161. Relationship-Rich Education

Many students enter our colleges and universities with hopes for a better future, but depart, often with a large burden of debt, before achieving their goals. In this episode, Peter Felton and Leo Lambert join us to discuss the importance of human connections in supporting students on their educational journey.

Peter is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, the Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and a Professor of History at Elon University. Leo is a Professor of Education and President Emeritus, also at Elon University. Peter and Leo are co-authors of Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, which was just released in late October of this year. They also were co-authors of The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most.

Show Notes

  • Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Felten, P., Gardner, J. N., Schroeder, C. C., Lambert, L. M., Barefoot, B. O., & Hrabowski, F. A. (2016). The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Rudy’s Lakeside Drive-in
  • Jack, A. A. (2019). The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Harvard University Press.
  • Barnett, Elisabeth (2018). Faculty Leadership and Student Persistence – A Story from Oakton Community College. Community College Research Center. May 9.

Transcript

John: Many students enter our colleges and universities with hopes for a better future, but depart, often with a large burden of debt, before achieving their goals. In this episode, we examine the importance of human connections in supporting students on their educational journey.

[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 guests today are Peter Felton and Leo Lambert. Peter is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, the Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and a Professor of History at Elon University. Leo is a Professor of Education and President Emeritus, also at Elon University. Peter and Leo are co-authors of Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, which was just released in late October of this year. They also were co-authors of The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most.

John: Welcome

Peter: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca.

Leo: Thank you. Great to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are: …Leo, are you drinking any tea

Leo: I am having a cup of coffee. But, I was explaining to John that what I wish I were drinking was a chocolate milkshake from Rudy’s Drive-In in Oswego, New York, one of my favorite places to go and watch a sunset. People who have never been to Oswego don’t know that Oswego is one of the most beautiful places in the world to see a sunset. And I’ve had the privilege of doing that many times. So, you’re very lucky to be situated where you are.

Rebecca: Definitely. It’s beautiful. And it’s beautiful at this time of year for sure.

Peter: Right on the Great Lake

Rebecca: Just cold,

Leo: Yes.

Rebecca: …especially by Rudy’s Drive-in. [LAUGHTER].

John: But it’s less crowded, which makes it a little bit nicer. It’s been a little less crowded this summer with COVID, from what I understand. I haven’t been there, but they were doing takeout as soon as they could bre-open again.

Rebecca: It was. It was my daughter’s favorite thing to do. How about you, Peter, are you drinking tea?

Peter: I have a big glass of water. But, now I want a chocolate milkshake.

John: And I’m drinking Lady Grey tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s a switch up. I have Big Red Sun, Big Red Sun tea, and a big cup of it.

John: And what is Red Sun Tea?

Rebecca: It is a black tea blend from Harney and Sons.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: I’m switching it up, John.

John: So, we’ve invited you here to talk about your new book, Relationship-Rich Education. Could you tell us a bit about the origin of this project?

Leo: Sure, John, I’m happy to do that. In 2016, Peter and I published another book with three friends, John Gardner and Betsy Barefoot, who have long been involved in the freshman year experience program. John really gave birth to that 40 years ago at the University of South Carolina. And they’re prolific scholars and have written so many great things about undergraduate education, as you know, and also with Charles Schroeder, who’s one of the deans of student affairs in this country. And the book was called The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. We tried to drill down to what really counts in undergraduate education. And we came up with six things, learning matters, relationships matter, expectations matter, having high expectations of students, alignment matters, bringing all the parts and pieces of the university together in alignment, improvement matters, kind of a spirit or a culture of continuous improvement, and leadership matters. And we had an unusual amount of resonance and commentary on this idea of how important relationships were, in the undergraduate experience… something we’ve known through research for more than four decades. And it inspired us to drill down more deeply and write a book on relationships. And that’s what we have spent the last two years doing.

John: As part of this process, you interviewed 385 students, faculty, and staff at 29 campuses. How did you pull this together? What was the process of finding the subjects of the interviews, and then the focus of the interviews?

Peter: John, we started by surveying a fairly large number of higher ed leaders, administrators, faculty, staff around the country, and also foundations and people like that, asking them, where are their really good things happening in undergraduate education? And from that we built this sort of set of programs and institutions that we thought were particularly interesting, and we wanted a diverse set, because American higher education is about 40% Community College students, that we wanted to make sure we had strong community college representation, a lot of the regional comprehensives, a few small liberal arts, and a little bit of everything. So we identified all of those. And then it turns out, people are nice, and you write to them and say, “We’d like to come to your campus for a couple days and talk to your students and colleagues about their experiences.” They say “yes,” and so, back when you could actually travel, we spent a lot of time traveling, a couple days on each campus, and talking with small groups or individuals, asking them often about stories by starting to say, “Tell us about a relationship that’s mattered a lot in your education or in your teaching or in your work here.” And then using that to sort of spin out into broader conversations about identity and education, in all sorts of different directions. So, it was the most fun research I’ve ever done.

John: And you weave those in In throughout the book to illustrate it. And I think that makes a book much more effective by building on that narrative.

Peter: As we have said, John, we know the research is really clear: that relationships matter. They matter for all sorts of things from learning to belonging to motivation, and they matter even more for first-gen students and students of color. And so we knew that. We knew we didn’t have to prove that. What we thought is the stories would help us all understand what that actually means in lived experience… maybe motivate, challenge, inspire, all of us to do better.

Rebecca: I think stories are such a powerful way to learn anything. It’s the nice hook to get us all interested and reading the stories, I think, brings all this data to life, which is really exciting, and, I think, incredibly helpful for faculty and the wider higher ed community.

Peter: Well, thanks. I agree, I got to say, the stories from students and the conversations with students about what’s mattered in their education. If you’ve never done that, sit down with some students and ask them who has mattered in your education and why and just listen, and you’ll be impressed and inspired about professors they talk about, but also the people who work in coffee shops and the campus cop, and moms and dads and just all sorts of people who do small and large things that really support and challenge students in powerful ways.

Rebecca: In the introduction, you describe the changing composition of the student population and describe some of the challenges that are faced by many first-generation students today. What are some of those challenges that have been rising in significance?

Leo: Well, I think when you think about who the American college student is, in the general public consciousness, they probably think of someone who is 18 to 22 years old, going to school full time on an ivy covered campus, sitting on a lawn somewhere, and having the best four years of their lives, right? But, that is increasingly not who the American college student is at all. First of all, 39% of American college students are at two-year colleges. And increasingly, they are people of color, they are working. They are balancing family responsibilities, taking care of children or aging parents. And increasingly, they’re first-generation and new Americans as well. So, we really tried to focus on institutions and people in this book that represent this, what we call an emerging new American majority college student. So, some of the challenges are that these students obviously don’t benefit, oftentimes, by this multi-generational mentoring that occurs almost by osmosis in a lot of families. And so you go off to college, expecting that you might have an experience in study abroad, or expecting that you might do research with professors that, you know, the Academy… Anthony Jack has written a lot about the privileged poor and this hidden code in the academy that is not hidden. It’s quite obvious for people that know the rules of the road for higher education with families that have had generations of experience with colleges and universities. So, that’s a challenge. And I think we also saw very clearly that many of these students, I think, really feel pressured into careers, into needing to do well by their families. This is an incredible opportunity that I have, but I need to get a job. I need to make money. One of the women that we talked to, a Professor at Rutgers University, Newark, Sadia Abbas, speaks about how many of these students almost need permission to be intellectual. They’re interested in philosophy and art history and English, and are passionate, in many cases want to pursue these subjects. But, oftentimes, I think, feel some pressure from families to pursue a degree in accounting or nursing because, not that there’s anything wrong with accounting or nursing, quite far from it, but simply because the pressure for the career dominates. One of the things that Peter and I wanted to be really clear about is that we also think it’s important to recognize that these students bring a lot of assets and agency to college with them. They don’t often recognize all the agency and all the assets, all that they have, but they have accomplished important things in their lives. I mean, they have raised children, they have held down a job, they have sometimes overcome barrier after barrier after barrier to arrive at the gates of higher education. And so we were so inspired by talking to so many faculty who build those assets and build that agency into their curriculum and into their courses and help their students learn to tap into everything that they’ve accomplished. And to be proud of that and to build on that. Many of these students speak multiple languages, are multicultural. And so I think it’s important that we not think of them as disadvantaged students… they have significant advantages and bring a lot to their institutions and to their courses and to the curriculum, if we can be creative about thinking about ways that we can tap into that, as teachers.

John: Following up on that, one of the things you suggest in your book is that we help students develop a sense of meaning and purpose to move beyond this careerist focus that an increasingly large share of students come in with. Why is that important? And what can we do to help students shift their focus to develop these other goals?

Leo: It’s a great question. And I think one of the things I’m most frustrated about with regard to the higher education enterprise at large these days is how often we talk to our students about college in very transactional terms: the number of credits that you need to get this major, what criteria you have to meet to get into this sorority? What hoops you have to get through? What do I have to do, John or Rebecca, to get a B in your class? Students are too often talked to about higher education in this transactional context. And what Peter and I are passionate about is that all of us need to develop a vocabulary and a mindset to help students think about their experiences from a relational approach. And that includes, especially, addressing these big questions of meaning and purpose. We want students in college to be asking questions about: Who am I? What is my identity? What is my purpose? What talents do I have? And I love this big question that our friend, Randy Bass, at Georgetown, who we reference several times in the book, he asks this question about: Who are you becoming for other people, not just yourself? That’s a big question to put before students, and questions like that are best asked and answered and reconsidered in conversations with people that we care about and that care about us. Our mentors, our friends. That’s one of the most important aspects of college. And, so often, it is given short shrift. Think about this time of year how we’re using advising appointments with students, getting them ready to register for classes next semester. And what are we too often focus on? Not the big questions, but the nitty gritty, the hurdles, the degree requirements, we need to be more mindful of making the shift to the relational, away from the transactional?

Peter: And can I add two things to Leo’s really wise response? One is: this doesn’t have to be super complicated. And it doesn’t have to require us all to become philosophers or counselors in some ways. I mean, there’s simple questions. One of the best questions, or best prompts that we heard in this was someone who says to her students, “Tell me your story.” It’s an open invitation to the student to talk about what’s important to them. We heard a lot of students say the most powerful question they get asked is “How are you?” …with someone really just follows it. And then the second thing that I want to say is that we need to recognize that what we do with students… we help them ask each other good questions, too. So when I’m not sure my students always say the most profound things on their mind when they’re talking to me. But what I’m hoping is sometimes the questions I ask get them talking to their friends to say, “You know, professors kept asking me like, “What’s my story? and I’m trying to figure that out? What is my story?” or “Who am I for other people?” …and so they don’t need to tell me, but we need to help seed these conversations and these questions about meaning and purpose.

Leo: We interviewed a fellow by the name of Steve Grande, who’s a Director of Service Learning at James Madison University in Virginia. And he said something very profound. And that is that every day when he goes into work, he tries to raise his consciousness about how much his words matter to students. And the value of five and 10 minute conversations with students that to him might seem, not all that profound and important, but in the life of an undergraduate student, are enormously important. You know that from your own experience. And it could be a conversation in the hallway or the stairwell or in your office or in a coffee shop, where a student sees a gift that they might have that’s been revealed to them in some new and different ways. They’ve discovered something new about themselves as a result of that conversation. We were speaking earlier, before the podcast began, about all the stress that faculty are under right now. And oh, my goodness, you know, it just seems like we’re just barreling through, trying to pull body and soul together during this COVID crisis. But, all the more important during these times, to raise our consciousness about how even those short periods of time we are spending with students is the mortar that is holding the college experience together for our undergraduates. And I wish we could all adopt Steve’s mantra about raising our consciousness with regard to the importance of this work really matters.

Rebecca: I think those relationships and that power goes both ways. Right now, it’s not just what’s holding the undergraduates together things, what’s holding the faculty together? [LAUGHTER]

Leo: Amen.

Peter: Yeah, definitely, my students are the best part of most of my days.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’ve had some really great conversations with students this semester. I tend to have classes where I get to know students really well, because I teach in a studio setting. But, even more so now, even though I have less interaction, I feel like I know them in a really interesting and profound way, which is really exciting. And as you’re talking about relationships, I’m thinking back to my own experience as a first-generation college student. And the things that I do remember are those relationships, I remember very little about individual classes or facts, or whatever, right? [LAUGHTER] But, I remember certain exchanges that I had with a very limited number of people, but those limited number of people is what made me even think about pursuing a higher degree. I wouldn’t have considered it at all. That’s not something that happened in my family. So, I think it’s really interesting. It’s sounding true to me too, those relationships is what I remember.

Peter: And Rebecca, we heard versions of that, and when we could have told those stories ourselves, too. But we heard that from students all over the country, with all sorts of different backgrounds. And one of the big lessons I’ve taken from this is helping students see the capacities they have within them, that they might not believe, they might not trust, they might not know. And so one of the gifts this book has given me and I’m loving it this semester is just every time I’m talking to my students, I try to say something good that they’re doing. This part of your work was really strong, you have other things you need to work on, but this part was powerful. And just the reminder to point out those capacities and help students see that, you know, this is part of a developmental thing. So often students come to higher ed thinking it’s about grades and performance. And it’s not about learning and growth, right? And so they find something hard and they’re embarrassed by it. It’s like “No, the hard stuff is the good stuff.” Let’s focus there and say, “You don’t know how to do this now. But I bet you will be able to know how to do it, maybe not this fall, maybe next spring, maybe next year. But, let’s get there.”

Rebecca: I really like where the conversation is going in terms of thinking about really practical things that faculty can do to help build these relationships. I know you have a whole chapter on just the classroom and the relationships that we build as faculty. Can we talk a little bit about some of the practices that you discovered in your interviews that really worked and had a big impact on students?

Peter: Yeah, just a couple ideas, to begin. And I want to reinforce Leo’s point from Steve Grande that what we do matters a lot, but that everything doesn’t have to come through us. And everything doesn’t have to be one-on-one because it is not scalable. It is not possible for a faculty member to have a powerful, long-term relationship with every one of their students. So recognizing just two different things. One is how we can say the same thing to all our students at once. One of the great stories we heard was from a writing center tutor at LaGuardia Community College, who said when she was in her first semester of writing course, the professor about halfway through the semester came into the class and said, “You know, this is the time in the semester, where one of my best students always just disappears, and I don’t know what it is, if they feel like they’re getting behind, or they feel like they didn’t do as well as they should have this last time. But I need to say to you, ‘Don’t disappear. Come see me. You can get through this.’” And this student thought the professor was speaking to her and went and talked to the professor, ended up being successful, was a writing center tutor. And she said, “The thing that’s stunned her is how many students came in and said, “This professor said this story, and he was talking right to me.” And so there’s ways where we can speak in general to all of our students to help them feel validated, feel that capacity, feel their struggles are common. And then second thing is how do we help students see each other as allies and assets in this work. And the good news is a lot of what we do with active learning is really constructive in that way. It puts students together solving problems and everything. I found one thing in our research that suggests this, students turn out to be like other humans. And so encouraging them to do things like first, introduce yourself to the people in the small group and say each other’s names, because they’ll spend the whole semester working together on projects and sometimes go “What’s his name again?” …and so, don’t let that happen. But put them into purposeful groups and encourage them to see each other as allies in this work.

Leo: We were reminded constantly in the book that some of the interventions are very simple and very powerful. And the power to institute these practices can be in the hands of departments or small groups of faculty. They don’t have to wait for an initiative from the Provost. Sometimes I think, when Peter and I’ve been invited to speak to entire groups of faculty, and I think the faculty are thinking, “Oh Lord, this is going to result in the Provost wanting to create six new formalized mentoring programs at the institution.” And that’s not what we’re trying to see happen, at all. Quite the contrary. I want to give you an example of something simple and powerful to illustrate what I’m talking about here at Oakton Community College, they have the Faculty Project for Student Persistence. It’s a commitment on the part of faculty to get to know their students as well as they can, given that faculty have very heavy teaching loads. These are not small classes. But, they’re trying to create an institutional culture at open, that is relational, where students are going to feel that there is at least one person on campus that knows who I am, and has shown an interest in me. So, there are four things about the persistence project: faculty that are in it commit to know their students’ names. Secondly, they commit, in the first couple of weeks of class, to have a 15-minute private conversation with a student. Now, that’s time consuming. If you’ve got 30 students in your class, that’s quite a bit of time. They commit some time in the early, maybe, say first three weeks of the course, to give students some graded feedback. And fourthly, they promise to uphold high expectations in the class, not impossibly high expectations, but they want there to be a degree of challenge associated with these courses as well. And they’ve had enormous success with this program. And the institution is trying to arrange things such that every student would have at least one of these classes during their first year, so that one of these faculty members is going to be an anchor person in their lives. We tell the story in a book about a former Marine who was in Professor Holly Graff’s philosophy course. And he was concerned that she was going to stereotype him because he had been a marine in his prior career and that she would think certain things about him. He wanted her to know, for instance, that he was a Bernie Sanders supporter. And in their conversation, she learned that, in all of the independent reading he had been doing in the Marines, he had read more philosophy than anyone else in the class. And he left her office after that brief conversation with an honors contract for the course. I mean, think about how that relationship between that learner and that Professor changed as a result of one 15-minute conversation. He’s known, he’s inspired, the professor’s inspired by this incredible student that she has in her class, and the learning dynamic has changed. Because of a really simple faculty-led, faculty-inspired, faculty-developed program.

John: You encourage the development of these networks. But you note that one barrier to that is the incentive systems that faculty face, that the rewards are not very well aligned to creating these types of networks with these types of interactions, what can be done to alter that?

Peter: That’s the easiest question you’re gonna ask us. So, we wish we had a simple solution. But I think there’s at least two parts that we need to think about individually, and we need to think about collectively. So, one thing is this has to be on the agenda of faculty senates, and Deans and things like this. But what we should be asking is what is getting evaluated. Because, often on many campuses, there’s an immense amount of invisible labor, that faculty and others do too. But, since this is primarily about teaching, let’s talk about faculty… where some of our faculty, often let’s say, faculty of color, LGBTQ faculty, do a lot of mentoring that is identity based, that students come to them in particular, and they carry this heavy load apart and on top of everything else. And if that is invisible labor, but that is keeping students at the institution, that is helping students succeed. Sometimes it’s helping students wrestle with the most important questions in their lives. So, there’s invisible labor, and even if it’s not identity based work, we know, you know, some people teach first year students and have those students come back every semester just to say, “Hi.” There’s all this kind of relational stuff that happens. So, how do we find ways to actually capture what’s happening that matters? And then how do we evaluate this? One of the questions that we’ve heard from a number of faculty is that institutions that are trying to reward faculty for doing, let’s say, good mentoring at institutions. We often know how to reward faculty and recognize faculty who have students who go on to graduate school, right? Students who go present at conferences, we can see that. So, honor students, you know, check. It’s really hard, often, to recognize the mentoring that’s happening that helps someone graduate with a C average, and accept that student’s experience at the institution and their education is as important. Perhaps that mentoring is more important and helping the C student graduate than it was to help that honor student… and I mentor honor students, I love them. But the honor student who always knew she wanted to study history, and is coming and working with me, and look, she’s doing great things. So we need to have evaluation systems that both capture the important work. And let us recognize that success might look different for different people in different roles in this work ,and recognize that there’s not one path forward on success.

Leo: I would think also that there needs to be a formalization and a recognition of what constitutes faculty work. Early in my tenure as president of Elon, we took two years to develop a statement, the entire faculty worked on this, called the faculty-teacher-scholar-mentor model at Elon. And it’s something that’s kind of our guide, we were at a point of institutional change where the professional schools were undergoing accreditations and the role of scholarship was rising, to have the business school be AACSB accredited, and so forth. We’re adding lots of faculty, the faculty was growing and changing. And it was one of these moments where we really had to stop and think… we need to move very carefully here and think about what we value as an institution, and how the model of faculty work at a place like Elon needs to be well defined, so that we’re serving our students. Well, we’re meeting our accreditation requirements, our faculty ambitions. And we were very clear that teaching mattered the most, that this was going to be 50% of what constituted the most important work in promotion and tenure criteria. But we differentiated mentoring from classroom teaching and other aspects of teaching to formalize the roles that faculty spend outside of the classroom in so many important ways: helping our students to develop, advising undergraduate research projects, and supervising internships, and traveling with our students all over the world, and leading experiential learning programs of very high quality. And they’re doing their scholarship on top of that, but I think this requires great intentionality. And without the intentionality, I think the relationships, the mentoring, is never going to get factored into the work. Our buckets are so clear in most promotion and tenure processes at institutions I’ve been in in the past: there’s a teaching bucket, and there’s a scholarship bucket, and there’s a service bucket. Where do relationships and mentoring fit in that model. They really don’t. And so I think we have to be more creative and more intentional about redefining the nature of those buckets, if we really want relationships to matter. And we argue in this book, they really do. So I think these are formal conversations that institutions, faculty, deans, provosts, boards of trustees need to have to fundamentally re-examine the importance of faculty spending time on these kinds of activities and being appropriately rewarded for it.

Rebecca: I think along those same lines, there’s a group of faculty, like part-time faculty, adjunct faculty, who play a really critical role here in relationships and maintaining those relationships that are widely overlooked even more so than maybe tenure-track faculty.

Leo: Oh, my goodness, we talked with the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Patrick Henry Community College and, at a lot of our institutions, a lot of community colleges, especially, you’ll find 50% of the teaching load is shouldered by adjuncts. And they went through a tremendously important process there to re-examine the ways… and again, in their words, this was not rocket science, but it was very intentional… the ways they could support their faculty in achieving greater levels of success with their students. And it was the simplest of things like having spaces for them to meet with students before and after class and perhaps have a cup of coffee, access to a copying machine, and the basics. What the faculty wanted most was information. Full-time faculty had lots of information about all the support services that students could tap into if they were food insecure, or needed clothing, those services were available at the school. But, oftentimes, the adjunct professors were in the dark about where to turn to help their students in this regard. They intentionally paired full-time faculty with adjunct faculty, so that there was a greater dialogue and a sense of cohesion between the two groups of faculty. So much can be done. There’s so many adjunct faculty that Peter and I met as a part of this process, who are so committed to our students and our students’ success. And they’re doing this work with the scantest of support systems behind them. And with a little bit of intentionality and creativity on institutions’ part, we can do a lot more to undergird the student and faculty relationship that exists with adjuncts.

Peter: And just to add one thing to what Leo said, when we talk to students, they told us powerful stories about what adjunct faculty had done to transform their lives. So, students don’t think “Well, I’m just with Professor Felton, who’s an adjunct, so it doesn’t really matter.” This is their professor, this is the person who’s giving them feedback. This is the person who’s inspiring and challenging them. And so we at institutions and we on faculty really need to support our adjunct colleagues, because they are so powerful in students’ educations.

Rebecca: I think along those lines, right now, when students are facing a lot of remote learning still, online learning, online synchronous learning, and having less face-to-face communication in the classroom, those interactions with faculty may be even more important than they were before because they may not be interacting with some of the other folks on campus who may have been important when they were in a physical space. So, what advice do you have during this time to help faculty facilitate some of the relationship building between students, because they’re so isolated right now?

Peter: Yeah, Rebecca, this is really important. This is really hard. We don’t have any simple solutions. One of the places we did visit, though, was Southern New Hampshire University in their online setting. And one of the people we interviewed there said something that just really has resonated with Leo and I, which is, this person said: “My role for these students is to be the human in these courses, that so much is just remote and distant and asynchronous, and there needs to be a human presence in this. And that has to be me.” So, how can we be present for our students? Even if it’s asynchronous, right? How can we check in with them? How can we create opportunities for meaningful formal and informal interaction. So, two small examples for you: one, and you’ve probably seen this with your colleagues. But I’ve been so impressed with some of my colleagues, who are teaching classes in Zoom when they have synchronous moments. And the first few minutes of class, what always happens is when students come in, the professor says, “Hello,” when sends them into small groups with questions that the students have to talk with each other about. These are purposeful questions connected to the work of the class. But, they’re the kinds of questions that are meant to engage conversation. And so students don’t come into class and start by being silent and staring. They start by saying hello to the professor, and then talking with a couple peers. And a second thing is just finding ways to emphasize with our students, that their well being is connected to their learning, and their learning is connected to their well being. And so if they can’t, if they can’t do something right now, if their world is falling apart, we need to be able to be flexible enough and clear enough about what’s most important in this. That doesn’t mean we don’t have standards. It doesn’t mean we don’t challenge our students to work through really difficult things. But recognizing that sometimes your class isn’t the most important thing or the most urgent thing in a student’s life right now. Often they do have challenges they don’t want to talk to us about and just offering a little grace and saying, “Okay, so you can’t get this draft to me today. How’s Monday?”

Leo: One thing I’m hoping that all of us are doing during these very challenging times is, at least in informal ways, being chroniclers of this experience, to have these moments of consciousness about what we are doing, what we are doing well during these times. And I’m of the strong opinion that the world is never going to go back to 2019. Higher Education is never going to go back to 2019. And I think in the early days of the pandemic, we were under this illusion that “Well, things will get back to normal.” We’re not going back to precisely the way things were before. Look at this conversation we’re having here this afternoon and all the ways our teaching has shifted. The ways that I think higher ed is going to think about what constitutes the higher education experience differently, this blending of face-to-face and residential and experiential and online, that could look quite different than the patterns that have always existed. Why do classes have to be 16 weeks long? I think there’s going to be a lot of deconstruction ahead and reconstruction. What I’m hoping is that as we turn our attention to building something newer and better as we emerge from this, that we’ll put relationships at the very center of what we intend to create. That’s, I think, the big challenge before us, that’s what really matters. I think Peter and I both believe that, when students look back on their undergraduate experience, when the two of you, john and Rebecca, look back on your undergraduate experiences, probably what means the most to you are a set of people that helped you become who you are today, professors and peers and advisors, and people that tapped you on the shoulder and helped you discover something about yourself, or gave you confidence that you didn’t know that you had. This is what needs to be prioritized. And I hope that whatever we build will be built around this idea.

John: We always end with the question, what’s next? Which is a very good question at this time.

Peter: So two things I would like to say. One is that, again, the interviews we did, especially with students all over the country, are so inspiring that I’ve just really personally committed to asking these kinds of questions of the students I encounter and asking them about their education and just making that part of my work. And then a second thing Leo and I have been talking about, and we’re eagerly brainstorming about, is it recognizing that students need to be the primary actors in this… creating their own relationship-rich environment, right? Institutions can do a lot, but just like we can’t learn for them, we can’t build webs of relationships for them. We can put them in these environments that are rich, but they need to act. So we’re trying to think about ways that we can create resources and encouragement and support for all students to see themselves as actors in this kind of educational experience. So, whether that’s some sort of book or online resources, or what, we don’t know. But we’re going to partner with some folks, including students around the country, and say: “What can we do to really help students, especially first-gen students who don’t understand the ways and the whyfors of higher ed, come in and not learn by the time they’re seniors that I should have paid attention When my professor said, “Do you want to have a cup of coffee?”

Leo: I would add to that by saying there were times where Peter and I were struck, whether it was students at Brown, or the University of Michigan, or the University of Washington, or LaGuardia Community College, or Nevada State College, we were struck over and over again, about the power of the question: “How are you?” I remember a phone conversation probably in an airport where we were talking back and forth to one another, in our respective places in the country, and having this dialogue about should we call the book: “How are you?” …and then decided that’s probably [LAUGHTER] not a smart idea. But that is such an important question. And students, and especially today, during this COVID crisis, want to be heard. Students want to be heard. They’re not necessarily looking for us to solve all their problems for them, but they want to be seen, and they want to be heard, and they want to be recognized. So I think a part of what’s next for all of us is going back to this very basic idea of not losing sight of this enormous privilege that we have to be on college campuses and to take five or 10 minutes with students to listen generously, after asking the question: “How are you?” It makes all the difference in the world, everywhere. And, in our busyness, and in the craziness of COVID, it’s really easy to forget that. But, some days, it’s the critical question that keeps a student in school, we were struck about how many students acknowledged that at one time or another in their career, again, including at the most prestigious institutions in the country, were one conversation away from leaving school, and “How are you?” …can be the gateway to keeping a student in school and successful, and motivated and inspired… very simple stuff.

Rebecca: Thank you both for such a great conversation and a really powerful book. If you want some positive moments in your life, you can read some of the great stories in this book.[LAUGHTER]

Peter: Our goal was to do justice to the stories people told us, because if we could do that, we knew the book was going to be helpful. And it was going to be powerful, because the stories were just an amazing gift.

Leo: There’s great work going on in higher education in this country. It is rich and deep and powerful and lively. And faculty are working so hard, and students are working so hard. And so much of the Chronicle coverage and the broader media coverage of higher education is so not on point in terms of… you know that… and describing what’s really going on in the halls and corridors and classrooms of our institutions. And we were inspired by how many wonderful, wonderful things are happening all over the country. We have a great system of higher education in this country. It’s something to be proud of. And it’s changing lives every day, and we shouldn’t take our eye off that fact either.

John: Your book does a wonderful job refocusing your attention away from educational technology and back on the things that are most important, the relationships among the participants in the process.

Leo: Thank you

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

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

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160. Inclusive Communication

Communication in academia has hidden and unwritten rules that present barriers for students. In this episode, Kristina Ruiz-Mesa joins us to discuss inclusive communication strategies we can use as teachers and mentors to help students feel like they belong in the academy.

Kristina is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University – Los Angeles. Kristina previously worked in diversity, equity and inclusion research at Villanova University, and as a communication and diversity consultant. Her research on these topics has been published in a variety of academic journals and in book chapters. Her forthcoming textbook Inclusive Public Speaking: Communicating in a Diverse World will be available in late 2020 through Fountainhead Press.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Communication in academia has hidden and unwritten rules that present barriers for students. In this episode, we explore inclusive communication strategies we can use as teachers and mentors to help students feel like they belong in the academy.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare , a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Kristina Ruiz-Mesa. She is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University – Los Angeles. Kristina previously worked in diversity, equity and inclusion research at Villanova University, and as a communication and diversity consultant. Her research on these topics has been published in a variety of academic journals and in book chapters. Her forthcoming textbook Inclusive Public Speaking: Communicating in a Diverse World will be available in late 2020 through Fountainhead Press.

John: We can also note that we just saw you recently in ACUE’s webinar on Preparing an Inclusive Online Course, which was released in early October and is available online. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: Welcome, Kristina.

John: Welcome, Kristina.

Kristina: Thank you so much for having me.

John: Today’s teas are:…Are you drinking tea, Kristina?

Kristina: I am drinking carbonated water.

Rebecca: …out of a tea cup I might note.

Kristina: I thought it was appropriate. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s a beautiful tea cup.

Kristina: Thank you.

John: That’s close enough. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking Scottish afternoon tea.

John: And I’m drinking a mix of peppermint and spearmint tea.

Kristina: Lovely.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your work on inclusive communication. First, though, could you tell us how you became interested in this area of research?

Kristina: Absolutely. So, the research actually started in my own life, a little more than 30 years ago. And so I grew up in southern New Jersey, in a really diverse town in a Caribbean family. And so my dad’s Cuban, my mom’s Puerto Rican, and lived in this really diverse place. And I went to an inner city Catholic School, where I was one of a few students of color and started noticing differences, differences between how our families communicated, how our teachers communicated with our families. And that sparked an interest in me in saying, “Eell, communication seems to not be one-size-fits-all, we all have different ways of communicating.” And yet, when I was studying communication, and when I was in learning, it was like a one-size-fits-all, like “if you do these communicative practices, you will get the same response.” And that was not the case. I didn’t find that to be the case. And so I wanted to know, how culture, how identities, how intersectional experiences impact the ways that we communicate, the ways that we construct messages, the ways that we analyze our audiences, and think about ways that we can train students to most effectively communicate. So, how they can most effectively communicate in different audiences in different places to achieve their personal and professional goals.

Rebecca: Colleges and Universities have become increasingly diverse, and the composition of faculty, though, not so much so… What sort of challenges does this present for communication between faculty and students?

Kristina: I think this is such an important issue, and one that we are feeling as faculty as well, as in “How can we best serve the needs of all of our students, and recognizing that representation matters in the classroom, and that communication matters in the classroom?” And so when I think about how do we address mentoring? how do we address teaching? And how do we address the practices that we are using in the classroom? What do our materials look like? And so we can’t change our racial identities, we can’t change who our students are, and we wouldn’t want to, right? And so how can we make sure that we are teaching all of the students and so one of the things that I always stress is your course materials. Regardless of subject, you have examples, and you have data sets that you use or readings that you’re using. And so, how are you incorporating more voices, more experiences more identities into the course. And so that can be a way to really show your students’ representation. If you feel like you are not representing all of the identities of your students, which none of us are, no matter what our identities are, we can never fully represent all of our students. So how can we bring in this idea of polyvocality? Lots of different voices, lots of different experiences. And sometimes that means thinking about the datasets that you’re using. Are they representative? Who are they speaking about? Who are they speaking to? Who are the scholars that we’re bringing into conversations? And so I think these are all ways that we can help address diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom, and make sure that our students see themselves in the course and see themselves in the materials. And obviously, yes, increasing faculty diversity, staff diversity, making sure that our students feel their experiences and their identities are a part of academia and a part of their institutions. Absolutely. And, there are things that we can do immediately in each of our classrooms to make sure that we are making our classrooms as inclusive as possible.

Rebecca: I like how you’re emphasizing our role or our ability to curate, and not just kind of be everything to everybody, but we can curate experiences that include many points of view.

Kristina: I love that you said curate. So, I always, when I teach my graduate students, I say we have like the coolest museum in the world, right? We get to pick all of these scholars and authors and examples and bring them together into one exhibit, whether that exhibit’s in a face-to-face classroom, in a virtual classroom space, we get to showcase different voices experiences, theories, and applications.

John: That can enrich the conversation by bringing in a diversity of examples and leveraging that diversity in the classroom to provide a richer learning experience.

Kristina: Absolutely. My mantra for teaching and thinking about teaching and what my course materials are, we always start by planning backwards. What do we want our students to know at the end of this course? What do we want them to remember? And I always think about how can I challenge the canon? So the canon that we all learned in graduate school, that we have been reading for decades, some for centuries this material has been going on. How do we challenge and think about ways to expand that knowledge, ways that we can incorporate new voices? And I think that that’s so important.

Rebecca: One of the things that I found really wonderful, and I feel like it’s actually happening more right now because we’re trying extra hard to include students in conversations and make them feel included in a virtual environment to allow them to co-curate with us and to pick sources and to share materials. And my reading list got really long this semester… [LAUGHTER] … ‘cause based on all the things that students have brought to the table, podcasts that they’ve introduced me to, videos that they’ve introduced me to, I have a long list of homework to do.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I love that right. I love that idea of “Okay, we’re co-learners here.” And there’s such a reach. And Rebecca, I love that you say that with podcasts. And my students have introduced me to so many artists and performers and theorists that I was like, “Okay, yes.” And they’re seeing it in social media. They’re seeing up and coming scholars whose work perhaps hasn’t come out and those big journals yet, but that they are releasing blogs, they’re doing podcasts, and I love the perspectives and identities and experiences and new knowledge that’s being incorporated through these venues and avenues.

John: Let’s go back to the mismatch between the diversity of the faculty and the more diverse student body that we’re finally getting in most colleges and universities, now. What’s the impact of that, say, on persistence rates for first-gen students and students from underrepresented groups?

