Faculty enter teaching careers with the hope of shaping a better future for our students and our society. In this episode, Dr. Kevin Gannon joins us discuss what faculty can do to build a positive and inclusive learning community that empowers and motivates students. Kevin, also known as the Tattooed Professor, is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which has recently been released by West Virginia University Press.
- Gannon, K.M. (2020). Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press.
- Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, 19th century Danish philosopher
- Grand View University
- Haskell, T. L. (2000). Objectivity is not neutrality: explanatory schemes in history. JHU Press.
- Jelani Cobb, Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism in the Columbia Journalism School at Columbia University
- Lamar University
- Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.
- Gannon, Kevin (2016) “Let’s Ban the Technology Ban.” The Tattooed Professor. May 15.
- Mary-Ann Winkelmes, Founder and Director of the Transparency in Learning and Teaching project and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Brandeis University.
- Transparency in Learning and Teaching project (TILT)
- Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press. (Ken Bain, the promising syllabus)
- Kevin Gannon, The Syllabus from a Student Perspective
- Yvette DeChavez’s website – The home of the “Decolonize Your Syllabus” t-shirt (and more)
John: Faculty enter teaching careers with the hope of shaping a better future for our students and our society. In this episode, we discuss what faculty can do to build a positive and inclusive learning community that empowers and motivates students.
While this podcast was recorded before the global pandemic resulted in a shift to remote instruction, the message seems especially timely.
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 Dr. Kevin Gannon, also known as the Tattooed Professor. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which has recently been released by West Virginia University Press. Welcome, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks. Great to be here with you.
Rebecca: Today our teas are:
Kevin: I am actually drinking water right now, but I am brewing up some Japanese green tea as we speak.
John: And I am drinking a peppermint, spearmint, and tarragon blend.
Rebecca: I have now resorted back to my English afternoon. I’m like about three or four cups in today, so I’m back to my old habits. [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: So you’re ready to go, then, is what you’re saying.
Rebecca: Yeah, I’m ready to go. [LAUGHTER]
John: We recorded one earlier today and she was off on a different tea, so.
Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
John: We’ve invited you here to talk about Radical Hope. Could you talk a little bit about the origin of this project?
Kevin: Sure. So the book actually started as a blog post I wrote back in the summer of 2016, back when we all had so much hope and optimism, right? [LAUGHTER] So it took me a lot longer to write it into a book than I thought it would. The first draft of the manuscript was actually really angry. [LAUGHTER] And as Jim Lang, my editor, pointed out, we’re not titling the book Radical Anger. We’re titling it Radical Hope. [LAUGHTER] So people would ask me, “So what’s it like to be writing a book on hope?” And I’d say, “Well, it’s interesting,” and “How’s the book coming?” …and… “Well, it’s interesting,” but that’s where it got its origin, and the blog post was written, I started the blog I think in 2014, even, I was trying to jump start my own writing practice. So, I figured having a platform to kind of put stuff out there in a less formal sort of way and try to develop ideas and if one or two people read them great, but it was mostly for me. And this post came after a particularly interesting semester, and interesting euphemistically speaking, where I was really trying to kind of make sense of some struggles that I had personally in the classroom with my students, but also just kind of the higher ed landscape in general, and I really felt like writing some, kind of clarifying my values and my approach, would be a really useful reflective exercise, and so that’s what the post came out of. And it seemed to resonate with a lot of folks, and Jim invited me to turn it into a book and longer than expected later, here we are.
John: Even though we’re in fairly challenging times right now, teaching, as you note, is an act of radical hope. Could you elaborate on that concept just a little bit?
Kevin: Absolutely, so I’m using the word radical in its sort of literal sense, like root level, fundamental, pervasive. It’s an ethic, I think, that informs or can inform, and I would argue, should inform every sort of nook and cranny of our practice. So if you really think about it, what we’re doing on the everyday basis, the seemingly routine choices we make, “Here are the textbooks I will select, here’s how I’m going to run this particular class on this particular day.” Putting the work and the effort into doing those things is an assertion of hope, because otherwise we wouldn’t be doing those things, or we’d be doing them very poorly, or we’d be doing them and bitching and moaning about it the whole time too… which you see… but I would suggest the acknowledging that we are taking a stance with our teaching practices, whether we realize it or not. And I think it’s a lot more useful to realize that, to acknowledge it, to own it, and to be proud of the stance that we’re taking.
John: We’ve all seen those faculty who are often posting on Twitter, who are often posting comments on Facebook dealing with students, but they’re still in the classroom, and they’re still trying to make a difference, even if they don’t always display that hope. I think most of us have that hope. But one of the things you talk about in your book in the chapter on “Classrooms of Death” is the inspiration you found from the work of a 19th century Danish philosopher. Could you tell us a little bit about his critique of the educational system in Europe during that time?
