be a writer, which really kind of dispelled many of these stereotypes that they came, or the baggage they came to the project with. And so because they had that experience that they found quite transformative, they’ve really held tight on to the idea that they want to make sure that people who visit the site and listen to the podcast upfront, the visuals that are provided do not re-emphasize or repeat the stereotypes.

John: So it forced them to confront their stereotypes.

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah. And I think the key thing was we talked a lot about when they were trying to figure out what kinds of, what kind of imagery would go on the front page of the website, their first inclination was to put a military picture up, and my immediate response was they’re not in the military anymore, they’re retired from the military. And then you could just see them go right, and then trying to figure out like what they wanted to communicate and having to really probe. So that has been actually the most stressful part of that project for them, is they really, really want to do a good job with that moment.

Stephanie: And I think connecting to that just a little bit, when we were prepping for the assignment before my students had even met with their student veteran for the first time and we were talking about small talk, some of them expressed this fear right. And they said well I’ve never met a veteran, before I don’t really know anything about what veterans do, etc. right, and I reiterated that same point which was but you are working you’re talking to another student right, what questions will you ask another student. And that really for them kind of helped this light bulb go off when they were as they kept thinking about that. After we had that conversation then they created this big list of questions that they were wanted to ask their student veterans and then they submitted those and then they had an opportunity to revise those based on my feedback. They also had to write some short biographies, so they had to write a 150 word bio about their student veteran. They also had to write 150 word bios in the third person about themselves, which was also a very interesting experience. So we spent time talking about what information should or should not be included in a biography, if you haven’t accomplished a whole lot at this point in your life, what information should you include right, to get to that 150 words because they all had to be about the same length to look uniform on the website. So that was important. So then we started to really move into the meat and potatoes part of the actual podcast, so I had them all create podcast outlines sort of like a very rough script about what their podcasts would look like, what their episodes would look like, which were then workshopped in class and the students really took that very seriously and gave each other a lot of good feedback about that.

Rebecca: I know in many times we’ve had a lot of conversations from someone that’s not in English and creative writing I never knew what like workshopping a writing was until we had talked quite a bit, so can you share what you mean by workshopping that?

Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. You can do it quite differently in lots of different, in lots of classes, but the way that I generally like to do it is had all of the students submit an outline beforehand, and we had a schedule as to which groups would be workshopped on which day. Basically what it means is students came to class having read, let’s say four different outlines that had been determined ahead of time, they made some notes on the outlines and then we sat in class, we sat in a circle and students talked to each other about the different outlines and they came with a set list of questions that they had for each other, they came with a set list of comments that they had for each other, and basically the whole purpose of a workshop in a writing class is for students to get good feedback from each other, because they got plenty of feedback from just me, but I mean I’m only one person, and when you get 19 different people in a room who have 19 different perspectives and 19 different ideas, you can generate a lot more discussion based on a piece of writing. So I did the work shopping for the podcast outlines as a whole class, which meant we all talked about the same outline for a couple minutes and then I collected all of the students notes from that experience and looked them over and that’s how they got participation points, by actively annotating and making some notes on the outlines that they use to fuel their discussion in class.

Rebecca: So before they actually executed their podcast, you know they’ve gone through these different series of kind of professional writing opportunities or professional communication opportunities. I’m curious about how they’re responding at this moment in this semester? How did they respond when you gave the syllabus to them? And then how do they respond about this moment halfway through the project?

John: When they’re doing their peer review

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of like, now we’re getting ready to actually like execute the thing what was kind of the temperament?

Stephanie: At the beginning of the semester on the syllabus, I didn’t give them a whole lot of details about what the two projects were. I just said we’re gonna be doing these two big projects and each project is broken down into a series of components. They knew that we were going to be participating in the voices of Oswego veterans project on Friday the first week of school because we had to get started right away. When I first told them what the project was I got a lot of deer in the headlights looks.

John: So did you wait until after the drop date to tell them?