Kristina: Absolutely. So, the research has consistently shown us that mentoring and inclusive pedagogical practices matter. I teach in East Los Angeles. And so, as a Latina scholar teaching a predominately Latino student population, as the only tenured or tenure-track faculty who is Latino, who is Spanish speaking, who can connect with families at graduation and at different ceremonies, I find that I have a very easy time connecting with my students and their experiences, even though our families are from different Latin American countries. I grew up on the East Coast, not the West Coast, I’m Caribbean. And so like all of these differences are still under this umbrella of, I think about, like, cultural norms. And I think about cultural values. And one of them that I stress in my teaching is this idea of familismo, this cultural commitment to family and the family role. And I think about how that influences student persistence. And we’re seeing it very clearly now on our campus. So, my role at Cal State LA is that I’m an associate professor, but I’m also the Director of Oral Communication in Communication, which means we have 4000 students taking a standardized general education oral communication course. And so my instructors see 4000 incoming freshmen every year, and we are hearing consistently this semester that workloads combined with having your classroom now be your living space with your families, how do we negotiate and how do we navigate these spaces? And that is absolutely going to impact persistence and graduation rates. And so I think, for faculty, understanding not only how your students are coming in, what knowledge they are coming in with, but understanding the cultural context in which they’re living, and how that may be impacting the learning experience, the needs of the students in terms of… I always think about applied skills, I teach communication, and so when I came into Cal State, LA, one of the first things I did was say, “How can we get an interview assignment into oral communication?” It’s not part of the general education requirements of the state. And so I went to the chancellor’s office, and I said, here’s my pitch. 80% of our students are first gen. We know that interviewing skills, so much of it is based on these unwritten rules and laws that you learn kind of through family, through friends. But, if you’re your first person in your family who’s gone to college, you might not get those experiences kind of organically. And so we needed to embed it into the general education requirement so that all students benefit from it. And again, the universal design we’re talking about, no one’s going to be disadvantaged from learning interviewing skills and practicing interviewing. And so, I think, thinking about persistence in really applied ways and material realities matter. How are we going to get students to get those internships to get those jobs? And so thinking about how our skills can be taught in a way that is problem posing, and that can be applied to students lives as soon as possible.

Rebecca: What I like about what you’re talking about in terms of the oral communication piece is that it’s such a big part of being professional in every discipline, but we often teach public speaking classes as if it’s a very separate activity. [LAUGHTER] Like, I want to stand up and give speeches. I don’t stand up and give speeches, and most people don’t, the kind of communication you do is different. So, putting it in context like that, and providing a clear application of how those skills can be used somewhere, I think is really helpful, especially for students that don’t have that kind of context to build from.

Kristina: I totally agree.

John: And you mentioned some of the challenges associated with students interacting with families in their homes. One of the issues that faculty keep raising is “Our students won’t turn on their cameras.” And we address that regularly with faculty. But, it’s an issue where faculty are used to seeing faces on the screen. And they’re really upset when people choose not to. How do you respond to that?

Kristina: This is something that I have been hearing in my circles as well. And well meaning faculty are frustrated, because we know that a large percentage of our communication is nonverbal. So, if we are missing those nonverbal cues of understanding, of confusion, it is limiting our ability to be able to connect with our students that way. I get that. And the hard truth is that it’s not about us. And so that’s one of those tough kind of answers. Because, right now, it’s about our students and their success, and whatever we need to do whatever practices that we need to kind of adapt to, it’s about them and about their learning. And so one of the things that I have done is incorporate more of the thumbs up, thumbs down, type in the chat. So you can do a popcorn response by giving an emoji. So offering students various ways of interacting, I think is huge. Also, normalizing the ways that we communicate. So, for a speech, for example, we do want to see them in terms of their nonverbals, we want to see your gesturing, we want to see the ways that you’re connecting. And so we normalized giving speeches in bathtubs, giving them from parking lots, giving them in cars, doing our own mini lectures from like, on the floor in the bathroom, because if we’re doing it, then you can do it. And so kind of modeling, that it’s okay, and that we don’t all have these perfect offices that look like they came off of HGTV, and that there might be a dog barking in the background or someone crying. And that’s okay, this is a global pandemic, there are more important things than whether you can hear a baby crying, or a dog barking, or someone in the background. And so I think also being realistic about our expectations, and as empathetic as we can. And one of the things that I often think about is that many of us teaching at the college level, we’re in the top 5%, top 2% of higher education attainment, how we learned and our experiences and how we are now… We have to remember. We have to remember, what was it like to be an undergrad? And for many of us, that meant “Where are we studying? How could we study, if you don’t have the privilege of going to a library right now or a quiet space?” …then being empathetic enough to know that you don’t understand all of the experiences and lives of your students and give them the benefit of the doubt. that they are trying their best. and they’re doing the best we can… all of us.

John: One of the things I asked my students was to share some of their challenges in a low-stakes discussion forum. And I’ve been amazed at how many students talk about just how difficult it is to find time that’s quiet. They may have a spouse or a partner who’s playing live video games, or more typically, they may have small children or they may have siblings in the rooms or in the dwellings with them. And that makes it very challenging where some of them are saying “I wake up at six in the morning, just so I can find some quiet time in order to do my work.” Or, “I have to wait until everyone’s asleep after midnight or at one in the morning.” And it’s something I think we do need to be a little more cognizant of… even just asking them what sort of challenges they face, perhaps, can help faculty adjust to this somewhat challenging environment we’re all in.

Rebecca: Are you sure those are students talking? Because I feel like you just describe what I’m doing. [LAUGHTER]

John: Faculty have had very similar challenges since last March.

Rebecca: I do think, actually, the struggles that faculty are having with family and things being in the same space as them has actually really, really helped start to connect to some of the real challenges that students face regularly, and not just during a pandemic.

Kristina: Absolutely. And then we compound that with housing insecurity, food insecurity, and the things that our students are experiencing. Just every time my students come into my class, I thank them. That’s the first thing I do. Thank you all so much for being here. I’m excited to have our conversation. And I think that goes a long way. And at the end of every class, acknowledging that, and say, “I know that you’ve got a lot going on, and I am really proud of you.” And I think that that transparency of saying, “This is why I need you to do this assignment. This is why I gave you three readings instead of two.” And I think really explaining the “why” is going even further than it has in the past. And so thinking about the ways that we can make our assignments and our assessments as practical and applied as possible… really helpful right now… as well as checking in with students. I’ve been doing the first kind of 10 minutes of class checking in. Now, I know that’s not possible for all classes, and for all students and for every class, but when it is and when we can or a discussion post, tell me the best thing that’s going on in your week. Just connecting, and having this connection in the classroom, I think, is really important now for maintaining not only community and engagement, but also persistence.

John: Ggiven the challenges you’ve mentioned with communications between faculty and students, one of the issues that may come up is microaggressions. And I know you’ve done some research on that. Could you tell us a little bit about your research on microaggressions in the classroom?

Kristina: Sure. I did a study on microaggressions at a predominantly white institution of higher education and looking at racial microaggressions that students of color were experiencing on campus. And so, just as a quick recap, Wing Sue defines microaggressions as kind of brief commonplace verbal behavior, or environmental indignities. And they can be intentional or unintentional, and they communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults. But microaggressions can be about sexuality, about social class, about gender. So, they can be across identities. And my research showed that African-American males and Latino males experienced microaggressions at the highest rates of any students. And the experiences oftentimes lead to what we’d call student misbehaviors in the classroom. If students are feeling disrespected by an instructor or by other peers, there was a few paths they would take. One is they would act out in the class. So, they might say things, they might be seemingly disrespectful about the material about the course. They would drop out, and you would never hear from them again. You wouldn’t know why they weren’t engaging the class, they were just gone. And we also saw psychological stressors. So, higher instances of isolation feelings, that they didn’t belong on campus. And again, this was a predominately white institution, and so students of color have these feelings of belonging, questioning of belonging. And so when they experienced microaggressions, these feelings were exacerbated, and they increased experiences of anxiety, depression and social isolation. What my research found was that, if we could inoculate against microaggressions by offering micro-practices and services on campus, that was where we were able to support students in building academic habits that would help support their success. And so this inoculation came in the form of having Diversity, Equity and Inclusion centers, having counseling resources, having safe spaces and inclusive and brave spaces where students could share their experiences. So that it wasn’t just one person saying,”It must be me. It’s something I’m doing.” But, recognizing that these were structural and systemic, and these were problems that were permeating throughout the campus. And so that was something that we found in the research was that primarily African-American males and Latino males were experiencing this more often on campus, and that the ways to minimize the academic impact was to offer services early and often, having male mentoring groups on campus was helpful and having spaces where students could share their counter-narratives and counter-experiences on campus. All were beneficial.

John: And that’s a useful form of remediation, but what can be done, perhaps, in the classroom to address those as they occur?

Kristina: Absolutely, that is my number one piece of advice for faculty is when you see something, when your, like, hairs on the back of your neck are standing up, you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t good,” you need to say something. And that is something that is scary. And for many of us, particularly folks who are not tenured, who are contingent faculty who are hired by the quarter or semester, that can be really scary, because we know that student evaluations matter. Having grievances can affect your job. And so that, and I’m in a privileged position, I’m a tenured state university professor. So I recognize that. And I think that it’s important that if we are going to have inclusive conversations, inclusive learning environments, we have to intervene. Now, knowing how to intervene takes practice, and knowing that you’re not going to get it right every time is humbling, and knowing that we’re always learning and that’s one of the things that I always stress to faculty is that we are literally trained for this we are trained to learn. That is our job, our job is to learn as much as we can, figure out new, innovative, cool ways to apply it, explain it, expand it, that’s the gig. And so this is another area of knowledge that we need to learn, that we need to just say, “Okay, I needed to learn a new computer system, I needed to learn how to teach online, I need to learn what my students are experiencing, so that I can be a better teacher. So that I can learn what has already worked, what practices are embedded.” And so one of the things that I’ve done in the last few years, and that I found to be helpful is to write down what are the specific practices? …not just saying “You need to be an inclusive educator.” Cool. What does that mean? And what does that look like in my classroom. And so, one of my most cited articles is this quick, best practices piece that I can share the link with. It’s a free download. And it’s 10 Best Practices for Facilitating Difficult Dialogues. And it’s tips, for example, like we disagree with ideas, not people. So we focus on the idea not the person, the other is maintaining immediacy, so making sure that we’re talking at the end of class, you don’t leave conversations undone or unsaid. So keeping track of time and recognizing that you might need two or three minutes at the end of class to do relationship repair, to do community check-ins, to do that repair… really important. Also making sure our language is inclusive. So, thinking about the ways that we, from day one, are establishing inclusive language. Are we getting rid of kind of gender binaries and making assumptions about student genders? Are we asking students: “What is your name?” I never read out of rosters. I always have students introduce themselves. Tell me your name. Share your pronouns with me, and modeling that for students. I also include a pronunciation guide because much like we want our students’ names to be honored, we want our names to be honored and said correctly. So, offering tools and resources and normalizing this in communication, whether you’re teaching comm, psychology, math, chemistry, normalizing that this is how effective communication works. And I think that’s really helpful in the classroom. And of course, setting the ground rules, setting the tone, the things that we know as faculty that we ought to do. But those are some of the big ones. And also, the “oops,” and the “ouch” rule is something that we use a lot and saying that, again, in a single 50 minute, hour and 15 minute class, I’m going to say thousands of words. The chances that one or two of them are wrong, or came out too quickly. Or I didn’t mean to say that? Likely. So, recognizing and having the humility to say, “Okay, if I’m going to say an oops, that was my bad. Let’s start over. Let’s take that again.” And, recognizing that if I miss something, having a mechanism in place with the “Ouch,” to say “That was hurtful, I didn’t appreciate that. Can we talk about that for a second?” And pausing and saying, “I’m sorry. How was that hurtful? I’m sorry.” And acknowledging the moment. And I think these are practical things that can feel super awkward if we don’t establish them on day one. But, if it’s just how things are, the beauty of being a college professor, is that every 10 weeks, 16 weeks, quarter semester, we get to start over. And so, re-establish the norms, re-establish how we communicate and how we want to communicate for an inclusive environment.

Rebecca: If you think of it that way, we get so many do overs.

Kristina: Exactly.

John: Eventually, we’ll get things right. I’m still waiting.

Rebecca: That’s empowering. Yeah, I really love the idea of the oops, and the ouch, and really establishing the idea and reminding ourselves that we’re learners too. And we make mistakes, and it does take practice. But just like we want our students to take that first try, we have to do it too. Boy, we should listen to ourselves sometimes,

Kristina: Right, once in a while. [LAUGHTER]

John: Would you recommend that, perhaps, when you have those rules, you give students some say in discussing them and establishing the ground rules?

Kristina: Absolutely. I usually have a few rules that I propose. And then I ask students to add to them, and we do a Google Doc in class, and they can add them in real time. And then I also say from now until next week, review them. If something doesn’t feel right, if you want further explanation, let’s write it out, and let’s talk about it and see how we can come to this together.

Rebecca: One of the things that I really recognize teaching more online than in person is how much more time there really should be to do some of those things at the beginning of the semester, in any semester. But I took the time this semester, and it was really helpful.

Kristina: Love that, that is one of the benefits of teaching online is that I feel like if I miss something, I can make a video, there’s time to kind of fix it. Whereas in face to face, I can send an email, but it’s not the same. Whereas, if everything is built into my learning management system, it’s another opportunity.

Rebecca: So, we talked a little bit about privilege, and how that might impact the kind of experiences you have access to. And one thing that I think we don’t always consider is how our own race, gender, social status and ability status, impact our own social norms. And we don’t necessarily recognize them as being social norms, or that somehow we learned these behaviors, what are some things that we could think about as faculty to better understand what those practices are? And to undo some of them maybe, or at least recognize that there are norms and invite students in to understand that?

Kristina: One of the kind of keys for me is when I hear the word “ought,” like “it ought to be this way,” or “it ought to be…” and I’m like, “Hmm, says who? A really important part of being a good teacher is recognizing that we cannot be all things to all people, and that we have to be critically self reflexive. I read a lot of Bell Hooks work and think about the ways that Hooks asks us to be kind of these self-actualized beings. How do we model the vulnerability and the space? And again, I recognize, I teach communication, I’m humanities professor, I have kind of more flexibility than my spouse who teaches chemistry. And so this idea that it’s going to look different in different classrooms. Absolutely. And, thinking about the ways that we come up with examples, I think, is a way that reflects our own identities. And so one of the ways that I think about that is psychological noise. And so, am I giving an example that is helping students move along in their understanding of a concept? Or have I just put up a giant roadblock because I used an example that’s not clear. And now they’re thinking about the example and they’ve forgotten the concept. So recognizing which examples are from a privileged experience… If you’re giving an example in your like, “So, let’s say you’re in Paris eating a croissant,” and you’re like, “Cool, I saw Emily in Paris, does that count? That was a good show.” And now they’re starting to think about a tangent, that they forgot what you’re teaching. And so, thinking about the ways that our examples can demonstrate our own privileges, and recognizing that talking about more privileged experiences, like, I was thinking about this the other day, when students were talking about having to go to the grocery store, and I was thinking about how many people in my circle were like “Groceries have been delivered since March” and the privilege that that reflects about saying, “Oh, no, I’ve been perfect. I have not had to leave my house.” That’s a privilege. And recognizing that we have paid positions, we still have jobs. And so recognizing that how our examples are privileged, I think, is really important for all of us. And I find the longer that I’m teaching, the more I have to kind of check myself, the more I have to say, “Is this a universal or pretty broad experience? Is this the example resonating?” Is this, as my students would say, “Is that just really boojie?” Like, is this just a really privileged expensive thing, and I’m like, “You caught me.” And I think being humble enough to recognize what our own racial financial gendered positions are, and how our experiences may be tied to those identities and experiences and how that may differ from our students. So, I think that’s something. Examples are one way that I think are really something we can all work on. The other is the ways that we make assumptions about what students ought to know. I’m big on saying that we don’t have underprepared students, we have underprepared teachers, because our students are who our students are on day one. And that’s where we teach them from. What they know is what we know and we’ll build. And I’m very big on understanding that it is my obligation in these 16 weeks to teach them as much as I can. But I have to start where they are. And that’s my job. And if it means that I have to go back in week one, and stay up till midnight, redoing my course schedule, so be it. That’s my job, to make sure that my students are learning and recognizing that where I think they ought to be doesn’t matter. It’s where they are that matters. And that’s our starting place.

Rebecca: So, the way we prevent too much workload at the beginning is we just don’t plan the like last five weeks of the semester, so that if you need to add stuff in the beginning, you can just shift everything.

Kristina: Well, I have my syllabus, and it has the first five weeks, and I always say tentative at the top, and I say this is going to serve the needs of our students and we’ll adjust. And, I think, Rebecca, you hit the nail on the head. Yes, being flexible and adapting and saying, “If we need to take two weeks on this, but you learn it, that’s more important to me than just kind of checking off my boxes, like, Oh, good, we’re in week eight now or week nine.” Absolutely.

Rebecca: I had a conversation with my students this week about projects that they were working on, and they were getting frustrated because they weren’t being as productive as maybe they would be in a non-pandemic situation. Imagine that.

Kristina: Right?

Rebecca: And so they’re like, “But I don’t know how I’m gonna get it done.” It’s like, well, because you’re being unreasonable. Let’s take that back a couple notches, the thing you’re talking about, that’s your next revision. That’s next time. That’s not this time. And I think having those conversations with students about kind of a reality check of what’s even reasonable right now is helpful, because there are these norms of what maybe a normal semester is like, that’s just unrealistic. And maybe it’s unrealistic all the time.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I think for ourselves, too, as faculty, I mean, I have found myself, I don’t know about you all, but I’m working seven days a week. And I’m like, this is not healthy. This is not sustainable. And I’m telling my students, and I’m really open with them. I teach mostly graduate students, but I’m really open with them saying, “Please do as I say, not as I do, because I’m still learning, and I’m still a work in progress, and I’m still trying.” But, I don’t want them to fall into the same patterns that I’m falling into where it’s midnight, and we’re still working. And it’s all the time. And I think that that leads to burnout. And. I know I have been meeting with many more students than in a typical semester. And it’s more one-on-one meetings. And I appreciate that, and I value our time together. And I also am recognizing that I’m making appointments, like from seven, eight in the morning, all the way until late at night. And so our days are kind of blending. And I think that that’s really stressful. And my colleagues who have young children, I feel for them, because they are just working nonstop. And I think we have to be kind to ourselves, we have to show ourselves and our students and our colleagues grace. And to say, Rebecca, I think as you say, this is a pandemic world. So let’s all chill with our expectations, here. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: And I think along those lines, emphasizing still how much learning is actually happening.

Kristina: Yes.

Rebecca: …because, what I’ve discovered, is not that students are learning any less. They might be producing less work, but the quality is actually quite good.

Kristina: Absolutely.

Rebecca: And they’re demonstrating that they’re meeting the learning objectives. It’s just maybe there’s some things there that didn’t need to be there.

Kristina: And I don’t know if you all are seeing this, but I’m finding there’s like a decentering of faculty because I’m not lecturing for three hours in a graduate class. I’m, again, curating materials, making mini-lectures, and then using our time together when we have synchronous time, for discussion. And so I’m finding it to be really enriching. Our conversations are great. The chat… students who I have not heard from in previous semesters are now super engaged and participating because they feel more comfortable. Perhaps there’s communication apprehension, and they didn’t want to speak up in front of everyone, but they can chat and they can type in the chat, and that is another avenue. So, I think we’re also seeing opportunities for further engagement and students really taking on the ownership of saying, “I need to do the reading, because I’m not going to get a three-hour lecture, and so I can’t depend on that. I have to depend on myself.” And I think we’re going to see on the other end of this, perhaps, stronger practices of self efficacy and engagement.

Rebecca: I had a whole class of people who read their stuff today. It was amazing.

Kristina: Amazing. [LAUGHTER] Love that. Love it.

John: I haven’t quite gotten there with everyone. But I have somewhat larger classes, too. But yeah, some of the things that we’ve been doing in terms of having people have the chat capability as a backchannel has been really enriching. And I’m hoping that that becomes more widely adopted later. And also, the move to online discussion forums also gives more students a voice than would occur with synchronous communications, because there’s always some people who want to think and process things a little bit more before they jump out there and say something. And I think in that way, at least, we’ve moved to somewhat more inclusive environments. In many ways we haven’t, but at least that’s one area that I think can be useful moving forward.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I think that, John, exactly to your point, I think that we are creating some more opportunities for engagement. And I see the big barrier is getting folks in the classes and making sure they have the WiFi making sure they have a device. I think that’s the big challenge at the beginning of the semester. And so thinking about planning for next semester, for many of us who already know that we are going to stay remote, is thinking about how those first two weeks can be really flexible, because it might take students a while to get access after the holidays and after the New Year. Depending what happens with the election and different things that are happening, they might need a little bit more time to get their financial aid checks. And so thinking about how those first few weeks can be caught u, I think is gonna be really important for the spring

Rebecca: I think that’s a nice lead into how we normally wrap up, which is: What’s next? {LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Who knows? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s it, that’s all there is.

Kristina: Who knows? What’s interesting to me is when I think about the possibilities for higher education, I think this is really exciting. So, when I think about the different, you know, 1636 and Harvard’s founding, we have seen really slow change in higher education. And all of the slow change was laughed at in March when they’re like: “Guess what? We are going from moving the battleship to like a jet ski right now. We are going fast, and we are hoping for the best.” And so I think we’re gonna see some rapid and lasting changes in US higher education that would have taken decades had there not been a pandemic. And so my hope is that we are going to increase hybrid offerings, we’re going to increase our capabilities of serving more students by offering more online options. And my hope is that institutions will respond by creating tenured and tenure-track lines or online, totally online, programs and teachings. And we’ve got more than 3000 institutions of higher education in this country, that we can really create more access and engagement and higher education achievement in this country. That’s my hope for what’s next.

Rebecca: I think ending on a hopeful note is a good thing. [LAUGHTER] It’s a time when we need a lot of hope.

John: Certainly.

Kristina: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Thank you so much, Kristina. You’ve given us lots to think about and actions to actually take.

Kristina: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity. This was super fun. I enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed our conversation

John: We have too and we hope we’ll be talking to you again in the future.

Kristina: Anytime. Thank you.

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

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

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159. Nurturing a Growth Mindset

Emotions and past experiences can lead us to develop fixed mindsets in particular aspects of our lives and learning. In this episode, Kelly Theisen joins us to discuss ways to help foster growth mindsets within a course from the beginning to the end of the semester. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

Show Notes

  • Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Yue, C. L., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Reducing verbal redundancy in multimedia learning: An undesired desirable difficulty?. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 266.

Transcript

John: Emotions and past experiences can lead us to develop fixed mindsets in particular aspects of our lives and learning. In this episode, we discuss ways to help foster growth mindsets within a course from the beginning to the end of the semester.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Kelly Theisen. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Welcome, Kelly

Kelly: Thanks for having me.

John: Our teas today are:

Kelly: I have Earl Grey today.

Rebecca: And John, get this. I have a different kind, Gingersnap tea.

Kelly: Oh, that sounds good.

John: Where did you get that?

Rebecca: It’s a Tea Forte, you’d be happy to know.

John: Oh, I haven’t seen that one.

I have a summer berry green tea that I picked up in Epcot last year. My supply is dwindling, though.

Rebecca: I know, and you’re very disappointed you’re not going to be there this fall.

John: I know. I had planned to, but I will be online at that conference.

We’ve invited you here, Kelly, to talk about how you’ve been working to help students reframe their academic anxiety by helping them to cultivate a growth mindset. Before we discuss how you’ve been doing that, could you tell us a little bit about the courses that you teach?

Kelly: Yeah, sure. So I teach primarily my general biochemistry course for non major students, and I teach that every semester. And then in the spring, I also teach physical biochemistry, which is a much smaller class for biochemistry majors only.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about why it’s important that students develop a growth mindset?

Kelly: Yeah, so I think it’s especially important for my 371, the general biochem students to have the growth mindset, because they usually come into my class terrified, absolutely terrified of biochemistry, they’ve heard it’s like the worst class ever. And they think it has math, and they’re just so scared. So, I think that it’s important for them to have the growth mindset so that they feel like they can actually succeed in the class, which a lot of them again, they come in not thinking that they can. So, developing a growth mindset, reminding them that it’s hard, like the class is not gonna be easy, but that they can do it, they can get better with trying, is really key for helping them to keep going if they start to struggle. What I don’t want is for them to get to the first set of content that’s difficult, and then just give up. I want them to keep working at it, because I know that practice is going to make it better for them. For me, that’s why it’s so important, it’s because I want all of my students to be able to succeed, not just the ones who are already super motivated, and everything. I want everybody to get through the class and do well.

John: Why do you think so many people come into our classes with this fixed mindset?

Kelly: So, it can have lots of different origins. And I think some are internal and some are external. So, for example, a student could have somebody in a previous class, any previous STEM class who has told them, you’re not good at STEM, or you’re bad at math, or things like that. And so all it takes is maybe one teacher in school, a professor, when they get to college, who tells them that,for them to decide that this is just not for me, and I just have to take these classes for my major, but I’m just going to get through them because I’m not going to be good at it. And so that’s one way they can develop a fixed mindset about it. Also, it’s possible to have a fixed mindset in one area of your life and not in others. So student athletes is where I think of the most for this, where they have a growth mindset in terms of their athletics. They know that going to practice, working on whatever technique it is, is going to help them improve and do better during the game. But, they don’t always think to apply that to their academics as well. And so they might say, “I did badly on this test. That’s it, I’m done. There’s no point in me trying any more in this class.” Things like that can lead to the fixed mindset in classes, even if they don’t have one in other areas. So, it can be like I said, internal from them, or external with other people telling them, “You’re bad at this,” or whatever. And that happened to me actually a lot growing up, and in my career. Lots of people told me it shouldn’t or couldn’t be in chemistry, lots of very stupid reasons for that. But still, it happened enough that if I hadn’t had a growth mindset myself, and knowing that just because this person tells me I’m bad at something doesn’t mean I really am. Or just because I had to ask for help doesn’t mean I will never get this or that I’m bad at it, then I don’t think I would be here having this conversation with you, frankly.

Rebecca: Sometimes I find that the students that you might least expect to have a fixed mindset do, they might be the students that you think of as good students who have done well or have succeed[ed] previously in other classes they’ve had with you or in the discipline, but they come across a hurdle, maybe for the first time, and they just don’t know what to do, because things have come easy for them, or they haven’t had to work so hard.

Kelly: Right? Or they got by on just memorizing in high school, and then they get to college, and it doesn’t work anymore. And so then they can say, “This is just not working. I’m just going to give up. And I don’t know what else to do besides memorize, and if that’s not cutting it, then what am I doing here?” So, yeah, definitely. And biochemistry is a difficult class, and so not everybody is going to get 100% on every exam. [LAUGHTER] And so that can be challenging for some students, where they really want that hundred percent.

Rebecca: Yeah, and especially in the sciences, or any place where you need to explore or experiment, taking a risk can be really challenging if you have a fixed mindset.

Kelly: Yeah, exactly. And I want the students to think critically about what they’re learning. I don’t want them to just memorize the information and then spit it back out on the test. That’s not what science is really about. It’s about exploring and trying to figure out why things work the way that they do. And so, that risk taking, I usually make them do that every day in class. We do active learning, and they have to say, “Here, try to answer this problem before I’ve explained it to you. And so you’re gonna get it wrong, it’s fine.” And so that process, again, it’s sort of encouraging the growth mindset, but it’s difficult for them at first. They want to know the right answer ahead of time a lot of the time. So, you have to remind them and reassure them: “It’s okay, I’m not gonna grade you badly if you get it wrong. You’re just supposed to try and do the best you can.”

John: While anyone can have a fixed mindset coming into your class, some of students who expect to do well, some others based on their prior experience who might not expect to do very well. But, are there some patterns, perhaps, where first-gen students or students from underrepresented groups might be more subject to this, particularly in the STEM fields,

Kelly: I think that they’re just more likely to have been told that they’re not good at this or that they shouldn’t be in X, Y, or Z discipline. And as I said, that happened to me a lot. I was a first-gen student and female man going into chemistry, which is still pretty heavily male dominated. And then I went into computational chemistry, which is even more heavily male dominated. And so, yeah, I think that just because of that background, they might be more likely to have heard things like that before. And so actually, one of the things I do on the first day of class is, I say, “How many of you were told this or something similar to this?” I don’t usually get a lot of hands. I don’t think a lot of people want to disclose that necessarily in front of the rest of the class, which is fine. But the point of asking is, so that I can tell them, this happened to me all the time. And I made it through and I’m now a professor, and I’m doing these things that they told me I wasn’t any good at, but I actually am. So, that means that you can too, basically.

Rebecca: It’s funny how those early comments from teachers can have a really big impact for a long time.

Kelly: Yeah.

Rebecca: I had some similar experiences. I remember very distinctly in eighth grade, like math teacher telling me I couldn’t do math. I remember a seventh grade art teacher telling me I couldn’t do art. And now I do art that has math in it.

Kelly: Right. Exactly. My teacher in high school told me I wasn’t good at computers, because I couldn’t type both quickly and accurately. Turns out, I’m just dyslexic, and so I just hadn’t practiced typing enough at that point. And I’m now a computational chemist, and I work with Linux and programming, and so it’s fine. It just took me a little longer to get up to that level that they were expecting, then it did some other people. But again, it’s just about focusing on “You can do it, you just have to keep practicing.” And knowing that where you start is only where you start, and that you’re the one who gets to decide where you end up.

Rebecca: You suggested that a growth mindset is a scientific mindset. Can you elaborate on that?

Kelly: Yeah, I think anybody who has done research knows that you have to have a growth mindset to go into research… to enjoy doing research, at least… because you’re going to fail all the time. You’re going to start an experiment, and it’s not going to go right, or it’s not going to happen at all, [LAUGHTER] and you have to figure out why, you have to understand, “Okay, something went wrong. Did I do something wrong? Is it the experiment is actually showing us negative data? What is happening? And that really does take a growth mindset. You have to be willing to fail to go into research. You have to understand that it’s not you necessarily failing, the process of science requires a lot of failure. So, that’s one of the other things I try to tell the students is like, you’re actually living like a scientist, right now. [LAUGHTER] And this is what we do all the time, we set something up, and who knows? We just have to see what happens and then go from there. And one of the things that I really like the most about growth mindset is it sort of freeing, it gives you the ability to just try and know that your first effort is not going to be your best. And I really love that because it frees you from perfectionism, or wanting things to be exactly a certain way, the very first time you do it. You just know, whatever I do, it’s only where I started, and it’s not going to be perfect. And that’s okay, I’m always going to get better from that point. And so I feel like that, at least, has helped me to approach research and teaching and knowing that I might not be great at everything to begin with. And it helped me to try things that I might not have been comfortable with necessarily. But again, it was “Okay, I know, I’m not gonna be great at this right now, but I’m still gonna do it. And I’m going to try my best and that I know, I’m going to get better from there.”

John: What are some of the approaches you use to help nurture a growth mindset in your students?

Kelly: So, there’s actually quite a few that I like, and I use them in all my classes, but again, especially in the general biochemistry for non majors class. So one of them is the frequent low-stakes assignments, it helps the students to build confidence in the material and it gives them sort of a grade cushion, for the exams. And the low-stakes assignments, it helps with inclusion and equity as well. So, one of the other things I do when we have face-to-face exams… I’m not doing it this semester, because this semester everything’s online. But, when I head face-to-face exams, I was doing exam corrections. So, basically, the students could earn back up to half the points that they missed on the exam. And basically, I think that this helps students continue to engage with the material, instead of you learn it for the exam, and then you forget it immediately afterwards. They would have to go back and look up what they had missed, and try to understand why they got it wrong, which helps them to keep engaging with that content. But it also helps them to stick with learning things that are difficult, right? Even the exam is kind of not the end, I guess. I always thank students for asking questions, or for volunteering answers in class, even if they get it wrong, because that kind of thing helps everybody learn. So, I always tell them that I appreciate that, that that’s good. I guess just reassuring students that even if they failed at something, that that’s a step in the right direction to helping them succeed eventually. This semester for the exams, I have them look up a research paper ahead of time. And a lot of students were apologizing because they hadn’t gotten it right the first time or even the second time. And so I had to remind them just because you tried it, that’s the point. Even if you failed, you’re getting better at it just by trying it. And then I think the last thing that I do, and the students really seem to like this, because it comes up on my evaluations quite frequently, is the learning objectives. And I actually think that this promotes growth mindset, because having sort of almost a checklist that they can go through and say here is everything I’m responsible for for the exam. It kind of gives them a way to say “Okay, here’s the things I already know, and here’s the things they still need to work on.” So, it almost forces them to have a growth mindset by going through and checking everything off. So, I really like to do that as well.

John: You mentioned having a list of learning objectives, is that something that you include, say in the course module in your learning management system?

Kelly: It’s on the slides every day. So, when they walk into class, the first couple slides will have the learning objectives. And then I show them again at the end. When we were doing face-to-face classes, there would actually be on their daily worksheet, they’d have a question at the very last thing, which said, “Is there anything you’re still confused about from today? Are there any learning objectives you feel were not met?” And then that gave them a spot to write in, if they had any questions remaining. And that way, I could kind of check in with them as well. It’s harder to do that online I found. And so I kind of missed that this semester. But the students really do seem to love putting questions in the chat and things like that. So. I think we’re still managing to do that okay.

Rebecca: One of the things that, along those same lines, that I like to have conversations with students about, is the more mistakes and things they make they end up learning more. [LAUGHTER] So, it’s like, “Well, if you got that all right the first time, you wouldn’t have had this whole learning adventure that you didn’t plan for.” And I find that framing it like that tends to put a positive spin on something that they might seem as being a very big negative.

Kelly: I don’t know if anybody else is as big of a nerd as I am and watches Disney movies, but in Meet the Robinsons, there’s the part where he’s trying to fix something and he completely fails, and it just like bursts apart. And they tell him that “Well, you learn from failure, you don’t learn as much from success.” And so it’s kind of the same idea.

John: And earlier, you mentioned too that you share some of your own struggles and some of the challenges you were faced with. And I think that probably helps build a growth mindset in your students too, by setting that example and normalizing struggles and failure as part of the growth experience.

Kelly: Yeah, exactly. And I think one of the things that instructors can definitely do is to model a growth mindset for their students, to tell them that things are not always easy for me, even. I’m an expert, but I still come across research problems where I’m like, “I don’t know what’s wrong.” I did that over the summer, I started a new project, and it took us, gosh, it was like months to figure out what was going wrong with our experiment. So, you’re right, normalizing it is great. Saying that just struggling with something is good, in fact. It’s how you learn.

Rebecca: You also mentioned setting up problems that they solve in class that they’re not quite ready for. Can you talk about how that nurtures growth mindset as well?

