64. How Humans Learn

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Josh: Thanks for having me.

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

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

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

John: I’m drinking bing cherry tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: Right.

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

Rebecca: …or even as human.

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

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

Josh: Right.

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

John: …the fear of failure.

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: Right.

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

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

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

Josh: Right.

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

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

Josh: Yes, definitely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: Sure.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Cool.

John: Yeah, we enjoy that for much too.

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

John: Usually.

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

Rebecca: I think that’s a good point.

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

Josh: Yes, I agree.

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

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

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

Josh: Well, that would be great.

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

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

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

Josh: Thank you.

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for taking time.

[MUSIC]

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

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

63. Building a Campus Culture of Accessibility

Colleges and universities, as well as individual faculty members, are legally required to meet federal accessibility requirements for all digital content that is posted online or used as learning materials within face-to-face, hybrid, or online classrooms. Most faculty, however, have received little or no training in how to create accessible materials. In this episode, Sean Moriarty, the Chief Technology Officer at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how our institution is working toward assisting faculty in creating materials that are accessible for all of our learners.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Colleges and universities, as well as individual faculty members, are legally required to meet federal accessibility requirements for all digital content that is posted online or used as learning materials within face-to-face, hybrid, or online classrooms. Most faculty, however, have received little or no training in how to create accessible materials. In this episode, we examine how one college is working toward assisting faculty in creating materials that are accessible for all of our learners.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Today our guest is Sean Moriarty, the Chief Technology Officer at SUNY Oswego and Chair of the SUNY Council of Chief Information Officers. Sean is the author of the recently published Educause Review article, “Building a Culture of Accessibility in Higher Education.” Welcome, Sean.

Sean: Thank you, John and Rebecca.

Rebecca: Welcome.

Sean: It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Sean: Well I’m having my Tim Horton’s coffee. I usually have my tea after dinner, so it’s too early for my tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I’m drinking Christmas tea with cinnamon.

Rebecca: I have my lucky English afternoon tea.

[LAUGHTER]

John: It’s not just for afternoons.

Rebecca: No, it’s all day long.

John: And it never has been, I guess.

Rebecca: Yeah. Before we jump into our conversation, first, can you define what accessibility is?

Sean: Well, accessibility is the idea that every user of the content has a similar experience. They’re not gonna be able to have exactly the same experience… So if you think of people who might have blindness, the content that they access on a website or in a document should be able to give them the same knowledge and understanding in terms of they would hear the content or have it read to them so that they would gain the same knowledge and understanding of what’s there. The disabilities that we have vary from people to people and you also have different issues in the way that content is provided; people who are blind can’t experience a picture in the same way, so there’s an expectation that you would explain what’s inside of an image so that they can understand what other people are seeing.

John: Accessibility issues have been around for a long time, but it seems that campuses are starting to pay more attention to this. What has prompted this increase in attention to issues of accessibility.

Sean: It’s an issue that has really raised in prominence over the last 15 to 20 years and has become a large issue for us here in New York state over the last couple years. So I’m originally from Canada, and I would say that accessibility and digital resources has been an issue there easily for 10 to 15 years and we spent a lot of time at the last institution I worked at, which was the University of Windsor, in terms of making our website accessible and meeting the accessibility laws and guidelines that the Canadian government has put in, and a lot of resources and time were put into that. When I moved to the United States, and particularly here at SUNY Oswego… that would have been five and a half years ago… I think it was less of an issue and people didn’t necessarily realize the need for accessibility and the effect that it had on others. The reason that it’s really come to more prominence is that some individuals have gone and worked towards making everyone aware of the law. So there are a couple of laws in the United States, and one would be the American Disabilities Act, and the second a law that really came into effect over the last couple years, has to do with digital resources and the requirements for them to be accessible for people. Now, one individual in particular has gone and put complaints against universities that their websites weren’t accessible and it really kicked off an awareness in terms of how people wanted to do it. At SUNY Oswego and throughout the state of New York—actually all the SUNY schools had complaints brought against them two years ago—it was really largely around the websites that were inaccessible and most of the SUNY schools got together and we looked at ways to go and comply. Now many of us were really not that far away from being a hundred percent compliant on the website. To go and to remediate most of the website isn’t that difficult when you start talking about items such as the HTML. It gets a lot more complex once you start looking at documents and PDF documents… and no one, I would say, is really a hundred percent compliant. Understanding the complexity of the issue once you start working on it, you really start to see how the issue—if you just try to go in to remediate it and fix it it becomes next to impossible, really. The only way to go and work and to become compliant and to really design the experience you want for the end user is to go and get in front of it to do it. Well, that’s one part of it is the legal issue, but part of it also is a social justice issue. I think when you want to go and start to think about how you want to design your website and make it attractive to all end-users you have to understand that there are people that need these accommodations and have different needs and you have to go and design your website to go and to make it accessible to them, and I think when you start to go and think of it from the social justice issue rather than meeting the requirements it just changes your whole way of thinking in terms of why you want to do it, how you want to do it and how you can get more people to buy in.

John: And when we’re talking about accessibility it goes far beyond just a website; there’s also EdTech tools and there’s also teaching materials and resources. Could you talk a little bit about those issues in higher ed and what we’re trying to do to deal with those?

Sean: A lot of the focus does go on websites, and particularly at the very beginning, I would say, in terms of when we go and try to meet accessibility from a digital point of view from an IT department, but there are a number of other items—we have digital content on PCs throughout the campus and run all kinds of applications and mobile applications. There’s an expectation that those will be accessible by all users as well. So one of the issues is that we have applications that are running on mobile devices… PCs… and our goal would be to have those accessible for all end-users as well. Really to go in, to manage that we have to look at how we procure those items and ensure and work with the people who want those applications that they’re going to be accessible… and ensure that the vendors that we’re dealing with are making it a priority to go and to make their applications accessible… and I think particularly there’s a couple of in-state systems that have done quite a bit of work and that would be the California State System… the Washington State System have done quite a bit of work in terms of going and making accessibility of applications a priority, and I think with the SUNY system joining in we can have quite a bit of power with the amount that we purchase and accessibility can even raise to a higher awareness with the vendors and we can push it forward from there. The other area where it really becomes an issue is inside the classroom; we’re delivering far more electronic resources to students than we have in the past and I think that’s partly because the experience is a more online and there are online classes that are delivered totally digitally or with an instructor helping, but accessibility becomes a larger part as we work there. But also as we deliver content to students through the computer as opposed to handing pieces of paper to them we have to go and think accessibility upfront. As we go and expand our markets… as we become more aware of students that have accessibility issues—we are having more students who come to school and have these requirements and it is going and adding a lot more requirements to go in to help those students succeed.

John: One of the nice things, though, about a move to digital materials is the content is already in digital format which makes it easier to convert as long as provisions are made for that; the old text-based systems were a lot harder—you had to have people either read materials to people or other types of content back in the earlier days. It creates opportunities as well as some challenges.

Rebecca: I mean the web, in general, was designed in a way from the beginning to be accessible to all; it has that power and capability as long as it’s used correctly. So one of the things that I know that we’re working on with this campus is helping people understand how to use all of these platforms more effectively to make the content accessible, because if you design things with accessibility in mind from the beginning it’s a lot easier, it’s a lot more effective and it’s a lot more powerful than trying to fix everything afterwards, which we’ve certainly experienced here; it’s a lot more expensive and time-consuming.

Sean: Yes, for sure. I think we have also tried to look at using the right medium for delivering the message. So, I would give examples on the website, particularly where people might go and make flyers and they’d create a PDF document that they go in and stick on bulletin boards around the campus and then just go and stick that same PDF onto the web which immediately isn’t accessible unless they have done it (properly). The proper way to go and to use the medium of the web is to go and create a website or a web page that would go and deliver that content. It’s more effective for people when they go and do it… that extra little step… and don’t take the shortcuts and it also helps them to go in to market their materials in the right way.

John: Economists often make the same argument; it’s called a putty-clay analogy that when you’re designing technology it’s like putty; you can shape it in many different ways, but once you bake that clay and turn it into ceramics you can no longer alter it as easily—it’s much more costly and you often have to start over, but it’s very malleable at the start when you’re designing things, like making curb cuts, where it’s fairly expensive, but now when new curbs are built they’re automatically including those curb cuts and that’s really not any more costly to build than the old system was but it was much more costly to go back and rebuild things and to start over, which was the argument you were making, I think.

Rebecca: I think curb cuts is a great topic too—it goes back to what Sean was mentioning earlier in the difference between checking a box to say that I’m compliant versus really thinking about what it means to have a curb cut. There’s an example that I often use when I give presentations on accessibility that’s a curb cut to nowhere, it’s a curb cut to some grass that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s compliant because there is one, but it’s not usable. So, I think that’s the key thing that you have to think about when you’re dealing with accessibility issues, that it’s not just ticking boxes off but you’re really thinking about the real people who it’s meant to impact.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that’s really exciting too is that not only does it help people with disabilities get the content and have an equitable experience but it also means that people that are using different kinds of devices or might be in noisy situations or other kinds of circumstances also have a better experience overall. From a design point of view, when it’s accessible the user experiences has just improved for everybody.

John: Before I got an iPad Pro with a higher volume level, when I was watching videos while flying I often would turn captions on because it was sometimes easier to read the captions than to hear over the noise of the jet and that applies certainly to students watching multimedia content in quiet places where they can’t play audio out loud or students in noisy environments who might not be able to hear the audio.

Rebecca: Or non-traditional students who might be around their kids or whatever and might need to control things like that.

Sean: Yeah, there’s many examples of technology that was brought in to help people with accessibility that become really mainstream that help everyone’s life.

It brings up the conversation or the thought that having the tools to do what you need to do and then actually using those tools appropriately and in the best way… and I would say that in many ways with accessibility at this point, some of the tools that are required still aren’t there to make things easy. We’re still working on having those tools and I think as we move forward that we’ll go and we’ll develop the tools and make it easy, but I think that’s really the stage of maturity that we’re at right now.

Rebecca: Going back to what you’re saying about the tools that we need don’t really exist yet to some extent. Using the tools that we do have to do the things that we can do, still makes a big impact. So, even using Microsoft Word to make assignment sheets and things but using the styles that are built in so that you’re identifying what’s a heading, what’s a subheading, et cetera, makes a huge impact and that takes care of a large percentage of the material, but then there’s that smaller percentage of a more complicated content and multimedia that’s a little more difficult to deal with… especially when there’s interaction as well as motion and some of these other things… but there’s still a lot that we can do with what we do have.

Sean: Yes, why then I think it goes back too to a skills issue and then part of it being knowledge and skills. So, people are used to using Microsoft Word for 20-plus years the way that they use it… and they’ve found their own shortcuts to just meet their own needs… But to go and to deliver and use a tool at the highest effectiveness you really need to have this additional knowledge and understanding of having templates that you can use and marking images that need to have a tag with them too. So we do have the tools but we also need to give people the skills and knowledge to understand how to use them effectively for this.

John: On past episodes we talked about how faculty coming through grad school generally don’t receive much training in how to teach, although that’s been changing a bit. But virtually no graduate students, I would suspect, has received much training in graduate school on creating accessible documents, so there’s a lot of inertia to overcome.

Rebecca: Not even in fields that deal with accessibility as part of their background—they might not even have that experience either. So, like computer science, design, et cetera… that’s something that’s just starting to bubble into curricula now.

John: One of the things, Sean, you and Rebecca have both been working on is developing an accessibility fellows program here at Oswego. Could you talk a little bit about that program… what it is and what’s the purpose of it?

Sean: Rebecca and I were talking about this earlier… and looking at it from an institutional point of view, I think if we want to go and to create this culture of accessibility, you’re really gonna have to go and put resources towards it and make it a priority… and I think here at Oswego we’ve tried to do that in a number of ways, and one would be to bring on an intern that Rebecca had trained and had excellent skills and we could go and work to remediate courses, for one item… and then to build a culture of accessibility here… and the only way I think to go and to build a culture is to go and to build it from bottom up… and show people it’s important by putting resources towards it… making time available for people to go and to work on it. So, the accessibility fellowship that we’re starting this year does that… and it does it in one way in terms of giving Rebecca some time to go and to provide the leadership that she does in terms of accessibility and it fits in with the work that she’s doing and the priorities that she has… and it also set some time aside for faculty to go and to work on accessibility and for them to become advocates for going and spreading the word as we move forward… and I think by going and putting the resources in, it’ll make a difference at the beginning, but the real difference will be four or five, six years down the road when we have a number of people and the person sitting next to you says to you, “Oh, you could make that more accessible if you did this…” and it just becomes part of the culture that everybody’s working on it. Rather than just Rebecca going and starting we got to make the triangle much larger.

John: The fellows are receiving a course release to free up time so that they can work on these activities.

Sean: Right, and with the expectation that they’ll have training… they’ll understand what it means to create accessible courses. They’re going to create accessible courses. They’ll have an opportunity to travel and go to a conference with accessible related material, become advocates for it as well…

John: We’ll also ask them to give some workshops for their colleagues. People are much more likely to show up for a workshop when it’s someone from their own department or area so by doing this across the campus we’re hoping that this will start spreading a bit more rapidly.

Rebecca: It’s important to note that there’s a wide variety of fellows from different disciplines. We have people from Business… we’ve got people from Science… people from English… people from Political Science… people from Education… people from… Sean: Comm studies…

Rebecca: Comm studies. Did I get them all? Oh… no… and Health, Promotion and Wellness.

Sean: So we were hoping to have four originally and we have seven. So, I think we’re very happy that people were interested and wanted to go and spread the word… and I think also as Rebecca says with the wide number of fellows that we have, we’ll be able to go and do some work… So particularly, like in the sciences there’s a lot of questions around accessibility and how do you go and create the accessible content? I think the person that we have will be able to go and to start some of the work and help it go in to build a knowledge base and be able to pass it on to others as we move forward.

Rebecca: I think that’s really key because there’s definitely some holes in the knowledge of the team that’s been working on these things as soon as it starts getting more specialized.

John: That person in the sciences is Casey Raymond, who is on our podcast on the first and third episodes.

Sean: Yes.

Rebecca: Uh hmm. Sean, one of the things that we’ve talked a lot about is building it from the ground up versus retrofitting or remediating. Can you talk a little bit about the difference in the workload and resources needed…

Sean: Right.

Rebecca: …for those two different approaches?

Sean: I would say one item that we’ve seen really over the last couple years, particularly as we’ve started to work on it, is the amount of time that we’ve had to go and spend remediating courses… and we do put a lot of focus in terms of online classes and we’ve just seen a tremendous growth in the amount of classes that need to be remediated. We have processes inside (Banner) and we’ve written applications inside Banner and create reports to go in and to identify students who are taking classes that are online that are going to go and be remediated. Where we might have been doing a couple or a few courses a semester before… the number has grown five hundred to a thousand percent more than it was before and that really required us to go in to create a position for an individual to go and to work and basically try to stay a couple weeks ahead of the course material for all the students that we’re dealing with… or at least all the courses that we’re dealing with for these students… and actually I would say with the growth and with the students that we have coming in this solution is not scalable. We’re not going to be able to hire enough people to go and to do it… and I’d say within a couple years if we keep doing it, we just won’t be able to keep up. It’s getting to that point. We have an accessibility committee on campus that would consist of people from the President’s office, our Diversity and Inclusion Officer, our communications, our web people, student disabilities, Rebecca, from the academic point of view… our web developer and Extended Learning, who do a lot of the online classes, and we spend a lot of time in those meetings. First of all, they start with the remediation that has to be done and when we have discussions around it, we realize it feels like the hole that we’re digging around accessibility just keeps getting larger and larger… and at this point our goal would be to stop the rate of the hole getting as large as it is. At some point maybe we can even it off and then get to the point where we can start filling it in, but I think the only way we’re gonna go and fill it in is over many, many years and when we redo classes they’ll be designed with accessible format as we move forward – going back and remediating all the work, it’s just not doable.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think you’re highlighting, Sean, is the difference between accommodation and accessibility. Accessibility is much more proactive where we’re actually going in ahead of time, making sure that when we’re designing content, it’s set up so that it’s accessible no matter what device you’re using it’s gonna work; whereas accommodation is… you register through the office of disabilities or whatever you have on your campus and you get a specific accommodation letter… the accommodation letter is given to the faculty member and then you’re given those accommodations and that office might provide the resources to convert a text or whatever might need to be done. This is much more front-loaded, but it helps more students and it also helps students who don’t want to identify as being disabled, especially if they have a hidden disability that they’d prefer to keep private. One thing that’s also different is that students who might have hidden disabilities or disabilities in general have always had the burden of getting the materials or asking and having to take all of the extra steps. In this case it’s the content generators with (the responsibility for) accessibility, so that’s a key difference between the two.

John: You noted that some students might choose not to report learning disabilities, but we should also note that some students might have undiagnosed learning disabilities. Those students can also benefit from the creation of accessible materials.

In order for our campus and other campuses to become fully accessible, it’s going to require the teamwork of quite a few people. Could you talk a little about how that process has been going here?

Sean: We’ve done a good job here at Oswego and we have a really good mix of people that are really interested in this topic and want to move it forward… so I think of our web developer, Rick Buck and how he’s gone and redesigned our website (although it was very compliant to begin with, let me say)… but he’s gone and put in the extra features that go and work to going to keep us compliant and he’s also spent considerable time with his team to educate our content editors who go in… and in any university you would have a very diverse group of people who would develop content in their specific department or area to keep the information relevant… but they need to understand their responsibilities inside of it… so going and training them and giving the knowledge and the tools. So, from the web point of view, I think we’ve done a lot, but also we’re lucky to have a mix of people here in the academic area who want to go and and do this. So, for example, with Rebecca and with the work that she does, first of all in the class and in the area of accessibility… we’re really lucky to go and to be able to tap into that and to put the resources necessary to move the whole project forward… and I would say that goes right up to the President here at the university and the Provost and them making it a priority and ensuring that we put resources towards this to move the project forward.

Rebecca: I would also add that without Sean really being the advocate for the entire process, I don’t think a lot of the things that we have in place would happen. He was the convener of the committee and some of these other things that really got the ball rolling… and it got rolling quickly. [LAUGHTER]

Sean: Why I do think it really helps being proactive and going and looking at it from a systemic point of view and going and trying to change the system and starting at the bottom; otherwise you just spin your wheels all the time and the hole gets deeper and deeper.

Rebecca: That leads us to: What next, Sean?

Sean: Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of the things that are coming up for us. You earlier referenced that I’m the Chair of the SUNY Council of CIOs. So, inside the SUNY system we’ve done a lot of work and tried to work with the CIOs to share knowledge in terms of what we’re doing, whether it be on our website and with applications that we’re purchasing and implementing. A couple of the other schools are doing even more. So the University of Buffalo is actually doing quite a bit and they’ve implemented a new procurement process that will go and put better, I would say, guardrails around how we go and purchase application software and I would imagine a lot of the schools will adopt what they’re doing… and the SUNY Provost is about to come out with a accessibility statement or policy and inside that statement and policy will be the need to have someone responsible for accessibility at each school, and how a school is going to need to have a plan in order to do it… and I would say that we’re among the leaders in terms of doing that. We’ll have a plan in terms of how we want to go and move it forward… and really the next part of it is I would say at this point is to go in and implement and let it grow and let the people do their work and share the knowledge that our fellows will have over the next period of time and then look where we want to go for that—we’ll need to go back and assess how we did this year and then I would say just guide ourselves through those waters and decide how we want to go and grow the program and share it with others.

John: Thank you. It’s always a pleasure talking to you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us, Sean.

Sean: Thank you for having me.

[Music]

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

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

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

62. 2018 Reflections

We’ve had over a year of inspiring guests and great information on the Tea for Teaching podcast. We thought it would be fun to spend our time today discussing the tools and techniques that we’ve put into practice.

Show Notes

Tea for Teaching podcast episodes referred to in this podcast:

Other citations:

  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Sue, D. W. (2016). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..

Transcript

Rebecca: We’ve had over a year of inspiring guests and great information on the Tea for Teaching podcast. We thought it would be fun to spend our time today discussing the tools and techniques that we’ve put into practice.

[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.

Rebecca: Today’s guests are John and Rebecca.

John: And today’s teas are…

Rebecca: Christmas Tea.

John: And I am having Christmas Tea.

Rebecca: Really?

John: I am.

Rebecca: We didn’t plan that. Well it’s the end of your reflections—guess it’s in the season. So, John, what are some of the things that you’ve tried that made a big impact on your class this year?

John: One thing that was really influential was the metacognitive cafe low-stakes online discussion forum that Judie Littlejohn developed and developed and presented in our second episode. This discussion forum allows students to collaboratively work together to improve their metacognition and to become more effective in learning. The student response has been so positive in the online classes where Judie and I have both introduced it that I’m going to try to introduce it into my large introductory face-t-face introductory classes. It’s going to be a little more challenging trying to come up with a scalable way of doing that that would work with classes of 3 to 4 hundred students, but I think the benefits make it worth the attempt.

Rebecca: That episode inspired me a little bit too and although I don’t have that specific set up in our capstone class, we started asking students about the workspaces that are most effective for them and in design there’s a lot of open-space studios and then those that might have more private space, and so we’ve been talking a lot about that and so things that they might intuit to be more comfortable or more productive environment for them or making them be far more reflective and precise about… and so that same practice of being intentional and thinking through that has been really effective and useful.

John: Another thing that had a large impact on me was Jeffrey Riman’s discussion in episode 10 on VoiceThread. Up until then I had been playing with VoiceThread every few years, occasionally giving workshops to demonstrate it to faculty but he convinced me to actually try it and I used it last spring and it worked very well in my online labor economics class. I was very pleased with how it worked. I actually used this in the metacognitive cafe discussions in my online labor economics class, but I used a text based discussion for the weekly content discussions. One of the interesting things is that after hearing all of the students’ voices in the metacognitive cafe discussions, when I was reading their other discussions, I could hear their voices and it created a little bit more sense of presence and connection, and the students responded the same way… that getting to hear each other’s voices made them feel a little bit more connected and gave them more of a sense of community.

Rebecca: I can imagine that it might also help students hear the inflection and the intention of some of the words and written content a little more clearly so they know that maybe a student had a good intention about what they said rather than assuming a bad intention just based on hearing a student’s participation throughout the semester.

John: As we’ve noted in a reading group—I think it was something that Michelle Miller talked about in Minds Online—everyone is much more likely to misinterpret meanings in text or to read negative connotations into things even when they’re not meant. What are some of the other episodes that influenced you?

Rebecca: I go back to Writing Better Writing Assignments, episode 31 with Allison Rank and Heather Pool as a reminder when I start writing new assignments. They are so intentional about making sure that you’re phrasing questions effectively and efficiently and you’re really asking students what you actually want them to deliver and I think that serves as a good reminder and I feel like every time I start making a new assignment I go back to some of those ideas. I don’t always necessarily listen to the episode again but I certainly skim through that transcript again.

John: I do the same thing sometimes. Either the transcript or sometimes the resources when there’s something I need to look up.

Rebecca: Their paper is really great too, so I’ve referred back to that a number of times as well. One of the other episodes that I found myself going back to a lot in the throes of this particular semester was episode 46, Creative Risk-Taking with Wendy Watson. In my department, historically we’ve had a lot of creative play between our classes and sometimes creative competitions and things and for some reason we have a lot going on with new renovations and stuff on our campus that have been keeping us extra busy and I think we had to cut something and we had started to cut the play and we’re all just feeling really dragged down and tired and what-have-you. So we brought some play back. So this semester my students invented a food truck for the campus and we created a website around it, created a menu so it was really creative and fun, and then some other classes created commercials and other resources and things to extend the brand and so the students all had a great time and it was really kind of funny because when we handed stuff off to the class that did little mini commercials they didn’t realize it wasn’t real. [LAUGHTER] They were like, “this will be really awesome.” They were really looking forward to it, but…

John: We were hoping for taco trucks on every corner and it didn’t turn out that way.

Rebecca: Yeah, actually it’s Space Buds; it’s a potato truck coming soon. [LAUGHTER]

John: Like the ice cream of the future, yes. [LAUGHTER] Which is now here; that’s no longer the ice cream of the future.

Rebecca: Yeah, but I think that’s a good reminder that learning can be fun and sometimes when you bring in these fun, creative opportunities for students to explore the class material everybody has more fun, including the faculty member and I think it just lightens the mood and makes everyone move forward faster.

John: That’s a nice reminder for all of us.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: And also her discussion of just the importance of being willing to take risks in the classroom and not just go through routines and go through the motions the same way every semester was really refreshing.

Rebecca: Yeah, it can be really scary to take on a new project. When I decided that I’m just gonna change my project and it’s gonna be this after having engaged in that particular episode it’s like, “I don’t know how this is gonna go, fingers crossed…” but it worked out great.

John: One other thing that’s been affecting my class this semester was the podcast with Marela Fiacco, episode 34 on Flex Courses. In most of my classes I’ve been recording the sessions and posting them for students and if I knew a student was going to be out of town I would also livestream the class, but based on what she was doing with her class I just told my students that I’m live streaming each of my large classes and I’ve been amazed at the number of people who have been just joining in from wherever they happen to be. I’ve had up to 10 to 12 percent of the class and sometimes it’s because they’re not feeling well—we had a number of people out sick for a while—and while they’re lying in bed half dead or whatever they can still join in with the class… they can pose questions that pop up on the screen for a very few seconds… and they can also participate in all the clicker questions if they have the remote app… and that’s been working pretty well; it’s provided access for students who are away… who are out of town visiting family and traveling… and it’s just become routine where some people just enjoy it—they’d rather be by themselves. Some of the students who were sitting in the back have found that they can find a much quieter environment than some of the environments in the classroom— while we try to keep the noise level in the class down at times, some people are intimidated by having 300 to 400 students around them actively discussing things during some of the peer-to-peer things and they feel more comfortable in a quieter environment and they can do it that way.

Rebecca: That’s great. I think sometimes we expect that when we provide that kind of access that all of a sudden students aren’t going to get what they need or they’re gonna slack off or not take advantage but you can see that they’re there… they’re present… they’re participating, so that’s exciting.