Stephanie: No, this was still before the drop day. But this is a big project and like when I’ve taught English Composition in the past, I have always started out with something small. Right, like a 2-page more informal writing assignment to try to get students comfortable with me and with the writing process etc. and this time I really decided that I just kind of wanted to jump in headfirst, right? I mean it’s a writing course, so we might as well just do it. So I think that they were because their experience in writing classes before hand had been structured, like I just said, you know much more these smaller assignments that they looked at as much more manageable, like write a process paper. Write an experiential paper about something that you did over the summer, like what have you, right? But this was like a big thing that they had to work with another person on, as well as a person who they had never met before outside of their class, but at this point about halfway through the semester all of the writing assignments that we had done were still relatively small. There were just a lot more of them, right and they had revised every single writing assignment that they had done for me at this point, which was something very different from how I had taught English Composition in the past. So at this point they had gotten into this rhythm of ‘oh, okay. I have my podcast outline due. This is worth 10% of my overall grade for this project. I’m gonna submit it, then I’m going to revise it’, and then that will be the 10% and even that grade seemed more manageable to them then the bigger greater than are associated with those other might.

John: So you have a lot of low stakes work there, with a practice the process of revision and they can learn from their mistakes and they can improve the work and that’s a really useful thing for students to learn because they haven’t all realized that that’s an important part of any job.

Rebecca: And is really setting up a culture of revision and iteration, and I think that a lot of us struggle in our classes to get students to embrace the idea of revision, but if you just set it up that like everything’s revised and that’s how it is, and that’s how it is from the beginning then that’s just that’s the culture of the space and that’s the expectation.

Stephanie: The way that I like to do revision, also because I think it’s important for them to put effort in the first time around, right, which is sometimes something they won’t do so much, if you talk to them about revision and what that means basically they submit the first draft of something, it gets graded, then it gets returned to them. If they choose to revise it, which for this podcast project they all chose to revise everything, because they knew that all of this information was gonna be going online.

Rebecca: The stakes were high.

Stephanie: They were much higher, right. So they got a grade on the first draft then they could revise it. They get graded on their revision and then basically what I do is average the draft grade and the revision grade together and then round up a little bit, to give them an incentive for having chosen to revise. So that means that their first draft is still, it’s still significant right, so you can’t just completely blow off the first draft of something, right you like you still have to put in a lot of effort to get a manageable grade on each of the assignments.

John: The workshop process though not only helps each student improve their work, it also helps them develop skills of critically analyzing their work in the work of others, which is something that they don’t always do in introductory writing classes. I think many of our classes do now, but that wasn’t always a norm. It probably wasn’t something they experienced that much before, where they typically write something give it to the teacher they’d get it back and then they’d forget about it. Here they’re building something that’s much more meaningful and they’re learning more about this process of revising and working to improve things

Stephanie: I’ve wanted them to learn how to talk to each other throughout this semester, and I think that they have really moved in that direction, you know, especially when you get a group of freshmen, sometimes they can be so quiet because they’re in college and it’s really overwhelming and whatever else. I wanted this to be an opportunity for them to really grow, not only as writers but also as people who can communicate with each other.

Rebecca: I’m wondering too at this moment, so it’s not before they do the podcast yet, but they know that like they’re doing the podcast, right. They’ve got all these components together, they think the stakes are high cause it’s gonna be online and they’re interacting with this third person that like isn’t getting a grade but like you’re totally interacting with them right, and your grade somewhat depends on how well you interact with this person. Do you think that that kind of community component influenced how much they got engaged in the project?

Stephanie: It was huge, absolutely. The fact that I was consistently telling them, remember this is for the website right, and the fact that I could also tell them, it gave me a way to, this sounds kind of bad but almost validate the importance of every assignment, right. There was no question of, ‘well, why are we writing third person biographies’, well, they knew, right and they knew that they were writing these third person bios to go on the website so people who had no idea who they were could learn about them a little bit, and understand why that was important so because there was this bigger picture that we were all working toward, there was never any question of relevance of each assignment.

John: And when students know that the work is going to be publicly visible, it gives some much more incentive to do a good job because they don’t want to look bad in public.

Stephanie: Absolutely, absolutely, so there were a couple other components of the project – I did try to keep everything like I said pretty practical. We did a whole thank you note writing workshop where students wrote thank-you notes to give to their student veterans, they were handwritten notes and we talked about why that’s important and why you should do that. They had to create a whole draft of their actual transcripts for their podcast episodes, which meant that they had to transcribe their recording, word-for-word

John: Oh, they did they did that manually?

Stephanie: They did, they did.