Kelly: I got this idea from a book called Make it Stick, where it’s called desirable difficulty. And I just love it. We do this all the time in my other classes. Well, that’s like the main principle that I use for my smaller majors class is having them try it before it’s explained to them. And again, it’s trying to get them to let go of that idea that I have to know the right answer before I can try anything, or I have to have had this explained before I can even try, which I think it’s kind of burned into them in the K through 12 system sometimes. Where you’re given the information, memorize it, spit it back on the test, that’s it, you’re done. And that’s what learning is to them. So getting them out of that habit is what I’m trying to do with giving them these assignments that they’re not quite sure about. And I actually tell them that that’s what this is called, especially this semester, I’ve really leaned into just like, here’s my teaching method, it’s called desirable difficulty. And here’s what it’s going to do for you, it’s actually going to help you understand it better when I explain it to you if you’ve tried it on your own first and gotten it wrong. And so we’ll do things like I will ask them, How does the entropy increase when the hydrophobic effect occurs? And they’re like, “Well, I don’t know.” And I was like, “I know you don’t know. Think about it. Here’s the system, here’s what’s going to happen. And what do you think and then don’t look it up?” And actually, they seem to not look it up this year, which was good. I was worried they might because we were on Zoom. But, they actually seemed to refrain from googling it. Because I did see a lot of wrong answers. I think it went pretty well. And then just kind of over the semester, they get better and better and less fearful about putting wrong things down on the worksheets, because they know, first of all, that they’re going to get the grade no matter what, as long as they put something down. But, also because I think that they’re learning to try more and to think critically. And so that’s what I hope for them at least.

Rebecca: Do you have them discuss their solutions in small groups? Or is it an individual activity?

Kelly: Yeah, so in class, I would typically do like a think-pair-share where they would get with another person, and then I could talk to them as the class. This semester, we’re now doing breakout rooms, because I have 50 students, and it’s a little hard to get them in pairs, and then in a bigger group, so I’ve just assigned them groups for the semester at this time. And then they will go and work with their group and discuss. And usually there’s a few minutes delay anyways, in terms of getting the breakout rooms ready to go and everybody into them. So, they have some time to think on their own as well, just because of that.

John: How large are the groups that you’ve been using in the breakout rooms?

Kelly: About five usually for each group. And that’s because, first of all, I wasn’t sure how engaged everybody was going to be in each group. So, I kind of wanted it to be big enough that if a few people went AWOL, that they still had a group. But also it’s nice just that people can work better with other people, and so then they have a couple options in terms of partners, if they wanted to work with just a few people.

Rebecca: Kelly, you’ve talked a lot about ways to foster the growth mindset throughout the semester. But, how do you set the stage maybe on the first day of class,

Kelly: This year, I actually did what’s called first-day fears, a brand new activity I’d thought of, but I had emails and some survey responses over the summer that said a lot of students were terrified of online learning, things like that. And everything was changing, and we were scared. And so it was just this whole mess. And so I basically said, “Here’s your first activity for the day, go into the breakout rooms with your group, write down everything you’re anxious about for the semester, and then I’m going to talk to you and we’re going to try to work through everything.” And so they did that. And I had a lot of “I’m scared of online learning. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” And we talked about how you can approach some of those anxieties with growth mindset, in terms of try something for the online learning. If it’s not working right away, then change it. Talk to me, see what else we can do that can help you manage your time better, whatever it is. And so that was how I framed it this semester was, “Yes, you’re anxious about things, here’s how you can address some of those with growth mindset.” Unfortunately, all the growth mindset in the world will not make COVID go away, it won’t give us more money if we need it, that kind of thing. So it’s not perfect, obviously. But in terms of the things that we can control, that’s what I love growth mindset for. So, helping them to understand that I’m a resource, that their group is a resource, and that we’re going to keep doing check ins throughout the semester. The other thing that I did is part of the activities, I told them what I was anxious about. So, I told them that I’m anxious about online learning, too. I’ve never done it before. I spent the summer learning about it, but it’s still the first time I’m doing it. And so I told them, here’s some of the things that you can do to help me, which is, if your camera’s not on, I can’t tell if you’re confused. So, you have to tell me that you’re confused. Say, “Hey, wait, stop, I need that explained again,” or put your questions in the chat. And here’s the ways you can do that. Yeah, so we basically just talked about things all of us were anxious about and trying to show them that, first of all, they’re not alone. Look, how many of your classmates have the same worries, this is why you’re in a group, so that you have people to talk to and then you can talk to me as well, then just trying to clear the air a little bit before we could get started, I guess, with learning this semester.

John: So you’ve talked a bit about how you try to help your students build a growth mindset. Do you explicitly talk to them about the differences between growth mindset and a fixed mindset.

Kelly: I do, actually. So, there’s a slide from the first day where I put some students’ examples of what a fixed mindset could look like, and what a growth mindset could look like. So, for example, from the student perspective, if you did badly on an exam or in a class, it might lead you to think “I’m stupid, I’m not gonna get this, why am I trying?” Or “Why am I participating in this class, everybody else is better than me,” it might lead you to think things like that, which are more fixed mindset. And then on the other side of the slide, then I had what a growth mindset would look like for that, which is to say, if you’re struggling, you should ask for help, you can learn more with practice. So, you should go and get more resources, ask for it to be explained, again, things like that. That you should still contribute to class because your responses are unique like you are. And so my favorite example, the one that I shared with them, I had a student my first semester at SUNY Plattsburgh, who was a great student, wonderful in class, and they completely bombed the first exam. And I felt so bad, because I knew they were trying, but anyways, so they kind of wasn’t sure how they were gonna bounce back from that, or if they were, and then we a little bit later, maybe a week or two, after the exam, we were having an activity about allostery, and nobody was getting it. Everybody was complaining: “This is so hard.” “I don’t understand what we’re doing.” “What is going on?” And there was just complaining. [LAUGHTER] And so I was walking around the class trying to help. And I got to the student’s desk. And they were like, “Well, I don’t know. But what about this?” …and they had got it, clearly they had understood what I was actually asking. And so I asked them to share with the class. And they did, and it was like a light bulb went on for everybody else. And so I was just reminding the students like this person failed the first exam, but they were the only person in the class who actually got the next thing. So, it doesn’t matter if you failed, you still have these valuable contributions to make, you’re still a part of the classroom, you’re still supposed to be here. So that’s, as I said, one of the ways that I tried to improve inclusion is just to say, “You’re always supposed to be here, this is where you are, we want you and you’re supposed to be in this class.”

Rebecca: I like how you’re framing things related to the anxiety and emotions that can be big blockers, to moving forward and addressing those emotions and normalizing those emotions and verifying that yes, indeed, we might be frustrated or confused or scared, but if we can acknowledge that and know that that’s what we’re working with, we can move forward and continue to grow and learn. And I think that students don’t always recognize that those emotions can get in the way.

Kelly: Yeah. And it’s about also recognizing what is in your control and what’s not. So, there’s some things that are not in your control, right? COVID is not under anybody’s control right now. Not any of us anyways. So, you can’t tell the students well, you should growth mindset yourself so that this doesn’t affect you anymore. No, that’s not how this works. The growth mindset is to say, “Okay, I’m trying in my classes, something’s not going right. Is there something I can change to maybe make it go better?” Or even just to recognize, “I’m doing the best I can. This is the most that I can do right now. And that’s okay.”

Rebecca: Yeah. Especially with the balancing act and the extra stress of COVID-19, and what have you. Recognizing that like, it might take longer.

Kelly: Yeah.

Rebecca: It might not be an A, it might not be a B.

Kelly: Right.

Rebecca: But, like, you got something. [LAUGHTER]

Kelly: Yes, exactly. And if you decide to try it again, later, you’re gonna do better because of it.

John: And having students share their anxieties makes them feel perhaps a bit less isolated, and recognizing that some of these challenges are ones that are shared by everyone, which I would think would help to build a better community or more productive community within the class.

Kelly: Yeah, that’s what I was hoping for. And again, that’s why I assigned them to the groups as well. With 50 students, I knew they weren’t going to meet everybody online. They barely meet everybody if they’re in person. So, I wanted them to have kind of a core smaller community that they knew, “Oh, yeah, we did this on the first day. We were all nervous about the same thing.” Yeah.

Rebecca: I’ve had those consistent smaller groups in my classes this semester, too, and it’s helped a lot… have it that tight community to express anxiety or share frustrations with. [LAUGHTER]

Kelly: Yeah, and I’ve called them their growth mindset groups, which is hokey, but I couldn’t think of another name. But, yeah, we’ve done a couple check ins so far. There was a question on the first exam about a situation that they had to face, like an academic challenge and did you approach it with a growth or fixed mindset… and then “How could you maybe change what you did?” or something like that, and then we did another… right after the first exam, we did a learning reflection, which is… same idea. I told them, you know, check your current grade on Moodle, because a lot of times they don’t always realize that that’s up there, and then come up with a growth mindset plan for going forward. You know, if you’re not happy with your grade, okay, what can we try that might help you do better?

John: Yeah, that sort of metacognitive reflection, I think, can be really helpful and helping students recognize how much they’re learning, and to see that they can change the pattern.

Kelly: Yes, and to look at the overall grade instead of just the exam grade, because a lot of them saw the exam grade and panicked. [LAUGHTER] And they didn’t realize that the exams are only 40% of the total grade. So, [LAUGHTER] you’re probably still okay,

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking: what’s next?

Kelly: So, what I would like to do next… a couple things. First, the SUNY Plattsburgh orientations have started incorporating a growth mindset aspect to it. And so what I’m hoping is to see more and more students coming in who already know about growth mindset, then have started to develop it in their earlier classes too, which would be fantastic. I already lean in pretty hard to growth mindset in my classes, but maybe lean even further into it in terms of assessing it, and trying to see if my class structure actually helps students develop a growth mindset as they go. I’ve had a few students put that on their evaluations at the end, that the idea of growth mindset helped them to succeed in the class. And it was one of the first times they’d heard of it or things like that, where they’ve said that that plus the active learning helped them to be successful. But, in terms of actually assessing overall, even if they don’t tell me that up front, you know, can I determine if it’s actually helped them to develop a growth mindset is one of the things I’d like to do.

Rebecca: Sounds like good research project.

Kelly: Yes, yes, I do education research on top of computational research because I’m a crazy person, and I want to study everything. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, thank you. It’s been great talking to you.

Kelly: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you very much.

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

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

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158. Distracted

It is easy to become distracted when materials or experiences seem irrelevant, unobtainable, or uninteresting. In this episode, James Lang joins us to explore strategies to build and strengthen student attention to improve learning outcomes. James is a professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University and is also the editor of the West Virginia University Press series,Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and the author of numerous articles and books on teaching and learning, including Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and Teaching and Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: It is easy to become distracted when materials or experiences seem irrelevant, unobtainable, or uninteresting. In this episode, we explore strategies to build and strengthen student attention to improve learning outcomes.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is James Lang. James is a professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University and is also the editor of the West Virginia University Press series,Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and the author of numerous articles and books on teaching and learning, including Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and Teaching and Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Welcome, Jim.

Jim: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

John: Good to see you again.

Jim: Yes.

John: Our teas today are:

Jim: I’m actually a tea aficionado. I get my tea from David’s Teas, which is a Canadian company. They, I think, have suffered a lot during the pandemic and closed most of their stores, but they still have a great online presence. And my favorite is Nepal Black.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds good.

Jim: Yeah, it’s a great black tea. And I have many David’s Teas, though. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I almost forgot about David’s Teas. I need to cycle back to that.

Jim: Yeah, it’s great stuff.

Rebecca: I’m on my last cup of a big pot of English Breakfast tea.

Jim: I love English breakfast. I love Earl Grey. You know, all the greens. I just love tea.

Rebecca: You’re in the right place, then.

Jim: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, exactly.

John: And, you may remember the collection of teas we had in our workshop.

Jim: Oh, I totally remember. Yes, that was like tea Nirvana in your center.

John: It’s sitting there kind of empty right now. But, we’re hoping we’ll be back there soon.

Jim: Yeah.

Rebecca: The collection of teas is lonely. [LAUGHTER]

John: Although every now and then some get pilfered from the office. And I’m drinking one of them right now. A blueberry green tea.

Rebecca: That sounds good.

Jim: Yeah.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your upcoming book, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, which I’m really looking forward to receiving when it comes out in October, I believe. Perhaps we could start by talking about the role of attention in learning. Why should we focus so much on attention?

Jim: So, in the book, I argue that we need to think about attention as actually the kind of foundational step for all learning; no learning happens without attention. So, I actually think it’s a value that we need to be more willing to kind of fold into our pedagogical thinking. If you look at the research on how people learn, almost all of it will tell you that the first thing that has to happen is the learner has to attend to whatever the content might be. And I also believe that it’s important for us to make attention a value in the way we form community in the classroom. We should be attending not only to the course content, but to one another. So, we’ve talked a lot in recent decades about the importance of having a learning community in the classroom, about having relationships between us and our students, and the students having relationships with one another. All of those things depend upon the attention that we pay to one another. So, to me, there’s a kind of cognitive aspect to this. But, there’s also a kind of ethical aspect to it. We owe that attention to one another, we need to be able to pay attention to the students and to the specific students in our room and not just sort of a generic idea of a student, we want students to listen to one another. When students are airing their ideas in the classroom, we as teachers want to be able to listen to them, but we want students to be able to listen to them as well. So, I think we really do need to pay more attention to attention in our pedagogical thinking. So, that’s kind of what the book is about. The kind of overarching point of it really is to get away from this thinking that attention is sort of the norm or that this is something we can just take for granted in the classroom. And that we should expect students just to be able to sit and pay attention, because that’s the normal modus operandi in the classroom. And instead, to recognize that attention is an achievement. It’s something that we have to work at. And as a result, faculty members have to think about how do they support student attention in the classroom. How are they deliberately cultivating it? And how are they deliberately sustaining it, both to the classroom content and to the other human beings in the room?

Rebecca: Like other kind of pedagogical approaches, it seems like talking about attention with your students might be a good thing to start off the semester, and explain what attention actually is. Do you have any recommendations for thinking through that with students?

Jim: Absolutely. There are great resources out there that can help us educate our students about attention and about distraction. And we have to start with those kinds of conversations about how we make the classroom a place where attention is a primary value. And again, this doesn’t mean like attention, where it’s just sort of me laser focused in on the teacher and being attentive like that for 50 or 75 minutes. We’re not built that way. That’s not how attention works. But we want to do our best to kind of continually renew the attention that we pay to one another. And I think that has to start with an explicit conversation with our students. And to say that “Look, you know, it’s important for me to hear your ideas. So, when you come in here, if you’re doing other things, then the contributions that you would make to this classroom, which I know are important, are going to get lost. And when your fellow students are speaking, I want us all to be paying attention and listening to what that student has to say.” So, I think we have to start with those kinds of conversations. And maybe not in the first day… I think there’s a lot we can do on the first day to try to engage students and set the tone for the course… but, sometime in that first week, to really have a conversation with students to say it’s important for us to pay attention to one another in the classroom. Here are the guidelines I’ve developed t do that and I welcome your input on those guidelines. And then, by the end of this week, we’re going to come to an agreement on these are the rules that we all will follow together in order to make sure that we are fulfilling our obligations to one another, in terms of building a community and paying attention to one another, and paying attention to one other’s ideas.

Rebecca: If we build the value of attention into our course, what does that look like,over the course of the semester? We talked a little bit about a discussion, setting some boundaries or some rules, but, how does that play out over the course of the semester?

Jim: Well, so two things. So, first of all, I do argue in the book, actually, that I think there’s value in having an explicit kind of guideline for how we will deal with both attention and distraction in the classroom. And that includes what we’re going to do with our technologies, but it’s not limited to that, and to develop some explicit guidelines that are shared with students that they’re invited to comment on that, then they actually will sign and say, you know, “I agree to sort of abide by this policy,” and then to revisit it, to come back to it in the middle of the semester, for example, at a midterm evaluations and say, “How are we doing with the guidelines? Do we need to update these? Or do we feel like everyone is kind of on board or are people slipping away? What can I do to help get everyone back and make sure that we’re still paying attention to one other? …because attention fatigues over time, that happens in an individual class session, but also happens over the semester, right? So, we’re going to get to a point of this semester, at which we’re all tired, we’re finding it harder and harder to pay attention to one another because there’s lots of stuff going on, and for the students, all their midterms and getting toward the end of the semester. So, it needs to be addressed initially, and it needs to be revisited. Now, from the teacher’s side, there’s a lot of things that we can do to kind of say, “Look, I’m doing everything I can to help support your attention in the classroom here.” And all those are kind of explicit pedagogical practices that we can take. And in the book, I talk about two creative ways of thinking about this, to think like a playwright and to think like a poet playwrights have long experiences of trying to guide people through experiences that unfold over time. So, a playwright has to think about “how do I maintain the attention of an audience for an hour, two, or three hours, sitting in a dark room, where the audience is supposed to be looking just at this stage and following the story?” How do they do that? They vary the structure, right? There are acts and scenes and intermissions, there’s rising and falling action, there are stories unfolding. Not only that, but like you go to the symphony or whatever, right? It’s the same thing, you’re going to have movements, you’re going to have pauses in the action, you’re going to have a movement that ends quietly, but then begins with a bang. The people that have had to think about “how do I pull the attention of an audience over time? …we can learn a lot from that. So, I think teachers need to think a little bit more like that, to think about the classroom experience as something that unfolds over time, and therefore needs to have a structure and variety to it. Right? So, that, essentially, I argue in the book for thinking about your classroom experiences, as kind of a modular one, where you’re going to have an opening activity that takes 10 minutes, and then there’s going to be something that goes on for 20 minutes, and then you’ll have a finishing thing. And not only to make those changes, because change renews attention, right? We know that from the research, change can renew attention. So, you have the changes. But then you also have the fact that these things are different. So, that like I’m doing something passive, like I’m listening to a mini lecture, but then I stop and do something. And then maybe I get that another passive experience. So, that’s the first thing is to think a little bit more like how we’re varying the structure of the classroom experience. And by thinking like a poet, what I mean by that is that one of the things that poetry and literature can do for us, it helps us see the world anew, right? Like, it takes everyday experiences and objects and things that we’re familiar with, and it shows them to us in a new light. So, we wake up to them or say, “Wow, like, I never thought about a peach like that, right? Like, that’s amazing.” There’s this incredibly beautiful and complex thing” or like a still life painting is trying to do the same thing for us, right? …to show the world back to us, in all its wonders and complexities and intrigue. And I think we need to do that as well. We need to think about like, what are the opportunities that we have to show students the amazing, wondrous, mysterious aspects of our discipline that can awaken their attention to what we’re trying to teach. So, in the book, I argue for a what I call signature attention activities, which might be something that you would do, you know, once a day, once a week, a few times a semester, but that are really kind of like creative pedagogical things that get students re-energized and re-engaged. And recognizing, like this everyday thing they might be experiencing, actually is an incredible, amazing thing that deserves their interest and engagement. So, thinking like a playwright, thinking like a poet… to me, those are two kinds of ways to try and develop new approaches to cultivating and sustaining student attention.

John: So, in terms of thinking like a playwright, would it make sense to break up each class period into a narrative or into a storyline where you have those modules that you talk about, but perhaps do something at the beginning to activate attention to provoke curiosity?

Jim: Absolutely. I mean, there’s lots of things that you can do, I think, at the beginning to kind of get them engaged. You can tell a great story, you can pose a problem or a question, but you have to do something other than just kind of “Okay, here we go. Here are the four concepts that we’re going to talk about today.” I think, if you really want people’s attention. Here you can expand it to other creative arts as well. When you pick up a novel, The first two pages, a novelist knows, they’ve got to draw you in in those first two pages, you’re going to put the book down, right? A television show, think about how many television shows, films, they begin with something that really is designed to capture your attention and draw you in and keep you engaged for the rest of that experience. We’re drawn to stories, we’re drawn to questions and problems. But, if we can think about foregrounding those, that’s a way of getting us engaged before we then go through and are doing the sort of harder cognitive work of whatever that classroom might be.

Rebecca: You mentioned some signature pedagogies to implement throughout the semester to focus our attention. In the spirit of small teaching, is there one that’s small and easy that faculty who maybe are under stress during a semester can implement right now.

Jim: The example I give it, the book… I’ll start with the one that kind of originally got me thinking about this. There was a faculty member actually across town for me at Holy Cross, an art historian, who since passed away. But she had her students go to the Worcester Art History Museum, and every week, they had to go to the museum and look at the same painting and write a different one- to two-page essay about that same painting over the course of the entire semester. They do 13 short essays about the same painting. And that, to me, is a great example of creative thinking about like, this is how you make attention a value. You know, you start and you look at it in a very surface oriented way. And then you just have to keep looking and looking and looking. And the more you look, the deeper you get into it. And the more you start to see all the sort of incredible stuff in there. So, I kind of encourage people to think about what is the thing in your discipline that’s like that painting that like you can go back to, or that you can develop some kind of strategy that’s going to get students to see it anew for the first time. So, one that is a little bit more kind of every day, I observed a theologian on my campus, who had her students engaged in an activity that was modeled on study of the Torah, the scholars studying the Torah use, which is she had the students get in pairs. And I was able to observe this class, they sat across from one another. And they were instructed to read out loud to each other the first few paragraphs of Genesis, but after every sentence, they were supposed to stop and say, “Okay, what do I see here?” Like, “What does this remind me of? What word is strange here? What do I notice here that connects to other things that we’ve talked about in the class?” And this went on for like 20 minutes. And some people only got like two paragraphs in like a 20-minute exercise of doing this. But, it was incredible to listen to what they came up with. And I stayed in the class and listened to some students afterwards. One student said, “I’m from an evangelical background, I’ve read these passages so many times, but I’ve never thought about some of the things that we talked about today.” And so it was a way to kind of reawaken them to something that was very familiar and that she could have got up there and given a lecture on things in the first book of Genesis, but the students uncovered it themselves, and were able to do that. So, I actually kind of talked through a process that was developed by someone at the teaching center at Brown University, which is trying to model like, very close looking at something in your discipline. And you start by just sort of doing that, “what is it?” Like, “What is here? Let’s really get in and describe it as much as possible.” And then the second thing we do is we say, “Okay, so what? Why is it important? What matters about it? What does it connect to in terms of other things that we know or are learning?” And the last thing is sort of “Where can we go from here?” Like, what questions does this raise that we can then go and think further about, or for example, that I might go and write a paper about or do some research about?” So, the careful look at it, then the thinking about how it connects outside of that thing to other things? And then the “Okay, now let’s go further, I’m going to develop my own kind of way of thinking about and understanding this thing.” You know, John Dewey, a long time ago, had students doing object analysis, where they would analyze like everyday things in their homes, or like that they encounter on an everyday basis, and trace those everyday things: “Who made it? What is the production of it, say about like, our economy and our world?” And you know, you can do that with anything, and almost any discipline, right? Like this t-shirt I’m wearing, right? Who made that t-shirt? That has huge implications for, like economics and politics and trade and inviting that kind of activity into the classroom seems to me like something that can help students see the discipline in a new way, and then re-engage their attention to show them this course actually has relevance and connections to things outside of the box of this classroom.

John: When in the classroom, one possible source of distraction, which I know you’ve written about before in the Chronicle and other places, is mobile devices. When we’re in a classroom environment, how can we help students use their mobile devices more effectively.

Jim: So, I think we have to be explicit about them. So, when we have those conversations at the beginning of the semester, I actually recommend in the book, an open source PowerPoint presentation that anyone can get and use. It was developed by a psychology instructor at the University of Toronto, which kind of shows students some of the issues that we face when we’re using our devices in the classroom. And of course, when students are using their devices off task in the classroom, it impacts their own learning, of course. We all know that. But, the bigger challenge is the way that impacts the students around them. And there is some pretty good research that shows that if a student is off task on a device, other students are drawn to that device, and that steals their attention away from whatever might be going on in the classroom. So, I think we have to talk to students about that, We have to say, “Look, you know, your device use is not just a personal choice that you’re making that has no broader implications. It does have broader implications, it has the potential to kind of tamp down the overall level of attention in this classroom.” And again, I think when we make that appeal, we need to do it on community grounds, right? Like, we owe each other our attention in this space. And we are all going to benefit from people’s contributions and those contributions are going to be richer, if we’re paying attention to one another, if we’re thinking together about the ideas. So, I’m not in favor, actually, of sort of full technology bans. I’m also not in favor of saying we should never have a technology ban. I argue in the book for a context-driven policy, which suggests that there may be times when we say no one needs their devices, right now, we’re going to talk about what this means. And you don’t need to take notes on that by hand or by device. There are other times when I may be lecturing, and you can use your devices, or you can take your notes by hand. There are times when we’re going to be having a discussion, you know, you can write down something if you’re so moved, but otherwise, I’d rather have us focus on one another here. We’re gonna be doing an activity and everyone’s going to go to the board, so you don’t need your devices for that. I’m segmenting off sections of the board here, and I want everyone to brainstorm a list of these five things. To me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to say, we’re never gonna use technology in here, or there’s just an open technology policy, which we can use any time. It depends on what’s going on. And I think if we take that approach, that also helps us be better planners, because we have to think about “Okay, well, what is going to be happening in the first 20 minutes, and would that benefit from technology use? Or couldn’t some students benefit from that?” If so, okay, then great, I’m gonna be explicit about that. But, there may be these other times where it’s gonna do nothing but interfere. And at those times, I want to be able to say, you don’t need your device right now.

Rebecca: I think that makes perfect sense. Right now, I’m teaching synchronously online. So, I’m exploring some different ways of using technology and different ways that pure distraction might play out in a screen environment. Do you have any thoughts about how we can help students attend to each other more so in an online environment? Sometimes it’s a little more obvious, I think, in a physical environment of how to set things up, and maybe not as obvious in an online environment.

Jim: It’s definitely not as obvious whether people are distracted in their online environments, right? Because they can have their phone right next to the laptop. And I’m sure we have all done this in our zoom meetings, department meetings, or whatever committee meetings where things get a little slow, you pop over and you do something else for a little while, and then you come back in. And again, I think, even an online class, we can be explicit about that, when you’re stopping out like that you’re pausing your own thinking, and that’s going to lead to a sort of a less rich conversation for us all. When students have their cameras on, it’s a little bit easier to see obvious sources of distractions. But, of course, I think we do need to give students the option to not have those cameras on for a variety of reasons. To me, because I think about, as I’ve been doing workshops …and a lot of the faculty workshops that I do on other campuses, of course, have switched virtual… what I’ve seen a lot is that the people will actively engage with the chat room. So, when the chat room is there and is explicitly encouraged, that can be a way that keeps people engaged. In some ways, it’s not quite ideal, because people can also get off track in the chat room. I’ve definitely seen that happen as well. But, trying to find regular ways to make sure that people are engaged in parallel activities, or something that’s kind of supporting whatever it is that’s going on. You can still use polling, you can use chat rooms, you can use breakout rooms, you just have to think about the same thing that you think about in the classroom. How am I continuing to provide sort of variety and shifting from one kind of activity to the next. People always talk about like, well, you lose students attention over the course of a 50- or 75-minute lecture, you lose people’s attention over 50- or 75-minute discussion too. Anything that you do for a long period of time, your attention is going to fatigue. So, to me, there is no like one pedagogical technique online or in face to face that’s like this is going to keep people’s attention, guaranteed, for everyone in the room for this amount of time. That’s just not realistic expectations. So, we just have to think about how we are providing that kind of variety, giving people opportunities to actively engage. And kind of what I encourage people to do is what I did during the two years while I was researching the book, and what I’ve been doing over the last six months in my online environments, is just look at like when do people pay attention? When do people get off track? We can learn from those moments. That’s what I’m essentially trying to argue to faculty as well. And what I hope the book will do is get people together on campuses and say, “Okay, let’s just think about this collectively. When do our students drift off? And like, why is that happening? When do our students get really engaged? Why is that happening? And how can we take the sort of engagement moments and maximize what’s happening there, and take the distraction moments and use those as an opportunity to develop creative new approaches?” So, for the online classes, I just encourage people to think about what have their experiences been in your Zoom meetings and your webinars and things that you’ve done when you’re a participant. What’s helped you, and what’s brought you back, and what sent you away? I’ll just say one last thing about it. To me, in the Zoom context, or like a synchronous online class is one of the lines of research I follow in the book, is the use of names, we all perk up at the use of our names. So, if John was drifting right now, and I said, “John, what do you think?”, he’s gonna “What?” If he was drifting, he’s suddenly back in the room, right? So like, even if you don’t have cameras on, you can still be saying, “I’m regularly gonna invite people to post in the chat or to see if they have comments. And I’ll do that by calling your names.” Just even saying that it’s going to get people “Okay, you know what, I need to be kind of attentive here.” But once I actually say, “Hey, Rebecca, what do you think? You know, boom, you are like right there. So, there are simple things like that, that we can do that help. There’s no sure fire solution online or face to face, we just have to keep trying these different approaches.

Rebecca: One of the things I really love is the fact that there are names.

Jim: Yes, I know. Right? Exactly.

Rebecca: That’s amazing. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Yeah, the first couple weeks in class, it’s hard to do that sometimes. Right? Because you’re still learning everyone’s names.

Rebecca: Yeah. What I noticed about what you were just saying, though, is using this object-based learning or close-look approach on ourselves or within the teaching arena. So this area that we want to study teaching…

Jim: Right.

Rebecca: …you’re actually offering up the suggestion that we do the same thing that we’re suggesting that our students should do within our disciplines.

Jim: Yeah, that’s true, actually, you’re taking a look at the classroom, but through this other lens. We look at it through all kinds of lenses. But, I think if you look at it through the lens of attention and distraction, to me, that’s like an avenue toward creative new thinking. And that’s kind of ultimately what we want here. This is basically the same approach I tried to take in Cheating Lessons, which is to look at like the issue of academic integrity, where does it happen and why? And then say, “Okay, once we understand that, what can we do differently? And how can we use that problem to improve education in general?” And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do here with attention to distraction? How can we use the problem of distraction to help us become better teachers in general?

John: Does your book also address issues of how we can help our students maintain focused attention when they were engaged in out-of-class activities?

Jim: This is a really challenging issue. So, one of the things I’d hoped to find in doing the research for the book was that strategies that people have touted as improving our general attentional capacities, that there are some of those that work. And the truth is, there doesn’t seem to be as much of that as we would like, especially evidence-based strategies that can sort of improve people’s attentional capacities. So, the one that’s been the most thoroughly researched in education in recent years has been mindfulness. So, if we practice mindfulness, to what extent can that actually improve our ability to pay attention? And there is some research that supports that, but it supports it if you are really all in on it, like you’ve got to be doing mindfulness on a daily basis for a significant chunk of time. And you’ve got to be really willing to make that commitment to mindfulness. When you do that, it can help. But we don’t have the ability to do that with our students, for the most part. And most of the experiments that you see being done in this area are like three- to five-minute little mindfulness activities in the classroom. I’m a fan of those, I think those can be really great and helping in the moment. We can help sort of in acute… like we can improve our attentional spins in an acute way. But, in terms of like developing strategies that are going to help students actually improve their attentional capacities in the long term, and outside of the classroom, I’m not sure we have anything yet that has proven to do that. Well, we do have one thing, but again, it’s nothing we should be doing in the classroom, it’s physical exercise, like physical activity improves your blood flow to your brain. And that improves all kinds of your cognitive functioning. But again, we can tell our students to do that, but it’s not like something we can enforce or get our students to do in the classroom. But, I look at some of the research in a great book on distraction called The Distracted Mind by Adam Gazaley and Larry Rosen, and they do a pretty good job of looking at like brain games and drugs and mindfulness and nature exposure. And their conclusion is, so far, we really only know one thing that is evidence based to improve people’s cognitive control, and it’s physical exercise. Everything else, we’re still not sure yet, like we’re exploring. There may be some positive studies here, but, we don’t really have enough to make it prescriptive yet.

Rebecca: Seems to me like something that could be useful to students outside of classes, just having them be aware of attention.

Jim: Absolutely.

Rebecca: …and what being attentive looks like, so that they can self monitor, if they so wish.

Jim: Absolutely. We can give them the sort of tools and instruction they need, and we can give ourselves the same. As the result of doing all this research, I’ve kind of realized that, in my own work life, there are things that I can do with my email and my Twitter feed open, like responding to emails and doing sort of committee work, that kind of stuff. But, if I want to write, I have to close everything out. And you know, since the whole pandemic thing, the weather has been better, I got in my backyard, I close everything out, and I just have Word open, and I do that for 45 minutes and then I get myself a 15-minute break, right? I take a walk around, I look at Twitter, that kind of thing. So, we need to do the same kind of look at our own attentional patterns and like habits and distractions. And we can encourage students to do that. We can help them understand how to do that. It’s up to them ultimately, of course, to decide whether or not they’re going to put those ideas into practice. We can also model for it in the classroom, though, and that’s another reason why I argue that there may be times when it’s a good idea to say to students “All devices away at this point for 20 minutes here, we are going to just brainstorm. We are going to think with nothing but our brains and the book or the problem, or whatever it might be, and the whiteboards, and let’s just try to come up with something. One of the things I suggest in the book is that devices and distractions are around us all the time. That’s our normal way of being. And we want to be able to prepare students for that world. That’s why I argue that we shouldn’t ban technology. We’re gonna be working with technology, like we need to know how to work productively with it. At the same time, it may be that there’s good reason to think that the classroom sometimes is an escape from all that, that the classroom is like an attention retreat, where we can go, put away all that stuff, and use our brains in a different way. And it may be that the more technology sort of intersects with our lives on an everyday, 24-hour, basis, that those spaces are really valuable, actually, and that they give students a taste of what it’s like to put things away and just focus our collective brains on something and see what emerges from that. And if we can give them the opportunity to do that in the classroom, then they may recognize, “Oh, you know, actually, this was really valuable. And there may be times when I want to do it myself outside of the classroom with a few peers, or even just by myself.

Rebecca: I certainly have had students in the past have experienced really stressful times, say like, they’re all in on a particular class or something, because it’s an escape, and it’s a place where they can focus and they put all their attention there. And I think a lot of students are doing that right now, during the pandemic, as well. I have a lot of students that are really focused right now on some of their schoolwork, because they’re stressed by other things that are going on around them.

Jim: Yeah, my last Chronicle column was a review of a book called Lost in Thought, by Zena Hitz. And one of the things she argues and that is that we need to recapture the value of just sort of getting lost in our own thoughts and engaging with ideas and the great thinkers and problems of the past and present. And part of the argument she makes is that when we do that, we have an opportunity to get away from our material circumstances, right? …like the world that we’re living in. And that kind of escape can be really valuable. It’s valuable, both for sort of mental health purposes, like, you know, you step away, and you get to sort of engage with something fascinating and intriguing, and get into kind of like a flow state or a thinking state. But, it’s also valuable, because it can give you a new perspective, like, that’s the moment which you might come up with, like a really creative idea. And I bet almost everybody listening to this podcast right now has had moments where they’re like in the shower, on a walk in the woods, riding their bike, whatever, and something suddenly hits them, and then a problem that they’ve been wrestling with opens up. What’s going on there is you are away from the other stuff. In those moments, that’s where the ideas sometimes emerge. So again, sometimes ideas emerge because you’re online, and you’re seeing all kinds of different stuff. And that’s great. But we want to have these other opportunities as well. And so the classroom should be able to provide a little bit of that for students as well.

Rebecca: I found that some students also respond really well to hearing examples from us of our experiences with attention or lack of focus and how we’ve wrestled with those things. I know that this morning, my class was talking about being tired or having anxiety, and I just expressed that I was also experiencing that as well. And all of a sudden, like we were all in the same place, we were all attentive to each other because we had this kind of common experience.