John: Another thing that really influenced me quite a bit last spring was episode 12 with Doug McKee where he was talking about active learning. Two of the things he was doing I implemented right away, particularly the two-stage exam. I implemented it that semester—I talked about it first with the students to see if they were interested; they were and it just worked beautifully. We talked about that in an earlier episode too, and another thing I introduced was the student poster session that he discussed using in place of the end-of-term student presentations where students get up with their PowerPoint displays and those who are not presenting are sitting there anxiously worried about their presentation and most students were just not that actively engaged. When they got to create posters and post them around the room and have some of their friends and some other faculty from the department, and actually even the Dean came in and viewed them, they were so much more excited and instead of presenting for 8 to 10 minutes for each student they got to stand up there for the whole class period and explain it to all their colleagues and because I broke it up a little bit so that half of the students could go and visit the posters created by the other students for a period of time and then the other half could visit the others, they weren’t just standing by their posters and we had other people come in and talk about it and visit with him and they found it much more interesting and they were much more actively engaged in the presentations and much more enthused about it than they were otherwise, and several of them said that they wish all their presentations were done in that way.

Rebecca: I think that was a theme that came up in a number of episodes this idea of presenting your material out to a bigger audience than just the class. I wonder if some of the success is not just because it was this particular format with their students but because you were also inviting others in and it raised the stakes a little bit which might have just professionalized the whole experience. You mentioned the two stage exams—so I know we talked extensively about that on another episode, but it’s still really interesting to me too. I haven’t quite figured out how to implement it in the kinds of things that I teach but it’s still tumbling around in my mind; I like that idea and I do some things that are like that where I have students solve a problem on their own and then they come together and try to solve it together and in general that methodology seems to work just really well.

John: Peer instruction in general…

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: …works really well, which is when we talked about that more extensively.. What are some of the themes from our past podcasts that have influence your practice as a teacher the most?

Rebecca: I think this year seems to be my focus on diversity and inclusion and it’s for a few reasons: one is all of our accessibility initiatives that I’m highly involved with on campus, but also our reading group this year is on Race Talk by Derald Wing Sue… so I’m completely immersed in that particular subject… so I seem to be latching on to anything that’s about that and trying to digest that… and I also teach accessibility and things in my classes so I’m constantly thinking through how to teach empathy, how to get students to think about different experiences that are very different from their own and how to communicate that and how to get students to engage in that practice, so the episodes that really focused on diversity and inclusion include episode 41. Instructional Communication with Jennifer Knapp, one of our colleagues here on campus; episode 50. Diversity and Inclusion with Rodman King, who is our Diversity and Inclusion Officer on our campus; episode 49. Closing the Gap with Angela Bauer; and episode 58. Role Play with Jill Peterfeso, and the combination of those episodes runs the gamut of thinking through your interpersonal communications with students and in between students to how to present information to students to thinking about how to include students who traditionally may have been excluded from the discipline or from the community and then also thinking about historical context with the roleplay and how there’s a lot of ways that you can use roleplay to explore a wide variety of ideas in a safer space because it’s in a performative space rather than “reality” and that allows for some discussions and things to unfold in a way that it wouldn’t otherwise.

John: Jen Knapp’s discussion of the importance of creating a comfortable learning environment, which came through in the other episodes as well, really struck me in reducing the barriers between instructor and students and that’s particularly important in a large class because it’s really easy for there to be this big divide where it’s you and them and being more informal and more relaxed in the classroom can break down some of those barriers that are even more common or more difficult to break down when you’re in a large class setting than in a smaller group, I think.

Rebecca: Quantity alone can be intimidating.

John: It can be, but if you can break that down a little bit it helps, and just walking around, which I’ve always been doing, but I’m doing even more now… and that’s been helpful in getting to know some of the students a little bit more and making them more comfortable so they’re more likely to come by outside of class as well.

Rebecca: I’ve been a lot more aware of the way that I phrase things… the way that I address particular issues… being more positive in how we might address bigger patterns of struggle in the class… framing it in a way that’s much more positive promotes a growth mindset; these are things that I’ve been focusing on more and I know that I plan over winter break to revisit these particular episodes to pull out more of those details and to refresh my memory on some of those things so that when I go into the spring I can be a lot more on point on some of those things that I really care deeply about.

John: For many years now I’ve been interested in trying to build a growth mindset in students since reading Carol Dweck’s work, but Angela Bauer’s results with that in terms of how weekly growth mindset messaging in their introductory classes made a significant difference in narrowing the performance gap. I’ve been trying to do more growth mindset messaging in my own classes—more consciously doing it; I had been doing it a little bit but I’m trying to do it much more regularly whenever I send emails out to students, or whenever we’re talking about some of the more challenging things, I remind them that most students find this material challenging and that they get better at it by doing it. In economics I face a lot of students, and I know you do too, who claim they just are not math people and they just can’t understand graphs and it’s tough getting past that but reminding them that that’s a struggle for very many students and that it won’t be a struggle if they just continue to work and become more comfortable with it.

Rebecca: That raises a lot of the issues and things that came out in Marcia Burrell’s episode as well when we’re thinking about math people and this gatekeeping that happens. So it’s interesting that that particular episode ties really nicely with Angela Bauer’s work in really breaking down these barriers and helping people have access, which I think is really powerful and important work to be doing. I know that I’m catching myself saying things in a way that’s like, “Oh, why did I just do that” and undoing some things that I’m so used to doing that’s so embedded in how we work—come to find out I’m a much more of a negative person than I thought I was. [LAUGHTER] …and really.. It’s really a struggle. How about some of the themes that you’ve pulled out?

John: Some of the things that I think I’ve been most interested in and have been trying to work on the most is those episodes dealing with evidence-based teaching methods, especially because of the scale of the classes I teach; I’d like to do that as efficiently and as effectively as possible. Bill Goffe was one of the first people to discuss that very extensively and since he was coming from a background in economics it was very directly relevant to what I do and Bill and I have worked together for quite a few years here and it was nice to talk to him about some of the things he’s been doing and how he’s been evolving as a teacher. I’ve learned a lot from Bill over the years and it’s been… it’s been very productive and that episode was really useful. Episode 37 with Michelle Miller was very interesting in terms of where she sees the future of education going and where she sees some interesting possibilities for growth. Michelle Miller has been a major influence on me for quite a while from the first time I saw her present on low-stakes testing a number of years ago.

Rebecca: …and on our community in general because she’s been here as a guest speaker and we’ve done book clubs and things around her work.

John: …and she ran workshops here on two occasions and it’s been very, very productive. One of the things that influenced me this year was Dom Casadonte’s episode 42 on the flipped classroom… and I had been doing a mostly flipped classroom for quite a few years now, but I was still including a little bit more short lectures in it—five, ten minute lectures and he suggested that if you’re going to do it you should do it all the way because one of the problems is students in a flipped classroom environment will claim that you’re not teaching them and if you do a little bit of teaching them they come to expect that and then they feel cheated out of the rest so I’ve been much more explicit. I’ve always tried to prep students and to frame it in terms of the use of evidence-based practices but I’ve restructured my class a little bit to make it more obvious what we’re doing and I remind students more regularly that the basic stuff they need to learn on their own and it’s set up where they do some reading, they take some quizzes on it and then they reflect back on it and they give me a report on what things that they’re still struggling with and then we focus our class time on that. So the lecturing has been cut out except for the times when they’re stuck on something and then I’ll give short lectures to go over the things that they’re really puzzled by, but it’s much more focused and much more of the time is spent working on problem solving in the classroom.

Rebecca: It’s amazing how reminding students can be such a powerful tool for any of these evidence-based practices because if we’ve talked extensively about how it doesn’t always feel good to learn… it’s tricky… you feel challenged and so it doesn’t always feel good to learn—but reminding students why we’re doing things I certainly have also found helps a lot; it helps immensely; students buy in much more quickly when they realize why you’re doing something and when they can see that you’re customizing the content for them, even though you probably can guess often what you might need to spend time on, they feel like it’s customized and I think that means a lot to them too, probably.

John: In fact, most of the material I have I do prepare in advance, but I ask them to submit their list of concerns every day at noon and then I leave for class at 2:00 so I don’t have much time to customize it, but as you said, they feel that it’s very personalized because I refer back to the comments that they’ve been making and saying 60 percent of you said you’re struggling with this, let’s focus on some problems with this, which I’ve always known students struggle with and I’ve always been focusing on that but making it more obvious that I’m responding to their needs, I think, gives them a bit more buy-in, generally.

Rebecca: Definitely. I think some of the other themes that really have bubbled up for me is the revisiting of Open; we had a big series more recently about Open Pedagogy, Open resources; we started a long time ago in episode 8 with Kris Munger on Creating an Open textbook, but then episode 52, 55, 56 and 57 all focused on concepts of “Open.” So, I’m really excited about Open again. I forgot and it was actually Robin DeRosa that reminded me that I had been doing Open for so long and that it’s the culture of the field that I’m in to be open, so open-source software and things is something that I’ve been heavily engaged with since I’ve been a professional in the field but I kind of forgot that that’s what it was all about; I just needed that like little reminder and that little kick to get back into that mindset. So I’m really excited about focusing on that and making that more explicit in what I do and the reasons why I do it.

John: Robin DeRosa’s visit was very inspiring to many of us here when she both talked on campus and joined us in episode 55 and I’m planning to finally release my textbook as an open textbook for this spring, which is more OER than Open Pedagogy, but she also convinced me to try having students work on an open pedagogy project in the capstone course that I’ve been doing and so I’m working on putting together plans for that for the spring. I do hope that that works out, but I’m really excited about it.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m excited about Open not just in the classroom but also as a scholar and having more open scholarship and publishing and open access journals and things like that as well. I also have to say that episode 57 with Fiona Coll was really exciting about Scalar. I haven’t had a chance to really experiment but my mind was blown by the possibility and I was really excited about the power of that particular platform—I’m not sure how it might be integrated into what I do quite yet but it’s something that I’m excited to experiment with. Are there any other themes that bubbled up for you?

John: The scholarship of teaching and learning was a theme that came up in quite a few of them where we were talking about research, but in particular two of the episodes: episode 26 with David Eubanks and episode 54 on the scholarship of teaching and learning with Regan Gurung were both really inspiring as well in terms of ways that perhaps we could do a little bit more research in our classrooms about what works.

Rebecca: I’m also really excited to do more scholarship in this area and build it into and integrate it more closely into my teaching in general so that it becomes just an overlapped area and everything’s more integrated. I’ve been slowly working in my personal research, my creative work, the service that I do on campus and my teaching have all been thematically related but I’m working really hard to integrate them more closely so that I can do more publishing on some of the ways that this influences my teaching and learning. Related to the scholarship of teaching and learning and actually Open is the idea of engaged scholarship where the work that you’re doing is really integrated into the community; you’re really working with the community, so I was really excited by episode 51 with Khuram Hussain and the ideas of having conversations with community… community really having a mutual relationship with the campus, and working on projects together…maybe outside of a semester framework. I’ve been doing a lot of community projects historically and I found some of the same struggles and some of the concerns he raised were things that I had certainly experienced in the work that I had done previously, so I think he offered some new ideas and some old ideas that I was familiar with as well that I needed some reminders of ways to approach some problems and do some creative projects. So I’m excited to start building on that work as well.

John: I thought that was a fascinating discussion and a so much more productive way of doing community based learning.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think he raised the issue of charitable work versus engaged work and I totally buy into that model already, but I like that he provided some really clear ways of being more engaged as a scholar in the communities that we work in.

John: It seems like a much better experience for the students, for the community, and for college community relations.

Rebecca: Definitely.

John: One other episode that really influenced me was episode 30 with Charles Dziuban on adaptive learning; it influenced me so much that I proposed a SUNY wide task group on adaptive learning and we have now people from quite a few campuses are exploring this and looking at a variety of adaptive learning platforms and we’re also going to be preparing a report for all of SUNY, at least in a preliminary form by the end of the spring 2019 semester.

Rebecca: That’s a pretty exciting endeavor and a big one, too. Interesting how some of these episodes have sparked really big changes, big work that we’re doing—not just ourselves but collaborating with our colleagues on some interesting projects.

John: One of the challenges I faced is that virtually every episode has suggested some things that I’d like to try and it’s a challenge to try to keep from trying to do them all at once.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think we struggled at coming up with a list of some of the things that inspired us the most but that’s because everything inspired us and so… [LAUGHTER] It was a challenge to come up with that particular list, but I think that we have some themes that we’re working on as a campus and individually and we’re in a really interesting and enjoyable position to get to talk to all these wonderful colleagues about the work that they’re doing and to learn from our colleagues. So at the end of the year it’s always good to be thankful for things and I’m certainly thankful for that opportunity to talk to all of the great guests that we’ve had and to learn so much in this past year.

John: And we’d like to thank all of our listeners for joining with us, and if you have any suggestions for topics that you’d like to hear discussed on a future episode, please let us know, and we’re happy to try to add them.

Rebecca: Happy New Year, everyone.

John: Happy New Years. [Music]

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

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

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

61. A Motivational Syllabus

Do you wish your students knew what was on the syllabus? In this episode, Dr. Christine Harrington joins us to explore how we can design a syllabus that helps us improve our course design, motivates students, and  provides a cognitive map of the course that students will find useful. Christine is a Professor of History and Social Science at Middlesex College, and is the author of Designing a Motivational Syllabus (and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success). Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the NJ County of Community Colleges.

Show Notes

  • Harrington, C., & Thomas, M. (2018).  Designing a motivational syllabus:  Creating a learning path for student engagement.  Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing.
  • Bain, K. (n.d.). The promising syllabus.  The Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University. Retrieved from: http://www.bestteachersinstitute.org/promisingsyllabus.pdf
  • Listeners to this podcast can purchase Designing a Motivational Syllabus at a 20% discount by visiting the Stylus Publishing order page and using the offer code: DAMS20. This offer applies to the paperback, hardcover, and ebook versions and is valid through 6/30/2019.
  • www.scholarlyteaching.org  – Christine’s website.

Transcript

John: Do you wish your students knew what was on the syllabus? In this episode we’ll explore how we can design a syllabus that helps us improve our course design, motivates students, and provides a cognitive map of the course that students will find useful.

[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 Dr. Christine Harrington, a Professor of History and Social Science at Middlesex County College, and the author of Designing a Motivational Syllabus—and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success. Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges.

John: Welcome, Christine.

Christine: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Christine: I am not drinking tea; I’m not a tea drinker, I just do water and I will do iced tea once in a while, but not at the moment.

[LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: And I have Prince of Wales today—mixing it up, you know?

John: We invited you here to talk a bit about your book, Designing a Motivational Syllabus, released just this past May, and the syllabus of many faculty tends to read sort of like a legal document and it often tends to be a bit off-putting and some people just provide a list of topics. You have a much different approach and it seems really productive. Could you tell us a little bit about that approach?

Christine: Sure, I’d love to. Thanks so much, John. I really believe that the syllabus is an underutilized resource. As we’re beginning our semester as faculty we always are required to put together a syllabus that explains to students what the expectations of the course are. But as you mentioned, many faculty treat it as a list of do’s and don’ts, making sure that we’re communicating what the classroom rules and expectations are and maybe the course topics, but it often kind of starts and stops there. So, I really think that it’s an opportunity for us to invite students to our course and Ken Bain is actually someone who’s written a lot about this as well, you know, inviting them to the feast. I think that’s what we want to do: we want to give them the excitement and passion that we feel as faculty and get them really excited about the course too. So one of the areas I saw as a gap or missing in the literature was the motivational angle of the syllabus. In addition to providing some really good resources and providing a course map to students, I think we can motivate our students through communicating our passion, telling them a little bit more about what to expect in the course in a more conversational style… by the words that we use… by the images that we include on the syllabus… and then also providing them really helpful information so that they view this as a course that they’re excited about and they will feel supported in.

John: We actually had Ken Bain here about 12 years ago, I believe it was, and he gave an all-day workshop on building a syllabus and I attended that and it was wonderful; much of your book reminds me of that, but you also go quite a bit further and provide a lot more suggestions in detail, so I like your approach. Could you tell us a little bit more about how the syllabus serves as an entry point to course design or redesign?

Christine: Sure. I think that for many of us the idea of redesigning or designing a course for the first time even is quite daunting and overwhelming to really think about how to engage our students and achieve all of our course learning outcomes. So, I’ve used the syllabus as a vehicle for that, as an entry point that I find that faculty find it a little easier if you’re working with a more concrete practical document to help them understand course design. Now, I have been accused by some of my colleagues of doing the old switch and bait, you know, I did a syllabus workshop that really was a course design workshop and they’re like, “Wait a minute, I think that you tricked me here,” and I said, “No, I didn’t, I thought you were talking about the syllabus, and if you’re going to talk about and think about what kinds of assignments and assessments you’re going to use—this is course design.” So you need to have a larger conversation. So, I said it’s an easier way for faculty to begin the dialogue and really take a good deep look at, well, what is it that I’m asking students to do and how does this fit into the overall course as well as the overall program that the course fits within… so, seeing the larger picture in terms of the course and program learning outcomes and revisiting the assignments and assessments and perhaps moving away from some of the “always have done this” kinds of assignments… you know, traditional exa…, paper… presentation… that almost all of us have in our course in one way or another. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon ship, but it is a great opportunity to step back and say, “Wait a minute, are these the assessment tools that are really going to help support student learning and help ensure that they’re going to achieve the learning outcomes that we set forth in the syllabus?” and then the syllabus really becomes the map for students. So it is the document that communicates the design of your course. As you are crafting your syllabus, you’re really thinking about: “What is it that I’m asking students to do? Why am I asking them to do that? and what kinds of supports am I going to put in to place so that they can accomplish those tasks successfully?” So, I really believe that it is a course design tool and that if you do it well, a well-designed syllabus really will show students exactly how they get from point A to B and the kinds of supports that are available to, you know, really enhance their learning journey along the way.

Rebecca: [If] faculty were to use the syllabus as a way to redesign, where in this syllabus should they start?

Christine: Well, that is not an easy question. You know, I think it depends on—I tell faculty they have two choices when they’re thinking about redesigning their syllabus: you can take the big approach, which is the course design approach, which is going to be looking at your course learning outcomes and then looking at what kinds of assessments or assignments are aligned to those learning outcomes… and then what I usually do for this big approach is ask them to think about what are the key summative assessments that you’re looking for and then work backwards from there using the backwards design process and determine what kind of formative assessments they need to use… and then as you start to craft the way your course is going to be developed, I say take your course outline your schedule of what you’re going to do—week 1, week 2, week 3 and start to plug in those summative assessments and then start to plug in the formative assessments that you’ve identified… and then that will help you determine what needs to happen in week 1, 2 or 3 to help them be successful on those tasks. So, it’s really kind of using that backwards design. I like to say it starts with the learning outcomes, it shifts over to the assessments that you’re going to use and then it starts to move into the course outline, you know, or sequence of topics that would be really important. But I said to you there’s kind of two ways that faculty can begin to, you know, redesign their syllabus. This is the big way and the way that I would really love faculty to do it, but if someone’s saying to me “The semester’s starting next week, that’s just too monumental of a task…” You cannot engage in this process in a day or two. It takes a significant chunk of time for you to really re-evaluate what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. So there’s also a lot of takeaways in this book about how you could do things literally in five minutes or less that would enhance the motivation and engage students in learning. For example, I did a workshop on my campus where we had a syllabus redesign summer camp and at the beginning of the semester we had faculty submit their current syllabi and at the end we had them submit their final syllabi… and the transformation just from a visual perspective alone was really incredible. So, if you didn’t even look deeply at the design piece… for instance, having a nice photo to draw students in (that’s related to your course content)… there was a biology faculty member who put this amazing, great engaging skeleton on the front page… and that really was much more effective than having her first syllabi, which had all rules and regulations…you know: “do this, don’t do that…” and a welcome statement and a picture of yourself… really just some of those kinds of elements really can make a difference. There’s some research studies out there that support adding a few additional words like “please come and talk to me” makes it much more likely that a student will come and talk to you, and it communicates that you want them to come and talk to you. There are some very easy fixes; changing it from formal language such as “the professor will” and “the student will” to “I am going to” and “you will do this…” Just using that more personal language can really help. So those fixes are literally… you could do it in five minutes or less if you want to make a couple of minor changes to increase motivation, but the overall course design is obviously a much bigger process, I’m not going to pretend it’s not.

Rebecca: I think it’s always a good reminder that you can always do small things before you can jump into a big thing and that the big thing is, you know, valuable. We were laughing at the beginning of what you were talking about a minute ago because I did the same exact thing here where I did a syllabus workshop that was a complete course redesigned workshop.

John: …and I suggested we rename it in the future as a course redesign or course design or redesign, but maybe leaving it as a syllabus workshop might work.

Christine: Yeah, I think you’ll get more people to participate. It’s less scary. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s sneaky.

John: It is. It’s a sneaky way of getting in.

Christine: …and it also really allows faculty to walk away with something very practical… tangible… that they actually have done as evidence of participating in that workshop, and that’s great for administrators to see as well.

Rebecca: That’s a good point. So you talked a little bit about the syllabus as a tool for faculty to help think about organizing their class and redesigning it, making sure that students are going to learn what we’re hoping that they’re gonna learn. Can you talk a little bit about how the syllabus is a tool for students?

Christine: Sure. I think it’s really critical for students to not just take this document and put it aside but to recognize the value that it has… and I will tell you that students who see a more in-depth, comprehensive syllabi have a much more positive perception of the faculty member and also of the student experience of being in that class. From the student perspective, it’s motivational for them to know that they have a faculty member that cares enough to put together this really comprehensive package. Having a long syllabus that does not have any visual tools in it and is overwhelming… whether it’s legalese… that is something that students are not going to use much. But when you create a syllabus that’s motivational and engaging and visually effective, students will use that document and they really will appreciate it. Now, they do need reminders about how to use that. I think that it is a document that all of us quite frankly emphasize in the first day or first week of the semester and then often don’t revisit except for to say “in the syllabus…” which may or may not help a student if they’re having trouble navigating it. So, I’m a very big fan of making sure that we make it a document that is student friendly. If it is a longer document, including a table of contents, so that they know they don’t need to read all of this. Maybe the last half of the syllabus is the rubric section with specifics on the assignment… that they just need to know it’s there when the time comes for them to look at it. So I will often encourage students to view the syllabus very much like their textbook. You don’t need to read the entire textbook during the first week of class, but you certainly need to know what’s in the textbook so you’re not just focused on chapter one. You need to acclimate yourself to all of the information that’s in the text and what kinds of topics and resources are included. Well, the same goes for the syllabus… so really helping them use it as a resource and not feeling like they need to read it and memorize it, but instead use it as a tool to help them be successful.

John: One of the things you suggest is doing a screencast with the syllabus perhaps to make sure that students do look at it and to make it a bit more welcoming. Could you talk to us a little bit about that?

Christine: The screencast, I think, is a very valuable strategy, especially in the online class, but it can also be helpful in an in-person class. We all know that sometimes students are adding and dropping in the beginning of the semester and might miss an important conversation, and this really allows you to communicate about the syllabus to students. In addition, I will tell you that I have had students… I tend to have a fairly lengthy syllabi, as you can imagine, based on my textbook, I like to include a lot of resources… and I have had students say to me, when I got the syllabus via email from you, I really was overwhelmed and I was ready to run away from this class; I thought it was going to be a lot of work because it was a long syllabus, and once you explained it and we started to see the resources in it, I discovered that’s not the case at all. So I think that having that personal touch and the the nonverbals that you can really communicate through a screencast with a web video as well as the audio really does help students understand the value of the syllabus and we have so many great online tools now, like screencast-o-matic, that are free… things like that… that you can really easily do that in a short period of time to do an introduction, and students can refer back to that as they need to throughout the semester.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of things you would recommend faculty highlight or introduce about the syllabus on the first day? You mentioned identifying some of the resources and things in it. But, as you know, there’s a lot of faculty that call the first couple class days syllabus days and some of them actually read the syllabus to the students. What would you recommend?

Christine: Well, I certainly would not recommend reading the syllabus to the students. [LAUGHTER] That is not engaging. I think that the part of the syllabus that doesn’t get as much attention as it should is the “Why are we together?” The syllabus communicates: the purpose of the class, the goals of the class, and “What are the takeaways that they’re going to get as a result of being in this class?” Students, what they’re going to immediately want to know is about the grade, right? They go directly to the page that has information on the grade and the assignments that they need to do. But if they go there first, they’re missing the big picture. So, I think that we as faculty have a wonderful opportunity, whether it’s through a screencast or live in a regular classroom setting, to emphasize the learning outcomes of the course in a user-friendly way… not necessarily reading the learning outcomes, but to passionately explain why this course matters so much and the value of the course and the skills, and not just the knowledge that they’re going to get, but really the experience and the confidence that they’re going to get as a result of being in this course. So I really find that to be the most important piece to emphasize, and then helping them see the direct correlation and connection between what it is that they’re going to achieve and those learning experiences. So whether they’re assignments or assessments… the why behind all of those… so they don’t just view it as a big long checklist of “this is what I have to do because it’s a college course,” but they understand that that’s the roadmap that’s going to help them accomplish all those tasks. So, for instance, if I can give you one example, quizzing is something that not every faculty member does, sometimes it’s more of a more high-stakes midterm/final kind of situation… but faculty who really want to provide that opportunity for students to have formative assessments along the way would also include quizzing… and when you do that what happens is is that you’re helping students learn those skills along the way and help them self-regulate whether or not they’re on task to achieve the learning outcomes. But students may view them as busy work or that you don’t believe they’re going to read without being held accountable. By explaining the why in the rationale and bringing some of the research in on the testing effect and explaining to them that the reason for me doing this is because the research shows that if you test yourself you are much more likely to learn that content and it will stick with you throughout much longer periods of time. So providing the why, I think, is probably the most important part that I would bring their attention to and I think that we don’t do that enough as faculty.

John: Just as a plug for a future podcast, Michelle Miller will be a guest in a few weeks where she’ll be talking about the testing effect and retrieval practice.

Christine: Terrific.

John: But that is an issue. Students see testing as something negative; it’s not something they find quite as enjoyable… so providing that rationale is really useful and students don’t always buy it but the more you can convince them and the more evidence you can provide, I think the more likely it is that they’ll see the benefits.

Rebecca: Yeah, John and I have talked about this before that when I started doing that in my design classes, which is a place where testing is not as common, I had students actually asking for more, which I found to be very bizarre initially. You don’t generally have students asking for more tests or quizzes, but when they started realizing how it was helping keep them on track they actually found them really valuable.

John: In helping them assess their learning and to help improve their own metacognition of what they know and what they don’t know, it can be really useful.

Rebecca: One of the things that you have in your syllabus is a teaching statement. Can you talk a little bit about why you include that and why you recommend including that? Because that’s not something you commonly see in a syllabus.