Kevin: Sure. It’s Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig who I had no idea about, even as a historian of the 19th century, until I started working here at Grand View, which was founded by Danish Lutherans and we are the sole remaining Danish Lutheran college in the country, so there’s your niche higher ed market for the day. [LAUGHTER] It’s interesting that ethics suffuses a lot of the identity, I think, here in terms of access, in terms of looking at things democratically and what Grundtvig basically argued is he looked at the classical model of elite centered higher education in 19th century Europe that was built along the lines that we see in places like Harvard in the United States, so it was sort of a finishing school for the gentlemen of society, where you would learn things like Latin, and rhetoric and ranks would be assigned and all those sorts of things. And so that’s what Grundtvig called, in his sort of characteristically blunt way, Schools of Death. So I adopted the title from that for the chapter, even though it’s perhaps the most heavy metal chapter title ever, which I’m proud of. [LAUGHTER] It was like “You wrote a book on hope, but chapter one is called Classrooms of Death,” and I was like, “Well read the chapter, you’ll understand.” And so what Grundtvig does is he posits what he calls a life affirming vision of education, which is what we now know as the Danish folk school model, and it’s a mind-body-spirit model, it’s holistic, but what it really does is Grundtvig sees education as something that should enliven and awaken, as opposed to just sort of stultify and further ossify structures, in particular sort of this elite structure that was already in place. So that really appeals to me, and I think that if we’re looking for an ethic to think about our own institutions and the purpose of higher ed, we could do a lot worse than that.
Rebecca: I think it’s interesting when you’re talking about the idea of awakening students or awakening the community of learning, that a lot of faculty talk about trying to be neutral in the way they deliver content.
Kevin: So I’m trained as a historian, right? And so we, in our field, talk about this a lot. We have to be objective. Well, what is objectivity? That’s not a neutral term. In fact, Thomas Haskell, a social and cultural historian who wrote a great book called Objectivity is Not Neutrality that gets at this concept too, but this idea that there’s some sort of objective set of things out there, and if I present them objectively enough that all of my students will learn them thoroughly. Again, every choice we make, whether we realize we’re making it or not, is still a choice. And in that sense, education is eminently political, and if we try to ignore that and disregard it, we actually, I think, do more damage to it because then we make unthinking decisions. We don’t think about, necessarily, the consequences of the long-term effects of the decisions that we make. I think it’s much better to sort of acknowledge that, yes, we are on eminently political terrain, it is shaped by politics and identity and difference, and our students are not coming to us from a vacuum. They are coming to us from structures of inequality from a larger society, where all of these things are embedded. So we can’t pretend that our classrooms, whether they’re fully on ground or online, or whatever learning space it is, we can’t pretend that they’re somehow hermetically sealed from the rest of our students’ experiences. I don’t think it serves any of us well, them or us.
Rebecca: Wait, do you think we’re all people then and have emotions? [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: Yeah, I know that sounds like a radical concept, but one of the phrases that I heard of originally from Jelani Cobb was this idea that we are full and complicated human beings, and I just love the way that that’s phrased, full and complicated. It’s messy. We are complicated people. We are the products of an intersection of a kaleidoscope of experiences and identities, and that shapes the way we teach, that shapes the way that students learn, that shapes the spaces that we’re in, and I think we miss a real opportunity if we choose to not think about that as we create learning spaces and practice within them.
John: So when faculty try to be neutral and try to present content to students, what are they missing in terms of dealing with the actual students in the room rather than the ones they imagine to be in the room?
Rebecca: Or perhaps themselves. [LAUGHTER]
John: …which are usually little clones of their own past.
Kevin: One of the things that I tell colleagues a lot is, and I struggled with this earlier in my career, is when I was a young history major undergrad, I loved my history classes. I was in front, I was taking notes, I thought the lectures were witty and erudite, but now I am teaching classes with all of those students who were sitting behind me in those undergraduate classes who felt a little differently. So how am I teaching those students, they are not learning history, and they are not connecting necessarily in the same ways that resonated with my experience. And so in thinking about that, we know that students learn better and that learning is more effective and meaningful when there is that connection, there is that relevance to the student experience. And so we want students to be motivated, and a big part of that is avoiding demotivation, and I know that sounds like an obvious point, but there are things that can happen that will immediately turn off that switch for students. So I’ll give you one example of a way that the sort of aspect of neutrality could actually really damage the learning experience. At my institution, recently, a student came to me, an African-American male student, one of two African-American men in the class, 27 people in the class total, so the rest of the students were white. We are in Iowa, which you may have heard is a white state predominantly, and a discussion about the Confederate flag came up. And actually there’s a house about two blocks from our campus that flies the Confederate flag on a 20-foot tall metal flagpole in the front yard. So it’s something that our students see and notice, and this discussion came up and it turned into, very quickly, some white students say, “Well, it’s just a symbol of history. It’s a symbol of heritage. Basically, you can separate it from the defense of slavery, why don’t people get over that?” And these two Black students in the class were like, “Y’all really need to understand that this means something different to us,” and the instructor, in that case, completely unplugged, disengaged, let the students argue it out for themselves, and I think what that thought process was is, “Well, here is the marketplace of ideas. We’ll throw all the ideas out there and the best one will win.” And what it turned into was here are two Black students at a predominantly white institution being forced to basically argue for their basic humanity in a class of 25 white students and do that work by themselves. And so while the idea may have been that the instructor is not going to be an arbiter or shift things one way or the other, what you really have in that situation was something extraordinarily damaging, so when the student came to see me right after that class, they were in a place that it pains me that any student enrolled in one of our colleges or universities would be at the emotional place where that student was after that class.
Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting example, I had a situation one time when I was teaching, I teach art and design classes, and I had a critique class for graduate students with an international student that was using the Confederate flag as a symbol, but really didn’t understand the history. I pushed against that, “You really need to understand the history of the symbol and what it means and there’s a lot of different interpretations,” and the white students in the class just like “Ah, free speech, free speech.”
Rebecca: So I think it’s worth addressing that part of those kinds of conversations too, when a faculty member is trying to facilitate something and point out different identities and different perspectives, pushing against the dominant messaging that’s happening in the room when people are piling on, and that’s, I think, exactly why faculty try to move to the neutral zone, right, like, I don’t want to be here.
Rebecca: It’s certainly not comfortable.
Kevin: Yeah, it’s very much an avoidance mechanism. In conversations like that, I think it’s a natural reaction. If an off- ramp appears, I’m going to take it, but that’s not our job. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Yeah, boy, did I want to disappear. [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: Yeah, and I get it, as a historian, again, of the Civil War Era. I’ve been in the class where the one white student will say, “Well, why don’t Black people just get over slavery, it was 150 years ago for crying out loud,” and then feeling all the oxygen immediately sucked out of the room as we all look at this sort of figurative hand grenade that’s been rolled into the middle of the class. At that point, I was certainly reconsidering my choice of locations for the day. But I think it’s a really important thing for, in particular, our white students to learn that free speech doesn’t mean that basic humanity, dignity, and civil rights are open to debate, right, just as I would not hire a flat earther to teach a geography class. There are certain things that are not part of that discourse, because an idea that there is, for example, biologically distinct categories of race, of which some are inferior and some are superior, that’s not true. And so I’m not bringing a flat earther to teach geography and I’m not going to re-litigate racist pseudoscience in a history classroom, and I think that we have to get over this idea that if I retreat into some sort of clinical objectivity, that that’s going to fix everything, because it doesn’t, and our students see that. We say that we want our classrooms to include all our students, for all of our students to feel like they belong. We want our students to take risks. We want our students to not be afraid to fail, that if we haven’t created a space where every student genuinely feels that we mean what we say with that, then that’s a real problem.
Rebecca: I think it also means that we need to be willing to do all the things that we ask our students to do, too.
Kevin: Yeah, what a radical concept.
Rebecca: I know, there’s so much radicalness happening in this conversation.
Kevin: Very on brand, yes.
Rebecca: I think many faculty try not to take risks because you don’t want a mutiny in your class, it takes a little bit of bravery to do that, but I think if we’re not modeling that, and modeling failure, and modeling the ability to learn from that failure, then I don’t know how we can possibly ask our students to take those same risks.
Kevin: Yeah, especially if they see us actively avoiding taking those risks. I think students have a pretty finely calibrated BS detector, and so if we say that our values are one thing, and then when we have the chance to put those into action, and we decline to take that opportunity, that gets noticed. You’re absolutely right, that I can’t ask my students to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself in the classroom. And so what are some of the ways that we could model that effectively for our students, and of course, that’s going to look different. As a tenured white male professor, that’s going to look different for me to model failure than it would be foran early career faculty of color, for example, but I think that there are ways that we could do that in ways that are appropriate for our own context and for our individual class and student contexts, where we could model that yes, not everything goes perfectly the first time, learning is messy, learning is complicated. We’re going to struggle with some things, we’re going to problematize students’ prior assumptions that we have to create a sort of net underneath that when they feel that precarity for the first time, so it’s a structured discomfort rather than a throw ‘em to the wolves kind of discomfort. That’s really important, I think.
John: One of the things you suggest is that faculty should work to building equity rather than equality into their instruction. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Kevin: Absolutely. Yeah, so equity and equality are related concepts, but they’re not complete synonyms. And I think sometimes we get so focused on the equality part in terms of “I am going to be fair, so here are the expectations that I have of all of my students and here’s my attendance policy for all of my students,” and etc, etc and I don’t think that we’re flexible enough if we stick to that approach. What equity means is that every student has an equal opportunity. An equitable space is one where students can learn and succeed, and I will help them connect to or provide the resources with which they can do so, and of course that’s going to look different for students depending upon their prior academic experience, depending on their experience with the subject, all those sorts of variables that go in, and we don’t treat students equally now anyway, even if we say we do. Some students come to office hours and some don’t. Some students we work a little bit harder with outside of class and some we don’t, depending upon needs. We try to engineer discussions all the time. If there’s that one student who’s always raising their hand, sometimes we look somewhere else first. So we do this sort of engineering already. I think what’s useful is to acknowledge the fact that equity involves us thinking in a lot more nuanced and flexible way than just laying down a consistent policy in the name of fairness and then handcuffing ourselves to that.
John: And students come in with really diverse needs, but you suggest as part of this work towards equity, we have to be careful to avoid a deficit model. Could you talk a little bit about that and why that could be damaging?