Jim: Yeah, one of the other major points I hope people take away from the book is just empathy, to recognize that attention is hard. And it’s especially hard in a time like this, when there’s so much going on in the world around us. When we have the pandemic, we’ve got an upcoming election, we’ve got Black Lives Matter. We have all kinds of things that are making us concerned or unhappy or frustrated or anxious. And so those things steal away our attention. And we have to be empathetic to ourselves. First, we have to recognize that our own attention is suffering right now. And then we have to bring that empathy to our students as well. A student who’s drifting away in the classroom. Sure, that can be because they’re looking at their Instagram, but maybe they’re looking at their Instagram, because they’re so stressed out. And this is kind of an easy thing that they do that gives them a quick little relief from everything else that they’re worrying about. Or maybe they’re drifting away in the classroom because they had a terrible night’s sleep, and they’re up with a sick relative. I mean, attention is drawn away, not just by our devices, but by all kinds of things. The more that we recognize that and the more that we are empathetic with our students, the more we can work with them to develop solutions.

John: You mentioned the importance of attention by both students and by faculty. We’ve talked mostly about students’ attention. Do you have any suggestions for faculty on how we can be more effective in maintaining attention to our students and their needs at any given time.

Jim: It’s just the basic stuff that we all think about in terms of the responsibilities that we have to build community in the classroom are essentially the ones I’m arguing for in the book as well. Names are important, knowing individual names, I argue in the book also for an activity like values affirmations in which students get to tell you what matters to them at the beginning of the semester. So, we can do our icebreaker activities in which hometown major, you know, all that kind of stuff. But, to get more substantive, and to get to know the students a little bit better. Invite them to tell you what matters to them what they’re good at, and to be able to kind of then keep those things in your mind and use them in the conversations that you have with students or in the feedback that you give to students. Giving individual feedback, thinking about how we’re doing that, using students’ names, and knowing a little bit about the assets that they bring into the classroom, I think there’s been a lot of good research on the ways that we can help foster community in the classroom. And to me, those are the things that are going to help foster attention as well. Attention is reciprocal. If I pay attention to you, you’re more likely to pay attention to me. If we’re sitting at a coffee shop together, and we’re there to meet and discuss something, and you pick up your phone, that’s the moment in which I’m going to pick up my phone as well. Whereas if neither of us does that, if none of us makes that initial move, we’re probably more likely to continue the conversation with one another and pay attention to each other. So, when our attention is drawn away from the students, when we’re not giving them our full attention, they’re not going to give us their full attention either.

John: Is there anything else from your book that you’d like to share with our listeners,

Jim: The only other thing that I talk about in the book that might be worth mentioning is the role that assessment can play in attention. And I do believe there is a role for assessment to play in supporting attention. And what I argue here is that your great students are going to try to pay attention to everything that happens in class. Your students that are struggling, that may have a harder time managing their academic work, those students actually can benefit from assessments which help them recognize this is a moment where I really should be paying attention in this class. And if an assessment is well designed, and it’s going to promote learning, then I think we’re only doing them a favor by helping students recognize “This is an important thing here, this matters.” And that can be low stakes. But, even low stakes can get some students over the threshold of “I’m going to sit here and check out” or “I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing here. So, I’m not going to say anything, I’m gonna hide in the back.” The students saying “Okay, actually, this counts a little bit. So, I better try and trying is going to help them.” So like, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking about the role that our assessments can play in pointing students toward the activities that are going to help them learn. So, I argue for that in the book as well, that assessments do have a role to play in this process.

John: And it’s not just low-stakes assessments, I’ve been amazed at how much attention and enjoyment students get out of using things like Kahoot!, which is entirely anonymous, but just that feedback they’re getting on how well they’re doing and that somewhat competitive atmosphere with it, where there’s no harm if they make mistakes, but they become really excited about how they do on those.

Jim: Yeah, “I want to see if I got it, right,” like “I’m trying this, I want to see if I got it right.” Because that’s gonna tell me how I’m gonna do in the class. And so, those kinds of activities, I think, can be really helpful for engaging attention.

John: And it’s giving the students feedback, but also giving us feedback. So, we know where they’re struggling, so we can help address those needs.

Jim: Exactly.

Rebecca: I think projects are also another form of assessment that we didn’t discuss right here. But, I think even having small amounts of scaffolded projects where there’s something that like, is done and accomplished, and you can check it off, is another way of kind of feeling accomplishment, but also being aware that you’re focusing on the things that you’re supposed to be focusing on, to move forward in a larger scale project.

Jim: Exactly, and like a lot of this stuff, that scaffolding is good for all kinds of reasons. And one of those reasons is, as we just said, like I can go through, I can check it off, I know that this is important. So, I have to get it done before I can do the next thing. That’s going to keep their attention engaged throughout that process of doing a larger project.

John: And it reduces cognitive load…

Jim: Yeah.

John: …it reduces the amount of anxiety they have, and they’re getting guidance along the way. So, they don’t go off in a direction that it’s hard to recover from later.

Jim: Right. And anxiety and cognitive load are all connected with attention, [LAUGHTER] like anxiety, it steals our attention. When the cognitive load is too heavy, we lose our attention. So, all these things. You know, attention is like one of these things that, once you to start really thinking about it, it intersects with everything. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s why it should be a value. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. Yeah.

John: Yeah, well, I hope this gets the attention of a lot of our listeners [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Well done.

John: …so they can focus more attention.

Rebecca: We always end by asking, what’s next?

Jim: Well, I’m on sabbatical. So, I am writing a book. And for the first time, I’m kind of going back to my discipline. I’ve been doing sort of off-and-on research on George Orwell for a long time. My area Is 20th century and contemporary British literatures. So, I am using this sabbatical as an opportunity to try and get that book project going. And I hope to be able to have a book. or at least a good chunk of a book, by the end of my sabbatical. There also is a second edition of Small Teaching that we’re working on. And so that will be out at the end of 2021. So, that’s a second edition, which will have updated research, some updated recommendations for techniques, and, actually, there is going to be a chapter on building community. So they’ll be an additional chapter. And so I’m excited for that as well.

Rebecca: That’s like a lot of things to look forward to.

Jim: Yeah.

John: And living in the Orwellian world we’re in right, now… [LAUGHTER] I’m very much looking forward to that.

Jim: Yeah, definitely. There’s definitely a lot of relevance there. And that’s why I hope the book will get some attention. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Nicely done. Thanks so much for joining us and sharing your expertise. And I know that I’m definitely looking forward to picking up your recent book, and I’m sure many of our listeners will too.

Jim: All right. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

John: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

[MUSIC]

157. Takeover

Tea for Teaching has been taken over this week by a couple of our favorite authors! Join our friends, Sarah Rose Cavanagh and Josh Eyler, as they interview each other about their current book projects.

Sarah is the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing Education with the Science of Emotion and of Hivemind: Thinking Alike in a Divided World and numerous scholarly publications. She is the Associate Director for Grants and Research at the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, the Co-Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive and Affective Science, and also Research Affiliate at the Emotion, Brain, and Behavior Laboratory at Tufts University. Josh is the Director of Faculty Development and a lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. Josh is the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective Teaching.

Show Notes

  • The tweet containing the graph discussed in the podcast.
  • Eyler, J. R. (2018). How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. West Virginia University Press.
  • Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed, Herder & Herder.
  • Hooks, B. (2014). Teaching to transgress. Routledge.
  • Cavanagh, Sarah Rose (2019). The Best (and Worst) Ways to Respond to Student Anxiety. The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 5.
  • Yeager, D., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. L. (2013). Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(5), 62-65.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2019). Hivemind: The New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World. Grand Central Publishing.

Transcript

John: Tea for Teaching has been taken over this week by a couple of our favorite authors! Join our friends, Sarah and Josh, as they interview each other about their current book projects.

[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]

Sarah: Hello, Josh.

Josh: Hello, Sarah.

Sarah: So, I’m Sarah Rose Cavanagh. I work at Assumption University, where I am an Associate Professor of Psychology and also Associate Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence. And since we’re here on Tea for Teaching, I will tell you that I am drinking water, because I have had an almost toxic amount of coffee already today.

Josh: And I am Josh Eyler, the Director of Faculty Development and Faculty in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. And I always feel as if I disappoint John and Rebecca on this podcast, because I’m drinking water as well. I never drink tea. [LAUGHTER] And we’re here for, I won’t say a special episode of the podcast, but it is a different episode, and we’re hoping not to crash it. So Sarah, do you want to tell everyone what we’re doing here?

Sarah: Absolutely. So, we both announced on Twitter that we have new book projects. And I wanted to interview Josh for his new book project. And he said maybe we could interview each other. And then John said, “Hey, you want a space to do that, publicly?” And so here we are interviewing each other about our new book projects on Tea for Teaching. We’ve taken over the podcast.

Josh: Yes, we have. And it’s my go round to ask the first question. But, I just want to say first, it’s always a lot of fun to talk with Sarah about her work, and so it’s a special honor today to hear about her new work. I’m working on two projects, a book on grades, which will be making up the bulk of the questions, but a smaller project on test anxiety and other kinds of academic anxieties. And so I have a question about that as well. And that’s the one that I’d actually like to start with. And so, Sarah, I’d like to ask you about the attributes of class climate that can lead to anxiousness. I know that you’re working on a project that has to do with our learning environments, and its connections to student wellbeing. And so I’m curious on your take, both from your own perspective, and from the research that you’re doing. What are some of the elements of class climates that can lead to anxiousness in students?

Sarah: Awesome, and thank you for that question. I think that our projects are very related, which isn’t surprising. We also are working together on a grant project that, in part, tackles the question of emotions and grading. And so, for me, anxiety is all about uncertainty. And when we’re unsure of our footing, when we think “what if this terrible thing happens?” when we can’t picture the future? these are conditions under which anxiety arises. So, in terms of classroom climate, the sorts of things that research suggests make students more anxious have to do with uncertainty and with a lack of clarity. And so when students don’t understand the material, when they feel like the material is presented in such a way that they cannot understand it, when there’s clarity and uncertainty there, that makes them feel anxious. When they’re not quite sure where they should be investing their time, and what they should be doing with their time and how their grade is going to be determined, that can also lead to anxiety. And when they are unsure of how they’ll be assessed, what a good result looks like, what the instructor is looking for… and every instructor grades differently, assesses differently, is looking for slightly different things. And I always felt as a student, that part of beginning a class was figuring out what does this instructor want? And what are they looking for? And so all of these things can increase anxiety. I think that climates that reduce anxiety are ones that help students feel safe, help them feel like they belong, and ones that are really transparent and clear. And one of the things I’m trying to tackle in my new project is that we need students to be able to grapple with uncertainty. And I think that we need learning environments in which students feel safe, and they feel like they belong, so that they can tackle uncertainty and so that they can be a little unsteady and a little unsure, without anxiety spiking.

Josh: Great, thank you so much.

Sarah: Alright. So you recently shared on Twitter a graph, and I’m going to try to describe it, [LAUGHTER] because we’re all audio, but it was about grading alternatives. And you had two axes crossing each other. So, if the audience can picture four different quadrants, one of the axes was liberation, from not liberating at all to very liberating… a grading scheme. And then the other axis had to do with logistics, fewer to more logistics. So, various grading schemes were in the different quadrants. We can think of specifications or mastery grading, which have lots of logistics. We can think of ungrading, which has fewer logistics. So, I have a couple questions about that. But, my first question is, what is your operational definition of liberation or liberating? What are its characteristics? Its defining attributes? How do we measure it? This is a psychology question. [LAUGHTER] What is ”liberation”?

Josh: Right, definitely. And thank you for that question. I should say that this book is kind of a first step in a new development for the way I’m taking my writing. It’s different from the last book, in that it doesn’t focus solely on higher ed, but looks at educational systems more broadly, from preschool to grad school, it’s the way I’ve kind of been describing it. And so that’s important for the kind of responses I’ll be giving, I think. Now, about the graph… Everyone loves when people in the humanities delves into graphs [LAUGHTER] and math-like things. So, this should be interesting. To answer your specific question, though, much of my philosophy about higher education is rooted in work on critical pedagogy, in particular, the work of Paulo Freire and bell hooks, both of whom talk about education as a practice of freedom. And for Freire, who was deeply invested in the political climate of Brazil, education as a practice of freedom means giving students agency, empowerment, and the tools, to be able to remake the world that both benefits them, but society at large, as well. So, the liberation there comes from freeing the classroom of the kind of controlling elements that prevent that kind of learning taking place. For hooks (her writing is, as far as I’m concerned, the best education writing that has been done over the last number of decades), she takes it in a slightly different direction. And for her, the liberatory practice, education as a practice of freedom means freeing the student to be able to remake themselves and carve out a meaningful life for themselves. In order to do that, a classroom has to break down some of the hierarchies, it has to give over control to the students equally, and importantly, for bell hooks, it also means that that is a very difficult process for students, and it requires them to be vulnerable. And if we’re going to ask students to be vulnerable, the faculty member has to be vulnerable as well, or be willing to be vulnerable. And for me, in the context of grading, what that means is wrestling with the traditions that we have been handed about what education means and what teaching means. And when I refer to some of these grading practices as being more liberatory, what I mean is that by removing the emphasis on evaluation, and placing the focus on feedback, it gives over some of that control, some of that agency and empowerment, to students. So, that’s the direction that I’m moving in, and how I conceptualize it in terms of mapping the practices. Now, when I posted that on social media, it was an honest and open invitation for discussion, because where they are on that grid for me is not set in stone. In fact, I’ve had really interesting conversations about some folks who do portfolio grading… has lots of logistics. And so that was an interesting conversation. Ungrading, for me to make sense of it in my head, take some logistics to help the students feel comfortable with the process. But then I know others who have a lot of success with fewer logistics with that. But, that aside, what I’m really looking at… how much agency does the grading scheme allow students to take over for themselves?

Sarah: Lovely. Thank you.

Josh: And now, the rest of the questions are going to be kind of rooted in that project, the book about grades. And so I’m really excited to hear what you had to say about these. And the first one is kind of more of a personal question, reflecting on some of your own responses to the grades that you got when you were a student, Sarah, and how that might have an impact on the grading models you use now, as a faculty member.

Sarah: Well, I don’t think you’re gonna like my answer, [LAUGHTER] unfortunately. But I loved being graded. It was my favorite thing. So I, in middle school, and in the beginning of high school, I was always intellectually curious, but I wasn’t super into school, I would rather be buried in my books reading. And I got kind of As and Bs and occasional C in junior high. And then I started in high school, and I started racking up A’s and I was like, “Oh, I’m good at this.” So, I started getting more and more invested in my studies and more invested in grading. And I actually ended up valedictorian of my high school class. I also particularly loved… and I’ll have a question related to this later on… I loved taking exams. It’s actually the thing that I miss the most about being in college, because it was a very mastery motivated sort of thing. It was like me versus this exam. People talk about flow, and they talk about the zone, and taking an exam is where I experienced that the most. And so I had this almost gamification approach to grades. I was going to figure things out. I was going to master this thing. And I had a lot of fun with it. And then when I got to college, I was sort of in this, you know, well, I’m not going to not get an A in the class, because now I’m someone who gets As and always gets As. And that, and I’ve written about this for the Chronicle of Higher Education and writing about this in my own book on student mental health, that was part of what helped me getting over my own personal struggles with anxiety, because I wasn’t anxious about grades, and I wasn’t anxious about exams, but I was anxious for social reasons. And I was anxious about participation. And I had a really hard time participating. And I managed to get through most of my college degree without participating in class and still getting As because even though professors would say you have to participate to get an A, they would still, based on exam scores and papers, give out As. But then I started picking up women’s studies classes and these women’s studies classes had a third of the grade was participation, because it was all about discussion and all about sharing and really grappling with lived experiences. And I was kind of confronted with this, you know, am I going to not get an A? Or am I going to try to do something about my social anxiety? So, the grades were actually the motivator that helped me, not just with my intellectual journey, but also with my mental health journey. And I’m not saying that that would happen to everyone, or that my anxiety was as severe as some people’s but for me, personally, grades were fun, and they were also this motivator that had this huge effect on my life.

Josh: Great. And what you said about, particularly your approach to grades in high school, really resonated with me. I was an athlete in high school and college and really approached it in much the same way, that it was just one more competitor, one more opponent on the wrestling path…

Sarah: Yeah.

Josh: …to be conquered. But, reflecting back on it thinking, Okay, well, that obviously, there was an element of success there. But do I remember much about what I was learning in those classes? Thank you for that answer. I appreciate it.

Sarah: Well, you’re welcome. And I’m going to return to your graph, if that’s okay. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Okay.

Sarah: So, we talked about liberation. And thank you for that beautiful answer. And I love thinking about student agency and autonomy and motivation. But, my second question is about the logistics-the other axis- and this is, in my own thinking about my own grading, something that I struggle with. And so I absolutely am in agreement, that agency and autonomy, and giving students that control, and releasing your own status are all really important. But, logistics… I think of some of these grading schemes can get kind of Byzantine and convoluted, and I have experimented with all sorts of different schemes, and I know we’re going to talk about what we’ve done in the classroom ourselves. And I think students sometimes find those really confusing, and it reduces certainty, and it reduces predictability and transparency sometimes, and they’re trying to navigate it, and they’re really struggling. And I think that that can increase anxiety more than a traditional grade structure sometimes. But then, on the other hand, the ones that are low in logistics, I have experienced student feedback where they just feel like they’re left at sea, and they don’t know where they are in the grading scheme. And most of us are teaching in institutions where, at the end of the semester, no matter what you’ve done, you have to put a grade in the system. So, certainly, it seems like liberation is good to you – more liberation is better than less liberation. How about logistics? More better, less better? Sort of your thoughts and curve?

Josh: Yeah, I think, in the way, I was envisioning that, logistics are kind of neutral. If you think about that y-axis, the liberation as being the philosophical access, the logistics is the pragmatic axis. And so, what I’m really trying to do with that particular graphic or image is to help people make decisions about what they might want to try. And, as you’re saying, for both the students and the faculty, a scheme, a model that has more logistics could be intimidating, or it could be a deciding factor. Okay, yes, I want to move in the direction of having a more progressive grading model, but doing something that is going to completely change the way I’ve approached my work for the last 20 years, and pile on top of it all these other details to think about, may just be too much. So, maybe rather than going to mastery grading, maybe I’ll start with contract grading, which can have many fewer logistics, and see how that goes. See how it aligns with my own goals and values, and pair that with how the students respond to it. In trying a number of different models, one thing is consistent and that’s what you’re saying. The students uncomfortability with changing the way they interact with grades, the way they respond to grades. So, even in the portfolio-based grading system, which to me is the baby step out of the traditional grading model, where you’re giving mostly feedback but a traditional grade at the end. I mean, the grade happens to be based somewhat on improvement over time, but still fairly traditional. Even then, there’s a lot of groundwork with students, building up their level of tolerance and comfort for that. So, yes, any shift toward a grading model that privileges feedback over evaluation is going to increase nervousness and anxiety at some level with students. And so one thing I talked about with faculty all the time is there has to be a lot of work upfront, being very transparent with students and working through this particular process. And to be honest, I don’t blame the students, because they’ve had at least 12 years of being conditioned in an educational environment where grades have meant something very specific to them. So, logistics for me, neither good nor bad, but an important factor in making decisions, both for our own workload and the student response. And I think it’s worth taking that into consideration. Because, it really matters. If we choose something right out of the gate that has a ton of logistics, and we’re trying to navigate those and help our students, it may actually discourage some people from trying out or continuing down that avenue. And that’s not what we want. And so I have known folks who have experimented, gotten frustrated, and just gone back to the grading schemes that seemed easier for them. So, that, I think is where logistics really come into this equation, both on the faculty and the student side.

Sarah: Thank you.

Josh: So, we talked about your own response to grades as a student, but what about the models that you now use as a faculty member?

Sarah: So I’ve experimented with various parts of your quadrants. And so I’ve done something in one of my classes, not purely mastery, or specifications, grading, but getting there, where there’s a lot of options, and everything is evaluated, not on a numerical score or a letter score, but instead, developing competence, achieved competence, that sort of thing. And so I’ve done kind of more high logistics versions. And then, in one of my seminar classes, which is all seniors, 15 students, and three-hour class, we’re sitting around talking about peer-reviewed neuroscience articles, I’ve taken a more purely ungrading approach. And the thing that I think I’ve decided about all of this, for at least at my institution with the courses that I teach, is that some of these techniques don’t work as well with the lower-level classes that have more content, that are more introductory, and that have younger students in them. In those classes, the students have a much more negative reaction to these untraditional schemes. They have many questions, they get frustrated. And I also, and this will lead into a question that I have for you, our students, most of them work a lot. So they’re working a lot of hours. A lot of them are commuting, they have very complicated lives. And they are not super grade conscious compared to other places that I’ve taught. They’re more focused on getting through the degree program, getting their credits, they are not “I need that A,” for the most part. And they seem to, in particular, dislike some of these grading schemes, because they want to know where they’re at. I had a student come to me, I always give a mid-semester check in and say, “Here’s where I think you’re at, where do you think you’re at?” We talk about it… but we were right before that. And she was kind of lost. And she said, “I’m working 35 hours a week. I’m taking care of my little brother. I’m taking five classes, and I just want a B in all my classes. And I have this limited pool of time. And I need to know where I should be putting my time, and I don’t know where I’m at, do I have an A minus? Do I have a C plus, I want to know if I’m in that (upper) range, because if I am I’m going to dedicate more of my time elsewhere.” And so, that was a struggle. That said, my upper-level class, I absolutely love it. So, in that seminar class, I don’t grade anything. I give them constant feedback on everything that they submit. I have tons of rubrics, and I give them lots of feedback on all different aspects. So, we’re constantly back and forth, back and forth. But we check in once in mid-semester. I ask them where they think they’re at for a grade. And it almost always matches where I think they’re at. And it just takes grading completely off the table, and we’re just talking about neuroscience, and it’s really about the intellectual discovery, and it’s not at all about evaluation. Interestingly, these students because they’re neuroscience majors, for the most part, and their seniors, they are more grade focused, but they’re more motivated and we just chat and it’s lovely.

Josh: Wow, that’s exactly what you hope for.

Sarah: Yes, [LAUGHTER] yes. I will never grade in that class again. Ever.

Josh: That’s great.

Sarah: And so I guess that leads me into this question that I have for you. So, that story of the student who just wanted to know where to divert her time and her efforts, and then my own experience with grades being sort of fun, and then also a motivation that helps me tackle some personal challenges. And then also, I think, especially in the lower-level classes, there’s a lot that is sort of just boring, rote stuff that we have to get through. And that students need that information in order to get up to those upper-level classes, and to have the foundational knowledge where they can start thinking critically, and they can start being more creative. And I think for that sort of just getting the basics down, sometimes extrinsic motivators are really valuable. And I think that the data for motivation research shows that, for creativity and critical thinking and things, we need intrinsic motivation, but for just mechanical kind of rote things, extrinsic motivation goes a long way. And so my question for you is, given all of those elements – are grades always eeevvil? [LAUGHTER] Or can they sometimes key students in to what a professor values, you know, put more effort here less effort here, motivate some of this rote learning and encourage students to face some challenges?

Josh: That’s such a good question because, I think, too often, when we begin to have this discussion in any kind of group of faculty, it’s been my experience that some people hear this as a kind of confrontation or an accusation. You give grades, grades are evil, LAUGHTER] therefore, you must be evil, which is not at all what we’re saying. What we’re trying to find here are the best approaches to help our students to learn in a meaningful way. So, I want to not flip the question, but change it just a little bit in that, for those goals that we have that are more rooted in knowledge building and rote memorization, and I agree that having some element of an extrinsic motivator can get you out of bed and into the classroom and paying attention and focus on the reason why you’re there and why you need to do well. So, I agree at that level. The question for me, especially in those lower-level courses, is what does a grade communicate? And I’m drawn to the work on inclusive pedagogy and on opportunity gaps, and what grades communicate to students who are coming to our colleges and universities from under-resourced schools where they have not had the same kind of educational opportunities. For example, to have AP classes that would prepare them, to have teachers who were invested in moving beyond just what was on the page, to have the right books, to have the right materials. And so, certainly for a subset of students from well resourced educational backgrounds, a grade in an introductory level course, could be a communicator of this information as important, pay attention to it. The grade communicates that you have mastered it well. For another subset of students from less resourced schools. I think that what the research shows is that more often than not, the grade is penalizing them for what they didn’t have, rather than being able to demonstrate what they know and can do at that point in their career. Now, there’s time over four years to bridge that opportunity gap to get them to a different place. So, what I think about this question, ultimately, in thinking through what we were just talking about with grading models, is that there’s a happy medium, where we could take an approach in introductory level classes with a mastery-based grading scheme, where knowledge standards are an important component of that grade. So, you have a whole mastery based grading, you determine the standard and the points along the way that show that students have mastered that goal. And for an intro psych course, a significant subset of those standards could be focused on knowledge and the information. And if they don’t know the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, then they haven’t checked that box. They haven’t moved their way up to mastering that particular standard. So, for me, that’s a scheme and I was just addressing this question with folks in STEM, who were talking about this very thing. People need to know information before they go out and become doctors and pharmacists and other fields. [LAUGHTER] And that’s a scheme that allows you to accomplish that goal, and to account for the educational opportunities and backgrounds of students who are coming into those introductory level classes.

Sarah: And I think part of that response makes me think that, and I know we don’t have time to unpack all of this, but the relationship between assessment and grading, and so your response makes me think more about “What kind of assessments are you using?” And of course, it’s critically tied together with grading. But, I just finished intro psych this semester, and I taught it all online. And I had previously had exams, and they were in class. And so they were by nature timed, and students had to memorize things. And because we flipped to the online environment, and I was not about to use one of those proctoring softwares, they were weekly quizzes that they had the whole day to do… very similar material. But, because it was open book and untimed, I had higher expectations. And I just calculated my grades this morning, and I had the same grade point average as last fall. And so I think that we can probably still grade, but we can make the assessing process more equitable, I think, while still using traditional grading schemes at times.

Josh: That’s a really great point. And the mastery based schemes ultimately give what look like traditional grades. But, it’s the assessments… exactly what you’re talking about…that look very different from traditional courses. You asked about extrinsic motivation. And I’m going to flip it to intrinsic motivation. [LAUGHTER] And I have some amazing colleagues in the psychology department here, who came to a recent talk that I gave on this subject. And I kind of opened with the classic research that shows that grades are an extrinsic motivator, and will impede intrinsic motivation. And for the sake of time, I was kind of glossing over some important distinctions, maybe, but they gave me some really great feedback that I’ve taken to heart and sort of built into subsequent iterations of this, which is that, “okay, but just because you get rid of grades does not mean that magically students are now intrinsically motivated,” because, as you were just talking about, some of the work in introductory level courses is really, really difficult. So, for example, they said, “You might really want to learn how to play the piano, but at the beginning, it’s really difficult.” And so, the ultimate point here, is that in order to really capitalize on the opportunities presented by decreasing the emphasis on grades for increasing intrinsic motivation, you have to have good scaffolding in there, a teacher has to come in and cultivate the intrinsic motivation, it doesn’t magically appear. So, first I wondered if you agreed with that, and second, what are some ways that we can do that work? What are some ways that we can cultivate the intrinsic motivation?

Sarah: Absolutely. And I do agree. And I think that some of the ways that cultivate intrinsic motivation is to really demonstrate how these building blocks get you to really interesting places. LAUGHTER] And one example I had was in one of my first speaking engagements. And someone there shared the story that they were in a nursing program, and some of their introductory courses were very difficult and very rote. And the students were a long way from being nurses, and that they were having trouble motivating their students. And what they did, which I thought was wonderful, is they had their students who were in internship or placements. And in their senior year, or right after their senior year, they had them come back to their class and do a whole class on specifically what they were doing now, which was very interesting, working with patients and all the things that the students were looking forward to. But then they shared explicitly how they were using the information that they were learning in these introductory classes. And so this very real life demonstration of “Yes, this is kind of a slog right now, and I know it’s a struggle. But here are the ways that mastering this content is going to get you to this place.” And I think we talk a lot about various forms of representation. But, like having someone that you can visualize, “Oh, this is me in four years, and here’s how they are using this material in pursuing the goal that I want to pursue…” I thought it was a really beautiful example of doing some of that scaffolding. And even if you don’t have access to that sort of setup, I think that ways of not just staying in the simple foundational knowledge, but showing how “Oh, this is how this informs this current controversy, or this informs these decisions that are being made in the real world,” I think, are ways to demonstrate the intrinsically interesting aspects of this foundational knowledge.

Josh: Great.

Sarah: So, as you know, my new project is all focused on the best learning environments for student mental health, in particular. And you have one very successful book on how human beings learn and are working on these new projects on anxiety and grading. You direct your Center for Teaching Excellence and you get talks all over the country. So you are an ideal person to ask: “What do you see as the best learning environment to both help students learn and enhance their well being and mental health?”

Josh: I can’t wait to read this new book that you are working on. I think it’s gonna be great. So, what I keep coming back to the area of research that you and I both really love and keep coming back to, and that is emotion, and the environments that I see my own classrooms, my own university, but many places elsewhere, always come back to care and compassion. That over and over again, the learning environments that are most successful for students are those where they feel as if the instructor cares about their learner. And that can look wildly different depending on who the faculty member is. But the student response tends to be the same. I felt invested, because it was clear that the instructor really cared that I succeeded in this class. And you were just saying… Sarah gave a great talk at the University of Mississippi on Tuesday. And she was saying in that talk, and I thought it was a great point, that whenever you move into this discussion, an automatic reaction is “This is getting into touchy feely territory. Right?” [LAUGHTER] That’s a dominant response. And I understand that response. But that is not what we’re talking about. We’re simply talking about having an environment where students feel respected, where they feel valued, where they feel as if their success matters. And sadly, I think in a lot of learning environments, they don’t feel that. So it’s surprising to them when they are in a class that does allow them to feel those emotions. On the faculty side of it, and this is where I think this automatic response comes from, it doesn’t mean you have to develop friendships, although sometimes down the road that happens, and I still keep in touch with students I had 10 years ago, and they’re doing amazing things. But, that’s not what we’re talking about. You can keep all the professional boundaries in the world that you want, and still show students that you are there to help them succeed. Some of the research that I admire the most in the area of social belonging, Geoffrey Cohen and Gregory Walton have a wonderful paper that showed the amazing benefit of a simple comment at the top of a student’s paper. So one group of students only got targeted feedback, another group got targeted feedback plus a comment at the top that said, “I’m giving you this feedback, because I have high standards, and I have every reason to believe that you can meet those standards.” And that had ripple effects that they traced over years in the success of those students academically over time. And while that may seem extraordinary, the sentiment is not. In practice, that one simple way of communicating to a student that the faculty member is here to help you succeed. I’m not here to hear myself talk, I get tired of that, right? [LAUGHTER] I’m not here for me, I’m here for you. And that is the common denominator that, at least, I have observed, both in practice and in research as being the most beneficial thing for helping students in that way.

I have a question that I just thought of this morning. So, I hope you’re okay with some improvisation. It’s a general question, though. So no preparation needed. It’s in two parts. So, maybe if we take the first part, and then come back to the second one? The type of writing that you’re doing now, Sarah, is not… I wouldn’t say very different, but it isn’t necessarily traditional academic writing. It’s popular scientific writing. It’s for a general educated audience. And so I was wondering if you could just talk about how you made that transition as a writer and some of the strategies that you use, I think the audience may really value hearing about that process for you and the evolution of your time.

Sarah: Well, I had done quite a lot of academic writing. And then my first book… Jim Lang approached me about writing a book for his series, because I had been blogging. So, I guess that predated it. So I’d been doing some blogging, first for a Martha Stewart publication, and then for Psychology Today, and he was looking for people who could write accessibly about cognitive science. And he said to me that most social scientists write like robots. [LAUGHTER] And he said, “I don’t want my books to read like they’re written by robots. And so would you be willing to do this?” And so I think that part is just stopping writing like a robot and picturing your audience. You know, a lot of writing advice talks about picturing your audience and writing for an audience, and I think that that’s true. But I think what really is the answer is that I write in my teaching voice. And the voice that I have, I sometimes don’t like my writing voice, I think gets a little chatty, but I tap into the same part of myself when I teach. And so I think that it’s: how does this material relate to my own personal experiences? to things going on in the world? to real-life phenomena? What are metaphors that I can use? What are anecdotes that I can use to illustrate this? What are ways that I could do this in a way that’s kind of positive and hopeful? And all of these things are things that I try to do when I teach. And Hivemind, my second book, it had a purpose, but a lot of it was: here are the coolest things that I’ve been sharing in my classes for the last 10 years, my favorite neuroscience studies, my favorite psychology studies. And then there’s certainly an overarching framework. So, that was even more clearly my teaching voice in writing form.

Josh: I love one of the ways that Jim talks about writing is “the voice of the colleague down the hall.”

Sarah: Mm hmm.

Josh: And I think that you do that so well. He does that so well. And it’s really accessible. And I think an important development in books about teaching.

Sarah: Well, thank you.

Josh: The second part of this question, though, is a little bit more technical, but I think people might benefit from hearing about it. And that is, the sort of interviews that you and I are doing right now, that you did a lot in Hivemind, that you’re doing in your book, are different from the kinds of interviews that social scientists would do in peer-reviewed publications, because we’re not trying to use the interviews to make a research claim, we’re using them more in an illustrative sort of way. Here’s our point. Here’s someone who’s doing that thing, or thinking about that thing, and illustrating that. And so my kind of technical point that I think is worth thinking about, what is the role of your IRB in doing this kind of writing? Because I know, on my campus, they want me to submit about this project, and talk about the fact that the interviews look more like what a journalist would do than what a social scientist would do. So, that they can say this does not actually qualify as research. It’s just kind of a box checking, so that they have it on file, and they know what’s going on, and that makes a lot of sense to me. But, I’m wondering, kind of from a technical standpoint, what do you have to do at your campus to make this writing work for your school and your career?

Sarah: Well, until recently, I was chair of my IRB. [LAUGHTER] So, I don’t know if that taints my response, but it’s two different things. So, the interviews like this, I’m actually a little surprised to hear that your IRB had you submit. It sounds like an exempt, just checking that it’s exempt from IRB review, which is not IRB review. But, actually, the Common Rule states that journalism and oral history projects and a couple other sorts of categories of doing interviews, they’re not considered research. Research has this technical definition of data gathered in order to contribute to generalizable knowledge. And because things like oral histories and journalism are on specific topics and they’re opinions about things, they are not considered research. And so, on my campus, they don’t go through IRB review. The exception is, so in my new project, unlike my older projects, I am also doing student interviews, and that is actually not even exempt from IRB review. It’s gone under IRB review. And so that part of the project, I did submit for official review, and a number of committee members reviewed it and approved it. And so the student data, and that will be anonymous… The student interviews were considered research. were reviewed by the IRB, even though it’s for kind of a journalistic book project, but the expert interviews that I’m doing, I did not.

Josh: I just think it’s interesting, too, as we think about doing different types of writing, how our campuses see that, and what kind of role they play in that, as well. So thank you.

Sarah: So what’s next, Josh?

Josh: A lot of writing is next, I think. [LAUGHTER] And you know how this is, these are writing projects that require a lot of mapping out ahead of time and squeezing that into campus responsibilities, like workshops, and things like that. But, I’m looking forward to the process. It’s always fun to be kind of starting out on something new. Sarah, what’s next with you?

Sarah: Pretty much the same. [LAUGHTER] I’m going to be doing a lot of interviews. So, people listening to this may be getting little taps on their shoulders. And I am also launching the student interview portion, which I’m excited about, because I’m eager to hear what they think. This is my first qualitative study I’ve ever done. So, it’s going to feed into the book project, but it’s also hopefully going to be a peer-reviewed article. And I’m working on that with my honors student, Jasmin Veerapen, and she and I are presenting at POD together. So, people who go to POD, you can check that out. And I’m eager to see what students have to say about all of this, because we’re going to try to let the data speak to us, let the students speak to us. And so we have hypotheses in our head, but we want to see where they take the conversations.