Christine: Absolutely, in fact, there are a couple elements that I think are essential if you want to use the syllabus as a motivational tool, and I see the teaching statement as being one of the key elements; it’s an opportunity for you to start to build a relationship with your students, and it gives you a chance to share some background about who you are and why you’re passionate about the subject and what they can expect to happen during class. As we all know, the professor-student rapport is probably one of the most important predictors of success. Students who have professors who they believe care about them and are interested and engaged are much more likely to be successful than students who have faculty who are much not engaged and maybe not as connected to them. So, I believe that we could use the syllabus to begin developing that relationship, because we often send this out prior to even meeting a student for the very first time, and it also might be something that is shared on some kind of management system within the university or college setting for students to decide which classes to take. So it can invite them to why they should be taking your class –it’s really a wonderful way for you to share a little bit about yourself and your professional background expertise and passion.

John: You also suggest in your book that the syllabus can serve as a communication tool and it also makes it easier to be transparent in terms of how you grade and letting students know this, and that can increase equity, or at least a perception of equity. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Christine: Sure, I think it’s really critical that we are being as explicit and as transparent as we can be. There are going to be some students who can more easily connect those dots than others and when we make the dots connected for them we’re equaling the playing field to ensure that all of our students know what it is that they need to do in order to get to the finish line and how the different tasks relate to one another. So the more you can communicate and ensure that some of the students who may not naturally see those connections can see those connections, I think that really does improve learning and the academic experience for all students.

Rebecca: You mentioned earlier about referencing the syllabus and having students use the syllabus as a tool throughout the semester; you also mentioned early on that faculty have a tendency to say “it’s on the syllabus” without really providing much more guidance than that. Can you talk a little bit about ways that you recommend using the syllabus at farther points in the semester to help support students and continue to motivate students beyond just the beginning of the class?

Christine: Sure. I think that is critical. You know, many of us do activities on the very first day of class. I’m hoping that many of us are not reading the syllabus anymore and we’re starting to get more engaging strategies at the start of the semester. I know folks do a syllabus quiz and things of that nature. I actually think that having a group quiz format,, something that’s more interactive, is great. I do jigsaw classroom exercises at the beginning of the semester on the syllabus. They’re diving into that resource and understanding it and reporting back and teaching their classmates about the different section that they were assigned to. I think setting the stage at the beginning of the semester is really important, but we can’t stop there; we need to then follow through and revisit the syllabus throughout the semester. So what I typically do is I will often ask students to, at the beginning of class, (I always ask them to have their syllabus with them)… and I might give them a few minutes and I do this activity called dusting off the cobwebs… where they have to recall what we talked about last class and maybe from the readings and then we can look forward. So after we clean up our house in terms of where we were then what’s coming next, so what are we talking about today? How does this link up with the concept that we talked about last class, and then what what’s coming up in terms of what’s due? So instead of me putting on the board or on a PowerPoint slide, “Next week, don’t forget you have to submit the first part of your project” or whatever it might be. I’m having students give those daily reminders. So you can literally spend five minutes or less in a class, and maybe once a week; it doesn’t have to be necessarily every class… but maybe Monday’s will be your dusting day and looking forward opportunity. So I think that’s really helpful. The other time where I spend a little bit more time on it is when there is a big project that’s coming up. So at this point of the semester I will often have students work in either a partner group or a small group and in that situation I’m asking them to look at pages 12 to 14 that outline the details related to assignment 1 and the rubric of how you’ll get assessed on assignment 1. I want you to review that. I want you to put that in your own words… tell your classmate about what it is… and then you have an opportunity to ask me any questions about it. So, I’m basically training them to engage in that process. Again, this doesn’t need to eat up a tremendous amount of class time; it can be a few minutes. But by doing that you end up often getting better products to grade which makes your life much happier when it’s time for all the papers to be handed in because even though you put it in the syllabus, it doesn’t mean that they’ve looked in the syllabus… or they knew where to look… or maybe something didn’t make sense to them and they were not comfortable asking without the opportunity given to them in that very explicit way. So, I find that that really as a very helpful process. I also like to do an activity kind of mid-semester looking at the learning outcomes… so, going back to saying “Okay, so here’s what we said we were going to be able to learn and be able to do at the end of the semester. We’re about halfway done. I want you to look at the learning outcomes and do a self assessment. Where are you at on a scale of one to five? What do you need to do in order to get to the level five at the end of the semester? …and some of that’s going to happen obviously in classes or through the assignments. But, what else can you do to ensure that you’ll achieve all of those learning outcomes?” So, I like to use it in a self-regulatory way as well.

John: One of the things related to that is you suggest the use of an assignment grade tracking form. I’ve always kept my gradebook in Blackboard so students can see where they are but students don’t always seem to pay much attention to that. Having them create their own assignment grade tracking might be useful. Could you talk a little bit about what the form is and why you recommend that?

Christine: Sure. I do think that with our current technologies {Blackboard, Canvas, thinks of that nature), the LMS systems really do have a pretty robust gradebook feature where students can easily track their progress. Because in order for them to self-regulate they need to know whether or not they need some external data to see if they’re on track or not. To me, as long as they’re engaged in that checking and self-regulatory behavior, I don’t think it matters whether it’s definitely in the syllabus or in Canvas or Blackboard. But unfortunately, not every faculty member is using the gradebook to its full capacity, so sometimes students are left wondering about their grade and I want them to feel in charge of knowing how to do it. I also think that they have a hard time sometimes seeing the weighting of assignments so that they might view a smaller assignment as being equal to that of a larger one and not recognizing the significance that can have on your grade. In the absence of some of the technology tools… and there are great apps for this too so if your student has a faculty member that is not using an LMS gradebook, they can go ahead and download an app… and I think that’s a great way to track it as well. But just including something like that on the syllabus helps them see the breakdown on the weighting of the different grades so they can see how that final grade is determined.. Because I think you’re right. In the LMS’s I see that students are often looking only at the current calculated grade rather than looking at all of the pieces of how that grade came to be. So anything we can do to help them better understand the grading process and how those elements go into the final grade, I think, is useful.

Rebecca: In your book and also in the example syllabi that you’ve provided (both on your website and also in your book) you talk a little bit about your assignment sheets with rubrics and things completely spelled out… so not something that’s more generalized but something incredibly specific. Can you talk a little bit about the choice to do that and the advantages of doing something like that?

Christine: Sure. So I think that we all provide students with details about our assignments; it’s about where does that happen. For some of us, we think that that should happen outside of the syllabus in the LMS in a different place… under assignments or some other tab rather than being in the syllabus itself. I think it’s really helpful for students to have a complete package in the syllabus. Now, just because I think that doesn’t mean that it’s true, right? Actually I did a really neat study with a colleague of mine Crystal Quillen at Middlesex County College where we examined the student perception of syllabi length and we shared different syllabi. There was a 6-page a 9-page and a 15-page syllabus and they were randomly assigned to different groups. What we discovered was that students who were reviewing a medium or long (which was 9 or 15 page) syllabus actually found that syllabus to be more positive. So they had a more positive perception of the faculty member in terms of being motivated and things of that nature. In addition, we asked the specific question of the students “Would you rather have all of the details about your assignment in one place in the syllabus or is that not what you want? Would you rather just know ‘I have to write a paper’ and then have those details about the paper be provided at the point that you need them and in a different place within your learning management system?” …and 66% of the students said we want it all in one place. I think one of the challenges that our students have is that every faculty member sets up their LMS page a little differently… and I know colleges really work hard to try to have some consistency across the different course shells that exist… but students really do struggle with trying to find that information. If we can guarantee to students that all of the essential information you need about your assignments and your learning path are in the syllabus, then I think that makes a lot of sense. I really think it’s important for faculty and students to understand that it’s almost like an addendum to the syllabus, but it is in that document. So that they don’t need to get overwhelmed by it on day one but they know that it’s a resource… very much, like I had said before, like the textbook is.

Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting point right, a lot of our students are in five classes and if there’s five different ways of doing things and it’s organized five different ways with five different evaluation systems it can get a little overwhelming after a while. It’s a lot to keep track of. We often complain that students don’t keep track of things, but we certainly don’t help it.

John: We’d like to reduce the cognitive load.

Christine: Yeah, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, it’s the case and sometimes we need to get ourselves back in from the student lens to see what does life look like from their perspective. …and if I could just say one other thing about the “It’s in the syllabus” comment… I mean, believe me, I pour my heart and soul into creating my syllabus. My husband often laughs at me because he’s like “Haven’t you taught this course before? You look like you haven’t taught this before…” because I’m spending hours and hours and hours and I just had it last semester but I know it could be so much better. I’m trying to find ways to communicate it better. So, I know that the information is in the syllabus because I put it there. I spent many hours doing that. But if I give if a student is active enough and engaged enough to ask me a question about an assignment or the course and I just say “It’s in the syllabus” my syllabus is a long document. I do need to navigate them to which part of the syllabus it’s in, because my syllabus is probably a little different than other syllabi that they have looked at. So, I feel like it’s so easy and frustrating for us when the students may not have looked carefully before asking us. So that’s a skill we need to help them learn. But maybe they did look and they didn’t find it as quickly as they would like to. Let’s be honest. You and I also are not going to spend an enormous amount of time looking at a website if we can’t find what we’re looking for right away. We’re going to ask someone. So, we want to make it as easy to navigate as possible, and having consistency I think across different courses does help… not that you need to have a rigid standardized syllabus that looks exactly the same in every course. I think you need to have a little bit of room for the flavor and the personality of the course to show.

Rebecca: Those are things that we just forget about. We forget that it can be really overwhelming to look at documents. Yet we all complain about the same thing when someone else makes a document that we have to look at and we can’t find something. So, it’s good to double-check ourselves. So, I appreciate the reminder.

Christine: Absolutely.

Rebecca: One of the things that needs to be in a syllabus to some extent is the policies… there’s college policies that might have a particularly language that you have to include, but then also maybe what some of your own policies are as an instructor. How do you suggest including those in a motivational, inspiring, and supportive way? Because sometimes they don’t feel very inspiring or supportive.

Christine: That’s a great question. In fact, I have noticed that probably one of the biggest demotivators of a syllabus is the policy section… and many times faculty add more and more policies based on negative experiences that they’ve had. So something happens in a classroom setting and they’re like “I need a policy on that, so I’m going to add another policy about that…” and it starts to become this really big long laundry list. And clearly we have to have policies… I’m not saying we shouldn’t but I think the way in which we communicate our policies really do matter. When we have a list of “don’t do this: don’t cheat, don’t plagiarize…” all these kinds of rules and regulations… we’re kind of communicating to students that we think you’re going to do this, so I’m going to set you straight right now… rather than using more positive language. Instead we could communicate the same policy… I like to use the academic integrity one. So instead of saying “don’t plagiarize” instead… if you have a policy about academic integrity and the importance of why that matters so much and how everyone is expected to uphold academic integrity and engage in honest actions… That I think sets a very different beginning to that policy. The other piece is that we sometimes create policies that promote, I think, more achievement gaps… and actually gets back to that question you asked me earlier about equity, because many of our policies do not promote equity. I’ll take a late work policy, for instance… and I recognize the fact that we all need to be timely with our tasks. I mean in the world of work people are going to expect you to complete tasks on time and I recognize that that’s a very important skill. However, I also know that we are all human beings with a life on the side, you know, so that life happens sometimes that may prevent us from being on time with a task. I know I personally have not always been on time. I’m a very timely person, but there have been times when I have missed a deadline and haven’t been exactly where I needed to be at the time I should have been there. It’s not a pattern, but it does happen. So I think we need to have policies that are building in some of the flexibility that communicates to students that we respect them… we recognize that they have a life outside of school or at least outside of our class… sometimes our policies don’t even seem to recognize that they have other classes… like our class is the only one. So, students complain about that quite a bit… thinking that you’re looking at this only from your angle and not recognizing that this is one of many classes that I’m taking. When you think about policies such as that, it’s important to communicate it in a way that isn’t taxing on your time so that you’re taking late work every minute of every day… but is respectful. So, a very simple way to do that is “Here’s the policy. I expect you to be on time with tasks, especially if you’re doing a group task and your classmates are dependent on you.” I tend to be a little bit more rigid with my policies when it’s a group related task versus an individual task. But I also know that life happens and if you are in a situation where you’re not able to meet a deadline, please come and talk to me.” Because, if you put in a policy that says no late work is accepted… everything must be handed in on time. Well, certainly you won’t have to deal with any late work… that helps you with your time management, but it really is inequitable because the student who comes from a culture where it’s fine to challenge authority might come to you and say “My grandmother passed away last week. I have this really horrific thing happened in my life…” and, many of us… I know I myself… I had at some point a no makeup policy. It wasn’t a real policy… if you came to me and it was a good reason then I gave you an extension. But I only did that if you came to me. I did have no makeup policy on the syllabus. So, the problem with that is that there are certain groups of individuals that are not going to challenge authority and take your word at face value. So now you’ve put them at a distinct disadvantage in the class. So I think it’s important for our policy to do a couple of things: one is first of all they should be accurate… so I did not really have a no makeup policy… I had a “makeup if you have a good reason.” So, it wasn’t accurate. So now my policy is much more reflective of my current practices. I expect you to be on time but if something happens, communicate with me and we will see what we can do. It’s not promising them the world but it’s certainly promising them at least the conversation… and second in addition to having it be clearly communicated, it really needs to be equitable so that everyone gets an opportunity and it’s not a case-by-case situation where if they’re more willing to challenge authority they’re going to be more likely to get a positive outcome.

Rebecca: One of the things that you mentioned earlier is shifting the language in the syllabus to something that’s more personal from something that feels more like legalese or something. In those circumstances where an institution might impose a particular policy that’s written in a particular way that doesn’t match the voice of the rest of the document, how do you suggest dealing with that in a syllabus, when it might be required of you?

Christine: I think this is one of the big challenges that faculty face, is when there’s required elements that are not very motivational in nature. So first of all I would say try to start a conversation on your campus about revising that language, not necessarily the policy… that’s what the policy is going to be… but can we introduce it in a different way? So, I would say if you can do that that would be ideal because then that would be benefiting all of the students in all of the classes across your entire campus if they’re required. So I think that’s probably the point of intervention that I would encourage you to take and you could go back and refer to some of the ideas in the text or talking with colleagues about other ways to better word some of that policy language. If you’re not able to switch the language, or you want a quicker fix while that conversation is happening, I think it’s appropriate (and again you need to find out on your campus if it is) to maybe have an introductory statement: “The next section of the syllabus is going to be the institutional policies that every faculty member needs to include.” So, not saying they’re badly worded, but you’re saying that they’re different… like you can definitely see that I need to include these and I certainly wouldn’t have them (unless you’re required to) on the first page or two. Let the more positive motivational pieces be front and center and then have the policies be later on in the syllabus. So almost like you have a cover page or some kind of introduction before getting into the more typical policy language, I guess, if you need to include it I think can be helpful.

Rebecca: I’ve done things where, for example around intellectual integrity, there’s a campus statement (and I label it as such) and then my policy which kind of interprets that and puts it into context and is in my language… so the same idea that you have about introductory or it’s you’re kind of separating the two and making it clear like whose is whose.

Christine: mm-hmm

Rebecca: …and I think that sometimes has helped students too… but I’ve always found that to be jarring.

Christine: Yes. I would agree I think that definitely is, and I like your approach really of summarizing it because sometimes those policies that we get handed down are very lengthy and students probably aren’t going to read them. So, even if you gave the one- or two-sentence summary of what that meant…translation is… you know this is what you need to do… Be honest. you know, engage in honest action. It really matters. We all want a good reputation and we all want to learn. So in order to do that, these are the kinds of strategies that you need to engage in… and going to the integrity topic again, I think so many times students are unintentionally plagiarizing… not always necessarily doing it on purpose. So maybe helping them understand how they can better learn how to cite sources appropriately or how to paraphrase more effectively… So, pointing them to resources that are going to help them with all the tasks.

John: In your book, in addition to providing a lot of great resources about the syllabus and a lot of great recommendations and the evidence behind them you also provide quite a few some very nice sample syllabi at the end of the book and it’s a great resource and your publisher has very gracefully provided us with a discount code to any of our listeners which is DAMS20 and you can do that by going to the Stylus Publishing website. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Christine: John, if you don’t mind I’d like to also share my website which is just www.scholarlyteaching.org. If you go to that website you will see several other teaching and learning resources,including several sample syllabi… and the syllabi that we used in the research study that I mentioned earlier on the length of the syllabus are provided there as well.

Rebecca: There’s also really good videos… a syllabi checklist… There’s some really great resources on the website. So definitely I recommend checking that out…

John: …and also information about your other books.

Christine: Yes, thanks for that John… appreciate it.

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

Christine: Well it’s interesting that you asked that. I am looking at options right now but I am very much interested in staying connected to the teaching and learning space and how we can improve what we do in the classroom. I’m spending some time thinking about moving it up to a higher level and engaging administration in some of the conversations that we’re having about teaching and learning and putting the teaching and learning centers kind of front and center really in conversations about student learning and engagement on campuses. So, for instance I work in the community college system as you know. There’s a national movement called Guided Pathways and this national movement is all about improving the success outcomes of students and it happens to a variety of ways. They talk about making sure our programs are clear, so that they’re defined and students know how to get from point A to point B. They talk about helping students choose a pathway and stay on a pathway, and they also talk about ensuring learning… but, having been a part of this national conversation, the “insuring learning” really is very much an afterthought, I think, unfortunately. I feel like we’re dancing around the classroom. So I’d like to take some of this work that I’ve been doing and work that’s been very directly helpful to the faculty and try to shift it to being helpful to the community college leadership as well as leadership at the four-year universities as well… to emphasize the importance of good and effective teaching practices. So we’ll see where that takes me. I’m not really sure how that’s going to transpire, but I did just present on that topic at the POD conference. I’m putting teaching and learning centers right in front and center in the Guided Pathways movement, getting them at the table of these conversations. So, I’m very interested in further pursuing that at this point.

Rebecca: That sounds like that could be really valuable to a lot of the faculty because translating that information to the administration is always really useful in finding support and all working together to have these really stronger outcomes for students.

Christine: Absolutely.

John: Well, thank you. This has been a fascinating conversation and this is a book I’m going to recommend to all of our faculty.

Rebecca: Yeah, so glad you were able to join us.

Christine: Well, thank you. I really appreciate the invitation and I hope that everyone listening is able to design motivational syllabi and if that happens our students are the ones who will benefit at the end of the day. So thank all of you for listening and for supporting students in their learning journey.

[Music]

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

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

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

60. Inclusive Teaching

Are your class conversations dominated by a small number of voices? In this episode, Dr. Danica Savonick joins us to discuss a variety of class activities that support an inclusive learning environment and promote equity in participation while increasing student learning. Danica is an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literature at SUNY Cortland, and a recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders award, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies, and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship.

Show Notes

Studies of bias in the classroom:

Transcript

John: Are your class conversations dominated by a small number of voices? In this episode, we explore a variety of class activities that support an inclusive learning environment and promote equity in participation while increasing 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.

Rebecca: Today our guest is Danica Savonick, an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literature at SUNY Cortland. Danica is the recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders award, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship. Welcome, Danica.

John: Welcome.

Danica: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

John: Our tea’s today are…

Danica: I’m drinking a coconut lime seltzer.

Rebecca: That sounds pretty good.

Danica: It is.

Rebecca: It’s a good alternative to tea, I suppose.

Danica: I think I’m pretending that I’m on a tropical island or something.

Rebecca: Yeah, the weather around here would make me want to do that, so perhaps it’s the same there.

Danica: How far away are we from from each other? I’m here in Cortland, you’re…

John: About an hour and 45 minutes, I think, by car.

Danica: Okay.

Rebecca: Very rainy today.

Danica: Yeah, and I hear we have some snow coming up in the next 24 hours or so, so should be interesting.

Rebecca: I have the Prince of Wales tea.

John: …and I have a holiday tea from Twinings that I picked up in the tropics in Orlando at the Online Learning Consortium a few weeks back.

Danica: Sounds yummy.

John: It is good.

You’ve written quite a bit on creating a supportive environment for discussing issues of race, class, gender and sexuality. Let’s first talk a little bit about the context in which you address these issues. What courses do you normally teach?

Danica: I generally teach American literature courses. Sometimes those are general education courses, sometimes they are within the English major. I’ve also taught a number of writing classes that are a little bit more interdisciplinary in nature, and regardless of whichever course I’m teaching I like to give them a theme or put my own little twist on them. For instance, if I’m teaching a writing course, this semester the topic is the purpose of education and so we’re drawing from a wide different disciplines… people who’ve been writing about different learning methods and then when I teach English courses, some of the topics I like to do are the arts of dissent and we’ll look at the theme of dissent in American literature. This semester I’m currently teaching Intro to Multicultural Literature, which has been super fun and then next semester I’ll be teaching a graduate course on feminist world-making, which I’m really excited about.

Rebecca: Well that sounds really exciting.

John: What are some of the challenges you face in discussing some of these issues in your classroom and trying to have productive conversations?

Danica: Well, some of the problems that I’ve noticed are consistent regardless of what classroom or what school I’ve been teaching in, but some of them vary according to the student population. But one of the most common problems that I see is just a lack of student participation, or if there is participation it’ll be the same two or three students who dominate the conversation… and actually just this weekend when I was home for the holidays I was talking to my family about this—my aunt is auditing a course at SUNY Purchase—and she was saying that the same one or two students speak every single class period and she’s curious about what the other students have to say and what they’re thinking… and even my grandmother who was at Brooklyn College in the 1950s… she said she remembers feeling too scared to talk in most of her classes… and so it was only one or two of the… I guess… the brightest and most vocal students who would talk in the classes. And then, of course, as I started teaching I started to notice this as well and I think it’s every new instructor’s nightmare probably that “What if nobody talks? What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do with all that silence?” And so, I guess the main problems I’ve been trying to address are not having the same one or two students dominate the conversation but having really every voice be heard in the classroom… and the more I’ve thought about it and the more I’ve come to study classroom dynamics the more I’ve realized it’s not entirely the fault of the students in those situations, and actually quite often it is the shared responsibility of both the professor and the students to create a kind of environment where everyone feels like their voice matters and that they have something that they can say… that they won’t get shot down by the professor… that they’re not intimidated by their peers and whatnot. So a lot of my work has been trying to increase participation in classrooms and also because my focus is often on race and class and gender and sexuality in literature, we have to figure out how to have productive conversations around those really difficult issues. And for a lot of students, it’s their first time talking about these issues and so we’ve had to establish ways that we feel comfortable talking about those important questions and issues.

Rebecca: I was actually just gonna follow up to what you were saying… really curious about the emphasis on the first time students have talked about some of these things, and I think that that’s really important. We’ve been having a reading group on our campus with a book called Race Talk and that’s something that we’ve mentioned pretty frequently: that a lot of these students have never been in a context to have a conversation about race… a lot of the faculty have never been in a situation to have a good conversation about race… So, when it’s someone’s first time, how do you help that be productive and feel safe? Because you have to be vulnerable to be in those situations.

Danica: Definitely. One of the most effective things that I think I’ve done is tell students that we’re inevitably going to mess up in these conversations because our educations have not provided us with the language and the grammar and the vocabulary for talking about conditions of structural inequality… and so I make that the baseline or the premise. We know we’re gonna say the wrong thing and we are likely going to accidentally offend someone and so as a class what we do is establish protocols or ways that we want to collectively address how to handle those situations and we come up with a set of community guidelines and principles and ideas that we agree upon for how to behave when we realize that, “Oh no, I could have said that better. I wish I hadn’t said that…” or if one student feels offended by something and so I think that has really helped, especially for students who are having these conversations for the first time; they know that it’s okay to say the wrong thing and we have an established procedure in place for how to deal with those moments.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you set those guidelines up and how students participate in that process?

Danica: Yeah, definitely. This is one of my favorite things to do every semester is have students co-author a set of community guidelines in order to foster inclusive discussions of difference. Because I want every student to understand that their voice matters and I know one of the reactions that you can get is students can start feeling alienated if they say the wrong thing. They can disengage. They can start thinking that I don’t have a place in this conversation. …and so one of the ways that we create that environment is we’ll co-author this set of community guidelines. Rather than having students write them from scratch… I think that can be really difficult… so, instead what I’ll do—it takes about I would say half of a class period to maybe half an hour, could be 40 minutes, it depends on the size of the class—I’ll print out some really basic guidelines, four or five things that I think might work well in the class as principles that we might want to agree to abide by. So things like we won’t make assumptions about anyone in the class’s race, gender, ethnicity, things like that, and we read over them as a class. I usually project them at the front of the class and they also have them in front of them on a piece of paper and we’ll read through them as a class. They can ask questions… they can ask me to define a word they don’t understand, and then I give them about ten minutes to read through them quietly on their own with pen and paper and cross off and edit and add and remove anything that they don’t like about the guidelines… to add additional guidelines… to change the wording of certain guidelines… and then rather than calling on students individually and having to put them on the spot, I have them work in pairs of two to go over some of the amendments and edits and adjustments that they would like to make and then after five minutes or so we go around the class and each pair presents one or two amendments that they would like to make and so it really ranges from adding different adjectives and verbs to adding whole new amendments or saying that they didn’t like one of the ones that I put up, which is totally fine with me. The idea behind not having to ask them to do it from scratch is just that they have something to work with—it’s not that I’m wedded to those particular principles, I just wanted to give them some kind of language and some kind of grammar for how they might formulate the different community guidelines.

Rebecca: It seems like the pair scenario would help to mitigate any issues that might arise from a dominant group dominating the rules.

Danica: Yeah.

Rebecca: That was gonna be my question but then I realized as you were talking that that might actually be how you solve some of that issue.

Danica: Yeah, and it’s pretty egalitarian. We go around the room and each group says something, even if it’s by the time we get to the end sometimes the groups are like, “Well, everyone already said what we were gonna say, so we just wanted to agree that we really liked the amendment that this other group made.” And so that way each pair gets two or three minutes to add something, to say something, and then we move on, and so it’s not like one pair gets to really dominate. The other thing I forgot to mention is students go home, they have at least one or two evenings to think about the guidelines that we came up with. They have access to them. They can open them up at home and it’s not until the beginning of the following class that we ratify them, and often when we come back together at the beginning of the next class they’ll have thought of one or two things that they want to adjust and once we make the final edits and adjustments then we as a class decide that we agree to abide by them.

John: Another nice thing about doing it in pairs is when people are speaking it’s a little safer because they’re representing their group; they don’t have to take a stand and it makes it a little more comfortable perhaps for those who might have been reticent.

