281. The New Science of Learning

Students who enter college without a preparation in effective learning strategies often do not persist to degree completion. In this episode, Todd Zakrajsek joins us to discuss what incoming students should know to successfully navigate the college experience.

Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of a Faculty Development Fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also the Director of 4 Lilly Conferences On Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning. Todd is the author of many superb books. His most recent book is the 3rd edition of The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony With Your Brain.

Show Notes


John: Students who enter college without a preparation in effective learning strategies often do not persist to degree completion. In this episode, we discuss what incoming students should know to successfully navigate the college experience.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guest today is Todd Zakrajsek. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of a Faculty Development Fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also the Director of 4 Lilly Conferences On Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning. Todd is the author of many superb books. His most recent book is the 3rd edition of The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony With Your Brain. Welcome back, Todd.

Todd: Well, thank you so much. I’m looking forward to our conversation today.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Todd, I hear you have a surprise for us.

Todd: Yeah, actually, I’ve got a bag of mystery tea. There’s just a whole bunch of different teas in here and they’re little packets. So live in an air we shall open up one of the packets.

Rebecca: So, would you like a drumroll? [LAUGHTER]

Todd: There we go. And now I am going to be having crystal clarity oolong tea to find a peaceful state of mind. Nice.

Rebecca: Sounds like a good state of mind to be in.

John: So it’s a fermented tea.

Todd: Apparently it is.

John: Where’s that from?

Todd: This is from Portland, Oregon.

John: Excellent. And I have a blueberry green tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: And John, just because you were asking about it last time we recorded, I have my last cup of Hunan jig, just for you.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: I do not know why it’s called Hunan jig. [LAUGHTER] It’s tasty.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the third edition of The New Science of Learning.

Rebecca: Can you give us a little overview of the book?

Todd: So the book is essentially a guide to help faculty and students to understand the learning process, but also just the whole college experience. Now, this is not a book that’s like tips on how to study, specifically, it’s more of a global looking at teaching and learning. It does have tips in there too, and actually each chapter has a couple, but that’s not the foundation of what I’m really after. For instance, the first chapter is about learning from multiple perspectives. And it talks about the dangers of dichotomous thinking. Too much in our society, it’s either I like it, I don’t like it, that’s a good person, bad person, and gets away from that. And from there, there’s sections in there on setting goals and self regulation, monitoring how we interact with others in our work and self efficacy, the extent to which we believe we can succeed at something. There are whole sections on helping to understand how people learn, finding patterns, and what that does in our society, in our classes, and in our content. If we can find the patterns, we can learn a lot more easily… Bloom’s taxonomy, and it has a chapter in there on sleeping, the effects of not sleeping or how much it can help you when you do sleep and exercise. And it even has a chapter in there about how to work well in a group. So it’s essentially kind of an overall book that helps students with the learning process or the college experience.

John: The book is clearly a good resource for first-year students, that said books often have more than one audience. Did you write this book for a broader audience or was it focused primarily on first-year students?

Todd: It’s always tricky writing a book, in my mind, at least you have to have your audience in mind the whole time you’re writing, that’s the only way I can do it, and write at a level that I think connects with the audience. So certainly, first-year students and more specifically, like a first-generation college student, or a student from a marginalized group that doesn’t have a lot of experience in their family with colleges. Because if you do, it’s a very different experience than if you don’t. So this is a resource for people who don’t know the ins and outs. At the same time, there’s a lot of material in here that faculty just don’t know. And so some of the learning theories that are in here, some of the pattern recognition, some of the sleep research, the faculty don’t know. So I tried to write it so that faculty would also find it interesting. And I tried to straddle that line, but I also tried to pull in what a senior in high school might find valuable. So a junior or senior in high school could read this and get a better sense of what they were going to experience in college. So I tried to do that, and then a general resource for anybody else in terms of people in student affairs or in a student success center. So I was looking at multiple audiences started primarily with the student. But when I used examples and the level of writing, I tried to drift in and out so that I could get these other groups in such a way that they would find it valuable as well.

Rebecca: I really enjoy the personalized conversational tone, which obviously is great for students. It hooks you right in and then goes into the introduction. And so I really enjoyed that style. Can you talk a little bit more about why you chose that style and how that might help students?

Todd: For me, I just think conversation storytelling is one of the most effective ways of learning and so I like to do that. I also like to bury things just a very little bit at the beginning. So you start to read and then you realize as its unfolding… So, for instance, in the first chapter, we’re talking about the danger of dichotomous thinking. The example in the book was: it’s easy to tell night from day. If it’s noon, we know it’s day and if it’s midnight, we know it’s night. But what happens just as the sun sets? There is a moment when the day stops and the night starts and it’s the edges like that where all the richness is. And then I think there’s a line in the book that says, once we’re going through that, like the day and the night and what’s really at the edge, and it’s like, we’re not really talking about day and night here, are we? We’re talking about people. And so that kind of concept that I really like in terms of keeping it conversational, keeping it tied to things that people know. But my whole goal, and what I’m shooting for is to help people who can read science, but do it in a way that they enjoy it.

John: Much of your book focuses on how we learn. Students come in with some serious misperceptions about how we learn. When students are asked how they study, they tend to read things repeatedly, where the evidence suggests that’s not very effective. They tend to highlight quite a bit, which is also not very effective in increasing long term-recall, or transfer ability. Why aren’t students learning how to learn before they’re, say 18 or 19 years old or older? Shouldn’t some of this instruction be taking place in earlier years of education? And why isn’t this happening earlier?

Rebecca: John, did you bring your soapbox with you today? [LAUGHTER]

Todd: It’s an issue. I mean, it’s a huge issue. We spend our whole time in our educational system teaching people stuff, how to do things and what things are. But it’s crazy, we don’t teach students how to learn. We treat it as if it’s an implicit assumption that everybody just can learn and to an extent we can. When we’re young, we learn how to walk and we learn how to use utensils, and we teach kids how to tie shoes, and children learn how to ride a bike. And so I think in the general framework, there’s all this learning going on and teaching going on. And as a result, we have the implicit assumption that everybody can teach and everybody can learn. But teaching is a profession. And learning is really, really nuanced in a lot of different ways. And so what we have are a lot of implicit assumptions and trials and errors. If you think about for yourself, where did you actually learn how to learn? And for most individuals, it’s around second or third grade, because that’s when we start testing. Which by the way, if you ask young, young children: “Do you like to learn and do you like school?” they say yes to both of those, until suddenly, they start to say that they like to learn and they don’t like school. And it’s almost universally in the country around third grade. So right around third grade, we’re starting to test, but we don’t teach them how to learn at that moment. So the parents are making up flashcards and quizzing the kids and the kids are reading aloud in class. And we’re going through these actions without knowing what we’re doing. And it turns out, as you’ve already pointed out, John, very well is that a lot of these things that we have implicit assumptions about, we’re wrong, we’re just wrong. And the trouble is, we don’t have a baseline. So if we start highlighting, if I highlight the chapter in the book and I get a good grade, then obviously highlighting must work. And if I’m underlining things, and I get a decent grade, underlining must work. But how much could you have learned if you realized how to do that? Now I’ve got students who will use five different colors to highlight. When I ask them why the different colors, they’ll say, the blue is if it’s an application, and the green is for vocabulary, and the pink is something that’s like really important, and I always love to tell them when they do that. You should use black for the stuff that’s not important at all. Good times. But the idea is they’re doing that the students sometimes are doing their flashcards but the question becomes… like flashcards, when you’re going through a deck of flashcards, when you get it right, do you set it off to the side? Or do you put it back in the deck? How do you do that when you’re learning something like chemistry? How do you learn those terms? When you’re learning a periodic chart, how do you do that? And so I just firmly believe if we started teaching children how to learn at around second or third grade and just spent 1% of the time teaching the learning part and the rest of it all about content, by the time that they were done with school, they would be lifelong effective learners. And instead, we have people who believe that they have a given learning style, which we could do on a whole different show. People do have different ways in which they learn, but the concept of teaching to a given learning style has no data behind it. And highlighting, there’s studies out there that says highlighting doesn’t work and it doesn’t work primarily, however, there are ways to highlight that are effective. Re-reading is not effective, unless you reread for a specific purpose or reread in a special way. And so this stuff is going on, and, again, we’re not teaching students how to learn. So we should do that. I’ve given presentations about how to learn to everyone from high school students up through professional schools, in nursing programs, pharmacy programs, and medical schools. And the number of times that someone in a medical school… a second-year medical student… will come up and say I wish somebody had taught me this sooner. The case you’d think of is like the prototype of a student would be a med student who memorizes and learns stuff so fast. But those students who can pick up things quickly will say I wish somebody had showed me how to pick it up even faster. And so I think we should do that. Same with writing. We should teach students how to write instead of just having them write. There’s a soapbox for you. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I mean, I’m on it, too. [LAUGHTER] It’s interesting that when I was thinking about your question and about like, when would I say that I started learning was actually when I started struggling.

Todd: Oh, interesting.

Rebecca: …because when it wasn’t hard, you could just skate by, but there was a moment, and it was in sixth grade, I remember, social studies, and I had a really hard time reading and reading comprehension. And then I had someone who actually had to read more effectively. And it worked immensely. But it was only because I had that intervention or that help. Because it wasn’t part of the curriculum, it wasn’t taught. that I actually overcame that. But I think a lot of our students come to learning these strategies once they’re struggling significantly to the point where they have to ask for help, rather than us being proactive about it.

Todd: Exactly. And I tell you, and it’s in the book here, too, is it’s exactly what you said was my experience. I pick stuff up very, very quickly, I could skim a book and go in and take a test and do well. And I did that through high school. When I got to college, I had five classes. My first class that I got a grade back in was like a D minus in the introduction to criminal justice class. And then I had a physics class and my first grade and that was an F. And I thought, well, what’s not going well. And then in my math class, I got an F minus. And I remember thinking, well, it can’t get any worse than this, until I got my chemistry grade and that was an F minus minus, I even went to the teacher and said “F minus minus? I don’t understand this.” And he said something like, “Given you received an F minus minus, it doesn’t surprise me you failed to comprehend it.” So, a kind of mean person too. And the concept here, and the reason I mentioned is what you just said, Rebecca, I hadn’t learned how to learn. And so at the point where I needed to know how to learn, I was in a jam. And I actually went to the registrar to get a drop slip. And she said, “Get your signatures and bring it back. I’ll take care of it.” It was a long time ago, and four of my five faculty members signed the slip. This was a very small school, this isn’t some big school where you get lost. This school only had like 200 faculty members and about 3500 students and the psych prof said, “I don’t understand what you’re doing. Why would you drop out?” This was like two months after I started. And I said, “I just can’t do it. I don’t know how to do it.” He said: “You need to learn how to learn.” I said “like you can learn how to learn.” I didn’t even know the concept existed. And so he pointed out some strategies and pointed toward a book and I learned how to learn but I was one signature away from not finishing, I wouldn’t have met you, I wouldn’t have done any of the books I’ve done all of that would have not happened for one signature, because nobody taught me how to learn.

John: And a lot of our students get those last signatures and disappear. We’re losing a lot of students once they hit that barrier, which is why it’s important we have books such as yours, and we spend more time working on teaching students how to learn.

Rebecca: And reading the book as part of our system.

Todd: That’s what we should do. If I’m doing a faculty workshop at a campus, and I say “How many of you in here came within a whisper of flunking out of school?” most faculty raise their hands. And that’s just amazing to me, those are the folks that you would think got through easy. So it’s what you just said, John, how many fabulous, wonderful people, they’re probably doing things that are fine, but they’re not doing what they wanted to do and it’s because of that.

Rebecca: Yeah, we just need to design our systems to be proactive, rather than reactive. And oftentimes, it’s not even reactive, we just miss the boat entirely.

Todd: That’s a good point. Instead of being reactive, we should be either proactive, or at least not inactive.

Rebecca: Let’s start with not inactive, yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: That’s a place to start.

John: Part of the issue is that we ultimately figured it out on our own. And we assume that everyone can and we’re not a random group of the population, a very large share of faculty members were not first-generation students. A disproportionately large number of faculty members come from families where there were people with higher ed is part of their background. And it’s easy to forget what sort of struggles students may face. Even if someone may have come close at one point, they figure it was an aberration, and they forget that those aberrations can be critical points for many people.

Rebecca: And that these struggles happen across the spectrum. It’s not just our undergraduate students. As you mentioned, our graduate students have some of the same struggles. I was just having a conversation with graduate students last week about even just basic time management skills or how to troubleshoot or problem solve, because they don’t have those skills, and they need to build those skills.

Todd: Yeah. And it’s still also not equitable across different groups, individuals from marginalized groups tend to fail more frequently, because they don’t have the resources and they don’t have that support system so that when they are struggling, somebody can help them.

Rebecca: So the first edition of this book was released in 2013. How does this third edition differ from these earlier editions?

Todd: Actually, in a lot of ways. When we wrote the book in 2013, first of all, the research has changed considerably. But the book ended up also being just a hair over 100 pages. And this new version is about 250-260 pages. So it has grown substantially. There’s sections of the book that were not in the original book, or not even in the second edition. So there was a whole section on how to learn in groups. There’s a section in there on pitfalls, the places where students tend to have problems. Hidden curriculum kind of issues: what are things that they’re not specifically stated and so they’re implied in a way that if you know that they exist or you had family members who went to college you can figure it out. But if you’ve never gone to college, you didn’t know, I didn’t know when I went to college that if you failed a class, you could retake the course later. And so I thought when I failed my chemistry class that I was literally done, because if you can’t pass, then I can’t get into Chem II. If I can’t get into Chem II, I can’t go… And when I talked to my advisor, the advisor says: “Well, just take a trailer course.” And I said, “What is this thing you call a trailer course?” So those types of things are in this edition of the book. So I picked up a lot more nuances than we had before. And of course, I mentioned a little bit earlier, too, but the research has changed significantly in the last 10 years. We know a lot more now about how we learned than we did 10 years ago. And for things as subtle as what’s happening while you sleep. And so it’s getting more and more that we know actually, what kinds of learning is being solidified at different stages of sleep. So there’s always changing research, and I’m just happy to be able to get that updated research in there.

Rebecca: I love that you just slipped in something about sleep, because I was just going to ask about sleep, I was just having a conversation with a colleague today about being able to process new information when you’re tired. And that we might typically think of processing being associated with a learning disability or something. But actually, lack of sleep can cause the same kinds of symptoms, essentially. And so I can imagine that actually talking about sleep as an easy sell for students, because it’s something that everyone can easily think about, but many of them don’t get. Can you share a little bit of insight into sleep and learning?

Todd: Certainly, and this is one of those areas that we all know that it’s harder when you’re exhausted to do something than when you’re rested. But back to the dichotomous thinking, we think oftentimes in terms of I’m exhausted and I’m rested. But what about all those nuances in between. What if you normally like to get seven and a half, eight hours of sleep, and you get six and a half hours. You feel okay, but what we know now from the way people learn is that you’re still going to be learning at a less effective level. And if you’re exhausted, you get to a point very easily where you can’t learn at all. And so we know that in terms of encoding the information, you need to be able to process the information in your environment, which happens when you get sleep. So that’s important. And we know that nobody wakes up after a terrible night of sleep and says, “Whew, I feel great, I look great, and I’m learning like crazy.” We know it’s going to be a rough day. And so that fatigue makes it hard to learn. And then what we also know about sleep, which is fascinating to me is while you sleep, a lot of consolidation happens, it’s called consolidation. And if it doesn’t happen, the information is gone, typically in about 24 or 48 hours. And so what we have are students who, for instance, will study all night and they can go in and take the test. They do okay on the test, so they think this is an okay way to learn. And then they don’t realize that the material is pretty well gone in two days… three max. And then later when they need the material, if let’s just say for the comprehensive final, the instructor says “Oh, everybody, I hope you’re studying because this final is going to be tough.” Now I go to learn for the final… I flunk the final, most students don’t say “Oh, I’ll bet that’s because when I learned I didn’t get stage four sleep, which consolidated the information and therefore made it available for me to relearn it at a faster pace for the final.”No, they come back with a “Wow, that was a really hard final.” So it’s going on all the time. But sleep is probably right up there at the top of one of the things you can do to learn more effectively is to sleep well.

Rebecca: Yet, so many of our students don’t sleep. And we inevitably are probably teaching a class full of students who haven’t had a lot of sleep.[LAUGHTER]

Todd: Yeah, and it’s for the public service announcement, we got to put it out there because the sleep is important in terms of learning. But there are so many things that are tied to lack of sleep, it’s just incredible: diabetes, even cancer, weight gain, high blood pressure, all these things. There’s just tons of stuff. Your skin actually looks worse. There’s so many things that are tied to a good night of sleep. It’s when all the restorative stuff happens. So I’m going to tell you listeners, the folks who say, “Yeah, I know, I’m exhausted, I can’t get my sleep.” It’s damaging to a person to not get sleep. And when somebody says “Well, yeah, but I got so much to do,” just keep in mind that it will take a toll. And oftentimes, and this is an important one, if you get a rest or get some extra sleep, you’ll do other things so much more effectively, that you come out ahead and don’t have the health issues.

John: And this is really important to convey to students. And I do share this information with students in my classes. I don’t always practice it myself, unfortunately. But I do share the information. And when they see results on how much more they recall when they’re well rested, at least a claim it will have a bit of an effect on them in the future. But one of the things… this is more on the faculty side rather than the student side… but so many of our classes are designed in such a way so that faculty are using high-stakes exams. Students have a lot of incentive to cram the night before a test and it does have that immediate payoff of increasing their short-term recall. And then, since they’re worried about the grade, they don’t necessarily care about how much they recall until they get to their next high-stakes activity. And then they have to go through the whole process again. And maybe this is something that faculty should work on too in terms of reducing the number of high stakes activities, reducing the incentives for students to cram and to cut back on their sleep.

Todd: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. In fact, there’s several things that we can do to impact the student’s sleep. When I mention the importance of sleep to faculty at times, they’ll say, “Well, I can’t make them sleep.” And oftentimes, my response is “No, but you can keep them up.” If you have a high-stakes exam, and it’s like a midterm and a final, it’s human behavior, people are going to wait toward the end to do it. I know, there’s some faculty out there listening who say “I do everything early.” And that’s great. But I can tell you, I’ve been on a lot of committees with my colleagues, where we turned reports in at the very last minute or somebody handed me their portion at the last minute. So it is going to happen, if we know students are going to wait toward the last minute to do it. It’s what you just said John, it’s a good point, if it’s a huge exam, it means they’re going to be up, maybe even for multiple nights. If it’s a big paper, they’re probably going to spend the night all night writing it, maybe two days and it might get a little bit of sleep, but they’re going to be tired. If you have the paper due on like Monday at noon, they’ve now got exhausted from Sunday night, they’re gonna be tired all week. If you could make your paper due on Friday afternoon at like 2:00, if they stay up all Thursday night, now they’re exhausted, but they’re exhausted going into a weekend. So a lot of little things we can do. I have a friend Howard Aldrich at UNC, he had a nine o’clock class, 9 am. He had the papers due at class time in the morning, then he and I were chatting and with Sakai, you can see what times papers are turned in. So we were looking and the students were turning in the papers, two o’clock, three o’clock in the morning, even eight o’clock in the morning. And he knew that they stayed up to do it. So he changed his deadline to 9pm with a 12-hour extension, if you asked for it. So if you can get a 12 hour extension from 9pm to 9am. What he found was 86% of his students turned in the work by 9pm. So when that happens, we can’t say they were awake. But we know that they weren’t up doing his paper in the middle of the night. And so those are the kinds of things that we can do as faculty members. And I agree in terms of the high-stakes tests, we can think through what are we doing that’s actually going to be conducive to learning versus is going to make a hindrance. And if we say “Well, it’s their own fault. They shouldn’t wait till the last minute.” Why put them in that position?

John: To be fair, though, to those faculty who do give high-stakes exams, they often spend a lot of the time just lecturing in a monotone, which can facilitate sleep on the part of students, at least during their class time, which is a large share of the time that they’re interacting with students.

Todd: That’s great. Yeah, I suppose they could… get a little nap in during class. that could work.

Rebecca: It’s all about balance. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: It is balance, isn’t it? That’s a work-sleep balance right there.

Rebecca: I had an interesting conversation with students this week about perfectionism and procrastination, which also, I think leads to sleep deprivation because of all the procrastination. And what I found in the conversation… students were being really authentic and open with me… was that they were so worried about their performance on things, even low-stakes things, like these weren’t big-stakes kinds of things, but just so worried about their performance on something that they would wait to do it. But they’d spend all this energy and time worrying about it. And so we talked about how to actually take an assignment and then plan it and break it into smaller pieces. But I talked to the students about how to break it into smaller pieces so that there were times to get help, because they were so worried about not doing it well that they could build in time to get assistance and help. So I’ll be interested to find out at the end of this week, if they were going to try this strategy this week to see if it helped them. But it had never occurred to them to break it into these smaller pieces.

Todd: Yeah, and what you just said, I think, is vital for anybody who’s listening. It’s all the stuff that never occurs to somebody. This is why individuals who go to therapists can gain so much is when a therapist had some an individual says “I never thought of it like that.” For students, let’s look at your sleep. Just jot it down on a scale of one to 10 in the morning, how did you feel about how much sleep you got? To what extent did you get a good night’s sleep, and then at the end of the day, jot down on a scale of one to 10, how’d things go. And when they start to see that bad night’s of sleep result in days that are not all that productive or work well, it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know it was that related.” Breaking things into tasks, I think is fabulous. That’s what this book is about, too, is the concept of just showing them things and then having them be able to look at and say, “Oh, I had never thought of that.” And that’s what’s valuable. So I like what you’re doing.

John: For those who procrastinate on coming up with the set of tasks to do, again, course design could resolve that a little bit by scaffolding the project so that students never have a huge chunk of work to do all at once.

Todd: Yeah, I think that’s good. And then the other one is a whole different program is ungrading. And if we can just remove some of the grading on some of these things, and there’s faculty out there and myself included years ago who would say well, “If I don’t grade it, if there’s no grade, why would the students do it?” And it turns out, sometimes, from what you just said, if the students are so stressed about it, they spend all this extra time, you remove some of the high-stakes aspects of it, and they don’t stress about it so much. But that is a problem. And I will tell you, it’s not just the students, I was writing a blog, and I have a person I turn a blog over to McKenzie. She’s phenomenal. And she edits at the end. And I wanted to prove to her I was working on this one blog, because I told her I was going to get it and and I kept getting busy with other things. And I submitted it to her. But I planned on spending another three or four hours on it. She emailed me back, and she said, “This is so close to being done. Let me just edit it. And then you can take another look at it.” Had she not said that I would have worked another probably four hours on this thing, half a day. And I think students are doing that at times too. I think they finish an assignment. It’s good. And then they think, “but I want it to be better.” And so, just clarity and helping to understand and building some structure into the course so they’re not guessing. Take away the stuff that’s just not necessary and let them focus their energy on the things that are necessary.

Rebecca: Sometimes it means even pointing out something that’s low stakes is actually low stakes.

Todd: Yeah, I think that’s really good. Signposting. So there’s a terminology for you. Signposting is basically telling somebody what they’re doing, or what you’re doing. So if I’m giving you feedback, I could just give you feedback. And we’ve had programs where at the end of the program, the students will say, “I’m not getting enough feedback.” And so we all as faculty say, all right, anytime we give feedback, we’re going to say, “Would you mind if I give you some feedback right now? Hey, would it be alright, if I give you just a little bit of feedback? Do you have some time tomorrow for some feedback?” …and at the end of the semester, the response was too much feedback. We hadn’t changed. But it’s what you just said, just let people know what’s going on.

John: One of the nice things about your book is that it’s grounded in learning science, but it’s really easy to read. One of the things we had trouble with in coming up with questions is there’s so many things that we could discuss in this book that we thought we’d shift it back to you, what are two or three pieces of advice that you would recommend to students that might have the biggest impact on their learning?

Todd: First of all, I appreciate the fact that you found it easy to read. And I have gotten that feedback from others too. It’s called “The Science of Learning.” And I think that scares some people at times. This is not a dry book, I tried to make it conversational, and folks say it’s fairly easy to get through. And that’s good. The couple things… we’ve already talked about sleep quite a bit. Sleep is just huge if we can help talk to students to sleep. The other one you had mentioned already is the cramming. The tricky spot with cramming is not necessarily that the students want to do it, they are reinforced for it. I consider this to be one of the biggest traps in higher education. Because the research suggests that if I cram all night long, don’t sleep, study all night long, and if you sleep for six or seven hours, I may very well outscore you by two or three percentage points, just enough that I do fine, and it looks like that’s okay. And you’ve already mentioned that a couple of days later, and the information is gone. The students don’t realize… sometimes they know it’s gone later. But they don’t generally know that it’s going to go away at the extent that it does. What they know is they’ve studied, they did well on the test, and therefore they’re doing okay in the class. So, a couple things in the book, if we could help them understand how much damage comes with cramming, it would be huge. In fact, it’s in the book like five times, to the point where the editor said, “Do you know you’ve already talked about this like four times?” And I said, “Yep, with any luck, we’ll only do it once more. [LAUGHTER] But it’s that important.” So that’s a big one. The other thing that I think is really huge is if we could help students with understanding metacognition, the concept here is knowing when you know or understanding your learning process, and it’s something that we don’t monitor, but we could. When you sit down to study, jot down how long you think it’s going to take you to read the chapter, when you’re done reading the chapter, jot down how you felt it went, jot down a couple of notes of what you learned. As you’re reading, stop every couple of paragraphs and just look away from the book and think, “What am I reading right now?” Because your mind will start to wander and you not realize it. Everybody that I know has read a chapter or read an article and either the next morning didn’t remember if they had read it or not or even when they finish they thought to themselves well, I don’t remember anything about that. I was thinking about bacon the entire time. And so that concept of just knowing when you’re processing… so metacognition is big, the sleeping stuff and cramming is big, and the last thing I’d say… there are lots of things in there… but just understanding Bloom’s Taxonomy, understanding at what level you know something. I like to use this as a quick example, I’m from Michigan, you could teach your students that there are five Great Lakes. Imagine they know only this, there are five Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior… HOMES, right? And we could say Superior is the deepest. I can come back with a quiz two days later and say which of these lakes is the biggest Ontario, Michigan Erie, or Superior? And the students could say Superior. At this moment, I don’t know for sure if the students know what a lake is. I asked them these are five things called lakes. This one’s the deepest. Later I say of these things called lakes, which is the deepest?t They’ve memorized it. If students know at that moment, they’re just functioning at the recall level, ot helps them and it’s because when they take tests they start to understand I’m doing well on recall and understanding, I’m not doing well on application. So knowing Bloom’s, knowing metacognition, understanding the sleep thing, and then exercise is huge. There’s all kinds of research out there that says, if you’re actually getting your heart rate up 15-20 minutes a day, it does all kinds of cool things for your brain and actually makes learning easier. So that’s just a couple of them.

Rebecca: So in the description of your book indicate that there’s an instructor’s manual that accompanies the text. And often this is not the case. [LAUGHTER] So can you talk a little bit about what’s included in the manual?

Todd: Yeah, so when I was writing the book, the first and second editions didn’t have this. And other books of this ilk don’t tend to have it… the first-year common reads, and the first-year experience books… but I wrote an instructor’s manual when I was early career faculty member and I wrote it for an introductory psychology book. All textbooks have instructor’s manuals now, so I thought, why should this book not be just as good as those. So when I was done, I kept right on writing. And I’ve written an instructor’s manual, which, ironically, is about as long as the first edition of this book. So what I did is for each chapter, I understand that if you’re going to use this book in your classes, you may not have time to read things very, very carefully, you might have to skim a chapter at times. So each chapter has a summary. So in the instructor’s manual, that summarizes the major concepts in the chapter, every chapter has discussion questions at the end. So I put down these are the types of things that students may very well say in the discussion questions. So that if you started discussion, you’re not stuck with a situation of asking the students to discuss, you show up in class and you think, Ummm,I’m not sure what I would say about this. So I’ve given you a couple things. There’s also teaching tips in every chapter. And for each one of the teaching tips, I’ve got a short thing of these are the kinds of things that students should experience. And on top of that, every chapter also has active learning exercises. I’m big on the active learning, So it will say in the sleep chapter, here’s like four different things you can do. And it sets it all up, it explains: here’s what you tell students to do, here’s what you have them do, here’s how you report out. And so it’s kind of a guide for active learning keyed to the book. And you can find this, if you go to the Stylus Publishing website… you’re actually not going to see it unfortunately, if you go to Amazon, because that’s not where it’s listed… you have to get to the Stylus publishing site, and then you can find it and there is no charge for it, you just let them know that you’re teaching a course and they’ll send it to you. And if you can’t find it, I’m the only Todd Zakrajsek in the world. So if you send me an email at ToddZakrajsek@gmail.com, then I will make sure that I’ll get you connected to the person with the instructor’s manual because we didn’t make it real easy to find, because we didn’t necessarily think that the students should have the instructor’s manual. [LAUGHTER] So it’s kind of buried in there a bit.

John: And we’ll include a link to your email in the show notes.

Todd: Perfect.

Rebecca: So can you share one of the examples of an active learning activity that you might do in relationship to the book?

Todd: Oh, sure. The chapter on sleep, there’s one activity that’s kind of explained there for keeping a sleep activity log for a week. And it shows how to have students block off their time and then indicate whether or not things went well, or it didn’t go well for them. And it helps them to find their ideal time. So I did this when I was an undergraduate. And it was fascinating, because I found out that between 2 and 4pm, I’m practically worthless, but early early in the morning, like it’s 6 to 8am, if I do have to get up and do something, I was just really, really good. And I don’t care for getting up early in the morning, so it was unfortunate, but that’s what I found out. Another activity, and there it’s called a snowball technique. And this particular one in the chapter on sleep was students are asked to think about things that help and hinder a good night of sleep for them. And then the snowball aspect of it is they talk to other students, and then they learn one thing that helps and one thing that hinders sleep, and after you learn from five different people, you go back and sit down, you get into a small group, and then you discuss those, and then you report out kind of overall, what are the general themes that you saw. So there are things like that in the instructor’s manual, they’re described in like a half a page. So it doesn’t take you very long to read through it and get a sense of what it looks like. And so it’s there just to help you get you rolling.

Rebecca: Sounds like it really reduces some cognitive load for faculty teaching these things.

Todd: One of the issues that is tricky that we do have to be careful of is faculty are really, really busy. And I taught one time on a quarter system, so you had three quarters, and I was on a 5-5-5 load with a total of nine new preps. So there were times that I was really struggling in running into class last minute, and then I had multiple sections and everything. And it would have been really helpful to have a 750 word that I could read in five minutes summary of the chapter, so then I could talk to the students. Because I knew the content. I just had to make sure I knew what was in there. And then for an activity sometimes drawing up an activity is not easy. If I could glance at one and get a sense of it, then I can do it. Same with the discussion questions. And so yeah, busy folks, and it’s just to help them out when they get in a bit of a jam.

John: That can be extremely helpful especially with those sorts of teaching loads, which I’ve only experienced once or twice, but it’s really challenging.

Todd: You do what you do.

Rebecca: …sounds terrifying. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: It is not easy. It’s not.

John: In the last section of the book, “A Message from Dr. Z,” you note several struggles you had in pursuing your own education. Why finish the book this way?

Todd: Well, I’m really glad you asked that. Because the last section, students oftentimes won’t read the things that are way at the end, I think the faculty are the same. And I probably have been the same too. But at the beginning of the book, I talked a little bit about some of the struggles that I had when I went to college, to almost flunking out and the fact that if one faculty member had decided to sign the form, I wouldn’t have been writing this book. And so that’s where it started. But I saved the message for the end, so there wasn’t the end of the story. And so when you go back to the “Message from Dr. Z,” that section starts with “Welcome to the end of the book,” And it’s essentially, “Let me tell you the rest of the story.” And what I did from this, there’s a great quote by E. McClellan basically says… it’s attributed to him, as there’s a lot of variations. But it boils down to everyone’s fighting a battle we know nothing about, everyone’s fighting a hard battle, it’s worded different ways. But that’s been really impactful for me, because I think if everybody knew that everybody else was fighting a battle at any given moment, then we could have a little bit more patience with individuals. But we also could say, you know, they’re getting through it, maybe I can get through it, too. So I finished the book with just a real strong narrative, in a sense that when I went through school as a first-generation college student, I almost flunked out that first semester. If you almost flunk out the first semester, just keep moving forward. And I had to work a lot of jobs, I was exhausted, but I had no money. And so I was working all the time. And so if you’re working all the time, you’re going to be tired, just keep moving forward. And I had a daughter when I was a graduate student and graduate school is already hard enough until you have a child and I almost quit graduate school because it was so hard to have a child and work in graduate school. So if that happens to you, keep going forward. And I almost ran out of money multiple times. And I would have dropped out. One time, I probably stayed in school because of $100. But I do actually know a couple of programs now, there are a couple of institutions that will give up to $500 to a student. You just show up and say, “Look, I really need $200.” And they find the students don’t abuse the system, but you don’t want someone to flunk out for $200. But in my case, at the end of this book it’s like if you’re struggling with some money, just keep that in mind. And so I just want to tell you real quickly, I don’t like to usually read these things, but just to give you the tone for the end. So I put this in there, “I leave you with the following to consider in the months ahead. Be mindful of your past, but look to the future. Listen carefully to the voices of others and find respectful ways for your own voice to be heard. Find ways to get what you worked so hard for without taking anything away from anyone else. Most importantly, always strive for more so that you have more to share. Ever forward. So that’s the tone I want to leave the students with. We’re all struggling at times and it’s not going to be easy, but if you just keep moving forward, we can make it.”