Josh: That was an amazing conversation.

Sarah: This has been fun. Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

[MUSIC]

156. Social Annotation

Do you struggle to get students to complete readings or to deeply discuss readings in an online environment? In this episode, Margaret Schmuhl joins us to discuss how a social annotation tool can engage students in conversations with the text and with each other about the text. Maggie is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego. Maggie has also been working with us as the facilitator for our second cohort of faculty in the ACUE program here at Oswego.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Do you struggle to get students to complete readings or to deeply discuss readings in an online environment? In this episode, we discuss how a social annotation tool can engage students in conversations with the text and with each other about the text.

[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 byJohn 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. Margaret Schmuhl, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego. Maggie has also been working with us as the facilitator for our second cohort of faculty in the ACUE program here at Oswego. Welcome back, Maggie.

Maggie: Hi. Good to be back.

John: Good to see you, Maggie. Our teas today are:

Maggie: Well, I’m having an orange spice herbal tea.

Rebecca: That sounds nice and warming.

Maggie: It is. It’s very cozy for a cooler fall day.

Rebecca: I have Scottish breakfast, which apparently is my new default tea.

John: I’m having a ginger peach green tea, which I’ve been having a lot recently, too. We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about how you’ve introduced the social annotation tool, Hypothesis, in your classes this summer and this fall. Could you talk a little bit about what prompted you to adopt Hypothesis for your classes?

Maggie: Yeah, so a couple of reasons. First, in my spring semester classes, I like to think that my students are very open and honest with me, especially when I asked them if they’ve done the readings. And for the most part, I get a very resounding “Nope,” like, “…haven’t done them.” And I just take a deep breath and carry on with the class, knowing that none of them have done any of these readings. And so, after feeling a bit frustrated for a long time with my classes not actually completing the readings that I’ve carefully curated for the class, I was looking for something that could keep them accountable to those readings, I had had colleagues who would assign reading summaries and such, and that seemed great, but I wanted to be able to see something, I wanted to see how they were understanding the reading. And I think John, you actually inspired me to consider Hypothesis because you had used it in some of your classes. So, when we had been meeting with the ACUE cohort, it was super interesting to me. So, I took a workshop, I think through CELT, with the Hypothesis representative, and it seems like a super easy functional tool. And I really liked that it was embedded right into Blackboard. So, it wasn’t necessarily throwing a lot of new technology out at students. And they didn’t have to create accounts, they didn’t have to go to a third-party website to use the annotation tool. It was something that I could throw right into the module, and all they had to do was click on it and start writing. So, it’s simplicity was super accessible, I think, for my classes.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think is really interesting about Hypothesis as a tool is that, if you’re using it for accountability purposes, it ends up being more of a dialogue with the readings rather than what can be perceived as busy work of summaries, or some of these other things that either just feel annoying to do, or annoying to read as a faculty member. And the same thing can happen with quizzing, too. It’s another thing to grade or another thing to look at. Sometimes that can be really effective. But, it’s a nice different way of doing it. And I think it’s really enjoyable as a faculty member to see how students are looking at materials.

Maggie: Yes, absolutely. Because with reading summaries, there’s an easy way out for students just to like look for a summary on the reading. But when you really want them to start asking questions about the reading, this tool helps them be able to locate certain segments of the reading that they may not have understood or something they found particularly interesting, or were able to connect it back to other classes or other information that we’ve talked about in just a really fluid way. So, yeah, I absolutely agree. That’s one of the big benefits I’ve found with this tool.

John: Did this replace some earlier activity? Or was this a new activity that you introduced in your class?

Maggie: So, actually, I haven’t had it replace anything. This has been more of a tool I’ve used, in addition to discussion posts, and so forth. But now that I’ve had a couple of courses under my belt with this, I do think I’m going to move towards replacing discussion posts. The discussion posts, from students’ feedback, they see discussion posts as just answering the questions that their professors wants, whereas the annotation allows them to pull out things that are interesting to them. And they’re able to engage, they think, in a more natural way than it is on the discussion posts. So, they’re reading through each document and, along the way, they see what their classmates are writing and where’s discussion posts, you have to go back into each of their classmate’s forums to see what they have written. And it seems a little more, I guess, artificial in discussion posts to just kind of comment like,”Oh, I agree. Here’s what I also wrote.” And it seems like a much more casual way of interacting that’s more akin to what we have in the classroom when we are face to face.

John: Do you think it encourages deeper and closer reading of the texts?

Maggie: Oh, definitely. I think a lot of my students have given me the feedback that they’re not just skimming the text anymore. They’re not just looking for the main findings or the points to summarize, but they’re actually considering each part of the text. And as they’re considering each part of the text, they’re using this tool to communicate to me their interpretations of the readings, but also the ways it connects back to their own experiences. So yeah, I found it to be quite invaluable for that kind of engagement.

Rebecca: Do you see it as a way to facilitate or to encourage community building around the content?

Maggie: Yeah, so I think that when I do replace discussion posts, there will probably be a little bit more of that. But, I already see where students are using the reply function. So when they create an annotation, they have an option to reply to another classmate’s annotation. And so I see dialogues begin to unfold between three or four students, whereas in discussion posts, if I tell students: “Okay, engage with someone else on their work,” they’ll pick one person, and they’ll respond to them. But again, it almost becomes like a text message to each other. And in a way, it seems, I think, more natural for them to just quickly write back and forth in response to each other’s questions, as opposed to having something a little more drawn out in a discussion post.

John: So how have students reacted to the use of Hypothesis.

Maggie: For the most part, my students have really enjoyed Hypothesis. Of course, there are some students who find it to be a little tedious. But, for the most part, when I asked them, whether they prefer discussion posts or their annotations, most of them prefer the annotations. They felt like they wouldn’t have completed the readings in a systematic way if it weren’t for Hypothesis. So, they’ve pointed to this level of accountability that the tool gives them to those readings, they actually feel like they’re retaining more information from those readings because of the way that they’re engaging with it. When I have a synchronous session, and we are diving into some of the issues that these readings bring up, engagement in those discussions are much greater than they used to be. I used to feel like I had to tailor questions so if they did the reading, or they didn’t do the reading, they could still participate. But, now I feel like we can actually dive into some of the nuances of that text in a way that we just couldn’t do before, when they didn’t do the reading.

John: it’s a whole lot easier, I think, for students to actually read the text when they have to actively be in the text to do their comments. So, it’s a little more difficult for them to evade doing the readings.

Rebecca: One of the things along those same lines that came up in a reading group discussion that we were holding yesterday was the idea of accountability and faculty talking through the concerns that they had about students being held accountable for things and that they seemed less accountable, or that employers have said that recent graduates seem a little less accountable than they had previously. So, it’s interesting to be able to use some of these tools to encourage accountability. But also, I think, it mimics a more professional experience about how you might engage with materials professionally. And so maybe it just feels more authentic, and therefore it’s easier to be more accountable.

Maggie: Oh, I love that, because I do think that, at least in the context of our careers as academics, we use annotation tools like this all the time, whether it’s in Google Docs, and we’re making comments and we’re working with co-authors and other faculty members on different projects and such, I definitely see where we use those tools and those skills that it’s a good skill set to encourage students to build.

John: Since we have this integrated into Blackboard with an LTI, it’s possible to do grading in the LMS. Have you been grading students on their participation?

Maggie: Yeah, so when I first started using Hypothesis in the summer, I was grading them, but at the time, the grading wasn’t embedded right into the Hypothesis platform. And so I was grading on a separate rubric and grading them sort of apart from each other. But now that I’ve been able to use the grading function right within, it makes grading much easier, because I can simply click on the student’s name, all of their annotations, and all of the replies that they’ve given to other students will show up right there so I can review them, give them a grade, move on to the next students, and it automatically loads right into the grading center. And when I’ve talked to students, they actually, not so surprisingly, said that if it wasn’t graded, they probably wouldn’t have done some of those readings. So, it certainly made me feel better by including this as a graded portion of their final grade, because I think without that incentive, they may not have engaged with it. But, I will say that I require students to do a minimum of three annotations, and I’ve several students who are doing 7, 8, 10, 12, just depending on the reading and their topic of that reading. They seem to be willing to move above and beyond that minimum standard, which I think is pretty cool.

John: I’ve seen exactly the same thing, that even though I did have some minimum specified, most of the students were doing2 to 10 times as much as a minimum when they were using Hypothesis.

Rebecca: Perhaps that attests to, in both of your cases, of actually helping students establish a habit of how to read or you get in the habit of using that tool to read and then you’re reading the whole document anyway, so you just annotate the whole thing.

Maggie: Yeah. And I was afraid that, as students were going through the readings, they would basically stop at the first page and put all of their annotations right on that first page, but I haven’t looked at all of their submissions. We do annotations every week on a reading, and so I’d have to pull it all out and compile that data to see what kind of patterns emerged. But, it seems to me that they are doing these annotations throughout the entire reading, they’re not just going a couple pages in and then being finished with it. Of course, there are students who are like that, but when I’m scrolling through that document, and I get to page 17, there’s still annotations there, which I find encouraging.

Rebecca: Probably, once a couple of students do it, and start modeling that, that becomes the standard of behavior, then people realize, like, well, even I’m not gonna read the whole thing, you got to read parts of the thing. [LAUGHTER]

Maggie: Exactly, yeah. And I’ve had a lot of student feedback that they like seeing what their classmates are writing about, because it’s given them insight into their perspectives on the reading and how it connects to their lives and their experiences. And I think it allows for an engagement in an online platform that I typically tend to enjoy in a physical face-to-face classroom.

Rebecca: And reading can seem like a really lonely activity generally. And if it’s difficult reading, it can feel extra lonely, especially if it’s asynchronous. So it seems like a good way to connect people through reading, which is not a way we generally think about being social.

Maggie: Absolutely. I’m teaching a class on the death penalty this semester. And so there are some Supreme Court cases that they are reading, and they are 200 pages long. Now, I required them to read one opinion and one dissent from the respective justices that are writing those cases. But, with that, they’re not so scared with the 200 pages of reading. They’re not just like totally shutting down and not doing it. They’re still engaging with the material, which is more than I can say wa’s happening in the classroom when we were face to face.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about your future plans in using Hypothesis moving forward? Yeah, so another way I’ve used Hypothesis is for peer review, and I know that John has used Hypothesis for peer review too, so I think he probably has some comments as well on this. But, in my classes that are writing intensive, I like to incorporate some kind of a peer review feedback, because not only are we requiring them to write their papers with peer-reviewed research articles, and so forth, but I want them to understand what that process means by engaging in that. And I think when some of that feedback comes from their peers, they start to feel like the feedback isn’t so over their head, that that feedback is something that they can accomplish, and something that they’re perhaps a little less afraid of, than when it comes directly from me. So, what I really like about Hypothesis is I can create all of their submissions into a PDF, I can assign each student to review a certain number of papers, I typically tend to assign each student a particular paper so that not one paper gets all of the annotations over another. And I give them a requirement of making at least 10 or 15 comments on the paper. And before I know it, it’s actually eased up a lot of work on my own feedback, because they’re catching the things that I now don’t have to spend a whole lot of time, telling them to capitalize a particular word or explaining how to use commas in a particular sentence. And so it’s been really nice, because they can simply highlight, they can make little comments about when a sentence doesn’t sound right to them. And then I can come back, overlay my feedback over atop of it. And then the students have all of that in one place when they go to work on their final drafts and incorporate that feedback. So yeah, as far as planning in the future, I do plan to continue using that as a peer review feedback as well as in my readings. I’m teaching online courses next spring as well, and so I plan to go get some good scans of my readings so that I can allow for them to become annotatable. Is that a word? annotatable?

Rebecca: It is now. [LAUGHTER]

John: I had a similar experience when my students did peer reviews, and they really liked that ability. They like that they could see the comments, they could react to each other. They could reply to each other’s comments and sometimes they’d disagree about whether a change should be made and there were some really good discussions embedded right in the text, right at the point where it was occurring. And then I’d come in, and sometimes I’d say, “Well, you know, I think maybe the original actually worked pretty well here” or something similar. And it did make my work quite a bit easier, because the students were doing a lot of the basic editing. Initially, a lot of the comments were primarily grammatical. But after the first time we did that, we talked about how it worked. And the students were saying it would be nicer if we could get more substantive comments, actually suggesting ways in which we could improve the substance of the paper. And I was going to suggest the same thing, but they brought that up themselves. And they seem to have much more of a sense of ownership of the review process. And that worked really well. Did your students have any concerns or negative reactions about the use of Hypothesis?

Maggie: Yeah, so I have found that the tool seems to be much better suited for my upper-division seminar style classes. I think that, even though I find it to be really useful for my introductory survey courses, the students did not like it as much in those introductory courses. But, it’s hard to know exactly why. Some of them pointed to not wanting to actually engage with other people, which I kind of have to laugh and move on from those comments, because that’s part of the process of these courses, is engaging with other people. But, I do wonder if it’s between discussion posts, and low-stakes quizzes, if adding annotations in a lower-division course becomes a bit overwhelming for them. But, I do think that the benefits of being accountable to those readings and having better discussions because of those readings probably outweighs some of that concern. But, I have had some other student feedback. They didn’t like that there wasn’t specific feedback available for the grading function. So, when you grade in Hypothesis, you just give a number grade, it doesn’t allow you to submit a rubric to indicate different levels of content or grammaticals or whatever it is you want to grade in a rubric form. So I did have some students who wished that there was some more specific feedback available for that. But, it did make me wonder, and it kind of reminded me of some of the reading we were doing in our reading group, the Small Teaching Online, when they were talking about specs grading, I thought that these annotations might be a really good place for that… to incorporate some all-or-nothing kind of grading. But again, with low-stakes grading, it’s not a significant portion of their grades. So I guess that’s just one thing to keep in mind, is that sometimes students want some of that detailed feedback. And that tool doesn’t necessarily give you a place to comment on their annotations, except within the annotations, you certainly can comment by replying to their annotations, which I do.

John: But you don’t want to make it public because of FERPA, and so forth. But you always have the option of not using the grading feature within Hypothesis and just adding a column to the gradebook, attaching a rubric to it, and then just evaluating each student… looking at their comments using the same technique, and then just going to the rubric and adding that to the gradebook. So, there are workarounds.

Maggie: Yeah, and I’ve done it that way as well. That just brought to mind like, maybe I need to go back to using that method for some of these classes. The other thing is that sometimes scans aren’t the best. I do think it’s really better to use articles that are already searchable. Sometimes when you’re scanning material, making them searchable and accessible, is difficult. There’s really good scanners and technology that can help us with that. But, sometimes the students are highlighting certain segments of the text, and it’s jumping to other areas of the paragraph. And so I think with that it takes a little bit of time to complete. I’ve also had some students saying that they don’t like to highlight over other students highlights, but I think that’s more of a personal preference. So I just encourage them to reply, then, to those students’ annotations so that it’s about the same material. And that pushes them to engage with each other a bit. But while there’s certainly some areas that students want different features and improvement on, they overall very much like using this tool in Blackboard… at least that’s been my experience.

John: I suppose one nice side effect of this is the more people who use this, the more it will encourage the creation of accessible PDFs because basically the issue is that you need a text layer that contains all the text where it’s supposed to be basically.

Rebecca: Yeah, and if it’s a fully tagged PDF, it works better in Hypothesis than just an OCR’d PDF, for sure.

Maggie: Yeah, that’s fair. I think it is a great tool for faculty because it really does push them to make all of their readings accessible. So, in terms of accessibility, it’s a good way to push everyone to make their materials accessible.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Maggie: Well, so in terms of using Hypothesis, I’m teaching some upper-division seminar courses next semester online, and so I plan to keep using this for both peer review and for reading comprehension. I’m hoping also that one day, we’ll be able to use inclusive access texts with Hypothesis so that we can move through some of the main readings, especially if we have a textbook, where students are able to annotate together.

Rebecca: I would like to be able to annotate images.

Maggie: Right. Yeah.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much, Maggie for joining us. It’s always a pleasure to chat.

Maggie: Yes. Thank you for having me.

John: Thank you, Maggie. It’s great talking to you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

[MUSIC]

155. Remote Proctoring

Faculty who rely on high-stakes proctored exams in their classrooms often attempt to replicate this approach in online instruction by using remote proctoring services. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus and John Locke join us to discuss some of the issues associated with the use of remote video proctoring and suggest some effective and less problematic alternative methods of assessing student learning.

Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessmyn is the recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She is also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. John is the Coordinator of Technology Enhanced Learning and an adjunct instructor in Communication Studies, also at SUNY Plattsburgh. He recently received his doctorate in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in humanities and culture, and is currently working on a second historical novel.

Show Notes

Additional Resources/References

Transcript

John: Faculty who rely on high-stakes proctored exams in their classrooms often attempt to replicate this approach in online instruction by using remote proctoring services. In this episode, we discuss some of the issues associated with the use of remote video proctoring and suggest some effective and less problematic alternative methods of assessing student 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]

Rebecca: Our guests today are Jessamyn Neuhaus and John Locke. Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessmyn is the recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She is also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. John is the Coordinator of Technology Enhanced Learning and an adjunct instructor in Communication Studies, also at SUNY Plattsburgh. He recently received his doctorate in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in humanities and culture, and is currently working on a second historical novel. Welcome, John, and welcome back, Jessamyn.

Jessamyn: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

John L.: Yeah, thanks.

John: Today’s teas are:

Jessamyn: Just plain water for me. Gotta stay hydrated.

John L.: Grande decaf from Starbucks.

John K.: That’s an interesting tea.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] I have a Scottish afternoon tea

John K.: …and I have ginger peach green tea.

We’ve invited you both here to talk about online proctoring services. As a result of the global pandemic, a lot of people suddenly had to shift from face-to-face instruction to remote instruction or online instruction. And many people who relied on proctored classroom exams are concerned about how to offer tests, and many faculty have been investigating the possibility of using remote proctoring services. What are some of the concerns associated with using online proctoring services?

John L.: Well, to start with, we are all trying to deal with the digital divide. And when you get into online proctored exams, that becomes a pretty big issue in that not all students have the equipment or the bandwidth to be able to participate. It helps to know what the process is. And basically, what we’re dealing with is a test that’s happening while the student is being recorded, both audio and visually being recorded. Usually, it starts out with a little intro section where you have to show an ID to prove who you are, show your space so that everybody can see that you don’t have crib notes on your desk, or there isn’t Albert Einstein in the corner of the room [LAUGHTER] telling you the answers to what you’re working on. And assuming all that goes well, then, of course, you’re taking the tests, usually an online test with a lockdown browser so that you can’t surf for answers anywhere else. It’s a lot of moving parts to make it work in the first place. And the big assumption is, number one, the student has the equipment necessary, and the student has the environment necessary to take a quiz like that. For instance, if you happen to be a student who lives in a very small apartment with a family, and you have brothers and sisters running through the room where you’re taking the test, because you’re at the dining room table, there are so many issues that come into play, not to mention just the fact that you may be embarrassed by your surroundings and don’t feel comfortable showing those surroundings to other people. So for me, that’s probably the first and most critical reason why I always talk to faculty and ask them to think about it before they actually devote themselves to that process. Other issues are, try as you may, there are always ways to get around these sorts of safeguards. And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that somebody who plans to be dishonest will figure out a way to be dishonest. Again, I try to get instructors to be a little more thoughtful with how they’re going to assess that learning is taken place in the first place. And that’s really where my friend Jessamyn has opened my eyes to many of the alternative ways.

Jessamyn: Yeah, there’s a lot of great resources that have been proliferating since the emergency pivot in response to this very question and suggestions, building on research that was already there, for how to assess student learning and in authentic and, as John was mentioning, equitable as possible way. I guess, just what I would add to that in terms of looking at it as a scholar of pedagogy, and taking messages like from James Lang’s book, Cheating Lessons, what do you want to foreground in your message to students in the class climate you’re creating, in the rapport that you’re building with them? The ordeal of the kind of proctoring software that John was describing, and that we were increasingly seeing problems with… the very first message you’re sending to students is: I assume students cheat, I assume students are going to be dishonest. I assume students don’t care about their education enough to try to express their learning as honestly and authentically as possible. And I guess what we, as what John and I both, were inviting faculty to consider when we were doing workshops this summer on this topic is: are there alternatives to this that send a more positive message and create a more productive class client and help you connect to students? Let’s not forget, at a time when everybody is anxious and overextended and fearful, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. So, what do you want to prioritize as an educator?

John L.: Yeah, and exams are stressful enough as it is. So you add COVID on top of that, and then you add a technology that students aren’t used to. And it’s so much easier to choke under that environment.

Jessamyn: Yeah, an anxious brain is not a brain that can clearly and, to its best ability, express what it knows and show what it knows. All the information about trauma-informed teaching just reminds us that if every chemical and message in your brain is saying, “Run away from the tiger that’s hiding in the jungle,” there’s no room to: “Okay, move your webcam to show behind your ears that you don’t have an earpiece. Now take your laptop over to the door and show that it’s closed.” How is that not creating a prey state of mind with the predator waiting to pounce on you?

John K.: Each of the issues that you both talked about also have a very differential effect in terms of creating an inclusive classroom environment. People from high-income households are more likely to have some nice quiet space, are likely to be able to afford equipment that will work with proctoring software, while Chromebooks and most mobile devices will not work well with proctoring services. And also issues of anxiety and concern about being successful are also probably more likely to be experienced by students who are first- gen students who don’t necessarily have the same expectations of being successful based on their family environment and their social networks. One of the things that concerns me about all this is that the impact would be differentially imposed on students who are already at a disadvantage in terms of the quality of their prior schooling and their resources and their support networks.

John L.: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I’m not sure what to add to that, John. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: I can jump in though. I had a thought. I’ve been reflecting… I can’t get it out of my head from a webinar this week that the Chronicle of Higher Education did a panel about the human element in online learning. And one of the panelists, Viji Sathy, mentioned that this crisis has really brought home to a huge new number of educators that we are teaching whole students… that taking into account all aspects of students experiences, their work experiences, family experiences, and these equity issues. So, it’s not that academic inequality is brand new to 2020. But, the awareness of it has really increased and the attention to it has really increased. And I think it’s being highlighted in ways that it’s just impossible to look away from. So this specific issue is touching on, I think, a bigger kind of reckoning that faculty are having on an individual basis, and as institutions. I see a lot more individual instructors really asking, “Wait, am I being inclusive?” The question is way more in people’s minds than I think it’s ever been, in my experience.

Rebecca: Related to that is the idea of accessibility too. With so much delivery in digital formats, the topic of digital accessibility is becoming much more prevalent in the forefront of faculty’s minds, whether they want it to be or not, it becomes something that everyone’s becoming more aware of. This same kind of software also imposes a lot of accessibility issues and barriers for students with disabilities, because a lot of them are not compatible with assistive technology and aren’t built to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, essentially.

Jessamyn: And related to that, students with anxiety issues, who are struggling with mental health issues… the high-stress, high-stakes examination, in any format, is a challenge. But add to that the technology aspect of it, you are looking at assessment mechanisms that really isn’t being accessible and inclusive, it would not allow all your students to show you what they know.

John K.: One concern that I have about proctoring services is that faculty may see it as a simple solution that will allow them to use tests that they’ve created in the past. Many people have created very elaborate test banks in Blackboard and other places and then they expect that those questions can now be used, if they’re used in a proctored environment, not realizing that most of those questions have already been distributed to multiple sites out there and students would often have access to them, anyway. So I think that proctored systems can provide instructors with a false sense of security and as John mentioned earlier, they can be pretty easily defeated as long as students have devices that will allow them, for example, to do screen shares in the background underneath the proctoring service or perhaps have multiple devices where they can be looking up answers or using some other mechanism that won’t always be easily detected by the proctoring service.

Jessamyn: That’s a good point, and I know John Locke has addressed that issue. I mean, you don’t drill in on it, but when you’re talking to faculty, you often say, “And by the way, this is not a magic bullet, even if you go through all the trouble of setting it up.”

John L.: The idea that somehow having someone else proctor your exam is going to save you time…. That’s not how it works. These proctoring systems just flag potential incidents. You still have to go through and you decide whether or not those are warranted as cheating or if they’re just someone sneezed. So, between setting up the exam and then reviewing the flags, looking for false flags, I don’t know if it saves anybody any time.

Rebecca: I’m team workload reduction.

Jessamyn: Yes.

John L.: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So, what do we say to faculty who ask about replicating those high-stakes testing environments in their online environments.

John L.: I say: “Why?” I think that what would be more appropriate is to simulate the environment that somebody needs to perform in where they’ve acquired the knowledge in order to accomplish that performance. For instance, I taught a computer applications course years ago, and for the final exam…. I did have a final exam… but, I told them, “What I hope you get out of this class is to learn how to learn how to use software. So if you haven’t already learned how to learn to use software, now’s your chance. And when you’re out in the real world, you will have the software manual, you will have the person in the cubicle next to you, the only thing you won’t have is me. So, unless you have a question about a specific question on the test, don’t talk to me, as far as anything else that gets you to accomplish the goal, go for it.” If you’re studying to be an ER doctor, perhaps you do need to have the pharmaceutical manuals memorized page by page. [LAUGHTER] But most of us aren’t working in that kind of stressful environment. So, there are better ways, maybe project-oriented ways, to assess that that learning has taken place, that those skills have been received or learned and received.

Jessamyn: I try to assume best intentions on the part of all faculty. And I know that many of my colleagues who expressed that sentiment exactly, like “How can I make sure they’re not cheating?” …they’re not saying that because they’re evil, like “Mwah, hah hah hah, those bad students…” No, they really are concerned about student learning. So, what John and I did was really to frame this as an invitation to faculty, an invitation to think creatively about assessment, authentic assessment, to really be able to measure student learning, but maybe also rethink what you thought and assumed about assessment. And here’s a big bonus, maybe grading it could be less painful. If you are trying something new, something that’s a little bit more creative, that might help you as well in your end. So, that’s been how we’ve been addressing it here at Plattsburgh.

Rebecca: What are some ways to do that assessment, maybe in a class that doesn’t work well for project-based learning. Maybe it’s a bigger section class, or maybe it’s more foundational information that doesn’t lend itself as easily to project-based learning. What are some alternatives?

Jessamyn: There’s always small, lower stakes, regular quizzes. So instead of one big, huge exam, having smaller quizzes along the way. That’s just one off the top of my head… an easy one. John?

John L.: Yeah, well, especially in this environment, discussion forums are really, I think, underutilized. There’s no reason that you can’t build a rubric around a discussion forum and spell out your expectations to students and then hold them to them and grade according to those. Again, it’s taking the student higher up that Bloom’s taxonomy ladder than just memorizing and regurgitating information. It’s causing them to react to other people’s comments within the discussion forum, to assimilate the knowledge that they’ve already accumulated, and to create new and different responses based on that immediate situation. And, the advantage to that for slow thinkers like me, [LAUGHTER] is that you don’t have to be quick on your feet. You’re not the student in the back of the room with his hand up saying, “Well, never mind, you covered that five minutes ago.” It’s kind of an equalizer. I wouldn’t say “Have a discussion forum as a final exam,” but it’s another part of the scaffold to assess that learning is taking place throughout the semester.

Jessamyn: I think there’s a lot of potential for open-book exams as well. In fact, I have used open-book exams for a long time. And, in large part, that is because I really wanted my students to learn, and I wanted to be able to grade an exam very rigorously. So saying, here’s a question you can answer with an open book, and, yeah, you might even talk to someone else about it. But then the final product is an essay question, or it could be a presentation, it could be a sort of annotated bibliography. There’s lots of ways it could go as an open-book exam. But then when I go to assess it, I know that you have the material in front of you. So, I am going to really drill down here, like, “Do you really understand this concept? Can you show me that you understand it?” Because I know you can look at the basic definition in the book that’s open in front of you. So, now you have to show me that you really, really get it, you have to use it, you have to apply it, whatever it is.

Rebecca: What about STEM-oriented examples? A lot of the things that we’ve talked about work really well in the humanities and the arts. How about some things that work well in math and science and other STEM fields?

Jessamyn: So, I’ve been trying to do a little reading in this area. I’ve been hearing from some faculty in this area. So, in an online lab setting, being able to complete the experiment in the correct way, in the scientific-y way… [LAUGHTER] …that could be one way to assess learning… doing something like a fact sheet. So the final product is how you’re assessing the student learning. But again, you could be measuring the application, the correct way to do XYZ in a kind of fact sheet format or a PowerPoint slide or a poster presentation.

John K.: One type of thing we sometimes recommend for people in the STEM fields is that, if they are going to use multiple choice, one way of dealing with this is to use some algorithmically generated questions so that each student gets their own version of the question. Now, the solution procedure may be the same, but for at least low-level skills, that can help to deter some academic integrity issues.

Jessamyn: Student-generated exam questions could be another way to go. If you really understand the material, you’re not just regurgitating memorized material, but if you really understand it, then you should be able to help someone else understand it. And one way you could assess that would be “What are the 10 best exam questions?” …something like that.

Rebecca: Another idea that I’ve heard from people more in the STEM areas is the idea of creating some sort of resource that explains a topic to a non expert audience. So, maybe it’s an experiment or something that you can do with kids, or just kind of generally to someone who’s not in the discipline and get them to grasp whatever it is that you’re trying to assess.

Jessamyn: Yeah.

John L.: This might be going out on a limb for a STEM environment, maybe we could call it STEAM, because there is an artistic bent to it. But, for instance, in an accounting course, if there’s a particular accounting procedure or process that students have to prove that they understand it, they could write a short story, “a day in the life of the accountant to the New York Yankees” or something… and totally fictional, but covering each step in the process that has to be accomplished. And as an instructor, I would love to read something like that rather than checking off right or wrong on a test sheet.

Jessamyn: I’m thinking too about something like following up Rebecca’s suggestion, and increasing accessibility, you could even have students creating resources like that in a variety of formats. It could be a poster, could be a podcast, could be a video, could be a live presentation… You could do something like an oral exam… something like that.

John K.: One of the things I’m doing in my small class of 60 students is having students create podcasts. Unfortunately, that doesn’t scale as well, in my class that’s closer to 300 students. So, I’d really like to do more open pedagogy projects. It’s just, in large intro classes, that’s a bit of a challenge.

Rebecca: John, you have some experience using algorithmic questions, too, as a way of assessment, right?

John K.: Algorithmic questions can work very effectively, in at least making sure that students can use the formulas appropriately, which is a basic skill in many STEM classes.

Jessamyn: What I would like to see is more faculty really having these discussions and swapping these ideas, like on a national scale. I think that the learning curve has been so high for so many instructors in so many ways. Like, not just, “I’ve never even visited the learning management system, and now I have to use it.” Not just that. But, coming to terms with the emotional aspects of teaching and trauma-informed teaching in the midst of, possibly, “I’m at home and I’m supposed to be overseeing my children’s education” or simple childcare issues. All these things are overwhelming so many instructors just day-to-day life. And then on top of that, “Oh, rethink something you’ve used forever. The thing that you relied on from day one, and that you did so well in graduate school… hey, that’s not gonna work.” That’s hard. That’s tough. So, the more sharing of ideas we have, and the more spreading of good possibilities for assessment, the better. And I sent you a list of some of those resources I’ve been providing. They are starting to be generated, especially at university teaching centers and in people’s blogs and essays and such. But, I think the more it just becomes a broad conversation about “What can we do? How can we, in this situation, assess student learning in new ways and recognizing it’s new for us, too.”

Rebecca: Bill Goffe, in our episode 154, Sharing Disciplinary Pedagogies, also offered a way to get people to collaborate across institutions on some of these kinds of things using a simple Google Sheet. So, we’re all kind of forced to be on line in some capacities now, maybe more than before, but maybe that’s also opening some doors for collaboration that haven’t been there before, either.

Jessamyn: I hope so. I mean, John Locke and I, both of our centers had not been collaborating in the past. So, spring of 2020, was like this kind of completely perfect context for us to send a message to the university, the Center for Teaching Excellence, and Technology Enhanced Learning, we work together, and because people needed us both. So, in that sense, I won’t say silver lining, there’s no such thing right now, but it was a unique opportunity for these two very small centers on campus to collaborate.

John L.: Yeah, in fact, I’ve accidentally come up with a tagline that is starting to appear at the bottom of my emails to faculty. And that is, “you are not alone.” They never were, but it’s much more important for them to realize. In fact, I was working with a professor last night who was having some difficulty in the learning management system. And about 10 o’clock, I sent him what I thought was probably the solution. And I didn’t hear back. So, this morning, I sent him an email and said, you know, “How did it work out?” And his response was, “I’m sorry, I haven’t even gotten to it yet. I’m sorry.” And I said, “No, you don’t have to apologize to me, I just want you to know that you’re not alone, that I’m trying to help you. And I’m not going to let go until I know your problem is solved.” And that sort of community approach to learning in general, and what we’re all going through, I think is helpful. If you know that I know I’m struggling with this I’ll bet someone else is too and, maybe between us, we can figure it out. If more people can adopt that thought and not feel that they’re infringing on someone else’s time, I think we’ll all get through this to whatever the other end looks like.

Jessamyn: That was one of the first things that John Locke has said to faculty who wanted to use this remote proctoring system is “Don’t make your life harder than it has to be.” All the student issues aside, and equity and trust and accessibility, but it’s such a pain in the ass. It really is hard to use. And I’m not just talking to the student end is terrible, but from the instructor end. It’s such a pain to set up and he shared with me, sometimes someone will approach him, “Can I set this up,” he said “Okay, but you have to do bla bla bla bla bla, then this and this…” and they’re like, “uh, maybe I’ll rethink this.” LAUGHTER] I mean, let’s try to make our teaching a little bit more joyful, if we can. Let’s try to make it a little bit more creative, for our sake, if nothing else,

John K.: It can be a lot more fun listening to podcasts students create, listening to their videos that they create, looking at documents they create, or infographics and other things, than it is reading a pile of exams, or writing up multiple choice exams.

Jessamyn: For students, too. Conveying their knowledge in a different way. It’s so good for their brain. That’s why I’m always reassuring students, when I’m asking them to do non- traditional assessments, which I mostly use (even before all this). Our students are very traditional in many ways, and they get really nervous when I say, “Okay, so you’re gonna write a short story, you’re gonna do a poster.” And they say: “Wait, what? I’ve never done that before.” Or “ I don’t know, I don’t know if I can do that successfully.” And I’m constantly telling them, “This is you conveying your learning, your skills, your knowledge in a new way, and it feels challenging, but you could do it and it’s great for your brain. It’s like calisthenics for your brain. You’re presenting what you know, just like you would in a traditional research paper or a traditional exam, but it’s in a different format, and that’s great for your thinking in all ways.”

John K.: We always end with the question, what’s next?

John L.: What’s next? I’m waiting for that chip to be implanted in my head so that I won’t have to show you my assessment, you’ll just be able to download it. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: John, what is your next book project?

John L.: My next book project… I’m writing a novel that’s called “Defending Eldorado” and it takes place in South America, about 50 years after Columbus, where a bunch of colonial powers are trying to find Eldorado and the native South, Central and North Americans are doing their best to make sure they don’t find it. And since we never did, obviously, they were successful. Spoiler alert. [LAUGHTER]

John K.: You mentioned that you had just completed a book. What was your most recent book about?