Danica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I like that you have the ability to review over a couple of days as well because that also gives students who don’t want to speak up the opportunity to email you or communicate with you separately too, right?

Danica: Yeah, definitely.

John: How well have the guidelines worked? Have students responded well? Do you get more buy-in to the guidelines since they created them?

Danica: Yes, absolutely. I was really surprised the first time I did this. I was like, “This is one of those wacky pedagogical experiments; I might fall flat on my face, they might think that I’m an alien from another planet.” But, they were so enthusiastic and I’ve actually had students from former classes say “That was one of the most meaningful things that we did that semester. I think about that a lot. I wish more teachers did that…” and so I’ve gotten really positive feedback on it and it’s also fun. It’s always one of the best conversations that we have throughout the semester. And you know it turns out that they have a lot to say about the issue. Actually, I often do this assignment when we’re teaching a work of literature called Citizen by author Claudia Rankine, which talks a lot about microaggressions… and students have witnessed and they’ve experienced these microaggressions in the classroom and so they’re eager to have a chance to participate in crafting a classroom that isn’t going to have these kinds of uncomfortable and awkward moments. I also should say that when we do this I share with students beforehand several of the studies that have been done recently on classroom participation and who feels most empowered to speak in the classroom. So, there’s been a lot of studies done on gender and the experiences of students of color and what a lot of these studies have found is that those voices that are most empowered to speak in mainstream media and culture are also the students who feel empowered to take up time in the classroom. And so I share this with students before we begin the community guidelines activity and they’re always really interested. I have the sense that some of them have witnessed or experienced or might have some sense that these things go on, but to actually see the research and to see the findings and to see these massive studies that have been done, they’re just interested in it, and especially because my classes are about race and class and gender and structural inequality, I think it’s fascinating for them to see the way that what we often think of as huge systemic issues can come to influence who speaks and who participates in the classroom as well.

Rebecca: Maybe we could share those citations in our show notes?

Danica: Certainly.

Danica: You’ve used something called Commons in a Box. Could you tell us a little bit about what that is for people who are not familiar with that?

Danica: Sure, it’s a free open-source learning and writing platform. It came out of the CUNY Graduate Center. It’s a combination of WordPress and BuddyPress, and so it’s this easy to install package that allows you to create digital learning spaces, and so different universities have taken it up to do different things. Often I’ll see institutions using it as a space for their professors to host course websites. They might want to have some kind of blog that features student writing. They could use it for digital humanities projects… and it’s free and it’s open source and so all you really need is server space. As often as possible, I’ve tried to host my courses on either Commons in a Box, or currently I’m using an installation of wordpress.org as an alternative to using Blackboard or Canvas and I could talk a little bit about why if you’re interested.

John: Yeah, could you tell us a little bit about what the advantages of this is compared to say one of the common course management systems?

Danica: Sure. I see the primary benefit of these platforms as they help students to develop transferable skills that are going to aid them in the world beyond the classroom, and so I’ll talk a little bit about what I mean by that. WordPress is one of the most common platforms on which the websites in the world are built .The latest statistic that I saw was something like 30% of the world’s websites are built on the WordPress content management system, and so I like to organize my courses on WordPress so that I can familiarize students with how websites are put together… how you can build them… how they think… how they organize information… and so what I try to do throughout the semester is scaffold students’ interaction with the platform. At the beginning it’s pretty user friendly: they create an account, they are able to log in to our site and then gradually they start going into the backend (which WordPress calls the dashboard) and they start creating their own content. So, they get to experience the process of going back and forth between the backend and then the front-end and seeing what that process is like and how information is organized on the WordPress platform. So, they start creating blogs and then what I like to do towards the end of the semester is deconstruct our class website and take it apart and break it and redesign it with students so that they can see, first of all, how easy it is to build a website. A lot of my students are new to this. They’re not necessarily computer science majors. They haven’t taken computer science courses, and so they’ve interacted with a lot of websites but they haven’t really gone in and thought about how they might build their own and so I show them how our course website is built and we redesign it we do all kinds of things and then often for students’ final projects they will have the option of designing a website related to something that we have done in the course and they often choose that option. They like it… they like getting to experiment with WordPress. For most of them it’s their first taste of the platform and several of them have said that they’ve gone on to learn more about WordPress because they’ve become really interested in it and I see this as a really great opportunity for students first to think a little bit more critically about how the internet works and how these pages that we’re constantly interacting with… how they’re constructed… and also to develop a transferable skill that could become a really valuable part of their resume and the skills that they will bring to the work world. Being able to build websites on WordPress is huge and so I find that starting that process early can be really helpful. It also creates an opportunity for us to have conversations like why is our course built on WordPress when all of your other courses are on Blackboard and we get to talk a little bit about what Blackboard is and the different ways that content management systems, especially in higher education, work to structure certain kinds of relationships of teaching and learning.

John: Does the institution host WordPress, or are you hosting your own instance of it?

Danica: Ideally, the university will host it. When I was at CUNY they have a really strong culture around open educational resources and free writing platforms and there’s a big community around that. It might exist at my new institution—I have to do a little bit more work to find it. As far as I know there’s a lot of people that are using Blackboard at my institution. Ideally… best-case scenario… the university would provide server space and then you could have an installation of WordPress or Commons in a Box, but currently I’m using Reclaim Hosting and Domain of One’s Own in order to have a classroom commons installation that I’m using across the three different classes I’m teaching.

John: Do you use the open aspect of that? Is the students’ work public or are you keeping it closed to the classroom, or is that something decided on a case-by-case or class-by-class basis?

Danica: Yeah, that’s a great point, thanks for bringing that up. It varies. Parts of the class web sites are public, parts of it are private… and another benefit of working in a quasi-public, quasi-private space is that it allows us to have conversations about what information students are putting on the Internet and what they want visible. What do they want to become part of their professional digital identity? What do they want to show up in search results versus what do they not want to show up in search results? So, we have a lot of these conversations early on in the semester when they’re establishing their accounts. We talk about the risks and the repercussions versus the benefits of using their real name to do the blogging that they’ll be doing on the site, and then for their final projects… often, but not always, I would encourage them to use their real name because they put a lot of time and effort there carefully revising these projects and they are deliberately constructing them with the idea that they’re going to be writing for a public audience. But, of course, in this climate of anti-immigration that we’re living in, you have to be super careful about what you’re encouraging students to put their name on and so I always have conversations around that. There’s always an option never to use your real name. You can always use a pseudonym for the blogging and for the final projects. You can always submit solely to me instead of publishing to a public audience, because I understand there are severe risks and in some cases they will outweigh the benefits of creating something publicly.

John: And we should note that you have an article in the describing your work here and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes as well.

Rebecca: You mentioned student blogging. Can you talk a little bit about how the student blogging is used in your classes and how that augments student learning and how that might facilitate some of these conversations that might be tricky to have?

Danica: Sure. I love student blogging—I don’t know how I would teach these courses without it. My courses are structured around the blog—it’s one of their major assignments, and so for every single class two or three students are assigned to blog about the assigned reading—I think the requirement is something like 800 words or so—and that they have to do a small close reading… so an analysis of the excerpt of whatever literary text we’re reading and it has to end with two discussion questions, and for every student who isn’t blogging. So, the majority of the class they have to leave a comment on those blogs before our class period starts, and so the blogs are due at noon the day before class and then students have from noon until our class period to leave their comments and then the way the course is structured the same day that those three students are blogging… so they’re each writing a blog… they are also facilitating a class discussion… a ten-minute activity… or it can be a presentation… it can just be more of a conversation. They have ten minutes at the beginning of the next class to do whatever they want, and I encourage them to make it the best lesson plan that they have ever seen or the way that they want their ideal course to be structured, and so I encourage them to try things like think-pair-share or to do interactive activities and it’s really exciting to see, first of all, the things that students choose to blog about, because with the readings that we’re discussing there’s so much that you could talk about. I have certain things I want to talk about but those might not necessarily align with what students are interested in within the text, and so having these open-ended blogs allows students to identify what it is they’re most interested in; it allows them to get feedback on their writing from their peers prior to our class session. One way that I’ve come to think about the blog… that I talk to students about it… is as a rough draft for a paper. They’re putting out a thesis… they’re putting out an interpretation… they’re providing some evidence from the text to support it… and then they have this tremendous opportunity to get feedback from all of their peers… and so in the comments the other students will be like, “I really like this point…” “I have another example that can help you support your point…” They might raise objections; they might raise counter points: “Well, have you thought of this other thing?” And so it’s a really great way for them to increase the quality of their writing and their ideas by getting feedback from their peers. Actually, this happened just in our previous class, a student was using a term “devaluing” to talk about sexuality in one of the books that we were reading and a lot of his fellow classmates were saying that word wasn’t working the way that he thought that it was working. So, in his facilitation he kind of talked through the feedback that he got and as a class we came up with a better word that would more precisely name the kind of relationship that he saw developing in the literary text, and so with the class facilitations it provides students with an opportunity to practice their public speaking and to practice standing up in front of a classroom. A lot of the students say that they’re really nervous at first, but that they’re glad in the end that they did it and they always get through it and we always manage… and so this kind of pairing of the blog with the in-class facilitation really teaches students that they are active knowledge producers and that they have something to contribute to the class and that their voice matters. They know that they’re not allowed to just disappear and sink into the background—they’re actually the ones up there in front of the class leading the lesson and it’s interesting to see actually the ways that it increases their performance once they’re back in the chair of the student, because they know what it feels like to be up at the front and so they’ll put out a question and they then get to experience what it’s like to have no one raise their hand and so they become much better as students and much more engaged once they return to their seats and resume that more traditional role of being a student. I never know what students are gonna do for their facilitation. They don’t have to run it by beforehand, so it’s always exciting. I don’t know what they’re gonna do in class today and it’s really made my role as an educator different and I’ve had to learn to listen really carefully to the things that students are saying when they’re up there presenting and my job becomes connecting what they’re saying to the main ideas and the main skills and the main topics of the class. So, for instance, if a student is giving a presentation I might interject and say that’s a thesis statement,… what you just said… you just made a thesis statement and then they start to recognize learning how to make an argument, how to make a thesis statement is one of the skills of the course, but it takes a long time or they’re not quite sure what I mean by that, but when they’re talking they’ll just do it naturally and so my job becomes pointing out to them that they are already doing the things that we’re learning about and just helping them recognize better the ways that their facilitations are connecting to the themes and the skills of the course.

Rebecca: I wanted to circle back to the leaving comments for other students—so they do the close reading, they post about that and then students comment on it. When they’re commenting, how do you help students learn what a good comment is?

Danica: Yeah, that actually becomes a topic of discussion early on in the semester. They’re given a few guidelines: it should be, I don’t know, a hundred and fifty words or so; it needs to make a contribution to the post; it can’t just be “I liked your post” or “I didn’t like your post,” and then what I’ve tried this semester is we implemented—kind of halfway through the semester—this rule that each comment needs to provide a quote from the text so that the commenter is either supporting providing further evidence that will support the author of the blog’s claim, or providing a counter example. One of my students last class, he said “Conversation makes the best interpretation” and I really loved that because they’re starting to learn through the commenting the ways that all academic writing is a conversation among various viewpoints and that when they’re writing a scholarly paper… when they’re writing a research essay… they are inserting their voices into larger conversations; they’re in dialogue with people. It’s not like you write a paper in a vacuum; it’s actually a synthesis of all these different viewpoints and ideas and so I see the commenting as kind of a rehearsal for class discussion. So when we show up in class, say, for instance, students aren’t being particularly talkative, I can say, well, you said this in your comment, and so I know that they’ve already engaged with the ideas and it allows often our class conversation to reach a higher level because they already know what several of their peers’ interpretations of the text are; they’ve already thought about them; they’ve already thought about the pros and the cons and how we might need to complicate some of these analyses; and so it just takes our class discussions to the next step.

John: Do you do anything to ensure that everyone responds to a certain number of posts to make sure that you don’t see everyone replying just to one other post to make sure you get some balance there? Do you have a mechanism for doing that?

Danica: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, for every class students have to comment on at least one post; they’re welcome to comment on more than one, but the requirement is one comment prior to class. I don’t have a mechanism for ensuring that. The class is 25 students, if we have three bloggers, one blog might get ten comments and the others might get four or five, and one way to kind of address that in the classes is encouraging students to think about their blogs, think about the title of the blog, think about the content of the blog, think about how they’re competing for the attention of their peers. I encourage them to say, “Okay, your peers have three blogs to choose from, how are you gonna get them to read yours?” It’s a way of getting them to think a little bit about audience and what is the function of a title. What is the work that a title can do? …and from that introductory paragraph how can they give their reader a sense of what their blogs gonna be about? How can they convince their reader that there’s gonna be a good payoff that their blog is worth reading? And so it’s interesting to see the different ways that they try to attract the attention of their peers. Because they do want those comments and I find they get excited about the different feedback—they’re not required to respond to the comments, but they do often… which, yeah, it’s always exciting to witness. I try to linger, I lurk a little bit on the blogs and I’m often not interjecting in the conversations, but just kind of reading through them and that’s actually the other benefit is that it ends up serving as a mode of formative assessment because I can see what they have understood from the readings and what might be missing… what might be the things that I need to address in the time that I have—what’s not quite getting through to them, either in terms of aspects of the reading that they overlooked or in terms of the skills. So, if I tell them that your blog needs to have a main point; it needs to have a thesis, and I’m seeing that they’re not quite doing that I can then adjust my lesson plans so that that becomes the focus of the next class and I can use their blogs, their own words as an example to say, “Okay, how could we give this blog a stronger thesis?” …and so it’s quite common that we’ll end up editing or revising some of the blog posts. They get projected up on the screen and students, because we’ve created a culture that they’re constantly giving feedback on each other’s ideas, students feel a lot less embarrassed or they understand that we’re all trying to become better writers and so they’re okay with it if I project their blog post and we talk through “What are some of the pros? What are some of the cons? How could we strengthen this?”

John: And it’s a much more authentic learning experience having them focus on audience and trying to build a strong thesis statement.

Rebecca: It seems like the blog post assignment really primes students well for the final projects that you had mentioned earlier that have a public audience because they’re already practicing writing for a specific audience and it’s another writing for a more general audience, I would assume. Can you talk us through that a little bit?

Danica: The final projects for my class often vary, but they’re usually collaborative… they’re usually digital… they’re usually public… they’re usually some kind of creative student-driven element. It’s usually students identifying the topic and then running with it, whether that’s a research blog or whether that’s currently my students in Intro to Multicultural Literature are co-authoring a glossary of key terms for literary studies—I have never done this before. It is a total experiment—I don’t know if they know that this is my first time doing this, so it’ll be interesting. I don’t know if they’ll hear in this podcast, but whatever, it’s fine. So I’ve done different versions of these collaborative public final projects. They vary sometimes based on the content of the course, students’ level of preparation, what are the aims and objectives of the different courses. It’s a little bit different for a basic writing composition course versus a more advanced literature course… and so one of the format’s I’ve done is have students co-author scholarly articles that they would submit to an actual journal, and so I did this in one of my freshman writing classes. We spent the entire semester talking about contemporary issues in education… so related to technology in the classroom… active learning versus lecturing… conditions of educational equality in segregated schools… and about halfway through the semester they were put into groups and they had to identify a research question. They did an annotated bibliography, they developed a whole research project, and then they made it into an article, a short article that they submitted to the scholarly academic peer-reviewed journal Hybrid Pedagogy to see if they could get it published or not, and I had been in contact with the journal’s editors since the summer before the class, so they knew this was coming. It would not have been possible if I hadn’t been working with them because they knew there was gonna be a really quick turnaround time where the students needed to know if they got revise and resubmit, if they got rejected, or if they got accepted… and I knew that this was a wildly fanciful or an unrealistic expectation to ask students to get a scholarly journal article published—these are basic writing students at Queens College—a lot of them are first-generation students… they work jobs… they are English language learners… and so in addition to reviewing of the conventions of English grammar and how to write a paragraph… how to write an academic paper… all things that were new or needed to be reviewed… they were also trying to get their writing published in a major publication… and so what ended up happening with that is that several students got revise and resubmit. But by the time they did it was the end of the semester and finals were happening and so I tailored the assignment a little bit towards the end. I tweaked it, because all semester I’d been telling them “these blogs are important, these things that you’re writing your research, everything, all of this matters because people are actually going to be reading this and you want them to take it seriously and you want them to listen to you. You don’t want to lose their attention halfway through.” … and so we needed to come up with a way that they would still get published even if they chose not to endure the editorial feedback loop of revise and resubmit, or the accept with minor revisions, and so what we had them do is they took the feedback that they got from the editors and several of the groups chose to post to HASTAC.org, which is a tremendous resource. It is an academic scholarly network of 15,000 plus members of scholars and students and academics and artists and activists and so there’s a special group within HASTAC that showcases and features and highlights the writing of undergraduates. So many of my students ended up submitting their final blogs there, but one group did continue—they kept revising their submission and going through the queries that they were getting from the editors and then the copy editors and just all of these stages of the writing process that were very new to them. This is a required writing course… no one showed up at that course eager to do all these drafts and revision and the skills that we teach in a basic writing course… but they continued in that editorial feedback loop for about a year after our class ended and then in August of 2017 their article was published in Hybrid Pedagogy, which was very exciting and so that is now something that they can put on their resumes and I was just so impressed with them for sticking through it because we know everything that goes into writing a journal article but for them they didn’t even know at the beginning of semester what a peer-reviewed journal article was… and so it was like a huge learning process. So, that’s one of the formats of these collaborative public final projects: submitting something to an established publication, which required a lot of willingness on the part of the journal editors to work within a really quick timeframe and the managing editor Skyped into my class several times and talked to students about the journal, helped them with their submissions, they got to pitch their ideas to him, it was great. Some of the other formats I’ve used that have also been good—I’ve had students write explicitly for HASTAC and that’s an opportunity for them to tailor their writing for a very specific community. So that’s something that we did this semester in the writing class that I’m teaching. We read so much about HASTAC… we read about its history. There was an article in Inside Higher Ed calling it the ethical social network and talking about their commitment to protecting their users’ data; we learned about who is a member of HASTAC, who are the different people who are reading it; how does the website organize information—by topic, by tags, by categories and so they were reading and analyzing the site itself before they even started writing their research blogs. So it was a similar process where they identified a research question and they authored blogs that were specifically going to be then tailored for the HASTAC audience, and so one of the big aims of that assignment was this skill of kairos and figuring out how to tailor your writing for a specific community of readers and figuring out what are the conventions? what are the affordances of this specific writing space? and how can I best get my point across to this very specific audience? So, that was useful in helping us have conversations about audience awareness and tone and how you make an argument; how do you convince someone that your point is right without alienating them. So that’s one example of having students write for HASTAC. …and the nice thing about HASTAC is that it comes with a built-in user community. You have sixteen thousand people who are visiting the site and reading things. The other kind of format for these public projects is what we’re doing now with the keywords. Students are co-authoring these individual keywords, they’ve identified specific words that have emerged that they’re interested in throughout all the readings that we’ve done this semester and through our discussions and through the blogs and the final product for that will be something that is hosted on our course WordPress site… so it’ll be a page or an offshoot—I’m hoping to write some kind of table of contents that will link to each of the student’s posts—hopefully there will be media, and so this will be something that they can then share. They can decide that they want to make it part of their professional identity, part of their portfolio, or they can decide not to—it’s really up to them. …and so one of the things that I’m constantly thinking about in developing these assignments is like how to actually connect students to audiences of readers and people who could actually benefit from a keyword entry on memoir or on ghosts… that’s another keyword, apparently we talk a lot about ghosts in my class… and this is coming out of the research that I’ve done on activist pedagogy and really thinking about the role of the teachers connecting students to audiences and people that could potentially benefit from the writing that they’ve been doing. So, thinking about these projects as both a benefit to the students in the class and also to larger publics and communities.

Rebecca: How have students responded to this sort of work? You know, you mentioned that, you know, some of the classes are required courses—students are not necessarily marching in excited to do these sorts of things… so it sounds like you’ve hooked them a little bit. What is their final response to these?

Danica: In general it’s been really positive. The jury’s still out for the semester. We’re gonna do course evaluations I think next week, so I’ll learn more. But in the past, I do a lot of framing around what we’re doing in part because I was always a very willful student and I did not like being told what to do. But if I understood why I was being told to do that thing then I would get really into it and really excited and so with these student-centered assignments and activities I’m always super explicit: this is why we’re doing this; these are what I see as the benefits of this; this is why we’re authoring a set of Community Guidelines; this is why you’re doing a presentation; you’re doing a presentation because public speaking is one of the most valuable skills that employers look for and so when I’m writing your recommendation letters I want to be able to tell them what a great public speaker you are and that’s why I’m asking you to stand in front of the classroom and facilitate this. Also, I should mention this semester and at SUNY Cortland a lot of the students are going on to become teachers and so it’s important to have these experiences at the front of the classroom. I think that being explicit really helps students, and the other thing I’ll say is that I often am explicit about how frustrating student-centered learning can be, and we talked about how it can feel difficult and how sometimes we just wish that the teacher would give us the answers rather than making us figure it out ourselves or making us work in small groups and so I try to create spaces for students to express those kind of emotions and reactions to things. I also try really hard in designing these student-centered assignments… to design… to create the conditions where for instance, we’re doing a collaborative writing project… I try to give them an assignment that actually requires multiple minds and that if they had tried to do that exact same assignment on their own the final product would not be as good as if they were doing it as a group. So I put a lot of thought into kind of carefully constructing these in a way that they will be oriented to succeed in them. Recently I wrote a blog on collaborative close reading, which is a really, really difficult skill to teach—it takes years, you know, for most of us to learn how to do close reading, but I’ve tried to create this assignment that had students work on it in groups, and so rather than having to notice all of a million different things that are going on in a passage of literature, they had a bunch of different minds put to the task and they were all looking at the same paragraph for 20 minutes and dissecting it and they were all contributing their different insights and so rather than having to go at it alone they were able to learn from the different perspectives that the other students brought to the text, and so I think just being really explicit about why behind everything has helped to ensure that the reactions have generally been positive.

John: How have other faculty responded? Have other people started working on building more productive conversations? Have other people in your department started working more on open pedagogy projects?

Danica: Well, I would hesitate to say anything explicitly about my department because I’m so brand-new. It’s my first semester in the department. But one thing that’s been super exciting for me has been to see people… especially with this recent blog that I wrote on collaborative close reading… it went viral on academic Twitter and people have been reporting back, because that’s one of the things that I asked them to do is let me know how it works… let me know if, you know, you have any suggestions for how to make it better… and almost every day I’m getting tweets from people at universities across the country saying, “I tried collaborative close reading and this is what my students did…” and they’ll post pictures of the passages that their students highlighted and so that makes me feel like I’m part of a community that is bigger than my own institution. So, when I’m running these, of course I hope that they will be helpful to my colleagues, but I’m also… I really feel like I’m part of a bigger academic community and part of that is because I post these blogs to HASTAC, and so it really is, people are a community of 16,000, however many users, but then it can get tweeted out. So, even if you don’t have a HASTAC account you can still read the blogs and there’s so many ideas about scholarship being really isolating, but things like that… and getting to talk to people and discuss pedagogy with people at different institutions makes it feel a lot less isolating. But in terms of your question about reactions of colleagues, I have been super lucky both at CUNY and now at SUNY in terms of support for the kinds of things that I’m interested in doing. These are schools with very strong commitments to education, where people are already interested in and talking about student-centered methods and curious and wanting to learn more. The other day I have my students write found poems—which is the genre of poetry where you take some kind of existing document—often it’s a bureaucratic document—and you make it into a poem by cutting it up and whiting it out and mangling it and turning it into poetry and my students created these awesome, awesome found poems; they were beautiful. So, we spent a day in class, I gave them whiteout… I gave them scissors… I gave them tape… They started as banal documents; they made them into stunning poems. They would bring in their tuition bills or song lyrics with offensive stereotypes in them—one of them brought in the transcript from the Brett Kavanaugh hearing and they took these documents and as a way of thinking about language and power they made them into these gorgeous found poems and so I went to the chair of my department and I said, ”Hey, you know, my students created these poems and I would love to have someplace to display them ‘cause I think they’re really awesome” …and not only did she give me permission to tear down what was on the bulletin board, she helped me do it. We tore down these old flyers that had been up there for decades and we put my students’ found poems on and so now we have this beautiful display in our hallway of student work and several of my colleagues have reported seeing students stop and read the poems and take pictures of it and so they’re excited to see their work has become part of this gallery. In general I’ve just been really lucky and fortunate to work with colleagues who are similarly invested in helping students. I did think of a few ideas for people who might not be so fortunate on ways that they could start doing student centered things. The first would be, and I’ve already mentioned this, creating a free profile on HASTAC.org because there are so many people out there doing really creative and exciting things in their classrooms… and connecting their classrooms to larger movements for social justice… and thinking about how do you engage students in really important discussions about contemporary social issues… and so HASTAC has been a phenomenal place for me to connect with other people who are doing that kind of work. I try to start small, and so something like think-pair-share is so easy… it’s taking an index card, giving students 90 seconds to respond to some kind of open-ended prompt, then they turn to the student sitting next to them, they share their responses and then we go around the classroom and I transcribe each group’s answer to the question on the board… and so their ideas become the material that I then get to teach the course through, and we crowdsource responses to some question related to whatever the topic of discussion is that day and something like that is so easy, it’s so simple—we have gone through… I would say we’re in the thousands of index cards in terms of my courses this semester. Because the students like it and they recognize that that changes the classroom dynamic. They recognize that suddenly it’s not just one or two students dominating the conversations. So, when they get up to the front of the class and they get to facilitate something I would say, I don’t know, 65, 70 percent of them choose to do think-pair-share because they recognize that it really lowers the barriers of anxiety about participating in class—everyone has 90 seconds to scribble something on their index card and it’s only an index card,— it’s tiny—there’s not any kind of pressure to write something beautiful and then that becomes just such an easy way to really transform the dynamics of the classroom… low cost… low time investment… and even when I’m thinking at the bigger scale of assignments and rethinking the research paper so that it’s not just being submitted to the professor, but it’s for a public audience, I try not to overhaul everything at once. So it’s like each semester I’ll try one new assignment. Not throwing everything away and starting from scratch each time, because it takes a lot of energy to do these things. And so thinking about how we can make small changes and experiments but not overwhelm ourselves or our students… and the other thing that I would suggest if somebody finds themself in a situation where they want to start trying these things but might not have the kinds of tremendous support that I’ve been lucky to have is… there’s just so much research out there on the effectiveness of student-centered pedagogy. We’ve read a lot of it in my course this semester on writing and education. We read a lot of the studies that have shown how positive of an impact it can have on students to discover ideas for themselves and to work in small groups and solve problems and arrive at answers rather than sitting and listening to a lecture. Just kind of having some of those studies in my back pocket—I’ve always felt that if I was called upon… you know, “Why did you do that? I can’t believe you let the students help assess each other’s papers.” I would have some things that I can cite, that I could go back to to say “Well, actually, it’s been shown that asking students to metacognitively reflect on the implications of their writing is a great strategy.” So that kind of thing has been really helpful for me in terms of thinking about relationships to colleagues and different reactions to this kind of pedagogy.