Rebecca: Speaking of moving forward. You’ve been doing a lot of writing, five books in the last five years. Are there more books coming? Are you going to take a break, like what is going on?

Todd: So I have ADHD, which means I have spent my entire life with too many things just kind of banging around in my head. So it turns out that once I started really writing, I got on a roll. I didn’t write much in my career, and it’s funny, I haven’t. And when I got rolling with some of the things, I’ve had so much fun. And so yeah, the five books in the last five years, I have another book that probably will be done in the next couple of months. And that one’s on helping new faculty to get rolling. And then I have another book that’s already signed. And that’s dealing with more with a kind of a longitudinal, how we learn and kind of walking through the learning process in a different way, which is cool. And I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve known y’all for a while there. But I’m really thinking that I need to write a book that I’m so excited about. It’s basically Dr. Z’s crazy stories, [LAUGHTER] stuff that I have kind of gone through in my life, and it’s what I’ve learned from it. So I had a student who had a grand mal seizure in my class one time, I have had all kinds of issues, lots of things have happened. And I think that there’s some stories in there that I could kind of tell because I do love telling stories. And it would help faculty, if I say, here’s how I handled this thing, and here’s what I faced. My goal would be almost the same as the end for the letters to Dr. Z for students, it’d be for faculty members of some crazy crazy stuff is gonna happen to you. And there’s ways of getting through that

Rebecca: Dr. Z’s case studies.

Todd: Yeah, that would be fun, wouldn’t it?

John: You might want to make that unreadable, though, by grad students until they’ve already started their careers, because otherwise some people might decide to back away.

Todd: No, no, no, John, they’re gonna find out that we get through with these things. And there’s also some really fun stuff that happens too, so that’s all good. You know… Alright. Maybe we don’t show it to grad students. That’s a good point. I’ve tried to defend a position. I was trying to defend an indefensible.

John: Grad students are already struggling often, so it may be best to wait until they’ve at least started.

Todd: Yeah, that’s a good point.

Rebecca: New title: Dr. Z’s survival tales. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Oh, I’ve got to cite you on that one. [LAUGHTER] That’s good. That’s probably a better way to go with that.

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

Todd: The book I just mentioned… what’s next. And I’m actually looking forward to getting back on the road. So kind of the what’s next is because of COVID and everything I hadn’t gone and done many workshops at campuses. And I’d love to do that. I’ve been on like 300 campuses. So it’s just fun visiting places. So I do have a couple places that I’m heading to. I was just at Anchorage, Alaska and that was really fun. And you find yourself in Anchorage, Alaska, and a couple days later, you’re in Florida. So it’s kind of an interesting thing. But I love looking at different places and traveling. So it’s been great. So the next is, I’m getting a chance to travel again.

Rebecca: So you’re getting close on your 50 states?

Todd: So, we have talked about this in the past. I’m gonna come back with my pleading of the listeners once again. I have been stuck at 49 states for about eight years. I hit my 49th state, I think it was seven or eight years ago, which I believe was Vermont… it was Vermont or New Hampshire, the order was really close. But North Dakota, it continues to be elusive.

John: North Dakota and Montana were the last two states in which an episode of our podcast were downloaded six or seven years ago when we first got started.

Todd: It’s interesting.

John: I don’t think there’s too many colleges there.

Todd: No, they’re not many colleges there. But I’m glad you did ask that. Rebecca, this is crazy. Because again, if Tim Sawyer had signed that form, I never let that go… is because anyone listening right now you never know when you’re the person who could say, “You know what, I’m going to choose something different than just letting you go.” It’s a big responsibility. But there’s times when a single sentence will change a student’s life. And so I can’t believe it when he said that, but I have now been invited to and presented in 49 states, 12 countries and four continents. Just amazing. And I would feel better if North Dakota would just call me, that would be so nice.

John: The last continent might be tough.

Todd: Yeah, there’s one continent that’s really tricky to get a gig in.

Rebecca: It could happen.

Todd: It’d be helpful if there are people who live there. [LAUGHTER]

John: The penguins are not that impressed.

Rebecca: You could just invite yourself. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: See that was the rule, by the way.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s right. That’s right.

Todd: Yeah, the rule was you had to be invited, so you can’t just show up someplace and start talking.

Rebecca: Well, we look forward to keeping tabs on your 49 states. Next time we talk to you. It’s always a pleasure, Todd.

Todd: Thank you… appreciate the opportunity to come in and I’llI get the 50th state,I will give you a call and maybe we can do a show about my 50th state. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I think sometime before that might be nice as well.

Todd: Wow. There’s a little pessimism for you.

Rebecca: Geez. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, that may take a year or two.

Todd: Gosh John… Rebecca. Wooh. That’s tough. That’s brutal. Alright.

Rebecca: I was thinking that was gonna come soon, Todd. Sorry.

Todd: This is a mic drop time. Why don’t you go ahead and do the outro at this point. [LAUGHTER]


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.


280. Professors at Play

Young children are innately curious and enjoy learning about their world. Our school systems, though, often take the fun out of learning. In this episode, Lisa Forbes and David Thomas join us to discuss how faculty can use playful activities to make learning fun for both students and instructors.

Lisa is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Counseling Program at the University of Colorado Denver.  She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Registered Play Therapist. Her research focuses on intensive mothering practices, gender conformity, mental health, and play and fun in teaching and learning. David is the Executive Director of Online Programs at the University of Denver and Assistant Professor Attendant in the Department of Architecture at the University of Colorado Denver. His research focuses around fun, fun objects, and the meaning of play. He is the author of numerous columns and articles on video games and, with John Sharp as co-author, of Fun, Taste and Games. Lisa and David are the co-editors of The Professors at Play PlayBook, an anthology of almost 100 play techniques developed by over 65 professors.

Show Notes


John: Young children are innately curious and enjoy learning about their world. Our school systems, though, often take the fun out of learning. In this episode, we discuss how faculty can use playful activities to make learning fun for both students and instructors.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Lisa Forbes and David Thomas. Lisa is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Counseling Program at the University of Colorado Denver. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Registered Play Therapist. Her research focuses on intensive mothering practices, gender conformity, mental health, and play and fun in teaching and learning. David is the Executive Director of Online Programs at the University of Denver and Assistant Professor Attendant in the Department of Architecture at the University of Colorado Denver. His research focuses around fun, fun objects, and the meaning of play. He is the author of numerous columns and articles on video games and, with John Sharp as co-author, of Fun, Taste and Games. Lisa and David are the co-editors of The Professors at Play PlayBook, an anthology of almost 100 play techniques developed by over 65 professors. Welcome.

David: Hey, thanks. Happy to be here.

Lisa: Yeah, we’re excited. Thanks for having us.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are: …Lisa, are you drinking tea?

Lisa: Not at this exact moment. But yesterday, I had a nice Earl Grey. I prefer the fruit note teas, but they tend to not have as much caffeine, so I go with heavier ones for that. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Fair. How about you, David?

David: I dug out some tea I got for Christmas. And so it’s a rooibos chai. And I’m drinking it out of my friend’s video game company mug. So I think that’s more playful.

Rebecca: I think it’s completely 100% appropriate for this episode. How are you, John?

John: I am drinking just a simple Twinings English breakfast tea, in a Tea for Teaching mug given to us by our former graduate student, who we very deeply miss.

Rebecca: And I have a highly caffeinated [LAUGHTER] Scottish Breakfast tea in my Pantone mug.

David: I like that. What color is your Pantone mug?

Rebecca: Number 630. It’s a nice teal color.

John:Iis that this year’s color?

Rebecca: No, this is from a dear friend with whom we like to design play. So it was gift from her.

John: So it’s topical. So we’ve invited you here to discuss the Professors at Play Playbook. How did you get started on this project?

Lisa: So we started professors at play in 2020. And we thought there were like three people interested in play and learning. So we started a listserv with them. I wrote an article and mentioned the listserv, and all of a sudden we have hundreds of people. And we found that over time, people kept saying, “Can you give us an example? Can you tell us what this looks like?” And David and I do play in our teaching, but we don’t think we’re like the end all, be all experts of this. So we thought, “Well, why don’t we ask our community to share a bunch of ideas and things they’re doing in the classroom, we can put it into a book and share that, because that might be more well rounded than just our ideas.” So we did that. We thought it was going to be this small thing, it blew up. It’s 250 pages. And it turned out really good. So I think it’s just something that we had been kind of asked for, and so we created it.

David: There’s something I want to add about the Playbook is when we started doing Professors at Play, we were really just trying to say to people, “Hey, it’s okay to play,” you know, just give people permission to play and share ideas and encourage each other. And we kept getting asked for techniques and techniques seemed to be the wrong end of the animal to eat. But I think, in retrospect, you realize it was like, we were a bunch of inventive chefs that were together, kind of trading ingredients and ideas. And there were a lot of people that were like, “That looks really cool. We don’t know how to cook.” And so people needed a cookbook. And so in a way, I think of the Playbook as almost like a Julia Child cookbook. Yes, it’s full of recipes. But the recipes are really there to help inspire your creativity, rather than just be like, “Here’s your meal plan for the next semester.” And I think that the book really helps to get to that through a lot of different ways.

Rebecca: Sometimes people don’t see what’s possible until they have some examples in front of them.

David: I think the thing that we wanted to really point out as important to us about the Playbook is it really isn’t prescriptive. It isn’t like “This is how you do play.” It really is meant to inspire people, to show examples, to get people to be like, “Hey, there’s a cool technique that I could maybe build upon, elaborate, or deconstruct in my own class.” And there’s a lot of content in the book that isn’t specific to techniques. There’s a lot of structure around: “How does play work? How does it function? Why is it functional? A little bit of the research.” So in that sense, it really is a book of inspiration, as much as it is a book of blueprints.

John: So it allows professors to be playful with the activities that are there. How did you find your contributors? You mentioned starting off with a small listserv, how did it expand to the level that it’s become?

Lisa: We started out with just a few people that we had heard of and had a meeting with just to see what they were doing. And then I wrote two articles for the Faculty Focus, and just mentioned our listserv and put information about how to sign up and it was like, over a week or two, hundreds of people kept coming out of the woodwork. Right now. I think we have like 750 members of our listserv. So I think that’s kind of the initial burst. And then I think word of mouth. We get a lot of people saying I heard about this from a colleague or this was mentioned in a conference I just went to. So it’s slowly getting out there. there, but there’s way more people interested in this than we initially thought, we thought we were like the only ones or not. There’s people that have been doing this. But I think we’ve just found a way to connect people.

David: And when we wanted to do the playbook, all we did is just ask that community, “Hey, send us your techniques.” And honestly, if we would have kept the call open longer, the book would have been longer, that’s all.

Rebecca: I’m curious about the wide range of disciplines represented, not only by the two editors, but also by the contributors. Can you talk a little bit about what you discovered about how many different kinds of people from different disciplines are involved?

Lisa: Well, I think that’s a common question is like, “Oh, playful pedagogy. That’s cool for like, elementary ed teachers, but I teach a serious discipline. I teach law, I teach medical students, I teach mental health counseling, it’s too serious for play.” But we have people from, I don’t know how many different disciplines, mental health counseling, dentistry, medical teachers, law teachers, just from everywhere. So I love that there’s such an eclectic collection, because people can see, “Oh, you can do this in any discipline, and it’s not just for the people who already are allowed to have fun in their classes anyway, because it’s not as serious as mine.” So I think that’s one of the big strengths.

David: Yeah, play isn’t just for art teachers.

John: What could be more fun than just learning economics with all those graphs and equations and things.

Lisa: A lot of things. [LAUGHTER]

John: Oddly enough, some students would tend to agree with that.

David: Exactly. The medical profession… I mean you have some stuff in there from some nursing faculty, some stuff in there from veterinarian science. And I love that. I mean, these are literally people that work in life and death, and they have room for play. So come on economics, come on, engineers, loosen up a little bit.

Rebecca: One of the things that I always think about related to play is it’s highly tied to creativity, and moving our disciplines, if we’re not kind of playing with the ideas within our disciplines, we kind of stay stagnant. I know I’ve recently had a lot of conversations with my students who are in design, someplace where you would think creativity is flourishing, and play would be flourishing, but it isn’t always, and sometimes they feel really stagnated in their creative ideas and don’t have strategies for getting there. And the one thing that we’ve been talking about in the first few weeks of the semester is finding room for play and being playful around what they’re doing. They’re not resistant to the idea of play, but they haven’t gone there on their own, because they’re so afraid of being perfect all the time, or needing to be perfect. What has motivated, in your conversations through your listserv and things, for people to kind of move towards play.

David: I think there’s two things really, in my mind, and I’ll talk about one and then Lisa is the expert on the other. The first thing is that I think people move toward play because it’s just delightful. The idea of not doing another lecture, the idea of your students not looking at their phones, the idea of not reading another rote term paper or reviewing another rote studio assignment, it turns you on as a teacher. And so, sometimes just to mix up your own life, you just do it because you want to be playful. And I think that that’s probably the purest and most wonderful motivating factor to become a professor of play, but then I’d hand it over to Lisa, because she’s done some very excellent research in unlocking the underlying educational and psychological factors that actually anchor play in all of learning science. And so Lisa, if you could pick that up.

Lisa: Well, I think you’re talking about the process that ensues when you use play in learning. So I’ll talk about that. But also, I want to go back to challenging status quos. I think play does that really well. So I’ll say those two things remind me if I forget the other one. So I did some research on students’ experiences of play and learning. And what I gathered was, when there’s play, there’s joy, excitement, laughter. When those things happen, there’s a sense of relational safety in the room. And so people get connected, they feel a sense of belonging, they feel safe. trust develops. At the same time, it reduces students’ barriers to learning. So they come in stressed about the class or just they had a stressful day, they have fear in learning, they feel like they have to be perfect. And so when play is involved, it takes people’s defenses down. And then when that happens, people are more willing to be engaged. And so they’re invested in the process, they feel connected, they’ll engage in the learning, and they’ll take risks. You can give more critical feedback, actually, when you have that positive relationship. They don’t feel as tense or like, “Oh, I have to get it right. I can’t mess up.” It’s just like a more level environment when play is involved and play is hands on. And so they’re doing instead of listening and taking notes. And so they said, as a result of that, their learning was more memorable, personal, engaging. So it’s just this really powerful process that happens. The other thing, I think, is traditional education from K to graduate school is very rigid, I think overly rigid, overly serious sometimes. It creates fear, there’s hierarchy. Students are doing things to earn a grade, to not fail, and it If we look at what our students are going into into their professions, it doesn’t match. What we’re having students do in higher education isn’t developing, a lot of times, the skills they need in their profession. So like I’m mental health counseling, if I lecture at my students, they have to memorize information, take multiple choice exams, write APA style essays. That doesn’t help them in their career. And so I think play is a way to challenge some of those status quos, and think about doing things differently, more effectively, more in line with what people will be doing. And I think that piece you were talking about earlier is like the creativity. If we let people try things and mess up and fail and play, we’re going to be more creative. And when we’re more creative, we’re going to be more effective in our jobs, in the future careers. So I think a lot of ways in higher education, we’re doing our students a disservice. And so I think play is a way to challenge that.

David: So, to wrap it up, so why play? Thing one is because it’s fun. Thing two, is because it’s effective. What more do you need?

Rebecca: It’s a great summary. [LAUGHTER]

John: Do students ever come with some resistance, expecting to be lectured at and expecting those multiple choice exams, and not quite comfortable with an environment where they place themselves more at risk?

Lisa: Absolutely. In my study, I looked at students’ experiences. They said that exactly. I did like a pre-journal and then a post-. And in their pre-journals, they’re like, “Yeah, I’m skeptical. I don’t like this play thing in graduate student learning. How are you going to get students up and playing? I’m not sure.” And then their post journals were like, “Yeah, I was skeptical. But actually, I learned more than I did in other classes, or this was way more engaging.” So I think there is some resistance at first, just because, if you think about from, unfortunately, kindergarten through graduate school, they’re told: “Sit and listen, take these tests. I’m the expert here teaching you what you need to know.” And so their brains are just not formed in a way to be comfortable with that. It’s actually easier just to sit and listen and take notes, but I don’t think you learn as well. So I’ve seen a lot of student resistance. But once they do it, they realize how fun it is and how connected they feel, and how much more they learned. So I think they get bought in. But at the start of every semester, I have to say to people, “Hey, I use a playful pedagogy. Here’s what that means. Here’s why I do it. So expect this.” So I think just giving them a little bit of autonomy and understanding of what you’re getting into has helped.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit Lisa, I heard you mentioned graduate education, mental health counseling, and I can imagine many skeptical individuals, not just the students in your class… can you help us understand what that looks like in your classroom, just to demonstrate how play can be in a lot of spaces.

Lisa: Right, so I use play in different ways. And in our book, we talk about this pyramid of play. So me, myself, am playful. And so I’m not this overly serious, rigid, intimidat…. well, some people think I’m intimidating, but I don’t get that. But I’m playful, and I’m human. And so I think that’s part of it, is just creating a warm, safe, comfortable environment for people drops their defenses, they’re more connected. The other part of it is icebreakers, we call them connection formers, even when they have no relation to the learning, we’ll do some silly thing at the start of class. And the whole point is to reduce defenses, get people laughing, get those positive neurotransmitters in their brains firing, because that sets the stage and creates a certain environment for the learning to take place. So I think a lot of people don’t do those silly things at the start of class. And it can be three minutes or 15 minutes. But I really do those things for a purpose. And then the other part of it is bringing play elements of games and game design into my teaching. And so there’s a book called Giraffes Can’t Dance. That’s about Gerald and he’s a Giraffe and he can’t dance like the other African animals. And he gets made fun of and he thinks he’s a clot and can’t do anything. Right. So this is a perfect mental health case study. So I read the students this children’s book, like adult students, like 30 year olds, and then I created a client profile based on real facts about giraffes, about why they would need counseling. And so like it’s novel, it’s more playful, students engage more, because it’s not the expected, like they expect Sally Jo, client, and so they engage more. But also, that’s not real. Nobody’s ever counseled a giraffe before. So it allows them to step outside reality and have less pressure and like the right way to do it and think more creatively. So it’s still learning everything they need to learn. They apply their theoretical lenses, they create a treatment plan for this client. So it’s fun and playful, but it’s also in line with real learning what they need to do. So there’s a lot of examples of what I do. We do games, instead of giving them this handout fully completed. I give them the handout blank, and then they have to fill it in. And it’s a game and they have eight minutes to do it. And they’re racing against each other, racing against the clock. So there’s a lot of different ways that you could teach content, just in a more playful way, rather than like, “I’m going to lecture 300 slides at you in three hours,” …and they’re bored out of their minds. So there’s just so many different ways.

John: This reminds me a little bit about a podcast episode we had, it was one of our early ones. And it was about Rebecca’s use of a similar situation in her class that involved the three little pigs. And for a long time, it was our most popular episode. And there was very little discussion of the Three Little Pigs. But I could imagine people seeing this thing pop up on a podcast list and playing it with their kids while they were driving to some destination and being very disappointed in what was actually discussed, although it was very interesting material…

Rebecca: Yeah, I was like, “Thanks, John.” [LAUGHTER]

John: … it might not appeal very well, to a three-year old, let’s say. You mentioned connection-forming or icebreaker activities, Could either of you give us an example of a connection-forming activity that you might use to help get the class started.

David: I can throw one out, it’s so, so simple. And it’s something that I did over Zoom with a bunch of architecture students and it’s kind of a weekend or whatever, and there’s a little web game called Draw a Perfect Circle, and you use your mouse when you try to draw a circle, and it scores you. So I get a Zoom room full of architecture students trying to draw a perfect circle, which is almost impossible to do under the best of circumstances, and I make them turn their mics on, and the shouts of joy and the cries of frustration, it’s so freakin’ funny. And it really is a connection former, it’s kinda like the class succeeding and failing together. And it’s absurd. And I bring that up, because it’s so low effort: go to this website, play this game for a minute. Oh, by the way, I’m going to give a prize to whoever gets the highest score. Easy as can be, achieve everything Lisa was talking about in the value of a connection former.

Lisa: Yeah, there’s those ones that take two minutes, three minutes. So if you have a ton of content, you can still do something playful at the start of class. I made one called wacky questions, and I came up with various wacky questions, I put them on note cards, put them all facedown on a desk. And then I pass out sticky hands, you know, those children’s toys, it’s like a hand with a long string. I pass those out. And one by one, they have to come up to the front of the room and take their sticky hand and slap a card. And whatever one comes back on the sticky hand, they have to read an answer in front of the class. And the questions are like, “Name everything you’ve done in a sink. [LAUGHTER] Create a rant about why carrots make no sense. If you could send a subliminal message to all the squirrels at once, what would the message be and describe the scene of the aftermath?” …like things that are just silly, wacky, but students are laughing so hard. And it’s a way to kind of get to know each other because they also introduce themselves, and just start class with something fun. And then people are more relaxed to get into it. Our book has a ton of examples of this. But those are just a couple.

Rebecca: So, the other day in my class, we did the equivalent of refrigerator poetry, [LAUGHTER] just virtually, but they all contributed words, and then we had to use the words that other people contributed.

David: That’s great. Yeah, it’s just anything playful. I mean, this is where, again, we would go back to the idea that the playbook, it is recipes, but they’re all deconstructible. I mean, you find something that sounds funny and give it a try. And connection formers are the gateway drug to classroom play, because they’re easy. I mean, people kind of know, “Oh, we can do something fun at the beginning of class.” They kind of tolerate things that don’t work as well. But here’s the best part, last summer, I was teaching a class twice a week, eight weeks, and I don’t know, around week five, or whatever, I’m probably running out of steam. And I forgot to do the opening connection former. And I start to lecture and the students are like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, where’s our fun activity?” They were not allowing me to start class without doing something playful. And they had never, up until that point, expressed an opinion pro or con about it. But in fact, they love these things. And so they held me accountable, which was awesome.

Rebecca: So that’s on the small scale. Now, if we think about the opposite scale, like with course design, can you talk about some ways that people have been playful about course design?

David: One that we mention in the book, and was the speaker at one of our early playposiums. There’s a professor at my university, University of Denver, Roberto Corrada. And Roberto teaches organizational law. And it’s basically the administration of governmental entities and the creation of administrative law that goes with that. I can’t imagine there’s a more dry subject. So Roberto decided many years ago that he would teach the class at least sometimes this way, the first day of class, he assigns them Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, the book. They must read the book, whether they want to or not, and then the remainder of the class is that they have to write policy on the regulation of extinct animal parts. And now, all of a sudden I’m in, I’m so interested. He says this touches every aspect of law, OSHA, international trade law, and I’m like, “That’s brilliant. It’s just brilliant.” So that has become one of our go to cases because it’s an area that sounds boring. It’s in an area that sounds that it couldn’t be playful. And it was just done so comprehensively. And his reports are some of the students are very resistant to it at first, because they’re serious law students. He says by the end of it, they’re turning in 40, 50, 100 Page legal briefs on the regulation of extinct animal parks.

Rebecca: That sounds really fun.

David: It does. It’s the word.

Rebecca: I’m in.

David: It’s fun.

John: I could imagine some professors not really being all that comfortable doing this. Are there some professors where this might not work as well?

Lisa: Yeah, I think for a lot of reasons, I think personal comfort, personal preference, personal tastes , some people are just more serious than others, like, I’m not a very serious person. So when I entered academia, I’m like, “I’m not gonna last here, I don’t like being this type of person.” So once I figured out learning could be more playful, and I can be more playful, it aligned with who I am. But I know not all people are playful at their nature, in their core. So I think there’s part of that, I think it’s like certain identities that we hold, some are allowed to be more playful than others, like I’m a younger, female, non tenure-track professor, so it would be different for a potentially older white male who’s tenured, like, there’s more leeway, I think, for that person to try some of these things in their teaching. Whereas for me, it might feel a little more risky, because people generally don’t take me as seriously anyway. I don’t have tenure. I’m not on a tenure track right now. So I think there’s some of that that contributes to it. And I think it’s like our societal norms of adulthood, and academia. You’re a serious adult, you should be serious. So I think if somebody’s inclined to be playful, and they’re going to get into this, it’s really challenging some of those norms and status quos and trying something that maybe is against what you’ve been told you should be or how you should teach. So I do think it’s a exercise in creativity, but also rebellion at times. And the thing is, we all don’t have to be the same playful professor, it’s going to look different. There’s gonna be different levels. Maybe you do an icebreaker, but then you go into your usual teaching, Roberto designed his whole course on this premise of play. So I think there’s different ways it can look, which I think is good, not everyone has to do it the same way.

David: And I’d flip that question a little bit and say, “There’s so much learning science that would say there’s so many great ways to teach. Why do we still have professors walking in lecturing and doing multiple choice exams?” The answer is status quo. The answer is lazy. The answer is bad incentives. The answer is black, shriveled hearts. I don’t know. When we talk about play as being kind of a playvolution or revolution or rebellion, we’re not just talking about play. We’re talking about re-energizing teaching, making learning fun and exciting, but making teaching fun and exciting again, and honestly, I love seeing students light up. But more and more, what really gets me excited is watching professors get engaged in this approach, and coming back and being so excited again, about their teaching. And to me, it starts there, because an excited teacher is a blessing to students. And so it’s not just techniques. It’s not just some sort of like, hey, let’s put on party hats and be silly. It’s about falling back in love with teaching.

Lisa: And I was like, I’m not going to be in this job very long, because it doesn’t align with me until I started doing playful pedagogy. And people will say, “Well, doesn’t that take a lot of time?” And I’m like, “Yes, but it’s more fun, and then it makes me eager to plan the next class.” Like I recorded myself as a Martian. And I gave my students this Martian mission. And they had to like put their self in a different perspective and come back and give me a two to three sentence theory about whatever we were learning that day. And that video took me a couple hours to create, it would have been easier just to type discussion questions on a piece of paper. But it was so much fun creating the video, I was cracking up the whole time. When I show it to students, I’m laughing while it’s playing. Because I have kids at home and they show their friends this video. They think it’s so funny. So it’s just more joyful. I think for the longevity of my career… sure, some of this stuff takes more time… but I’m going to enjoy what I’m doing more, and that’s worth it to me.

Rebecca: Before we started recording, we were having a conversation about wanting to make sure it’s fun for you first as an instructor, and I was sharing that we had done some of these really playful things in my department over time, and they’ve just fizzled out over time, in part because of various demands on our time. And I think maybe it just became more of a status quo, because we were doing it and then it’s like, “Okay, now we need to come up with a new way to have fun or new fun.”

David: And that’s where we would suggest strongly you’d need a cohort of playful professors. You need a play buddy. You basically need someone to be like “You’re not having enough fun.” You need someone to bounce ideas off of. You need someone to tell you your terrible ideas aren’t as terrible as you think they are. And it is tough because, left to your own devices, sooner or later, you’re late for work, the coffee’s weak, you just want to get through the day. Hello lecture, my old friend, you know, but we’re trying to say that’s really not a way to lead a life as a teacher.

Lisa: Yeah, I think that’s key, is the social support, having playful people that you can brainstorm with, bounce ideas off. David’s my playful person. And so I have an idea for class and I tell him about it, like the wacky questions one I told you about the sticky hands, I told him about this idea and I went into class and I was getting all sweaty, because I was nervous to do it… like this was when I was just starting playful pedagogy. And I’m like, the students are gonna hate it, it’s gonna go awful, it’s gonna be weird. And then I was like, I just won’t do it. And then I was in my head, I’m like, David’s going to ask me, after this class, how it went, so I have to do it. So I did it, it went amazing. But without him as my playful person, or I don’t know, he keeps me honest about what I’m doing and making sure I’m doing it, I think I’m more likely to keep doing it. So without him, I’d probably just fall back into old ways.

John: We know that students don’t spend a lot of time reading textbooks and so forth outside of class. And they don’t really spend a lot of time working through taking practice quizzes and such things. But it’s pretty easy to observe people spending hours, days, or weeks working through various games that have the same sort of elements we’d like to build into our teaching. How does this affect student motivation to learn?

Lisa: Well, I think like I described earlier, if you’re a human, you make class fun, engaging, connected, a sense of belonging, they’re going to be more motivated anyway, they feel more connected to you and just eager to, not please you, but just more responsible with their work, I would say. So I think there’s that relational part of it. But also, my students know, you’re not just gonna sit back and listen and take notes. I’m not lecturing on the reading you were supposed to do last night. And so when they do have reading, they know that we’re going to do something in class with that, and they’re going to be involved in a game or a discussion. And so as far as I know, my students seem to be doing the work outside of class, coming in prepared, and then doing more active things in class, I think, just teaches them a different way. They’re learning on a more deeper level. So I don’t know, I think the relationship and then just the expectation that you’re not sitting and listening gets people doing their work. And I think it’s more fun. So instead of like four APA style papers for assignments, we do one because I think you need to know APA. But then the other assignments I make more creative, like one I made into an escape room. And another they do a blog post, so they have to be really concise with their knowledge. I offered one like you can turn this paper into something creative. So somebody did a podcast. So they turned all the elements of the paper into a discussion with a peer and turned in this podcast. And they were like this took me probably three times longer than a paper would have. But it was so much more fun. I learned way more. So, I don’t know, they just see more bought in.

David: And I think something implied in what Lisa’s saying is play is awesome and it unlocks so many things. But it also rests upon other good pedagogies, diverse assignments, engaged classroom around giving you a reason to do the readings. So I think play builds on that. The secret power of play, though, is that connecting stuff. It’s like I can say I’m going to call on you in class, and students just feel like all they have to do is get it right and to not be embarrassed. That’s one level of engagement. But if students are coming because they want to show off the cool, creative answer that they gave, now, they’re just invested in it. So it’s like I’ve taken that floor of engagement, and I’ve raised the roof on it. And I’ve seen this over and over again. I mean, we all know group work is excellent. Students hate group work. Well, if you give people a very playful group assignment, they’re very excited to get in there and present. And they want their group to win the prize of the laughs or whatever. And it’s just a game changer. Funs like pouring gasoline on the fire… actually, the fire needs to be there but it gets big fast.

Rebecca: I’m curious as you were collecting examples, if there was an example that stuck with you, that impacted you that was completely out of your discipline, seems completely wacky, but it just sparked something in you.

Lisa: I think for me, it’s that whole course design, the Jurassic Park class, it just is so inspiring to me to think like throw out all the rules of what we think is a normal class, and just redesign it based on play and give up total control. So he’s not lecturing every class, students are engaging and learning what they need to learn through active learning. So I think that’s really inspiring. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet in my classes. Mike Montague. He’s one of our play pals. He submitted this thing that he does with students. It’s like a game show. It’s like three stages of a game show where you announce the game as like a game show host and then you have infomercials… you record your own infomercials and like “Now a word from our sponsor.” And then there’s three sections where students have to come up with different things or use creativity to solve a problem. And then “Another word from our sponsor.” And so it’s just this really engaging, playful thing that you can do to liven up teaching. So I did that. And I made infomercials, one on microwaves: “It’s a cold day and you need something warm to drink. Now there’s a better way… a microwave.” And then one I did about cats cleaning themselves with their tongues… instead of showering, here’s a new way, you just lick yourself.” And so it was just like so fun to create those infomercials from our sponsors. So that one was fun. There’s just so many good ideas in there.

John: David, what are some examples of play techniques that you found really interesting

David: A technique that showed up in the book, it was from a professor, she’s a Spanish teacher, and Julie did a magic trick. And funny thing is, I remember what she was trying to teach, but I’m a huge fan of magic. I’ve never ever done a magic trick in a class. And here’s this Spanish teacher tell us she’s not really much of a magic person. And I was just like, I felt really challenged by that. I felt like, “Okay, there are people that are doing things I’m not brave enough to do, and I’m supposed to be one of these people helping corral the community.” So there’s always more, there’s no limits.

John: David, earlier, you mentioned having an activity where students won a prize? Do you use gamification in your classes where there’s like a leaderboard in general? Or is that something you’d recommend? Or are there small prizes that are given out in class? And if so, does that help?

David: Yes, so gamification is a bit fraught. And the issue with gamification is, a lot of times people are like, “Hey, if I just import the mechanics of games into my class, it’ll be more fun.” And it may or may not be. I mean, you know, points are points at the end of the day, if you’re grading on them. And so we have intentionally steered away from gamification as a concept, because we’re much more interested in the idea of play. Now, I think if you look at the Playbook, you’ll find things that sound potentially gamified. But we’re much more interested in the broader sense of play as kind of an engagement. And with that in mind, when we talk about prizes, we almost always talk about really trivial prizes. So Lisa is the queen of stickers, she gives out so silly cool stickers. I teach this class, it’s an architecture class called Architecture of Fun. So I actually designed and made these postcards, they’re really nice postcards, I paid people to illustrate them. And there are these things called ludic forms, which I would love to talk to you all about. But safe to say they’re pictures of like architectural drawings of slides, and bouncy castles, and treehouses. And so when you win a prize in my class, you get a postcard. And if you win enough, you’ll win the whole set. And then I give these out at the end of this semester. So again, it’s not completely like, here’s a Twizzler, but it’s also not like extra points, or something really substantial. For the most part, people like to win for the sake of winning, I think.

Rebecca: Those bragging rights go a long way. [LAUGHTER]

David: They absolutely do.

John: I think what you’re saying is that the focus should be more on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation, because that tends to encourage more learning.