John L.: Ah, my most recent book was actually the prequel to the current book, a nd that was about a group of disillusioned European scholars who left the Academy. They were humanists, they left the academy because it was being run by scholastics. And they decided to find Thomas More’s Utopia, which leads them to the New World, and hilarity ensues. Not really, but… [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, Jessamyn?

Jessamyn: I’m headed, coming up, very shortly, I think everybody here is familiar with it, the SUNY Faculty Developers Conference, it’s going to be online and I’m doing a poster there about a series of events that John Locke and I hosted over the spring for faculty. So, that’s coming up next month. I’ve got some speaking things coming up. I’m really excited to be speaking at the Lilly Online Conference in November, and I am reading chapter submissions for an anthology project that’s contracted with West Virginia University Press in their Teaching and Learning Series. It is an anthology of insights into effective teaching and learning from women, marginalized, and underrepresented faculty. I have some fantastic submissions… so many good ones. So, that’s been a really great thing I’ve been working on right now. It’s fun.

Rebecca: Well, thank you both for joining us…

Jessamyn: Thank you.

Rebecca: …and we look forward to your future work, for sure.

John L.: All right, thank you.

John: It’s great talking to both of you.

Jessamyn: Nice to see you both. Hang in there, SUNY Oswego.

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

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

[MUSIC]

154. Sharing Disciplinary Pedagogies

Many faculty are either the only, or one of a few, at their institution who teach a particular course, which can feel isolating, especially as we troubleshoot and experiment with our teaching. In this episode, Bill Goffe joins us to discuss an easy way to connect with faculty at other institutions to share disciplinary pedagogy.

Bill is an Associate Teaching Professor in economics at Penn State, and a former colleague here at the State University of New York at Oswego. Bill is very well known in the profession for his resources for Economists on the Internet, which was one of the very first internet guides available for economists, and it’s now hosted and sponsored by the American Economic Association. He is a member of the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education, the Secretary-Treasurer for the Society of Computational Economics, an Associate Editor for Computational Economics and the online section of the Journal of Economic Education. And he’s also an editorial board member for Netnomics. You can also find Bill on many listservs devoted to teaching and learning.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Many faculty are either the only, or one of a few, at their institution who teach a particular course, which can feel isolating, especially as we troubleshoot and experiment with our teaching. In this episode, we discuss an easy way to connect with faculty at other institutions to share disciplinary pedagogy.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guest today is Bill Goffe, an Associate Teaching Professor in economics at Penn State, and a former colleague here at the State University of New York at Oswego. Bill is very well known in the profession for his resources for Economists on the Internet, which was one of the very first internet guides available for economists, and it’s now hosted and sponsored by the American Economic Association. He is a member of the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education, the Secretary-Treasurer for the Society of Computational Economics, an Associate Editor for Computational Economics and the online section of the Journal of Economic Education. And he’s also an editorial board member for Netnomics. You can also find Bill on many listservs devoted to teaching and learning. Welcome, Bill.

Bill: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca.

Rebecca:

Rebecca:Welcome back. Today’s teas are:

Bill: I’m drinking mango water with Hint water, which I enjoy quite a bit.

Rebecca: Does it give you all the hints of life?

Bill: It does, yes. I’ve no more questions about life left.

Rebecca: Excellent.

John: And I am drinking ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: I have another cup of that Special English breakfast, that’s very special.

Bill: Very good. Earlier today, I had green tea and hot chocolate after lunch.

Rebecca: Ooh, that sounds good.

Bill: Yes.

John: So, we’ve invited you back today to talk about how you brought a large group of economists together, from quite a few institutions, this summer to discuss effective ways of teaching large introductory economics courses. I was one of those members and really appreciated that. Could you tell us a little bit about how this idea came about?

Bill: Sure. Earlier in the summer, I set a virtual meeting with Martha Olney and other economists, and she had a question about Zoom polling. And I happened to know the answer to that. And it dawned on me a lot of other people probably had questions about different aspects of teaching online, especially for large courses. I thought why not invite people I know to get together, and off the idea went.

John: …and you had people there from Penn State, Cornell, Stanford…

Bill: Berkeley,

John: …and a number of institutions. [LAUGHTER]

Bill: Yes, UNC comes to mind as well.

Rebecca: …and this collaboration all happened with a google sheet?

Bill: Yes.

Rebecca: Tell us more. [LAUGHTER]

Bill: It’s gonna make sense to be able to write things down, and a listserv is not ideal for this sort of thing. And so it dawned on me, maybe we could do a Google Sheet, and the first column was questions people might have, and I’ve seen this done myself… You know, maybe for good discussion, you just start off with questions you have for yourself for other staff. And then on the columns on the right, people’s possible answers for those things, and about 20 different things were filled in. And we had a couple Zoom meetings as well. So, partly, I’m thinking here that a lot of us have been teaching large classes for a long time and we have a lot of things that work mechanically well, you know, how to pass things out, give exams, all these just mechanics of things. But if we’re teaching online in the big course, we’re just kinda feeling our way? Most of us haven’t really done that yet. Maybe someone has answer “A”, someone else for “B,” …maybe get everyone together and share our joint knowledge.

John: One of the things you shared with that, to make it a little more useful, was a set of instructions on how we could automatically get notifications, so that it didn’t just disappear into our Google Drive folders along with tens of thousands of other documents.

Bill: Yes.

John: …and that was, I think, really effective.

Bill: Yes, I did not realize you could do that. But, there’s again, as John mentioned, you can turn on notifications in Google Sheets. Anytime someone changes it, you get something new. So, of course, anytime something new came on there, I checked very quickly to see what someone said, and hopefully adding to the conversation overall.

John: That made it so much more useful. Without that notification, I don’t think it would’ve worked nearly as well as it did.

Bill: I suspect you’re right.

Rebecca: Some just-in-time information, huh?

Bill: Yes, it was. [LAUGHTER] And we started this, I think is around a month or so before the semester started, when people were starting to get kind of nervous about different things. And I think it helped people. They had answers to questions they didn’t know they had in some cases, like “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.” But, then someone else at Stanford or Berkeley or UNC, had an answer for them. Well, at least you could understand the trade offs better. For many things, there’s not one great solution, but you can understand what pluses and minuses of the different things you might try.

John: And lots of people tried very different things in the spring semester after the shutdowns and some people were trying some things over the summer. So, there was also a lot of evidence from experimentation about what may work and what things didn’t work in the ways that perhaps we might have expected it to work. So, that aspect of it, I think, was really helpful. Just hearing from people who actually did the things that we were all thinking about as options.

Bill: Yes, I probably should have had the question too: “What did you try that you will not do again?”

John: Some of that came up, though, in the questions and more of it came up in the Zoom meeting when someone said, “I’m thinking about trying this.” And then people would sometimes say, “Well, I did that. And in some ways it worked well, but here are some things you should think about.” And that was, I think, pretty helpful.

Bill: I sometimes joke, you should never do anything the first time. I think we’ve all done home projects where “Oh, this looks really easy and you start doing it and you realize why people get paid good money to do those things.

Rebecca: This method sounds really similar to the idea that Derek Bruff had shared for active learning during COVID-19 in a physical classroom and using a spreadsheet to collaborate. So, this is an interesting twist on that same story, but for faculty to collaborate. So, who knew spreadsheets can be so useful for collaboration?

Bill: Yes. Well, another way you can do that just for in class is you can have Google, their presentation software… I’m blanking on the name… you could have different sheets for different groups in your class. And they fill in part of a sheet rather than say, one part of a spreadsheet… just a variation on that, for sure. I saw someone use that the summer in a webinar given here and it was really helpful. And it is really funny, though Rebecca, how we’re not so different for students in so many ways.

John: Rebecca, are you using your laptop microphone or the mixer?

Rebecca: It should be the mixer? Is the sound not good? Oh, it’s not. Yeah.
Is that better?

John: Dramatically better. [LAUGHTER]

Bill: Much better.

Rebecca: My bad.

John: Yeah, it was sounding kind of thin.

Rebecca: Ah, what are you gonna do? It’s a COVID-19 recording, that’s all I’m going to say. [LAUGHTER]

John: Google Slides is the presentation software. And I’ve heard lots of people suggest that. And also, some people have been just creating templates for documents and sharing it replacing the share link at the end of the URL with the word “copy.” So that way, students can take it and automatically copy it into their own drive. And that’s a neat little trick as well.

Rebecca: We were using a Google jamboard today in my class as a way to collaborate because each team can have its own sheet as well. And that’s a way to brainstorm. It has like sticky notes and drawing tools and things like that. It’s interesting how a lot of these tools can be co-opted for our purposes in the classroom.

Bill: Yes.

John: One of the advantages of this approach, though, is, in most institutions, there’s one or two people teaching those large classes in economics. And while there are other people at our institutions teaching large classes, the disciplines, and the way in which they teach them, could be very different in terms of the type of content they’re presenting, or the types of pedagogy that are used in the discipline. So, it was really helpful to hear from other people who were teaching the same courses, the same concepts with very similar types of instructional approaches, because you wouldn’t tend to get that if you were talking to other colleagues who were also teaching large classes in, say, art or in chemistry, perhaps.

Bill: Yes, indeed, it did strike me that we’re used to doing Zoom now so much that we could easily bring people together who normally probably wouldn’t have interacted very much. I suspect many of those people who got an email, probably do not know each other, at least had not interacted with them. So, it was fun, kind of an impromptu meet up, or one of the flash mobs sort of thing, almost.

Rebecca: I think a lot of disciplines have experienced this a bit this summer. And that’s one of the exciting things that has happened as a result of all of the extra work we all seem to have… is coming together and sharing resources and really collaborating across institutions in a way that maybe we haven’t before. I know in my discipline, in design, there were virtual conferences that brought people together that were free, there was Zoom meetings, there was other kinds of places. Art folks aren’t always the first to turn to a spreadsheet. But we definitely found ways to come together in ways that we hadn’t before.

Bill: It is an opportunity in some ways, but I think we’re being so busy to try to get things done, we’re not really adding too it that much. It would be nice to somehow keep these connections going at some point when things are more back to normal to improve teaching and keep this camaraderie going and connections.

John: Yeah, the pandemic and the shutdowns forced everyone to consider new things and also forced people to get really nervous, which made people open to considering all sorts of things that they might have been somewhat reluctant to try in the past. So, getting that interaction among people, I think, is good. And keeping that going would be really helpful, because I’d like to hear more about how things worked, because quite a few people were talking about trying new things this semester, and it would be nice to hear how that worked as we move forward.

Bill: Yes, we’re actually starting a speaker series here at Penn State on that. One that I and a couple colleagues of mine around here called “Innovative Teaching at Penn State.” We share across campus, and usually we talk about evidence-based teaching methods. And this year, we’re morphing it a bit to just what’s working for you. For example, I’m working on doing Zoom breakout rooms in large classes, and that seems to be a non-trivial to sort of thing set up. I think I have it. I know I want to try it at least. We’ll be trying it here both on Thursday and next week.

John: Here at Oswego, I’ve been using them every class day. And one thing I discovered is… I thought we were capped at 50 breakout rooms, but I found that 50 will not open, 49 will not open, 48 will not open, but 45 does. Each day, I’m trying to get it a little bit higher, because when 50 didn’t work, I dropped it to 45. I’m not sure why. It will create the breakout rooms but when you click on “Open,” they don’t open so that was a surprise. And the breakout rooms are a bit larger than I’d like them to be because when you have 288 students dividing them into 45 is still a fairly large room. I was hoping to be able to put in smaller groups, but it’s been working pretty well and students have generally appreciated them.

Bill: Well, that’s good to hear. I have a little bit larger classes at 350, and so then you’d have breakout rooms of 50 or so out of 11. And that’s a small class in a way. So, what I’m going to try to do is have two additional meetings at the same time. And then it turns out, you can attend two Zoom meetings at once. So, training students how to do that… so I’d have one Zoom meeting for half the class, another half the class, each with the breakout rooms, assistants have two Zoom sessions, one for breakout rooms, one for the regular class.

John: Interesting.

Bill: My fingers are crossed.

John: And that way, you can get half as many people in each room.

Bill: Right, I can do about four people per room. And I think that might work fairly nicely. Because you have a dozen in the room, no one wants to talk… I mean, me included. If you just have three or four people there, you can imagine they would be much more conversation, much like the three of us here, at the moment.

Rebecca: I think those hacks are the key that is making everything work for everyone. The sharing of those little tips and tricks is what’s making interesting experimentation within our own disciplines, but in others, too, by sharing these ideas across disciplines.

Bill: For sure, and that’s the idea of using these technologies mentioned earlier to spread these facts around.

John: So how are your classes going? Where are you in your semester?

Bill: We’re two weeks in, so this is the start of third week. I think classes are going well. It’s just pretty fatiguing on my end. One thing that’s been surprising, is how many chat messages I get. Students use that a lot. They’re used to chat and so forth, but more than I am. And some classes, I’ve had 800 chat messages. And part of that is, I’ll just ask him if the answer to this “yes” or “no…” and a bunch of yes’s and a bunch of no’s. And we’ll do some discussion before class, you know, favorite songs or music, or what did you do over the weekend? And still there’s an awful lot of questions during class, some administrative, some just good questions, and it’s always fun to say “We’ll deal with that later,“ most happened sometimes when I anticipated what your questions might be. But, it does make it more draining. I’m juggling a whole lot of stuff. And I worry a bit about, with the recordings, they see me pause and they don’t see the chat questions going by. So, I wish when we had the recordings, the chat questions are synchronized with that, so they can be part of the conversation. Because I’m teaching class, and someone has a question, I’ll always repeat it because not everyone has a microphone, they can’t hear me. I don’t do that in chat too much. It’s too brief in a way to do this, and I’m still learning how to do that and I’ll probably doing a survey next week in class to ask students how the chat discussions are working for them. That’s been the major surprise, and not quite sure how to deal with it. I’m teaching totally synchronously. I like the idea that structure to students, your typical residential students that we have here at Penn State, they didn’t sign up for an online course on purpose, or asynchronous. They don’t have jobs, certain careers and so forth, like older students, they don’t have children, and so forth. And having class during their class time struck me is appropriate for that demographic.

John: I had an interesting experience with chat on my first day of class, I opened up the chat, and students were very quickly sharing information about a big party that was being planned that evening, which didn’t seem like an optimal thing to do in the middle of a pandemic. And they were also sharing their snapchats and also using it as a dating network or something, I ended up having to shut it down, at least for a while. I’ve been using the video chat, with keeping people muted and then letting them raise their hands. And that’s been working pretty well, because people are much less likely to take over the mic to say something about a party they’re planning, than they would be if they could just type it in chat, because I was getting hundreds of those messages in the first few minutes of the class. And students were complaining, actually, that it was really distracting.

Bill: We’re lucky we have authentication turned on, or we can turn authentication on. And so everything comes under the student’s actual name. And now they only have some students teasing about something or a reference I’m not familiar with, which I always worry about, but in general, they’ve been very much aboveboard, and very on target.

John: Yeah, unfortunately, we can’t do that here because students have to apply to our Computer Services Department in order to have their accounts activated so that we could do that authentication, or at least I believe that’s a requirement for it. So, I had a lot of people who were coming in as iPhone or AB25, or something similar,

Rebecca: It might also be just a good demonstration of how used to using these kinds of tools we are as professionals, but as beginning students, a real unfamiliarity of what’s appropriate, what’s not, in a classroom space, and how a chat works with a classroom space when you’re not used to that kind of an environment. So, many more like norm setting than we’ve had to do in the past. [LAUGHTER]

Bill: Yes, I think maybe doing a survey, what is appropriate behavior in this new environment might be the thing if you do have these issues, I always have to do that when I’m teaching face to face. I’m not sure “have to” is the word, but it certainly helps that may say they don’t want other people talking. So, when someone’s talking, I could say, “Look, people in here don’t want to hear you.”

John: And I did do such a survey and have shared the results back to students because it was useful to be able to share with them the notion that when they’re putting in irrelevant comments in chat, that was something that annoyed about 90% of their classmates.

Rebecca: I have some persistent teams this semester and I did something very similar with rule setting and norm setting for the digital tools we’ll be using within their teams. And they wrote up their rules and all signed it by typing their name in Google Docs so I could see who signed it.

Bill: Are you using those teams in Zoom as well?

Rebecca: Yeah, because we can’t fully authenticate, so it’s a little tricky, because if they’re not authenticated, they can’t be persistent from time to time. But, I now have the teams fairly well memorized in my classes are a bit smaller than both of yours, so I can set them up. But, we do have one situation where it’s about 45 students, and I’m getting pretty fast at getting them all in the rooms,

Bill: You haven’t tried loading in a CSV file?

Rebecca: Well, it is all logged in. So if they were to authenticate their account, then they will automatically go into a room, but about half of them aren’t.

John: Yeah, that would be really nice if we had authentication set up, and if students automatically had their accounts activated, but unfortunately, we don’t. I was hoping to be able to have persistent breakout rooms, the same students working in breakout rooms, working in discussion forums, and working in some of the other components of the course. But,I haven’t been able to set that up in any reasonable way, given the class size.

Bill: I would mention that another challenge I face is that I don’t give midterms, I give a series of quizzes with exam-caliber questions every two weeks, and I used to give those in class, and it dawned on me now I can do those in the evening. There is a history of night exams here at Penn State. That’s a doable thing. But, the challenge is I have students all around the world, as many of us do, and time zone issues. You know, for a student in Nigeria, or in Greece, or in France, and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, and so forth, and finding a given time to set that in, and to make it fairly easy for me to set that up. I don’t want to have an individual time for 50 students or something, so finding a common time across time zones. There’s a very nice website to show you for this time here, it’s this time here, that time there, and that time there. So you try to find common time, across all these different time zones, for those remote students. And that would be challenging. I have some students that, in China it’s about a 12-hour difference but in India when I’m teaching it’s 3 or 4am and that’s just really hard. I mean, they are night owls to some degree, but that’s pushing it a bit.

John: Yeah, I’ve also replaced a midterm and a final with exams every other week. But I just set mine to be open for a little over 48 hours. This is the first one that just started and I’m going to plan to do that for the rest of it. But I did put in a timer. And I’m preventing backtracking, just to deal with all the issues with Chegg and all the other things. I really felt bad having to do this, but I’ve warned them, and it’s in the syllabus, that if they post any of these questions on any of the academic dishonesty sites, they will fail the class… and it just sets such a negative tone. But, the problem is so pervasive, I didn’t really see much choice about it.

Bill: It’s a real challenge for us today, for sure. I’ve only given about a two-hour window, or a two and a half hour window to take these quizzes. So, it had to be more carefully thought out for different time zones. Some students, it’s later but most take it at the initial meeting, but it is a problem. I mean, I did see on one listserv someone check how long it took something to appear on CourseHero and Chegg and it was about eight hours, and I would think, in many cases, it could be much less than that.

John: In the spring, when I was giving an econometrics exam, the first question showed up within 20 minutes of the time when it opened, and all of them were there within three hours of the time the exam opened. It doesn’t take long.

Bill: I get frustrated too, where the President of Chegg, he’s been doing a lot of public talks about the future of higher education, and they’re kind of a leech, and every instructor I know is violently opposed to Chegg, and here he is talking about what we should be doing. It’s very, very frustrating. I actually purchased my textbook on Chegg, which is legitimate. And when you’re checking out, there’s an option there to buy an answer key for the entire book. …and really?

John: Yeah, when Chegg was just renting textbooks to students, it was a very useful service, when it moved into a full featured “We’ll take your course for you and answer all your exam questions, it became quite a bit less so.

Bill: Yes.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting, too, like the stories that both of you are sharing, not just with Chegg, but like some of these other things, are demonstrating what we need to demand of our tools that we’re using for education. And so it’ll be interesting how much these tools respond to what faculty discover that they need when they’re actually trying to teach in these ways and see if the tools actually keep up with our needs.

Bill: I strongly agree, and I think the academic integrity is a real challenge. We have, you know, locked down browsers and examity and things like that, but they don’t seem to work all that well or there’s still ways around them. It is a challenge. And certainly I’ve changed the sort of question I asked someone I’m still learning how to do that well. I ask higher level questions that just can’t be googled or searched, but that’s still a bit of a work in progress.

John: Yeah, I’ve been doing the same, but I’m writing questions that make it really easy to find by using specific names or unusual names in the examples for the problems. So, it’s really easy to find the questions that I wrote in Chegg or the other places out there. And to be fair, Chegg is really good about sending back information on who submitted the questions, what time, as well as their email address and so forth.

Bill: Yes, and I do remember there is a discussion… there is a subreddit for Penn State students… I’m sure there’s one for every campus. And one student became aware of that, and he did not realize that that could be done. And you can tell that student was exceedingly nervous that his contributions can be tracked.

John: What are the plans for the spring semester?

Bill: We’re doing this semester’s teaching methods next semester, too.

John: We are planning to, as well. They’re just starting to solicit what types of teaching methods we’re going to be using, and they’re the same set that people are using now.

Bill: It’s just been a challenging semester for all of us, I think. So hopefully, some repetition will make all this a little bit easier.

John: I hope so. And a nice thing about it is, I think many of us are trying new tools that we’ll probably continue to use later. One of the things I’ve started using this semester is PlayPosit. And my students have responded extremely positive to having videos with questions embedded in them. So, I think I’ll probably continue to use that after the semester ends. The videos I used to use, many of them were created about 25 or more years ago, [LAUGHTER] and the audio and video quality was not so great back then. Some of them were created on old CGA computer resolutions, so the curves are kind of blocky. So, it’s nice to have better tools to do that… and they were due for an update.

Bill: For sure.

Rebecca: Perhaps with that timeframe, yes, [LAUGHTER]

John: Microeconomics has not changed that much in terms of the basic diagrams, and so forth. So, the examples obviously have changed quite a bit. But some of those old ones I was using up through last fall.

Bill: Yeah, I guess just the last thing I would do would be to encourage other groups and other disciplines to think about using these tools to connect with their peers at other institutions and share because many of us don’t have someone who does very close to what you do, but there is probably someone in other institutions who do and we now have tools to connect up… maybe they’re not the best possible tools… and like Rebecca says, they’ll get better for students and for us, but you know, it’s kind of new world here for collaboration… you know, quick, popup, flashmob sort of collaborations now.

John: And it’s no more difficult to collaborate with people anywhere in the world than it is to collaborate with people in our own departments when many of us are working from home over Zoom anyway,

Bill: Especially when people are now working at the beach, like John is.

John: I really like this background. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s actually easier for me to collaborate with people in other departments, because the one person in my department that teaches things most similar to me, we teach it opposite times, so we can’t like ever sync up and do something in a synchronous way. [LAUGHTER] So it’s actually easier now to collaborate with just about anybody else.

Bill: I agree. And then, you know, John was talking about tools and use in the future. Another one would be some sort of chat thing in class. It’s like I get far more questions and commentary there that I do in an in-person class. People don’t want to raise their hand in front of 300 people. And I certainly wouldn’t either. But they’re happy to go on their device and ask good questions. So, how do you keep out but keep it devoted to course topics, not have them doing all the other distracting things on their devices… that will be a challenge,

Rebecca: …and have pretty links and images and things that you can share easily in the chat instead of just text? That’s my request.

John: …which is more important, perhaps in art than it is in economics, although if they could share graphs and images, that could be useful.

Bill: Oh that’s right. that can be the thing, I did get Zoom-bombed in the spring, so I was become somewhat sensitive to all this and glad we have authentication as a possibility, and the person mentioned me by name, so that was somewhat irritating.

John: So, it was someone who is somehow connected to your past or present class, probably.

Bill: …and the police investigated last summer, I heard no connection was made.

John: We had cases of that a couple years ago with our workshops, but there haven’t really been any major cases on campus that I’m aware of.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Bill: What’s next, I think maybe is pacing myself over the semester, so it becomes very doable. A lot of people complain about workload, and certainly for me, as well. So, I think that’ll be a major one. Another one is thinking about how to use these tools in a little bit better way. Rebecca you were talking about how the hacks we can use that use these tools in a good way. I think those are the major things for me, at the moment, just kind of getting to a place that’s doable and be sustainable will be a pretty good place to be

Rebecca: Cheers to pacing. LAUGHTER]

Bill: Yes.

John: Yeah, it’s been a challenge. Everyone I talked to just feels exhausted all the time. And pretty much have felt that way since March.

Rebecca: I thought week two was midterms. I don’t know… I was confused.

Bill: Yeah, I do use technology to keep track of the weeks. In my Google Calendar, I have week one, week two, week three, and that’s the only reason I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: The days are blending together.

Bill: They are, yes. And one thing I do worry a bit about is the days blending together, is missing class… getting the day of the week wrong… or time wrong, or something because I just come downstairs and I’ll sit in this chair and there’s not quite the routine you normally have. And that’s a bit of a challenge and we have rising cases here in State College and that’s a concern and it’s not clear if students will be sent home or if they would go home if there was a rise in cases here. So that’s an issue.

John: The caseloads are still pretty low among students here. I gather we’re at 21 today. I’m hoping it stays there, but people in that age group are not always the best at self regulating their behavior. And I understand that.

Bill: I did see some good news from Vanderbilt today from Derek Bruff, that Rebecca mentioned earlier. Their number of cases actually went down among students at Vanderbilt.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: That’s great.

Bill: So it is possible. Yes.

Rebecca: Well, let’s hope it happens in many places.

Bill: Yes.

John: Well, thank you, Bill. It’s great talking to you.

Bill: Well, it was great fun, John and Rebecca.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for your tips. I think hopefully, we’ll all find more collaborators soon.

Bill: Very good. Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

[MUSIC]

153. Structured for Inclusion

Learning spaces that are effective for all students require careful planning and design. In this episode, Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan join us to discuss ways to promote inclusion in the way we structure our courses, activities, and feedback. Viji is a Teaching Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC – Chapel Hill and Kelly is an Associate Dean of Instructional Innovation, Quality Enhancement Plan Director, and Teaching Professor of Biology, also at UNC – Chapel Hill.

Show Notes

  • Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2017). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work?. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453-468.
  • Poll Everywhere
  • Hogan, K.A. and Sathy, V. (forthcoming, 2021). Embracing Diversity: A Guide to Teaching Inclusively. WVU Press.
  • Hogan, Kelly A, and Sathy, Viji (2020). “Optimizing Student Learning and Inclusion in Quantitative Courses.” in Rodgers, Joseph Lee, ed. (2020). Teaching Statistics and Quantitative Methods in the 21st Century. Routledge.
  • Panter, A.T.,; Sathy, Viji; and Hogan, Kelly A (2020). “8 Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching.” Chronicle of Higher Education. April 7.

Transcript

John: Learning spaces that are effective for all students require careful planning and design.
In this episode, we discuss ways to promote inclusion in the way we structure our courses, activities, and feedback.

[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 guests today are Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan. Viji is a Teaching Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC – Chapel Hill and Kelly is an Associate Dean of Instructional Innovation, Quality Enhancement Plan Director, and Teaching Professor of Biology, also at UNC – Chapel Hill. Welcome.

Kelly: Thank you.

Viji: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Kelly: I’m drinking LaCroix… seltzer.

Viji: Yes, me too. I’ve got my sparkling water right next to me.

Rebecca: That’s my second favorite thing to drink, over tea. [LAUGHTER]

Viji: In our writing last summer, we would get together, when we could get together. We would get together and write, and we often had a nice cold sparkling can of LaCroix with us, and one time we tweeted about it and LaCroix contacted me and sent me some water. So…

Rebecca: Nice…

Viji: …it’s become our official working drink.[ LAUGHTER]

John: Somehow tea has for us, as well. I have blueberry green tea today.

Rebecca: I have “Special” English Breakfast tea.

Kelly: What makes it special?

Rebecca: The package? [LAUGHTER]

John: The label? [LAUGHTER] Okay, and where did that come from?

Rebecca: It’s a Harney’s and Sons tea.

John: You’ve both been working together for quite a while now on inclusive teaching practices and have done a really good job in providing lots of workshops and lots of materials for people who would like to improve their teaching practices. What prompted your interest in this area? And how did you start working together on this?

Kelly: For me, I think I started getting really interested in what it means to be a good teacher based on data. So I had seen some data in my own course. And I saw some pretty large discrepancies based on race and ethnicity. And I thought a lot about what it means to be effective. And it really got me thinking about: are there ways that I could narrow and reduce those achievement gaps in my own class? And not long after that, I was in a faculty learning community for teaching large classes, and that’s where I met Viji. So, we were both in this faculty learning community together, paired up in a group, and we quickly recognized ourselves in each other. So, just our style of teaching, our personalities are on the more introverted side, we recognized that we really enjoyed learning how students learned, but weren’t always going to be the most charismatic and funny people. And we felt really strongly that funny didn’t equate to good teaching, and so we really built a friendship and collegiality around really learning, with each other, what good teaching looks like.

Viji: Yeah, and I’ll add that we had the opportunity, in that faculty learning community, to watch each other teach. And up to that point, the only time I had been observed was really for what I deemed sort of high-stakes purposes, like for renewal of my contract or something like that. So this is the first time we got invited to just sit in a classroom for no other reason than to just see how another instructor operates in that classroom and it was very eye-opening experience, because not only was it a chance to do this without sort of a weight around it, but also that it wasn’t a topic that I didn’t know anything about. So, it became a really fun activity to sit in the classroom and just be a student and see it from a student’s perspective. And especially not knowing the content, specifically, it was not about critiquing the content or the delivery of the content, it was really just the mechanics of teaching and what that looks like. And that was a really helpful thing for me to see and experience being a student in Kelly’s classroom.

John: Is that something that was done for just people within the learning community, or more broadly throughout the institution?

Kelly: Those observations were part of the faculty learning community. We have since tried to build programming around that same idea, campus wide. And so we have a peer visits program that we help the Center for Faculty Excellence run and faculty can go into other people’s classes, they can see a menu of people that are available that they can go visit, some rubrics available. So, I think it’s spun out of that, as something really transformational for us that were involved early on.

John: We were just planning to introduce one of those beginning in late March of this year. And then it kind of fell apart because people were no longer interested in doing that when they were panicking in terms of the transition to remote teaching. But, we’re going to be meeting next week to talk about how we might be doing that here. So, it’s something that I’ve been encouraging… I’ve been trying to get some motion on for a while now. And it looks like we’re moving in that direction. And it sounds like it was a really productive experience for both of you. And for the rest of us, given your collaborations since then. Many people have been concerned about the growth in income inequality, and economists have done a lot of work showing that one of the main reasons for that is the growth in the rate of return to education over the last few decades. What we’re seeing are some very unequal outcomes, as you mentioned, in terms of success in courses, persistence, and so forth by race, and in the STEM fields, also by gender. So, it’s really nice to see people working in this area, because it’s an area where I think we need a lot of help. To what extent are they These differences that we’re seeing the result of systemic racism and sexism.

Viji: There’s a lot in that question. Well, racism, sexism, any form of discrimination… In essence, these are learned behaviors, and these are things that we grow up with without really even thinking about sometimes. And the classroom is no different from being in life. And so we have to address them in the classroom in the same way we need to address them in life. And for me, when I think about it, it’s really about sort of concrete things sometimes, like who is speaking up in a certain space? like who feels comfortable speaking up? Who feels comfortable speaking without really having much time to think about their answer? Who gets to see instructors who look like them in the classroom? We already know that, especially for our students, it can be difficult sometimes for them to identify with their instructors, to feel like they’re just a normal person. Sometimes we hear that, right? Like “You do the things we do? That seems so strange. I never would have thought a professor would do those things.” Right? So even identifying with a professor, like adding that layer of seeing somebody who looks like you in the classroom just makes it feel even more unattainable, right? So, there’s a lot in thinking about a lot of aspects of teaching that are barriers for our students. And I often, when I go to a professional conference… when I was able to go to professional conferences… I looked out into the room and what I see in my professional meetings doesn’t look like what I see in my classroom, in terms of the diversity of participation, and I asked myself why that difference exists. And my course is the first course that leads people on a path in what’s called quantitative psychology. So, if I want them to have more people, more interested people, in the field, they have to succeed in my class to then have the interest and the goal to keep going on that track. So, it starts with my class, but it actually starts way before my class and all the messages they get before they even show up at my doorstep in my course and how I can work to counteract some of the messages that tells them they don’t belong, and that there isn’t a place for them in STEM. These are things that they hear either subconsciously or consciously and we need to address that.

John: What can we do to create a more inclusive learning environment for our students that will work well for all of our students?

Kelly: Well, I think we have to recognize that these historical differences, as you said, systemic racism and sexism, that those are things that existed before we met our students, and they lead to differences in who our students are. But, we have to be careful not to blame our students for those differences. You know, diversity is a strength, and we have to find ways to feel empowered to work with the students that we have, to build on that strength that is the diversity, but also not, as I said, blame students. So, the way we like to think about this is by adding structure to everything that we do, and we like to think about it as structure in the course design as well as the facilitation in live sessions. So, a lot of times our students, especially, see teaching is just what we do sort of face to face or in this day and age our live zoom sessions, if we’re doing them… and who’s not speaking up and who’s not participating if we only use low structure, and by that, I mean, like maybe one mode where we expect volunteers all the time. But, we also have to think about course design and a low structure course design might be one that doesn’t have a lot of practice and assessment built in, where students actually learn how learning works. And so we want to think about building structure in everything we do, and asking ourselves constantly: “With what I want to do, how can I add more structure so it’s not left up to chance. Who’s going to know what to do with this? Who’s going to know how to take notes? Who’s going to know that there should be routine practice in learning? Who’s going to know that they could participate in different ways? So, that’s kind of the way in which we think about it, but I’m sure we could get into more specifics with each of our courses.

John: And you’ve both done some research that have shown that there are significant effects of providing that structure in terms of encouraging student success, as well as perhaps reducing that gap, I believe.

Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. Work that I published with a colleague, Sarah Eddy years ago, we looked at my teaching in a much lower, less inclusive structure where I did a lot of talking… you could call it a pretty typical teacher-centered classroom… and then looked at three semesters of me shifting to something far more student centered, a variety of ways of interacting with my students, and basically a higher structure classroom. And even in those first few semesters where, you know, you’re just getting used to something and don’t feel proficient yet, it made a big difference. It closed an achievement gap for first-generation college students, it narrowed the achievement gap for black students, continued to see students talk about an increased feeling of community, among other things. So, it continued to get better as I got better. And I continued to see ways I could put more structure into my course. And I kept asking myself, how can I add more structure?

John: Maybe we could talk a little bit about some of the ways in which you’ve added that structure in each of your classes.

Viji: Sure, I’ll provide some examples of that. When I redesigned my course, and, like Kelly, I had landed as a study to look at how, at that time (it was about maybe 10 years ago), recording micro lectures and having students watch them before they came to class, and using class time to do more polls and some of the assignments that they were struggling with. And that was the challenge I had in my introductory statistics course was I was using the class time to explain ideas and then sending them home to do hard homework problem sets. And oftentimes, that led to a lot of frustration, because there was no one around to help with the questions that they had in real time. So, I wanted to switch the order of that so that they were watching the videos where I’d explain how you might calculate something at home, and then in class, we might practice doing some of those problems together, with peers, with graduate students, with undergraduate learning assistants. So, that’s an example of a structure that’s in place, right? …having the videos available so students can watch them before class. And what I learned was it became a really incredible resource for students to access throughout the semester. I anticipated that they would get used right before the class session where we’d be using the material. And indeed, when I look at the learning management, the site provides some statistics around that. Yes, there were the most clicks right before class, because I had a quiz in class that day on that material. But there were also clicks right before that first exam on some of those videos. There were also clicks before the final exam. There were clicks in random days in the semester when I didn’t think it had anything to do with what we were talking about. But, they went back to watch something. And what that taught me was that they need to see that material more than one time. And when I was doing it in class, it was once, it was ethereal, right? …it was once and it was gone. But, now students could rewatch, they could hit pause, they could work as slowly or quickly through the problems as they wanted to. So, it provided a resource for being able to do that. And again, that’s the example of, by providing it, not all the students need to watch it multiple times. But, it’s available to those who needed to do that or wanted to do that.