John: We’ve been doing that ourselves and it’s a bit of work. Now we automate it, We upload to YouTube and then we download the captions from YouTube, but then there’s still a lot of work put into it.

Rebecca: It doesn’t have any punctuation.

John: it doesn’t have punctuation or capitalization, and it doesn’t identify who is speaking at the time so.

Stephanie: They manually went through and then wrote down and their pod their podcast episodes were eight minutes long, maximum. So they were between six and eight minutes.

John: So it was a bit more manageable.

Stephanie: But it was still quite a bit, I mean they came in like, kind of when they were due, the students came in wide-eyed and they were like, ‘Stephanie, you have no idea how many times we listened to this one part’.

John: Well, just so you get a better feel for that, we’ll let you do the transcript for this one.
[Laughter]

Stephanie: Sure, yeah.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how they did this. Did they use their phones? Did they use, did they borrow recording devices? Did they use microphones?

Stephanie: That’s an excellent question. So I wanted them to be as prepared as possible so I booked a couple of days in the library and we worked with Sharona Ginsberg, who is absolutely wonderful I’ve worked with her on some digital literacy projects in the past. So we went in and she sat them down and taught them how to use audacity, which is the recording software that’s on all of the computers in the library and on campus. It’s also free to download pretty easy to use once you get used to it, so she gave them kind of the rundown on how to use it most of them decided to use audacity. So that meant that the library actually, our Penfield library has two multi media rooms on the second floor. So and students can book those and use them and their rooms are soundproof, they have good microphones in there and the computer already has audacity so the vast majority of my students booked the multimedia rooms met their student veterans in Penfield and then just went upstairs and did the whole recording session up there . Their student veterans had to interview questions beforehand, so they already knew what the questions were going to be so they could be prepared and then students did it all right there. I had one or two groups decide to use iMovie instead of audacity, which was fine, to do the recording.

John: iMovie or GarageBand?

Stephanie: That, they said they used iMovie.

Rebecca: Hm, it’s odd.

John: You can.

Stephanie: Yeah, but for the most part almost everything. I don’t think any group use their phone to record we did have a conversation in class two about background noise, and about environment and all of those sorts of things. So most of them use the multimedia rooms in the library so Sharona was really able to help prepare them, for the more technical aspects of the project.

John: Now did the library provide microphones or was it just the ones built into the computer?

Stephanie: Nope, you can check out microphones from the library also which is super helpful and you can you can check them out and plug them into your own personal laptop or you can bring them to one of the computers in the library. They also have small handheld digital recorders so that you can use those also, if you don’t want to use one of the mics in the library. So we went there and that really helped them it was a couple of days but that really helped prepare them for like the more technical aspects of the project.

John: Now when they did the recording, did they include intros and outros or was it just a straightforward recording?

Stephanie: Oh yeah, we did like the whole thing. I gave them all like a rough outline and that’s when we had workshop their outlines in class, I had told them to come in with several sections already prepped and ready to go. So that meant they all had to do an introduction they all had to do a conclusion most of them chose to include some of the third-person biography information that they had written about their veterans to give some context for their veteran. They all had to come in because even though all of these episodes were connected they were all part of the voices of a Oswego of veterans project every student group took a different spin on the assignment. So I mean every student group decided that they wanted their episode to be about something specific. So they had to come in with a set list of things already planned out, so that our episodes would appear to be part of a whole series, but distinctly different because they were all focused on a different subject.

Rebecca: Yeah and then ultimately what happened was that those podcasts and transcripts were turned over to my students, and my students are currently working on the website which will be launched early next semester. So it includes the transcripts it includes the podcasts, and you can listen right on the website or what have you so it was a learning experience for my students as well, because oftentimes in design classes they end up generating a lot of their own content. So having to handle content that was coming from different places or things that weren’t quite in the right format and then what do you do, is a great learning experience for design students, so you know a couple of the photographs weren’t quite the specs that we had asked, like one of the podcasts wasn’t in the right file format, so part of it was just like learning how to transform those things which, you know instead of the students saying well the person didn’t do whatever. It’s like okay well you can do it you could fix it, and so kind of giving them the skills to kind of troubleshoot those situations. I found to be really helpful for my students.