Kevin: Yeah, so this is one of the things that I personally struggle with the most, I work with at risk students here at my institution, I teach some college success courses and some credit recovery courses, and even the label “at-risk,” like all of a sudden, what I am now doing is I’m categorizing students in terms of something they’re missing, and so when we work with students and think about things like developmental level courses, for example, what we’ve done is we tell the story really well of what our students can’t do. They can’t read, they can’t write, they can’t… And it’s very easy to sort of tell ourselves the story of “Well, this is how they are and this is the hand I’ve been dealt.” We don’t really talk all the time about what our students can do, even the ones that we would say are academically unprepared or that come from under resourced school districts. What are the strengths that they bring to class? Some of our students have had to navigate really difficult academic terrain, and now they’re in our classrooms. That ability to navigate difficult terrain is a real asset. So how can we make use of that instead of talking about whether all of their writing is grammatically and mechanically correct, but I really struggled because it is very easy to type. We want to help students, some students are going to need more assistance than others, how do I not see those students solely through the lens of what they’re lacking? Social workers would call this a strengths-based approach. I have colleagues in our social work department who really helped me think of this in some interesting and, I think, productive ways. So thinking about in terms like that, because if you think about it pervades a lot of our discours as faculty. Don’t we always say like, “Oh, today’s students can’t do this, like the previous, you know….” And we’ve been doing this for every generation of students, like “They’re always on their smartphones, so they can’t read a book, they don’t have the attention.” So it’s very easy for us to fall into these narratives. We’ve already told ourselves a story about our students before we’ve even actually worked with them.
John: You tell a really interesting story, a really moving story, about a student who stopped showing up for class after starting in class doing really well. Could you share that?
Kevin: Yeah, it’s one of the more obviously memorable things that’s happened. This was actually very early in my teaching career while I was doing my doctorate. I did my PhD at South Carolina, but I was living in Texas at the time, and I was a lecturer, an adjunct faculty member at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. So this is just a couple of years into teaching anything more than just one class a semester, and so I’ve tried to find my way and figure all this out and I’m teaching this survey course, it’s got about 45 students in it, and again, yeah, there’s a student who’s a little bit older, her friends were taking it together, the kind of mid 20s working students, but were taking classes to finish up a degree, started out really strongly and then just kind of disappeared and missed the first exam, didn’t come back for another week, and then it was two weeks, and so I’m asking her friend, like, “Where is so and so, she’s really in danger of failing the class, I need to connect with her so we can talk about what she could do to catch up.” And her friend was very vague, said “Well, she’s been going through some stuff, but she’s going to call you, she’s going to email you.” And that didn’t happen again for another little bit, and so I at that point, I just said, “Well, you know, so she’s gonna fail the class,” that narrative that goes through my head, like “I’ve given her all these chances, and she hasn’t taken me up on any of these opportunities, and hey, you know, that’s on her. Sometimes decisions have consequences.” And so I’ve told myself the story, that she’s just sort of blowing off the class and blowing me off and making these poor choices. Well early the next week, she does come to my office before class. And as I talk about in the book, I remember the scene so vividly because she looked awful, not just sick, but just, like, awful. And what she told me was that she’s coming off a heroin addiction, and she goes to the methadone clinic and the only times the clinic is open are the same mornings that we have this class, and sometimes she comes out of the clinic and feels so physically awful that she literally cannot come to campus or class. And so at that point, I’m sitting there and as soon as she started talking, I knew like, “Okay, my assumptions are about to be proven completely incorrect, right?” And then the story, I didn’t know what to say at first, and I was just kind of stunned. What happened was, we did have a conversation about “Okay, what could work for you? How could we work around this if you want to stay in the class,” and she was in a program that had very tight sequencing, so this class this semester was really important. So we came up with some ways that she could make up the work but also continue on so she didn’t fall further behind. We did a little supplemental instruction and she got a “B” in the class. She stayed in school, she ended up graduating, I think, a year and a half or so later. And what that really taught me was, again, this power of narratives, because we’ve all had students who kind of ghost us. It’s really frustrating, and then we start thinking about “These students have made really poor choices, and they can’t do this. Maybe college isn’t for them right now.” But here I have, you know, a student coming off a heroin addiction, which I have not done that personally, but I understand is really, really difficult physically, mentally, emotionally. I have some experience in other areas of substance abuse, but not that and needs the opportunity. And if I had shut down before she had the chance to visit, what would have happened at that point, like if I just said no, and that this was a required core class for her curriculum, what path happens after that, so who am I to say no, you have to stop when you are willing to make the effort. This whole myth of the entitled student, well here was a student that was literally at the lowest point in her life, probably, still trying to do this thing academically, and to me that was amazing. So who am I to not provide that opportunity and resources and that process that semester was an eye opener for me then, but I think really has shaped the way that I approach those sorts of “life happens” kind of moments with students ever since.
John: But you already created an environment where she felt comfortable talking to you. Not all faculty would have done that.
Kevin: Yeah, and I don’t know exactly what I did to do that, but I’m very mindful of trying to do that now for exactly that reason.
Rebecca: I think we all have students who have, not that narrative, but narratives that are powerful like that, that demonstrate they were making really good life choices, actually, at the moment, even though we were judging and thinking that perhaps they weren’t great life choices.
Kevin: Yeah, exactly. The proper choice for that student at that point was not to make History 1321 her first priority, so, yeah.