David: In my shorthand vocabulary, it’s really simple: Is what you’re doing fun? If it’s not fun, then stop doing it unless you have, I don’t have any issue with gamification, I came out of a game studies background, I think games are great. I just would say, “Stop putting games in the class if the games are just not fun. You might as well use more traditional pedagogies if the games aren’t fun.”

Rebecca: This conversation is getting me longing about in the past, I’ve taught a whole classes a game and some other things that I haven’t done in a really long time. And I’m now itching to really want to do that. [LAUGHTER]

David: We need to do another version of the playbook to get all your techniques in there. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: We had some really fun challenges. And I had invested in bells… like bells that you would have at a front desk because it was so loud it was the only way I could know if someone needed something. We would have three teams, and then each had a bell so I would know when they were done. And I had a bell so I could get their attention. [LAUGHTER]

Lisa: I love that.

David: That sounds amazing. Yeah. And see, I just say, just look at that. That’s the simplest thing in the world. And I don’t even know what you’re doing in the class. But I can hear a class that’s so loud that there’s bells in it. And sometimes I have Lisa record, just audio recording of what’s happening in her class, because the sounds that come out of her class, I could play those for other people and be like, “You don’t have to know what’s going on. When’s the last time you heard that in your class?” I want a recording of your class with bells and yelling and be like, when was the last time you heard that in your class? Because when I hear that, I’m like going, that’s the right direction. I want to go that direction.

Rebecca: Yeah, maybe I need to throw out the whole rest of my plan for this semester. I’m now like really, really working here. [LAUGHTER] …having trouble focusing on the conversation because my brain is actually planning somethings. [LAUGHTER] So thank you, I think this is all good. My students will appreciate it.

John: Do you have any other advice for people who are thinking about introducing some play into their classes?

David: Well, the thing I want to make sure that we pull out of this is that: A) we don’t think play is the end all be all, however B) play reminds us of what we think are the really core values of higher education, curiosity, community, human development. And so 3) and Lisa talked about it, we just call it the playvolution. I don’t know, it almost sounds like a joke, but we’re not kidding. Our life’s work here is to transform higher education. And we hope to do that one classroom at a time, because we believe the crisis of higher ed today is that higher ed’s lost its way. It doesn’t take care of people. It doesn’t feed curiosity. It doesn’t feed community. It doesn’t emphasize development. And we see play as being this really remarkable tool that can be brought to bear in that reconstruction effort. So yeah, I don’t know, play is scary. I hope it’s scaring the right people. We’re coming for you.

Rebecca: I think play is interesting, because it’s the safest place to fail and try things out. And isn’t that exactly what learning is?

Lisa: Exactly. I think what I am always trying to be clear about with people is playful pedagogy sounds like a lot of fun. It is, but it’s not frivolous. I found that when people hear the word playful pedagogy, they almost stop listening, because it’s like, irrelevant, it’s frivolous. It’s childish. It’s a waste of time. And it’s not, it’s actually a very profound and foundational way of teaching. So I think that’s the thing, when people learn more about it, they see how powerful it is, that it can be fun, but it’s actually a really serious way of teaching. That’s, I think, sometimes overlooked.

Rebecca: I can’t help but think as you’re both talking about transforming higher education, that part of it is play needs to happen in other spaces of higher education, like faculty meetings, administrative meetings, the faculty senate… [LAUGHTER] all these places where there’s definitely not a lot of play going on, just sneaking a little in might slowly infiltrate and cause some change to happen.

Lisa: Yep. On our campus, we have five strategic goals for the next five or 10 year what we’re working towards, and when I bring up play, they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, but we have very serious goals, we need to reach.” And in my head, I’m thinking we’re gonna reach those goals much easier if we’re playful, like one is to create lifelong learners. One is to be the best place to work. One is to be a leader in innovation. And it’s like, without play, we’re not going to get to these things at all. So it’s funny when people are like, “Yeah, yeah, we’ve got this serious work to do.” So I agree with you completely. It has to be in all aspects of higher ed, for it to change, I think.

David: And I don’t know if Lisa is being shy or not, but she has brought googly eyes to faculty meetings before.

John: One thing that strikes me is Josh Eyler begins his book on How Humans Learn by describing how he observed his child learning. And students come into elementary schools with lots of curiosity. And they’ve learned a tremendous amount by the time they’re five or six years old. That seems to get stifled pretty quickly. And it sounds like you’re advocating that we bring some of that back into the educational process.

Lisa: Yeah, for sure. So Peter Gray, he’s a play expert, mostly focused on childhood and childhood education. And he says, even at the elementary school level. Play is being pushed out of learning. recesses are being taken away, it’s more serious, there’s all these things they need to meet. And you’re right, play is the way that these kids have learned up until getting into school. So Peter Gray talks about education is like prison. [LAUGHTER] So if you look at the definition of a prison, that’s what education is. And what we know about brain science is that’s not how people learn. People don’t learn when they’re bored, or when they’re disengaged or when they’re just listening. So it’s kind of funny that it’s like, we have all these goals of engagement and deep learning and transformational experiences. And then we lecture at people. So yeah, we’re trying to make higher education different, where it’s actually what we want, in terms of outcomes and more effective and more fun.

John: And Peter Gray wrote a really effective preface to your book,

Lisa: Right, yeah, he did. He was very generous to do that. But yeah, so just the point that if childhood education is taking play out of it, then that means bringing play into higher education is gonna seem reckless, or a waste of time or radical.

Rebecca: My daughter’s in kindergarten, and they have wiggle breaks that sound really great. [LAUGHTER] I think maybe we should institute those…

David: Agreed.

Rebecca: …but it changes who gets to pick what the wiggle break is for the day, or at that point of time in the day. And so they take turns picking what the thing is, usually it’s a song that they dance to, or whatever. But I can just imagine, you sit in long meetings and things, it’s like there is no wiggle break, there is no chance to just take a breath, but it’s in those kinds of in-between spaces… we see this in conferences… those in-between spaces are where a lot of magic happens. And it gives time for people to catch up on what’s going on. Even that is a little bit of a playful idea that I think would be pretty easy to implement to just kind of take a quick break in a playful way.

Lisa: I just got a new frisbee and I’m going to, if people are like you want to have a coffee meeting, I’m going to invite them to throw the frisbee instead. So I had a student email me just this week asking to meet and I’m like, “Can we instead meet at the quad and throw the frisbee?” He’s like, “Sure.” [LAUGHTER] So yeah, I just think getting up and doing things differently.

John: For those who are thinking about becoming more playful in the classroom, are there some easy ways to get started, for those who are apprehensive?

Lisa: I am a mental health counselor. So I always like to get to the root of things. Because I think that’s the most effective way to change. So I encourage people to think about the narratives that you live by. And so if your narratives of adulthood and being an academic are, “I need to be serious to be taken seriously.” Or “rigor equals seriousness,” “play is childish, trivial, a waste of time.” If those are your narratives, it’s going to be hard to do any of this in the classroom. So for me, I encourage people to think about what are the beliefs you have about play in adulthood and in higher education? And how is that impacting your wellbeing in your job, but also what you do, which of those are not true? Like if you do a little bit of reading about playful pedagogy, you’ll learn it’s not frivolous and childish and a waste of time. So I think that’s what I encourage people first is, can you deconstruct some of those narratives, get rid of those, at least reduce them in order to be more playful. Then you’re gonna have more space to do that. And then, I think, it’s like, taking little chances. So doing one little thing of play, and seeing how it goes, and then it’ll kind of build, that’s how I started is just one icebreaker here and then I taught the class the rest of the way that I usually teach it. And then over time, I’ve implemented more and more. So I think it’s like, you don’t have to get overwhelmed and do it all at once. You don’t have to all look a certain way. But just try something out, see how it goes. And make it aligned with who you are personally, because if it doesn’t fit for you, it’s not congruent, it won’t land.

David: And the practical sense I’d say, go to the ETC, press website, download the Professors at Play Playbook. It’s free. You can pay for a printed copy, or you can download the PDF for free, flip through it, find a couple of activities that turn you on and do them. And I say if they scarer the dickens out of you, all the better. I think maybe if you’re getting started in this, fear is your best indicator you’re going in the right direction. So you’re about to jump off an awesome cliff.

Rebecca: That seems like a good note to wrap up on. [LAUGHTER]… jumping off a cliff.

John: …but an awesome club,

Rebecca: a very awesome cliff with a very awesome view. So we always wrap up by asking: What’s next?

Lisa: Oh, boy. Well, a lot of things. David wants to write another book, we got a email from one of our Professors at Play people saying, “Are you going to write a second techniques book, because I’ve got more. We’re gonna do an i- person PlayPosium this fall in Phoenix. So we’re developing that …have people come together to do playful things. What else David?,

David: I think just continuing to challenge ourselves as teachers to walk the walk. A lot of our confidence comes from experience. And so to remember, when it’s time to teach, we’ve got to jump off that cliff too. And I think we’re going to try to reignite some work with the community, get the website moving. We love making stuff, we need to find more people like Rebecca who’ve made stuff and get a platform for that. Because to us, the more we can shine a light on the good work that’s being done, the better, because we’re endlessly amazed at the creativity of our colleagues across the world.

John: And I have to ask… this PlayPosium, will it have people reading formal papers with appropriate APA citations?

David: Absolutely not. [LAUGHTER]

David: I keep trying to convince David that we should get a bunch of cardboard tape, scissors and then have a station where people can build forts. That’s one of the things I want to do. So yeah, it won’t be traditional. That’s why it’s called a PlayPosium Instead of symposium. We’ll share some ideas, but a lot of it is going to be activities and engaging and doing playful, creative things.

Rebecca: Sounds really fun.

David: That’s the plan.

John: Well, thank you very much for joining us. This has been a lot of fun, and I hope our listeners will try to be a little more playful in their classes.

Rebecca: …and perhaps take that leap off that cliff… that awesome cliff.

David: Wahoo…. Aahhh.

Lisa: But it’s not like falling to your death. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s like the Road Runner.

Lisa: Things expand and then you’re flying and it’s freedom.

Rebecca: Exactly. It’s a great image to end on. Thank you so much for joining us.

Lisa: Thank you.

David: Alright, thanks.


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.


279. First-Year Blues

First-year seminar classes can help ease students’ transition from high school to college. In this episode, Tim Nekritz joins us to discuss his first-year seminar class on the history of American Blues in which students explore racial and gender discrimination through the lens of music while also learning to navigate the college environment.

Tim is the Director of News and Media at SUNY Oswego, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, and the developer of a first-year seminar course in American Blues.

Show Notes


John: First-year seminar classes can help ease students’ transition from high school to college. In this episode, we discuss a first-year seminar class on the history of American Blues in which students explore racial and gender discrimination through the lens of music while also learning to navigate the college environment.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Tim Nekritz. Tim is the Director of News and Media at SUNY Oswego, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, and the developer of a first-year seminar course in American Blues. Welcome, Tim.

Tim: Great to be here.

John: Our teas today are: …Tim, are you drinking tea?

Tim: Yes. And I am drinking Tea Forte blackcurrant. It’s excellent, and if John recommends a tea, you’ve got to go with it,

Rebecca: I’m drinking chai today, John.

John: Very good. There’s no jig or anything. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: No, there’s no Jig, nothing crazy. I was at an event and there’s limited choices on our campus event tea selection. Chai is what I chose.

John: And I have ginger peach black tea today.

Rebecca: Back to an old favorite, John.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your first-year seminar course in American blues. Since it’s been a while since we discussed one of the first-year seminar courses here at SUNY Oswego, could you tell us a little bit about the objectives of the course?

Tim: Absolutely. The idea is for it to be a small class, because you really want to build a sense of cohesion there. And I saw that a lot, because students would become best friends right away, despite anything I did or not because of anything I did sometimes, but so it’s building connections with other students and instruction in the institution. It’s very much a gateway course to them being college students, to a degree. We don’t overdo that, but we try to make sure that we can work that into the curriculum wherever we can. There’s a certain amount of college preparatory experience for that, obviously, it’s not orientation, clearly it’s not orientation. For example, I brought in Tina from Excel to talk about career preparation and internships and that type of thing, brought in someone from Counseling Services Center, which I’ll talk more about later, but just try to connect them with some helpful faces and offices on campus. There’s also intercultural competence, which was a big part of this course, which I know we’re gonna discuss more later, …critical thinking skills (so introduction to what that is on the college level), and communication skills and very basic level, whether it might be their first research paper, might be their first oral presentation in college and trying to get them prepared in whatever ways we can.

John: We introduced these classes several years ago, and we had a number of people teaching in the first round of this on our podcast, but that was sometime in the before times.

Tim: Yes.

John: …so we thought it would be useful to review this just a little bit. But it’s also something that the college is expanding. The goal is within the next two years to offer one of these courses to every freshman student.

Tim: Yeah, and we work with Mallory Bower, as well as Kristin Croyle, who are excellent to work with, as far as trying to get people almost over their fears. So it’s like, put in an idea. And as opposed to just like yes/no, they might help you workshop it and there’s pr- preparations where seasoned professors like me, I’m not in the old category, apparently. And so like, “How do you develop your course? What stumbling blocks did you have? What were things that worked?” and that type of thing, which obviously varies from course to course, as we all know. But it’s good, because in a way, we’re building communities here, but we’re building communities among the people who are interested in teaching that class.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s interesting about the first-year courses that are at our school is that they’re intentionally not in the discipline and they’re often interdisciplinary. So can you talk a little bit about your course and how that fits into the bigger picture at Oswego.

Tim: Certainly, I came about designing it in a backward way, which is how I do most things, it seems like, but essentially, I really got an interest in blues and blues history fairly recently. And we got an email from someone named Roger House, Roger went to SUNY Oswego for a couple of years before transferring to another institution. And he’s now an American Studies professor at Emerson College and does a lot of stuff on blues history, cultural history, and that type of thing. And he emailed us a column that he wrote that references his time at SUNY Oswego. And then at the bottom, it said, Roger House is the author of Blue Smoke, which is a biography of Big Bill Broonzy. And at the time, I was reading anything on the blues I could get my hands on. And I read it, and I realize,d everything that he went through, he went away to World War One, and was treated great in Europe… well, relatively great for a servicemen… for someone who’s toward the bottom of the rank, but at least was treated like a human being which he wasn’t used to back home… comes back, the man he worked for, picks him up and immediately degrades him and tells him “You don’t deserve to be in that uniform.” This is a person who sat home and did nothing and he’s telling Bill who served his country, for very obvious and racist reasons, to take off his uniform and put his overalls back on. And that was a big pivotal moment. But it’s also something that resonated with a lot of people. A lot of people who went away to World War One, and then had to come back home and face the indignities of racism. And so then he was part of the great migration to Chicago and the blues scene that arose there and then he was rediscovered because he did some social commentary during the folk revival in the 1960s. I’m looking at this and it’s not dissimilar to Forrest Gump, although not as fabricated, but you’re looking at, okay, all these different parts of 20th century history, and this could be something that’s taught. So I sent an email to Mallory and said, “This is a crazy idea and I know we’re friends, but you can tell me it’s stupid if you want.” But she didn’t. She thought it was great. But part of it is you can really teach cultural history, black history, entertainment history, pop culture history, there’s so much that can be developed here. And then it seemed like the first black women to reach a mass audience were the blues queens of the 1920s, when that became big. Because they could not be heard or paid attention to elsewhere, but then suddenly, out of nowhere, Mamie Smith has a huge hit that sells all these records and record executives are like, “Oh, wait, there’s actually a market for black music” because Mamie Smith was really like the Jackie Robinson, she broke the barrier. It was in part because she had a lyricist, Perry Bradford, who sold his compositions, but because people would buy it, but nobody wanted at that point to record a black artist. And so he got Mamie Smith recorded, and then Crazy Blues became this huge hit and suddenly people realized, “Oh, well maybe this is not a bad thing.” But that being said, what happened immediately is that they started recording white women who tried to sound like black women, which of course is even worse, really. And so they were very hesitant. I was reading things that said, “Oh, and then suddenly, opportunities opened up” …and they didn’t. It wasn’t until Bessie Smith came along with Downhearted Blues in 1923. That just sold unbelievable numbers to all audiences, black, white, anybody. And the record company said, “Okay, well, I guess this is something that we can do.” But there’s so many lessons behind that, and the fact again, that the record companies held off on actually trying to make sure that black woman can be heard, which was amazing, disappointing at the same time. So that’s just one example. And then being able to teach the great migration through the Chicago blues scene. The fact that Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters and all these people came from the south and collected in Chicago, or Detroit, or any city where the jobs were, but then in Chicago, all the conditions were perfect for them to start up an amazing blues scene and just to transform everything, like when Muddy Waters plugged in an electric guitar, and everyone was like blown away by that. But he had to do it, because he was playing in these loud clubs and people were just talking. So he had to electrify what he was doing. But so anyway what I started doing is looking at some of the themes and some of these decades, these eras, and that type of thing, because there’s also just such a long pre-history of African music, African inspired music. And then at one point that drums were banned on plantations because people thought they could send messages to each other, but also the way that the field hollers and the religious music, music that they did just were work songs and how that influenced what came later. The problem is, you could almost do a whole course on that. That’s really way back. That would be earlier American history, but I’d have to inform that and then talk about the fact that you had like the Ma Rainey’s of the world who were already spreading the blues before it was known as the blues. And so laying a lot of foundations with the vaudeville and tent shows, or W C. Handy, and his first blues recordings, but even some interesting things because blues was folk music for the longest time. And then W. C Handy decided to publish it, and suddenly it is no longer folk, it is now commercial. And so how that changed everything. So there’s so many interesting lessons that happen along the way.

Rebecca: So what I’m hearing, Tim, is that you’re using music to sneakily teach history.

Tim: I’m a sneak.

Rebecca: You’re so dangerous.

Tim: I know, it’s horrible.

John: There have been a number of economic articles written on the role that rural free delivery and the Sears catalog provided in the blues because it brought low cost musical instruments to places where there were just no music stores.

Tim: That’s great. I do touch on that a little bit, because, in the rural south, you can’t drive to a music store. But then suddenly, Sears made guitars and other instruments, very inexpensive. So little things I just love because I’m a big fan of James Burke. I know he spoke here a few years ago, in his Connection series and the day the universe changed, about how all these small things come together. And so that’s exactly what I like talking about. That’s a perfect example.

Rebecca: How did you get students engaged in the subject matter? What are some of the kinds of activities that you did with students?

Tim: One of the things that I did because I can’t convey the Blues as well as blues artists can, I would give them a Spotify playlist of like 15 to 20 songs and have them listen to it. The first time I taught it I couldn’t find a book and it’s like, this is easier than reading a book. And then finally, some people talked to me about “You probably should at least get a basic book.” So I have a really inexpensive one. Elijah Wald’s, Blues History, which is I think like $12. I try to be friendly on the budget. And so I would have one on Blues Queen, for example, or then in the mid-1920s, what happened is Blind Lemon Jefferson had a hit song called Black Snake Moan and Blind Lemon does not get the credit. He totally changed the industry with that. And part of that is sexism, unfortunately, because when the record companies were getting the Mamie Smith’s of the world, the Bessie Smiths, was like, “Okay, well, we need to put an orchestra behind them.” And then suddenly Blind Lemon Jefferson has a huge hit. He’s one person, that’s so much easier to pay. And if you have the Bessie Smith’s and Mamie Smith, and the Ida Cox’s, the people who were getting well established, they command more money, economics again, but you find some blind guitarists somewhere, you can pay him less than that, because unfortunately, exploitation is a big part of labor market functions or malfunctions, I guess you would say. Women really dominated the scene for the first five years and then they started going to solo male singer guitarists, or pianists, or fiddler’s, or whatever. And so then I did one about some of the early male artists, then all the Blind Willie McTell and Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Blake. But then I also talked about why that happened, because again with economics, if you’ve got nine kids, and one of them’s blind… basically, there was a sharecropper system, which was again rigged, almost indentured servitude, unfortunately… and so your kids, if you’re in the system, they all had to help you produce. So if you’ve got a child who’s blind, they can’t necessarily do that. But then, especially when Blind Lemon Jefferson started hitting some other people, it’s like a lot of them might have already had them working as buskers and that type of thing, but then the record companies of course, there’s nothing original to a record company, thought “Oh, we’re gonna assign more blind bluesman including the fact there were some who were signed who were said they were blind but weren’t.” And like all these really crazy things. So like I did that. I did one Chicago blues, and then folk blues and social blues and then the British blues boom, which was led by The Rolling Stones, among others. But there’s also a great quote from George Harrison, my favorite Beatle… everyone has a different favorite Beatle perhaps… but he has said “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” because, again, it’s one of those weird, circuitous things, because Lead Belly, among other things, did a song called Rock Island Line, which was covered by someone named Lonnie Donegan, who actually took the Lonnie from Lonnie Johnson, who’s another great unsung hero. Rock Island Line became a huge hit in Britain and formed something called skiffle. Skiffle was like a combination of blues and folk and a couple other things. And then all these skiffle bands started forming including one called Quarrymen, which was John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and later, George Harrison. And so George Harrison nails it. And the main thing, I think, that the students notice, because I am willing to trade off extra credit for market research. So I have a five point question on the final, which is a bonus question, which is, “What’s one thing you wouldn’t have known if you took this class” and a large part it’s like they had no idea that the blues is the foundation for rock and roll, and inspired jazz, and soul, r&b, funk. And then a really cool thing is Marquel Jeffries from the Institute, who’s also a rapper. I had him come in and talk about the connections between blues and hip hop. And he did a fantastic job with that, because just as the blues has informed so many 20th century art forms, I’m glad that I can introduce that to people because, again, that is cultural appreciation. It is also cultural appropriation too, that is part of this as well.

John: And certainly there was a lot of that in the history of rock and roll.

Tim: Oh, yes, Elvis being a big one. But at the same time, that wasn’t cool, necessarily, but Elvis himself was a big fan of R&B. This is what he wanted to perform. And at one point, they tried a bunch of things, and then he started playing some really crazy R&B tune. And Sam Phillips came in the studio and said, “What the heck are you doing?” And he said, “keep doing whatever you are,” because that was everybody’s ticket to money on the money train. But part of it too, is that people like Sam Phillips knew these R&B records were selling like crazy. They needed to break into the larger and mostly white market. And so they needed a white face to market that with and that’s what they did with Elvis. So there’s a real lesson there. And then there’s so much other cultural appropriation. I know that Larry Watson, who performed very recently, he has a whole song that he did in Waterman theater called “Liar,” which is all about cultural appropriation. It was great. So obviously, it’s appreciation versus appropriation, who’s benefiting from what? The fact that Led Zeppelin then would change a few words on a bluesman’s song and then file the copyright themselves. Janis Joplin did it too. And all these people who very much took advantage of that, but then there are also a lot of people who appreciated the blues. I consider myself someone who preserves it because I like doing old blues songs… not nearly as well as they do… but I at least want people to know who some of the blues pioneers are as best I can.

John: And the Rolling Stones certainly did that and I believe they had Howlin Wolf open for them on some of their early tours.

Tim: Yeah, I showed them a great video that was one of those teenybop shows and they said they wouldn’t perform unless Howlin Wolf played and it’s just kind of hilarious because Howlin Wolf is playing, he’s doing what the Wolf does, and all the kids are bopping to it. And it’s like, “Wow, imagine if they were actually exposed to Howlin Wolf and all these other blues players that they never actually were.” So that could be like an alternative history of suddenly the radio stations that are playing Howlin Wolf might have happened, but it didn’t happen, obviously.

Rebecca: So you had students do a lot of listening and reading, what kinds of things did you do in class? I know you had some interesting projects and other learning activities.

Tim: Well, I will get back to the playlist. Basically, they would come in and the assignment would be let’s discuss at least one song on the playlist and everyone would do it… almost everyone would do it. Some of them want to talk about two or three. I’m like, hey, that’s cool, too. So like, if I’m talking about a blues gospel tune, talk about why gospel blues was a thing. I don’t even know how this existed, but when Ma Rainey’s Prove it on me Blues, from the 1920s, singing about being a lesbian, and you can’t get more marginalized in America at that time than by being a black lesbian. She’s like, “This is me, here I am.” And it almost feels like how did this happen? Because after the 20s, that disappeared for a long time, even that kind of expression. But that kind of showed, and I had people in the class who were very inspired by that, the courage that it took her to do that. And then just weird stuff like Blue Yodel Number 9, which is Jimmy Rogers with Louis Armstrong and Lil Armstrong. So it’s blues, with yodeling and old country and jazz. I read about it in a book. And I’m like, “this shouldn’t exist,” because again, we think of how much music was categorized back then. So those are great discussion exercises. But then the one really fun project I thought was I asked him to write a blues song talking about it could be their perspective or some other perspective. And so I brought in Kyle from the Counseling Center, because he’s big into expressive arts, and it’s like, “Is there anything that’s bothering you that you can sing a blues song about?” So a lot of them talked about loneliness, homesickness, missing friends and that type of thing. Some of them were really deep, and I’m like, “oh, goodness,” some of the stuff that they were writing. The first semester, there was actually a surprise attached to it, in that I had reached out to some friends. And right after Thanksgiving, we get back and we had a concert. And so my friends from a band called The Shylocks, they did two tunes. A third tune was one that was written by someone in the class. And I said, “Guess what we’re doing?” So I had a number of people there, and Kyle, a very well known blues player, Jess Novak, recorded one because she connected with one of the students in the class really well, because Jess talks about the old boys club and all the rest of that stuff. And there’s one student who talked about back home, she would get solos. People were like, “Oh, it’s because you’re a girl.” and all the rest of this stuff and be patronizing to her. But then we did research papers, and she presented on Etta James, and she’s asked if she could sing At Last. I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” And she did and I knew why she got the solos back home because she was really good. But then, to turn that around, I said, “Hey, Jess, remember that student.” And I sent Jess her thing and she performed it. And it was one of those, you could have dropped it back in the 1920s. It was that good. So I had some of them performed live, some of them recorded it as well. And it was just really cool to see because these students, some of them acted all cool, and that type of thing. But some of them were like just very emotional to see people perform a song that they wrote. I wasn’t able to do it last year… lowell, one thing, the cat was out of the bag, perhaps… but it was great because they got to use self expression, but then also see how people interpret songs. So it worked on many levels. And it was a heck of a lot of fun too.

John: When you had them write the songs, did they actually write it down in notation? Or did they sing it? Or did they write it down assuming there’d be a 12 bar pattern underneath it?

Tim: Great question. Basically, I just had them do lyrics. I am not qualified to teach composition. I can teach about writing. Last year, I don’t know what happened, but I wrote about 50 songs. I was looking into sources that talked about songwriting, like Larry Kyle spoke to the class or Jess Novak spoke to the class. I had them talk a little bit about their songwriting experience, how they wrote songs. And of course, with everything, “Well, it depends on the song.” But so I actually did try to workshop with them a little bit. And most of them didn’t really want my help. They just wanted to do it on their own. But I said they could do it in 12-bar blues, but they didn’t have to because obviously the blues has evolved, whether they want to do an ABAB rhyme scheme, or just ABCB or whatever. And honestly, I was looking for effort. Some of them were fantastic. Some of them were not anything that necessarily was going to be recorded. But the effort they put into it, especially if it came from the heart, that was more important to me, just that they learned about self expression. Some of them were already songwriters, so they had a bit of a leg up there. But at the same time, it was really an exercise that was to express themselves. And some of them did fictional stuff, and that’s great, or took something and elaborated on it, but that’s how I write songs too. So yeah, I can’t fault them for that. But so all of them are really good. I just asked them to do four stanzas. That could be four verses, three verses and a chorus, two verses a chorus and a bridge, just to show that they had invested in it. And nobody who turned in a song disappointed me or came even close to it. So I was happy how that worked out. And again, they didn’t know it was gonna be performed. And the performers, I didn’t have them say who wrote it, intentionally. But then one of the performers actually wanted to perform them live… open mics and stuff. And I asked the student’s permission, like, “Oh, totally, yeah,” and that type of thing. They didn’t want their name attached to it. So it’s just that personal to them. And again, I always say I learn just as much from the students as they learn from me. And so I learned a lot about what’s going on in their lives. And by the same time there are people who want to write songs about their blues, but some of them they didn’t necessarily want to take ownership of or let people know how they’re feeling. There’s larger reasons for that than I can fix in a class. But at the same time, I thought it was really great that they at least got that experience.

Rebecca: So I think it’s important to note, if students are writing songs, it’s a first-year class, it’s not part of the music major, there’s a lot of non majors. So students may have ended up in the class because they selected the topic, or because it fit in their schedule. So how did you handle students that were not too excited about writing a song or worried about being outed?

Tim: Yeah, a lot of it was reassurance. There were a few music majors in there. Some of them even said, Wait, I thought this was a jazz history class. I’m like, no, there’s 50 jazz history classes, there’s very few blues history classes. That’s the reason nobody knows about the blues’ role, because blues history is just not taught. A few places have programs. The University of Mississippi is a good example of that. But generally speaking, we all do jazz, because jazz is so much neater and more ornate and doesn’t involve feelings and unfortunate situations and people being murdered for cheating on their lover and whatnot. But so students took it for a variety of reasons. I think you expressed some of that, but also because Mallory is a big supporter, and so she plugged a lot of them into my class the first time around. But for a non-music major, I even said right off the bat, you don’t have to be a music major, but you have to enjoy music in some way. Like if you don’t like to listen to music, this probably is not the first-year class you should take. I talked on what I call syllabus day. I do talk about the songwriting assignment, and then sometimes a couple students might disappear. But I want them to be comfortable with the class. So I try to set the expectations early, we talk about it a lot. And before I give them the assignment, and that’s why I always ask songwriters for advice. But like I had Juliet Forshaw, who actually taught a songwriting class last semester, come and speak to my class. And it’s a trade off, I got to speak to her class. And so imposter syndrome was high. That day, despite all the songs I’ve written, I still don’t feel necessarily like one. And so she came in with her partner, Michael Judge, and so they played some Avalon songs, but also, she went deep into how she created it. And again, there might be people who write the music first, and then write the words and just like, well, that’s not necessarily going to be the case here. I told them, if they wanted to put a lead sheet and put some chords on there, that’s great. There were a couple of people who already did make music. But really, it’s not unlike writing poetry. So that was one of the analogies I used. And so some of them would come up to me with a couple ideas and said, “How do I flesh it out?” and I’d suggest a rhyme or say, “Here’s a great point, can you expound upon that?” …like every writing course I ever took. And so I was worrying that maybe I would get more resistance and more people who just didn’t want to do it, or who I would have to really work to get to do it, but then it surprised me, the day that they were due, they would show up… once in a while they’d be late or other people would send it to me via Google Drive or email and not show up that class just in case….

Rebecca: In case they had to share it out loud or something. [LAUGHTER]

Tim: I think they were afraid of that. And I told them, I’m not going to make you sing it. Of course, I didn’t tell people the first time that someone else is gonna be singing it either. But they took it in stride. And obviously the past couple years have not been the easiest time to transition into a freshman year, especially the year that people came in and they hadn’t been in in-person classes because they graduated from high school, which had been virtual since March 2020. And so I think they adjusted well to being back in class. I think they’re excited to be back in a class and in college. So I think that helped a lot. But generally speaking, they appreciated the assignment. I mean, they didn’t jump up and down and talk about how great it was. But they all put in the effort. I think that says a lot, because I remember it being really hard to be a freshman and that’s back before we had the Internet and other distractions.

John: So how many times have you offered this class now?

Tim: Two times and obviously you learn something every time you teach it, and then it’s like, I’m gonna change this next year. And then next thing you know, it’s like late August and like, “Oh, well, maybe I won’t.” But one thing I’ve been doing too is getting a variety of guest speakers and some of them are musicians. And then like I said, you’ll have people in Counseling Services Center or Tina from EXCEL or just other people who might be helpful just to come in and maybe do like a 30-minute talk. This was an election year, as many people are painfully aware. And so I had some from Vote Oswego come in and talk about that and civic engagement. And sometimes it might be just a 20 minute talk or someone coming in it might be a whole class. But in the case of someone like Kyle, he’s got a background, and he’s a blues fan, because he’s like, “Oh, my God,” when I asked him. His father took him to see Bo Diddley, and I’m like, “I’m jealous of you.” But so he had blues, introduced in his family. So he knew that, but part of it’s to hear all the services we have, which are very important for anybody to have, really, the way the mental health crisis is these days. So it’s great that he got to introduce that and also then the interactive stuff that he did… people understanding how to share how they feel, and that type of thing. So I think I was very lucky with guest speakers. And then it’s always like, “Okay, well, I’m keeping most of them if they can,” because like Marquel was an example of, I got to the 70s, 80s, the birth of rap and hip hop, and the first time around, I didn’t have the subject knowledge to do that a credible job. But then it occurred to me like, “Oh, wait, I know Marquel.” And so he did a whole bunch of research, asked me questions, and then talked about the history of hip hop, and then connected with the blues just so well, I was thrilled to have him and because guest speakers will liven up the class a little bit. And then some of them will do a session like Jess Novak did and they all connected with her immediately, and like they connect with me like that. But that’s why Jess does what she does for a living, and I do what I do for a living. But just I think trying to get some variety in the class, because part of it too, is if it’s class major specific people might be saying, “Okay, well, what can you do with this major or this class?” So I don’t think a lot of people they’re looking to become musicians… a couple of them are, but try to introduce people who can help them in other ways. The good thing for being a non-musician is that it’s, in large part, a history class. It just happens to have a really cool genre that goes with it and I get to listen to music and we have to write a song. It’s not the end of the world. They all survived and thrived with it.