John: So they’d watch a video and then you had a quiz at the beginning of the class or was it before the class started?

Viji: The way I implemented it, and there’s lots of different ways people have this piece, how they would structure that requirement, but I wanted it to be done. And so I wanted students to have shown me that they’ve done it through a quiz at the start of class. It helps keep them accountable for doing the work. And I do a fairly good job of what we call, it’s like “the warm demander.” I’m the warm demander in the classroom, and I do a pretty good job of coaching them and asking them to do this work so that we can do hard things together in class, making the argument that it’s the most efficient way we can be together, when we’re together. And then there’s peer pressure, right? Like if they’re the only one, they look around, and everybody else came to class prepared. We’ve all been in meetings where we didn’t do our homework, whatever the homework was. So, if you build this culture, I think people really do take to it and they do learn that it is efficient. And more importantly, like in Kelly’s class, they see results, they do better on an exam because they’ve kept up with it all along. So, that’s when you know, the proof is in the pudding, when they see things that they’re pleased with and they keep going with it.

Kelly: Yeah, and that’s an important point Viji just made… that these kinds of techniques help all students, they disproportionately benefit some students, which makes a difference in terms of equity, but they definitely help all students. My own experience with structure is one that Viji alluded to with the flipped classroom, which is another way of thinking about the learning cycle, that students need to be required to do things before, during, and after class. And that adds a very high structure to what we would consider the learning cycle. So, if I ask students to do some reading before class, I don’t assume that all students know what to take away from a reading. And so for this, I give students guided reading questions and it helps them know where I’m coming from and what they should focus on, and what they might want to use as a study guide. And it helps replace the lecture so that I’m not going to talk to them the whole time that we’re together. When we are together, I want to use the time for collaboration and a variety of things. And so, I also don’t assume that students know what to take away from that. And so I provide class outlines, to make sure that, whether a student has learning differences, is multilingual, distracted, whatever, that all students leave with some basic outlines from class. So, already you’re starting to see how the structure can help all kinds of students. And then in class, I added a lot more active learning, and it quickly became apparent to me that, if I don’t put the instructions in multiple modes, so verbal and visual, that students were not going to be with me, and we were going to waste a lot of time with instruction. So, it’s something I think we don’t think about a lot. Like, if we want them to do something, then we have to be very clear about that, whether it’s in an assignment, a breakout group online, or active learning together in a classroom, providing more silence time for thinking. And then, for me, a lot of it has come down more recently to group work and equity around group work. And I kept thinking to myself, how do I add more structure to the group work because students were telling me if I just said, turn and talk to a neighbor, that certain students always were left out or they were with friends and they weren’t being pushed to really do the learning and feel the rigor of what they were being asked to do because the friends would just sort of agree and then chitchat, And so I thought about structuring groups, assigning groups, and giving people in the groups, roles. So, all of these are just different ways to think about how do I bring more structure to my classroom for all students. And it’s not going to hurt the students that already know how to take notes. And it’s not going to hurt students who know how to take notes on outlines, and all of that, but for the ones that need that, it’s going to really level the playing field for them.

Viji: Yeah. And I’d add to the idea that the technology can help us here. We have a lot of good platforms, not a single one that would do everything, but we have good platforms that help us accomplish these goals. And I’ll give the classroom response system, or polling, the example that I use… that’s something that’s something that I was using, even before I redesigned the course… and the reason I loved it so much was because I could hear from every student in a classroom, right? I didn’t have to wonder if it was just the brave one who raised their hand who understood it and looked and scanned and tried to make sense of the confusion of the faces, right? There’s no ambiguity. If I know that 97% of the people got the question right, then we can move on. That’s a pretty good response. So, thinking through what technology exists to help us help all students is really important in this work.

Kelly: I’m currently really enjoying… in our learning management system,there’s something called lesson tools. And it’s a way to build each lesson for students. And it’s such an easy way to think about building something before, during and after. And I feel like a lot of people are starting to realize that building an online class just requires so much more structure that, as that translates back into the face-to-face classroom, that structure will be built. Yes, it takes a lot of time and effort to build it, but once it’s there, you’ve got all these online homeworks and resources and videos. We’re going to have a lot more ways to say to students, you can learn this this way, or this way, or this way. And that is the basis of universal design, something I think we should all strive to do. But, we know it takes time and effort to get all those resources together.

Rebecca: These are a lot of things that are very dear to my heart too… really thinking about flexibility and making sure that we can engage students in a lot of different ways.

Viji: There are many things about this emergency transition, the change to remote instruction that I think we’re all learning that that flexibility, and the structure, is really important. And sometimes people think that they are at odds with one another, but they’re really not… that we need to think about multiple ways to have assignments be late, for example, because things are happening in life. I think for far too long. we’ve ignored the differences that our students come to the classroom with, and now it’s in our face when we see that a student doesn’t have a good internet connection, for example. So, those differences are becoming very clear in this transition. And, like Kelly, I’m optimistic that many of the things we’re designing and learning will stick beyond this transition, because we are building things that will last… hopefully they’ll last in the courses… the notes you make, the videos you make, these are all things that can be helpful to students in the future as well.

John: That was something we emphasized with our workshops for helping people prepare for the fall back at the beginning of the summer, telling them that “Yeah, this is going to be a lot more work preparing your course then many of you have ever done before, but the people who already were teaching online really didn’t have many problems because they had a lot of the things built. And if you do this, even if this pandemic is gone in a year or so, everything you’ve created can still be used as long as you create them in ways that are modular and that can be adopted for continued use in the future. I think that helped convince a lot of people that it was a good time to start devoting to those activities, because it wasn’t just for a one or two semester emergency, but it was going to be a change that could actually improve their classes indefinitely. At least, that’s what we tried to convince people… there are a lot of really panicked and worried people.

Viji: It’s an investment. It’s a heavy investment, in a short amount of time, in a very panicked way. And we’re sympathetic to my colleagues who are doing this while also caregiving and that there’s a lot… it’s not just life as normal, that we’re asking a lot of a lot of people in a short amount of time.

Kelly: And I like your use of the word modular because for me, that’s really key. I build everything by lesson objective. So, it might only take me 10 minutes to make a video, so I can pop in and out of my life, I don’t have to worry about creating this awesome video with no outtakes, right? …it’s just much quicker. And then students can also say, “Okay, I see I have six videos to watch today, but they’re all five or 10 minutes, I’ll do three now, I’ll do three later. So, I do think it fits nicely with the time we’re in, but it also helps alignment across the course, too, for students to know exactly what they need to do, and then use those modules as the basis for your assessment.

Rebecca: I agree, Kelly, I’ve been spending a lot of time making sure that the modules that I’m creating can actually act as standalone things and don’t connect [LAUGHTER] between them, so that I could mix and match them in the future, because there’s some things that, in a virtual environment, I’m doing in an order that I might do differently if we were in person. And so, I think that’s ending up working really well. I’m having to articulate what I want to articulate really concretely about a particular subject and break it down into smaller pieces. And I think you’re right that that structure is going to stick later on. I’m going to keep doing that in the future and it’s definitely causing me to think about things differently. We’ve talked a bit about the structure of classes and ways that we can be more equitable and inclusive. But what about the way that we evaluate student work and grade student work?

Kelly: One thing that we often talk about in the workshops we do at a lot of institutions is we think about the growth mindset. And the idea that it takes practice to get good at something. And we like to share with students that it takes practice for us and mistakes are part of learning and we hope all educators buy into that. But then when you ask educators, where in your syllabus in your grading policies is the growth mindset. We’ve seen so many faculty just scratch their heads and say like, “You’re right.” This is a philosophy I believe in, but it’s not built into what I actually do. Because we have hard deadlines. We count everything a zero if it’s not there. And so, Viji and I have some ways that we’ve done it, and we’re always trying to think how much more can we put into our grading and our policies that really account for that growth mindset. So, for me, an example is I allow students to drop their lowest exam. And with first-year students in a STEM course, many of them don’t do well on their first exam. And it helped me think about, “Oh, let me give them an earlier failure. Let me give them a hard quiz earlier on so it doesn’t hurt them a lot.” But, allowing them to drop an exam gives them the sense that “Okay, I didn’t do well, but I don’t have to leave the major.” And honestly, students think that… they get one low grade, and they think they’re done with that entire discipline. So, that’s one way I’ve dealt with that growth mindset.

Viji: Yeah. And that point that Kelly made about leaving the major… to some faculty, that might sound ridiculous, like we’ve certainly been knocked down a few times and picked ourselves up. But, there are some students for whom they’ve been told their whole lives, they don’t fit. And if you get that early piece of feedback that, indeed, you don’t fit, and that’s the way they interpret it. It doesn’t mean that that’s what’s actually happening. What’s actually happening is they’ve made a mistake in terms of their preparation, or maybe they didn’t have the right types of study strategies, whatever it is, but we want to convey in our courses that you can recover from that early mistake by using the right approaches. Let’s sit together and talk about what you did do and what we might do better next time around. And so having this grading structure where you drop a grade… In my course, I have a cumulative final in statistics… it’s easy to have a cumulative final, everything sort of builds on one another in terms of content. And I say that if you do better on the final, it can replace one of the earlier exam grades. So again, it builds that opportunity for being able to understand the material at some point, it’s okay, if you don’t get it by the exam date one or exam date two, we’ll get there and it’s not a race. It’s not about getting there at a certain time. It might not even happen this semester, it might take several semesters of chipping away at a certain topic, but that you give them a little bit of grace in terms of the timeline with which they might understand that material. And then again, like does it really have to be a zero if you don’t turn something in versus a 60 or 70 or 80? Right? The mathematical average of that is terrible. So, let’s think about ways in which we can assign grading such that a single late assignment doesn’t harm you greatly or a single low grade doesn’t harm you greatly and bake that into the grading scheme of our courses.

Kelly: And on a bigger scale, when we say we look out into the conferences of our disciplines, or we ask where’s the diversity in our own disciplines, it comes back to these little decisions. This is anti-racist teaching, when you think about these things. By having really hard first exams, that’s a barrier that excludes people, and if we really want diversity in our disciplines, these are the little decisions that we make that are really powerful in terms of the effect and impact they have on students.

Viji: Yeah, we’ve all heard that “Look to your left, look to your right. Some of you will not make it” and then we say as educators “Well, that’s terrible. Why would somebody say that?” But, then you look at our syllabus construction, and really, it’s just a different version of that kind of statement.

John: And I think another thing you advocate is keeping most of your assessments low stake so that way any one thing they may not do well on… besides dropping the lowest grade from a set, just keeping pretty much everything low stakes could also take some of the pressure off and reduce some of that effect.

Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. That’s another great strategy.

John: What are some of the things that faculty do in class that makes class discussions less inclusive? And what can we do to make these discussions more inclusive?

Kelly: Now this is a question near and dear to our heart because Viji and I are often at meetings together and either quietly texting each other or giving each other a look. And we know each other well enough to give a look and know exactly what it means. And a lot of meetings we’re in are just not inclusive. If you’re not the person that’s just going to raise your hand and say something potentially controversial in a room full of ranks and hierarchy. Our students feel that way too. Whether it’s actually ranks and hierarchy, there are lots of reasons why a student doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up. And so a great way to do this is to take the volunteer aspect out of it in a large classroom and put them into smaller cohorts. And many students are very comfortable talking to each other in small groups, verifying their ideas, building their confidence that what they are thinking has merit, is a great way to start building community and to have students start feeling comfortable. And once they’ve gotten that affirmation in a small group, more people are willing to represent what their group said. So like, for instance, I never call on an individual student… cold call and say, “What do you think?” I always give them a chance to talk first. And then I say, “Okay, group number 63, it looks like your numbers up, what is your group talking about? Fill me in.” And so I’m hearing a diversity of voices, but I’m also trying to make the environment a safe place where people can build their own communities as well as contribute to the larger community.

John: And people would feel more comfortable when they’re representing the group discussion than presenting their own. So that takes a lot of the pressure off, I think,

Kelly: Yeah.

Viji: Yeah, no one wants to be wrong, and especially in front of the professor and their peers, right? So, they’re simply reporting for the group and that’s the group’s discussion. And as skilled educators we all know how to turn a wrong answer into a learning opportunity in a classroom, but it still doesn’t take the sting away for that person who feels like they may not speak up again because of it. So, anything we can do to make it feel comfortable to be incorrect, because it’s still a learning opportunity or to say, “Well, that’s a common misperception. Let’s break that down a little bit and talk about it some more.” Those kinds of things really go a long way to building the confidence of the student. I remember one student, in particular, who wrote me just such a kind note at the end of the semester talking about how this is a common refrain in my course… they have not been looking forward to taking a statistics class… Shockingly, there’s not a lot of people who say that they are looking forward to it… But, in this case, she wrote to say, beyond any sort of content lessons I provided, what I provided to her was the opportunity to understand that she was right a lot of times in her group discussions, even though her peers tried to convince her she was wrong. And she began to doubt herself. And she’d pull in her answer because the group had a different answer, and then she realized originally she was right. So, she built confidence, but she also learned that she really knew what she was doing and she didn’t understand that about herself and she had more conviction after she left that course to be more forthright about her opinions in other settings. So, these are the kinds of things we can do when we add structure for giving people a chance to reflect on who they are as a learner and who they are as a person and how they can contribute in their groups and in society.

Kelly: I’d also like to add that we don’t have to have people speak up to be part of a community, that there are lots of other ways to contribute and writing, and using anonymous polling systems, these are all such great tools, and they’re the ones I certainly would have gravitated to as a student, had I ever been given the opportunity. I spent four years as an engaged high achieving student in college and never once raised my hand to participate, it just wasn’t what I was going to do.

John: Yeah, and polling gives people the same instant feedback, so they know whether they were right or wrong, but from a class’ perspective, it feels anonymous, that they’re not putting themselves out there where they risk the embarrassment of appearing to be wrong.

Rebecca: One of the things that I have certainly seen a lot of conversation about currently on Twitter, and I know that you’ve both engaged in these conversations about, is how to community build at the beginning of a class, especially in virtual environment where you have that really awkward online silence, and nobody really knows what to do with. [LAUGHTER] And you’ve offered some interesting ideas, would you mind sharing some of those?

Viji: When we are used to teaching in a classroom space like, in the same building together, I hesitate to say in person, because we’re still in person in this environment. But, when we’re together in a classroom, there’s a buzz that is at the beginning of the class time, right? …so that people are chatting with their neighbors; it feels like a warm environment, oftentimes, when you walk into it, at least the classroom where the conditions are right. You feel a warmth when you come in, that you’re going to be learning, and when you’re online, it’s really hard to simulate that kind of buzz because of the nature of the tool. So, thinking about ways you can have that kind of chitchat is really helpful. So, I use polling in this environment, as well, right? I can have a question posed on the screen and students can respond to that question either in the chat window or through Poll Everywhere. I like using Poll Everywhere because I use it anyway. The downside to using chat in some platforms is if you join late, you don’t see the previous responses. So, if you could use something where students can scroll through and see their peers responses, that’s a nice way to kind of get warmed up for the class session. It might be something about, you know, what they’re grateful for today. Or maybe they could tell you a little bit about something that they ate recently that they really enjoyed. But, just getting some small talk in before having something in place that gives a little structure. I’ve heard people talk about playing music, just any small ways you can to try to bring some sense of community in those moments before class start, I think is really helpful.

Kelly: And I would agree, Viji started teaching in the spring online with some synchronous sessions. I was doing asynchronous, so she told me to do it. I did it, and it works. It’s a nice anonymous way to have that chit chat too without owning it in the chat box. I’ve used it selfishly this semester already to find out how students are doing, if there’s something I could do better for them, just taking the pulse. So, a bit of a survey question as well. My daughter is in high school. She just started high school and, of course, it’s online high school. And I keep asking her, “Did you get into your session on time?” And she goes, “No.” And I said, “Why? Why not? [LAUGHTER]She goes, “Well, I want to be a little bit late.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to be the first one there.” She’s so afraid of like, how awkward it is that she can see on the platform there on how many people are there. [LAUGHTER] And at some number, that’s when she jumps in.

John: As long as everyone doesn’t do that, then we’d have a bit of a coordination failure. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I don’t know, as a faculty member, I don’t want to be the first one there in an awkward silence either. [LAUGHTER]

Viji: But, that’s just the point. It doesn’t have to be awkward. Why not just design it so it’s less awkward? We all know it. We all go into these things. And we’re like, “Oh, it’s another one of those starts to the meeting,” right? But let’s just make it so that we have something that we respond to, that we see on the screen, everybody can see it. It’s also awkward, I think, when you walk into a meeting, and they’ve started, and they’re talking about something, but you have no idea what they’re talking about or how to jump into that conversation. So, having a prompt on the screen is one way where everyone, even those who come late, can still see what the conversation is about.

Rebecca: I’ve had a couple of colleagues who are also using whiteboard features in video conferencing software to have like a doodle board where people can collaborate or Doodle… we teach art classes… doodle on the board, and collaborate as a way to silently do something together. That seems to be pretty effective as well.

Viji: Yeah, I love that idea.

Kelly: That’s a great idea. I’m gonna do that next time. Thank you.

John: In the chapter that you wrote for Teaching Statistics and Quantitative Methods in the 21st Century, you mentioned using polling tools to provide challenging questions to students. Do you do that in a single-stage process? Or do you have students vote first and then discuss it in smaller groups or with pairs before voting again?

Viji: That’s a great question. A lot of it has been through trial and error, understanding what was a hard question and then breaking it down to something that’s a little bit simpler. So, if it’s a multi-step problem, I’ve learned to scaffold the problem through multiple polls and then get them to the right answer. It’s very helpful in quantitative work because people do work at different pace. And so this can level that playing field by getting everybody at the same stage of the problem through the scaffolded polls. But, there are some polls that I know really work very well as a “Give me your thoughts first.” And then let’s do it now where we talk to one another, we do a bit of peer instruction, and then we re-poll. And I love showing them the results from round one to round two… I call them round…, because then I say to them, “See, you don’t actually need me here.” But the truth is they do. They need me to pose the question, they need to get in there and tease out the problem that I know that they’re going to have challenge with, but they can do the work of teaching each other the material and getting through the problem together, and on the whole getting it right. So, those are fun ones for me, because it’s also about building community and they love it. They know that like my goal for every poll is that 100% of them get it right. And so that’s another way I convey that it’s important to me that all students learn the material

John: If we’re teaching remotely, synchronously what can we do besides meeting with them at the beginning of class and just chatting with them and maybe at the end of class, what else can we do to make that environment more inclusive?

Kelly: Well, one of the things I love about this environment is everybody’s name is up on the screen, which helps me a lot as an instructor, but it helps them know each other, too. So, it can be community building. And it’s a great way for people who have names that are difficult to pronounce to put a phonetic spelling, to ask people if they would like to add a pronoun there. I think these are advantages that we just haven’t figured out quite as easily in the face-to-face classroom. I use note cards in my class for the same reason. But, I can’t tell you how many times they either refuse to take them out or forget them. So, it’s never the hundred percent I get on a Zoom screen with names. But, one thing I’ve noticed people talk about often is the back channel. So, having the chat going, and it seems to be universal that people are feeling already a little bit sad about when we lose chat, when we go back to the face to face or in the same room environment that there’s a lot of good discussion that happens in that backchannel. And I know people do use backchannels in classroom spaces too. That’s one aspect of this environment that’s unique and helps bring more voices to the table. I think another thing that is worth mentioning is, I would hope people are using their live sessions for doing those difficult things together and not talking at students because that could be better served with a video. I’m sure we all find ourselves explaining and talking at times. So, I think one thing we could do is to help our students is to say you don’t need your camera on right now, although I’d love to see you and it helps us build community, this could be a time when you could turn your camera off. I also have invited my students to use virtual backgrounds, because when I’m teaching, I’m in my bedroom, and I think it’s odd to see your professors’ bedroom, so I use one, but I think it’s a nice talking point too. If students feel more comfortable, if they are going to share their camera, then maybe they don’t want to share their surroundings. So, just not just assuming students all know that, to be very explicit and say to students, “Here are all the different ways that you can access this course. You don’t have to turn your camera on, but here are the ways that I think I would love to see you engage.”

Rebecca: You’ve both written a bit about the hidden agenda, or the hidden curriculum, of using these kinds of tools and technologies, and you have a Student Guide for using Zoom. And I took all of that to heart too, and made sure that I made some videos about the different kinds of tools we were using this semester, and actually built in the whole first week of just like, this is how we do the things. And like, let’s try them. [LAUGHTER] And then there were some ways that I was planning on using some tools, and we’ve actually already pivoted, because it didn’t quite work the way that I had hoped. And now we have something that’s working a little bit better for everyone. So, I think that’s also an important piece to point out. Can you point out some of the features maybe of the guide that you created for students?

Viji: Yeah, I mean, what you’re talking about is what we’ve been talking, about adding structure to these tools, right? So, just because it’s in front of them doesn’t mean that they know how to use it. We all saw a car before we knew how to drive, that doesn’t mean we knew how to drive it. And everybody thinks it’s very intuitive, but again, what do you do when you start a meeting? Do you turn your camera on or off? Do you mute… on or off? What does it look like to say goodbye in a Zoom meeting? There are certain things like that, that I, at least when, as Kelly mentioned, I switched to synchronously meeting because we were doing all these problem-solving sessions. I wanted to keep that as what our synchronous meetings were. And I was anticipating that some students would have questions like that. This actually started with somebody tweeting about having a dress code for showing up to a Zoom session, and I just thought, are you kidding? There’s a pandemic going on, and you’re thinking about what the student is going to wear to come to class, when they’ve been moved out of their dorm, sent home, barely have internet, there were so many things where I thought I just need to let them know that that is not on my mind. I don’t care. I’m just grateful that you’re alive and you’re continuing to learn. So, those are examples of things that I wanted to think through and Kelly helped me think through like, “What kind of questions will come up?” …and we brainstormed ways that we could just communicate it in ways that students, hopefully they find them to be just the synched answers to questions that they might be wondering and not sure how to ask or if it’s appropriate to ask and what to wear was one of those things.

Kelly: And that’s a good example of the shared brain we have some times, because I called Viji one night and I said, “You know, we should write something up about being more inclusive with Zoom.” And she goes, “I was just writing a guide for my students.” And so we just quickly put it together and had a lot of the same ideas around that. Coming back to the idea of the hidden curriculum, I think that same idea where a lot of us are new to using Zoom and these different tools, that we remember how hard it was to get on and what the rules of it were. And they’re constantly changing, the settings and all of that. So it might seem obvious to make a guide for your students about how to use Zoom. But, what are the other aspects in our teaching that we take for granted? We’re such experts, and we’re so comfortable with the college classroom, I think we always have to be asking ourselves. “What other guides should we be writing that seems so obvious to us?” We forget that we’ve been here a long time and we don’t want students to feel like there’s this culture they don’t know about.

John: I actually put a note in my syllabus telling students that while they’re invited to use their cameras, they’re not required to. and if they’d prefer, they could put up a picture of themselves or of their pet or of anything that they’d like to use as a symbol for that day, because it probably would look nicer to see images of people than those just little black boxes on the screen. And they responded pretty positively to that. I did send out a note to our faculty before classes started this semester suggesting that faculty should invite students to use cameras ift they felt comfortable, but should not require it. And the response was not quite as positive. A lot of faculty seem to believe that they need to see their students to make sure that they’re there, to make sure that they’re engaged, and to look into their eyes to measure whether they’re learning, [LAUGHTER] because apparently their eyes provide secret signals to some faculty about the amount of learning that’s taking place. It generated a lot of emails,

Viji: They have some tools that I don’t even know about. I didn’t know there was such a tool that I could use,

John: it does suggest perhaps the need for more inclusivity training for faculty.

Rebecca: I had one last question about Zoom environments and things and that’s about microaggressions. We know that we need to shut them down when they occur, but I think that faculty, if they’re not used to being in a virtual environment, whether an asynchronous online chat or discussion board, or in a Zoom session, figuring out ways of handling situations just seems different. Do you have any advice for how to handle those kinds of situations in those different types of environments?

Kelly: Well, I think you hit on it already. One thing that’s common in all of these environments is don’t ignore them. Right? If it’s asynchronous, then like, say something was put on a discussion board. I personally would feel like ‘Oh, phew, I have a minute to think about this without everybody staring at me.” Right? And so each case is going to be a little bit different in terms of how you deal with it. You also can’t pull aside the people after class who may have been impacted by that. So, we have to remember, whatever we do to deal with it, should also include really reaching out and being mindful of who those students are that might have been impacted. I would say live online is probably not that different from in a classroom. because we have to do something at that moment. And that could be saying like, “Let’s take a pause, let’s stop.” My instincts and teaching are always to turn it into a teachable moment and to turn it back on them and say like, “This is what just happened. Can we all take a moment to maybe reflect? to put into writing the impact this could have on a student?” You know, something where I personally just need a moment to think, and I’m not going to be embarrassed about that, and I think that my students will come up with a lot of things I wouldn’t have come up with in a very eloquent way of dealing with it.

Viji: Yeah. And I think the only thing I’d add to that is it feels scarier in this online environment, because oftentimes, we are recording sessions. People can snapshot even though we might set good intentions with our students about what they can and can’t share with an outside community, we can’t control it entirely. And so it can feel even scarier, I think, to feel like there’s some level of posterity around that moment or your reaction to that moment. So, I think, if anything, I mean, we’ve had a lot of discussions in the world about different kinds of discrimination and all aspects of life that are harder for some students… not ignoring it is definitely the first step. I think there’s even the step before that, which is, I might not recognize it. So, how can I support you as learners. And as peers, if you see something, I’d like to know what it is, even if I am the one who’s doing it. I want to know because I want to do better. So, really being open to that kind of criticism from students or just acknowledging that you’re a human being like all other human beings, and you’ll make mistakes and inviting them to help you become a better person by suggesting that this is going to happen. It’s inevitable that something like this will happen, but we should be models of how to deal with that situation and be productive in our conversations about it and to move forward on it, right? We don’t want to shame anybody for doing something that might not have been their intent, but the impact is no less to the people who have experienced that microaggression. So, really thinking through and planning for it happening and talking about what you’d like to do as a community of learners. But yeah, as Kelly mentioned, if it’s asynchronous, you’ve got a moment, you can gather yourself, you could talk to your peers and say, “Hey, this happened, what do you think is the best approach?” But, if it’s not asynchronous, I think it’s fine to just say, “Hey, let’s hang on a second, I need a moment to just think about what happened here, and how we might respond to it.” And it might be, we might need to come back to this at the next class session, and give yourself that time to think through it. But, I think even the students who may have felt slighted by it will appreciate that you hit pause for a second, and you’re willing to work through it and that you trust them to make the right decisions moving forward to learn from it. And I think going on what Viji said about maybe a little bit of prevention, some practical ways you can invite that feedback in an anonymous way is to use a Google form that is always open. You can set it up so that you get an email if there’s something there and students can report on anything relative to the class, but especially microaggressions that you may have performed without knowing or classmates, if they’re doing group work, you certainly can’t monitor everything, you’re not in all of those spaces. And then coming all the way back to setting up group contracts and respect and civility in whatever kind of mode and classroom you have that semester. Hopefully, you get to a place where you’re preventing some of these things, but also recognizing that they will happen.

John: You both have a book coming out from West Virginia University Press. Could you tell us a little bit about what the book will be about and when will it be available?

Kelly: Well, the book is definitely about inclusive teaching. And spoiler alert, it is definitely about structure. [LAUGHTER] And we really walk through course design, facilitation, but we’re also really thinking about all aspects of a course. So, whether it be office hours or communicating with students or bringing in undergraduate learning assistants, whatever parts of a course that enhance learning, we really want to think about structure in all of those areas.

Viji: Yeah, and one of the challenges we faced is we’ve both read a lot about good teaching, right? So, a lot of these practices are good teaching, but we wanted to apply the lens of how it promotes inclusive teaching through this book, so that, ideally, the reader would then be able to take some of these themes and see them and apply them in other areas that we didn’t explicitly talk about. So, just a way to view the world as you’re teaching and thinking about how to add more structure, and the idea that if we leave things to chance that some students will be left behind, and that’s really not acceptable.

Kelly: As far as the timeline, we’re not sure. Our first draft is in, snd that’s all we can say.

John: Excellent. So. that’s a fair amount of progress, because you just signed it not too long ago, if I remember seeing it on Twitter.

Kelly: Yeah, it was fun to write together. We definitely get in a groove with writing some sentences together. And then sometimes it was just you write this, I’ll write this, and we’ll swap. But, it’s certainly a way of knowing someone pretty deeply when you write a lot together.

Viji: Yeah. And we often talk about the benefits of diversity, right? And so doing these projects of writing, but also, when we do our workshops, we speak a lot. And when we come up with ideas about what we might do, it’s always great to be able to bounce ideas off of each other and to say, “But what if we tried this” and “we did this” and well, you get that second person really reflecting on some of the ideas, and it’s really helpful to be able to do that and you get a better product, quite frankly. No matter what it is, it’s better when more people can critique it and give you feedback about it.

Rebecca: And we’re all going to benefit from that collaboration because we’re all looking forward to your book.

Kelly: Thank you.

Viji: Thank you.

Rebecca: So, we always wrap up by asking what’s next? So, we teased you [LAUGHTER] You already said about your books. Now you have to come up with something else.

Viji: You mean what’s my next beverage after I finished this LaCroix, or…

John: It could be.

Rebecca: It could be whatever, yeah… I’m gonna go take a nap, whatever it is…

Viji: Well, literally what’s next is I’m going to get out of my seat because I’ve been in it for a long time and I’m probably going to take a walk with my son who’s home, this his home day. He is learning from home today, and then I’m sure I’ll sit back down at the computer and answer some emails and, I feel like these days, it’s one day at a time and eventually I’ll get to the point where I can look a few months ahead. But, for right now, it’s one day at a time.

Kelly: For me, I guess I’ll take a much broader view, and an optimistic point of view, that I think what’s next is, once we get through this crisis, that teaching and the way we educate our students, I think, is going to come out better for what we’ve been through, because I see people doing the best they can in this environment, but really paying attention to how learning works. And I think our students will be winners in the long run in that, however we come out of this.

John: Thank you. It’s wonderful talking to you. Thank you for all the work you’ve been doing in supporting instructors all over the world for quite a while now. We’ve appreciated it and we share a lot of the things that you’ve done with our faculty.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much. It was really wonderful hearing from all of you.

Viji: Thank you.

Kelly: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

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

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

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152. Motherhood, Poetry, and Academia

Pursuing degrees and careers without role models can be challenging, no matter what the discipline. In this episode, Camille Dungy, an academic,  mother, and poet, shares her journey as a learner, teacher, and writer.

Camille is a professor in the English Department at Colorado State University, and the author of Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. She is the author of four collections of poetry for which she has received many, many awards, including the Colorado Book Award, and the American Book Award. Her poems have been published in dozens of anthologies, many of which begin with the word “best” in the title. Camille is a recipient of a 2019  Guggenheim Fellowship, and many other awards and fellowships.

Show Notes

  • Camille Dungy
  • Dungy, C. T. (2017). Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History. WW Norton & Company.
  • Dungy, C. T. (2017). Trophic Cascade. Wesleyan University Press.
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1816). Kubla Khan. (written in 1797)
  • Baldwin, J. (2013). The fire next time. Vintage.
  • Ta-Nehisi, C. (2015). Between the world and me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
  • Joan Didion
  • Dungy, Camille (2020). This’ll hurt me more.
  • Macdonald, H. (2014). H is for Hawk. Random House.
  • Duke Lemur Center
  • Ruth Ellen Kocher
  • Cave Canem

Transcript

John: Pursuing degrees and careers without role models can be challenging, no matter what the discipline. In this episode, an academic, mother, and poet shares her journey as a learner, teacher, and writer.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare , a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Camille Dungy. Camille is a professor in the English Department at Colorado State University, and the author of Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. She is the author of four collections of poetry for which she has received many, many awards, including the Colorado Book Award, and the American Book Award. Her poems have been published in dozens of anthologies, many of which begin with the word “best” in the title. Camille is a recipient of a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, and many other awards and fellowships. We’ve also worked together back at Duke when we were teaching in the TIP program for a number of years in North Carolina. Welcome, Camille.

Camille: And it’s great to be here. Hello.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Camille: It’s summertime, so I make this big concoction that I turned into an iced tea with all kinds of herbs and flowers and roots and things like that. It probably has way too many healing properties and so it goes over to being stimulating and exciting.

Rebecca: Sounds good. [LAUGHTER] It sounds exactly like what we need right now.

John: And you did talk in your book about enjoying tea rather than coffee. So, it was nice to see that as well.

Rebecca: Clearly a good reason to be a guest.

Camille: Absolutely. I am a firm believer in the power of tea.

Rebecca: How about you, John?

John: I am drinking Tea Forte Blackcurrant tea.

Rebecca: Ah, an old favorite, huh? [LAUGHTER]

John: Yes.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking Irish breakfast tea today.

John: So we’ve invited you here to talk about Guidebook to Relative Strangers and about some of the challenges we’re facing during these really challenging times. Could you tell us a little bit about your decision to transition into nonfiction for this work?

Camille: Absolutely. I’m not entirely sure that transition is the best word because I published a book of poetry within months of publishing Guidebook to Relative Strangers. So, branching might be a more accurate phrase for what it is that I was doing, or am doing when I’m writing prose; it’s just a branch of the writing process. But prose allows different kinds of depths of inquiry, it allows me to kind of stick with something for 20 pages in a way that I haven’t figured out how to do in a poem. And, in all honesty, when I was writing many of the essays in Guidebook to Relative Strangers, my daughter was very, very young, and I was trained in what I call the person from Porlock School, which is a kind of play on the Coleridge poem, Kubla Khan, where he goes into this deep reverie and he’s in this trance-like state and he writes this beautiful poem, and then the person from Porlock knocks on the door to sell him something, and it interferes with his reverie and he’s never able to return to that poem again. But, when you have a small child, you have a person from Porlock knocking on your door every five minutes, [LAUGHTER] and I needed to figure out a way I could keep writing, even through all of those interruptions and shifts and changes. And it turns out but for me writing prose, I can walk away in the middle of a word, come back some hours, days, even months later and pick up where I left off. And so it became a mode where I could stay and continue to write even as I was figuring out how to adjust my life around this new human.

John: I think Rebecca can relate to that very well right now.

Rebecca: Yeah, I was just thinking, yes, I have been transitioning and doing some other kinds of creative work currently, with the shifts and what have you of having a small child, for sure.

Camille: Absolutely.

John: Rebecca and I recently completed a faculty reading group this summer that included James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. These were both written to pass information from one generation to the next to help prepare for survival in a world characterized by systemic racism. Guidebook seems, in some ways, to be a similar message from you to your daughter. Did these authors perhaps influence work?