Rebecca: That was a good choice.
Rebecca: I’m really involved in accessibility and universal design for learning and spaces like that and inclusive pedagogy. And we’ve been really, as a team on campus, been thinking about ways to set up our classes so that it actually predicts that those kinds of things will happen, that we are setting our classes up from the start to accommodate those students.
Kevin: Yeah, absolutely.
Rebecca: And make them successful. Can you offer some tips about strategies that we can use, just so our classes are structured from the beginning without having to make exceptions, that it’s actually just open in that way?
Kevin: Yeah, it’s this idea of universal design for learning, that some of the things that we do think of them in terms of accommodations for a student with a documented disability. In this West Virginia series that I’m in, Tom Tobin and Kirsten Behling’s book, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone, is a fantastic overview of this idea of universal design. I think the best place to get started, and the way that I’ve really been able to think about this, is looking at the accommodations requests that we’ve gotten from a disability service office and the student brings in the form and “I need time and a half on an exam.” The first question to ask is, “Would this be an accommodation that would benefit learning for everybody, not just this particular student?” And so we get beyond this idea of one accommodation for one student at one time, and then we start thinking about, as you say, “How can I create a space that minimizes the need for those accommodations?” Because it’s already baked into the cake. In my experience, an accommodation request for time and a half on an exam got me thinking about “Why am I offering exams? Why do I have them as time limits? What am I really trying to assess here? And how might that shape the format of my exams?” And so now my exams are take-home, and there’s a different set of criteria and a process that we use, and they’re still summative assessments, but now, no one needs to make an accommodation request for time and a half or a different classroom. And so that’s, I think, one sort of practical example that people can use is when you get a request, ask yourself, “Is this something that would work for everybody?” And most likely, the answer will be yes, and then it’s “Okay, how do I operationalize that?”
Rebecca: I was talking to a group of faculty too about big groups of students being absent with the flu or COVID-19, or whatever it might be at anytime, and also just making it so that if a student has to miss a class because we don’t want them in our class if they’re sick, I don’t want to get sick. Everyone else in the room doesn’t want to get sick, how can we make sure that they can get that content or that experience in a different way?
Kevin: Exactly. So one of the other requests for accommodations that I would get a lot was students who wanted to record lectures, or discussions, or whatever happened to be going on in class. And of course, my thought was, “Well, this might be something that benefits everybody.” So when we do that we put it on our LMS, we have the audio file, you can stream it. And in my city, we don’t do public transit really well, it takes you an hour and a half to get anywhere on the bus, and so if you’re riding the bus from across town, maybe you want to listen to what you missed in class. We have a lot of student athletes who travel, well here’s a way to catch up on actually what happened in class rather than just a recap of it. So we’ve got tools at our disposal and some practices that we’re already doing individually. A lot of this is just thinking about how might we scale that out to work best for all of our students.
John: I’ve recorded nearly all of my classes for about five or six years now, and one of the things that surprised me was how students who had English as a second language would play back things multiple times and also slow down the pace so that they were more comfortable, until they get up to speed so that they got used to the technical terms in the class, and that was something I hadn’t really considered when I started doing that.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s a great point. Yeah.
John: You talk in your book a little bit about creating an inclusive environment in the classroom. Could you talk a little bit about what general strategies faculty should focus on to start towards a more inclusive environment?
Kevin: Well, I think it starts with this idea of universal design. How are we making learning the most accessible for all of our students even before we’ve met them, right? So what learning spaces are we creating? And again, back to this larger idea of thinking about the choices that we’re making. So at my institution, when I started here at Grand View in 2004, our student body was something like 92% white. Now we are 65% white, so in terms of race and ethnicity, my campus is diversified in its student body extraordinarily. And so how am I thinking about that when I’m choosing course materials, when I’m framing assignments, so sometimes it’s simply, “Who are the authors of my textbooks? What do they look like? Where do they come from? What’s their story?” Students who are taking my course, if I tell them that “When you take a history course you are a historian, right? We are involved in doing history. You can create knowledge in this field.” If I’m telling students that they can be knowledge creators in my field, do they see examples of people like them who are knowledge creators in the field? Because otherwise, my words don’t rain quite as true. So creating inclusive spaces in many ways a product of design, and then how do we put that design into practice? So being mindful, we know from the research that male students get called on in discussions much more than female students, male students interrupt more. So how am I framing? How am I having a conversation with students about expectations for when we’re working together in discussion in that seminar setting? How do we think about what people need in the classroom in terms of supportive materials, whether it’s recording or whether taking notes in a certain medium or not? How’s that going to work best for everybody? I think inviting students into that process early on, having them be collaborators and co-creating some elements of the learning space in a way that it’s not just the class discussion, but maybe have them do some writing and reflection about what has worked for them in terms of their learning in their academic career, and what are the things that have gotten in the way of their learning, and then looking through those results, and then coming back and debriefing the class the next time, like, “Here’s what you all told me, here are some of the things that I heard a lot, here are some of the things that maybe we should put on our radar screens for this discussion and then go from there.” So paying attention to the space we’re creating, whether it’s an on ground or an online course, the decisions we’re making about what’s going to furnish that space in terms of course materials, and then bringing student voices in and setting that idea of collaboration and all of our responsibility for making sure that that learning space is inclusive throughout the duration of the course.