Rebecca: What are some of the themes that came up in their songs? You mentioned that you got a lot of insights into what’s going on in their lives as first-year students and that might be helpful for a wider audience to be aware of.

Tim: One of them wrote a song called Lonely Man Blues that basically talked about being away from his friends, his family. One of them wrote a funny song about dealing with people at the holidays who had different belief systems than him. It was a bit of an angry song. I mean, I could see the Ramones performing the song as well as any blues band. But people would talk about that. And just homesickness. Even as bad as the pandemic has been, and having to learn from your house and that type of thing, at least that’s a familiar place. And for them, that’s really trying to figure out the comfort zone, making friends over again, because you know, social skills took a hit during the pandemic. And so some of them talked about the readjustment of that, or talked about someone who broke their heart. One person, actually wrote what sounded more like spoken word poetry, it was really long, but it was very honest. And it was a way that they expressed themselves about a relationship. So it’s something that they got out of their system. So in a way, they weren’t that different than what you see with normal blues songs, except, like I said, there was much less murder involved, thankfully. I don’t know what would happen if someone talked about murder, but it really was about feeling lonely, about missing people, about wanting more love and that type of thing. So it was, in a way, whether I expected it to or not, it hit on a lot of the themes that classic blues songs did.

John: One of the reasons for these classes is to help students connect to other students as well as to the institution. How did that work in the class? Did the students make a lot of personal connections through the activities you were doing in the class?

Tim: Absolutely. And again, I haven’t figured out how to master that yet, I would like to, but they would just make it organically. There were a couple of people who hit it off and became really good friends. I would like to say that somebody formed a blues band out of this. I don’t think that happened. But the good thing about a class like this is it’s intimate. And people do talk about things. And it’s interesting, because when Kyle was in the room, or Jess was in the room, they would talk about things they didn’t talk about in front of me because I’m their teacher, and I grade them. I had one student when Kyle was there, he said, every day, I feel like I’m going to break down crying, just because of all the stress and that type of thing that anybody goes through at that age. And so I think that they expressed these things.. kind of broke down some barriers among everybody, which I think was good. Obviously, nobody was going to become friends with each other. I took improvisational theater way back in my undergrad days. And that was great because everybody just goofs around and that type of thing. And it is to let your guard down class. And so that’s the tightest class I’ve ever seen was improv theater just because everyone’s just doing silly things. I didn’t do silly things in this, it’s unfortunate, maybe next time. But it was good because for one thing, no one studies this blues history. So they were getting a lot of information that was new to them. But then they would also talk about “Oh, I really liked this artist, this song.” And so people would be like “Oh, I love that song too.” And so there would be some side conversations… sometimes actually about the class… often about other things. But at the same time, I think people saw some commonality because they were all learning a lot of new content. But when they say, “Oh, I really love this, Ma Rainey song, Prove it on Me,” and then somebody else does, too, it’s bonding or these little moments in the things that they like or performers they’d never heard before. One of them did a paper on Blind Blake and I feel like this much qualified for the Blues Hall of Fame, just making a Blind Blake song in 2022, as it was. When they found themselves agreeing on songs, and some parts of history that make people not so happy, but at the same time, for some of them, it’s validating, knowing that these things happened. And for them to realize that this has impact on my life, still, 100 years after the blues started… obviously, racism hadn’t gone away, or sexism… and so to see these things expressed, and to connect with that, and connect with other people, because not every day, but sometimes we’d have some really, really good and honest conversations. And then people connect with each other over that. And maybe it’s not even because they agree, but they learned to respect other people’s viewpoints. And it was always a very respectful class. A couple of people even argued over whether or not things were rock and roll songs. And that was about as heated as we got. [LAUGHTER] I can tell you that much. Because when rock and roll started, the saxophone was the guitar. The guitar solo was a saxophone solo. And some people are like, :”No, that’s not rock and roll…” like, “that is rock and roll.” And so that’s what some of the arguments were. It’s like, well, though, it was kind of 12-bar blues still, there’s more R&B. An example I use is Shake, Rattle and Roll by Big Joe Turner, which was not a tune you would play around your children, I will put it that way. There were some lyrics in there that were pushing the envelope like “when you wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through. I can’t believe my eyes, all the mess belongs to you.” You couldn’t sing that easily in the early 50s. But then what happened is a white band, Bill Haley and the Comets who were very well known, covered it and took out the more offensive part of “the way when you wear those dresses, oh my, you look so nice,” which is a completely different context. There was still some sexism involved in that because there’s the 1950s, unfortunately. So what happened is that Big Joe Turner’s version became a big hit on the R&B track, Bil Haley and the Comets covered it and it became a big hit in America because they were allowed to be on all those airwaves. But just little moments like that that I was able to show or the fact that I think that Big Momma Thorton’s Hound Dog is vastly superior to Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog in every way. But I think when people get new information also, and maybe light bulbs go on over their head, that also builds a bit more of a connection too because these are things again, we don’t teach this anywhere. But it’s an important part of the cultural history and pop culture history and music history.

John: And it sounds like a lot of the intercultural competence that these classes were designed to work on was just built into the structure of the course.

Tim: Absolutely. And that’s one of the things I felt good about, because I knew that was an emphasis. And it’s like, well, this definitely has that throughout the years. For example, even though people will debate whether it’s blues, or it’s jazz, but something like Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday. That was something the fact that it talked about a lynching and all the rest of this stuff. That was something that really moved students ‘cause unfortunately, they might have textbooks and talk about it. But it’s also Billie Holiday, who has an amazing voice. And so this really translated a lot of that stuff. There are a few songs that talked about the welfare system, or Big Bill Broonzy talking about being black, brown, and white, and some of the different situations that people face there. It was just such a great way of conveying this information. And you know, they’re all amazing songs, too. So you read it in a history book, and it can be kind of removed. But when you hear someone singing about this, that becomes very immediate,

John: Strange Fruit just it’s just an amazing song.

Tim: Oh, yes.

John: How did the students react to that?

Tim: If I had to pick one song during the whole semester that got a reaction from them, it was that. They might have heard about lynching. This really painted the picture in words and in Billie Holiday’s amazing voice. So I think that was an example. But there’s also… no one talks about Bessie Smith’s Poor Man Blues, which essentially it’s about all the black soldiers who went and fought for you in Europe, and then you rich man, you don’t want anything to do with us anymore. You want us to fight your wars and that type of thing. And it’s really interesting, because there are some quote unquote, blues historians, I will call them chroniclers who had the audacity to say that the blues are not a political genre, but it’s all political. When you’re poor, when you’re dealing with all these barriers in life, that’s very political. And so it’s amazing that while these were white people from Britain, who had no real background in the country’s history, and so that’s why I wanted to get a lot of the social and protest songs because that’s a big part of the blues. I mean, again, so much of blues… you’re an economist, you know that the economy impacts every part of people’s lives… and if you’re not being paid enough, if you’re not getting employment if you’re being treated badly by the system because of systemic racism, that’s a very political thing. So I think that’s the point that they also got very much from a lot of what they saw. So it was just great to have that opportunity to show people these things. Well, when I say show people, I mean, having way more talented people than me sing about it.

Rebecca: I can imagine that a lot of students and just people in general, listen to music and don’t always pay attention to the details. So having the opportunity to slow down and actually think about the lyrics and have conversations about it and connect it to history is a really different way of experiencing music, and it, I would imagine, translate to other things they’re listening to. Did you have conversations in class about how they might have been listening to other kinds of music differently?

Tim: So many of them know Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. They didn’t realize what a background in the blues, Jimi Hendrix had. Jimi Hendrix was very blues focused, even the Grateful Dead. So much of their stuff is blues. So especially when they saw this with artists that they knew, that helped make that connection a lot. Again, Eric Clapton is very much a conveyor of that, that they all know the Eric Clapton songs, but it’s like, well, that was written in the 1920s and 1930s, by someone who wasn’t Eric Clapton. But to connect all that backwards, or even the fact that to the era when I came of age, Nirvana, and their last performance on Unplugged, where they covered a Lead Belly song, Where Did You Sleep Last Night, and just how moving that was when Kurt Cobain did it in that I think his last performance ever. But then to see people make that connection. Okay, Lead Belly, and of course that was an old folk tale that he was singing, but at one point that got me into Lead Belly. And so just being able to peel back the layers and look at the history and see how that underpins the songs that they listened to. Because a lot of them do listen to what are covers of blues song. And there was a big blues revival in the 1980s, and it’s funny, because if you are a blues historian, you don’t want to admit it, but one person admitted, I hate to say this, but it was because of the Blues Brothers movie.

John: To be fair, there were so many great blues performers in the Blues Brothers movies.

Tim: Yeah, well, and the thing is, the movie company didn’t want to bring in these performers. They wanted “Oh, we have these hot young artists we want to do.” And Dan Ackroyd basically said “Hard no. I’m not doing this unless we’re allowed to bring in these performers who just didn’t get their due or just weren’t as appreciated.” And, so first of all, the music in that movie is great. It’s also very funny, but at the same time, people of a certain academic level don’t like to admit to something as base, dare I say, as the Blues Brothers movie had that impact on it. But then you had a lot of people in the 80s and 90s, like you’re seeing the Fabulous Thunderbirds having a big hit with Tough Enough, the Georgia Satellites having a really big hit with Keep Your Hands to Yourself, which was basically based in a blues structure and so much of the blues rock… the Allman Brothers, so much of what they did was the blues, and they became really big. But the unfortunate thing too, is that that had to do with suddenly becoming a white man’s genre. And generally speaking, like Robert Cray was big, but he was an exception, because by the time we get to the 1980s, most of the people who were playing blues, in large part, who were getting the air play were white men, even though it started with black women. And then also Stevie Ray Vaughan helped break it open too, and we can only wonder what happened if he hadn’t died tragically, but what he brought to the blues is just otherworldly. But he learned a lot of his stuff at the feet of Buddy Guy. Bonnie Raitt started… I think it’s a rhythm and blues foundation, where she basically knew there was all these blues performers. Larry Watson gave her a shout out recently performing on campus because she won a Grammy and is an example of somebody who actually walks the walk and talks the talk and she says, “Yeah, I was inspired by the blues, but I want to give back to the performers who didn’t have the opportunity to do that.” And the problem is like in the 1980s the blues was George Thorogood and I’m just not a fan of George Thorogood. That drove me away from blues for a long time, I think, but George Thorogood performed at Live Aid with Albert King and some blues performers, but they wouldn’t have been on the bill without George Thorogood which is morally compromising to me. But the problem was that there’s still a lot of great people out there. There’s Shamekia Copeland, who is well known. There are some rising stars still in the blues scene. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who is like 19 years old and talented and might be the next big thing in the blues. So there’s a lot still out there, but at the same time, that’s not the stuff that’s getting played on most radio stations.

John: Buddy Guy is still touring. It may be his last tour. I think he labeled it as his final tour, but we’ll see.

Tim: Yeah, well, I’ve seen Buddy Guy live twice. I saw him at the [NY] State Fair with BB King, and I think it was Tommy Castro and Susan Tedeschi, maybe.

John: Yeah, I was at that show. I’ve seen him at least a dozen times including twice at his club in Chicago.

Tim: Well, that’s fantastic.

John: … the old location and the new one.

Tim: Yeah, but Buddy Guy is so influential because he can do Jimi Hendrix, because Jimi Hendrix learned from him. He can do Stevie Ray Vaughan because Stevie Ray Vaughan learned from him . He did BB King… well, he and BB just did a lot of stuff together. And BB was a legend, but Buddy Guy stole that show and every show he ever performed at.

John: Yes. And I remember that show. He had just released the Riding with the King album with Eric Clapton. And he said, “Unfortunately, I’m not able to bring Eric Clapton here, but I’ll bring out the next best thing.” And I know everyone around me was hoping that Buddy Guy was going to come back on the stage, but instead it was his other guitarist who came out and performed with him….

Tim: Who was also really good.

John: …who was also really good, but he was not Buddy Guy [LAUGHTER].

Tim: Well, and what’s weird is that you’d look at it in retrospect, when Riding with the King came out with BB King and Eric Clapton, it’s easy to look at, “Oh, look at Eric Clapton doing a favor by letting BB King be on his record.” But it’s the other way around. Clapton… probably any bluesman worth anything would want to record with BB King. But the problem is with the cultural lens of me being a young, stupid, white kid it’s like, “Oh, wow, what an opportunity for BB King.” And it’s like, because Rattle and Hum introduced BB King in another context, too, because U2, they just had Joshua Tree… they could have done anything they wanted. And it’s like “We’re gonna do a movie. And we’re going to meet with some of our inspirations.” and that type of thing. And so they did a song with BB King and Bono… who is not always the most humble person, I will say. If you’re listening, Bono, I’m sorry, you’re still my hero… was just awestruck. BB King gave him a compliment, and he didn’t know how to take it, because this is BB King.

John: One thing with Buddy Guy is he sometimes will get into a mood where he’ll only do one musician for an hour or so at a time. And I was able to get tickets to his January run at Legends. And it was the only day I could make it. I was at a conference there. And it was listed as an acoustic only blues show. And after the first hour and 45 minutes, he said, “This is an acoustic blues show, so I guess I should do something acoustic.” [LAUGHTER] And he did a few songs and they went back to electric.

Tim: Well, it’s interesting because Syracuse was a big home of blues in the 1990s. Like my friend Larry Kyle said, you could get booked three or four nights a week as a blues artist in Syracuse. It’s not that way anymore, but there were a lot of really interesting acts back then. I was writing the course in 2021, and part of me is like is the ending of this going to be tragic? Is this going to be like you’re studying Latin… Womp womp, sad trombone. But then I went to the Blues Festival in Syracuse, the New York State Blues festival, it’s actually the first big festival since COVID had hit. And basically, to borrow a line from our friend Buddy Guy, I learned the blues is alive and well. It just changed a little bit like Larkin Poe, who is one of the bigger names in blues performed there, a couple of sisters, they are white. They’re supposedly related to Edgar Allan Poe in some way. And they have a lot of classic rock there, but huge crowd. Fabulous Thunderbirds performed, I thought they were not even one of the top five bands to perform. But Vanessa Collier, who is amazing… plays guitar, plays saxophone, and is just this great person. She was selling her own merch, she didn’t have to, there’s volunteers to sell your merch, but if you’re the musician selling your merch, you’re gonna do a lot better. And she stayed and signed stuff forever. And so after the start of the pandemic, just seeing a big crowd at all, just seeing how people reacted and how much people connect to that music, and then doing a little more exploration saying that, “Ah, the blues are still alive.” They’re not the blues that existed in the 1920s. To a degree things are drifting a little bit back toward women, toward black acts than they were in the 80s and the 90s. But it’s completely different. It’s so many different things. The same way the blues inspired this, people now have picked up rock and folk and even jam band and that type of thing, and brought that back… like Robert Randolph and the Family Band played. It’s very, very, very much funk that they play. But again, just mind blowingly good. So just seeing how blues has changed, or what we call the blues still exists. So finally, I’m mentally writing the last part of my class, but I wasn’t sure, up until then, whether I could tell them that the blues thrives, despite all this research I’d done on that type of thing and listened to Sirius XM Bluesville every day and knowing friends who played the blues. But to see this, see how it was received, see how many blues fans and how many new fans were won over to the blues… that made it possible for me to finish my class with my head held up high that I was not teaching a dead subject, I was teaching a subject that’s very much alive,

Rebecca: That seems like a good note, then, to wrap up with and we always end by asking what’s next?

Tim: Actually, it’s a funny question. I believe you both know a good man by the name of Jim Early, I’ve been recording with him… a record… which it sounds weird to call it that. And it’s not exactly the most bluesy record. But one of the things that this course has taught me and I tell my students all the time, you shouldn’t wait on your dreams or have someone tell you you didn’t do this. I did not grow up as a musician because we could only afford to have one of my siblings play an instrument and that wasn’t me. And so you don’t go through the system. And while you’re not a musician because you don’t know music theory and all the rest of that stuff. So it wasn’t until I got to college and joined a friend’s band and took a course in piano and composition that I’m like “you know what, maybe I am a musician or at least somewhat of a musician.” But I think so many parts of the blues is about overcoming things, and going against people who have preset notions or trying to keep you down in some way. And certainly I don’t suffer the hardships that the blues people did. But just seeing the creative expression, hearing all this music said, “You know what, I want to do music more and more in my life.” What’s next? Obviously, I look forward to teaching the class this fall, hopefully better, always want to teach better. But I try to introduce some historic research and publish in journals and journals don’t like blues history topics. Shockingly, it’s not a popular thing. I would love to do a book that looks at some of the issues I talked about, about blues women and how they started it and how they were relegated after a while. I’d love to talk to people like Shemekia Copeland, or Vanessa Collier. And there’s a lot of other artists who still cover those albums and that type of thing. I don’t know how to engineer it because so much of what I learned from this class, working with the students is so much of what people don’t know, I would love to write a book, even maybe get one journal article published, although I might have to start my own blues journal to do it. But to really get this information out where more people can get it, because people keep saying, “Oh, I’d love to take your class.” I’m like, “Well, you’re not a freshman and you’re not at SUNY Oswego.” Like maybe I’d try like an open source class or something like that, or find a way to impart these lessons to more people, because it’s certainly something that I realized, when you find knowledge gaps, it’s like, “Well, a lot more people need to know this.” And so how do I get that message out? I don’t know yet. But talk to me in a couple of years, I guess.

John: And it would be good to do some of this while you can still interview some of the people who’ve been in that for a long time,

Tim: Absolutely. Buddy Guy is really the last connection to so much of an era. But there are people out there like Bonnie Raitt would be an excellent interview, I would think. You’re right, because we are going to lose a lot of people who have a lot of knowledge.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much, Tim.

Tim: You’re very welcome.

Rebecca: …very nice talking to you and hearing about the interesting things you’re doing.

Tim: Well, I enjoy talking about it and you all are excellent hosts, of course,

John: …and if I ever retire, my goal is to join a blues band and go on tour.

Tim: I know where you can get a good bassist.


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.



278. Google Apps and the LMS

Creating course content in an LMS can be time-consuming and tedious. In this episode, Dave Ghidiu joins us to discuss ways of leveraging Google Apps to simplify content creation, facilitate student collaboration, and to allow students to maintain access to their work after the semester ends.

Dave is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Coordinator of the Gladys M. Snyder Center for Teaching and Learning at Finger Lakes Community College. Previous to his time at FLCC, he spent a few years as a Senior Instructional Designer at Open SUNY, where he was a lead designer for the OSCQR rubric software.

Show Notes


John: Creating course content in an LMS can be time-consuming and tedious. In this episode, we explore ways to leverage Google Apps to simplify content creation, facilitate student collaboration, and to allow students to maintain access to their work after the semester ends.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Dave Ghidiu. Dave is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Coordinator of the Gladys M. Snyder Center for Teaching and Learning at Finger Lakes Community College. Previous to his time at FLCC, he spent a few years as a Senior Instructional Designer at Open SUNY, where he was a lead designer for the OSCQR rubric software. Welcome, Dave.

Dave: Thank you so much. This is so exciting to talk to you, too. I’m sure you don’t know this, but we have a very rich and robust parasocial relationship.

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

Dave: I am. Halee, over at Saratoga Tea and Honey, makes tea bought from scratch and has made this Focus Pocus which is really, really good. I thought I would need my brain fog busting blend today.

Rebecca: I think I really needed that earlier in the week. [LAUGHTER] I just have English breakfast today, John.

John: And I have Tea Forte black currant tea with some honey from Saratoga Tea and Honey.

Dave: Their honey selection is out of this world.

John: It’s amazing, and they offer free samples, which is one of the reasons why I end up buying so much because there’s so many different flavors that taste so good.

Rebecca: And just for clarification, they’re not a sponsor. [LAUGHTER] It’s just a common choice lately.

John: That’s right, because that was [LAUGHTER] also in our last podcast with Jim Lang.

Dave: Oh, it was it really? Oh. that’s awesome. My wife, Katie went to high school with Halee, which is how we wound up shopping there.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s funny. So Dave, in January, you presented a workshop at SUNY Oswego, where you describe ways to use Google Apps to simplify repetitive tasks. I took many notes, started implementing some of these things. Could you provide a little bit of an overview of the basic strategy that you advocated for / continue to advocate for?

Dave: Yeah, that was a ball presenting, there was so much engagement and some really, really good questions during the presentation. Thank you for inviting me out. I think we’ll start with some level setting and I just want to let you know that everything we talk about today is using Google Docs in tandem with the LMS. At FLCC, Finger Lakes Community College, we use Brightspace. So everything that we do, and we’re talking about today will be irrespective of what software the campus uses. In fact, at FLCC, we’re a Microsoft house, and I just happened to have a better workflow with Google Docs. So I think it’s important for the audience to know that you don’t need to have Google Classroom, you don’t need to be a Google campus, you can do all this stuff today.

Rebecca: And a lot of it’s documented on won…. what’s the website?

Dave: As you know, SUNY migrated to Brightspace last year, and we in the computing science department at FLCC kicked the tires quite a bit on it. So much so that we were doing all these really niche, interesting things. So Carrie, who’s one of the professors in the department, says, “Hey, we should have a mini-Summit.” So we all got together and did a show and tell of all the things that we’ve been doing. And I chronicled all those, I wrote them down. And I just started a blog called LEARNBrightspace.com. So that will have a lot of these things that perhaps you didn’t learn in the Brightspace training, and it can potentiate your online classes. And this is also the home of where I’m putting these Google mechanisms, because I think it really blurs the line. I’m using Brightspace, just as much as I’m using Google Drive and Google workspace. So all these ideas and concepts will live at LEARNbrightspace.com.

John: And having noted that this is created for Brightspace, many of the tools that you’re referring to and the basic techniques could work with any LMS, Correct?

Dave: Correct. In fact, I started this project, working at MCC, 2010 – 2012. So I was using ANGEL at the time. And then we migrated to Blackboard. And I started ramping it up and now we’re using Brightspace. So this will work in any LMS. But it will also work just in a regular website. This is just all pure HTML.

John: And from what I recall, the basic principle is you try to reduce repetitive tasks within the LMS by leveraging Google Drive and Google Apps.

Dave: Sure, I call that the tyranny of repetition and software development, we have what’s known as the ground truth, and you want all the information to exist in one place and push it out in separate places. I have a twin brother who’s a software engineer, and he always talks about ground truth. I call it the single point of truth, but it’s the same thing. And a good example is your office hours. Since I’ve been listening to you, I’ve rebranded them as my student time, but your office hours, you want to have it in one spot, but push it out, maybe in your LMS. Maybe in your syllabus, perhaps you have three or four or five different syllabi, so you have it living in one spot and change it in that one spot. And you can push it out to all these other arenas. You don’t have to worry about updating it in 5, 6. 7 different spots.

Rebecca: And how do you do that?

Dave: Well, there’s a few different ways to do this. And I think the easiest way to explain it would be for this particular task. And this is going to be a concrete example of how I use this single point of truth. I use Google Sheets, Google Sheets is great for formatting tables. So I format my table. And then I highlight what I want to put, for instance, in my syllabus, and then I copy that, and I go into my syllabus, which lives in Google Docs, and I paste and when you paste, it says, “Hey, do you want to link this to the Google sheet so that if the Google Sheet ever changes or updates, we can see the changes here?” So I always click on yes, that’s exactly what I want. And the very first time I do that, I spent a little bit of time formatting it in Google Docs where I have to like bring the margins over, it’s not that hard of a lift, it goes pretty easy. Once that’s done, I’m done. I never have to reformat that table. So when I come the next semester, and I change my student time, or my office hours, I can just push those right to my Google Docs. The other place I do that is within the LMS. So within Brightspace, I have a page that says office hours or student time, and I actually embed a Google sheet right there. So when the students click on office hours or student time, they will see maybe a little blurb by me that says, “Hey, if you’re meeting in my office, here’s my office number, if you want a link to my virtual room, here it is, and look below, and you can see all my time.” And that’s really just the Google Sheet. Once I update that Google Sheet, I never touch that content in my course. And that’s semester to semester. Once I set up my course, I never touch that content again, because all the changes are live,

Rebecca: Does embedding a Google Doc or a Google sheet in an LMS present any accessibility concerns that we should be aware of?

Dave: As long as you’re using the iframe tag, they actually have a long description tag, which is not necessarily all tagged, but I think they’re screen-reader compliant, but iframes, use whatever accessibility is in the target site. So for instance, if I framed Tea for Teaching, if your site’s compliant than whatever my LMS, when I embed Tea for Teaching would use that compliancy, the screen reader just would actually be reading the Tea for Teaching website. So as long as your Google Doc and your Google Sheet or whatever you’re embedding is accessible, then this is also accessible.

Rebecca: So it’d be important to do things like have header rows and that kind of thing. And if you’re using Google Docs, you might want to know about Grackle, which is a great accessibility tool to check your accessibility of those files.

Dave: Oh, that’s interesting, because Microsoft does a really good job, with Word, of making things accessible, and they have their accessibility checker. I haven’t seen that in Google Docs. Are you using Grackle?

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s a third party tool that we have on our campus. And it works across Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides, and will help improve the accessibility of all those documents and any PDFs you might need to export.

Dave: Oh, that’s awesome. I’m glad I came today. I’ll look that up as soon as we’re done. It is worth mentioning, and I’m glad you said that. In Google Docs, and I spend most of my time in Google Docs, not Google Sheets. In Google Docs, I’m always using headings, I like the textual hierarchy. And I always do the alt tags, there’s a lot of easy things to do that make my life easier and make it more accessible for anyone viewing the content. In fact, and I believe I demoed this in January, most of the assignments that I give my students are a Google Doc, and I have them make a copy of it. And then they paste images in for a lab, we’re doing computer science stuff. And I use those headings. So when they give me their Google Doc, I don’t have to scroll through 20 pages, I can use the document outline and click on the different headings where I know their answers are going to be so I can just skim it real real easily. So this is just another example of Universal Design writ large that it is better for the student, it’s better for me, it’s better for everyone.

Rebecca: That’s totally the strategy I use too, Dave.

Dave: Oh, really? Oh, that’s interesting. I’m so glad to hear that.

John: And so if you’re sharing templates with students for assignments, you can set them up to be accessible so that when you submit them, it’ll automatically have the heading structure.

Dave: Yeah, in fact, one of the things that I do, and I demo this in the video in the recording in January, but also at LEARNbrightspace.com, one of the tabs says “Tools,” and in this particular thing, you can paste in the URL of your Google Doc. But one of the things I do is: instead of making a template or saying to the students click in this Google Doc go to file, save as a copy, you can just change the URL of the link to your doc and chop off the last four characters that say “edit” and make it “copy.” So when the students click on the link, it’ll actually force a copy in their Google Drive. So that’s just one of the nice things you can do with those links. And one of the really, really cool ways to bend these URLs is you can make a link that goes to your Google Doc. You can also make a link by changing “edit” to “copy” that will force a copy. You can make a link instead of edit, you can do “export?format=PDF,” and that will take a carbon copy of your Google Doc and download it as a PDF. And that’s a great thing to do, for instance, for my course syllabus, because my course syllabus is embedded. Any change I make to my course syllabus in Google Docs gets pushed out automatically, but students like to print that out. So, I just put a link right on my page in my LMS, where the course outline is, or your syllabus, and it says “Click here, if you want to download it as a PDF,” and that download it as a PDF, “Click here if you want download as a Word,” and it just downloads as a Word. And it’s not that I’m hosting a PDF or Word, it’s converting my google doc at that moment in time to a PDF and downloading it. So that’s really, really slick. And that’s a great way to get your course materials into students’ hands.

Rebecca: And I’m pretty sure I saw the code to that button on your website.

Dave: You did, at LEARNBrightspace.com. You go to LEARNBrightspace.com, you paste in your URL of your Google Doc, and it gives you the code for those buttons, it gives you the code to in bet it gives you a code to do a thumbnail of your image, which is live, and it gives you the code to embed a QR code should you want that. You can just do some really crazy things. And I think that’s a perfect example of how to learn what you can do, is just go to that website and check out like, “Oh, I can download it as a Word file.” This is a great example of a single point of truth. I have one course outline and I might have it in three or four different classes, I have different sections. I only update it in my Google Docs, and all the courses where that embedded file lives, they get to see all those changes. And you remember in the good old days, or the Dark Ages, rather, of LMSs. So if I had a PowerPoint, for instance, and I changed my PowerPoint, I’d have to go into all those sections and take down that PowerPoint and upload a new one. But I don’t need to do that anymore. If I have Google Slides, I just change the slides. Because once it’s linked in your LMS, or once it’s embedded, you never have to touch that piece of content in your LMS again. You make as many changes as you want to your slideshow and it’s live immediately. And by the way, you can do the same thing with links to Google Slides, where it can download as a PDF, download it as a PowerPoin.,

John: The show notes file accompanying this podcast will contain links to the LEARNBrightspace.com website and to the recording of the workshop that you provided in January at Oswego for anyone who wishes to explore these options in more depth.

Dave: Awesome. I just started making this website, so I’ll be building it out. And again, it’s going to have a lot of Brightspace stuff, but also all this Google stuff that I’ve been doing for a few years.

John: One of the other things you demonstrated was the use of Google draw to automatically update images in an LMS, such as the ones that you used to signal whether a module was open or not. Could you tell us a little bit about how that might work?

Dave: Yeah, so I actually have a very unhealthy relationship and dependency on Google drawings. And I thought it was just like a throwaway tool. But once I started using it, I was like, “Oh, this is really, really slick.” So much like a Google Doc, my syllabus or Google Slides, you can embed a Google drawing. In Brightspace, we have the visual table of contents which Rebecca, I’m sure you had like a ball with, given your role in graphic design. The visual table of contents, if you don’t have an image in the description for your module, then it will just inherit whatever your course image is, in the main course. Using Google Drawings, I’ve created thumbnails for each of the chapters. So when you look at the visual table of contents, each chapter has a unique image that somehow intimates what we’re doing in that chapter. And then I put like a big one in a circle, or big two or big three, whatever chapter it’s on. Because it’s a live image, I can change the look and feel of it. So I have a gray overlay that I put over upcoming chapters. And then I have a banner that stretches across and says “upcoming.” So the students on day one can see all the chapters, and anything that’s upcoming, they can kind of see what the chapter is about with that thumbnail because it’s behind like a somewhat transparent gray rectangle, and they can see the big banner that says upcoming. But then when that module opens, I just go into Google Drawings, that gray rectangle on the banner, I send that to back, and you can’t see it anymore. So when the students come into my course, that’s how they know what the most recent chapter is. Anything that says upcoming and is gray, that’s in the future. Anything that’s bright and exposed, that’s what we’re doing now.

Rebecca: For those that are familiar with Google Draw, because, I don’t know many of us have thought of it as being kind of a junk app… [LAUGHTER]…

John: …spoken by someone who is used to that Photoshop stuff.

Rebecca: …can you talk to us a little bit about what it’s capable of doing and what it’s not capable of doing?

Dave: Yes, it is not capable of doing Photoshop. So you’re not going to have a lot of those high-end or even mid-range tools, such as the content aware or the lasso tool, it just doesn’t have all that. This is more for what I would say as graphic design if you’re doing almost illustrations or almost vector images. And you can put photographs up there. But I use it mostly as textbox, some colors, and I don’t want to undersell it, because right now I’m convincing myself that it is kind of a puny little web app, but it’s so potent in the ability to change the content of an image. So if you want to embed that image in your course you can change it and it does do some high-end things. You can crop in different shapes. But really, if you’re looking for Photoshop, this is not an adequate replacement.

John: But the ability to do layers offers some really nice capabilities as you described, because a lot of basic drawing apps will not allow you to introduce or to have layers.

Dave: That’s a good point. And there’s also the ability, much like Photoshop, it has a canvas, but then… and I don’t know what you call the area outside of the canvas, I call it the staging area. So I can put things that I might be using later in that staging area, and it’s not visible in the image. And that’s also where I put… and Rebecca, you’ve been asking about accessibility, I keep my alt text in the very first text box in this staging area so that if a screen reader is reading it, my alt text is right there. It also makes it very easy when I need to embed it later on. Because I don’t have to keep retyping the alt text, I keep it right there.

Rebecca: That leads exactly to what I was going to ask you about. It’s almost like a read my mind is whether or not, when you’re creating these Google Drawings, if it actually maintains text or not, because that indicates an accessibility issue, if it’s an image of text, or if it’s actually text.

Dave: For the listeners that want to pull this thread, when you publish the image it is, is for all intents and purposes, a jpg png. So it’s going to be a flattened image…

Rebecca: no SVG, huh?.

Dave: Actually, you can download it as an SVG, I believe, I don’t know if you can embed it as an SVG.

Rebecca: If I can’t embed, it’s no good to me. [LAUGHTER]

Dave: One of the ways that I use Google drawings, and I saw this at a conference, and the professor who was presenting was not presenting this aspect. This was just like a throwaway thing she was doing and I was blown away. I was like, “Woah, that is really cool.” So I stole this from someone I saw presenting. She doesn’t embed it as a JPEG or PNG, she actually embeds the Google Drawings website. So if you change the “/edit” or “/preview,” and you can do that in Docs as well, it gives you a more packaged… it doesn’t have the toolbar… and if you do it that way, you do have access to all the text. But one of the things that I really like about it, and I’m glad that we’re going down this road, is I make… think of it like a horizontal rectangle, and I have three squares side by side in that rectangle. So when it comes time to exemplary work, for instance, in my class right now, students are making infographics and they might not have ever made an infographic before. So I say, “Hey, here’s some work students have done in the past.” And I take a screenshot of three really good infographics and I make thumbnails all in this Google drawing. It’s just one Google drawing that has those three thumbnails. I make those hyperlinks. So now when I embed this Google drawings, not as an image, but this Google drawings in preview mode, students can click on these different hyperlinks and it pops up PDFs that actually live in my Google Drive of the actual infographic. So to answer your question, you can embed your Google drawings in such a way that text is retained. But, my caution is, I think with accessibility your mileage may vary if you’re actually embedding the Google drawing app as opposed to an actual image.