Rebecca: We normally wrap up by asking, what next?

Danica: Well, at the small scale, I guess, we have this digital glossary of keywords that will be coming out from my multicultural literature students… going to learn all about ghosts and power and assimilation and why these words are important for how we think about and analyze literature… so really excited to see what they do with that… and then I guess at the bigger scale I’m working on a book on the activist pedagogy of teacher poets from the 1960s and 1970s, and I’m hoping that some of that work will help us really understand the ways that a lot of contemporary student-centered practices… things that we’ve talked about today… a lot of them emerged in the 60s and 70s and especially in relation to the critiques of power emerging from the social movements of that era from the women’s movement and the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War… and so I’ve been thinking a lot about how those critiques of power necessitated new relationships of teaching and learning and this was especially happening in the work of poets who I’m interested in and so that book is also considering the ways that interactions with students shaped American literature in ways that we rarely consider and also the tremendous role that poets and authors and especially feminist poets have played in creating a lot of the contemporary student-centered pedagogy that we know today to be so effective.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Danica: Yeah, it’s really fun to work on.

John: In some of your posts you’ve listed a large variety of techniques that people can try and we’ll include links to those in the show notes as well. Thank you, this has been a fascinating discussion and we look forward to hearing more about what you’re doing.

Danica: Thank you so much for having me, this has been really fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us. [Music]

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

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

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

59. Gatekeeping in Math Ed

Teachers at all levels often play an important role in influencing the educational and career paths of our students. In this episode, Dr. Marcia Burrell joins us to discuss how math teachers play a critical role as gatekeepers who may either welcome students to or provide a barrier to student success in all STEM fields. Marcia is the Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

  • National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM)
  • Budapest Semesters in Math Education
  • Polya, G. (1973). How to solve it: A new aspect of mathematical method. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • The Polya Approach Used at the University of Idaho
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
  • Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
  • Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Miller, L. & Spiegel, A. (Hosts). (2015, January 23).Invisibilia: How to become Batman pt. 1 [Radio broadcast episode].
  • National Research Council, & Mathematics Learning Study Committee. (2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. National Academies Press.
  • Brandsford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.

Other resources:

  • Larson, M. (2016). The Need to Make Homework Comprehensible. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
  • Stinson, D.W (2004). Mathematics as gate-keeper: Three theoretical perspectives that aim toward empowering all children with a Key to the Gate, The Mathematics Educator14 (1), 8–18.
  • Burrell, Marcia (2016) Gatekeeping in Mathematics TEDx talk at OCC. January 29, 2016.

Transcript

John: Teachers at all levels often play an important role in influencing the educational and career paths of our students. In this episode, we examine how math teachers play a critical role as gatekeepers who may either welcome students to or provide a barrier to student success in all STEM fields.

[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 Dr. Marcia Burrell, the Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Marcia.

Marcia: Thank you.

Rebecca: Welcome. Today our teas are…

Marcia: Earl Grey with caffeine.

Rebecca: Extra caffeine. [LAUGHTER]

John: Mine is just a pure peppermint tea today.

Rebecca: And I have a jasmine green tea.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about the work you’ve done on math instructors as gatekeepers. What does it mean to be a gatekeeper?

Marcia: Well, I like to use the word gatekeeping because sometimes gatekeeping has to do with an open gate, where you can just slide right through, or someone gives you the key, or they’ve given you the secret password, or it’s a barrier, where if you don’t really know what the hidden curriculum is about passing through the gate then you could stay there and be turned away. And in mathematics a lot of times people are afraid of math or they’ve been socialized to think they cannot do math and it’s really a gate that’s been created either by themselves through socialization or it’s been created by a math person or by someone like a parent who said, “oh, don’t worry, I wasn’t good at math either.” So, when I think about gatekeeping and mathematics it’s really about barriers that are created by us or barriers that are created by others, or for people who are really successful in mathematics, they have an opportunity to open the gate; there are certain things that they can do that will make people pass through the gate more easily.

Rebecca: I think our students can empathize with the idea of gatekeeping when it comes to mathematics—you hear them talking about these stories of certain situations where the barriers have been in place for them, or sometimes that’s faculty. For example, I’ve heard many times in creative fields where the creative faculty might say, “yeah, we know you’re not great at math but you have to take math,” or I had a situation when I was a kid in middle school—I remember distinctly middle school teachers saying “the women in this class aren’t going to do as well” and then I remember the few of us banding together and then we got really good grades on this final exam that we were told that we wouldn’t do well in. I think that those narratives are certainly there and it’s interesting to think about it not only from the person coming to the gate but also from the gatekeeper perspective, which leads me to the question of, what are some things that gatekeepers do that keep people out?

Marcia: I’m gonna focus on math people mostly, where sometimes they say things like maybe in a beginning level math course, “Why didn’t you know that? You should’ve learned that before. I don’t understand why you can’t do fractions.” So, there’s vocabulary built into a lot of us where we send out messages which get people to realize, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me; I should know how to do this.” So, they start imposing those same messages on themselves. The other thing that I think is important is in mathematics there’s always been a stratification about who can do math or who should do math and who can be successful in math. Often, as you just said, women have stories about fighting to get into a advanced math class because they didn’t do very well on some class but they were willing to work hard. So, certain populations are harmed because they’re socialized that way that when women have trouble in mathematics we say, “Oh, we should make it easier; you should do a group of courses that are not gonna lead you to calculus in high school,” but sometimes when men struggle we go, “Oh, struggles perfectly fine.” In the U.S., teachers make it easier for students to learn; they give them answers, they work out all the details. When I say give answers, I mean they work out all of the problems so that it’s really just rote, as opposed to in other countries, struggle is actually honored—hard work and struggle is part of the mathematics learning process, where in the U.S. sometimes we don’t allow people to struggle. If you got a B in Algebra I, well, you don’t really need to take Algebra II because the minimum requirement in New York state is Algebra I, and the fact is struggle is a part of the learning process. Historically, we’ve always stratified who is successful in math or who can take math and the level of courses that people can take. Plato 2,300 years ago believed that everybody needed arithmetic, but the advanced math was relegated to philosopher guardians, and in the 1920s the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics argued to have mathematics part of the curriculum, and between 1890 and the 1940s there was a growth in public schools and the perception was that sometimes they weren’t sure that students had the intellectual capability of doing some of the mathematics that NCTM thought was important. But remember in the 1950s the business world and industry said, “What are you guys doing in schools? The people that you’re putting out there can’t do mathematics.” Well, that was mathematics for a purpose and then Sputnik happened and all of a sudden math became this subject that we wanted to make sure people had. But think about how many English classes do people take—one or two in high school, but in high school students often take four or five math courses. I’m not saying they’re not important, but it really forces us to think about mathematics as an elite subject when gatekeeping from my perspective is it’s not about an elite subject, it’s everyone can do math; people are born mathematical and everyone should have an opportunity to do the subject and not fail at it, but struggle and make movements towards whatever learning they need to do.

John: So a lot of this sounds like our society is creating or emphasizing or encouraging the development of fixed mindsets in math where many messages coming through (as you both have mentioned) in early childhood discourage people from thinking that they’re able to do math and only the elite can get through. Is that common in other cultures?

Marcia: I mentioned earlier that in other cultures hard work and struggle are honored and I witnessed in Budapest, when I was visiting there as part of my sabbatical, that students were asked to go up to the board and struggle through a problem, even if they had no idea. And we do a lot less of that because either you know the answer or you don’t; that doesn’t really work that way—it is an iterative process. I used to work on problems and maybe get a little frustrated, put it away and the next day I’d look at it and I go, “Oh, now I get it.” It’s really about process. The NCTM standards talk about process and product, and if you want people to learn mathematics then you really have to emphasize process, working in teams, giving people a chance to try things and fail but also collaborate with others to ensure that maybe there are multiple ways of approaching a problem, but if you’re not allowing students to talk with one another and work it through, then sometimes they think there’s only one way to do it and it really doesn’t improve their mathematical abilities. Mathematicians are about process—there are certain skills that mathematicians use. Good mathematicians persevere through problem-solving. They check their answers using different methods, they plan how to solve a problem versus jumping into a solution, and they justify the answers and communicate with others. Good mathematicians don’t just know the answer; it’s a process, and there’s even collaboration between mathematicians, but when we teach it on the K-12 level, we say, “This is what you need to learn and you need to learn it in a specified amount of time,” and so a lot of times students are turned off by the way we teach mathematics. Opening the gate is really about helping teachers rethink how they actually teach mathematics. We have a lot of data about how to successfully teach math, and it’s about problem-solving, reasoning, communication, connections and representations, but if you’re just gonna stand at the board and write the answer to a problem, that doesn’t help people really connect to how you came to that problem. So, gatekeeping is about getting teachers to rethink how they’re teaching mathematics and what they think is important. Process and products are important, but process is actually more important.

Rebecca: You mentioned mathematics as a collaborative process, but in my experience in K-12 I don’t think I ever worked with another person once.

Marcia: It’s funny you mention that. Again, the stratification stuff is huge. I attended a program called Budapest Semesters in Math Education and it’s geared for Americans, Canadians to come to this program. They’re interested in both juniors and seniors to come and learn about the problem-solving approach to mathematics. These are students who are mostly math majors, but they could be math ed majors, and they are sent to these schools where they’ve selected the top students in mathematics to use a problem-solving approach and what happens is they give them a problem with no background and they ask them to work out these problems. They can use their textbooks, they can use calculators, but the fact is our students—Americans and Canadians—get to witness students almost trying anything to work out these high-level mathematics problems—sometimes they’re theoretical, sometimes they’re applied. But what the students say who are in this particular program—and I got to be in these classes with them—was, “Why can’t we have all students use some of these processes?” And the processes are really just the things we already know that good mathematicians are supposed to do, sort of George Pólya, you know: analyze the problem, look at all the facts, try something, test your answer. But you actually get to witness that. So, when you asked me “None of the classes I ever went to that were collaborative and problem-based and working in teams,” well we seem to have an idea that only the gifted and talented or special programs will allow kids who already show aptitude to do mathematics in that particular way, and the fact is I visited a school in Budapest where this teacher who’s been working with the gifted and talented students got permission from the parents to try this problem-solving approach for a ninth grade through 12th grade. They had to get sign-offs by parents, because of course, in our system, if kids don’t know certain things by the end of certain grades then their opportunities—another gate—for getting into the university and going through the career path are cut off. So, these parents had to sign off that they were going to risk that what she was gonna to do over the next four years was gonna be helpful to their students and that they wouldn’t be harmed by doing this problem-solving approach. I witnessed several math classes where this teacher had been working as part of her dissertation to have students go through this problem-solving approach—it’s not just Pólya; there are other… Pósa there’s a Pósa method—I met this gentleman who, he was in his 80s and he invented the Pósa method and he’s one of the top mathematicians in his age… in his day, but he devoted his life to teaching problem-solving to kindergarten through grade 12. But the point that I’m making is, I witness students who had been through this process, and they were explaining problems to their peers on the board in ways that I haven’t seen good math teachers explain. But they built these kids up from start to finish to be confident about what they knew, to work in groups, not be afraid to make mistakes, and I think that we can do more of allowing students to learn not just at their own pace, but learn what mathematicians do—the process of engaging with one another if we weren’t so afraid of the whole accountability—what do kids know at the end of 12th grade? What do they know at the end of 11th grade? It’s recursive. Some things they learned in ninth grade in Algebra I will come back in Algebra II and when they’re college students they’re gonna pull the algebra and geometry together, if we allow it, as opposed to looking at these areas as completely separate things. One of the things about gatekeeping is that teachers have to think about students as already being competent; they’ve got to provide students with scaffolding so that students that are in different places have an opportunity to demonstrate what they know. I also think that we have to have high expectations, but we have to let students understand that they can extend the learning if they take some risks; that’s what good mathematicians do, and then we have to exhibit in depth knowledge as well as subject matter knowledge. So there are certain things that gatekeepers—math teachers—can do, but they’ve got to trust that students can learn, and we’ve got to keep the expectations high, but also scaffold for them so that they’re successful.

Rebecca: …a lot of evidence-based practices.

John: Yes, I was just going to say a lot of what you’re talking about, there’s a tremendous amount of research supporting that, not just in math instruction but across the board. In terms of providing students with challenging problems—you have the desirable difficulties of Bjork and Bjork, for example, and in terms of learning from mistakes, that shows up in all of the research on teaching and learning and it’s something that Ken Bain talked about when he summarized some of this research in What the Best College Teachers Do, and it’s also shown up in several of the books we’ve used in our reading groups, Make It Stick and Minds Online, for example: that retrieval practice, low stakes testing, where students can make mistakes and learn from mistakes, is effective in all types of instruction. So, these are really good practices that seem to be mostly neglected in math instruction.

Rebecca: I was expecting John to also mention something about growth mindset. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think I already did a while back, but treating math as something you’re either good at or not good at by teachers and by families and by our culture discourages the development of a growth mindset, and that’s really important. This year I’ve completely flipped my large microeconomics class and one of the things I had them do is before each class I asked them to do some readings and then I asked them to work through some problems in the readings; I have students submit a short Google form, where I ask them just two questions before each class. The first question is: “What have they learned from this reading assignment before that day’s class?” And also, “What are they still struggling with or what don’t they fully understand?” And half to two-thirds of them before each and every class list, “I have trouble interpreting graphs;” “I have trouble understanding graphs;” or that “I have trouble computing these things,” and that’s all basic math, and of course they have trouble doing it when it’s the first time they see it, but they see it as a barrier— “I’m just not good at it,” and every day in class I’ve been trying to encourage them to say, “Well, you may not do it now, but you can get better at this;” “You haven’t yet mastered this;” “You’re not yet good at this, but the more you do it the easier it gets,” and we’re not always seeing that happen, and we see that in lots of areas.

Marcia: Yeah, I think that students are more willing to say “I’m not good at math; I don’t have any experience with math,” but they would never say, “I can’t read; I’m not good at reading.” They might say it, but it’s socially acceptable to say “I’m not good at mathematics,” and the fact is when you look at a group of kindergarteners and they’re in a classroom, they’re all learning for the first time how to add and subtract and they slowly… I’m sorry, through some of their elementary school teachers who often are afraid of mathematics, and they say little things, “Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s okay to not be able to do that, we’ll work on that later on,” but they say it in a way that sometimes gives students permission to say, “Oh, I don’t have to learn that—I’m a girl, I’m a student of color, I don’t have to learn that because the teacher said she doesn’t know it either,” and so one of the concerns that I have for how we train childhood educators is we force them through, at least on our campus, these two math classes where they go kicking and screaming, but the fact is we almost need to reprogram them to think about the things that they can do mathematically and then build curriculum around them. It’s not always about the fact that the way you learn is the same way that all the kids that you’re teaching learn; it’s more about how do you change your perceptions about mathematics. There’s something on NPR, and I’ll have to find the reference a little bit later on, where this young man who was blind learned how to ride a bike, was sent to school, and people couldn’t even really understand why he was able to do all of these things as a blind person—well, his mother decided to treat him like he was a sighted person and it’s a Batman series, where the fact is, if you convince someone that they can do something and you believe it, then all of the things that you do to work on their perceptions about their capacity will come through. But first the teacher has to believe it and then they have to do all of these things to scaffold it. The fact is that, and again, I’ll have to find the researcher, but he did this study where he told all of his researchers that these mice were smart mice… these mice were everyday the same mice… what happened is the researchers came in and they treated those mice like they were smart—they handled them differently, they had them run through whatever people do in psychology with mice, and then he came back later on and said “All of these mice have exactly the same capabilities.” Well, that works in exactly the same way in the math classroom; students come, and if we believe that they’re capable and we come off and treat them with respect about what they have learned and how to build on that, then we’re gonna see better progress in their learning. I have to come back to the gate because the teacher has a lot of power to make the gate accessible or make the gate a barrier, and the barrier is really just the messages that the teacher says to the students and to herself about success in mathematics, and we lose entire generations of people when the gate is closed to them mainly because of perception.

Rebecca: So much discussion of gates it should be important to note that in front of Marcia is this picture of so many different kinds of gates in our conversation. Can you talk a little bit about the gates that you have in front of you?

Marcia: Yeah, I decided to Google different kinds of gates and when you think about the Brandenburg Gate or you think about gates like this one —remind me what this is called; this is in Cincinnati—the arch; this is really a gate, but this shows an opening to something, so when you think about gatekeeping in mathematics, I want us to think about people being gatekeepers for accessibility. So when you look at those pictures you think of when you’re going through the turnstile to pay with an EZ Pass. That is a barrier. If you don’t have money, you don’t have an EZ Pass, you’re not getting through, but if you look at the door to no return like in Benin it’s an opening to the next world just like certain pictures of gates just have you think differently about openings and closings.

Rebecca: There’s some like the dog pen where there is no way in or out; it looks like that one’s just closed forever.

Marcia: Yeah, which one is it? This one or this one? Right, I mean this has a gate, but often people are closed inside of thinking that they can’t do math and they can’t be successful. The job of a teacher would be to help them jump over that particular gate or find a different way to think about opening that particular gate. If you’re a dog and you’re inside of a pen, I think you’re just gonna need somebody to lift you up over that gate, and I think about that with teachers that what they have to do with each individual student is completely different, but their responsibility is to help them understand that they’re all mathematicians and they all have capacity for success in mathematics.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a little bit about how gatekeepers can open the gate or provide the leg up over the wall, or whatever it is, right, that’s there. Can you talk a little bit more about how to be inclusive and how faculty and teachers can really support this environment that would allow for problem-solving and allowing students to fail and try again and to iterate and eventually succeed?

Marcia: I’ve thought a lot about elementary school students and middle school students, where you’ve probably heard about the Montessori Method. The Montessori Method, you work with individuals to build from what their interests are and it turns out that students without a lot of direct instruction can complete whatever the curriculum is for that grade level by mapping to their interests, their strengths, and projects that they do where they’re learning the mathematics in ways that might be considered non-traditional. In the Montessori Method, they’re not just looking at memorizing times tables; they’re looking at multiplication as repeated addition, they’re looking at visualizations instead of just looking at a text. And the fact is that sometimes, I think, that if we allowed students to individualize their learning, especially in middle school and high school, that there’d be more progress than forcing students through the curriculum where each week they’re expected to learn something but they’re not learning it, they’re sort of just being dragged through the mud. And I have a lot of respect for my peers who are math teachers. I was a math teacher where I felt like I know what that kid needs, I need to take time to help that kid through what they need, but I didn’t have the courage to stop what I was doing and figure out how to individualize or make them work in small groups. I was a successful K-12 teacher, but I feel like I started to figure out what was needed when I made the decision to leave. So, part of my job as a math educator is to help our candidates who are gonna be teachers in schools to have the courage to do what they know is right: think about their love of mathematics and give kids problems that are theoretical and have them try it; give them applied problems, give them things where they have to use visualizations and not just know the procedures, but also understand the concept.

John: And also perhaps to use peer instruction, as you talked about, where students explaining things to each other reinforces learning for each student.

Marcia: Yeah, and sometimes the things that we expect of what we call the gifted and talented are exactly the things that other students can do but we’re afraid to take a risk, and I met earlier this afternoon with one of our adjuncts that’s teaching math methods to our graduate students and she said her job is to teach her candidates how to be good teachers, and sometimes that means forgoing what they think they wanted accomplished on that day and building something fun that’s gonna get students to see that math has many openings, not just following things through rote or through memorization. So, I had a really nice conversation with her because she does work in the school systems, but she’s teaching a course for us and she uses constructivist approaches. I have many peers that are still engaged in this math war that it has to be rote, it has to be step-by-step. In the constructivist approach, you care more about the process that students engage in and there’s a program that I listen to on Sunday morning it’s on NPR where it’s a puzzle and the puzzle is usually related to a vocabulary puzzle as opposed to a math puzzle, but the type of thinking that you have to engage to solve those puzzles really is mathematical thinking, so I love those puzzles, but they’re all couched in word puzzles… but it’s really mathematical thinking… and so I think the teachers need to use more of those word puzzles to bring people in so that they understand that they’re engaged in mathematical thinking—it’s just not called mathematical thinking. One of the other things that I wanted to mention before I run out of time is we are heavily tracking students into particular tracks. Sometimes you’re in the track where you’re just going to do Algebra I, and sometimes you’re in the track where you’re gonna get to do Algebra I and Algebra II, and maybe you’ll get to do Geometry, but some of the best learning occurs when there’s heterogeneous grouping and there’s less tracking. This gate stuff, these gatekeeping, really reinforces tracking, which when students come to SUNY Oswego and they’re in a remedial class and don’t know why they’re in the remedial class, because they may have been tracked in a particular way and cut off many, many job opportunities or majors because they were tracked in a particular way, and that is gatekeeping that occurs in fourth grade. And again our responsibility for our childhood educators is to get kids to think more broadly about what mathematics is; it’s not just arithmetic, it’s not just geometry, it’s not just theoretical problems; there are many types of problems that childhood people could engage students in that wouldn’t shut the door to possibilities 10 or 12 years later when students find out that they were tracked in a way that makes it so that they could never do graphic design or they could never do engineering or something else that they didn’t really understand was possible because somebody closed the gate early on.

John: …and that’s really important because most of the growth in income inequality is due to differences in educational attainment and the returns to education. And the returns to education in the STEM fields is far above the returns in other areas as well. So, keeping people out of those areas means that the people with those areas end up doing really well, but the people without those skills end up in jobs that are perhaps overcrowded with lower job prospects, lower prospects of growth and it helps reduce social mobility and economic mobility. It’s a serious problem in our society; it’s the worst we’ve ever seen it in the U.S.

Marcia: Yeah, I can’t connect it completely to perceptions, but a long time ago I taught a remedial math course at Clinton Community College and I had a student in that class and she was a smart person—I think everyone is smart—but I walked through how to study math, how to approach it: you are capable, work hard, keep asking questions, and about 10 years later I got a postcard from her—this flabbergasted me; she was in a remedial class and she had entered a PhD program in mathematics and she said it was just about the fact that somebody finally showed her how to study math—it was read the textbook, try the problems, come to class, listen maybe to the lecture, don’t be afraid to make mistakes; when you’re tired take a break. There are certain things We know that people can be successful in mathematics but we keep thinking that it’s this magic wand thing; it’s not a magic wand thing. We actually know —there’s research from Adding it Up —where we know exactly how people learn math well. The stuff research from Bransford, which how to study mathematics, how to learn mathematics, it’s written in black and white from large-scale studies, but then we return to the rote memorization, follow these steps and that’s not the beauty of mathematics at all.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think is really interesting about what you’re saying is that societally we might think, “Oh, fourth grade teacher… not really gonna have a big impact,” but you’re really talking about this fourth grade teacher is not a gatekeeper of the little gate around the garden; this is like the gate to the universe.

Marcia: Absolutely, and most of our math candidates who are not math concentrates—they’ve got to take these two four-credit math courses—will say, “I just need to get through this class; I hate math.” If you hate math it comes through loud and clear in your teaching; it’s really difficult to mask that. I taught a math for diverse learners course that the School of Education and Arts and Sciences Math Department and Curriculum and Instruction collaborated on and it was a math for diverse learner, so some of the things that I’ve been talking about here was in a full graduate course, and students would say, “Well, I never really thought about that; I thought everybody was gonna learn math the same way I learned math”—you’re a math person, I shouldn’t even say that. You’re a math person—you came through the system and you were successful in the current system, but if you want to build the next generation you’ve got to think about some of these other factors—you’re gonna be in a system, and as we’ve talked about systems, you are part of the system and you do have power to make changes to it, even if it’s perceptions, even if it’s just giving students the perception that you care about their learning and that they can succeed, and so this is really important to me. There are three principles: teachers must engage student misconceptions, understanding requires factual knowledge and conceptual understanding, and a metacognitive approach enables students self-monitoring. If I think about gatekeeping, if teachers kept those three principles in mind, they’re not mine—it’s in the research. This is sort of revolutionary because we don’t want to restrict people to thinking that only certain people can do mathematics, but if math teachers, whether they’re childhood or adolescence, or university teachers think about what good mathematicians do, they’ll follow these three principles and it might move us forward. I know it’s a big deal because the successful people want to keep what they have to themselves, but I think we miss out on the potential of entire generations if we don’t give them access to opening the gate through mathematics. When the Common Core came out teachers had the perception that they had to give these problems to students and parents would call and complain—“I can’t even do these problems; these aren’t the problems that I did when I was a kid”—well, the fact is we weren’t supposed to be sending these problems home; we were supposed to be doing those problems in class, and so a lot of the Common Core mathematics was supposed to be using manipulatives and getting kids to talk about how they think through the arithmetic problem. They were sending home problems and parents were complaining they were spending two or three hours to work through these problems, and there was an article put out—it was an NCTM—where they said what is your problem? No, don’t send these problems home for kids to fight with their parents, ‘cause that’s just gonna reinforce, “Oh, I couldn’t do math either;” it was supposed to be completely done in the classroom in collaborative groups, but we’re still not interested in teaching in that way. So, we sent home the homework—well, you could have been sending home memorize these timetables just as we did 20 years ago or 30 years ago, so finally NCTM put something out to help math teachers in the K-12 area not to send home these problems that would take parents two to three hours, but to rethink the organization of their classrooms where students could work on problems and have fun with mathematics, and the fact is that there are reforms that mathematicians fight about; there are a whole host of mathematicians that said Common Core was bad; Common Core is not bad, the way it was implemented was bad, so now we’ve done some backtracking to think about the fact that when you carry, when you’re subtracting or you’re adding, why do we do that? And the Common Core got students to make sense out of place value and make sense out of what it means when we carry this is about the tens place or the hundreds place and whenever you have new curriculum, Common Core or what was the curriculum in the ‘50s, I can’t remember… the new math… there’s always new math, it’s just an approach to make it more inclusive, but sometimes the way we roll things out makes it difficult, at least for the next generation of teachers, so I’m pro-reform movements, but we have to take the time and the energy to implement it in a way that’s actually gonna be useful—we just keep going back to the way we taught math a hundred years ago.