Rebecca: When you’re talking about collaboration, I know you’re not just talking about students collaborating with each other, but also students collaborating with the faculty and thinking about the group as allies rather than adversaries. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Kevin: Yeah. So that’s my mantra, that so often we see students as adversaries, and they should be seen as our allies. And I think a lot of that is it is difficult to be a practitioner in higher ed right now, and especially if you’re a precariously employed faculty member and you’re teaching at three different campuses, and it’s eight courses and you’re stressed through the roof, who do you see the most? Your students. So for us, a lot of times students become the target of convenience, or the free floating stress and anxiety that we have rests there first, because that’s the easiest landing spot. I think it’s really easy for us to get into that place, and I think we need to be super mindful not to do so because the students are the ones that are in these spaces with us. So thinking about “What are the stories that we’re telling ourselves about students? What are the stories that students have been told about themselves?” So we know math anxiety is a thing. So many of our students have been told “You can’t do math,” that total fixed mindset, and that does a lot of damage, in my colleagues in the math and computer science department here, is true across the country. You know, that’s a big problem in terms of a barrier to learning. I think one of the most powerful ways to address it is to get students to see themselves as active participants in creating their knowledge. So how can we do things where we collaborate with them maybe to create course expectations or how are discussions going to work? How are we going to work if it’s an online class? What are the expectations we’re going to hold each other to in these interactions? Thinking about maybe assignment choice, I’ve got particular learning outcomes, can I let the students fashion a way in which they’ll demonstrate those outcomes? Maybe it doesn’t have to be a traditional research paper, it could be a number of other things. I talk in the book about un-essays, which I think is a really interesting and fun concept and has being used really well in history, for example. Students collaborating means students taking ownership of their learning as well, and that’s what we all say we want, so I think we need to be able to create spaces for our students to do that. Now, it’ll look different in a larger survey-level class than it might an upper=level seminar, but I think there’s the space to do that no matter what the class context, and I think it’s a really important thing to have student voices help shape the environment in which after all, they’re going to be learning in.
Rebecca: As a designer, a topic that comes up often is designing for people without including them.
Rebecca: So we want to design with, and not for, and so…
Rebecca: …you’re essentially describing that exact process, where you’re inviting students in to help design the experience..
Rebecca: …rather than just designing it for them by making a lot of assumptions about them.
Kevin: Yeah, and sometimes I use the metaphor of a house. But if we take a learning space, of course, I’ve built this house, do I have to furnish it and put in the carpets and paint the walls and do all that before anybody else comes in, or is that a process we can all do together? And maybe we decide we want to knock out a wall and add on something. Are there ways that we could do that? Because again, if this is the structure, in which we’re all going to be occupying throughout the duration of the course, is it a structure that works for everybody, that promotes rather than puts barriers in front of learning?
John: One of the things you talk about in terms of this collaborative approach is how to deal with issues such as distractions in the classroom from laptops and mobile devices. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Kevin: Yeah, the great laptop debates. As I’m sure everybody’s aware, this has been something that sort of lights social media on fire among educators about every six months or so. And my position is, as I titled a post on it, “Let’s Ban the Technology Ban.” Again, back to this idea of you know, are we handcuffing ourselves to overly rigid policies that aren’t going to work for all of our students? I don’t have a “no-laptop, no-cell phone” policy. That said, if a student is on doing their fantasy baseball team, that’s a problem. I invite students to collaborate when we set up class expectations, like “What’s going to help you learn? What do we want to hold each other accountable for in this class?” And it’s funny, because I’ll ask if they don’t bring it up, like “Okay, what about cell phones and laptops?” A lot of them share prior experiences like, “Oh, I didn’t know we were allowed to have those in class.” So it’s like, well, we have this thing called the internet, which could be a really useful resource at times, so why would we cut ourselves off from it, but then I show a quick summary of some of the research that talks about how technology use that’s not on task actually distracts people around that individual student just as much as it does the original student, and that reframes the conversation completely. Because now it’s not this “Well if I want to check out and go on ESPN or whatever, that’s a choice I make and I’ll suffer the consequences.” It’s “No, now you’re stealing time from classmates around you who didn’t get to make that choice,” and so if we’re going to be accountable to one another, what does that do in terms of thinking about about what we’re going to do and not do and what kind of environment are we going to create? The conversation that comes out of that is really interesting. So it’s this idea of laptops and phones, but not doing off-task stuff when we’re supposed to be doing on- n task stuff, and respecting other people’s attention. Because when you have conversations like this, and you ask students, “What are the things that we want to do to create this space?” The first thing that comes to their mind is respect. Well, what does that mean? So a part of this is we’re not going to steal somebody else’s time and attention, the resources that they have to bear for learning. So then when, and it’s not if but when, somebody’s doing their fantasy baseball team, I don’t have to be the cop. I’m not the bad guy. I just remind them of something that we all committed to earlier in the semester. And so it takes a lot of the kind of drama and distraction out of those reminders, and it becomes a nudge rather than cell phone cop and I’m much more comfortable with that because then it doesn’t create this sort of dramatic power imbalance in a classroom where we’re trying to flatten things out.