Rebecca: Proceed with caution when putting text and images. Yes,

Dave: I did work on OSCQR, when I was working with Alex Pickett and Dan Feinberg at Open SUNY, and I think Alex been a guest on your podcast before, right?

John: She has, a couple of times.

Dave: And by the way, I think working with Alex and Dan really helped me explore all this stuff in Google as we were working on that Google software. But in the OSCQR, I think that it says “Do not ever use text on an image as your primary way of conveying information.”

Rebecca: Indeed.

John: People can refer back to a discussion of an earlier iteration of the OSCQR rubric, because it’s continuing to evolve.

Dave: It sure is, and I’m not involved with that project anymore, but I’m always really impressed when I see the new things that they’re doing.

John: You’re at a Microsoft campus where students all have access to Microsoft Office apps. So why do you choose to have students work in Google Docs?

Dave: That’s an interesting question that oftentimes when I talk to other campuses about this, that that question comes up quite a bit. I like Google Docs for a number of reasons. One, more and more students are coming to college and they’re more comfortable with Google Docs. And to be clear, most of the stuff that I do in Google Docs you can do with the Microsoft suite. And when I say Google Docs, that’s just a proxy for Google workspace or Google Drive. There’s a number of ways that people have colloquially referred to it. I like Google Docs for a number of reasons. One of the reasons why I like having students use Google Docs is version control is so simple, because unlike Microsoft Word where you might have a version on your desktop, and then you go to another computer, and you have to download it, that’s just obviated with Google Docs. But I really enjoy having my students submit in the LMS, just a link to their Google Doc, and they’re sharing it with me. I actually have them share it so that anyone with the link can comment, because all I really want to do is comment on their work. One of the problems I had with uploading a PDF or Word file is I might spend some time annotating it, and I might spend some time just like highlighting it. And those tools in the LMS have been a little wonky and unreliable at times. And by the way, the students, when the semester ends, they might not ever get that file. So all the work that we’ve put into commenting and highlighting on their work, they might not ever see that if they didn’t even know they could go back and look at their work. So I like Google Doc, because if they own it, even when the semester is over, they still have access to it, which is not how it works if students upload a file. So that was my primary impetus. But I found recently that I’m really, really happy with their commenting feature. So when I leave a comment in their work, and I like to leave comments,that’s like footprints that I’ve been looking at their work. When I leave a comment, they get an email to their Gmail account, and it says “Hey, Dave left a comment,” but also says “Would you like to reply?” and they can just, right from their phone or wherever they get this email message, they don’t have to go into Brightspace, they can just reply to that comment. And I really think that’s an equilibrium I haven’t seen in LMS’s before. It’s really been teacher centric, where the student uploads a document, the teacher says, “Let me as the teacher make some comments,” and the conversation ends there. Whereas in Google Docs, now you can have these conversations that are bilateral. In fact, I was talking to my wife about this the other day, she’s the Director of the library at MCC, but she teaches a class at FLCC and she uses Google Docs. And she said, “You know, I was in there. And I was just leaving some comments on papers for the students, and one of my students got an email notification, she popped right into the document and we actually had a conversation in the comments.” So I think that’s really, really neat. And I like that the students can leave the semester and still have it. And Google also rolled out this feature a few months ago, that allows you to, in addition to commenting, there’s an emoji button and you hit that emoji button and you can just add an emoji on whatever you’re highlighted. And it’s really, really slick, because I might historically say, “Hey, I really liked what you did here.” But now I can just leave an emoji thumbs up or smiley face or whatever I’m going to do. So that’s a little bit better for me, because I can cruise through the work and let people know my sentiment without having to be very verbose.

Rebecca: And you can save that language or when you really need it…

Dave: Yeah.

Rebecca: …which may mean it might actually get read.

Dave: Oh, that’s an interesting point, yeah.

John: Another reason for using Google apps is that they are something that most students have worked with in elementary and secondary school, because Google Classroom is a really commonly used tool and students are already used to that environment. Another thing that I’ve liked about Google Apps is the ease of collaboration where students can collaborate in real time on Google docs, Google slides, or Google sheets and that just doesn’t always work quite as smoothly in other Office applications as it does in Google apps..

Dave: Yeah, I feel like Microsoft is always like six to 12 months behind Google when it comes to innovation in the collaboration. So it’s nice to have that ecosystem. I think it’s also worth noting for the collaboration, and I’m glad you said that, the LMS doesn’t have collaboration built in, at least at the faculty level. So if there are two or three other people in the department teaching the same class I am, but different sections, it’s a little cumbersome for us to ask to be in each other’s section. And you can easily screw things up. So if we have a lot of our content in Google Docs, again, we don’t need to be bothering Jeff Dugan, who’s the Assistant Director of Online Learning at FLCC and say, “Hey, Jeff, can you add me to the sections over here?” we can just manage that ourselves in Google Drive.

Rebecca: I really appreciate the collaborative nature of Google Docs and just the Google apps generally. I use that as well for peer feedback and evaluation. I like the flattening of the hierarchy between the faculty member and the student. And you can collaborate on things. It works really well when I’m working with upper-level students or graduate students where the process really is more of a mentorship or more collaborative in nature in the first place. And it’s happening more in real time. But I always am concerned about the ability to document and maintain copies of things. Because when the students own the thing, then you have to develop a system to back stuff up, when if they’re uploading a document or something to an LMS, that backup is kind of happening. Do you have any strategies for that?

Dave: I’m working on this software right now, and I had this working with Blackboard and then we switched Brightspace so I have to change the paradigm. But I actually create my content, all the Google Docs, all the Google Sheets, whatever I’m going to do in one folder, and then I get a roster for my students. And I effectively make a folder for each student, and I give them read/write access to that folder, but I’m still the document owner, and then I can push out, I can copy all the documents into each of their folders. That is, I think, the golden standard. And then at the end of the semester, I can turn that work over to the student and I can make copies if I so choose. So I had all that infrastructure written and it was working great in Blackboard, so I’m back to square one with Brightspace. But that’s not stopping me because I still think it’s valuable even if I don’t necessarily have access to their work after the semester ends. There is a revisions feature in Google Docs too, which a lot of people don’t know about. And this is why I keep using the same syllabus that I’ve been using since 2019. I make changes whenever I need to, if there’s a typo, or if I change it from fall to spring. And if a student comes back to me, and they say, “Hey, I’m transferring, I need the syllabus from two semesters ago. Can you give that to me?” I just go to that same document, I go to file revisions, and I can pick a date and it rolls back to that date. I print it, give it to the student, and then I go back. So it’s not a perfect system, but it’s a good enough system that I think covers all my bases for right now.

Rebecca: In the past, I just had a folder that I had students submit their work in. [LAUGHTER] It was like “Put your copy here, please.”

Dave: And I think one of the things we didn’t really talk about and I think you were talking about it, but I hadn’t really considered this, is the group work. It’s just so much easier. You don’t have to make the different groups in your LMS and then articulate who has access to what, it’s all built in. To be clear, I love the LMS because it can have those features, I would never just use Google Docs alone. I need the LMS to distribute the content to say who can see what and when to manage the grades and have the assessments. But the Google docs are kind of the meat of what I use. So the skeleton is the LMS and the Google docs are the meat.

John: For quite a few years, I’ve had students do some open pedagogy projects, where they’re working in groups for their own components, but they also are working on some shared materials. And I just download a spreadsheet from our registration system with all their email addresses in it, and use that to share that class folder with them, and then just create subfolders for each group and let them work in there. And then when they’re ready to share it with the rest of the class for peer review, we just copy it from those sub folders, and they have access to it as long as they don’t remove the access after the semester is done. And it’s worked really nicely, because the basic issue Rebecca was talking about is sometimes when students would share a URL to a file, they forgot to change the access so that other people could view it. But if they start in a document that you already have access to, all those problems just go away and that makes it a lot easier.

Dave: It sure does. And in fact, Rebecca, that problem I have all the time. So my very first assignment in all my classes is: make a copy of this Google Doc, share it appropriately, and send me the link. And because there’s these interactive checkboxes that you can do in Google Docs, I have a checklist. So I kind of get rid of that problem immediately. But I’m glad you talked about also open pedagogy. It was either one of your podcasts, or maybe it was Teaching in Higher Ed, but I was listening to some stuff about open pedagogy. And also, I’m married to the director of the library at MCC. And so that might have had something to do with it. And we created at FLCC our Java textbook. It is all open pedagogy. The faculty kind of did the bones, but the students, and this textbook’s been around for like three or four years now, the students, even today I’m getting email messages like such and such made this change… that even today, someone’s like, “Hey, it would be really cool if you thought about talking about this.” So we get hundreds of comments every semester, because our one open textbook is commented on by all the students… we share it so that they can comment. And likewise, in my principles of information security class, we have the students every semester look at a recent cybersecurity issue, debrief what happened, and give an analysis of like this could have been avoided if you’ve done a, b and c. So they create them in Google Docs, I aggregate them all into a PDF, and then that PDF lives in Google Drive, and I actually embed it in the course. So students next semester can see all the work that the students have done this semester. And there is a conversation that students have about Creative Commons, so they know what they’re getting into.

John: One of the things you shared in that workshop presentation was a tool that would allow you to use markup to create documents outside of the LMS that could then be embedded in the LMS. And that’s specifically in Brightspace, so this may not be as generally applicable. But could you talk a little bit about that tool and why you might want to do that.

Dave: I would love to talk about this tool. And I would love to take credit for it, but I can’t. Aaron Sullivan, who’s a professor in the department, came up with it and he was suffering a different tyranny, not the tyranny of repetition. He was the tyranny of formatting your texts in Blackboard only when you hit the submit button, it wouldn’t render how you thought it would. He’s like “There’s got to be a better way.” So he started this project in Blackboard, and then when we switched to Brightspace, he tweaked it for Brightspace. It takes someone like me, who is very good at math, computer science, but I have no eye for design, and my students think that I’m a graphic design luminary. What his software does is just… I can’t even describe it, you’ll have to go back and watch the video, but it thrives on markdown, which is a very simple language. In Microsoft Word you might highlight text and then hit the bold button to make it bold. Or if you’re savvy you might hit Ctrl-B or Command-B if you’re on a Mac to make it bold. Markdown is even lower level than that. So you would say for bold, I think, you put an asterisk before the words, before the text and after the text, and italics will be an underline. But Aaron’s gone bonkers with this. And he’s come up with all sorts of ways with very, very easy to apprehend markdown codes, make your course in Brightspace just eye-poppingly delicious. It is unbelievable. I can’t say enough good things about it. And you kind of have to know a little bit about markdown, but it’s the kind of thing where you can easily digest and be like today I’m going to work on bullet points, and bullet points, by the way, it’s just an asterisk. I’m going to work on bullet points, and then it converts it to all the HTML and just paste the HTML into your course. And then maybe the next day like “Oh, I really want to do the accordions because Brightspace has the accordions built in, and also the tabbed interfaces. But it’s really hard with the way Brightspace is setup, at least at Fingerlakes, to have both of those on the same page. So Aaron has distilled everything to be a very easy language where you can just do like ^acc, and that creates an accordion. It’s awesome. It just saves so much work. And then we actually save all our text files. We use GitHub and I make it public but you could use it in OneDrive or in Google Drive. You just host these text files. So when it comes time next semester and you want to tweak things, you just tweak this text file, run it through Aaron’s software, which is at LEARNBrightspace.com You run it through the software and it translates everything to the HTML with the JavaScript and the CSS and you just paste it in Brightspace and it works and it looks gorgeous and it’s responsive. It has heightened my aesthetic game by about 1,000,000,000%.

John: And the way the accordions, for example, in Brightspace work is there’s an accordion template that you can use as a style sheet. The default page has 6 blank accordion templates on it corresponding to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 item accordions, and then you delete the ones you’re not using. And then you just paste or type your content into that accordion template’s contents. But this tool, you don’t have to do any of that. And you’re not limited to a six-item accordion, if I recall correctly.

Dave: You can do more than six if you’re really brave with your HTML. But like, who knows what happens. And the other issue is you can’t do accordions and anything else, because the templates don’t have accordions and tabs, I don’t think. So if you want to have both those in one piece of content, then you kind of have to maybe open up another tab that’s like your sacrificial tab, and it’s just really, really wonky. So Aaron’s software, we’ve been calling it “Markdown to Brightspace.,” that’s the working name, anyhow. You can see that at LearnBrightspace.com. We will be building that out with videos and things to help people understand how to use the tool because it is more power than one person should wield.

Rebecca: That, at least, reduces high levels of irritation.

Dave: Yeah, Brightspace and Blackboard both have much better text editors than they did two years ago. The one and Brightspace, it’s just so unreliable, which is I think, what drove Aaron mad enough to make the software. And to your question earlier, John, I think that it did work for Blackboard and it can work for HTML, but we need to add some tweaks to it just to make sure that it’s universal. So right now, the predominant version is for Brightspace.

John: It would be nice if there was a universal translator type application that would generate the code in Blackboard, or Brightspace, or Canvas or any other commonly used LMS.

Dave: And Aaron’s is very, very close, it would really be just some small, small tweaks. But I will tell you, just last night, in my role at the Center for Teaching and Learning, I send out a newsletter every week. And I’ve been doing it in Outlook and you can do some things. And last night, I was like, I wonder if I can use Aaron’s software to do this. So I use the markdown I created an email, like a template, and then instead of copying the HTML code, I literally highlighted all the HTML, not the code, but the actual like images and graphics and stuff. And I just pasted it into Outlook, and it is gorgeous. It is absolutely beautiful. So perhaps that might be a way to have that work in other LMS’s, I would encourage people to look at that video. Because I think that having the how to of how to do all the things we’ve been talking about might help. And that was the video from your professional development in January. And just keep coming back to LEARNBrightspace.com. By the way, it’s not monetized and I don’t track you or anything… purely putting out there for the benefit of the world. But we’ll be publishing more stuff on Brightspace, some really cool, wacky things you can do there, we’re going to be putting out some really cool, wacky things you can do with Google Docs. And we’re going to be doing some really cool wacky things that you can do with Aaron’s markdown software.

Rebecca: Sounds exciting, and it’s interesting that you’ve said all these things that are coming. But our last question is always: “What’s next?” And now you have to come up with something else.

Dave: Well, I knew that was going to be your question, I thought I could preempt that. But I would say some of the things that I’m working on right now is first of all accessibility. So if anyone out there is listening to this and is an accessibility expert and wants to team up with me to refine my processes, and I can see you waving to me so maybe we can chat offline and really just check this and make it more accessible. The other thing is, I’m working on a few other projects that I think would be of benefit to educators and not of benefit to anyone else. And that all uses Google Docs. So for instance, I have a spreadsheet where I keep comments that I might use for different assignments. But then one of the reasons I really like Google Docs, being a computer nerd, is every Google Doc and Google sheet has a JavaScript component to it. So you can build software off spreadsheets. So some of the software I built is this comment generator. So you manage the comments in your Google Sheet, and then you hit a button and it pops up this nice window with all the comments and it’s tabbed for the different classes you teach. And you can just click on the comment, it copies it into your clipboard, and then you can just paste it. So when you’re grading, and assessing other students’ work, it just makes it go a little bit faster. And I’m also working on rebuilding that tool that I was talking about earlier, where it can spin off Google Docs for all the students in your class, and then you own them until the end of the semester where you can turn custody over to them. So I’m constantly building tools to help me be faster and better at what I do. And hopefully sharing those with other people along the way.

Rebecca: Yeah, if you need a user tester for backing up documents. [LAUGHTER]

Dave: Yeah, I would happily swap that experience with some accessibility knowledge.

Rebecca: That sounds fair. Well, thanks so much for joining us. It’s always a pleasure, and we always take away something new.

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

Dave: Yeah, it’s great seeing you too. And thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I just listened to, I think I told you this, but I listened to the most recent episode about Chet GPT and it blew me away. So keep doing what you’re doing because every episode is better than the previous, with the possible exception of this one. This one might be one of the low points, but the rest of them I really enjoy listening to.

John: Well, thank you


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

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


277. Write Like a Teacher

Teaching faculty regularly help novices acquire new knowledge and skills. These same skills allow faculty to write effectively for audiences beyond their academic disciplines. In this episode, James Lang joins us to discuss his new book that is designed to help faculty write for broader audiences.

Jim is the author of six books, the most recent of which are: Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (now in a second edition); Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty; and On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. He is currently working on a new book, tentatively titled: Write Like a Teacher. A former Professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University, he stepped down from full-time academic work in 2021 to concentrate more fully on his writing and teaching. Jim has served as a keynote speaker and workshop leader at over 100 colleges and universities, including SUNY Oswego.


  • Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Hachette UK.
  • Lang, J. M. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Lang, J. M. (2013). Cheating lessons. Harvard University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2008). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Harvard University Press.
  • The Saratoga Tea and Honey Company
  • Articles by James Lang in the Chronicle of Higher Education
  • Sarah Rose Cavanagh (2023). Mind Over Monsters. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 272. January 18.
  • Julie Jensen
  • Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West V


John: Teaching faculty regularly help novices acquire new knowledge and skills. These same skills allow faculty to write effectively for audiences beyond their academic disciplines. In this episode, we discuss a new book that is designed to help faculty write for broader audiences.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is James Lang. Jim is the author of six books, the most recent of which are Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (now in a second edition), Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, and On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. He is currently working on a new book, tentatively titled: Write Like a Teacher. A former Professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University, he stepped down from full-time academic work in 2021 to concentrate more fully on his writing and teaching. Jim has served as a keynote speaker and workshop leader at over 100 colleges and universities, including SUNY Oswego. Welcome back, Jim.

Jim: Thank you.

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

Jim: Of course. Always.

John: …still David’s Tea or some new tea?

Jim: No, actually, I have two children at Skidmore. And there’s a tea shop there called The Saratoga Tea and Honey Company. I have to go to Saratoga Springs every few months, and I stock up on tea there. So I totally favor robust black teas, so I’m either drinking English breakfasts or Irish breakfast, Irish breakfast gives you a little more of a boost.

Rebecca: It sure does, it’s one of my favorites too.

John: And I am drinking a Tea Forte black currant tea, but with some honey from Saratoga Tea and Honey.

Jim: Ahh!

John: I love that tea shop. I go there at least two or three times a year. There’s lots of conferences up there.

Rebecca: Yeah. And I have Awake tea this afternoon, so I can be more awake this afternoon. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: I know that feeling.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your new book project. Can you tell us a little bit about the project?

Jim: Sure. So this is my first book focused on writing, even though I’ve always been interested in writing and about how academics can reach wider audiences for their work. And the premise of the book is that the reading experience for nonfiction work, whether it’s an essay or book, should be a learning experience. And so we want to think about how do people learn from the page, as opposed to learning in the classroom or outside of the classroom in real life settings. And so the argument that I make is that those of us who teach, whether we are academics or teaching at other levels, we have either sort of education or experience or instincts that help people learn. And so this knowledge that we’ve gained from like a doctoral programs, or our teaching experiences, or we have good instincts about what to do in the classroom, and we can take that knowledge and put it into our writing practices in order to help create good learning experiences for people on the page. So that’s the core argument of the book. And what I try to do is bring together the many years I’ve been writing about teaching and learning, and sort of take the research I’ve done and arguments I’ve made about effective teaching, and to put them into this new context. And my goal really is for academics who want to try to reach out to broader audiences, whether that’s academics outside of their discipline, or even outside of academic readers altogether, and to help them achieve the goals that they might have about how to promote their work. And a big part of it is we have the opportunity to make the world a better place, if we can help readers understand the importance of the work that we do. So that’s kind of a sense of what’s kind of driving me into these arguments. I think it’s a good idea if they can, and they’re interested in doing that, reach out to readers outside of their discipline and I want to be able to help them to do that.

John: So much academic writing is written to a very narrow academic audience, which tends to exclude most people from reading the work that most academics do. And as you said, academics, especially those who are heavily involved in teaching, have skills in taking complex concepts and trying to relay them to an audience that does not have the same background. But most academics don’t tend to do that. And you seem to be in a really good place to write a book like this, given all the writing that you’ve done, your role as the longtime editor of The West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, as well as your role as a faculty member. So how did these roles come together to help you prepare for this book? 4:09:25

Jim: So obviously, I’ve had a lot of experience writing as a writer myself, trying to reach out to outside audiences beyond my discipline. And I think one of the things you just said is important. Most academics know how to write like, this is something we have to do to get degrees and promotion and tenure and all that kind of stuff. We know how to do it. But when we’re writing to other academics, they’re in our discipline, so we have a lot of shared disciplinary background information. And then we also can sort of assume a little bit more attention to our work, essentially, from disciplinary readers because I can push your attention a little further than I can someone who is outside of the discipline, so like, you’re willing to stay with me for a little bit longer to go a little bit more deeply into the core ideas. But a non-academic reader needs more information, they need some more background information. They need to be kind of guided along with kind of signposts along the way, to be told stories, kind of different forms of evidence. So all these things are things that we do in the classroom. And so I think one of the things I really want to be able to do with the book is to sort of empower people. And my work as a writer about education, I view that as empowering as well. I want to be able to show people, for example, in my book on Small Teaching, I want to show people, there’s a number of small things that you can do, that are going to make a difference. And I hope that’s an empowering message, and I hope this message will be the same for writers. You know how to do this stuff, you’ve been doing it for a long time, and you’ve seen that other people do it. So it’s a kind of a process of kind of taking your knowledge here and just applying it to a new context. Now, to get to your question, I’ve been trying to do that for a long time. And I have a column I’ve written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I’m approaching 200 columns at this point. And then I also have always been interested in seeing where else my writing could go. I like to challenge myself as a writer. So I’ve reached out to places like newspapers and magazines, and probably have a couple of dozen essays published in those places. And some of my books also kind of reached out to broader audiences. So first of all, I was drawing from my own experiences. And that’s not just about the writing, but also the process, like what does it look like to reach out to an editor, for example, at a major newspaper and try to get your work in that forum. So with the writing, but also then the process of getting yourself published and promoting your work, the book kind of covers all that stuff. But also, I think the reason that I really kind of wanted to address this topic is because I edit a book series as well. And so I’ve acquired, I think, 15 books for that series. Now, I co-edit with Michelle Miller. But I did probably all those first 12 to 15 ones that I worked with the authors all the way through from the first getting that query email to getting it through being approved, revised, and then getting it out there and trying to help them with promotion. So like guiding multiple people through that process, which I love, it’s like one of my great joys in my life now is to help people get their first books published. I really learned a lot. And I kind of found myself saying the same thing to authors, like, “Here’s a few things that you need to do that can help make this book more successful.” And so with that knowledge, I kind of want to say, “Okay, I want to be able to put this stuff down.” I get all these hopeful email queries when people have a lot of hope in their voices, or even on the page. And, you know, they want to get their books published, and they’re stumbling on some very common obstacles. And so I wanted to be able to have this stuff available in print so I could not only share with those folks, people who are looking to publish with us, but anybody who wants to publish, whether it’s a book or even an essay. So I do try to cover both of those things as well, writing books, but also writing about essays or various kinds of media platforms: newspapers, magazines, websites.

Rebecca: It’s interesting, because no matter what discipline you’re in, you’re usually trained on how to publish in a very particular way. And then all the other ways seem very mystical.

Jim: Absolutely, that relates to the fact that we’re so very familiar with the sort of processes and the kind of arguments that we make in our discipline. But then we kind of just jump a little bit away from that and we’re kind of in a different world. That’s true, not only of the publishing process, but also the writing process. So like, one of the things I often have to explain to authors is you have a disciplinary tradition of evidence. So in your discipline, evidence looks like this, right? It’s numbers, or its experiments, or its literary texts, whatever it might be, but you’re trying to reach now beyond your discipline. And so those people are completely used to seeing evidence in this form. And it’s fine for them to just sort of stay in that place. But when you’re reaching out to other readers, in the same way as a teacher, you have to try to reach out to multiple kinds of learners, you have to do the same thing as a writer. So yes, I might write for an audience of people who are interested in writing in literature, but I have to be aware that some people are gonna say, “Okay, well show me the facts,” essentially, right, or the statistics, or what experiments have been done to sort of show this is really true? So like, as a writer who’s trying to reach people from multiple fields, or even outside of academic fields, I need to think about how am i varying my evidence? What kind of evidentiary traditions am I drawing from? So like, when you start looking at these kinds of things, you see, yes, the things that I normally do in my academic writing, I have the skills, and I just have to learn to kind of expand them a little bit and sort of move them around a little bit in order to reach some different kinds of folks.

John: We’ve been doing two reading groups a year here, and most of the books that we’ve worked on have either been books that you’ve written, or books in the West Virginia University Press series. And there’s some things I’ve noticed that tend to be common to all of those. And I’m curious to see if you’d agree, [LAUGHTER] but all of them are very solidly backed by evidence with appropriate citations, either in the footnotes or in the bibliographies. But they all tend to be free of disciplinary jargon and they tend to have a lot of use of narrative where they’re bringing in examples with actual faculty members from a variety of disciplines, showing the wide range of applicability of the techniques that are being discussed. Was that something you tended to focus on explicitly? And is that something you encourage faculty moving into these new areas to focus on?

Jim: Absolutely. I mean, those things are definitely core messages that I’m giving to authors. The first is having some kind of practical application to it. Now that should be a true teaching book, right? There’s to be some kind of takeaway for the reader. But no matter what you’re doing, I always try to emphasize to academic authors, there should be something that the reader can take away that’s concrete. It might be a new way of thinking about the world, but it could be new advice about something, how to do something differently in your life, join a movement, or make a change in something you’re doing. So having some kind of takeaway, I think, is really important. But again, when talking about the sort of evidence piece of this, the fact that stories are really important in this because stories, they’re not like a logicians perspective, maybe they’re not the best forms of evidence, but they still really help people understand the ideas, and so they put the ideas into sort of a place where I can try to relate them, and see like how my experiences compare to the experience in the story. And so one of the things that I often will see academic authors who have this sense, “I should give an example or two,” those examples are often very lifeless, they’re like a one sentence sort of very abstract description of something. And I try to say to people, “Look, if you’re gonna tell a story, tell it well, use images, give me a little bit of detail about it, the story is going to really resonate with me when it’s a story that I kind of enjoy reading and that I can somehow try to relate to.” I kind of came to this discovery for myself as a writer, because I typically tell some personal stories in my own writing, right? So Small Teaching includes a story about me ordering green tea at my local coffee shop. And so what I’ve discovered is that when I go to like conferences or workshops, people will remember that story. And they’ll use it to kind of reach out and make a connection with me. And so like, I’ve also had people say, “You told this story about teaching your daughter how to drive and then I was thinking about that when I was doing the same thing and I had the same ideas that you did.” And so it creates these opportunities to let people share their own experiences with the book or with the author. I try to tell people, you don’t have to share your whole personal life, but just occasionally, having stories like this, whether they’re about you or somebody else, they do help people see the material in a new way.

Rebecca: It definitely makes them far more readable and brings things to life. I’m curious about this book project and the timing, and why write this book now?

Jim: Yeah, so this book is sort of coming out of, first of all, the West Virginia University series definitely has been growing and so it’s really kind of exploded in terms of the number of titles that we’re putting out. And so seeing more and more of these kinds of issues coming up in the proposals in the books that we are seeing, and so I wanted to try to get these ideas out, as I’m going out through new manuscripts and working with new authors. That was a part of it. I also had a kind of big personal issue that came up with me over the last couple of years. And so that gave me a new sense of commitment to this kind of work, not only teaching for me, but also about writing. And you kind of feel like this kind of sense of that I wanted to start working with writers in a more formal way, both in this book, and then maybe going forward and also doing more developmental editing for academic authors who would like to expand their audiences. So this is like a moment where I’m trying to make a transition here. I still want to teach and I’m still going to write about teaching. But I do want to also think about moving more into the space of working with writers and writing about writing myself. And part of that was… the short version of the story, which is a long story. [LAUGHTER] In October of 2021, I was diagnosed with something called myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart. And that often heals itself for people when they get it. But in my case, it went the other way, this happens sometimes. It kind of essentially destroyed my heart over a space of a few weeks, the time between I went into the hospital, just because I was having like an irregular heartbeat… otherwise, I was fine… and the time I was on advanced life support, it might have been two weeks. And so this sort of crashed into our lives. I was on advanced life support for a couple months. I wasn’t expecting to survive, but I did. And I got a heart transplant and I had a stroke during the surgery, which is a long surgery. I woke up from all that. And finally, initially, I couldn’t speak also because of the stroke I had. It was complete aphasia, so I had to learn to speak again with flashcards and speech therapy, and my wife would work with me every day. So after all of that, that kind of focuses your mind a little bit, it kind of helps you realize, okay, you only got so many years left on the planet, what do you really want to do in those years? And so it has helped me realize that I want to still continue teaching. I’ve made incredible connections across the world with teachers by writing about teaching, and I love to talk to academics. They’re the audiences I feel most comfortable with. But I feel like at this point, now I have something different to offer them, not just sort of advice about teaching, but also to help them become more successful as writers.

John: And now you’re sharing it with writers, not just the dozen and a half or so writers you were working with at West Virginia, but with writers all over the world. And I think that’s providing a really nice service.

Jim: Thank you.

Rebecca: It’s amazingly incredible, for sure.

John: We’re awfully glad you have recovered so amazingly well. And I remember seeing you post about that on Twitter after you were already in the process of recovering and I had wondered why you had gone into the background there and you hadn’t posted anything for quite a while and it was a bit of a shock. And I think when you posted that you got many, many people commenting.

Jim: Yes, yes, definitely. The community was very supportive, not only the community of my family and my friends here where I live, but also many people around the world, sent me messages and asked about how things were going and offered support and prayers and thoughts and all that stuff. It was very heartening.

Rebecca: You mentioned multiple times about kind of shifting gears a little bit or shifting focus. But to me, if we look at the things that you’ve been involved in, and the things that you’ve written about, you’re really staying true to faculty development. [LAUGHTER] It’s just faculty development with a slightly different focus, but certainly the kind of support that we’ve seen from you in different ways of faculty life.

Jim: Yeah. And actually, in my last years at Assumption, before I decided to step away from full-time academic work, I was moving in that direction as well, because I was responsible for our new faculty orientation as the director of our teaching center. I like to work with junior faculty to help them navigate the different channels of academic life, including service and research and teaching. And so because I had visited so many other institutions where I had often been invited to give workshops or lectures, and had visited many teaching centers and had opportunities to have dinner with lots of people around the country and talk about academic life, I felt like I was kind of gathering a lot of good ideas from all these different places. And I wanted to be able to bring those ideas back to my own campus. So I was always trying to give this information or these ideas or this advice to faculty I knew and were working with. And again, as I’m kind of just stepping away from those concrete roles on campus, although I’m still going to continue to teach on a part-time basis, I want to be able to keep expanding that work outside to other academics who could benefit, not only in their teaching, but also in their goals as writers too.

Rebecca: I think it’s helpful to hear stories as faculty think about different ways that their faculty lives unfold over time, and how that might evolve, as they shift focus on things and maybe want to focus more on teaching or want to focus more on research or more on writing as they develop over time.

Jim: Yeah, this was definitely something that characterized my career. I started as a normal tenure-track faculty member in English and I did that for quite a few years. And I was just kind of looking for a change, a lot like many people after you get tenure, and I was kind of looking for something new to see like, “Okay, I’ve kind of cleared that hurdle, what could I do differently now?” And then I became the director of our Honors Program. And that kind of captured my interest for a while. And then I got kind of interested in these kinds of semi- or part-time administrative positions. And so then became the director of our teaching center. And so I think it’s a good point, especially as we move along in our academic careers, we can look out for other opportunities, and make shifts and draw on different strengths over the course of our careers. So stepping away from full-time work was a big one. And I actually made that decision just about five months before I went to the hospital. So I had five months of like a “early retirement.” [LAUGHTER] But that was a big decision. But I still am very happy with what I’m doing now. And I’m sure gonna continue to look for other ways to challenge myself. And again, kind of keep that focus going on faculty development, though, because as I said, I just was at Williams College last week and giving some presentations there, went out to dinner with folks. And I was just kind of sitting there thinking, “These are my people.” Like, I feel very comfortable with the faculty. I love to have the fascinating conversations that learning about people’s… all the strange stuff they research and the very specific things that people write about and think about, the cool courses they teach. I just love those conversations. I love being in those rooms. And I kind of want to keep doing that work. And as a writer, it’s a huge audience, right? The amount of people in this country, for example, just alone, that are working in higher education, right? So I’m not limiting myself as a writer, I’ve got this huge audience that I can try to reach. And I just feel very comfortable writing to folks in those positions.

John: And you’re still serving as a teacher, just to a much broader audience than when you were in the classroom.

Jim: Yes.

John: In January, we released a podcast with Sarah Rose Cavanagh, and she talked about how you were working with her on a writer’s group. Is that a strategy that you’d recommend for faculty who are working on writing?