Stephanie: Yeah, it was definitely a great opportunity for them to learn how to do a project in pieces, and several of them mentioned at the end of the whole experience that the fact that this was broken up into manageable sections, that all of the due dates were known at the very beginning of the project, that’s what made the really the big difference for them, because they couldn’t procrastinate. If you give students a large writing assignment or a large project and then don’t always follow up with them about it, sometimes they’ll wait until the night before it’s due or whatnot to complete it this really forced them to plan out every single piece of the whole project, and then at the end when everything was done they each had to write like a reflective essay about their experience, and we also spent a lot of time in class talking about how to write a reflective essay because they didn’t know how to do that, right. So and that was an important discussion to have.

John: That practice of reflection is a really important encouraging long-term learning and it’s a good skill to have them start developing. Could you tell us a little bit about their reactions? How did they view the project compared to reactions you’ve had in earlier classes with more traditional projects?

Stephanie: So for this one the feedback that I got was almost all positive. Most of the students really really enjoyed it. I had a few students say things like, it was really really helpful to learn real-life writing skills, which was the point for them to really see how to go through something from start to finish and get this kind of practical writing experience, that they might not be getting in other places. Oh and then they even, we sat down like with the drafts of their scripts. I did conferences with the individual groups to really talk them through where they could improve. So they they got a mixture of feedback from the entire class, feedback from me, verbal feedback from me and then just working with another partner, they really enjoyed. They broke up the work between the two of them, but for the most part the feedback was very positive like I said, the biggest thing that they seemed to take away was, we learned something. We learned how to write. We learned how to do this kind of writing, and I know I’m gonna be doing this kind of writing again. Not necessarily writing another podcast episode, but the email thing, the interview questions, you know, doing the outlines, doing the thank-you notes which is such a small thing but I never got taught how to write a thank-you note, right, and then just going through the process of revision – so I think it was it was largely positive.

Rebecca: I’ve had similar experiences in the writing intensive classes that I’ve taught, that when the writing assignments make a clear direct connection to things that they might do as a professional, the students buy into the writing a lot more readily. So in that presentation that you and I gave at that conference, that’s really what we focused on, was what kinds of writing do graphic designers do professionally, and how can you incorporate those into kind of the workflow in a classroom setting, and I think that overall students have really responded to that kind of work that really without your help I wouldn’t have been able to infuse into my own classes.

Stephanie: Yeah, well, I could say the same for you. So and with the nice thing is that, we had this whole first project and then when it was done, they were immediately saying, ‘okay, Stephanie, whats project two?’ right, and they knew that it was gonna be set up in a very similar fashion. A whole project made of these individual assignments in manageable sections for them to work through, so it really helps structure the semester that way.

John: And my guess is that students probably don’t remember a lot of the small writing assignments, they’ve done more than a semester or to pass a class, but this is something that I suspect they’re gonna remember for years.

Stephanie: As we prepped for their final four their reflection for their reflective essay, you know after we talked about what a reflective essay should be, and what an experiential reflection should really look like, because it’s quite different right from an analytical reflection or from a reading reflection or something like that. We made a list on the board and I asked them okay, what have you learned, and we broke it down and the board was full, and they kept giving me more and more and more suggestions, more things that they got out of this project so to step back and look at this whiteboard full of all their comments, was really really rewarding.

Rebecca: So will you do something like this again, or do you have any plans for assessment to see how to change this kind of a project?

Stephanie: Absolutely, I think now having done more of a project-based English Composition class, I don’t know if I can see myself going back to doing it the way that I was doing it, and like I said this kind of format really worked well for them also because they knew there were no questions, right there were no questions about what was expected of them, there was never a question about an opportunity for revision or for making their grade better. I think they really responded to that you won’t revise everything you write. You won’t get it the chance to in all your other classes, but the fact that they really took the revision process seriously, shows me that perhaps they’re ready to start thinking about revision as part of the process instead of something that you just do after you get the grade.

Rebecca: Great, I mean it I can’t wait to find out what kind of projects you’re gonna do next.

Stephanie: Yeah, me neither.

John: So maybe our next episode should be, now that we’ve done a podcast on podcasting maybe we can do a podcast together on creating a podcast on podcasting, and move it to a middle level. Ok, but thank you.

Stephanie: Thank you.

John: It was a fascinating project, thank you.

Rebecca: Thanks.