John: And you also say it could be used by the instructor, I believe, as a signal of when students are losing focus. When you have an activity that may not be so engaging, if you notice many of your students are distracted, something’s not working.
Kevin: Exactly, right? So you hear people complain, like “All of my students are on Facebook during class.” My first response, it sounds snarky, but it was like, “Doesn’t that sound like a you problem? Why are they all on Facebook?” It’s not that we need to be up there, one man or one woman entertainment, but it’s like, if I look out and see all of that, the first question I’m gonna ask is, “Alright, what’s the common denominator in all of this?” And then, “Where are we going to go to fix it?”
Rebecca: And it’s funny, a lot of times, especially if you’re doing group work or something, it’s because the students need a little more structure. They’re not sure what to do nex. Often, they might need just a little more instruction, because maybe they’ve never done a task before, or they’re intimidated by it, or they’re not really sure where to start, or they’re stuck and they don’t know how to move forward.
Kevin: Yeah, I totally agree. I think group work gets such a bad rap because it so often sucks, but I think a lot of that is due to the fact that we sort of assume that students know how to do group work, and I’ve been on enough faculty committees to know that not a lot of us know how to do effective group work, much less our students. So what kind of structure are we providing? I’m a big fan of Mary-Ann Winkelmes and the TILT framework, the Transparency in Learning and Teaching that asks us to be really explicit about not just the goals, but the actual tangible steps that need to be done, and then, what does excellence look like in this task? How are you going to know if you’re doing this right? And that’s really reshaped my approach to group work in terms of providing that next step. Once you do this, here are some of the things to think about, once you answer this question, here are some of the ways that you might think about representing the knowledge or reporting this back out to the class, because otherwise, “Let’s get into groups. Let’s work on this.” Well what does that mean, right? And so after a few minutes, you’ll start to see that drift. So in this case, I think structure and not handcuffing people to anything, but providing steps and options and some sort of direction for students to take their efforts is, I think, really useful.
John: And building in these expectations, one of the places where we all should start with our course is the syllabus, and you have a chapter on “Building a Syllabus Worth Reading.” Could you talk a little bit about some of the key things to put in a syllabus to make it worth reading?
Kevin: I am a syllabus dork, syllabi fascinate me. I love to look at what people are doing, how they’re thinking about and conceiving of their class, their field. I mean, I’ve sought counseling for it, but yeah, I am an unabashed syllabus dork and I think a lot about syllabi. And we certainly all had our share, in our own academic career, of syllabi that we got and just sort of disappeared into the ether. It was something that I would never use for the rest of the semester. So I think we’d lose an opportunity when we approach the syllabus. The common metaphor is that the syllabus is a contract, and there’s this urban legend that there are actually court cases and judicial precedent that has defined it as such, and that’s not true. That’s not true at all. The syllabus has never been interpreted legally as the same way that one would interpret a business contract, for example. I think if we approach syllabi as, in many ways, this might be the first at least formal interaction the student has with us or our course. So what’s that first impression going to be like? Is it going to be like reading the rider to an insurance contract for my car, or is it going to be an invitation? Ken Bain talks a lot about the promising syllabus, which I think is a really useful way to think about it, because with any course we’re promising our students something, “You will be different as a result of this course. When you get to point B, you’re going to look back at point A, and say I am different in these ways.” So my syllabus should be able to answer the question, “Well, how am I going to be different? What’s that going to look like, and how am I going to get there?” And there are a number of ways to do that, where you can actually say things in interesting ways as opposed to legalese, it’s okay to use first person rather than the “instructor will” and the “students will” it’s “I will” and “y’all will” or “you will” if you don’t want to as colloquial as “y’all,” it’s okay to put in some pictures. It’s okay to think about design a little bit. It’s okay to have it to be just visually appealing. One of the things we really struggle with is of course, institutional bloat in terms of policies, right? …like, “Here are six pages of stuff that you got to put into your syllabus.” Well, are there ways you can offload that? Put it in your LMS and then put a link in the syllabus. “Hey, there’s other stuff that you should read too. Here it is, but I’m not putting six pages of “Thou shalt not” in a syllabus that’s supposed to promise you what the great parts about this learning experience would be.” What is our syllabus saying to our students? What are we telling them? The syllabus tells our students, “Here’s what I think about you, and here’s what I think about this class.” And so if we have two pages about what academic dishonesty is, and what plagiarism is, and what horrible fate will await you if you do it, heaven forbid if you do it again, what I’m telling my students, right there is, I am spending so much time on this because I expect you to cheat. Is that what I really want to tell my students? In my case, the answer is no, and so, there are other ways to get at that sort of academic integrity thing talking about collaborative expectations and accountability, and we’ll talk about this together, why these things are important, and then I’m not giving them a litany of things, “Do this and you will have X consequences,” and the syllabus should provide what the students need. “How am I going to know if I’m doing well in this class? What’s important to you in this class? What’s important to the instructor, and when am I going to be expected to do things?” I mean, we ought to have a calendar in there and it ought to be pretty clear. We ask our students to plan ahead for a whole semester, we should too, even if things change, and we should note that like, “Hey, things will probably change, but here’s how I’m going to communicate that if they do.” …so taking the steps and paying attention to those details, so our students know I have put thought and care into this initial go at a learning space for us.