Camille: Baldwin is actually writing to his nephew. And that seems also important in this idea of the expanded view of who our children can be that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a child that was birthed from your loins, as it were. And in the case of influences, Baldwin always and absolutely fundamentally is one of the major writers in the English language, in my opinion. He’s just a fantastic writer. And so is always an influence and a guide and an ambition [LAUGHTER] to be able to write as saliently and sagely and attentively about person and culture and identity and community and self as Baldwin was able to write. Coates’ Between the World and Me came out well into my writing process. In fact, I think I was probably already at press by the time that that book came out. So, I’ve read it, but I don’t consider it to be an influence. You know, we’re roughly peers, I think Coates and I in terms of age and such. And so there are many similarities, I think in our perspective on what it means to be Black in America today. And having both claimed Baldwin, to different degrees and in different ways, that it becomes unsurprising thst there’s that kind of reflection. I would say that another influence of mine was, and this is more closely to having to do with being from California and being a mother would be Joan Didion. And there’s a lot of the work of Joan Didion, the way that she works as a journalist and a reporter and talks about history and enfolds history and historical commentary within a contemporary view of the world. And also the ways that she really juggled being a mother of one child, became also a model and a directive for me, as I was writing.

Rebecca: In the first chapter, you observe that Americans don’t care much about the things that concern people who aren’t like them. And when you belong, you can overlook the totality of otherness, the way that being other pervades every aspect of a person’s life. As someone who is white and had often avoided conversations of race and in trying to actively engage in them, I think you’re really capturing something that a lot of white folks experience by using words like colorblind…

Camille: um hmm

Rebecca: …and put out into the world. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Camille: Well, I mean, I can talk about it from my perspective, I actually don’t fully understand the need for that level of erasure. But, one version of it has to do with white supremacy, which we do understand. It’s this kind of power drive to dominate and eliminate the importance of others. But, I don’t think that that’s the drive that you’re talking about, and that antagonistic view of what white supremacy means. I think what you’re talking about has more to do with ease and creating a sort of placid world where everything seems simple and direct and understandable and never uncomfortable, and the moment you begin to engage identity in a way that brings in history and oppression and marginalization and isolation and any of those things, the dinner party gets uncomfortable, [LAUGHTER] and the conversation gets uncomfortable. And that is frustrating to people who are trying to make a sort of placid world. And it’s easier then to just pretend as if everybody is the same, and there’s no differences, and there’s no frustrations and there’s no systemic roots of violence and a separation and suppression…. which is easier for some people, obviously, than others [LAUGHTER] to believe and to carry on that charade. And so I feel like when I’m navigating, I’m very, very frequently navigating primarily white environments. I’m always sort of threading that needle of people wanting to be comfortable and have everything be nice and easy, and I’m sort of raising my hand and saying, “Hey, here I am in the room with all these realities that may or may not frustrate your attempts at that kind of simplicity.”

John: Could some of that be because the beneficiaries of privilege might find it easier not to contemplate that and to just wipe that whole issue aside?

Camille: Absolutely. It’s a lot simpler to wipe that whole issue aside. It’s a lot simpler not to interrogate your own complicity in institutions of systemic oppression. It’s a lot easier to see yourself as the nice person who’s having this dinner party and is inviting all these people into your home, then to understand the history of redlining that meant that you and many generations of your family were able to have homes in this neighborhood, whereas mine was only able legally to start living there in the 1970s. So, those kinds of conversations get really, really quickly uncomfortable for people, and so it seems easier to not have them. I don’t believe in that ease. I don’t believe that that ease is productive in any way towards moving us forward. But, I do think that right now, what we’re seeing in this country is that tension between the ambitions and dreams of our founding fathers and the omissions of who were included in those dreams, and what it means that those dreams were really always only written for a very small margin of people. And we’ve been pushing and pushing through the centuries to create a more inclusive reality. And as we do that, we really have to look at the history and understand what it is. And so a lot of my writing does that. I’m writing about the now. I’m writing about my own life and my own family and my own experience, and I cannot do that without then circling back to the historical precedents that got us here.

John: You describe a story that your maternal grandmother told you about why your great grandfather left Shreveport. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about that to help put this in perspective?

Camille: This story is really interesting, and as I told it in the essay, it’s a little bit confusing because, I don’t know where my grandmother was in this story. At best, she was an infant, my great-grandmother might well have been pregnant with her at the time. She tells the story as if she was there, but it’s difficult to understand, with the dates as we understand them, how that knowledge would have been there. And so this becomes one of these examples, like it’s impossible for my family to retell this story without really kind of being bodily involved in it, even though it may have happened before those people who I am familiar with were ever actually alive. The story is that my great-grandfather had a thriving metalworking business, and it was so thriving as to become a threat to the white people in the community. And so, one day he arrived in his shop and found the body of a cousin who was working with him, laid out dead on the table with a note attached, telling my great-grandfather that he had to be out of town before the sun set. And so he had to get together his entire family… If my grandmother was an infant at that time, that would have been about six children, and get all of them out of that home and into a new place, in a new state, quite literally. And so that kind of threat against a man who had a thriving business and was doing really well and therefore became a problem to the established order of things, that the threat was leveled by way of a murder, right? And the threat of more murder and more damage… that danger and challenge also [LAUGHTER] lives on in my family through that story and lore. And I know it’s part of the way that my grandmother lived her life and the way that she raised my mother and the way my mother raised me. So, that was over a century ago now, and it still lives quite as in the present in my family.

Rebecca: Earlier, I was reading one of your more recently published poems, “This’ll hurt me more,” and I was thinking about how, as you were describing the nonfiction or prose version, connecting your present with the past comes up a lot in your poetry as well. Can you talk a little bit about the use of the “switch” in that poem, and how that connects to the past and present?

Camille: In that poem, it really began with me looking out my window here in Colorado and seeing this kind of lilac bush and thinking, “Oh, that looks like the kind of thing my grandmother would have told me to go out and get a switch, if she was going to spank me.” I should say here, I actually don’t ever remember my grandmother spanking me, I just remember her threatening to spank me, and that was enough… [LAUGHTER] … like sufficient. But I was always fascinated with that word “switch” and where it came from. And it was years and years before I could ask my grandmother where, and she had no answer really, it was just that it was the word that she was raised to use for some sort of thin device that you would use to spank an unruly child. And then the poem goes into a number of situations in my own life, where people are actually punished or threatened with punishment or actually die and the danger that exists in living as a black person in America, and so it all, as much of my writing does, it braids and builds and folds and there’s multiple different stories that come into one space to come to a final cohesive statement.

John: One of the things you talk about quite a bit in your work is issues of identity. In your book, you talk a little bit about the very many names you assigned your daughter when she was young, in different circumstances, while recognizing that eventually she has to choose her own identity in our teaching, should we focus a little bit more on issues of identity? A group of faculty at the college participated in a MOOC on creating inclusive classroom environments, and one of the things that was emphasized there is having students explore their identities. Could that be an effective teaching strategy?

Camille: I use it, [LAUGHTER] always in my writing, and I try to be really pretty open about how I introduce that. So, for instance, in introductions, I will quite often ask for information about what name do want us to call you? Where are you from? And that may not mean your postal address. It may be like where’s your heart from? I now have been pretty stable for this portion of my life, but when I was in graduate school and I never really felt like I was from where my mail went. And so I always want to actually hear where my students really call home. And that seems to be an important part of identity, to understand that. And another one, we often say, you know, what’s your pronoun? And there’s very direct reasons for that question. But I feel like that question also may put people who have alternative pronouns in a unnecessary spotlight, right? When there’s one person in the room who goes by an alternative pronoun, then they become the different one. And so I offer that as a possibility, and I also say that one of the reasons that we ask for your pronouns is that we don’t want to misidentify you, right? We don’t want to misgender you or call you something that you don’t respond to. And so if there are other things that we may not be able to see about you, but are important to who you are that you don’t want to be misidentified in this way, please feel free to bring that into the space here now as well. And in that space here in Colorado, for instance, we have a lot of people of Native American descent who don’t read that way visually, but it’s an important part of their identity. And that’s a space where that can come out. And what other ways that people with invisible disabilities or who are differently abled in some kinds of ways, that’s an opportunity for them to bring that forward. Like, sometimes I may be recording things, or sometimes I may be doing something that looks kind of off to the norm. And this is my time to just tell you that this is going to happen, so it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It just becomes a space where in the very beginning of class, we can just say who we are, and say how we want to be seen and how we want to be known. And in my creative writing classes, it’s become really freeing. I’ve had a number of students who then, for the rest of the semester, are able to write into that space without a whole bunch of questions and workshop about who is this and why is this because that’s already come forward. So, yeah, I just think it allows for those kinds of questions, and those kinds of openings and opportunities… allow for community to be built, in which we actually understand people for who they believe themselves to be. That seems important.

Rebecca: I think It’s interesting that you’re bringing that up in the context of creative writing and how it can be freeing. Do you find that when people are trying to hide their identity, for whatever reason, it prevents creativity or prevents them from having a voice in the way that maybe they want to?

Camille: I don’t know. I mean, so many things prevent creativity. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Indeed.

Camille: …I think just innumerable things. And so in some senses, yes, that can be something. If you were really ignoring something at the core of you, something that’s troubling you or guiding you in some way and you can’t acknowledge it and see you, it may make honest writing harder. It may make honest revision harder as well, because people might see things and you resist that. On the other hand, you know, H is for Hawk, right, which is partially about Helen MacDonald’s own story of grieving but it’s also partly about E.B. White’s, like lifelong closeted self and the ways in which that lifelong, tortured ,closeted self also helped write some of the great books of the 20th century, because he was grappling with staying closeted in those ways, and it came out in fantastic characters. So yes, in some ways, I think, for me, it is important to be open and honest and searingly truthful, but I don’t think that, necessarily, it would be on the whole right to say that you could never write good [LAUGHTER] writing if you’re not honest in that way. For me, the reason that that’s important is… I just don’t think many of us have very much time. I think we’re all just incredibly busy all the time. Now, during the time of COVID, our busyness manifests differently, but we’re still busy. And, now there just seems to be so much more laundry. I don’t understand how there’s more laundry. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I agree. It’s like, skyrocketed, right?

Camille: It just makes no sense. So, these kinds of things… and I just feel like if you’re going to give me the time to sit down with something that I’ve written and spend 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 12 hours, reading one of my books, you should be actually reading truth, right? You should be reading an honest representation of life as I see it, and know it, and understand it. And so it’s a way of my honoring your time and your care with my time, with my book, that brings me to write with sometimes frighteningly radical honesty about my own life.

Rebecca: Thinking about time moving into fall classes and things, how are you thinking about time, and helping students think about time?

Camille: I’m trying to think about how to teach in… and we’re supposed to go back, but I just don’t believe it to be true. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think it’s really going to happen. And I don’t think it should. And so I’m trying to think about my classes in a really hybrid form that allows them to write out of their own worlds and the class to be happening kind of asynchronously for some portions of it, not all on Zoom, some audio elements, so that they can hear my lectures while they’re doing their laundry, [LAUGHTER] or out taking walks or doing these kinds of things. And some of those audio lectures would have, like pauses, where they would be given writing assignments right in the middle of their lives. I think this summer, I’ve taught a couple of online courses, the community of writers, which is a week-long course with the students and faculty have to write a poem a day, every day, and one of the things that I thought was really great about it in the virtual form (they called it the Virtual Valley this year) was that the students then had to make a space in their own homes, to create this habit, and to create this practice in the place where they live. Normally you go to California, you’re in the valley, you do this thing, and then you come home, having been somewhat transformed by this experience, but how do you translate that back into your normal life? Now, they’re in their homes, they’re in their lives, they’re telling their family, this is my hours, where this is my task to do, and, hopefully, that continues into the rest of their days, right? …that they built this sacred space. And so, that’s my hope, is that I can help my students in this more hybrid form to be able to do what I’ve always been trying to teach them to do, to build a practice. John knows me way back when I used to teach at TIP. There were these things that I would do, and our old director just thought I was a hoot, because I would have to get permission to take the kids to the Lemur Center or to take them to… Remember…, what was that place called? The Rainbow Co-Op. or something. There was that weird, like Co-Op that was off campus, and some of these kids had never been to a grocery store that wasn’t a Safeway or a Kroger [LAUGHTER] or something like the giant box store. And this was like, they had like little mini bananas that were green, or red. And they had all kinds of like the bulk bin, and I would have these kids walking up and down the aisles looking at food that was packaged really differently than what most of them had ever experienced. And that was the exercise. I didn’t really care. The poems were bad because they just had this experience. It was like not about how good your grocery store poem was, it was about how good their powers of observation became, when they were moved into a slightly different environment. And so that, to me, is always the key, right? …that’s at the base of Guidebook to Relative Strangers is all of a sudden, I’m traveling all over the country, I’m in these different environments with a new sidekick, right? [LAUGHTER] I’m traveling with my daughter, which meant that I all of a sudden have really different interactions with people than I’d have before. And as a writer, my job became chronicling that and figuring out why this felt different and what got revealed because that little schism was created that had enough difference that I was forced to look… and that, to me, as we move into the fall, and I honestly think, I’m a Doomsayer, but I honestly think the spring of 2021 also, we’re gonna have to help our students, and our colleagues, and our administrations, learn how to just accept this reality as a reality rather than trying to swivel back to what it was before. What is our new reality? What do we see? What are the advantages? and how can we build on those?

John: I think we very much agree with that. [LAUGHTER] We didn’t have any say in how instruction was being organized here, but I’m really worried about it, not just because of the health risks, but also because of the pedagogy involved.

Camille: Um hm.

John: … that teaching a group of people who are wearing masks and who are far enough apart so they can’t comfortably talk to each other, is going to be a very different, and I don’t think, a very productive environment. But, we try to support people as best we can. It’s going to be a challenge, in any case.

Camille: Absolutely.

John: One place in the book, you note that in 2013, you were one of only 12 African American female professors in your field. And that’s not uncommon in many disciplines. It’s certainly true in economics as well. What are the costs of the lack of diversity in higher ed?

Camille: Yeah. So now, I’ve kept a running tally with the women, Ruth Ellen Kocher, who was the poet with whom I started this tally and started thinking about this. Now we’re up to about 22. So, that’s actually a radical increase. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, as a percentage it is.

Camille: But it’s still a very small number. So, my husband just turned in his tenure materials, and in the process of doing so he discovered that they were 16. I’m pausing because I don’t remember what it is 14 or 16. And the reason is, for my study, it was one of those numbers and his study is the other number, right? And so not that much different for 1100 faculty members to have 14 or 16, Black tenure line faculty, and that’s male and female, and I think one transgender person in that number. So, that’s not very much. The cost of that is, at a school with 1100 faculty members, it’s very, very likely that students will never have an African-American professor, that they’ll just go through their whole education system without ever having one. I thought about when it was that I’d ever had contact with a black faculty member in my field. I had one female professor in college and one male professor who told me that I shouldn’t try and become a creative writer, because… I guess he was trying to protect me… but because it was so competitive and difficult to feel that I shouldn’t bother, and I should do something else. So, in terms of supportive faculty members, that means something, right? …to not have ever had somebody who looked like me, for whatever complicated reasons we might say, had experiences like me, who was on my side. In other ways, those three faculty members that I can think of, which is a lot… if you ask people in my age how many, to say I had three at all… they were all literature people, they weren’t Creative Writing people. But, they weren’t actually particularly similar to me. They had really, really different upbringings. They were regionally very different. They were obviously aesthetically different, because they were in literature and not creative writing. So, I actually never really had the kind of mentor that other people very frequently have, moving along the way. I had mentors, I had support. You don’t get to the position where I am in the world without having mentors and support, but I didn’t have black faculty mentors and support until I was already in a tenure-line position. I was going to become a professor. I’m a fourth-generation college professor, it was going to happen. The likelihood of this being the path that I took… my sister’s a professor, the woman I chose as my daughter’s godmother is a professor, like this is in my blood. This is who I’m going to be. But what about the people for whom that is not the case? The first-generation college students, they have no idea what this could look like. If you can’t visualize yourself in those positions. If you don’t have people who you feel that you can trust that you can go to for advice. If you have people who have unconscious or very conscious biases against African Americans and their intelligence skills and their organizational skills and their sense of comportment, or any of those, and those biases get passed down to how they treat you in the classroom. All of those things become deterrents for people’s ability to thrive in this chosen field. And I think the more that we can eliminate those kinds of obstacles by increasing the kinds of people we see who may look like a person who we believe we may become in the future, the more radically inclusive our democracy can become. I just think that that’s important. I just think that our ability to become the best of who we can possibly be is, in many ways, influenced by what we see around us as possibilities. That was a long answer,

John: …but a very good one. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. It’s an important one.

Camille: It’s a complicated question, right? It’s a really complicated question. Obviously, it’s not something that’s going to be able to happen overnight, based on the fact that the doubling of the number of black women poets in the country, it’s a doubling of that number, but it’s still only about 22. But I also think that there’s lots of small ways where this happens. And so it happens in who’s at the front of the classroom. It happens based on who’s on editorial boards for magazines, journals, book publication houses, because that decides what materials that come forward for publication appear to be relevant, necessary, interesting, right? It happens on what kinds of people are agents in the representation houses. It happens in terms of what kinds of summer opportunities people have? I know that Cave Canem, which is a home for black poets, which was founded in 1996 and has a summer workshop fellowship and also has a lot of regional workshops that they do all kinds of programming, like the kinds of programming that have come out of Cavey Canem over the last… what is that now?… we’re at 25 years… is incredible. But that was the first time that I encountered black poets at the head of the classroom. I was already a tenure-track professor. And that was the first time that I had black teachers teaching me poetry. And it changed the kinds of conversations that we had to have in the classroom, right? There were certain kinds of cultural cues that were just… we didn’t have to… let’s pretend we’re translating from another language, Like we didn’t have to italicize those Spanish words. [LAUGHTER] Because they were just moving in and out from Spanish and English is just like what huge parts of the culturism in America do. And so I italicize the Spanish words, this is a very strange kind of colonial idea of those are different than us. And many writers who work between Spanish and English have been really pushing against that marginalization of the Spanish language through italicization. So those kinds of things change our writing, and we get more teachers, we get more people publishing, we get more people writing and talking about that. I think our literature flourishes. And when our literature flourishes, our imaginations flourish. And when our imaginations flourish, our culture can thrive.

Rebecca: Yes. [LAUGHTER] …exclamation point. 32.02

John: You mentioned that there was expectations that you’d go to college. And I think also in your book, you noted that this goes back a few generations in your family, at least your grandmother’s generation, where I think you’ve said that all the siblings went to college and your grandmother’s cohort, all 12

Camille: of those children who were born between roughly 1900 and 1930. All 12 of them went to college. That’s incredible. It is.

John: When I read that, I was thinking one of my grandfathers only had a sixth-grade education, and that was not that uncommon at the time. So that gave your family quite a bit of an edge that many of our first generation students, as you noted, don’t have today. It is something we need to address. One of the things you mentioned in your book is that you would diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And I didn’t know that until I read this. So how are you doing with it now?

Camille: Many of my friends and acquaintances only five bucks, I’ll get these texts like I didn’t know I’m on page thought of that. I didn’t know that sorry. Okay, which actually circles back to that radical honesty, conversation. It’s not something I talk about. It’s not like I don’t lead in conversation with it. It’s not really part of my outward spoken identity. And yet, I didn’t feel like I could talk about the vulnerability of my body without talking about that aspect of it, and of my experience, and a lot of these essays would have been written around the time of the big Obamacare debates and in many ways, the reason that I am fine and nobody has to know this about me is that I have excellent health care because I have really good insurance through my employer. Ask stay employed because I can’t run the risk of not having medical insurance, as so many people in this country are in jeopardy because of their state of employment or not employment or the ways that their employers set up medical care. We put people’s bodies at risks, their lives at risk, their ability to live productive, non sick lives. So that was, I don’t write that directly into that essay, it’s body of evidence that there was that conversation was going on around. And so in that sense, there are a number of things about who I am in this country, being a woman of childbearing age raises my mortality risks significantly in this country above most other developed countries and being a black person obviously raises my mortality risk in this country exponentially. And then having this chronic condition means that at any moment, and you know, any morning I could wake up and everything could look different, which is the case for everybody but it But right there in my brain and in my nervous system in a way that it’s not the case for other people. And so I just felt like to write about that sense of kind of perpetual background Jeopardy that I live with. I had to include that other piece. But the long or the short answer to that is I am doing great. I’ve got a really fantastic medical team and really great treatment. And I’ve mostly don’t even notice that that is an issue.

Rebecca: Maybe one of the last things that we can add a little bit about is maintaining the career while raising a child. I don’t know it’s a particular interest to me. How old is your child, Rebecca? She’s three.

Camille: Oh, my goodness, those are good years, but wowza.

Rebecca: You’ve noted that several women writers lose essentially out on an entire book because of family. Can you talk a little bit about your experience being a mother and an academic and a writer, and then also maybe how that is playing out differently for folks during the pandemic. Well,

Camille: right, I mean, I do definitely feel like the pandemic has brought forward a lot of buried realities in this culture. And so nothing new has manifested because of the pandemic, but because of the stresses on our culture due to the economy issues. And due to the kind of peril that the virus causes. We’re seeing so many things. And for the most part, we’re seeing child caregivers who are very frequently women bearing the brunt of this situation, and not a particularly active interest in figuring out ways to accommodate this fact. Right. So plenty of people are like, well, we’ll just send the kids back to school and that’s gonna be their childcare. I’m like, Well, I don’t know. But every single one of my daughter’s teachers has children. So now, they’ve got this complicated question of like, how do they take care of their own children? Wow. Taking care of my child, my friends in France are getting paid to stay home and watch their children by the government. That’s the way that that is happening and many other first world nations, but not here. This is not your question. My answer part of it is like, there’s really no way to talk about a lot of these things without going in a lot of different directions. And so I feel sometimes my essays are really leggy, and that they’re braided essays. And they follow several different narrative threads at one time, and I hope that they tie together, but they just definitely go in a lot of directions. And that’s part of why essays could work because I can really dive in and talk about those things at great length in a way that I have not found myself to be able to do in poetry to that degree, but part of it is because I just don’t think that any of these questions have easy answers. Did they have any answers? We’d answer them already. We’d have dealt with it right? But they don’t And so we need to look at them in lots of ways. I think to be artists at a mother is an incredibly difficult thing, or a working person and a mother is an incredibly difficult thing. And I don’t think our country was designed to support that. Now I’m going to circle back to history again and say, you know, like, our country was essentially designed on slavery, and servants, right? It was built on the idea that other people would be helping the wealthy and the powerful to do all their daily things that they would be nannies in the house, that they would be House Cleaners that they would be cooks and maids, and etc. And as we mechanized and created vacuum cleaners and washing machines and other sorts of devices that would take the roles of those poor white or black or Latin x workers, then who took that over, it was the middle class women, right that they were then be put In the vacuum cleaners, they would be running the washing machine, it was like never really a system built in to figure out how the labor gets done. And the work outside the home gets done. And we just never evolved. And we’re seeing that now. And so those of us who are working parents, particularly working mothers, and then if you add to me, like, I’m an artist, I’m a professor and writer, that’s really two jobs. It’s hard to have two jobs and raise a child, I have a really great partner. And so I have the faith in the fact that my kid is not going feral in the process, and I don’t have the kind of partner who kind of tabulates like, I’ve watched the kid for eight hours. Now it’s your turn for 12. And so that really helps me that I have that. And I also have figured out just I write her in to the work, what I’m living in now is a world where I’m observing my child a lot and so those observations end up in The work rather than trying to separate those two things, but get included. And I think my other piece of advice for working parents who are sort of trying to do another thing, like being an artist is to just people talk a lot about stealing time. But I would call it more like making time just finding those little pockets of time that can accrue to become something pole. So there’s a essay at the very end of the book called differentiation, which only was able to be written because I was completely overwhelmed by I think she was three and a half or four years old at the time, and that was an incredibly time consuming era. She loves books, but she couldn’t read yet. So who was reading those books all the time, right? She loved art, but like you couldn’t leave her alone with watercolor. So you know, it’s just like full, complete involvement as a parent, so I just wrote for 20 minutes a day. That’s it. 20 minutes a day I recorded Everything that I could. And eventually that 20 minutes a day became the feed work for what was the essay, I wouldn’t have been able to write that essay without all the detailed notes that I had been taking in the 20 minutes. So those 20 minute exercises were not the essay, but the essay could not have happened without those. And so that’s the permission that I like to give to working parents is you don’t have to write for eight hours a day, like that model probably just isn’t going to work and you’re going to be frustrated trying to find it, what’s the minimum amount of time, what’s the minimum maximum that you can create for yourself, and for me, it was 20 minutes. For some people, it may be as small as five, but that just brief period to just record all you can to be that person you want to be with the knowledge that you’re preparing the soil for the time when you have time again.

John: You mentioned earlier the issue of the fragility of the body, especially black bodies. One of the things you describe in your book is the experience of being pulled over by the police in Minnesota. And you place this in the context of things happening, man, which sound remarkably like things happening now with Trayvon Martin at the time, Jason Harrison, Eric Gardner and camera rice. So could you tell us a little bit about that, and perhaps what types of things we might want to do in our classes to provide support for students when these things happen?

Camille: Ah, right, the experience of being pulled over in Minnesota, so close to where later that falando casteel death happened in the same general area after our pullover and now we have the George Floyd story. And then I also speak in the same essay about a lynching that happened in the town we visited in Duluth, Minnesota, earlier in the 20th century. And I think one of the things that’s important to me When I think about all these just ongoing brutality against black people in this country is that ongoing nature is that for some Americans when this new name or this new incident crosses the headlines, it feels like, Oh, this is today, there’s just horror that has happened just yesterday or just last month. And for many of us, we’re like, oh, again, another, right, and the names pile and the incidence pile and the terror which is what the point of it is, the terror piles up and the fear of moving around freely and a lack of belief that we can move around safely. It comes from years of systemic violence and being passed off as individual incidents. And so to me part of the importance of writing about these things in such a connected manner is to talk about the ways that these seemingly individual incidents are part of a culture fabric that needs to be reworked entirely. And part of what happens for me, I think being a writer is a way of being a teacher is that when you write these histories, you write these ways of digesting and understanding and coping with these histories. And you provide tools for your readers slash students and to be able to address them as well. But part of it again comes from honesty and openness, both on my part as the author to write the stories as accurately and in as much detail as I can and has to do with the readers to be able to absorb and be willing to really, truly acknowledge circling back to the conversation that we had earlier about discomfort to be able to sit with the discomfort and then not just push it away, but to work to try and make fundamental change. And so as teachers, one of the things that we need to do really listen to our students, when they express the kind of discomfort that you’re talking about john, I’m really understand how the institutions with which we’re affiliated are either repeating these kinds of traumas, either by ignoring or pushing them aside or trying to diminish them or just not addressing them for the students. And by truly listening into by truly trying to make systemic change within the institutions with which we have any power connection, which may just be our by your own classroom, it may just be that classroom that we’re in that we can create a space of true comfort and true seeing for people. And it’s not easy. As I said, that space for black poets that I described 20 years ago. It’s 25 years of work and effort and community engagement and growing new poets and growing new teachers and new professors that that new boom of young black poetry professors have come through that organization and have built and developed some kinds of communities. And so how can we be part of building communities, organizations, structures, classrooms spaces that create this kind of support that mean that those who have died before us don’t die in vain, but really become part of true change? So I’m heartened Yes. I’m heartened by the summer and the summers kind of large outcry towards social justice. I’m also aware of the fact that I have seen searches like this over and over and over in my own lifetime. And so I want to make sure that the momentum lasts and that the energy and the outrage remains not just for those of us who are at direct risk, but for all of us because I think all of us are at direct risk, whether it’s your body on the line, or not.

Rebecca: Definitely powerful things to be thinking about really finding ways to support students and our communities that we live in, and the communities we don’t live in.

Camille: Mm hmm. you volunteered to do a reading for us.

Rebecca: Alan heard or got volunteered.

John: I think it was

Camille: recently, the perfect word for that, which is to be voluntold.

Camille: We do a lot of that.

Camille: Yes, I will be happy to read I’m gonna read a poem from Trophic Cascade, which is the collection of poems that came out within months of Guidebook to Relative Strangers. And some of these poems were written in the same mindset or the same kind of sensibility that the FAA developed. And so this poem that I’m going to read, came out of a trip, as many of the essays and guidebook to relish show strangers come from trips. This came from a trip into the San Francisco Bay. I was living in Northern California at the time and I went into the San Francisco Bay, there’s an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, the prison An island most people are familiar with is called Alcatraz. I probably don’t need to tell you anything about Alcatraz. Except for that, you know, it was really difficult to escape from Alcatraz, there’s another island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, which is called Angel Island. And it was the closest relative in our time would be the immigrant detention centers of the day. People say that it was very similar to Ellis Island because it was this immigration stop off point. But you only ended up on Angel Island if there was an issue with your papers. And so in some senses, it was much more like a prison or detention center where you’re held for untold amount of time until you were either sent back where you came from, or allowed to go into San Francisco. So this poem is kind of doing the same thing that I’ve been talking all along about bringing in history and also my contemporary situation. And the other thing that we didn’t talk about very much and guidebook to relative strangers is my I sort of obsessive interest in ecological environmental questions. And so that also is coming into play in this poll. What I know I cannot say we sail to Angel Island, and for several hours I did not think of you. When I couldn’t stop myself Finally, from thinking of you, it was not really you, but the trees, not really the trees, but they’re strange pods blooming for a while longer. A bloom more like the fringe fan at the tip of a peacocks tail than anything I’d call a flower. And so I was thinking about flowers, and what we value in a flower more than I was thinking of the island or its trees and much more than I was thinking up you. recursive language ties us together. linguists say I am heading down this road. I am heading down this road despite the caution signs and the narrow shoulders I am heading down the curvy road despite the caution signs. And then narrow shoulders because someone I fell in love with wants to live around here, right there. That is an example of recursive language, every language. Nearly every language in the world demands recursion. Do things bring us together more than our need to spell out our intentions, which helps explain the early 20th century Chinese prisoners who scratch poems into walls on Angel Island. And why a Polish detainee wrote his mother’s name in 1922. I was here, they wanted to tell us and by here, I meant the island and they also meant the world and by the island, they meant the world they knew. And they also meant the world they laughed, and the world they wanted to believe could be there as the world they knew required passwords. Think of Angel Island immigration station is purgatory, the guide explained he told tales of paper files Others picture Brides, the fabrications of familiarity, so many lives depended on inquiries demanded consistency. Despite the complications of interpretation, an English one would ask how many windows were in your house in the village? How many ducks did you keep? What was the shape of the birthmark on your father’s left cheek? and Japanese and Cantonese, Danish, Punjabi, the other answered, then it all had to come back to English. The ocean is wide and treacherous between one home and the other is there can be no turning back. No correction once what is said is sad. Who can blame the Chinese detainees who car pawns deep into the woods on Angel islands walls? Who can blame the Salvadoran who etched his villages name? A few things tie us together more than our need to dig up the right words to justify ourselves. Travelers and students we sailed into the bay disembarked on Angel Island. I didn’t think about you, which is to say the blue gum Eucalyptus is considered a threat, though we brought it across oceans to help us desired first for its timber because it grows quickly and was expected to provide a practical fortune. And when it did not enlisted as a windbreak desired still because it is fast growing and practical. The blue gum has colonized the California Coastal forests, squeezing out native plants dominating the landscape and increasing the danger of fire. I should hate the blue gum Eucalyptus, but from the well of their longing, by which I mean to say from their paws. You know what I mean? I hope their original home from the well of their longing blooms explode like fireworks. I love them for this. Do you hear me? I absolve you You are far too beautiful and singular to blame.

Camille: I have a thought that there was another poem that might be a better tie in to everything that we said and it’s much shorter. Can I read that and then you guys can decide which one you want to use, we decided to use both. Here is the next poem. This is a poem from my collection trophic cascade, which as I said, I was writing along the same time that I was writing guidebook to relative strangers. The incident that I described in this poem happens on my daughter’s second airplane flight. The first airplane flight she ever took, we went home to meet her namesake great grandmother. And the second airplane trip she ever took was work trip with me. She was four months old, and I went to Washington DC to do some work with the National Endowment for the Arts. So you can picture this child as a very, very young child in this poem, frequently asked Question number seven. Is it difficult to get away from it all? Once you have had a child I am swaying in the galley working to appease this infant who is not fussing, but will be fussing if I don’t move. When a black steward enters the cramped space at the back of the plane, he stands by the food carts prepping his service. Then he is holding his throat, the way we hold our throats when we think we are going to die. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. He is crying. Oh, my God, what they did to us. I am swaying less my brown baby girl make a nuisance of herself. And the steward is crying, honest man tears seeing you holding your daughter like that. For the first time, I understand what they did to us, all those women sold away from their babies. he whispers. I am at a loss now, perhaps I could fabricate an image to represent this agony. But the steward has walked into the galley of history. There is nothing figurative about us.

Rebecca: so vivid, so powerful.

John: I was just going to use exactly those words so powerful,

Rebecca: and really appreciate the level of detail be in that moment.

Camille: And I think for me, it was one of those first experiences like really vivid experiences of Wow, I’m having an entirely different interaction with this person that I would have had before I had this baby in my arms and that interaction is absolutely about the present moment. And it’s just Deeply inflected by the past and a path that neither of us ever physically lived through, but which we are historically always reliving. And so the concerns in that poll essentially became the lens through which I wrote all the essays in the collection,

Rebecca: I always find it really interesting how having a child opens up conversations that maybe one wouldn’t have had otherwise, it would have been unspoken, otherwise. Mm hmm.

Camille: All kinds of conversations and with people you wouldn’t converse with. I like to tell a joke that when she was little, and she traveled with me, and we traveled a lot, and then the kid by the time she was three and a half had already accrued her own frequent flyer, award ticket, but often on flights, like Southwest are the kind of place where you could choose your seat, I will very frequently have an empty seat next to me and it’s just unconscious bias, and people just leave the seat next to the black person open, which honestly is sort of fine in those kinds of instances, right? It’s like one of the very few times where that works out. Okay, but it never worked out with the kid. And I was always like, I’ll get that MTC. And then I can put the baby in the MTC and then I wouldn’t because the unlikeliest of people would come and take that seat because they wanted to sit by a baby. And then they can’t talk to the baby, they can only talk to the baby’s keeper, right? And so like, we would end up having these conversations that I would never have had, because they would have never put themselves next to me. And it was a beautiful thing. And it seemed to be worth recording and thinking about both what had divided us and also what bridged us.

Rebecca: I think that segues kind of nicely into the way that we always wrap up our broadcast, which is asking, what’s next so many bridges to the past? And

Camille: what are the bridges to the future? I know, I think I’m doing the same thing. I’m writing poems and essays and I can toggle back and forth and it just depends on how much time I have and what my mood is and what my level of obsession is. I’m really thinking I’ve lived in Colorado for seven years now. Which is longer than I’ve lived in one home for a very long time. And so I’m finding myself really rooting down. I can’t travel right now because of COVID. And I’m so I’m looking out my window and walking around my land and thinking about where I live in deeper, more complex ways. And I’ve had the ability to do and it’s been pretty interesting on the page to see what new discoveries I’m able to make. And a lot of them are just new discoveries. I’m making, like other people know these things. And I’m just coming into their knowledge. And so that’s always fun. Well, thanks

Rebecca: for such a wonderful conversation and being so generous with your time.

Camille: Thank you.

John: Thank you. It’s great to talk to you again. It’s been far too long has

Camille: been john, it’s really good to see you and talk to you and Rebecca, thank you for your part in this conversation.

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

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

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