Rebecca: It sounds like what happened was faculty who knew how to do things a particular way get handed something that’s different but not a way of demonstrating or doing the different, right, like…

John: …without the professional development needed to allow them to implement it effectively.

Marcia: Correct. That’s correct.

Rebecca: The method doesn’t match the material.

Marcia: Exactly. At the same time they were putting out that students have to take a main assessment in fourth grade and eighth grade, but those assessments didn’t really align to this new Common Core curriculum, and so lots of things have changed over the last, I’d say seven to ten years, and we’re sort of coming out of that. When students come to the university level we still expect them to know mathematics. Do you remember twenty-five years ago they changed the math curriculum to be Math A and B, Course I, II, and III? New York state was the only state that was really thinking more globally about, “Wow, it doesn’t always have to be about algebra—it could be about statistics, it can be about more applied,” but the fact is universities didn’t change and we were still expecting students to know this narrow curriculum but it did broaden what people thought about mathematics, but it didn’t really help a lot of those students because then they were closed out of particular career areas because they might have been in a school that embraced applied math or embraced business math or something that might not connect to what they would do at the university level.

John: You’ve also been involved with Project Smart here at Oswego. Could you you tell us a little bit about that and how it relates to math instruction.

Marcia: Project Smart was a thirty-year project where teachers came to SUNY Oswego for summers to do professional development, math, science, technology. There are some teachers retiring over the last couple of years that came to Project Smart right from the beginning. We brought people in like Damian Schofield in the early days to learn about human-computer interaction. We brought people in from music and from art to help teachers integrate other things into their teaching, so they used to come for three weeks, then they came for two weeks, then they came for one week, then we built it into the department where faculty got released time to go into schools and work with teachers from the bottom up to think about how to improve teaching in their classroom. Project Smart really honored the work that teachers did because we would say, “What do you want to improve in your classroom? Are there particular things that you know students are struggling with?” This past year, funding for Project Smart ended, but the institution is still supporting individual faculty to go into schools and work with teachers to build classrooms that connect with the learners that they have in front of them. It’s more connected to what’s called a professional development school, where at the university we have the latest about how to teach, whether it’s math or English or social studies or modern language, and then we go into schools where they’re dealing with kids every single day and we try to help them figure out how to improve as a teacher; we meet them where they are; we build from there, so Project Smart is over—I’m not gonna say it’s dead, but we have a different system to work on professional development schools but just in a different way.

John: So you’re still doing the same thing even though it’s not under that official title?

Marcia: Correct. Correct.

Rebecca: We always wrap up our episodes by asking, what next?

Marcia: Oh my goodness, thank you for asking what next. After returning from my sabbatical, where I had the opportunity to be part of Budapest Semesters in Math Education where I got to see classrooms where students were using Pólya’s problem-solving approach in addition to something called the Pósa method, I worked with Josh McKeown, who’s from international education to reduce the cost of the Budapest program, so we’re working to recruit math students, both childhood and adolescence teacher candidates, as well as straight math candidates to consider going to Budapest over a winter course for one or two weeks over winter session or during spring break. What would they experience if they went to a short course? They would visit classrooms using the Pósa method, they would sit in on some of the math courses at BSME, where teachers are actually showing how to use a problem-solving approach in mathematics, where sometimes our students say “You talk about problem solving, you talk about the constructive approach, but no one is doing it so we don’t really know what it is.” The next step is to work with international ed to get a group of students to do the BSME program.

Rebecca: That’s really incredible.

Marcia: I’m excited about it too and I hope to also re-institute my math for diverse learners course because through that course I reinforce that I believe students should have access to high-quality, engaging math instruction. I believe all students should have mathematically rich curriculum. I believe all students should have high expectations and strong support, and we’re all gatekeepers— we are change agents and we control the gate. I think it’s ambitious because many people don’t agree with me saying that mathematics needs to be more inclusive, but that’s what I’ve been working for my entire career and I hope to continue that way.

Rebecca: Your work is incredible and we’re really excited that you’re doing that work.

Marcia: Thank you.

Rebecca: I know as someone who’s in a field that you don’t always associate with math—I believe in math and so I hope we can all help support your initiative.

John: It’s a major social justice issue.

Marcia: It’s a huge social justice issue because, again, what happens is often students of color, students that come from poor families may or may not have had the best math instruction. I mean, it’s a big cycle, and when they come here we should be able to help not just convince them, but this is a public institution. We should be able to provide access for them to reach whatever goals they hope to. We should be able to take students where they are and help them achieve whatever their focus is, whether it’s math related or not.

John: Well, thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you so much.
[Music]

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

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

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

58. Role-play

Do your students sometimes settle for a superficial understanding of your course content? Role-playing activities can provide an opportunity for students to become more fully immersed in the academic dialog of your discipline. In this episode, Jill Peterfeso joins us discuss a variety of role-playing activities that can be implemented into a single class session or over a more extended period of time. Jill is an Assistant Professor in and the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Guilford College.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Do your students sometimes settle for a superficial understanding of your course course content? Role-playing activities can provide an opportunity for students to become more fully immersed in the academic dialog of your discipline. In this episode, we’ll discuss a variety of role-playing activities that can be implemented into a single class session or over a more extended period of time.

[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.

Rebecca: Our guest today is Jill Peterfeso, assistant professor in and the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Guilford College. Welcome, Jill.

John: Welcome, Jill.

Jill: Hi, nice to be here.

John: Our teas today are…

Jill: I am drinking candy cane tea; it’s a black tea. If you like peppermint tea, this takes it up a notch with even more sweetness. It’s really delicious.

John: What brand is that?

Jill: Adagio.

Rebecca: That sounds right up John’s alley, actually.

Jill: Oh really? For Christmas a couple years ago I asked for some and my parents are like, “Oh, what size?” And I was like, “You know what? I don’t know. A pound.” Well, you know how much a pound of tea is? [LAUGHTER] So I have enough to last me like a decade.

John: I had a mix of tea where it was peppermint, spearmint and tarragon and I got a pound of peppermint, a pound of spearmint and a pound of tarragon.

Jill: My gosh. [LAUGHTER] Yeah.

Rebecca: Speaking of lifetime supplies. I have English afternoon.

John: Again?

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: And I have blueberry green tea. We invited you here to talk a bit about how you’ve been using role-play in your classes. Could you give us some examples of what you’ve been doing with this and in what context?

Jill: Yeah, absolutely. This idea of working with role-play comes from my own interest as a theatre person in high school and college and even into my adult years and also just this memory I have of doing theatre where stepping into the role of another person opens up your mind in really different ways. I’ve devised a number of different things that I do in the class, sometimes borrowing from others, sometimes doing completely experimental assignments. So, I think that it’s sort of three different levels of immersion into role-play. A level one thing, for instance, might be I use dialog tests where I have students imagine dialogues. For instance, historical figures John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson are having a conversation about conversion… what do they say to one another? And so instead of writing an essay on the thesis of conversion in Puritan New England, I have students imagine a conversation between these two historical actors. So, that would be an example of something that’s level one. Something that’s more level two… I often invite students to take on the voices and the ideas of authors, theologians and theorists that we’re studying. For instance, I teach an upper-level Holocaust class where we often read a lot of excerpts from very dense critical theory, for instance. I will assign students to different authors we’ve read… someone will get Habermas, someone will get Adorno, et cetera, et cetera, and then we come together in a colloquium setting and they need to speak in the discussion as that “author” or that character… and then sort of the deeper level of immersion would be something like reacting to the past, which is a very well established pedagogical role-play method in historical game that comes out of Barnard College and about 20 years old now—is developed by history professor named Mark Carnes—and in that students literally are assigned historical characters and then they play out some event from the past. Games that I have used in my classes include the Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, Anne Hutchinson (who I mentioned earlier), the Council of Nicaea; I’ve done those in my classes, but they have them for all sorts of disciplines in all different time periods. So, that one, it’s several days. Students give speeches and form teams and do some politicking behind the scenes to come together and play their characters in order to see, like, literally playing with history.

John: In that second level of role-play, when they’re in the role of characters do you have students discuss contemporary issues or issues of the historical period?

Jill: When they are speaking as theorists or authors then I have them sort of in the secondary source mode so that they are speaking as contemporaries, even if it’s an Adorno or Habermas —who weren’t so much contemporary for us anymore—they’re still able to speak about contemporary issues. If we’re talking about Holocaust Studies, for instance, they are able to bring some of that to bear on whatever is happening here and now. I do something similar in a feminist theologies class where we read various feminist theologians over the course of the semester and one student is assigned a theologian each semester, one student per one theologian, and when we discuss that theologian the student speaks not as a student but as the theologian. So, it’s this extra meta-level that they that one student wears in this one moment or I should say in this one class period and what that lets them do is have this dexterity where they are connecting the text that they have a certain intimacy with as the “author” but then they’re also able to connect with their classmates who might be bringing up some of these different issues, like how this reading in feminist theology might connect to some of the reproductive issues that are going on now in politics or issues around concern for the planet, et cetera, et cetera. Really to your question, John, the way I see it, especially in that second level, is a hinging where they’re able to sort of pivot between the creation of the text and the application of the text and that’s one of the nice things about it because it keeps them again hinged where they’re connected to both parts and they’re aware of the fact that they’re swiveling, if that makes some sense.

John: It does. It sounds like they’re making some really deep connections.

Jill: Hopefully.

John: It’s a form in a sense of peer instruction.

Jill: Absolutely, yeah, thank you. That’s one of the things that I try to get them to do with role-play… with other activities I do in the class… but the role-play specifically… is to get students to realize that they can be instructors of their peers and just as successfully as I could be in some instances. It lets them feel that they are experts in what they are speaking on. That is ideally very empowering, but it also gives them—and I found this constantly with role-play, and this is something your audience might find interesting—is that when students are wearing a “mask” of someone else’s ideas or someone else’s character, they are much more willing to be directive with their peers and sort of challenge their peers if their peers are not thinking very critically or very clearly… and I’ve heard this from my students for the theologian activity in feminist theology… they get more annoyed if their classmates are not really stepping up and not really engaging “their ideas.” So, they’re able to say, “Well, wait a second, that’s not what I wrote. Look at the bottom of page 36…” and yet it works because no one really feels attacked by someone playing the persona of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. So, it works really nicely because that framing… that mask… however you want to think about it… creates the opportunity to step into a liminal space where it’s a little safer to push those boundaries, and students tend to do that and that allows them to do that peer instruction even more so than they would otherwise. I don’t think they think of it that way until after when I have them reflect, then they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I felt more defensive of these ideas and I also felt like I knew where they were coming from.” There was a material, historical context that gave rise to the need for me to write this theology or me to write this theory and they felt that attachment to it. To hear them say that I’m like, “Yes, that’s exactly what I would hope would happen.” As somebody who’s done acting and done theater, that’s the best part for me, immersing yourself empathetically in another experience and so it seems to work for students intellectually in a scholarly way.

Rebecca: …seems really powerful, but I can imagine that telling your students that they’re gonna role-play could be really intimidating. So, how do you prepare students for that experience?

Jill: Yeah, this is one of these things that I’m constantly trying to get better about. I tell them early and often. Whoever signs up for early on—so, again, right now I’m thinking about the feminist theology class where they have to step into and embody these ideas one at a time over the course of the semester—what I do is try to get some of my stronger students who might know me or have done this before in other classes to go first and I make sure to give them a special amount of direction and leeway and then after one or two students will go I will do a reflection like a stop, okay, what’s working. Students who are not doing this but were in the classroom discussion with the theologian, what are you noticing? And students who did this, what advice do you have for others? So, then again, the peers become the instructor. When it comes to other things, I mentioned earlier in my Holocaust class, and we do this sometimes in feminist theology, we do this in my Jesus in Film and Pop Culture class, where we really will be in a circle discussion and I mostly teach seminar. Disclaimer: most of my classes are 10 to 25 students, so this works really nicely. We’ll be in a circle and we’ll be looking at each other and channeling historians and scholars of the historical Jesus or Holocaust theory around memory studies. We might get into it and I’ll need to stop and say, “Okay, I want to pause. I noticed some of you are not speaking in the first person. Remember, I want you to be speaking as you’re scholar. Some of you are doing a really nice job with this, but I don’t hear you using quotes from the text, so remember the text is your foundation. The text is what gives you a platform. You don’t have to make up everything. You are using the text as a springboard to merge with your own ideas.” Constantly of doing that, modeling some of it for students as well and then affirming them. I think this all ultimately plays to where the majority of students get it at some point. But, Rebecca, I will tell you, I mean, you’re right. Some students never really get into this. They think it’s too strange or it’s too uncomfortable, or they’re really good students in the traditional way of doing things and they don’t think that this is something that they need or is helpful. That’s fine; not everything is going to work for everybody. What I love about some of these different liminal activities is that they will reach students who otherwise would feel that they can’t step into discussion in the traditional way because they don’t think they’re good at it, but giving them this additional costume of intellectual ideas to wear is liberating for some students, and that’s enough for me to do it once or twice a semester in some classes because it’s gonna invite in people who might not feel invited another way.

John: How long do these activities run? Is it a one day thing or multiple days?

Jill: It all depends again on which activities. When I do the symposia type models where we’re all together that’s usually at the lowest… it would be our 75 minute classes; sometimes I do it in our three hour classes, then it’s more about two and a half hours with a break in between. I’m getting ready to do one of these symposia in my Catholicism course and we’re gonna do it over two 75-minute classes, totaled about two and a half hours. What that does… and this ties to your question, John… what that does is it allows me to not be anxious that, “Oh my gosh, we have so much to cover and we’re not doing it,” and it really pushes me to the side, which is another key issue with this role-play is I as the professor in an ideal world create the settings, create the condition, give the instruction and then get the heck out of their way and let them stumble a little bit, let them struggle with some silence, let them look awkwardly at each other, let them look pleadingly at me but then turn to each other and realize, “okay, this has got to be us.” I encourage folks who want to try these sorts of things to give time because just investing in time means you’re gonna let the silence happen. Some things are much longer, so reacting to the past, for instance, which I’ve been playing with for the past year or more, that’s several weeks. We did the Anne Hutchinson game in my Religion in the U.S. class just last month and that was five 75-minute days and we’re gearing up for the Frederick Douglass game that starts next week. That’s gonna be six days. So, six days of game playing and then prep on the beginning and prep at the end. Doing that role-play meant completely redoing my syllabus for that course. There were reasons that that made sense given my teaching condition for that class, which I can get into if you’re interested, but that was a real total revamping. Everything from little bits to larger bits, depending on what you’re willing to invest in and what you’re looking to do with your students, what kinds of skills you’re trying to emphasize.

Rebecca: Jill, for someone who doesn’t have a background in theater, but…

Jill: Yeah.

Rebecca: …might find this to be a really interesting idea, what would you advise them to look at or how to start or an activity that they might do the first time out to just get their feet wet?

Jill: Reacting to the Past is a premade pedagogy. There are so many games I would recommend anyone who’s listening to this and thinking that sounds interesting to go to their website ‘cause those folks who run the Reacting Consortium will help you and there are so many games. I go to Reacting as a theater person who’s like, “Oh, won’t it be great if we all just sort of immerse ourselves in these characters of this historical moment and then give speeches as these characters,” this is like Jill in high school who did murder mystery weekends with her friend, like it’s getting these characters in and improving dialogue and a relationship and it’s just so fun, but that’s what gets me stuck on Reacting. A lot of folks who do Reacting are more gamers, they like that there are victory conditions and points for winning, or they’re historians who like this different way of doing history. That’s just my hook, but that’s not everybody’s hook. There are plenty of people I’ve met in the Reacting world who would never have thought of themselves as “a theater person.” So, I think that’s a safe one. Reacting has games as short as a day, as long as ten days. It’s good because it’s pre-made and you can go to conferences where you get to play some of the games, so that’s a good place to start. As far as some of the smaller ones, I think a safe and fun place to begin if you’re intrigued by this idea would be the dialogue assignments or the dialogue tests, sort of like I alluded to earlier, inviting students to put authors in conversation with each other… maybe across historical moments… maybe across religious traditions, in my case… maybe inserting themselves as a student into the conversation. And why is this valuable? Well, because when we want academic writing to happen, ideally students are putting different ideas “in conversation with one another”—juxtaposing different ideas—and so with these dialogue tests they were like literally doing that in a dialogue format as opposed to just writing a traditional paper where they may not be so aware that that’s what they’re doing. So… something very meta about all of this role-play stuff where they are with me—with the professor—the students are aware that they are trying on a different voice and that often for students makes something click. This is a different way of engaging. By the end of going through the process they’re like, “Oh, yeah, like I’ve made these discoveries that I didn’t think I would have permission to make otherwise.” Again, it gives them a permission to see and do something differently.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about the two reacting to the past scenarios that you’re running… in terms of what the main issues are that the students will be addressing?

Jill: The first one is the Anne Hutchinson game, which Anne Hutchinson was a Puritan woman… 1630s… Massachusetts Bay Colony… shows up… John Winthrop is the governor and they’re there to be the city on a hill to show the world this is what a true God-dedicated colony should look like; they’re gonna turn the eyes of the world to them and everything’s going to flow smoothly, and yet things start happening and people start getting religious ideas that aren’t quite in line with the orthodox and Anne Hutchinson is one of them… and she’s this woman… she’s a midwife… she starts having prayer meetings in her own home and, come to find out, that she’s having these visions and hearing these voices coming from the Bible and she believes God is speaking to her. And so doing she’s shifting the theology of the colony and people are starting to listen to her—that makes her dangerous. So this whole trial happened in the 1630s in Puritan, New England, and she is ultimately kicked out of the colony. The game scenario that we play in Reacting to the Past—again, I did not write this; I borrow it, I adapt it—much credit to the authors of the game. This game’s been running for many years. What happens is it’s this counterfactual where we imagine that there’s a second trial; she’s been banished but we’re gonna give her another try. What happens is you have the faction that is against Anne Hutchinson and then you have the faction that is Pro-Anne Hutchinson and then you have these indeterminate—this is a pretty standard format for reacting: you get one side, another side, and these indeterminates. The indeterminates are the ones you need to persuade; basically we have about three or four days of debate among these different groups trying to figure out what did she do wrong and do we want to let her back in, and the indeterminates are these immigrants who are arriving from England who want to get in the church. Before they can vote on Anne Hutchinson, they have to get into the church. So, they have their own objective of getting in but once they’re in both sides want these new immigrants to vote with them. It becomes this very fun game and what happens—this happened in my class just last month—a lot of students find themselves making arguments that they don’t agree with. They will step outside of class and say to me like, “I do not agree with what I’m saying; I can’t believe I’m arguing that Anne Hutchinson shouldn’t be speaking because she’s a woman. I believe that women have rights and should be able to have religious ideas and speak to men” and I’m like, “Yes, but you’re in a different historical context, so you need to be able to separate yourself from that.” I love—and I don’t say to students—I love that you’re trying to hold in tension what you think and feel with what you say and isn’t that how we sometimes have to act in the world? They did a really lovely job with that this semester. So, that’s the Anne Hutchinson game. The one we’re launching next week is the Frederick Douglass game which takes place in 1845. Abolitionism is really coming to its own as the political force. Slave owners are getting even more anxious and holding on to their power and the country is really in turmoil, specifically around the publication of the new autobiography by a man named Frederick Douglass. In this game there are even more historical characters—we have students who are about to be assigned the roles of John C. Calhoun and Senator Henry Clay and William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth and Angelina Grimké and they’re gonna go at it around issues of slavery, what the Constitution does and doesn’t allow about slavery and there will be indeterminates as well who can see the wisdom in both sides. They may not like slavery but is it politically advantageous to go against it at this point? This is a controversial game in some context, as you can imagine, because there will be students playing slave owners, there will be students playing former slaves, so you have to tread really carefully. That’s another thing with role-play, depending on your institutional context and who your students are, you do have to be careful as you ask students to step into roles that are not their own identities, but, again, that takes a lot of prep upfront. I think it can be done, you just have to be delicate with it. So with Frederick Douglass, for instance—I mean, who’s going to be John C. Calhoun? He was one of the biggest, baddest, most racist (by our terms) slave owners in the 19th century. Well, I’ve sold him this way to students. They’re gonna get input on the characters and I have an African American male in the class who said, “I want to play that part; that’s a part that I want,” and in fact when I did this last spring I had an African American male who wanted that part. I talked to them and I say, “are you sure? Why do you want this? And that’s awesome.” They say “I want to understand where they’re coming from, because that’s the worst thinking I can imagine and I want to know more about it.” So my student who did it last spring came to class in costume every single day as John C. Calhoun. I have pictures of the students wearing this wig and invariably he also wore some symbol of Africa on his person, like a shirt or a medallion around his neck. It was great what he was doing… how he was showing resistance to these messages that he was speaking in class—I mean, it was actually deeply profound. It also liberated other students to argue in the voices of pro-slavery advocates to have students of color in the class be willing to do that work too, and frequently at the end of classes—again, Frederick Douglass was about six days—like we would stop maybe five minutes early; I don’t know that the Reacting people would approve of us, but we’d stop and say, “Okay, this is getting heavy—how can we support one another around some of these really difficult conversations? How can we continue to support the pro-slavery students in the class…” because what would happen is the indeterminates in the Frederick Douglass game would just be like, “Oh, well slavery is bad; I know it’s bad ‘cause it’s 2018, slavery’s bad”—we just kept having to note that’s not where you are, but the water in which you swim as a mid-19th century fish is one in which slavery’s just accepted. You can’t don your 21st century hat and argue from that way. So, that’s also part of the learning objective. I think it’s probably clear that student collaboration is a big part of this… students having to work together in teams, having to come together around strategies and how to make an argument and who to target on the other team to try to turn their mind around.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the prep work before any of these role-playing instances? Clearly there needs to be some groundwork laid before you have a whole class period dedicated to any of these activities that you’re talking about.

Jill: Yeah, definitely. Letting them know in advance it’s coming is a big one. With Reacting it’s on the syllabus. I send out the syllabus about two or three weeks before the semester starts and I’m always like, “Hey, this is coming, so please look at this two-page document I’m sending you about what this entails; if this sounds great to you, wonderful; if it sounds miserable, let’s talk, because I don’t want you to be immersed in something that’s really unpleasant.” With the symposia that we do that’s a heads up in advance on the syllabus and then a constant reminder going into it—I tend to tell them within the days before to start making notes as you’re reading—read with the intent of thinking about how you would talk as this theorist. How would you channel these ideas? …and I also always for the symposia start class, ‘cause usually I can’t just have like one student as one person because they’re too many students, so I usually have two teams, like so there’s the Adorno team, whatever. What then happens is I give them about ten minutes to start, just to work together, to come, to brainstorm some ideas and maybe pull some quotes from the reading, also to prepare questions—that’s always the other thing, so it’s not just what are you going to say, but what are you going to ask of one another to keep the conversation going. Part of being in discussion is knowing how to ask questions and when to ask questions. Also encouraging them to draw connections between what different groups are saying—I never want the role-play to be an opportunity for every group to grandstand and then pass the torch to another group of grandstanders who aren’t really making connection. How does that work with role-play? That… either I’ve been modeling that all semester or I haven’t, but something I consciously do in class, I try to tell students, you know, when we’re building on each other’s comments let’s not change the subject without trying to bring in what has come before; if you’re going to change the subject, announce it and explain why you’re changing the subject. That’s part of the modeling that I try to do really consciously throughout the semester so that students get in the groove of how to have a conversation and then these other things just sort of kick it up several notches where then I’m more out of the way and they are hopefully building on tools they’ve been given and are ready to run with it.

Rebecca: You mentioned reflections earlier; can you talk about what that reflection process looks like in a little more detail?

Jill: Yeah, for the Reacting games, a whole day of debrief is built in; that’s one of the things that the Reacting people are pretty insistent on and I do not disagree with them. That tends to be a “Hey student, we just did this whole several days of this historical event. We changed history a little bit because in history this would not have happened and this would not have happened, so here’s what really happened and here’s why.” The debrief is very important for connecting back to larger class theme because, again, when you are sort of stepping outside of normal classroom behavior for a while it’s good to remind students as they gently re-enter why you’ve done what you’ve done and how it connects to these larger class themes, and that’s what the debrief is able to do. So, what you called reflection, Rebecca, I think of also as a debriefing. I also always have students write about these experiences. With Reacting they write a couple paragraphs reflection; I give them some very directed questions. After we did Anne Hutchinson, for instance, in my 101 class, I said, “What did you do well and what are you going to do better next time? Because we have Frederick Douglass coming up in a month.” …and then I share those with the students, like, “Okay, your classmates are really proud of how you all did this and here are the requests that people have for the class going forward. Many of you would like your classmates to prepare better; many of you would like your classmates to show up on time so you’re ready to give your speech; many of you would like your classmates to put more effort into writing your speeches and then delivering them with more confidence and poise.” In this way I don’t become that naggy teacher saying, “Okay, remember, we watched videos on public speaking before you delivered your speeches, but you are still not standing with much confidence and you are still reading from your paper.” Then it becomes the students doing it. Again, it goes back to John’s point before about peer instruction—the self or peer critique—and students don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers, so that sort of ups the ante there. With, for instance, the be the theologian assignment, and even the dialogue test, I always either give a journal assignment or even at the end of a dialogue test on a test say, “Okay, in three or four sentences what did you learn writing this as a dialogue that’s different from writing it as an essay? Or you’ve just performed the role in class of Mary Daly in feminist theology. What did you learn from being Mary Daly that’s different from you as Caitlyn talking about Mary Daly.” So, I think reflection is always such an important part of putting the lid on the assignment, really making it a full, complete thing so that it’s not that weird thing we did once in class but something that “Oh, like giving them the opportunity to make their own connections.” That’s why creating conditions for them to make discoveries for themselves and the reflection is sort of the last chance to do that and I don’t squander that opportunity. So, I think asking those questions and giving them space to reflect is really key.

John: There’s a lot of research that certainly supports that. Sounds like a great collection of activities. You mentioned of some concerns that students have. But, in general, how have students responded to these activities?