Jim: Yeah, writers’ groups are essential. All my recent books have emerged from writers’ groups. There’s different kinds of writers’ groups. So it’s worth noting the kind of taxonomy of these different kinds of ways to work with other people on your writing. The first is to sort of get a bunch of people who sit together and try to write in each other’s company, essentially, right? So that’s just: you make a time, identify a place, we come together and we kind of support each other, just sort of by being together essentially, right? So that’s one kind of writers group. There’s an accountability kind of group, that’s a second kind, where we’re gonna say, “Okay, everyone needs to have 2000 words by this date, everyone’s going to finish their articles by this date.” And then we’re gonna get together, we’re going to celebrate that or, for example, we’re all working on an article, we’ll get together every month and we’ll share things that we’re struggling with or the things that we’re doing well. It’s almost kind of like a little bit writer’s group therapy, essentially, we’re like supporting each other. The last kind is critique groups, and that’s what I’ve always been part of, where we actually send each other’s work in progress and we read it and then we get together and we give each other feedback. So to me, you can have any kind of writer’s group that you want to be in is going to be good, it’s going to support your writing, and that’s a good idea. Julie Jensen does a lot of work on writing, she argues that academics should not be in content critique groups, because you don’t need people outside of your discipline to be giving you feedback, because that’s going to happen as part of the peer review process. But if you’re going to write for readers outside of your discipline, then I think content critique groups are actually essential, because we’re gonna get from that is that people who are outside of your discipline, who don’t have the same background information that you do… “actually, I’m confused by this, like, you give me this big explanation, but there’s something that I’m missing here.” You’re not gonna get that from somebody in your discipline, because they’re gonna know what the background information is. So I think content critique groups are really important if your ambition is to write for people outside of your discipline. And so content critique groups, for me, they have the function also of accountability, because we meet essentially, once a month, and we have to have something for that meeting. We don’t put a hard number on it. But for me, it might be a Chronicle essay, or it could be current chapter. And I know that group meeting is not going to do anything for me, unless I’ve given something to the group. It’s helpful for me to give feedback to other people too, but I want it to be helpful to me, so I make sure that something is ready for it. So essentially, it’s an accountability group and we also talk about problems too. It’s like it does the other things, but I just think it’s really important for writers to have someone outside of their narrow field, give them their perspective on whatever you’re writing.

John: One thing has struck me as being common with each of those groups is that issue of accountability. We often refer to it in economics as a commitment device, that when you have that deadline, when you have to provide something at a certain time, or even if you’re just going to sit together and write at a certain time, it’s so easy to postpone things like writing and having that commitment makes it so much more likely that people will actually achieve their goal.

Jim: Yeah, absolutely, wespecially when you’re doing a longer project, like a book, you’d start the process with, like a deadline two years away, right? But the writers group, for me, gives me the structure, I need to actually finish it, because I know, “Okay, I want to get this chapter done, so that I can then get the next one done. And if I do all those things, at the end of the two years, I’m gonna have a book. Otherwise, there’s no hard deadlines, except for the one. And so to produce 80,000 words, for something that’s two years away, we’re not good at that kind of thing, [LAUGHTER]as humans, unless we really kind of put deadlines along the way. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Are you implying that faculty needs structure? … and scaffolding too? [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Yeah, absolutely. Giving structure. And that reminds me, that’s another thing that I like, as a part of the book actually is thinking about the importance of structure, not only for writers, but also for readers. When you look at an academic article, for example, in social science disciplines, it’s got a set structure to it. It’s got the introduction, it’s got the literature review, the experiment, the method, that kind of thing. But if you’re in like a humanities discipline, and you’re looking at reading an article about like literary theory, it’s just gonna be like, sort of paragraph after paragraph after paragraph like just kind of a long series of paragraphs, which just kind of guide you from beginning to end. But when you look at work that is published outside of the academic world, it often has lots of sections, subheadings, little titles along the way, those things are really important to help a non-academic reader through complex material in the same way we do it in the classroom. We help students, we guide them through our slides, for example, our stuff on the board, or like dividing the class in three or four parts or something like that. Again, this is stuff that we kind of do instinctually in the classroom, because we know the students are gonna zone out. [LAUGHTER] So we kind of guide them through the material, we need to do the same thing in our writing, too. And I like to think about these as attention tools of writing. And so the use of breaking up the text, and that’s sometimes may mean just like sections and subheadings, and all that kind of stuff. But also like bullets, you don’t need to go crazy, but you want to make sure that you are breaking up the page, or the argument, with these structural elements.

Rebecca: Jim, you’re suddenly like an interaction designer. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Okay. Wait, what do you mean exactly by that?

Rebecca: So, an interaction designer would say something like for usability purposes, you would do all the things that you just described, and they’re also accessibility principles. So they’re good for so many reasons.

Jim: Yeah. Okay, I like that.

Rebecca: It’s gold. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: I like that.

John: And right before I arrived here, I went over to our provost office to pick up a couple of big cartons of books by Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan from West Virginia University Press for our reading group this semester. And one of their main arguments is the importance of structure in helping people make connections to help break down complex topics into these manageable chunks to help people understand things much better. And it sounds like this is, as you and Rebecca have both said, is really important in many, many different contexts.

Jim: Yeah, I believe their work about high structure is so important. And I’ve definitely kind of imported that into the chapter in which I discuss these issues. But the other thing to think about again, from like a reading perspective, so if I’m reading a work, for example, I’m not going to sit and read a book, a 300-page book by an academic writer in one sitting. So I need places to stop and come back. And so maybe I can’t get a 30-40 page chapter in. But if I have opportunities to stop, [LAUGHTER] close the book, and come back to it, and I can come back to a subheading, which is going to tell me, “Okay, that’s what next. Oh, right, that’s what I was just before, and here’s what’s coming.” These are opportunities to come away, come back, and be able to return to the argument, and not be lost when I return to it. And this is just probably always the way that we’ve read. But this is how we’re definitely doing it now, as we’re bombarded with so many different things that can interrupt us. So having those kinds of opportunities to pause and renew the reading experience are important.

Rebecca: But the use of subheadings, in particular, I find helpful as a reader to just get reoriented, especially when you’re coming from a different place. And then I need to transition to an entirely different place, just looking back to those couple of subheadings that came before can immediately get you into that place again really efficiently. So I love it when writers do that, for me as a reader.

Jim: If they’re done well, it will show you an overview of the whole argument, essentially. So I think those are really important to help guide the reader through what they call the through line. The through line is the thread that connects everything in the book, the overall argument, and the subheadings, kind of hanging off that through line. And so I think they really are important for academic writers to do for other kinds of audiences.

Rebecca: Heck, I would like it sometimes just with my own discipline… more subheadings, please. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: I agree, I agree.

John: This is a little bit different. But one thing that really bothers me when I’m reading a novel on my Kindle late at night. I always like to stop, if not at a chapter break, at least at a paragraph break. And I was trying to read last night and I had to skim through about six or seven pages on there before this paragraph ended, [LAUGHTER] and it helps to have those little breaks that are logical stopping points. And writers don’t always do that.

Jim: No, no, one of the points may be I’m trying to push you through some difficult materials, so I get that. But even if you don’t have the sub headings, for example, if you look at the articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, they might not have subheadings, some of them do, but sometimes will just be a break. So like the paragraph ends, there’s like some whitespace, and then a new section starts, even that’s better than just the sort of constant unbroken series of paragraphs. And I also think it’s also just good for visual, your eye glosses over when you open to a page, and it’s just a huge block of text. That’s intimidating. And so the subheadings, the breaks, all those things, they give a break both for your eye and for your brain.

Rebecca: And even just encourage a moment of pause and reflection, like, “Oh, we’re moving to a new thing. Do I know what I just read? [LAUGHTER] …so I can move to the next thing?” I’m at that moment to double check.

Jim: Yeah, that’s true. They’re great transitions, too. And those moments of transition are often the times when we step back and say, “Okay, so I have this, and what am I curious about as we’re gonna go forward down here.

John: One of the things you mentioned earlier is that your book includes a discussion of the whole process of publishing. Because while academics do a lot of writing all through their academic careers, most academics have not been very heavily involved in publishing. And I don’t think most of them have many ways of getting that information unless they happen to know other people who have been successful in it. So having a book like yours, I think, would be really helpful in providing faculty with information that they just don’t have in their own experiences.

Jim: Yeah, so there’s a chapter which just focuses on guiding people from a query to publication. So like, what are the actual steps of this process? What are the kinds of things you will need in order to be able to get to that moment when you see your work in print? And so, essentially, I tried to boil it down to four things: three stages and then one sort of central recommendation about how to get this process started. The three things are essentially the query, the query is sort of the short email they’re gonna give. And for me, those are really important because they give me a sense of what’s the question or the problem that you’re addressing? What’s your argument? And why are you the right person to do it? So like, to me a query has got to do those three things, but not much more than that. It’s not like an academic job letter, where it’s five big paragraphs that covers two pages. No, I want to be able to read this thing very quickly and get a sense of who you are, what the project is, what’s going to be interesting, what’s unique about it, all those things. A query letter is like our handshake, where we’re going to kind of introduce ourselves to each other. The proposal, often, that’s all you need for a newspaper or magazine is a query and then the article or something. But for a book, you have to have this next stage of the process, which is a book proposal. And those are a lot of work. A book proposal might be 50 pages, because it’s going to include a overview of the book, which is usually like one to two pages, it’s going to have an author biography, which might just be a page or so, it’s going to have a chapter outline and that might be five or 10 pages. A chapter outline, not just a table of contents with like titles, but at least a paragraph or two for each chapter, and then a writing sample, which should be like at least like a chapter. So that we’re talking about like a 50-page document here. And it also should include… this is gonna vary from publisher to publisher… but it probably will also include a short analysis of the competition, so that you can use that as a way to show what is gonna be different or new or unique about your book. And sometimes publishers will also want like a marketing or promotion overview, like what are you going to do to help support the marketing and promotion of this book, for example. If you have a podcast, if you have a huge social media presence, if you are planning to attend a bunch of conferences in this field, you have connections, all those things can contribute to a sense of what kind of marketing or promotion you would be able to offer for your book. So that’s a big document. It’s really important when we see like student writing, for example, or those of us who teach student writing, sometimes the first page or two kind of gives you a sense of, okay, kind of the quantity of the students writing. Often, the same thing might be true for the proposal. From a couple pages, I can usually get a sense of how experienced the author is, is this project right for our particular series, what kind of writer they’re going to be, in terms of both of their writing, in terms of what kind of person they’re gonna be to work with. But as long as I get over those sort of initial couple pages and I’m still interested, then the proposal really has to show me that it’s going to work as a full book. Once you get past that, then it kind of just goes through the different processes of what’s going to happen to your book when you turn it in, essentially: the review process, copy editing, proofreading, working with a cover designer, the author questionnaire, which is a huge document that is going to help support what you’re going to be able to do support the book. And then also, often there’ll be a call with the marketing and promotion team, so kind of guiding people through that whole process. So those are the three stages I talk about in the book and try to give basic information and advice about that. But the thing I start with is, whenever possible, submit your work to a person. And what I mean by that is not just submitting to “Dear editor” or something like that, do a little bit of basic research on the publication and the person that is going to be sort of giving the initial review of your work. And there’s easy ways to do that, you can look on the web pages of the publisher, acquisition editors will typically have like a short description of what they acquire. You can also look at, like what other books they published. And one of the ways to do this is very simple. Most books will have an acknowledgement section, you can see who edited the book, and whether it was an agent. And so you see those two things. And if you look at books in your area, at the publisher you’re trying to target, you’ll be able to piece together a sense of “Okay, what kind of books does this editor tried to publish?” then you can sort of reach out to that person and say, “Look, I’m a huge fan of this book, which I know you edited and I feel like mine would fit well with this series that you’re overseeing,” whatever it might be. So try to get a little sense of the person that you’re writing to. You can be specific about why you are writing to that particular person at that particular publisher. And that’s something that we don’t have to do typically for academic disciplinary journals or something like that, right? We’re just sending it off to like a email box or just sort of being very objective, “Dear editor, here’s my work,” essentially. But as you’re reaching outside of your disciplinary journals, or academic books, you want to be able to be a little bit more deliberate about reaching out to a specific person.

Rebecca: What you’re describing also sounds a lot more relational, just generally.

Jim: Definitely, and I also make the argument in the book that it sometimes can seem like an adversarial relationship, sometimes between you as an author and an editor, because they’re like the gatekeepers. And they’re going to tell you, “No, we don’t have the money for that table to put in your book,” or an sometimes you can get frustrated as an author. But what’s really important to remember is, we are on your side, the editor always wants you to be successful. And so sometimes we might say things which are like, “You shouldn’t do this,” or “we don’t want to do this,” and “we can’t do that.” And that can be frustrating for an author. But I promise you, I am not like waiting there to kind of stamp an F on your query, [LAUGHTER]. I want you to be successful. Every query that comes in, there’s like a little sort of grain of hope that I’m hoping that this is going to be an amazing book, it’s going to change this person’s life. That’s the best scenario for me, I help someone write their first book, and it’s really successful. And so I’m hoping for that for everybody that writes to me. And I think that the same thing is true for editors. So always keep that in mind. These are the people that want you to be successful, and you have to treat them accordingly. Just be aware of that in terms of how you respond to them, react to them, and then you try to be like a good citizen of the book in the process.

Rebecca: So Jim, when can we get this book?

Jim: Yeah, so I’m finishing it right now, actually. I have one chapter left, I expect to finish it within the next month. So it’s probably be late 2023 or early 2024.

Rebecca: So I’m looking forward to it.

Jim: Thanks.

John: And as you mentioned before, that publishing process does take a lot of time.

Jim: That’s one of the places where it can seem adversarial to an author, right? Why are you taking so long to do this. I gave you a manuscript, why does it take a year to come out? But, I try to go through that stuff in the book. But there are good reasons. And all those reasons are is trying to help you make the most successful book

John: incentives are compatible between the author and the editor, because both parties benefit from having successful books.

Jim: Absolutely.

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

Jim: Yeah, so this book. It’s funny because I had the idea for this book. And I’d written the proposal for it partially, because I had also left my full-time academic position. I was thinking about these issues. And so I sent the proposal actually out before I got sick. And then I signed the contract in the hospital. actually. [LAUGHTER] So that kind of renewed my commitment to it. So that’s kind of been all I’ve been doing since then. But then once I finish that, and I just have already in my mind now, probably I’m going to write some kind of memoir of what I have experienced and what I’ve learned from that. My first two books actually were memoirs. And so I haven’t been in that genre in a while, but I think I had experiences now there’s probably memoir worthy at this point. [LAUGHTER] So yeah, that’s probably the next thing that will happen.

John: Well, we’re looking forward to reading all of them. So we wish you success on that. And it’s great talking to you again.

Jim: Likewise. Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks, Jim.


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.


276. Teaching at its Best

New faculty often start their faculty roles without training in teaching. In this episode Linda Nilson and Todd Zakrajsek join us to talk about the evolving roles and expectations of faculty and explore the new edition of a classic teaching guide.

Now Director Emeritus, Linda was the Founding Director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of the Faculty Development Fellowship in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Linda and Todd are each individually the authors of many superb books on teaching and learning and now have jointly authored a new edition of a classic guide for faculty.


  • Zakrajsek, T. and Nilson, L. B. (2023). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. 5th edition. Jossey-Bass.
  • Nilson, L. B., & Goodson, L. A. (2021). Online teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Nilson, Linda (2021). Infusing Critical Thinking Into Your Course: A Concrete, Practical Guide. Stylus.
  • McKeachie, W. J. (1978). Teaching tips: A guidebook for the beginning college teacher. DC Heath.
  • POD
  • Betts, K., Miller, M., Tokuhama-Espinosa, T., Shewokis, P., Anderson, A., Borja, C., Galoyan, T., Delaney, B., Eigenauer, J., & Dekker, S. (2019). International report: Neuromyths and evidence-based practices in higher education. Online Learning Consortium: Newburyport, MA.’
  • Padlet
  • Jamboard
  • Eric Mazur
  • Dan Levy
  • Teaching with Zoom – Dan Levy – Tea for Teaching podcast – May 26, 2021


John: New faculty often start their faculty roles without training in teaching. In this episode we talk about the evolving roles and expectations of faculty and explore the new edition of a classic teaching guide.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Linda Nilson and Todd Zakrajsek. Now Director Emeritus, Linda was the Founding Director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of the Faculty Development Fellowship in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Linda and Todd are each individually the authors of many superb books on teaching and learning and now jointly have authored another superb book. Welcome back, Linda and Todd.

Linda: Thank you very much.

Todd: Really appreciate the opportunity to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are: … Linda, are you drinking tea?

Linda: I’m drinking a tea called water. It’s rather dull, but I enjoy it.

Rebecca: It’s very pure.

Linda: Yes, very pure. Very pure.

Rebecca: How about you Todd?

Todd: Oh, I’ve got myself a Lemon Detox because I’ve spent most of my day getting all toxed and now I’m getting detoxed. [LAUGHTER] Wait a minute, that sounds bad. [LAUGHTER] But that will be all right. [LAUGHTER]

John: Especially at Family Medicine.

Todd: Well, we can fix it. [LAUGHTER] In general, life is good.

John: I am drinking pineapple green tea.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s a new one for you, John.

John: I’ve had it before, just not recently.

Rebecca: Okay. I’m back to the very old favorite, English afternoon. Because I stopped by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching and grabbed a cup before I came.

John: And we are recording together in the same room, which has been a fairly rare occurrence for the last several years. We’ve invited you here to discuss your joint endeavor on the fifth edition of Teaching at its Best: a Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, that Linda originally developed and now you’ve collaborated on this new edition. How did the collaboration on this edition come about?

Linda: Well, let me talk about that. Because it was pretty much my idea. Jossie-Bass contacted me and said “let’s put out a fifth edition” and I said “let’s not.” [LAUGHTER] I was not in the mood to do it. I’ve been retired six and a half years now and I’m loving it. I mean, I’m really loving it. And while retired, I was still writing the second edition of Online Teaching at its Best. And then I was writing a book, Infusing Critical Thinking Into Your Course, and I guess I had had it. I mean, I wanted to really make a change and I wanted to get specifically into working at an animal shelter. So I was all occupied with that. So I thought I remember Wilbert J. McKeachie, when he was doing Teaching Tips that he came to a certain point after I don’t know how many editions that he brought other people on to really do the revision work. And so I decided I’m going to do that. So Jossey-Bass said “Okay, fine.” They wanted three names. Okay, I gave him three names, but my first choice was Todd Zakrajsek, because 1. I knew he’d finish it. [LAUGHTER] I knew he’d finish it fast. I knew he do a great job. He knows the literature like the back of his hand, I wouldn’t have a worry in the world. And guess what? Todd accepted. Hip hip hurray. I was so happy. I couldn’t tell you.

Todd: Well, this is great because I said no when they asked me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Like any smart person would, right? [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Well, I did end up doing it, of course. But the reason I said no was I knew that book very well and I know Linda very well. And I said, “There is no way. I don’t know anybody who can step in and pick this thing up. She knows so much about so much that it’s just not possible.” And they said, “But she really wants you to do this.” So I went back and forth a couple times and I finally decided to do it. And I will tell you, Linda, because I haven’t mentioned this to you. The first three chapters, I had to go back and redo those when I got done with it, because I was so scared of the first three chapters [LAUGHTER] that it was really rough. And then finally it’s like, okay, I hit my rhythm and I walked into it with impostor syndrome a little bit, and I finally caught my footing, but it’s a good book to start with.

Linda: Thank you. Thank you very much. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, I know, the plot thickens, right? It becomes more interesting as you go from chapter to chapter, right. And before you know it, there’s a happy ending after all.

Rebecca: So Linda, Teaching at its Best has been around for a long time with a first edition published in 1998. Can you talk a little bit about how that first edition came about?

Linda: Yes, that was…I can’t believe… 1998. That’s 25 years ago. It’s almost scary how time flies. But anyway, the actual seed of the book came about in about 1994… 95. But I need to give you some background because I had been writing TA training books since like, the late 1970s when I was first given the task of putting together a TA training program. So back then, I was putting out weekly mimeos,[LAUGHTER] remember mimeograph machines. Some of you don’t know, what is she talking about? But anyway, that was technology then. But anyway, smetl great, though… it really did. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s the second time today someone has made a reference about the smell of those.

Linda: Yeah, oh yeah.

John: The dittos are what I remember having the stronger smell

Todd: The ditto did, yeah. yeah, and I’ll tell you before we move on, when I was a graduate student, we had a ditto machine. I just have to say this, Linda, because you liked the smell and all there.

Linda: Yeah, Yeah.

Todd: But they had a ditto machine. And below the ditto machine, I noticed that the floor tiles were kind of eaten away by the ditto fluid. [LAUGHTER] And then here’s the best part is that one day I was rooting around in the closet looking for something and I found the extra tiles in a box and the side of the box said “reinforced with long-lasting asbestos.” [LAUGHTER] So the ditto fluid was eating through asbestos lined tile, but that’s how strong that stuff is. So yeah, we all enjoyed the smell of that stuff back in the day..

Linda: Yeah, yeah. I guess it’s a good thing for all of us they invented something else, like copying machines. So anyway, so I started doing that at UCLA. And then that turned into like a booklet of sorts. And then I was at UC Riverside, and I was writing books there. And I sort of revised it every couple of years. And I was also writing these with my master teaching fellows. So we were doing that. And then I came to Vanderbilt, and I decided, well, I’m going to do this, pretty much on my own, I’ll get some help from my master teaching fellows. But anyway, it turned into an actual book. I mean, it turned into a happy monster. And I was very pleased with it. Well, along about 94-95, my husband recommended that I turn it into a regular book, and talk to a publisher about it. So anyway, I said, “Oh, great idea. Great idea and just sort of didn’t think about it much. Then in 1996, he died. And I thought, “Well, how am I going to pull myself through?” I bet it would be a great idea and a great tribute to him if I took Teaching at its Best, the Vanderbilt edition, and turned that into a general book. And I decided to do that and kept my mind off of bad things. And it turned into Teaching at its Best, the first edition. That’s why I dedicated the book to him, by the way, because it really was his inspiration that got me to do it. And so anyway, tribute to him. So that’s where the first edition came from. I mean, it really grew out of tragedy. But it’s been a comedy ever since, right? [LAUGHTER] So anyway, it’s been a wonderful thing.

John: And it’s been a great resource.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that it pulled you through, but then has pulled many teachers through. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: And I’ve gotten such feedback from faculty members who said, “I saved their lunch,” you know, if they were really in big trouble, and some of them said, “I was in big trouble with my teaching and you got me tenure.” Yeah, like, right. But anyway, the book helped a lot of people. And I guess maybe something in me when I first published this book said, “Gee it would really be great to be the next Wilbert McKeachie, right, which is a very pretentious thing to think. But then they wanted the second edition, I was thinking, “Hey, maybe I’m on the road to something.” And then there was a third, and then there was the fourth. And it didn’t get any easier to write the subsequent editions really, it was just a matter of keeping up with the literature. And so right now, I’m off into another corner of the world. So I just didn’t want to immerse myself in that again.

John: So that brings us to the question of what is new in the fifth edition?

Todd: Well, that’s my question. I’ve known Linda for the longest time. By the way, I do want to mention before we go on, I can’t remember, Linda, if it’s been that long ago, but it might have been the second edition. When at POD, I said, “You need to do a second edition of this book” …or second or third. But I was using the book. I mean, I learned so much from it. So for the new edition. Number one, of course, the research has been updated only because the research is always changing. And it had been a few years. So that’s number one. In terms of changing the book, though, we only have a leeway of about 10,000 words. Now, for those out there listening 10,000 words sounds like a lot of words until you’ve got a 200,000 word book, it was about 190. And they said, you can’t go over 200 Because the book just gets too big then. So it is 10,000 words longer than it was in fact, I think it’s 10,003 words longer. So it’s right in there. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So you snuck an extra 3 words in.

Todd: It could have been a squeeze to put three words in there. And it’s always hilarious because when they say there’s just a few too many words I just start hyphenating things so yeah, it kind of all works. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, just any words at all. So you can do “can you” as just a hyphenated word. It works. [LAUGHTER]K So is that terminology, the terminology does change and I find this fascinating. One of the things I love to write about books is learning. I mean, Linda, the same thing what as we write, we read a ton of stuff. And as we read stuff, we learn stuff. So this one in particular, for example, is that I grew up with PBL as problem based learning. And I had done workshops on it, I had worked on everything else, but I hadn’t looked at it for quite a while. And in this particular book, as I started looking at PBL, I couldn’t find anything on problem based learning. And it was fascinating because I was doing some digging, and then I called Claire Major, who was an early person who had a grant on problem based learning and everything I ran into was about 2002, it just started to drop off a little bit, and there was some, but it started to tail off. And when I talked to Claire, she says, “Oh, yeah, I used to do quite a bit about that, it was back around 2002-2003.” And now, and the reason I’m saying this is, every time I saw the letters PBL, it was project based learning. And project based learning sounds a lot like problem based learning, but they’re different concepts. And so anyway, going through and finding some of the terminology, so it was consistent with what’s being done right now has changed. There is now a chapter on inclusive teaching, because over the last three or four years, we finally realized that there’s a whole lot of individuals who haven’t been successful in higher education, partly because of the way we teach. And so I’ve been making an argument for a few years now that teaching and learning, the classroom situation has always really been based for fast-talking, risk-taking extroverts. And we’ve suddenly realized that if you’re not a fast-talking, risk-taking extrovert, you may not get a chance to participate, classroom and other things. So I looked at some different things with inclusive teaching. There’s a whole another chapter on that. And then just the language throughout, we talk a little differently now, just even over the last three or four years than we did five, six years ago, I was pretty surprised by that. But there’s some pretty significant changes in language. So the book has a slightly different tone in language, and those are the biggest changes. Oh, I should say, before we move on, one of the biggest other changes, and I did this one, Linda put a section in there that said learning styles had changed significantly from the previous edition. And so she had pointed out that there was no longer a section on learning styles. And I put the learning styles right back in there, I told Linda and she gasped just a little bit. And then I explained that I put it back in there, and then said exactly how terrible it was to basically teach according to learning styles, because it’s the myth that will not die. So that’s back in there.

Linda: People love it. I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: We have that issue all the time, students come in believing in them and say, “Well, I can’t learn from reading because I’m a visual learner.” And I say “Well, fortunately, you use your eyes to read,” and then I’ll get them some citations.

Todd: Well, I’ll tell you, and before we move on, these are the types of things we learned. I couldn’t figure out why the thing is so hard to die. What is it that’s really doing this because other myths we’ve been able to debunk. And part of the reason is licensing exams, when you are in pre-service and you want to become a teacher, the exams you take to become a teacher, a large portion of those exams, have learning styles questions on there. So you have to answer about visual learners and auditory learners and kinesthetic. And so until we get those out of teacher education programs, we’re teaching teachers to believe this. So anyway, there you go. Public service announcement. Be careful about meshing. And if you don’t know what meshing is, look it up and then stop it. [LAUGHTER]

John: We have had guests on the podcast who mentioned learning styles, and then we edit them out and explain to them later why we edit out any reference to that. And I think most of them were in education, either as instructors, or they’ve been working as secondary teachers. It is a pretty pervasive myth. In fact, Michelle Miller and Kristen Betts, together with some other people, did a survey. And that was the most commonly believed myth about teaching and learning. It was done through OLC a few years back, about three or four years ago. Yep,

Todd: Yeah, I saw that survey. Yes, it’s pretty amazing. Michelle’s an amazing person.

Rebecca: The experience of the pandemic has had a fairly large impact on how our classes are taught. Can you talk a little bit, Todd, about how this is reflected in this new edition?

Todd: Things have changed pretty significantly because of the pandemic. There’s a couple things going on. Again, the inclusive teaching and learning, which I’ve already commented on, is really different now. And it’s interesting, because it goes back to the 1960s. We’ve known that, for instance, African Americans tend to flunk at twice the rate of Caucasians, in large machine-scored multiple choice exams. So we know it’s not the teaching, and we know it’s not the grades, it has to be something else. And it turns out that it was you put students into groups and those differences start to disappear. So I mean, even more so the last couple of years, it’s a lot of engaged learning, active learning. I’m still going to pitch my stuff that I’ve been ranting and raving about for years. And there’s no data out there that says that lecturing is bad. What the data says is that if you add active and engaged learning to lecture, then you have much better outcomes than lecture alone. But we’re learning about those types of things in terms of active and engaged learning, how to pair it with and mix it with other strategies that work, looking at distance education in terms of systems and how we can use technology. So a quick example is I used to have a review session before exams. And oftentimes, it’s hard to find a place on campus to have that. And so you might be in a room off in one hall or the library or something. And if the exam was on Monday, I’d have the review session at like six o’clock, seven o’clock on a Sunday night. And there are students who couldn’t make it. I would simply say, you can get notes from someone else. And we’ve known for the longest time, if a student misses class, getting notes from somebody else doesn’t work. Well, now I do review sessions on Zoom, we don’t have to worry about finding a place to park, we don’t have to worry about some students finding babysitters, if they’re working, it’s recorded, so they get the exact same thing. So things like Zoom have really changed teaching in a sense that you can capture the essence in the experience of teaching and use it for others, and it has helped with some equity issues. You can’t do it all the time. And teaching over Zoom is different than face to face. But there are now ways of using different technologies and using different modalities to help to teach in ways that were not really used before the pandemic.

John: Speaking of that, during the pandemic, there was a period of rapid expansion in both the variety of edtech tools available and in terms of teaching modalities themselves. In the description of your book, it indicates that you address useful educational technology and what is a waste of time? Could you give us an example of both some useful technologies that could be used and some that are not so useful? And also perhaps a reaction to the spread of bichronous and HyFlex instruction?

Linda: Yeah, I’ll take this one. And I’m drawing a lot of stuff from another book that I co-authored, with Ludwika Goodman. We were writing about Online Teaching at its Best, okay. And she was an instructional designer. And I came from teaching and learning and we put our literature’s together. And we were talking about modalities a great deal, especially in the second edition with the pandemic. Well, one thing I found out, not only from reading, but also from watching this happen was that this Hyflex or bichronous, whatever you want to call it, is a bust, if there ever was a modality, that’s a bad idea it’s that one, even though administrators love it because students can choose whether to come to class and do the things they would do in class, or to attend class remotely? Well, yeah, it sounds like “oh, yeah, that could be good.” But the technological problems, and then the social problems, especially the in-class social problems are enormous. And in-class social problems, like small group work, how do you hear what’s going on in the classroom over this low roar of small groups? Okay, so how can you help? How can the students that are learning remotely, what can they do? Now, the way this was invented, by the way, was for a small graduate class, and then okay, like, makes sense, because you’re only dealing with six students in this room and six students who are remote. But other than that, it’s so bad, the logistics, the sound logistics, the coordination that the instructor has to maintain, the attempt at being fair to both groups, at bringing in both groups, when the groups can’t even hear each other well. Now, if we had Hollywood level equipment in our classrooms, we might be able to make this work a little better, but we don’t, and we’re never going to have that. So there are just a lot of technological and social reasons why HyFlex, that’s what I called it in Online Teaching at its Best, what it was called at the time is a complete bust. Now, not to be confused with hybrid or blended learning, which we found has worked exceedingly well. So bringing in some technology, but into a face-to-face environment and that being the base of the class. Now, remote’s nice, but you might not want to do remote all the time for all things. It’s not quite the next best thing to being there. But it’s something and as long as you don’t just stand there and stare at the camera and lecture for an hour. You’ll get complaints about that quickly. And particularly with students today when they really need to be actively involved, actively engaged. So yeah, sure, fine, talk for three minutes, maybe even push it for five, but then give them something to do and you really, really must in remote because otherwise, you’re just some talking head on television.

Todd: I agree completely. In fact, it was funny because I happen to have a digital copy of the book here. And so I typed in a ctrl F and I typed in HyFlex and there’s one comment to the preface that said there’s many different formats out there and then I will tell the listeners, if you’re expecting to learn about HyFlex, the word never shows up again in the book. [LAUGHTER] So, it’s not in there. I mean, you look at the literature that’s out there. And I think it’s fair to say that maybe there are people who can do it. I haven’t really seen it done well and I think Linda’s saying she hasn’t either. And it’s so difficult, especially for a book like this. That’s not what we’re all about. I mean, again, if it even works well, which I’d love to hear that it would be a very advanced book and that’s not what this is. So we do have a lot in there about technology in terms of edtech tools, though. There are those in there, I would just say real quickly, for instance, Padlet’s one of my favorites, I’ll throw that out there. I like Padlet a lot. But there are tools out there, if you want to do a gallery walk, which for instance, if you happen to be in a face-to-face course, you’d set up maybe four stations with big sheets of paper, you put your students into groups, and then they walk from sheet of paper to sheet of paper, and they move around the room. And they can do what’s called a gallery walk. You can do the same thing online with a jamboard, you can set up jamboards so that there’s different pages, and then each group is on a page. And then you just say it’s time to shift pages, they could shift pages. So I’ve done gallery walks, and it’s worked well. I’ve used Padlet for brainstorming. And one of the things I love about Padlet, I’ll have to say is if you are doing some digital teaching in a situation, you can watch what each group is developing on the page for all groups at the same time. I can’t hear all groups at the same time when I walk around the room. So there are certainly some technologies coming out that can really do things well. There’s also things that don’t work very well, though. And I think one of the things you want to keep in mind is just learning theory. Does the technology you’re using advance students, potentially, through learning theory? Does it help with repetition? Does it help with attention? Linda was just mentioning attention, if you lecture too long, you lose their attention. If you do something ridiculously simple or not… I was gonna say stupid, but that sounds rude. But if we do something as a small group that makes no sense, you don’t get their attention either. So using clickers, I have to say, I watched a faculty member one time because they were touted as a person who was very engaging. And this is at a medical school, so I really wanted to see this. And the person used clickers, but used it in a way that asked the students a question, they responded, and the instructor looked up at the board and said, “Here’s how you responded, let’s move on.” And then moved on to the next thing. And about five minutes later gave another question said, “How do you respond?” and they clicked the clicker, and then they moved on again. That had no value at all, and in fact, there was no actual interaction there. So afterwards, I say, can’t you just ask a rhetorical question and just move on? We got to be careful not to use technology just because it’s being used, it should advance the learning process.