Rebecca: We’ve been talking a lot about what to have in the syllabi, but if students’ expectations have been that it’s just a disposable document, because that’s what their experience has been in the past, how do we convince them that the one that we’ve created, that we’ve taken so much care to set the tone for, is worth the effort to engage with?
Kevin: That’s a great question. The first answer to that is, what is the first impression of this? Is it a visually compelling document to look at? And again, that doesn’t mean we all have to be graphic designers, but is this a photocopy of a photocopy? Am I just copying and pasting it from last semester and I forgot to change a couple of the dates? Students will put as much effort into the syllabus as I put into the syllabus. There are some tips and tricks, you can hide easter eggs in there. “Hey, if you’re reading this section, send me an email with a picture of a dinosaur,” or something like that. Some people do syllabus quizzes. An interesting thing that I have some colleagues who do is the first day of class, they divide students up into a group and each of them tackles a part of the syllabus and comes up with if there’s any further questions from having gone through that section. And so it’s sort of a way to assess as well as having students in the syllabus. And it’s also something that should live throughout the semester, we should be referring to it frequently. There should be links to materials in there, are there other course materials that we might embed in the syllabus? Is it a place where, if students lose a paper copy, that they can go into the LMS and get a copy of it, for example. Having a calendar, a good course calendar in there, keeps them reiterating back into it as well. And I think too, again, the first day of class is a real opportunity. We have a tradition here, the students call it syllabus day, where “I come to class, the instructor hands out the syllabus, we’re out after 10 minutes.” And so I had a student come in once, like, “Are you gonna keep us the whole class?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, that’s kind of the plan,” and the look of disappointment on their faces. [LAUGHTER]
John: I get that all the time.
Rebecca: Yeah, me too.
Kevin: What have we conditioned them to do?
John: I wouldn’t want to cheat you out of this discussion, this is where we’re inviting you to this class, yeah.
Kevin: Right, exactly, and it’s such an opportunity, and so a way to squander that opportunity is to read the syllabus for 20 minutes for the first part of that class. So how are we using the first day of class to pique interest in the course, and maybe looking at the syllabus doesn’t come until the second day, or later in the first day, like “I want to highlight a couple of things, and then next session, we’re going to talk about these couple of things, so be ready for that.” If we treat it as sort of a routine, “Okay, here’s a syllabus,” then they’re going to treat it that way, too.
John: We should note that you have some wonderful examples of syllabi on your blog, and we’ll share a link to those in the show notes.
Kevin: Oh, thank you.
John: We should also note that you’re wearing a T-shirt that says “Decolonize your Syllabus.”
Kevin: That’s right, yes. Today, and that is courtesy of Yvette DeChavez who directs a writing center at a university in Austin, Texas, and I bought it off her website and I can send you the link if you want to include it in show notes. She does a lot of great work, she was the one who introduced me to this concept of decolonize your syllabus and again, thinking about the choices we make, and what those say to students, I find it really important and fascinating work. And it’s a great t-shirt too, so everybody wins.
John: So we always end with a question, what are you doing next? [LAUGHTER] What’s the next blog post that’ll evolve into a book?
Kevin: I need to update the blog, so that’s a good nudge in that direction. Actually, my current book project is I’m working on a textbook for the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction Era, and the textbook was conceived as “I really don’t like any of the textbooks in the field, so I’m going to write my own, dammit,” and it took me about 10 years to get to that point. So it’s actually going to be a textbook framed through a continental history approach, which in the Civil War is often missing, and it’s going to be framed through settler colonial theory. And one of the things I’m doing with it, that so far the editor is okay with, is putting all the cards on the table up front. A lot of textbooks are based in a theoretical approach. Very few of them will tell you about it, I’m going to tell you about it right here. So, inviting the students in to those choices right away and talking about “Well, what is settler colonial theory? How does it provide a really powerful explanatory lens for what we’re going to be looking at?” and sort of demystifying that process. I’m excited, and I think it’ll be a little bit of a different textbook, it’ll certainly approach the period differently, if it turns out the way that I hope, maybe it’ll start some interesting conversations and help instructors who, like me, were frustrated with some of the extant stuff out there for teaching a course that’s offered across most colleges and universities.
Rebecca: Sounds like an exciting adventure, but the writing process is never done. [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: Right? What’s the old joke? I like writing, but even more I like having written. [LAUGHTER]
John: Yeah, it’s always so much easier in retrospect.
Kevin: Right? I do want to make sure that I really take the time to enjoy this book being out and the conversations that are surrounding it. I’m fortunate to have been invited to several places to talk about things in the book, to explore a lot of these things differently. I love going to other campuses and doing that. So, that’s the immediate next steps, are to continue the conversations that hopefully the book has started and see how they resonate with various people in different institutional contexts. I’m really excited for that.
John: I really enjoyed reading this. I read the PDF version because my print copy is not coming until later today.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a really fun conversation.
Kevin: Thanks, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for having me with you, I appreciate it.
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 Savannah Norton.