Jill: Yeah, a range of things. Some students, I will admit, seem confused. I’m thinking about the last time I did the be the theologian activity—I would say like the first month of class students were like, “What are we doing? Why are we doing this?” And I was trying to be patient and then I’m like, “What have I not been clear about?” And at some point it clicked and it seems to happen with role-play: at some point it clicked and it usually comes with one or two students and then like a lightbulb goes off and they get it and then everyone starts to get it. So I will say for anybody who’s thinking about these things or any creative pedagogy really from my experience: do it more than once, because the first time might not work, but that doesn’t mean that the pedagogy is not right; it might just mean that students are gonna need a little more time. Some students really thrive in it; they feel—I’ve talked about this earlier—they feel free to do college in a way that they haven’t felt free before and that’s really awesome to see because some of these are students who don’t speak. With Reacting, for instance, sometimes I’ve been in class with these students for a month or two months and suddenly we do this different thing and they just come to life and it’s really exciting. You get to see a different part of their personality. What is also exciting is how they then carry some of what they learned and some of the collaborative work that they did into future things like, “Oh, we really work together on this one game that we did, like maybe we can do our group project together at the end.” They respond really interestingly in that way. What I love is when I see then in their written work going forward how they make allusions to the role-play, even if it’s indirect. They start using some of the language and some of the teaching tools and some of the terms, it’s like they actually got it. So, it’s a real range. I’ve had some of my very best students not love it, but, yeah, I think those are the students who you pull aside and you talk to them about why because you can usually show them why you’re doing this pedagogy and why you’re doing something so different and they tend to have some really interesting ideas too, ultimately, and then they can sometimes help you reframe things. One of the things with this role-play stuff that I’ve been working on the past few years is I try to be creative but also humble. I’m not afraid—I try to not be afraid when students have critiques and suggestions ‘cause often they have some of the best ideas. They’re the ones who are doing it and so I invite them to do it; I think that goes to the reflection part that Rebecca had asked about earlier. Sometimes reflection means how would we do this differently? How can we do this better? …and sometimes that’s not just about students and their peers but also about me and the way the assignment is written.

Rebecca: How have your colleagues responded to what you’ve been doing?

Jill: Oh, good question. I’m fortunate because this year at Guilford we have a Center for Principled Problem Solving and they have faculty fellowships for a year and I was lucky to get one for the 2018-2019 school year focused on this performance and pedagogy stuff and specifically around trying to bring some of these ideas to my faculty colleagues. I should say again, I’m never an evangelist for these kinds of ideas because I think everybody should do them at all; I’m really an evangelist for teachers doing things that they think are cool and might work for their students and, while I’m not trying to force anything on anybody, but I am trying to help some of my colleagues just as they’re helping me to come up with new and creative ways to engage students and engage material and make what we do exciting to us. We’re going through a pretty significant curriculum and schedule revision at Guilford that’s gonna kick off next fall; we’ve got a lot of faculty who are rethinking their courses and course designs and activities and there’s not a small amount of anxiety about this change. So, one of the things I’m saying is, “Hey, this is a good opportunity to do some things that are more experimental and even experiential.” One of the things I did was, with the help of faculty development, brought in a Reacting to the Past Consortium board member who came and did a workshop for faculty development in September, and it was awesome. He was really engaging, gave us a lot to think about, and hopefully he’ll be back in January to do a small Reacting game. Reacting has some micro games that last an hour and a half. I believe some of Guilford faculty are going to go to a regional Reacting workshop in March. So, I’m trying to just invite people in—nobody’s being forced to do anything. I don’t have that kind of power, nor do I want it. I’m just trying to give people some ideas that have worked for me that I think are fun and that students seem to respond to and it helps our students. So, Guilford student population… we have traditional age students. we have very diverse, like ethnically… racially… in terms of class… we have a lot of diversity. We also have an adult population and then we have some high school students that take college students at Guilford in one of the best high schools in the state of North Carolina, so we have so much diversity, so how can we reach everybody? How can we invite everybody to the conversation? And this is one way that’s gotten people to sort of break down their walls. I think my colleagues are—some of them are suspicious and they should be—nobody should listen to this and be like, “Oh, this is brilliant, perfect, like, no, it’s not perfect.” Reacting to the Past is well-established, it’s not perfect. Some of my ideas aren’t perfect, but it’s a starting point and we can keep honing and keep working together to fix some of these ideas and that’s certainly what I’m doing. A lot of this work started with a fellowship I had a couple summers ago with the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Religion and Theology; I got to spend the summer researching performance and pedagogy and that’s where I started to develop a lot of these ideas and some of the folks that run the teaching journal in conjunction with the Wabash Center, it’s called Teaching Theology and Religion—TTR. They’re excited about this; they think it’s worth hearing about so I’m working on an article with them—I’ve already published a few things smaller with them and I’m gonna work on some bigger pieces. There seems to be enthusiasm because I think we’re at a place where we want students to be engaged. The population of students seems to be changing in terms of their preparation for college, what they find interesting, what they’re willing to sit through in class. So, this is just one of many ways to get students trying a new way of learning. I don’t think if everybody did it that it would be awesome; I think it’s fun because they’re gonna remember in five years, “oh, yeah, in Jill Peterfeso’s class we did that really weird thing. It was weird, but it was also really cool.” I’m alright with that, I’m totally okay with that. Yes, I just say also like “I’m not afraid to be a dork about these things” and I think that’s disarming and students respond to that, ‘cause I’m like, “You guys are gonna get to role-play and I don’t get to play, but I get to watch, and do you want invite your friends?” and there at first they’re like, “no” and then by the end of the class, like we did this in the spring with Anne Hutchinson, I said, “So you want to invite like your professors or some of your friends?” and they’re like, “no, no” and then with Frederick Douglass they’re like, “We could invite everybody, like let’s put a message in the college newsletter,” like they got so into it. So, that’s learning and that self confidence and that’s not being afraid of trying new things and that transition over the course of a semester… something’s going on. I haven’t measured it and assessed it yet—don’t tell the administration—but it’s doing something and they’re learning because I read their reflections and what they come up with is pretty profound.

Rebecca: Sounds pretty incredible.

John: It does. I know in my own class I went from having students write papers to have them do a poster session and I asked if they wanted to invite other people and they were thrilled to have people from the department come in and the Dean came over and visited them and they were so much more excited and engaged about it. Small changes can make a big difference.

Jill: Yeah, I think that’s my thing whether you’re doing my level one immersion, level two, level three—those are just my categories—those small changes can mean a lot ‘cause even a little bit of reframing get students’ brains working differently and gets their hearts engage in different ways, so I totally agree with you, John.

Rebecca: I’m just sitting here contemplating how I can add role-playing into my Three Little Pigs exercise.

Jill: Aren’t you already doing it? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: A little bit, but I’m thinking about how maybe the students can do it more. I usually have someone come in and be the client and role-play the client role in my design class but the students are still acting as designers as humans but maybe they need to be characters in the Three Little Pigs or something for my assignment.

John: Actually, I was thinking of that—our second most popular episode has a title “The Three Little Pigs” and I can imagine all these parents playing it for their kids and finding out that it was really an exercise for a design class. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah.”

John: Much of what you’re describing in terms of being in this third party role is exactly the same type of thing, where students are able to see things much more clearly and are able to address issues that they’d be really cautious to approach if they were doing it in their own persona and I can see that connection and the benefits of that.

Rebecca: Somehow it’s just okay to embody that…

Jill: Yeah.

Rebecca: …other that they don’t feel connected to and explore and develop empathy and those sorts of things which is pretty powerful but I think the actual acting it out or writing the dialogues would really strengthen some of the things that I was already doing.

Jill: For sure.

John: How did you prepare to introduce this activity?

Jill: When I had my summer fellowship about performance and pedagogy I spent a lot of time doing research, starting to see who’s doing this and where and I was frustrated by the lack of what I could find in humanities classes or in sort of your more traditional classes—you get a lot of great activities coming out of theater classes or some more of the arts classes, but like high school classes or elementary school, like most of the role-play books I was finding were not geared toward college students doing the material that I wanted to do. So, I think there is room still for exploration and creativity here, that’s what I like about this. Reacting to the Past is certainly a place—Mark Carnes who designed it has written this great book called Minds on Fire, which I would recommend to anybody interested in this. There are other books about reacting that really do some pedagogical analysis of student experience in what’s going on. But, I think then within our individual discipline there’s a lot we can still do and I’m trying to think about that for myself as a religious studies scholar. I think there’s got to be stuff with empathy there and belief—I mean it’s really hard for students to try to understand beliefs of religious groups that they don’t subscribe to. This seems to be a way where they can at least intellectually be trying on beliefs of others just as they would an idea and I think that also shifts the location of some of these ideas where students are I find, “okay, I can understand that someone else may have this idea but to think somebody else may have this belief is like not about the head but the heart.” They’re more uncomfortable with that. So, trying to push those ideas of the heart as they see it up into the head, I think, could be really rich and beneficial for them. I’m sort of just riffing as I’m discovering this year but when we were talking about Puritan Theology… this Anne Hutchinson game… I just kept reminding them Puritans were intellectuals. These are highly educated people, so their beliefs weren’t just of an experience of God—it was well researched and reasoned with their relationship with scripture. So, I think there’s got to be some of that too… to think that where our emotions and our motivations come from connects heart and head; there isn’t some bifurcation of the two. I think that might help us as a society moving forward as we think about where some of our ideas and inspirations come from. I hope that what they take from some of these role-plays they’re able to put in other parts of their lives, that’s really the idea, ‘cause it’s more authentic than a classroom environment, this kind of here, I have some ideas and now I’m gonna improv conversation and ask questions and try not to step on toes… that’s life.

Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of interesting research can come out of what you just said. Sounds like you’ve got lots of plans. [LAUGHTER]

Jill: That’s what I’m thinking through right now. I guess that’s hopefully the next paper for the TTR Journal.

John: We always close with the question, what are you going to do next?

Jill: Next… So, I’m currently designing a new class. I alluded earlier to the new schedule that we’re doing, so we’re going to have three-week classes—some three-week classes, some twelve—and one of my three-week classes is going to be a new class called Religion, Voice and Performance, where I’m gonna use one or two Reacting games… we’ll see… in the service of helping students think through some of the things I was just talking about with empathy, compassion, belief, reason, rationality and relief, discovering voice, whether it’s claiming your own voice while speaking for another through Reacting and role-play or whether it’s trying to figure out who you are. I think that’s another beautiful thing about theater and acting is it invites you to figure out who you are while you are dancing around in somebody else’s shoes—that’s one of the things I’m working on now, which hopefully I’ll get to teach next year. Working on this article for Teaching Theology and Religion and I’m getting ready to keep working on these assignments that I’ve designed from the past and keep making them better. There’s always room to improve them, so those are my three things right now… and helping my faculty colleagues, as they may or may not want to try some of this stuff, so four goals.

Rebecca: It’s really exciting work, I’m glad that you were able to share it with us today.

John: Yes, thank you.

Jill: Thank you; thank you for inviting me.

[Music]

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

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

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

57. Scalar

Imagine an online environment that makes the thought processes of a writer visible, including the loops they get stuck in, the relevant tangents they pursue, and the non-linear way in which their ideas evolve.  Now imagine that all of these features are easy to use and implement in the classroom. In this episode, Fiona Coll, an Assistant Professor of Technology and Literature at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how Scalar, a free open-source publishing platform, can help achieve these goals.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Imagine an online environment that makes the thought processes of a writer visible, including the loops they get stuck in, the relevant tangents they pursue, and the non-linear way in which their ideas evolve. Now imagine that all of these features are easy to use and implement in the classroom. In this episode, we examine how Scalar, a free open-source publishing platform, can help achieve these goals.

[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.

Rebecca: Today our guest is Fiona Coll, an assistant professor of Literature and Technology at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Fiona.

Fiona: I am very happy to be here, Rebecca.

John: We’re very happy to have you here. Our teas today are…

Fiona: Today I am drinking Cranberry Blood Orange Endless Sunshine tea, which is a very, very ambitious kind of tea by the Republic of Tea, and I just have to note that on the side, it proclaims that drinking this tea will “create social balance one sip at a time.”

Rebecca: So maybe that’s what we should all be drinking right now. [LAUGHTER] I’m drinking English Breakfast.

John: I’m drinking Bing Cherry Green tea.
We invited you here to talk about your work with Scalar. What is Scalar?

Fiona: Scalar is an online publishing platform designed for long-form, media-rich writing. In the words of Scalar’s creators, this means media-rich digital scholarship. It’s an open source platform created by a group called the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, and the whole idea behind this platform is that it was built to serve scholars who were working on non-traditional, long-form academic writing, specifically projects that might involve visual culture or media culture. There are particular features of Scalar that have been geared towards this use case, but I would like to argue that Scalar is actually a fantastic tool for teaching because of some of its unusual features. Can I tell you about them?

John: Sure.

Rebecca: Yeah, please. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’d be asking anyway. [LAUGHTER]

Fiona: The best way to approach these unusual features is, I think, to describe how you use Scalar, and so I will. The basic unit of content in Scalar is called a page, and it seems fairly unremarkable when I begin talking about it in this way. When you’re creating a Scalar page there’s a text box where you enter a title, there’s a text box where you enter a description, and then a large text entry field where you can put in text and format it. You can choose from a few layout options. You can integrate media into that page. You can enter metadata. You can annotate. You can add comments. So far, so WordPress… fairly straightforward. However, things now get interesting once you create a Scalar page. Once you’ve created a series of Scalar pages, you can start building routes through that content. There are two ways to organize the pages that you create in Scalar: the first is to use tags, which create nonlinear clusters of organized content, or you can use the path feature in Scalar, which is, as it sounds like, a path—a linear, step-by-step progression through a sequence of Scalar pages that you determine. You can get very creative with this path structure; you can create branching paths or very complex forking paths; you can create recursive or looping paths that come back to steps you’ve already been through; you can create rabbit-hole paths that lead people away from the main branch of your content into an unretrievable nether place, but the point is Scalar does not impose any sort of order on the content that you created and indeed that’s why the platform is called Scalar—it comes from this reference to two ways we think of quantifying movement in the world, I suppose: Scalar versus vectors. Vectors are quantities that have both magnitude and direction to them and a scalar quantity is one that has only magnitude and so Scalar, the publishing platform Scalar, does not force you to do any sort of particular relationship between the things that you create. Again… doesn’t sound especially revolutionary, but remember how I mentioned you could add tags and comments and annotations to a piece of Scalar content? When you do that, when you create things like tags and annotations and comments, those all become Scalar pages themselves, and they can participate in this larger set of relationships. So a tag, which is also a page, can be tagged with something else, it can be a path of its own, a comment can be a tag, an annotation can also be a comment, can also be a tag, a path can be a tag on something. So, any piece of content in Scalar can be given any sort of relationship to any other piece of content, and what this means is that there’s a sort of radical, non-hierarchical organization to the way Scalar allows you to approach the products of your own creative work. So this becomes really, really interesting if you imagine what this means for creating something like an essay. We have a long tradition of thinking of an essay as an extraordinarily linear thing that begins at the beginning, that moves through a sequence, and that ends. But Scalar allows us to reimagine what an essay might be, not just what it might contain, so not just moving beyond text but moving beyond that linear structure, and when I first understood just how radically Scalar allowed the breaking down of this old-school essay model, I became very excited to imagine its possibilities in the classroom. So, I learned about Scalar and immediately thought that this would be a fantastic way to defamiliarize the writing process for students, and by “defamiliarize the writing process for students,” what I mean is I thought that this would be a fantastic tool to get students to reimagine the way that their thoughts unfold in writing. I wanted them to reimagine writing as actual making, as actual construction, and not just as a sort of tragic endpoint for a thinking process.

Rebecca: It’s active, basically.

Fiona: It’s active. It is a process; writing is a process and I always say writing is thinking, and students I don’t think quite understand what I mean by that, but what Scalar might allow me to do, I imagined upon first encountering the platform, would be to get students to think about how sections of their thoughts work; how ideas might connect to other ideas… not in linear ways… but in roundabout ways that might meander through other references or images or clips they came across on the internet or things from other classes… that thought is not linear no matter how much we try to get them to package it into straightforward, well-behaved writing.

Rebecca: So this is really exciting, I can imagine writing something like “I have this thought and now I’m in a loop and I can’t get out; I’m cycling through ideas and trying to get myself out and I just can’t, but sometimes that happens when you’re writing and it’s like, oh, this isn’t gonna work; I don’t have a conclusion.

Fiona: This is how the process of writing works; you do get in loops. It is a reiterative experience where you try something out and you might end up back where you started; you try it again, you come back where you started, but perhaps the loop needs to be there for a particular reason but there’s a little exit ramp you might find to some other form of thought and Scalar doesn’t force you to try and pretend that that is not happening, that that complexity is not happening. It allows you to in fact mark the way that your thought is moving and branching in non-linear ways and allows you to capitalize on those threads and those directions. One of the things that Scalar does that very useful in getting students to think about their writing process is that it timestamps every iteration of a particular page and it saves every iteration of a page. So there’s a sense in which students are free to revise or rethink. There’s a sense in which Scalar holds safe and secure all of the versions of their thought, so it works well in terms of allowing them the space to experiment and the space to make mistakes while also giving them a time-stamped chronology of the work that they’ve done. So, there are multiple ways in which Scalar allows for the thinking process to be represented.

Rebecca: It also seems like it’s a good model for students to know how long they’ve spent writing because their idea or conception of how much time they may have spent doing something might be really inaccurate.

Fiona: That’s a fantastic point because I think students do have a strange dislocation from the actual effort it takes, the actual labor that goes into producing something like a polished text. So, on the one hand there’s just an awareness of the sheer time that goes into that, but there’s also a sense in which Scalar allows students to really, really dig into the revision and the editing process, which often is hard. So, students sort of do the standard essay writing and I often find it difficult to convince them to let go of certain aspects of what they’ve written or to radically or drastically revise…

Rebecca: But it’s still there.

Fiona: But it’s still there; they don’t have to worry about losing it—they can try something completely different and perhaps see what happens when they release their hold on that idea that writing is just something you open up a word processor and do… start at the beginning and go until you’ve hit the word limit.

Rebecca: You’ve got pathway one like normal way, then it’s like here’s my cycle weird way, here’s my figure eight way.

Fiona: Yes!

John: When you have students work with this are they working individually or in groups?

Fiona: This is the next thing I wanted to mention, which is that Scalar allows for both. It is extraordinarily flexible in terms of this exact question. I usually begin by having students create content, create Scalar pages on an individual basis, but all of the students are creating within what I call one great big bag of Scalar content. Scalar uses the term “book” to describe one project in this way. So, the students can create their own content, tag it as their own content, organize it according to their own methods, but then I get students to interact with each other’s content, so they read each other’s content, they start to make tendrils of connections between their content and other students’ content, and then eventually I build up to students generating content collaboratively. So it works really well in allowing a wide range of writing collaboration, and the point I make as these networks of connection get more and more elaborate is that this is how knowledge works, this is how knowledge is created; it’s a collective, collaborative enterprise and nobody does best working in isolation.

John: When they do this is it something that’s shared just within a class or is it shared publicly?

Fiona: Again, Scalar has both options available. I discuss this issue of public versus private writing with the students and we usually make a decision together as to whether or not the students want to make their material, their writing, public or private. I’ve also had a class in which one student was very happy to make her Scalar project public, but all the rest of the students wanted to keep theirs private, so she was able to easily take her content, make a whole new Scalar book and proudly display it for everyone to see, so it is remarkably flexible in terms of what it allows you to do with what you create.

Rebecca: What about the converse, though, when it’s a one or two students that have a reason that it needs to be private?

Fiona: And there’s absolutely no problem in keeping a Scalar book entirely private. I also give students the opportunity to erase what they’ve done… so to remove it entirely. We do talk a lot about privacy, public writing, and issues of copyright is another angle that seems important to talk about in terms of the Scalar ecosystem. The group who has built Scalar is deeply invested in promoting open access and fair use of cultural resources as part of their commitment to generating very dynamic and free intellectual exchange, so they created something called the Critical Commons—it has a relation conceptually or figuratively to Creative Commons—but their Critical Commons is a place where copyrighted media is taken and transformed critically and then posted for fair use purposes. So you’ll see people who have taken clips of movies, for example, or a television shows but transform those clips through a critical apparatus that Critical Commons enables, and this allows students to really think about what they’re doing when they reference a piece of culture, whether that’s a photograph or a song or a video, that by adding their critical commentary to it, they are transforming it, they are generating ideas that are making that piece of content new, and Scalar’s link to Critical Commons allows them to really think about issues of copyright, issues of intellectual openness, what happens when something is locked down and is unavailable for access to them to write about, so it becomes a much, much broader discussion about the nature of knowledge, the nature of information in our 21st century.

Rebecca: It sounds like the emphasis then with this Critical Commons is the idea of fair use and understanding fair use and describing fair use and putting in a structure in place that embodies and enforces fair use.

Fiona: And that embodying and enforcing of fair use that you describe then becomes part of how the students think of themselves as creators, so what does it mean to take something that another student has written and to use it in some way in your own thinking? Where do the bounds of fair use lie? It’s often something students haven’t thought about and this actually relates to the labor-related facet of Scalar that I find really useful in terms of student learning. I often feel that students see the Internet as this place where disembodied text has just appeared and exists, but by generating it themselves they have to confront the fact that a lot of work or a lot of effort went into generating the things that they don’t think very much about, and so Scalar allows students to think about the writing process in new and interesting and productive ways, but it also allows students to think about the nature of information that they engage with on a daily basis.

Rebecca: It’s really funny that we’re talking about fair use today because I was talking to my students about fair use this morning. We had a visiting artist who uses fair use in her work and then there was like a thousand questions when she was here. I said, you know, “We’ll talk about fair use, I promise, on Monday, when we all get back and she’s not here and we’re not taking up her time to dig into it.” But, it’s funny because they have this commercial point of view and then also the cultural maker point of view and they conflate it as if it’s all the same and that is really different. Context matters… and that you need to be thinking about these things, so we tried to untangle that today, but you’re right, students don’t think about that at all; in fact, scholars don’t think about it very often either.

Fiona: It’s true, and I first used Scalar in a class that was comparing and contrasting 19th-century book technologies with 21st-century digital writing and publishing technologies and part of the reason that worked the way it did is that 19th century literature is, of course, out of copyright—it’s public domain—and so we were able to play very freely with the literature from that period, and then students had to stop and think and realize that the 21st century, again, literature in various interesting forms, was different, was fundamentally different because of this legal category that we use to distinguish between what is public domain and what isn’t, and students are fascinated by it, while also not understanding it or understanding its logic, necessarily. So, Scalar’s making visible of something that students just hadn’t thought about before is one of its many, many strengths or one of the many valuable ways in which it operates in a classroom.

Rebecca: Can you take us on an adventure through one of your classes to get us a better sense of how you’re actually putting it into play in a specific class with a specific group of students?

John: In terms of maybe the type of assignment that they might be working on?

Fiona: For sure. I first used Scalar in a class that contrasted 19th-century material book production with 21st-century digital publication technologies and I asked the class to really consider the ways in which genre, in particular, is affected by the shape of publishing possibilities. So students are used to thinking about genre as something that is an intellectual idea or an abstract idea informed by author influence or cultural anxieties, but they rarely think about genre as something that is shaped by the actual material affordances of publication, so we read 19th-century texts, we read 21st-century texts and then I asked the students to produce their own creative or critical response to the material in our classes, and what that meant was that some students wrote relatively traditional research essays that incorporated media, sound, video. It meant that some students created choose-your-own-adventure type creative stories that played with the notion of genre as Scalar allowed them to unpack conventions that were and were not possible in that electronic form. Students also used other sorts of technologies to play with the way that technology shaped the kinds of stories they could generate, but that’s a broad overview of how Scalar worked in one particular class. I am using Scalar currently in a class about digital literary studies and the students are making digital editions of 19th-century texts. So, students are in groups, they’ve each been assigned a story by an obscure local Oswego author and they are in groups deciding how they want to present these stories to the world… new and refreshed by their 21st century perspectives on the stories, so some of them are emphasizing maps and timelines. Some of them are emphasizing illustrating the stories. Some of them want to actually remix some of the stories and generate alternate routes through the stories. So, they’re able through Scalar to invent and create these approaches to literary interpretation—they’re making arguments about the text through their use of Scalar, and I should mention that one of Scalar’s appeals is that it’s possible to do a lot with minimal technical knowledge. It’s also possible to do a lot if you have maximal technical knowledge. There’s a lot of room for customization if you are fluent with CSS and that sort of business. It accommodates a really wide range of technical skill.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how the choose-your-own-adventure type things work? Is that difficult for the students to program the branches?

Fiona: The great news is the students don’t really have to program the branches. The student I’m thinking of in particular wanted to write a choose your own adventure story that turned into a different genre of story depending on which path you took through her story…

Rebecca: I love that idea.

Fiona: It was a fantastic idea and it really showed just how well she grasped the possibilities that Scalar offered. So she began—there was an introductory page that set up a scenario—it was a mystery, perhaps a murder mystery story at the beginning, and then she had a couple of options: you could choose to follow one character or one event; and as each choice branched a little bit further and a little bit further, so there were many, many iterations of the story, and again each arm of the story took on a slightly different generic set of conventions. It was relatively straightforward; literally in Scalar you simply mark, using a little sort of dialog box that you check or uncheck. you mark what pieces of content you want to attach to a page. So, there’s no encoding, there’s no high-level function that students need to worry about; they can simply imagine what they want to connect and they can make those connections relatively easily. I will say that one of the other things I love about Scalar is that it generates productive difficulty for the students, it generates a lot of intellectual uncertainty which is something that I find… [LAUGHTER] I enjoy producing in students in a constructive way, obviously. Because Scalar is this enormous bag into which students just throw pieces of content, it can get overwhelming really quickly—there can just be this amorphous, chaotic mass that they struggle to make sense of—but that’s part of the advantage, I would argue: it really, really makes them think about high order levels of structure and organization. So even though they can do multiple kinds of organization… even though they can be very creative about how they organize, they do have to really think about how they want their content to relate to one another. So Scalar has this ability to get students thinking at that high level of structure while also allowing students to pay very, very close attention on the level of annotation and close reading—it combines those two levels and sort of everything in between in a way that I find very, very useful for students to be doing. I haven’t even talked about the kind of media annotation that’s possible. But, you can annotate, on a pixel level, images. You can annotate in various time stamps on a video or a piece of audio. There’s an extraordinary level of very, very specific detail that you can attend to as well as dealing with these large high order or large-structure levels of organization.

Rebecca: How did you learn how to use Scalar and then also how do you help students learn how to use the platform?