John: However, clickers can be effective if it’s combined with peer discussion and some feedback and some just-in-time teaching. If it’s just used to get responses that are ignored, it really doesn’t align with any evidence-based practice or anything we know about teaching and learning. But those per discussions can be useful and there’s a lot of research that show that does result in longer-term knowledge retention when it’s used correctly, but often it’s not.

Todd: Right. And I think that’s a really good point. I’m glad you said that, because Eric Mazur, and his concept tests, for a large extent, that’s where active and engaged learning really took off. And that is a clicker questions. And they can be used as great tools. But again, if you’re using it for the right reason, which is what you just said, My comment is, there’s technology out there, that is a waste of time, and not a good thing to have, because it’s just not being used in a way that’s conducive to learning. So good point, that’s fair.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about who the audience of the book is?

Linda: Sure. It’s actually for anybody who teaches students older than children, I suppose, because it isn’t really designed for teaching children. But other than that, it’s really for people who teach but don’t have the time to read a book. The nice thing about Teaching at its Best is you can go to the table of contents, you go to the index, you could find exactly what you need for your next class. And it’s very oriented towards how to, so it could be for beginners or for experienced people who simply haven’t tried something specific before, or want a twist on it, or just want some inspiration. Because there there are a lot of different teaching techniques in there. And they’re all oriented towards student engagement, every single one of them. But I wanted to comment too, on just how the job of instructor or professor has changed over the past, I don’t know, 40 years, I suppose. I know when I started teaching it was a completely different job. And I started teaching in 1975, when I was 12, of course, but no and I was young to start teaching because I was 25 and there I was 180 students in front of me. So oops, my goodness, what have I done? But that’s exactly what I wanted to do. But you’d go in there, you’d lecture and you’d walk out. You were in complete control of everything. Like, you might throw out a question and you might get a discussion going. But it wasn’t considered to be essential. In fact, there were two teaching techniques back then: there was lecture, and there was discussion. And nobody knew how to do discussion. Now, I had to find out a few things about it when I was doing TA training, because TAs were supposed to be running discussions. But there wasn’t a lot out there. Thank God for Wilbert McKeachie’s book Teaching Tips, because that was about the only source out there you could go to. So anyway, but now the job, I mean, oh, it’s mind boggling what faculty are now expected to do. And they are supposed to, like, learning outcomes. Okay, I love learning outcomes. They’re wonderful. But I didn’t have to do that when I started, I just had to talk about my subject, which I dearly loved. And so, that was nothing. But you’ve got learning outcomes. So you’ve got to be like, a course designer, you have to deal with a student’s mental health problems, right? It’s part of the job, and you’re expected to respond to them. You’re supposed to give them career counseling in careers that you might not know much about, and possibly for good reason, because you’re in your own career. It’s so time consuming, not to mention fair use, oh, yes, fair use has changed, fair use has changed radically. And when you’re dealing with anything online, the rules are totally different. And you’re highly restricted as to what you can use, what you could do. When you’re in a face-to-face classroom, it’s a little bit easier. So yeah, so you got to be a copyright lawyer to stay out of trouble. And then you get involved in accreditation, you get involved in that kind of assessment. So you have to all of a sudden be totally involved in what your program is doing, what your major is doing, where it’s headed. There’s just too much to do. And there are more and more committees and oh, there’s a lot of time wasted in committees. Of course, you’re supposed to publish at the same time and make presentations at conferences. It was like that back then, too. But now, the expectations are higher, and it’s on top of more time in teaching, and more courses. I was teaching four courses a year, and you can’t find that kind of job anymore.

Rebecca: So Linda, you’re saying the animal shelter is going really well now?

Linda: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Todd: That’s hilarious. Well, I want to point out too, and I think Linda’s said it very, very well is that we are expected to do things we never had to use before. Never worried about before. And I love the fair use is great, because when I first started teaching, and I’ve been teaching for 36 years, when I first started teaching, you’d videotape something off TV and show it in class and then put it on the shelf. And I knew people who showed the same video for 10 years. Right now you better be careful about showing the same video for 10 years. But these are things we need to know. I would say also, by the way, this is a really good book for administrators, anybody who would like to give guidance to faculty members, or better understand teaching and learning so that when promotion and tenure comes along, you get a sense of this. And so if you’re saying to the faculty, they should use a variety of teaching strategies. It’s not a bad idea to know a variety of teaching strategies. And so I think it’s good for administrators as well, and graduate students. But I want to take a second and tell you, one of the reviews of the book, I guess, came in just yesterday or the day before from Dan Levy. He’s a senior lecturer at Harvard University. And what he put was Teaching at it’s Best is an absolute gem. Whether you are new to teaching in higher education, or have been doing it for a while, you will find this book’s evidence-based advice on a wide range of teaching issues to be very helpful. The style is engaging and the breadth is impressive. If you want to teach at your best you should read Teaching at its Best. And I love what he put in there because it doesn’t matter if you’re a new teacher or you’ve been doing it for a while, this book’s got a lot of stuff in it.

John: And Dan has been a guest on our podcast, and he’s also an economist, which is another thing in his favor. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: That is good.

John: I do want to comment on lenders observation about how teaching has changed because I came in at a very similar type of experience. I was told by the chair of the department not to waste a lot of time on teaching and to focus primarily on research because that’s what’s most important, and that’s the only thing that’s really ultimately valued here or elsewhere in the job market. But then what happened is a few people started reading the literature on how we learn And then they started writing these books about it. [LAUGHTER] And these books encouraged us to do things like retrieval practice and low-stakes tests, and to provide lots of feedback to students. So those people…[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I don’t know any of them.

John: …but as a result of that many people started changing the way they teach in response to this. So some of it is you brought this on to all of us by sharing… [LAUGHTER]

Linda: I apologize.

Todd: Sorry about that.

Linda: I apologize.

Todd: We apologize and you know, I will say too is, so yeah, sorry. Sorry about doing that. But I’m glad you said that.

Linda: We made the job harder didn’t we?

Todd: We did, but you know to just be fair for Linda and I as well as I still remember a faculty member calling me, It must have been about 20 years ago, and I just started doing a little bit of Faculty Development, she was crying, she had given her first assignment in terms of a paper. And she said, I’m sitting here with a stack of papers, and I don’t know how to grade them. And it got me thinking a little bit, how many of the aspects of the job that we’re required to do, were we trained to do? And that’s the stuff that Linda was mentioning as well, is nobody taught me. I’m an industrial psychologist. And so nobody taught me the strategies for delivering information to a group of 200 people. Nobody taught me how to grade essay tests. Nobody taught me how to grade presentations, I didn’t know about fair use and how I could use things. I mean, you go through and list all of the things that you’re required to do. And then look at all the things you were trained to do. And this is tough. And that changed. So I have one quick one I’ll mention is I was hired as an adjunct faculty member before I got my first tenure-track job. And I was teaching 4-4. So I had four classes in the fall, four classes in the spring. And about halfway through the spring, I ran into the department chair, and I was interested to see if I was going to be able to come back and I said, “Hey, Mike, how am I doing?” And this was at Central Michigan University, a pretty good sized school. He said, “You were fantastic.” And I said, “Excellent. What have you heard?” He said, “absolutely nothing.” So when it comes to teaching, what I learned was: research, you had to do well, and teaching, you had to not do terribly. And that is what you were mentioning has changed is now you’re kind of expected to do teaching as well.

Rebecca: And there’s a lot more research in the area now too. So sometimes it’s hard to keep up on it. So books like this can be really helpful in providing a lot of that research in one place.

John: And both of you have written many good books that have guided many, many faculty in their careers, and eliminated that gap between what we’re trained to do and what we actually have to do.

Rebecca: So of course, we want to know when we can have this book in our hands.

Todd: Good news for this book, which is exciting because we really cranked away on this thing and it’s listed in Amazon as being due on April 25. But it actually went to press on January 23. So it’s already out and about three months ahead of schedule.

John: Excellent. We’re looking forward to it. I’ve had my copy on preorder since I saw a tweet about this. I think it was your tweet, Todd, a while back. And I’m very much looking forward to receiving a copy of it.

Todd: Excellent. We’re looking forward to people being able to benefit from copies of it.

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

Todd: It’s hard to tell what’s next because I’m exhausted from what’s been [LAUGHTER] ever moving forward, as I’m working on and just finishing a book right now that’s to help faculty in the first year of their teaching. So it’s basically off to a good start. It’s what specifically faculty should do in the first year of getting a teaching position. And aside from that, probably working on my next jigsaw puzzle, I like to do the great big jigsaw puzzles. And so I just finished one that had 33,600 pieces. It is five feet….

Rebecca: Did you say 33,000 pieces?

Todd: No, I said 33,600 pieces.It was the 600 that…

Rebecca: Oh, ok.

Todd: …was difficult. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah.

Todd: When the puzzle is done, it has standard sized pieces, and it is five feet by 20 feet. So I just enjoy massively putting something together. It’s very challenging. So quite frankly, for those about and listening to this is if you imagine 33,600 puzzle pieces, that’s about as many studies as Linda and I have read to put this book together. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Nothing to it. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: So that’s it for me. [LAUGHTER] Linda, what are you up to these days?

Linda: Oh, well, I live in la la land. So I’m still doing workshops and webinars and things like that mostly on my books of various kinds, various teaching topics. But I think what I want to do is retake up pastels and charcoals. My father was a commercial artist. And so he got me into pastels and charcoals when I was in high school. Well and then I dropped it to go off to college. Well, I want to get back into it in addition to working at the animal shelter. I know. It’s la la land and I wish la la land on everybody that I like.[LAUGHTER] I hope you all go to la la land and enjoy being a four year old all over again, because that’s the way I feel. I adapted to retirement in about 24 hours. That’s pushing it… you know, it’s more like four. But anyway, I slept on it. [LAUGHTER] That was the end of it. But I know I eased into it. I eased into it. I was still writing. I was still doing, especially before the pandemic, a lot of speaking. So then the pandemic hit and it just turned into online everything. And now I’m back on the road again, to a certain extent. I love it. So anyway, it’s a nice balance. So yeah, I wish you all la la land too.

Todd: That’s great.

Rebecca: That’s something to aspire to.

Todd: Yeah, it is. But you know, since you mentioned the speaking things, I just have to do the quick plug here. Linda, I think you and I, years and years ago, were joking around at POD about who would be the first one to get to the 50 states and have done a presentation in every state. And so I gotta tell you, I’m not even sure where you’re at in the mix, but I am at 49 states. And if any of your listeners are in North Dakota, [LAUGHTER] I could certainly use a phone call from North Dakota.

Linda: Well, I want to go to Vermont. I have not been to Vermont…

Todd: Oh, you haven’t.

Linda: …to give a presentation. So I would enjoy that. But I’ll go to Hawaii. I’ll do anything in Hawaii for you. Absolutely anything. [LAUGHTER] I’ll do gardening, [LAUGHTER] I’ll do dishes, your laundry. I don’t care.

Todd: That is good. Yeah, Linda and I had this gig. It was a long, long time ago. And I don’t know, it must have been 20 years ago we talked about it even. And there was some rules too. You had to be invited. And there had to be some kind of an honorarium or just I mean, it didn’t have to be much, but the concept was you just couldn’t show up at a state and start talking. [LAUGHTER] Otherwise, we’d have both been done a long time ago. But yeah,

Linda: Yeah.

Todd: … it was fun. This is the way nerds have fun. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, that’s a competition that’s benefited again, a lot of people over the years.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us. It’s great to see both of you again, and we look forward to seeing your new book.

Linda: Thank you for this opportunity. It was a pleasure.

Todd: It was so much fun. Thank you


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

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


275. Improving Learning and Mental Health

 Student reports of mental health challenges have been rising rapidly for several years. In this episode, Robert Eaton and Bonnie Moon join us to discuss what faculty can do to better support students facing these challenges. Robert and Bonnie aretwo of the authors of Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom, which will be released later this spring by West Virginia University Press.

After completing a law degree at Stanford and working for several years as a litigator and general counsel, Robert returned to academia in 2004 as a member of the Religious Education faculty at BYU-Idaho. He is currently a professor of religious education and a learning and teaching fellow, and has previously served as the Associate Academic Vice President for Academic Development at BYU-Idaho. Bonnie is a member of the math department at BYU-Idaho, where she also serves as STEM Outreach Coordinator.



John: Student reports of mental health challenges have been rising rapidly for several years. In this episode, we discuss what faculty can do to better support students facing these challenges.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guests today are Robert Eaton and Bonnie Moon. They are two of the authors of Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom, which will be released later this spring by West Virginia University Press. After completing a law degree at Stanford and working for several years as a litigator and general counsel, Robert returned to academia in 2004 as a member of the Religious Education faculty at BYU-Idaho. He is currently a professor of religious education and a learning and teaching fellow, and has previously served as the Associate Academic Vice President for Academic Development at BYU-Idaho. Bonnie is a member of the math department at BYU-Idaho, where she also serves as STEM Outreach Coordinator. Welcome Robert and Bonnie.

Robert: Good to be here.

Bonnie: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are: …are either of you drinking tea?

Bonnie: [LAUGHTER] I brought my lemon water. Can I still be on your show? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Well, they are two key ingredients of tea.

Bonnie: Yes, right. That’s what I thought.

Robert: And I brought my favorite flavorful herbal tea. Sweet and Spicy Original from Good Earth.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I’m sporting the Hunan jig again, John. That’s all I got. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have a ginger peach green tea today.

Bonnie: Oh, that sounds delicious, too.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom. Could you tell us a little bit about how this project came about?

Robert: It actually started with me. And it’s hard for me to trace exactly when it started. But I’ve been out of the classroom on a full-time basis for a while. And when I got back in, I was amazed to see just how many students were flaming out and fizzling out by the end of the semester because of mental health challenges. And I’d sensed that this was an issue of increasing severity, but still seeing it firsthand, especially after a few years away, was really breathtaking, and got me thinking about the way that we teach and our course design decisions and what effects that might have on students and whether there were things that we as professors could do. So I ended up kicking off a semester-long faculty learning community exercise, we call them a “Think Shop” here and Bonnie was one of the members of that group. And I thought I wanted to tackle a book, and eventually as we got into it, I invited Steve Hunsaker, who’s not with us today and Bonnie to join us. And it’s been a marvelous collaborative effort.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about who your target audience for the book is?

Bonnie: College professors, somebody like me, who didn’t come from a background heavy in psychology or understanding the psyche and to someone that loves mathematics… someone like me, who doesn’t really understand all of the details, but wants her students to feel safe in her classroom and have a safe place to study and to thrive and to be passionate about something. And so, yeah, so college professors, research or at our Institute, we focus on teaching but either kind of Institute.

Robert: So that said, our research assistant has now graduated and is teaching elementary school, and said she uses many of the ideas from the book. And they’ve been relevant even in a K-12 setting. I was thinking through how we probably, from a marketing standpoint, didn’t choose wisely enough… that really many of the ideas in the book would be beneficial to a student, even if their teachers choose not to do any of these things, they could still realize, “Wow, community matters, maybe I should try to connect with some people and create a study group, even if the teacher doesn’t facilitate that.” So I would say college students with mental health challenges and their parents might benefit from it as well,

Rebecca: When we’re running professional development, which is just another setting of teaching, those students might also fit some of these descriptions, too. [LAUGHTER]

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about that faculty learning community that this work began to grow out of?

Robert: A few years ago, we’d started a formalized faculty learning community exercise, we branded ours a “Think Shop,” but basically, it’s a semester-long effort where faculty from different disciplines come together and take a deep dive into the scholarship of learning and teaching or something that affects teaching and we exchange ideas. So we met every week, we each read different things, and I kind of facilitated that and led a discussion. So it was delightful to get to know colleagues better and to brainstorm and benefit from the different disciplinary perspectives. Bonnie, would you add anything to that?

Bonnie:Yeah, I am so grateful that I found that community. Not only are we hopeful that we’ll create a place where students can thrive, but I think it’s important for the professors that run these classes to also model this and to participate in these things. So having that community with other colleagues, especially right at the start at COVID, [LAUGHTER] was very helpful to me and my mental health. And it was just invigorating to learn new things and understand a whole new discipline that I had never studied before and to try and understand what’s happening. So I think it was an opportunity for me just to even model when I’m hoping that my students will do as well.

Robert: It turns out community is not just good for students from a mental health standpoint, but for faculty. For us, the timing was fortuitous, it came right on the front end of the pandemic. So at the time when people were kind of having to withdraw socially we continued it virtually, and it gave us some great community support.

Rebecca: It’s probably worth noting that you just mentioned that this conversation started prior to the pandemic. Certainly, our awareness around mental health issues have been raised and related to the pandemic, but these were growing issues among college students prior to the pandemic, for sure. Can you talk a little bit about why we’re seeing these mental health challenges so prevalent among college students?

Robert: It may be a cop out that we took in the book. But we basically said, what are the root causes of this? We’re not really sure, but we know they’re arriving, and that the problems are real. In fact, one of my fears, sometimes, with the conversations among some of our more hard nosed colleagues, when we talk about roots is that I feel they’re a bit dismissive of the symptoms, and think, well, people just sort of buck up, and if they’d put away their cell phones and move some pipe and work like we used to everything would be fine. I’m fascinated by the debates. And in fact, there was one item, we were going to include in Bonnie’’s chapter, and then a meta analysis came out that was contrary to the other studies that I’ve been seeing. And so we left it out. So I’m puzzled, intrigued, and have my own guesses. It’s hard to ignore technology and the way it’s changed society. So that’s certainly a controversial but leading candidate, but something has changed. There’s a little bit of people being more willing to go and get diagnosed, and maybe a little bit of change of measurement. But there’s some pretty good solid measurements, like attempted suicides or self harm, where it’s not just categorization, where we can see this is really snowballing over time. So our short answer is, we’re not really sure. But we know they’re coming to us with these problems, we are rooting for those people researching the root causes. And we’re kind of leaving that to others as we deal with the symptoms that we see in our classrooms.

John: We’ve always lost a lot of students along the way. And some of that seems to be related to the stress and anxiety that students experience. You describe in your book, the high-risk, high-stakes, environment of college. Why would that tend to increase the prevalence of mental health challenges for students?

Bonnie: So first of all, they’re just coming from maybe a secure place, high school, a place where their teachers were there, they knew them every day, they were very structured, and they knew their schedules, and then they’re coming to this new place to navigate. And it’s a whole new world. And so they’re on their own, their support system is not necessarily in place as they come into this new world. And it’s just like we said in the book about this petri dish just ready [LAUGHTER] for something to happen that does not seem normal or good. And so I think that the uncertain times of it, the deadlines that we put on them, maybe sometimes just not even having a friend. Some of these kids get isolated in their rooms, and they don’t see people for days, and then the teachers start to hopefully miss them. And I think that is part of where we can make a difference. And we were probably going to talk about this later, but when you think about the college experience, the teacher, the professor, is the one that has the most likelihood of seeing these students most often and most regularly, and when we don’t see them. I’m hoping that we’re alarmed. And like, “Where have they been for a week or two weeks or three weeks?” One day, I was in class, and I noticed one of my groups was conversing and that one of the students was really struggling to socially interact with these other kids. And he was just upset and mad. And the other three students were very uncomfortable working with him. And so I started to wonder what was going on. And I made a few phone calls, and one of the students asked me to please call the services on campus… I’m not sure what they were called back then, we’ve been working on this at our campus to get these services more upfront… but I think I ended up calling security because the kids were so worried about this kid, that he was going to be violent, that I ended up calling security. And so security actually had a program where they reached out to him, they went to look for him at his home. And the sad thing is that this kid never showed up to my class again. And so after that experience, I was like “What happened?” like do inform us of things going on. And I found out later on that he had passed away, and there was no details, there was nothing. And as a professor, I was like, “What could I have done?” I didn’t understand, I knew something was kind of strange, but I just didn’t understand, I didn’t have the tools, and it’s not our job to fix these things. But to be able to recognize something in our classes and get these students to places where they can get help. I think that’s something we can do, and it doesn’t go too far outside of the reach of our classroom. We’re trying to build curriculum, we’re trying to build awesome experiences that motivate students. A lot of us might say, we don’t have time for this when I have time to worry about the students outside of our classes. But it would have taken just a couple phone calls, and I know they did reach out. But I don’t know, I don’t know what happened to that student. But still, I feel like I can do something. Even if it’s small I can do something for one person. It matters.

Rebecca: I think the reality is that we often say we don’t have time yet we expend a lot of energy actually worrying about our students, or at least a good portion of faculty do, because they are missing or something seems not quite right and we don’t know what to do. So that energy is being expended whether or not we’re actually acting on it.

Robert: Yeah, in fact, I think there are a couple of false dichotomies to be aware of: one is I either do the stuff I’m supposed to do as a professor or I babysit kids with mental health challenges, or I either focus on being a high expectations professor who really helps students master the content or I just coddle them. And we find those both to be false narratives. For example, I now on the first day of class do things differently than I did the first 10 years. And I have students in teams, I make sure at least one person in the team has already read the syllabus, maybe taking the syllabus quiz, and then I have them show each other. First, I have them connect, get to know each other, share phone numbers, and then I have them show each other all the stuff. And once they’re all done, then I say, “Have you got any questions?” And there are usually relatively few. The dynamic on that first day is fundamentally different and better than it used to be and I get far fewer follow up emails and phone calls asking how to do something because they text each other, they know how to do it. So it’s a simple technique, that’s actually a great one, for helping our students who come to our classroom with some anxiety and wondering if they’re gonna have any help or be able to make any friends. And it actually takes me less time in the course of the next couple of weeks because of the fruitfulness of that investment.

Bonnie: Yeah, what if we could be better teachers, and help our students improve their mental wellness at the same time, and it didn’t take any extra time? Wouldn’t you want that recipe?

Robert: In fact, that’s why we went back and forth on the title, we really struggled. But we wanted to convey the notion that you don’t have to choose between improving learning and mental health, that really virtually every tactic we recommend in the book, we would recommend even to someone who somehow had no students with mental health challenges in their classroom. It just makes for better learning, they happen to also make life much better for students with mental health challenges.

John: One of the really nice things that I observed in reading through your book is that so many of the practices, as you said, are things that are recommended by people who study effective learning techniques. And one of the things you talk about is replacing high stakes exams with lower stakes activities. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Bonnie: Given a little bit away, I’ve been a student myself for the last two years. I took a sabbatical and went back to school. [LAUGHTER]

Robert: And what degree are you pursuing, Bonnie?

Bonnie: And so I love mathematics, but I wanted to see how math works inside of a nuclear reactor, so I went back to school in nuclear engineering. And so, [LAUGHTER] just coming fresh off of that, and having worked on this project with Robin, Steve, I’m like, ”oh, I have so many ideas for you guys about how you could help me not be so stressed out, and not so anxious today.” [LAUGHTER] They didn’t want to hear that. But I was like, “I have some ideas.” But one thing I think that I’m taking back to my classroom from that experience is choice. Like when my professors gave me choice, and they let me follow a path that I was passionate about, I was all in, I didn’t have to be pushed, I was pulled into that direction. And so when I think about assessment in my own classes now, like coming back, and I think about that final exam, and sometimes that is a high-stakes place, and very stressful, even all of our exams can be that way. So for my differential equations course this semester, and I have done this a few times before, I give a choice, of course, between a final exam or final project. And we start talking about this early on. And not all of them want the final project because it is a lot of work. But watching them light up, and to see that they could do something different than sit down and take a test for three hours.[LAUGHTER] It’s just so heartwarming to watch them, and it’s helpful to them. And I was telling Rob and Steve that I had one student that took the project and found something to do inside of his other classes he was taking, and he kind of connected them together. And to watch his passion and to see him come from the student that sat in the back row that seemed mad every day, [LAUGHTER] and when I mentioned this final project, he just lit up and I could see hope, and at the end of the semester, he couldn’t stop. Like I finally said, “You can get some sleep tonight, you don’t need to work on this every minute of the day.” It was just an amazing transformation to see purpose, help him come pull out of this. I don’t know if he was suffering from depression, but he was definitely down a lot in my class, and maybe that was the subject because mathematics tends to make people anxious sometimes anyway, [LAUGHTER] but just to see the turnaround. So I mean, I don’t know that we always have to put everything in one place, but we can give choice and let them kind of have some room to navigate their own way through our courses.

Robert: I should confess that I started from a pretty old school hard-nosed mentality. And that law school, it was a game I played well, so I thought it was a good game. And the in-class instruction, by the way, at my law school was fabulous. I still think that. But the course design, now I look back on that and I think a single assessment that’s three hours long at the end of the semester, and your feedback is one number. So I might have understood a few concepts really well and others really poorly. I actually have no idea. And for that matter, the professor has no idea how well the class is understanding things until she grades the final. She doesn’t have a chance to correct. If I were redesigning law schools, I’d say break it up into four tests. And then make it comprehensive. Give students the opportunity and incentive to fill in their knowledge gaps that they identify on an initial test or assignment. I’m just so embarrassed to admit that that, until I really studied for this and dug in and researched, really didn’t cross my mind. What happens when I give a test to students and many of them bomb it and we just move on. What am I hoping that they’ll learn? …to work harder for their next test? Well if those concepts were really as important and foundational as I claimed they were, I should be more concerned about finding a way to encourage students to go back, fill in those knowledge gaps. And so now I’ve softened up and I give them opportunity and credit, I still give them incentive to try to learn it right the first time, but I’d like to give them some incentive to go back and learn things they crashed and burned on the first time around so that they don’t get left behind.

Rebecca: You mentioned at the start of the conversation that there’s symptoms that we see, we don’t necessarily know the root causes, but we’re seeing the symptoms of various mental health challenges. And those symptoms impact student learning. So there’s a consequence to that. If we’re having anxiety, then we might be presenting that in a particular way. And then that’s probably impacting how learning is happening for us. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like? And then we can follow up with “How do we support students who are facing those challenges?”

Bonnie: I think, especially in my math classrooms, I see a lot of stress, anxiety, and the way that I saw it this last week… I’ll just tell you that example. So we were talking about filling in the learning gaps. I do a little bit of just-in-time review so that my students get prepared for class because I understand that when there are those learning gaps, it can be very intimidating to come back to a class and try and start over again. But then as you start to see their stress… and today, the student just started to get angry at something that was going on in my class. And I was like, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Well, my last class, we got to use technology, and we got to do all these things.” And I’m like, “That’s okay.” [LAUGHTER] So I could see that he was stressing out. And he may even have… I don’t know… this was just the symptom, I think, of a deeper identity with him. Like he didn’t identify with math, he didn’t see this math, he saw this as something that he just needed to get through, and stressed people don’t do math very well. [LAUGHTER] And that might be true for other subjects as well. But some of the research I dived into showed that when you’re stressing out and the teacher is coming down on you that you can’t do math, so what are we doing in our classrooms? So I started to rethink things today and said, “What is the root cause of this? What is he really stressing out about?” And that was just a one time thing. But I think maybe you’re asking more about how we identify kids, it’s just not stress, but when they start getting depressed, and when they start having this anxiety. I mean, these are things I think sometimes that are harder to see, unless you’ve been there, or you had experience with that. So one thing that I will share with you is that when I had a situational depression, that was triggered really quickly, I was not prepared for it, I started to withdraw. And I started to come away from my life. And so I can recognize that more easily now, when students start to withdraw from their groups, communicating, or they start to miss class for two or three days in a row. Or they communicate in ways that you really aren’t socially kind, like sometimes they get mad. It’s not just madness, but sometimes they just become very withdrawn and apathetic. I mean, those things are normal for everyday. But if it continues for like two weeks or three weeks, then I start to say this student might be suffering from something that’s depressive or possibly anxiety. So I do look for things like that.

Robert: Let me just add to your question, Rebecca, anxiety, or stress can be a bit like the bull and pit. It can be advantageous sometimes. it can save our lives, when some adrenaline is needed, but in certain situations, and for certain people. In fact, it seems to affect different people differently. It’s very unhelpful in the learning process. So the consensus of the research that we saw suggested that maybe in short, occasional doses, it can be fruitful, but chronic and high doses, stress almost always interferes with the learning process. And then depression, it was just always bad, [LAUGHTER] we just couldn’t find anything saying this was ever helpful to the learning process. And there’s a bunch of physiological explanations for it. But, in fact, one thing to remember is, some of us do well, like I speak better, with some stress than without it. And so those of us who succeed in teaching as careers are probably people who dealt well with that anxiety and stress built into college. And it may make it difficult for us to understand and empathize with students who process that differently. And it may cause us to be just a little callous and say, “Yep, college is stressful, buck up.” But it’s helpful if I then think about how I sing a solo. I sing much worse than I sing in a duet or a quartet. And in practice, I sing better every time than I do in a public performance. [LAUGHTER] So in that area, I can see: “Wow, stress really undermines my performance.” So it’s just a matter of being mindful of how these mental health challenges, generally, when there’s too much of them and they last too long, almost always interfere with learning.

John: What can faculty do to try to create a more supportive but positive environment for the students, which will reduce extreme levels of stress and reduce anxiety which can interfere with learning?

Bonnie: So this is where I’ve been working,[LAUGHTER] coming back from my sabbatical and seeing and feeling the stress. I want to be more aware. And so some of the things that we researched and looked into, I’m starting to use more regularly in my classes. And so one thing for sure, and we hear this a lot, just as a regular teaching strategy is to learn their names as soon as possible when they know that somebody knows them, and somebody understands that they’re not there or they are there, it makes a difference. So this is our first week of school, and so I have put a lot of energy this week into taking those names home and learning their names. And I have an every day classes, this is day three in that class, and just being able to go up to them today and talk to them, ask them their name, their major, and even before class, I’m there trying to understand who they are, a little bit about their background. And so it’s important to me, it’s important to me when I was a student, that they knew my name, and that they knew I was Bonnie Moon, and that this was what my dream is and I’m hopeful that this will happen. And so I think that’s one specific thing that we can do. I realize that some teachers and professors have these huge classrooms [LAUGHTER] with 500 students. So, we’re very lucky here because we have classes between 30 and 50. And so we can learn their names in a couple of weeks if we work hard at it. So I’m very intentional at that at this point.

Robert: I’ll add another just in terms of messaging, we found when we did focus groups that students had had a variety of experiences with professors. So they were looking to read us, they’re looking to see what does this professor really think about my situation and do I dare go ask for a bit of flexibility if a mental health crisis arises. So I added two paragraphs to my syllabus, and I have yet to have anybody I felt like was trying to exploit it or take undue advantage of it. And I’ve had other students thank me who I had no idea had mental health challenges, and they didn’t have to use it. But they said, just knowing that I felt this way, put them at ease. I have this section on mental health challenges:

A growing number of students experience mental health challenges to varying degrees. Doing what you can to stay ahead and on top of depression or anxiety by wisely taking care of yourself will be a key to succeeding academically. But even then, sometimes these challenges can affect your ability to complete the required work. Or a particular assignment might trigger anxiety for you in ways that I’ve not anticipated. Or maybe you reach a point where you just can’t get yourself to class at all. In any of those cases, please come and talk with me, or at least send me an email. I’ll listen and do what I can to help. But the sooner you share your challenges with me, the more I can help. To learn the material and pass the course or earn an A you’ll still need to do every bit as much work as other students…

By the way, as an aside, all the students in our focus groups were not only fine with that, they wanted that. They didn’t want us just to write off assignments that they missed from two weeks that they were in bed with severe depression, continuing:

…but we may be able to find some creative ways to help you do that, especially if you approach me when your problems arise, instead of at the end of the semester.

I think I get a lot more students now willing to come in, my having made it safe through this provision, and let me know about their problems while they’re still in progress and we can still do something about it. Before I was getting a lot more coming in the last week, who were in a hole that was just so deep, I couldn’t, in good conscience, find a way for them to get a passing grade.

Rebecca: So the key is catching them before they disappear.

Robert: Yeah, I think doing some preventive things. So being proactive. We found some interesting studies about just mentors. And as students being less likely to commit suicide if there was an adult they felt like they could talk to about personal things if they needed to whether or not they had taken advantage of that. In fact, for almost everything, the leading intervention that we could find was improving that connection between professors and students. Whether you want to help more students graduate, more students thrive after they graduate, Frankly, even more students participate in class discussion. For all of those different outcomes, the single best intervention seems to be strengthening that connection. So we’ve shared some ideas in the book, and I might just share from our wonderful friend and colleague, Steve, who can’t be with us today, his thought. He says:

This takes me back to Uri Treisman and his amazing work. Treisman, who teaches at University of Texas-Austin tells his students they can succeed in calculus and that they belong, but he goes far beyond asserting that. He traces for students a mathematical genealogy in which they appear at the end of a long chain of ancestors that begins with Leibniz and Newton. He invites his students to meet with him on Saturdays for one-on-one conversations that may not be about calculus, but which are clearly about their success. The depth of Treisman’s heroic dedication to students astounds me, I may never get close to his level of commitment to his students, but I’ve taken a step in that direction by building one-on-one conversations with my students into the semester schedule. I believe that students understand that time is precious and that even 10 unhurried minutes of unscripted conversation about their plans, challenges, and dreams send a clear message about care and commitment.