Fiona: This is a fantastic question. I learned to use Scalar in a very short, informal lunchtime demonstration given by Cathy Kroll—who I believe is at Sonoma State University—at the 2015 Digital Humanities Summer Institute in beautiful Victoria, B.C. and Cathy Kroll simply went through the process of making a Scalar page and she simply explained—and there are all sorts of interesting, cool things you can do with this organizational system—and that was enough; that was enough to allow me to at least discover its possibilities. So, the barrier to entry is low, but then you can ramp up things an awful lot, and I do find that I’m learning more and more as I go. I first imagined using Scalar in my own scholarly work—I am working on this, again, obscure local Oswego author—and I was trying to imagine ways to experiment with bringing these stories back to digital life, but I found that I was almost more excited by the possibilities I was seeing in students and so I thought I would take the exact same approach. I tend to give students a very, very basic introduction to what Scalar can do and then just let them loose, so allow them [LAUGHTER]—again, productive frustration—they make mistakes, they lose pages, they can’t figure out if they’re tagging a page or if they’re making a page a tag. I allow this brief sort of beginning phase of crazy-making exploration and then I ramp up the features, so I introduce more and more features. I begin by, I suppose it’s the carrot versus the stick analogy, so I begin by showing some of the very cool things Scalar can do, so with a basic knowledge of how metadata works students can produce these very gorgeous timelines or maps; I show them how they can use iframes to pull in content from various places on the web and enliven their writing. But, I also then ask them to think very hard about how they’re engaging with other students’ work, and so it feels as though I start with one page and then just allow them to explore on their own while giving them pushes in certain directions to make sure that they are exploring as fully as possible.

John: Maintaining those desirable difficulties as they develop more skills.

Fiona: Maintaining the desirable difficulties, exactly. I’m still trying to figure out how much I should push them, so how much I should demand of the students. I know that other people have used Scalar simply as a writing tool, so just dealing with text and organization. I know that others have encouraged students to make use of the multimedia affordances of Scalar and I’m still figuring out what the balance is for my students who are mostly students of literature.

Rebecca: The first thing that comes to mind to me is how the heck do you grade that? [LAUGHTER] There’s a lot to keep track of and map and pay attention to, so how are you evaluating students in like what criteria and and how do you actually just sort through all of that content?

Fiona: This is a fantastic question and one I am still figuring out… [LAUGHTER] the answer to. As I’m introducing students to Scalar and as I’m letting them make a mess and generate multiple versions of a single page and get confused themselves, I do encourage them to keep in mind that ultimately they want to be imagining not just their own thought process and writing process but what it might feel like for a reader to come across their material, specifically a reader that is me; [LAUGHTER] specifically a reader that will be assigning them a grade. [LAUGHTER] At the very same time, I do try and emphasize process over product, and because students come with such a range of technical capabilities, I build into my rubrics how hard a student has worked to correct a deficiency or to overcome a limitation in their ability to understand Scalar. Ultimately I am interested in the argument that they’re making, but I do reward and encourage what I call bravery—willingness to try new things; willingness to fail; willingness to get things wrong but then to turn that failure into something useful or to meditate or reflect on it in a conscious way. So, there’s a metacognitive aspect to all of this, and essentially in every assignment I’m still trying to figure out what the balance between rigorous analysis and explorative risk-taking might be. I tend to err on the side of appreciating the risk-taking, I will say that.

Rebecca: So do they submit like a URL to you?

Fiona: No, what happens is they tell me where they want me to enter their work. I usually create an index page and I ask them to put their starting point on that index page, so they’re all contributing to one page that serves as my starting point and that’s the easiest way to wander through things. I can go hunting if I need to. I encourage the students to tag what they’re doing with their own names. If there’s a good search function, for example, if I’m looking for something that’s been lost. It definitely feels like hunting in a barn full of hay sometimes. That’s not quite the same as hunting in a haystack but it’s not quite not the same either. [LAUGHTER]

John: Have any other faculty in your department or on campus adopted Scalar yet?

Fiona: I don’t think anyone else in my department has adopted Scalar. I do think as my classes perhaps turn more towards public facing projects that might change, because I do think there are a number of faculty and approaches that could do very cool things with Scalar, but so far I have had to pull my examples from elsewhere… from other campuses. But hopefully soon there will be some robust Oswego examples.

John: Have you ever had students build upon the work of earlier classes?

Fiona: I have not, and that is something that I’m trying to figure out how to do successfully, for a couple of reasons. So it would be easy to do if I just kept one giant Scalar project and had students continually reiterate upon the work that had come before; I haven’t actually repeated a course yet that I’ve used Scalar in, so that in fact might be a next step for my work with Scalar—it would involve, of course, getting permission from the students to do this or to allow them to anonymize their work, but those are things we could work out—but I have not yet done so. I could imagine the Digital Archiving Project as being one that would lend itself towards that sort of semester after semester continuation.

John: How have students responded to this compared to more traditional writing classes?

Fiona: The great news is that students seem very, very excited by what feels like them to be freedom. They respond really well to the autonomy that Scalar offers them. They tend to respond in a slightly opposite direction when they realize that freedom comes at a price and that price is an awful lot of work and figuring out technical details, and some students truly do flounder—some students just find it absolutely maddening to try and understand what’s happening. But some students absolutely thrive and really run with the creative remixing possibilities and really embrace the radically democratic approach that Scalar allows them to take to their own writing and writing in groups. So, I would say that there’s a now predictable sort of curve: initial excitement as students think about the possibilities, then there’s an inevitable drop in enthusiasm as the students realize just how much work this involves and how much new thinking they have to do to wrap their minds around the defamiliarization that Scalar offers, and then perhaps two tails after that: one very enthusiastic skyrocketing of competence and then one more medium flavored… just sort of making peace with what I’ve asked them to do, and I do always offer students options, and if someone just feels absolutely unable to grapple with Scalar there’s always the possibility of doing a different sort of project, but I haven’t yet had a student who has completely resisted.

John: This is a nice follow-up to our earlier podcast with Robin DeRosa where she talked about open pedagogy and it seems like this would be a nice tool for students to create materials that can be widely shared, if they choose to.

Fiona: If they choose to, and I do think I’m gonna bring the concept of open pedagogy or open ed more and more explicitly into classes in which I use Scalar to make that a part of my justification, or something else to get students thinking about. It’s a growing and very exciting movement—the open pedagogy and open education movement—and I’m excited to see how Scalar can continue to be a part of that.

Rebecca: Does Scalar offer, by default, a way to license individual pieces of content using Creative Commons or is it more how you would traditionally license a website by copying and pasting the code from Creative Commons, for example, on an individual page?

John: Or is it just a Critical Commons option?

Fiona: That is a fantastic question. I think you would need to attach your own Creative Commons licensing; I don’t know that there’s a built-in feature. However, I should say that that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; it just means I don’t know about it at the moment, but I do think you, again, get to choose your own approach to that very issue. but I’m gonna look into it and see if I can figure out if there’s a built-in tool or aspect of Scalar.

Rebecca: We can make a note of that in our show notes, too, afterwards.

Fiona: I will follow up. [LAUGHTER]

John: And if we find any links we’ll include them.

Rebecca: ..[If] people wanted to get started, do you have a couple of examples that you might recommend for people to look at?

Fiona: I definitely have a few examples that I can recommend. I can add those to the show links, perhaps, and there are examples that range from student projects through elaborate library-based projects to very beautiful, customized versions of Scalar projects. I’d be very, very happy to share them and encourage people to try out the platform.

John: We always end our podcast with a question, what are you going to do next?

Fiona: To this point I have used Scalar in upper division literature courses where students come to the course already equipped with a certain set of writing and thinking skills that I can leverage and encouraging the curiosity and bravery I mentioned. So, next semester I’m gonna try using Scalar with a first-year composition course, and so I’m in the planning stages right now to see how that particular experiment might unfold.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Fiona: I’m super excited about it. As you might be able to tell, I really, really, am fascinated by the ways in which Scalar seems to activate student curiosity and student agency in their own intellectual work.

John: And if you reach freshmen with this they might perhaps suggest it to some other faculty as something they may wish to try.

Fiona: I like it, I like it as a plan.

Rebecca: Sounds like we’ll have to do a follow-up.

Fiona: I am here for it. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well thank you. This has been fascinating.

Rebecca: You’ve piqued my curiosity; I’m gonna go explore, so I can’t wait for those extra links so I can find a way in.

Fiona: If I’ve piqued your curiosity, I believe I have done my job.

John: And I did create an account a couple years ago when you gave a workshop and I kept meaning to go back, but now I’m more likely to. [LAUGHTER]

Fiona: Well let me know how you find it; let me know what you discover.

John: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you very much.

Fiona: Thank you so much; it was wonderful to talk with 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.

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

56. Love’s labor not lost

Who knows and understands the needs of your students better than your own students? In this episode, Mya Brown, an Assistant Professor of Theatre at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how our students can build open educational resources that take advantage of the unique insights our students have about what novices need to learn to be successful in our courses and disciplines.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Who knows and understands the needs of your students better than your own students? In this episode, we’ll discuss how our students can build open educational resources that take advantage of the unique insights our students have about what novices need to learn to be successful in our courses and disciplines.

[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.

Rebecca: Our guest today is Maya Brown, an assistant professor of theater at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Maya!

Mya: Thanks for having me.

John: We’re glad to have you here. Our teas today are…

Mya: I have a peppermint tea with honey.

Rebecca: That sounds yummy. I have Prince Edward’s tea.

John: What kind?

Rebecca: I think it’s Prince? Prince… The one that’s Prince.The gray one.

John: Prince of Wales?

Rebecca: Yeah, that one, the Prince of Wales tea.

John: And I have black raspberry green tea.

Mya: Sounds good.

John: We invited you here to talk about your use of open educational resources and open pedagogy. For those who may not be familiar with open educational resources, what is an open educational resource?

Mya: The way I understand it is that it is freely accessible materials. They don’t have like a publisher behind them, so they’re typically copyrighted through like Creative Commons and they’re free for the user.

Rebecca: Can you tell us a little bit about the courses in which you use OER?

Mya: Yes, I taught Theater 110 which is Introduction to Theatre; it’s a lecture style course with 49 students. The section was full. In that course, typically when I taught it at West Virginia University prior to coming here to SUNY Oswego, the textbook that we used was an electronic textbook, but it was copyrighted by a publisher and the cost was a little over a hundred dollars. There also was an accessibility fee, the total cost came up to around 125 dollars per student. That just seems a lot to me for a textbook. I really thought it was important to make this information more accessible to the students and also free. As soon as I heard about OER opportunities, I like jumped on it.

Rebecca: How did your students respond the first time you used an OER in your class?

Mya: They loved it. [LAUGHTER] First day of class I introduced the textbook to them that we use. We used a textbook called Theatrical Worlds—it’s a very thorough textbook, I really like it. As soon as I said, we have a free textbook and this is how you access it and I brought it up for them on the overhead, they were super excited about it—they’re like, “Yeah, we don’t have to pay for a textbook…” Because, you know, they spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars per semester on these books just so that they can get access to the information, but lots of them can’t really afford it. They honestly can barely afford their tuition typically and some of them are having to decide whether they’re going to buy textbooks or they’re going to buy food. To take that pressure off of them, relieve them of that responsibility, it seems to really be a good thing.

John: …and many students either postpone buying a text or don’t buy it at all and OER they have it from the very first day of the course so we don’t have to worry about students who are struggling already perhaps with financial issues to also have to struggle by falling behind at the start of the semester. It offers a lot of benefits besides just the cost: it gives everyone equal access.

Mya: Yes, that’s so important. The thing that I found really nice is that instead of having to wait to address readings till like the second week of classes, we could start immediately because they had access immediately to the textbook. I like to send emails out to my students prior to the first day of class and I included a link to the book. I encourage them to look at it prior to coming to that first day of class; not many of them did, but some did and it was really nice that we could just jump right into the content.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some of the other benefits that you found for both you as a faculty member and for students by using the OERs?

Mya: I think that there’s more flexibility with how we are presenting the material; also, because we can remix them depending on the licensing agreement, we can update the materials. A lot of—and theater especially—they’re referring to specific performances, productions, different plays or musicals, and I can insert newer productions that have happened, so we’re using more current information and referring to more current information; that we can’t do with a hardbound textbook that does have copyright associated with it that will not allow you to change anything about it, so I really like this idea of being able to remix the resource and make it more personal for your class.

Rebecca: I know that the same textbook is used in other sections as well with other faculty; have you worked with them and the updates that you’ve done or have you shared that task so that you’re all presenting the same thing, or are you all remixing it so that it’s unique to you?

Mya: I think we all are remixing it so that it’s unique unto us. We all have different areas that are our areas of specialty or passion and where Toby is really heavy on the Shakespeare, I am as well ‘cause I love Shakespeare. Maybe Henry is…

John: That’s so uncommon in theater.

Mya: Right. [LAUGHTER] Henry Shikongo might more focus on things like physical theater, Comedia—I know he studied directly with Dell’A rte, so that’s more his emphasis. I think that is another strength of using an OER, that we can make it more personal and we can highlight our passions, because when we’re talking about our passions in the classroom, that energy that we have for that subject it… just transfers to the students—I think that they absorb more of it and they engage more when we are so passionate about it.

John: Is the class mostly for majors or is it non-majors or a mix?

Mya: It’s a mix because it does satisfy the general education so it’s considered a GEC. We will get actually lots of non-majors in there, but it is required in the core for the major program as well, which is really helpful because the majors and their passion for it also bleeds out to the rest of the classroom; all of those people who are maybe zoologists or engineers and they’re like, “Eh, I just took it for an easy ‘A,’ I don’t really care about theater.” [LAUGHTER] But when they have their colleagues care about it as much as they do it really, I think, helps to inspire them

Rebecca: Were you the first faculty member in your area to adopt in an OER as part of your classes?

Mya: Toby Malone and I did it together. It was interesting because I was communicating with him via email over the summer prior to his coming to the university because we both were teaching a section of 110 and I told him about the opportunity for this grant that I was applying for to incorporate OER in the classroom and I thought for theater 110 I thought that would be a perfect classroom to experiment with OER. Toby Malone was also teaching a section of that course—I told him that I was interested in the grant that they were offering here at SUNY—I think it was a SUNY wide grant, actually. I was looking into that grant and I really wanted to adopt a textbook for that purpose. We went back and forth on a couple different options; Theatrical Worlds is actually an option that he brought to me. I really just loved it and he said, “I like it too, so let’s use it.” So we both ended up using it at the same time and now Henry has gotten on board now that he’s teaching 110 and hopefully every instructor that teaches that section will use that book because it’s a really great book.

Rebecca: Sometimes it’s better together, right? [LAUGHTER]

Mya: Yeah, definitely. We really try to maintain the integrity of the course and make sure that we are all teaching the same subject matter and it’s just easy if we’re all teaching from the same book. There will be variations, obviously, but majority of the content it’s all the same information that we’re delivering. I think that’s important because we’re setting a foundation for the next level for these students. For some of them, like non-majors, we’re introducing them to this whole new world. A lot of times that 110 course is kind of gateway course and we get to pull in minors or maybe some even change to the major. It’s important, I think, that we’re all on the same page.

John: …and a nice thing is with those who do go on they still have access to the book…

Mya: Yes.

John: …because with traditional textbooks, even if they buy the book, students will often sell them back at the end and then when they go to upper-level classes they no longer have access… …

Mya: Right.

John: …since the books are out there and publicly available they get to keep them and that’s a really nice feature for classes that build on earlier ones.

Mya: Yes.

Rebecca: Yeah, when you buy a book and it’s the difference between cashing it in to get more cash for another book that you might need at a higher level versus hanging on to it that’s always a decision that students have to make that I know that we experience in my department sometimes as well.

John: When I teach upper-level classes students will often say, “What can I do? I’m having trouble with this material; where can I find more information on this?” And I say, “Well, this builds on our earlier intro class; you can go back and review your textbook,” and the response is almost always, “I don’t have that anymore.”

Mya: Right.

Rebecca: Powell says OER is spreading in your department.

Mya: It’s not spread too much; it’s mostly just being used in the 110 course, but maybe that’s a good segue into the other course that I’m using it in, which is Acting Shakespeare. We’re actually creating an OER in that class; it’s called The Shakespearean Monologue Database. It’s still in construction right now. It’s a resource for acting students and we really want to open it up nationwide; anybody can have access to it, where they can find monologues and all of the information necessary in order to understand the text fully so that they can then perform it to the best of their ability.

Rebecca: So context.

Mya: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

John: And the students are actually creating some of that, right?

Mya: Yes, they create actually all of the content; all I do is tailor it a little bit, you know, sculpt it a little bit, mold it a little bit. All of the monologue choices on there were our choices that the students made. Any of the words that they thought they needed to look up so that they could get full meaning, so we have like a glossary associated with each monologue; those are all terms that they wanted to investigate. I like it to come from them because I feel like it might be more relatable to other students when they look at it if it’s coming more from a student perspective versus the professor’s perspective, but I do give a little note about what I think about this monologue choice as well, whether it would be a good one for auditions or a good one for just exploring a new character type or for a classroom assignment.

Rebecca: Is it clear to the reader who made what comments that accompany the monologue?

Mya: That’s actually something I think we’re continuing to work on because it’s not clear right now. There is information on the home page stating that all content was created by the students, but if you’re just going right to the monologue and you’re skipping that or—you know how it is when people search; they don’t necessarily read everything, right? So, we’re trying to figure out is there a way that we can make it obvious that this stuff came from the students versus what came from me, and we would really love in the future for it to be a resource that can be remixed as well by other universities and other professors and other students. We want to keep that licensing open so that they can contribute monologues on their own, they can create their own glossaries, synopsis, and character breakdowns and add those to the website as well, so how then do we identify those and give credit to those authors of that content versus ours, something we’re still working on.

Rebecca: Sounds like your role has largely been editing and curating…

Mya: Yes.

Rebecca: …the process.

Mya: Yes, definitely. Laura Harris, she’s been helping me a lot with that.

Rebecca: She’s one of our librarians.

Mya: Yes, we’re actually using LibGuides.

John: What led to that choice?

Mya: Laura Harris, who’s our online learning librarian, she has a connection at SpringShare from her having experience with LibGuides she thought that it would be a great platform for this kind of site, this database. She reached out to some people that she knows and they were like, “Yes, let’s do it.” They created a page for us and then she walked me through how to add all of the content and she’s helping me to edit it some more and make it look all fancy and nice. Laura is the one who brought up the idea of using LibGuides as a resource.

John: And are the students inputting it directly into that or is she…

Mya: No.

John: …doing that or are you doing that?

Mya: I’m doing that. Yeah, the students, they turn in all of their work to me and then I’m curating it and adding it to the pages.

Rebecca: How do those students responded as being authors and putting their work out into the public?

Mya: It actually is really great. They are doing exactly what I thought they would do, which is taking ownership of the resource because they’re contributing to it because their names are attached to it; they have this greater sense of responsibility to complete the work, complete it accurately and to make fun and exciting choices in their monologue choices, like the characters that they’re selecting. It actually has really been helpful in the classroom because it has increased their level of engagement on these assignments because they know that it’s going out there on this resource.

Rebecca: Are you finding that they’re reading more Shakespeare on their own as a result so that they can find the perfect thing?

Mya: I don’t know about that… [LAUGHTER]

John: But they’re more enthused about what they do.

Rebecca: Wishful thinking.

Mya: Yeah, I think that is wishful thinking, but they definitely are more enthusiastic and they are more engaged in the classroom. Whenever I’ve taught Shakespeare before it feels like I’m pulling teeth the majority of the time. And a lot of students said, this is not what I expected it to be; I thought we would just read a bunch of Shakespeare and was going to be boring and I wasn’t going to understand that I wouldn’t relate to any of these characters, but because of the amount of in-depth textual work that we’re doing they actually are relating on a very deep level and they’re finding similarities to these characters and they’re relating to these characters in a way that I have not seen before, which is really exciting

Rebecca: Were you doing similar assignments before, but it was the audience of Mya?

Mya: Yes, yes, exactly. I kind of amped up the amount of work that they’re doing so that we could have enough content to create the website but it is a similar assignment. However, as you so eloquently point out, there’s a much larger audience now.

John: If you continue this will they be editing the existing work or will they be adding new monologues to it?

Mya: Yes, they will be adding new content. I actually am teaching Acting Shakespeare in the spring of 2019—I definitely will keep this assignment and we will continue to add to the database. I think it’s important that we are constantly adding new material to it; there’s so many unique perspectives and points of view that it’s essential to continue creating and contributing to the database.

Rebecca: Will the students in this spring be using the content the students this fall have created as part of reading and being a user of the resource before being a creator of the resource?

M

Mya: Yes, it will definitely be a part of their prep work for their contributions. My last class they were a bit of guinea pigs and now I think we have the right formula for the assignment in order to get the content that we want. Yeah, I will definitely use it as an example so that they’re aware of what exactly they should be looking for and how to complete the assignment.

Rebecca: Sounds really exciting.

John: It does.

Rebecca: Are students working together on the things that they’re creating or are they individually creating sections or the information around individual monologues?

Mya: It is more of an individual assignment; however, they do share their work when they present the monologue, so they have to act it out in class and we do feedback from the entire class—they are getting feedback from their classmates on the performances of the monologues, but they’re not on the actual content that they’re contributing to the database. That might be a good idea, though. You might have made me think about changing the way I approach that and maybe we could add that element, especially when it comes to the glossary and the character descriptions, that could be helpful because there are some things that might stand out to one student that didn’t even occur to another. If they’re assisting each other that might be a useful component to add to this assignment. Thank you for that, Rebecca. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: One of the things that I was thinking when you were describing it is if students who are going to add to the database had to use one of the resources and do a performance with it then they would know what content was missing?

Mya: Yeah.

Rebecca: So that they would know what to do in their own next time, so it’s like they could add to someone else’s or augment it and then try their own?

Mya: I love that idea. Thank you.

John: In creating these are they embedding other open content, recordings, or performances, or some other things?

Mya: Yeah, no recordings yet—I have been considering that, especially because with us using Shakespeare and it’s already open source…

John: RIght.

Mya: We wouldn’t have to worry about copyright infringement or anything. I have been considering that but we don’t have the capabilities right now to do that; I’m just one person and I can only do so much, but I have been considering that, definitely. We do, though, refer to the glossaries; there’s a link for each of the words that takes them to Perseus—that’s an OER as well—that has text as well as dictionaries. It’s a good way for them to be able to get that information out there in a free way and link up to another OER. I’ve always used the OED—the Oxford—in my classes prior to because it has the truest definition when we’re referring back to Elizabethan text or, however…

John: …or practically anything. [LAUGHTER]

Mya: Right, but especially Elizabethan; I mean, you know, they’ll look up some of these words on places like dictionary.com and the definition that they’re getting in no way relates to how the text was being used at the time, so it’s not helpful at all. So, I always would insist that they use the OED, but it is not a free resource, so we can’t actually link to it on the website. So, we had to find something that was free but also maintained that integrity of those glossary terms so that people are getting the correct information and the most useful information there. Right, that’s the thing—I’m continuing to look because there are so many definitions that we found that are not there and so there’s a couple holes, but it’s been the best resource that we’ve found that’s free.

John: Where can people find this?

Mya: So, it actually is not published yet because it’s still under construction, but it will have a title something like, Shakespearean Monologue Database and again it’s a LibGuide—the platform is SpringShare —so once it is published we’ll get it out there as much as we can.

Rebecca: Great.

John: …and we’ll put a link in the show notes which will update once the link is publicly available.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up Mya by asking, “what’s next?”

Mya: Yes, what is next? Well I think what’s next is figuring out how to get these videos incorporated because I think that that would be a really great thing. I did some interviews with the students from our previous semester and just asked them a couple questions: How did you feel about Shakespeare prior to coming to this class? And the unanimous comment that came up was, “I didn’t understand it,” and then I asked, how do you feel about Shakespeare now and unanimously everyone’s like, “I love it. I can understand it now,” and I think this database is going to be a useful tool for other people to be able to understand it as well, so I think the more people can actually see these students and see their reactions and hear their reactions versus just seeing the content that they’ve created, the better they might feel about the actual resource and how it’s reaching students.

Rebecca: Sounds like you have the basis of a nice scholarship of teaching and learning research paper.

Mya: Oh, yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and one other thing that you are doing this semester, which ties into an earlier podcast, is you’re one of the people teaching those first-year courses…

Mya: Yes.

John: …and what is that like? We’ll probably have you back on to talk about that.

Mya: Oh, okay.

John: …in the future.

Mya: Yeah, so the course is called Blackish Mirror; it’s a study of black characters on television and we started with Ethel Waters and her performance as one of the first African Americans with a lead role on television in 1939. Her show’s called the Ethel Waters Show and we started there and we’re moving all forward to the current time. It’s really great; I love the class, the students are really engaged, they’re loving the subject matter and they’re articulating and finding their own personal perspectives on these social issues of oppression and representation and stereotypes and the dangers of the images that we see and how they can perpetuate negative stereotypes and they can kind of feed into social thinking about a specific type of person and the importance then and the responsibility of people who create this content in the media to be careful about how they are representing people and make sure that they try their best to not perpetuate the stereotype or feed into mass hysteria. It’s really exciting that these students are standing up in the classroom and saying, this is not right and what do we do about it. So, their final project—I’m actually really excited for—they’re going to create a PSA based off of one of the social issues that we’ve identified in class and I’m just really excited to see what they latch on to and how they try to address that thing and, you know, they really are inspired to make society better and that gives me hope for the future.

Rebecca: It sounds like a really nice note to end on. [LAUGHTER]

John: And a nice note in these times in general; other people are not always as positive about the future.

Rebecca: It also makes me want to go to all your classes.

John: Yes.

Mya: Yeah, it’s fun; come drop in. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Sign up quick and make sure I get a seat.

John: Thank you, this has been wonderful.

Mya: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.

[Music]

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

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

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

55. Open pedagogy

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Robin DeRosa…

Robin: That’s me.

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

Robin: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice combination.

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

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

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

John: It’s been there for a year.

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

John: In exactly the same tray…

Rebecca: No…

John: I just refilled it today.

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

John: Okay. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s where I got it from.

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

Rebecca: We don’t mess around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: We all do to some extent.

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

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

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

Rebecca: Which they made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Or I’m not represented.

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

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

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

John: That’s scary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: I almost did it earlier but I…

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

Rebecca: …I contained myself. [LAUGHTER]

John: But, It is important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin: NASA, the White House….

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: That was good, yeah.

John: And it’s an important message.

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Incremental change is still change?

John: It is.

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

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

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

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

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

John: Okay, well thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you.

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

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

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

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