So, that’s from Steve Hunsaker, our wonderful co-author.

John: So you mentioned both in your book and in the conversation so far that students do care about whether their instructors care about them. We’re not always very good at sharing that, though. I think most professors do care about their students, but that doesn’t always get conveyed. Certainly learning their names is one strategy. Meeting with them one on one is another strategy. And you mentioned, letting all the students know that they’re capable of being successful is one way of doing it. Are there other strategies that faculty could use to let students know that we do care about their success?

Robert: I’ll start with the baby one, if I might, and this one hurts, because even after presenting and teaching about it, I still catch myself doing this. I’m busy. So when I get an email that says, “I’m going to have to miss class on Monday for a funeral, is that absence excused? Or if not, is there anything I can do to make it up?” I tend to go right to “Oh, that is an absence that can be excused. You get three excused absences after that you can make it=…” And then once in a while, the thought will come to my mind, did you catch the word funeral in the email, they’re going to a funeral. They’re a person who’s going to a funeral. So I’ve tried to stop and say, “I’m so sorry to hear that someone you know and love has passed away? Do you mind if I ask who?” And they’ll email back, “It’s my grandma.” And I’ll say, “Tell me how has your grandma blessed your life? How are you like your grandma? What will you miss most about your grandma?” It takes me like 10 seconds [LAUGHTER] extra typing, but it converts what was a transactional email into a human email. So just to be human in our interactions with students, I think, goes much farther than we might imagine.

Bonnie: I’ll add to that. I think accessibility is something we can build into our lives as we look at our semesters, when we’re accessible to students, and we really do meet our office hours or we arrange to meet with them and that we make ourselves available. I think that sends a message that we care about their success and about them. But I think that’s something to do. I know that one semester, my stat students created a project, where they just said “Now are professors really in their classrooms, if they had a question? And so they went around campus during office hours and checked to see if professors were there. [LAUGHTER] And they had a great project. And they found out that their alternative hypothesis that professors are actually there less than they say turned out true. [LAUGHTER] So we had to do some work. But they cared, they care whether we care. So I think accessibility, and then the one thing I would add to that would be how we structure our courses, like we don’t have to go way out of our way to make this happen. We can restructure our courses so that we get the learning done. And actually, we can maybe even improve the learning as we restructure. So an example would be in one of my classes, I have a lab day built in. And it’s not a lab day outside of class time, it’s not asking them to go get in groups outside of class time, I actually create a lab day during the week that we come together and they get to ask questions, they can talk about the homework, they can work on their group projects, because I care that they have a life. I know my class is not their only class and meeting up with groups is difficult. And I care about that. And so I just build it into my curriculum. And so I do a few more videos, I do a little bit more writing so they have some things to prepare for class. If I don’t need to say it during class, I can put it outside of class. And then during class, we can use that time to collaborate and to foster relationships and to think about deep things and to get passionate about things. Because I’m there, the best time for them, I think, is with me. [LAUGHTER] I want them to be there and I want to be their tutor, I want to be the one that sees how they’re doing on their math problems. When they run into a hard math problem. I don’t want them going to the math lab, asking another student that’s at their same level the question. I want them to come ask me. [LAUGHTER] So I set up a day every week, and that’s what we’re going to do on Monday, it’s going to be lab day. And it’s kind of a nice breather after the first week, because I’ve kind of pushed them a little bit getting started, we get right into the mathematics. And then on Monday, we have a lab day, they can breathe and I can talk to them about how things are going, I can kind of assess how I’m doing with the teaching. And if I need to change things around for the next week, we can build it into our classrooms.

Robert: I’ve started using Calendly or then I moved to Bookings, but to make it easier for students to access me. And so it’s just anytime that’s available on my calendar, they can meet with me. And when they meet with me… I stumbled on this last semester… I’ve said have you got your phone with you? Of course they have their phone with them. Would you mind showing me a photo or two or a video that would help me better understand you. So this morning, a student shows me a fascinating photo of him and two friends and his snowmobile and a big hole that he’d gotten stuck in, and told me about his love for snowmobiling. I will remember him better and understand him better because of that. I’ve been amazed at the things that students have shared with me and how understanding their backstories changes my perception. I remember asking one student “Just tell me your backstory.” He said, “Well, I was abandoned by the side of the road, I guess because I had a cleft palate. And then I was in an orphanage until I was adopted.” He was in another country. Wow. This was a student who sometimes didn’t stop talking as soon as I would have liked him to stop talking after we’d done a small group discussion. I just saw him in a whole different light and was amazed by the things that he was accomplishing. So understanding students’ backstories, I think, helps strengthen that connection we have with them.

Rebecca: One of the things that I really appreciate about the examples that you’re sharing are that none of them are big time commitments. None of them are huge asks, but they’re cumulative when they add up, and they add up in a way that really demonstrates care, and then when I’m doing it, and John’s doing it, and Rob’s doing it, and Bonnie is doing it, then the student really feels supported.

Robert: That would be our dream, the more people who do these kinds of things, the greater the support network for our students. And you know, once in a while, we’ll do some things that we wouldn’t otherwise have done. On occasion, I will walk a student who is suicidal over directly to the mental health center, to the counseling center. And so it takes me five or 10 minutes, but at the end of the day, I feel like those were probably the most five or 10 important minutes of the day. Actually, that does remind me of one other thing. We’ve talked about connecting with the students, course design decisions, classroom tactical decisions, but we do play a role as gatekeepers. We’re in a position, not to provide mental health counseling, but to spot students in need. Students, when we do the kinds of things we talk about, tend to trust us. And then I’m surprised how many will describe what, to me as a layperson, sounds like depression, but they’ve never been treated for it, they’ve never seen a counselor. And so I just make the pitch. “Wow, I’m not a mental health professional, but I’ve talked to many students with similar symptoms who’ve gone to the counseling center, it’s free here, and wow, they’ve gotten some great help, and let me introduce you to some other resources.” So just being that wise friend who knows how to connect people with resources, we’re in a unique position to do that, as professors. We may as well learn how to do it.

John: And I’ve noticed that students are much more receptive to that than they were 20-30 years ago, where there appeared to be more of a stigma associated with that. So reaching out that way can make a big difference. And I know I’ve been referring more students for mental health assistance on campus than I ever have before.

Robert: And we can contribute to that continuing evolution by making our classrooms a safe place by saying “I love to go out into the gardens and meditate periodically, I experience stress and sometimes get physical symptoms. It’s a great way for me to cope with my stress.” By just saying that, I’ve signaled to students that it’s okay to talk about it. Sometimes two or three weeks before the end of the semester, I’ll take a meta moment and say, “Hey, some of you have been here longer than others, what are some keys to not exploding during the final two weeks of the semester. Go!” A discussion erupts in which they’re remarkably candid, and they’re spot on. They talk all about things that Bonnie included in our chapter on wellness. But again, it makes it safe, and they get some good counsel from each other.

Bonnie: I agree. And when we bring that to the classroom, we actually are real, and say, “You know what? I do have some stress. And I’m probably a little overwhelmed right now. And I want to back off and love you guys and set some boundaries for ourselves too.” Like, “I’m going to check my email within 24 hours. But usually after six o’clock at night, I’m done checking email…” and let them know that you’re gonna take care of yourself too. And hopefully, they can see that that’s important to you, and they will say “I need to take care of me too.” And it’s okay to have those conversations and as you develop those relationships, you can be a little more candid and they will feel, I think, more free to come to you when they do have a problem if you’re honest and authentic and say, “Yeah, I’m a real person, like I actually have to eat [LAUGHTER] and take care of myself and I have a goal this semester.” I told my students, on Wednesday, we started, that I’m going to do the lazy woman iron. Is it like the iron woman?”

Robert: Yeah, the Iron Man.

Bonnie: Yeah, the Iron Man, and I said, you know, I’m not good at it. I want to get back in shape after COVID and Christmas. And I said, if I see you guys at the gym, that’d be awesome. Please don’t make fun of me. [LAUGHTER] But I’m gonna be on the treadmill trying to get my miles in, and in a month, I get to do an Iron man. I think I can do that. And it’s just fun to open up with them. And there’s possibilities as you’re studying hard, you can still take care of yourself outside of that, and as your professor, I’m gonna take care of myself, because I want to be good for you. I want to be healthy for you. And I want to be excited to be here tomorrow and the next day, and to do that I want to take care of myself too.

Robert: So promoting wellness practices, I think we’re uniquely positioned to encourage students to get enough sleep, to eat well, to exercise, without being preachy about it, and we’re vulnerable in the way that Bonnie just described. That could inspire a number of students to step back and think maybe I could incorporate more exercise into my daily routine.

Rebecca: Again, those are small things that don’t take a lot of time. It’s a small little conversation or a small little anecdote that you share to set the stage for wellness. So it’s not as hard as sometimes we imagined it to be.

Bonnie: I don’t want to overwhelm professors either, ‘cause it could get overwhelming thinking I need to do all this, but, like you said, one or two things can make a big difference. Just a simple thing that Rob inspired me with and Steve too, to talk about. We live in a place where it’s cold, a lot of the year, [LAUGHTER]…

Rebecca: … me too.

Bonnie: … lots of snow here in Idaho. Yeah. And so it can get a little depressing anyway, because of the climate here. But, I send a roll around to see who’s there every time because I do keep rolls, not for the grade, but just because I want to know who’s there. And I say, “If you’re here I want to know, if you’re not here, I want to know. So I send the roll around, and I sent a question around yesterday about what are some fun things you can do outside in Rexburg, like when you need a break. And so then they write their name down and give ideas and so we send that around and it’s super easy. I didn’t have to take any time out of class for that. They signed up and then the other day I asked, “So, what’s your favorite comfort foods?” just kind of get to know them and show that you care about them. But it’s like a super easy way to take care of things and to inspire them to maybe do some wellness that week. [LAUGHTER] And think about those things that they might not be thinking about.

Robert: Rebecca, you have mentioned this a couple of times that it caused me to look up a quote by one of my mentors who happens to be the father of our current university, President Henry B. Eyring. He talked about how small changes can often have a big impact. And he said, “The best place to look for small changes we could make in things is in things we do often. There is power and steadiness and repetition.” And if we can lead by inspiration, or intuition, if you will, choose the right small things to change, consistent change will bring great improvement. So really, there are some things that we suggest, that if they were to change from one final at the law school to four different tests, and then a comprehensive final, that’s a bigger change. But much of what we advocate in the book is something that you can do quite simply, and much as I love many coherent systems of teaching, they intimidate me, like Project Based Learning, it sounds really cool, it’s just been a bridge too far for me. I just haven’t been willing to make the huge investment, it feels like I would need to make to switch my course over to that all the way. On the other hand, I could show up to class a little bit early and sit next to a student and get to know her, see how she’s doing, and connect with her. That’s a small change I can make.

Rebecca: Related to mental health, one of the things that many of our colleagues have certainly noted and there’s been many articles in The Chronicle and other places about this is the idea that students seem pretty disengaged right now. They’ve survived multiple semesters of COVID and other world complications and seem disengaged. Sometimes they’re doing the work. Sometimes we’re seeing students disappear. Sometimes they’re in class not doing anything. Sometimes they’re doing stuff outside of class. It looks different depending on the students. But there’s this general sentiment of disengagement. How do we help students feel engaged or reinvigorate their energy around learning?

Robert: Let me try three concrete ideas and then I think Bonnie might have some as well. First, at the risk of beating a dead horse, the more connected they feel with us, the less disengaged they tend to be in our classroom. I noticed when I sit next to a student and chat a little bit before class, that student who has not made a comment all semester, a good chunk of the time they will volunteer a comment for the first time. It seems to be a strong correlation there. Another thing that I learned in researching this book, and we did a survey of our students, one of the things that causes the the most anxiety was when the course was moving on, the class was moving on, and they felt like they didn’t understand something. I heard Sal Khan at a talk at Stanford say that the problem with the monolithic approach to higher ed or to education in the United States is that we kind of assume everybody moves at the same speed. So we did a test on chapter one, which is learning to ride a bike and a bunch of students get a C or a D or an F, and then we move on to riding a unicycle in chapter two, and we’re surprised when they fall off. We’ve given them no incentive to go back and master bike riding first. Just this week, I had a conversation with a student who’s a family friend, he grew up in our neighborhood, and he’d struggled. He said, “This is my redemption semester.” He was going to do some things differently. And I said, so here’s what to do differently, especially in your math class. When you get a poor score on a test, try to figure out what things you didn’t understand and go watch Khan Academy videos, or go to the TA or the tutoring lab, and figure out what those things are. I happen to be here on campus last night, and I saw him at about 8:30 when I left, and he had been watching Khan Academy videos, and said this was transformative. It really hadn’t crossed his mind before to fill in the gaps. But what happens I think is if that train leaves with students not on it, they then get disengaged, they’re lost. So if we can build into our course design ways and incentives for them to master what they don’t initially master, I think they’ll remain more engaged.

Bonnie: I agree with all that, actually and thanks for bringing in mathematics.[LAUGHTER]

Robert: Always given you a nod when I can.

Bonnie: I could always use some advice and some help there too. But I wanted to add to that… I guess, maybe emphasize… the importance of that connection, and choice and passion. sometimes we get a little dispassionate with our lives, or we’re going in a direction, it just seems that’s not really where we want to be. And as a teacher, it’s an opportunity to get to know kids, find out what their passions are, and maybe help to see some of that passion in your course. And I realize this might take a little bit more time, but sometimes it’s worth it. When we think about our projects and I find out the students majors and maybe a little bit about what professors they’re also working with, sometimes I can tailor a project to them, like I talked about before, and the students can come alive. At the same time. I think we need to be realistic too, some of these students might not really be disengaged, they might be overwhelmed. They have a job outside of your class. They have another 16 credits they’re taking. They may have other family and things like that that they’re working with. So it might not be about you [LAUGHTER] or your class, it might be about all these other things they’re dealing with and we could try to give good counsel as advisors and mentors and invite them not to overbook themselves. It’s not about how fast to get there but about the journey and as you go, you can try those things, but sometimes, they’re just overwhelmed and they can’t do your class too and do it well and everything else. So, sometimes I do ask my students do you really want to take my class this semester? [LAUGHTER] I’d be happy to see you next semester, but maybe you do need to cut out something because the disengagement might be actually something else.

Robert: In fact, I’ll throw that out too. I try to proactively by the second or third of the week of the semester, now reach out to my students who are falling behind in terms of their grades. Most of them are falling behind, not only in my course, but other courses. And so now I try to counsel them a bit more holistically, not just get my assignments done, it’s “So tell me a little bit about your approach. How’s it compared to what you were doing in high school?” Nobody’s really, especially if you’re a first-generation college student, nobody’s explained the rules that in high school, you could get by with very little homework. And in college, it’s flipped. You’re supposed to spend much more time doing homework. I talked to one student and asked him how much he was studying every day and he said an hour. He said it proudly. I said, “No, I mean, like, for all of your classes, and he opens up his calendar, he said, “No, I’ve got a study hour every day.” And I said, “Oh….oh, oh, oh, did you know it’s supposed to be two hours for every credit hour, like if you’re taking 14 credits, you should be spending 28 hours. Think of it like a job, you want to put in like 40 hours a week. This was an epiphany. I think he was a first-generation college student. Somehow nobody had made that clear to him, and he was failing in almost all of his class. So when we’re proactive, reach out to struggling students early, we often find that they’ve got other issues going on, or just haven’t figured out the rules of the game for college life and how to succeed. And that can cause anybody anxiety.

John: One of the things you suggest in your book is that people consider exploring QPR training. I know we have that on our campus, and we recommend that faculty participate in that. Could you talk just a little bit about that, and what its role may be in dealing with students who face more severe challenges.

Robert: So for me two big takeaways are that just as if you were playing soccer, and a friend crashed into somebody, and you could see the bone sticking out, you would say, “let me help you go to the emergency room.” You’re not a doctor. But if they say, “No, no, I’m fine.” You say “I see the bone sticking out. I haven’t been to medical school, but that seems like a bad thing.” Let’s get you into the car in to the doctor. So just knowing that it’s okay, I think sometimes we feel like it’s illegal for me to engage in counseling. Therefore, I can’t say anything at all about this. So that QPR is kind of a twist on CPR that just as if there are no doctors around and someone’s had a heart attack, it’s helpful to have a civilian do CPR, It’s helpful if I’ve got a student in my office, who I can tell as a lay person and with a little bit of training, wow, they’re struggling to get out of bed. And so now, the other thing I came away with from that is, it’s okay for me to ask “Are you feeling suicidal? Have you had thoughts of taking your life? Have you got a method?” Let me take you to the counseling center, and then just kind of spot. And then the other big takeaway for me was that studies show if they will promise you that they won’t take their life without calling you, people are much less likely to take their life. So I wouldn’t have felt comfortable or thought that was appropriate before I took that QPR training. I found that it’s made me feel like a lay clinician, and it’s alright for me to talk about those things. And now, over the last three years or so, I’ve taken several students who are suicidal to that counseling center. In fact, in a church setting, I was talking about this, and a young woman who was a leader in her congregation texted me that Sunday night and said, “Would you walk with me tomorrow?” She was a leader. She knew exactly where the health center was. She didn’t need me to show her. But she wanted someone just to walk her over there. And I asked her before we went, “Are you feeling suicidal?” And she was. So just to be that friend who can connect people in dire need with mental health professionals is a critical role that I think any of us can play in any walk of life, but especially as teachers.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, QPR stands for Question, Persuade and Refer.

Robert: Thank you.

Rebecca: I was looking enough just to make sure I had it right. [LAUGHTER]

John: And the training tells you what questions to ask including, “Are you feeling suicidal?” and then persuade them to get assistance and refer them to the assistance, including walking people over when needed.

Rebecca: I know that when I went through the training, I quite literally used it the next day. So it’s a useful thing to take the time to learn. And it does give you the tool set or the toolbox to feel like you can engage when necessary.

Robert: It probably gets your antennae up too.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Robert: You might have spotted that thing before but I think I’m more likely to spot some things now, to see disengagement that’s kind of come on quickly to the student in class or absences and reach out.

Rebecca: Or maybe to act on the thing that you spot that you weren’t quite sure of.

Robert: Yes.

John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Bonnie: So next, I’m going home. [LAUGHTER] I can answer this so well, and eating the dinner that my husband, I think, made for me [LAUGHTER] after this first stressful week of the first week of school because he knows I’ve been so intentional this week about trying to be there for my students. I’ve worked long hours this week. I haven’t taken care of myself as much as I want to. So I’m going to go home, take care of myself this weekend, and hopefully, on Monday be refreshed for my students and I’m so excited to keep using some of these ideas and becoming their friends. I love working on my classes because I feel like we’re friends, and it’s only been three days, but I can’t wait to see my friends on Monday and I hope they feel that teamwork and that team that we become, I think, as we become a team throughout the semester. Some of these things don’t come up as often in my class, I don’t see the stress as often as they feel that teamwork. So I think the next thing for me is just to continue to work on being a good team member and creating this team that I want to see this semester… after I get some good dinner and a good night’s rest. [LAUGHTER]

Robert: I’m glad you at least include a good dinner because I feel like my answer is very selfish [LAUGHTER] compared to your selfless outward facing answer. But my career’s been unusual. I’ve spent about half of my time at BYU Idaho in academic leadership. And so just in the last couple of years have been able to dive in and research and write about these things. I’d kind of like to go speak to people who are interested in hearing about this, do workshops together with people who are learning how to improve this. I also helped teach a course that I designed and have team taught for the last six years with a couple of colleagues here for our new faculty. It’s a semester-long course. And so I’ve recently written a textbook for that course. That’s kind of all the stuff we think new teachers should know. I think we’re calling it Architects of Learning. And so I’ve got that to a point where eventually I’ll pursue publishers, figure out how to get those ideas out there as well. But build on some of the kind of the same stuff that’s laced through this book about just being intentional about the decisions we make in our tactical classroom decisions and our course design decisions can go a long way to improving learning.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciated getting to know you and your work better and sharing it with our audience.

John: While we were able to see an advance copy of this, we are wondering when the copy will be released to the public. Mine is on preorder.

Robert: Yes, so it’s preorder and it’s March or April, West Virginia University Press has told us. So we’re looking forward to that actually getting out there soon. And we’re so grateful that you would have us on your show. We love connecting with kindred spirits who care about teaching and learning and education can do to make people’s lives better. Thank you.

Bonnie: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you


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

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


274. ChatGPT

Since its release in November 2022, ChatGPT has been the focus of a great deal of discussion and concern in higher ed. In this episode, Robert Cummings and Marc Watkins join us to discuss how to prepare students for a future in which AI tools will become increasingly prevalent in their lives.

Robert is the Executive Director of Academic Innovation, an Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric, and the Director of the Interdisciplinary Minor in Digital Media Studies at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia and is the co-editor of Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom. Marc Watkins is a Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. He co-chairs an AI working group within his department and is a WOW Fellow, where he leads a faculty learning community about AI’s impact on education. He’s been awarded a Pushcart Prize for his writing and a Blackboard Catalyst Award for teaching and learning.

Show Notes


John: Since its release in November 2022, ChatGPT has been the focus of a great deal of discussion and concern in higher ed. In this episode we discuss how to prepare students for a future in which AI tools will become increasingly prevalent in their lives.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Robert Cummings and Marc Watkins. Robert is the Executive Director of Academic Innovation, an Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric, and the Director of the Interdisciplinary Minor in Digital Media Studies at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia and is the co-editor of Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom. Marc Watkins is a Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. He co-chairs an AI working group within his department and is a WOW Fellow, where he leads a faculty learning community about AI’s impact on education. He’s been awarded a Pushcart Prize for his writing and a Blackboard Catalyst Award for teaching and learning. Welcome, Robert and Mark.

Robert: Thank you.

Marc: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Marc, are you drinking tea?

Marc: My hands are shaking from caffeine so much caffeine inside of me too. I started off today with some I think it’s Twinings Christmas spice, which is really popular around this house since I got that in my stocking. My wife is upset because I’m in a two bag per cup person. And she’s like saying you got to stop that, so she cuts me off around noon [LAUGHTER] and just to let me just sort of like dry out, for lack of a better word from caffeine withdrawal.

Rebecca: Well, it’s a great flavored tea. I like that one too.

John: It is.

Rebecca: I could see why you would double bag it.

Marc: I do love it.

Rebecca: How about you, Robert?

Robert: I’m drinking an English black tea. A replacement. Normally my tea is Barry’s tea, which is an Irish tea….

Rebecca: Yeah.

Marc: …but I’m out, so I had to go with the Tetley’s English black tea.

Rebecca: Oh, it’s never fun when you get to go to your second string. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I am drinking a ginger peach black tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: Oh, an old favorite, John.

John: It is.

Rebecca: I’m back to one of my new favorites, the Hunan Jig, which I can’t say with a straight face. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the ChatGPT. We’ve seen lots of tweets, blog posts, and podcasts in which you are both discuss this artificial intelligence writing application. Could you tell us a little bit about this tool, where it came from and what it does?

Marc: I guess I’ll go ahead and start, I am not a computer science person. I’m just a writing faculty member. But we did kind of get a little bit of a heads up about this in May when GPT3, which is the precursor to ChatGPT was made publicly available. It was at a private beta for about a year and a half when it was being developed, and then went to public in May. And I kind of logged in through some friends of mine social media to start checking out and seeing what was going on with it. Bob was really deep into AI with the SouthEast conference. You were at several AI conferences too during the summer as well, Bob. It is a text synthesizer, it’s based off of so much text just scraped from the internet and trained on 175 billion parameters. It’s just sort of shocking to think about the fact that this can now be accessed through your cell phone, if you want to do it on your actual smartphone, or a computer browser. But it is something that’s here. It’s something that functions fairly well, that you make things up sometimes. Sometimes it can be really very thoughtful, though, in it’s actual output. It’s very important to keep in mind, though, that AI is more like a marketing term in this case. There’s no thinking, there’s no reasoning behind it too. It can’t explain any of its choices. We use the term writing when we talk about it, but really what it is, is just text generating. When you think about writing, that’s the whole process of the thinking process and going through, being able to explain your choices and that sort of thing. So it’s a very, very big math engine, with a lot of processing power behind it.

Robert: I completely agree with everything Marc’s saying. I think about it is, and I believe it’s true, Marc, as far as we know, it’s an open AI, but it’s still using GPT3, so it’s really the same tool as Playground. I think it’s really interesting that when openAI shifted from their earlier iteration of this technology, which was Playground and there were some other spin offs from that as well, but that was basically a search format where you got an entry, and you would enter a piece of text and then you would get a response, that when they shifted it to chat, it seemed to really take it to the next level in terms of the attention that it was gathering. And I think it’s rhetorically significant to think about that, because the personalization, perhaps, the idea that you had an individual conversation partner, I think is exceptionally cute. The way that they have the text scroll in ChatGPT so as to make it look like the AI is “thinking” to maybe push this out when it’s immediately available. I think all of that reminds me a little bit of Eliza, which is one of the first sort of AI games that you could play where you play the game to try to guess whether or not there was another person on the other side of the chat box. It reminds me a bit of that. But I can certainly see why placing this technology inside of a chat window makes it so much more accessible and perhaps even more engaging than what we previously had. But the underlying technology, as far as I can see, is still GPT3, and it hasn’t changed necessarily significantly, except for this mode of access.

Rebecca: How long has this tool been learning how to write or gathering content?

Marc: Well, that’s a great question. So it is really just a precursor from GPT3. And again, we don’t really know this because open AI isn’t exactly open, unlike their name. The training data cuts off for this model for ChatGPT about two years ago. And of course, ChatGPT was launched last year at the end of November. So, it’s very recent, pretty up to date with some of that information, too. You can always kind of check the language model and see how much it actually, as we say, knows about the world by what recent events it can accurately describe. It’s really interesting how quickly people have freaked out about this. And Bob’s, I think, building off of that, I think he’s very right that this slight rhetorical change in the user interface to a chat, that suddenly people are able to actually interact with, set off this moral panic in education. You guys know this through the state of New York, New York City schools have now tried to ban it in the actual classroom, which I think is not going to work out very well. But it is certainly the theme we’re seeing not just in K through 12, but also higher ed too… seeing people talk about going back to blue books, going to AI proctoring services, which are just kind of some of the most regressive things you could possibly imagine. And I don’t want to knock people for doing this, because I know that they’re both frightened, and they probably have good reason to be frightened too, because it’s disrupting their practice. It’s also hopefully at the tail end of COVID, which has left us all completely without our capacity to deal with this. But I do want to keep everyone in mind too, and Bob’s really a great resource on this too, from his work with Wikipedia, is that your first impression of a tool, especially if you’re a young person using this and you have someone in authority telling you what a tool is, if you tell them that that tool is there to cheat or it is there to destroy their writing process or a learning process, that is going to be submitted in them for a very long time. And it’s gonna be very hard to dissuade people of that too. So really, what I’ve just tried to do is caution people about the fact that we need to be not so panicked about that. That’s much easier said than done,

Robert: Marc and I started giving a talk on our campus through our Center for Teaching and Learning and our academic innovations group in August. And we’ve just sort of updated it as we’re invited to continue to give the talk. But in it, we offer a couple of different ways for the faculty to think about how this is going to impact their teaching. And one of the things that I offered back in August, at least I think it still holds true, is to think about writing to learn and or writing to report learning. And so writing to learn is going to mean now writing alongside AI tools. And writing to report learning is going to be a lot trickier, depending on what types of questions you ask. So I think it’s going to be a situation where, and I’ve already seen some of this work in the POD community, it’s going to be a situation where writing to report learning has to maybe change gears a bit and think about different types of questions to ask. And the types of questions will be those that are not easily replicated, or answered in a general knowledge sort of way, but they’re going to lean on specific things that you, as instructor, think are going to be valuable in demonstrating learning, but also not necessarily part of a general knowledge base. So, for instance, if you’re a student in my class, and we’ve had lots of discussions about… I don’t know… quantum computing, and in the certain discussion sessions, Marc threw out an idea about quantum computing that was specific. So what I might do on my test is I might cite that as a specific example and remind students that we discussed that in class and then ask them to write a question in response to parts of that class discussion. So that way, I could be touching base with something that’s not generally replicable and easily accessible to AI. But I can also ask a question that’s going to ask my students to demonstrate knowledge about general concepts. And so, if both elements are there, then I probably know that my short answer question is authentically answered by my students. If some are not, then I might have questions. So I think it’s gonna be about tweaking what we’re doing and not abandoning what we’re doing. But it’s really a tough moment right now. Because, as soon as we say one thing about these technologies, well then they iterate and they evolve. It’s just a really competitive landscape for these tool developers. And they’re all trying to figure out a way to develop competitive advantage. And so they have to distinguish themselves from their competitors. And we can’t predict what ways that they will do that. So it’s going to be a while before, I think, this calms down for writing faculty specifically and for higher education faculty generally, because, of course, writing is central to every discipline and what we do, or at least that’s my bias.

Rebecca: So I’m not a writing faculty member. I’m a designer and a new media artist. And to me, it seems like something that could be fun to play with, which is maybe a counter to how some folks might respond to something like this. Are there ways that you can see a tool like this being useful in helping or advancing learning?

Robert: So, we’ve talked about this a bit, I really think that the general shape to the response, in writing classes specifically, is about identifying specific tools for specific writing purposes in specific stages. So if we’re in the invention stage, and we’re engaging a topic and you’re trying to decide what to write about, maybe dialoguing with open AI with some general questions, it’s going to trigger some things that you’re going to think about and follow up on. It could be great. You know, Marc was one of the first people to point out, I think it was Marc said this, folks who have writer’s block, this is a real godsend, or could be. It really helps get the wheels turning. So we could use in invention, we can use it in revision, we can use it to find sources, once we already have our ideas, so identify specific AI iterations for specific purposes inside of a larger project. I think that’s a method that’s going to work and is going to be something that gets toward that goal that we like to say in our AI Task Force on campus here, which is helping students learn to work alongside AI.

Marc: Yeah, that’s definitely how I feel about it too, and to kind of echo what Bob’s saying, there’s a lot more than you could do with a tool than just generate text. And I think that kind of gets lost in this pipe that you see with ChatGPT and everything else. I kind of mentioned before Whisper was another neural network that they launched just quietly back in the end of September start of October of last year, that works with actually uploading speech. It’s multilingual. So you can actually kind of use that almost like a universal translator in some ways. But the thing that’s, like outstanding with it is when you actually use it with the old GPT3 Playground… I say the old GPT playground like it’s not something that’s still useful right now… it uploads the entire transcript of a recording into the actual Playground. So you actually input it into AI. If you think about this from a teaching perspective, especially from students who have to deal with lecture, and want a way to actually organize their notes in some way, shape, or form, they’re able to do that then by just simply issuing a simple command to summarize your notes, to organize it. You can synthesize it with your past notes, even come up with test questions for an essay you need to write or an exam you’re going to have. Now from a teaching perspective, as someone who’s like try to be as student-centric as possible, that’s great, that’s wonderful. I also realized those people who are still wedded to lecture probably going to look at this, like another moral panic. I don’t want my students to have access to this, because it’s not going to help them with their note taking skills. I don’t want them to be falling asleep in my class as if they were staying awake to begin with. So I’m going to ban this technology. So we’re going to see lots of little areas of this pop up throughout education, it’s not just going to be within writing, it’s going to be in all different forms, the different ways… that I’m right there with you using this tool to really help you begin to think about in designing your own thought process, as you’re going through either a writing project, some people using it for art, some people use it for coding, it’s really up to your imagination of how you’d like to do it. The actual area that we’re looking at has a name, I don’t even know it has a name until the developers we’re working with, guys at Fermat. So there’s this article from a German university about beyond generation is what they call the actual form of that. So using your own text as sort of the input to an AI and then getting brainstorming ideas, automatic summaries, using it to get counter arguments to your own version notes. They use it also for images and all different other types of new generations too. So it’s really out there and like I think ChatGPT is just kind of sucking all the air up out of the room because likely so it’s it’s the new thing. It’s what everyone is talking about but so much has gone on, it really has, in this past few months. The entire fall semester I was emailing Bob like two or three times a week and poor Bob was just like “Just stop emailing me. Okay, we understand. I can’t look at this either. We don’t have time.” But it really was just crazy. It really is.

John: What are some other ways that this could be used in helping students become more productive in their writing or in their learning?

Marc: It really is going to be up to whatever the individual instructor and also what the student comes up with this too. If your process is already set in stone, like my process is set in stone as a writer, I think most of us are too as we’ve matured, it’s very difficult to integrate AI into that process. But if you’re young, and you’re just starting out, you’re maturing, that is a very different story. So we’re going to start seeing ways our students are going to be using this within their own writing process, their own creative process, too, that we haven’t really imagined. And I know that’s one of the reasons why this is so anxiety producing, because we say that there is a process, we don’t want to talk about the fact that this new technology can also disrupt that a little bit. I’ll go and segue to Bob, too, because I think he’s talked a little bit about this as well.

Robert: Yeah, one of the things that we’ve come together in our group that Marc’s co-leading is, we’ve come together to say that we want to encourage our students to use the tools, full stop. Now, we want to help them interpret the usage of those tools. So really being above board and transparent about engaging the tools, using our systems of citation, struggling to cope as they are, but just saying at the beginning, use AI generators in my class. I need to know what writing is yours and what writing is not. But, then designing assignments so you encourage limited engagements, which are quickly followed with reflection. So, oh Gosh, who was is Marc, a colleague, that was, I think, was at NC State in the business class where last spring he had students quote, unquote, cheat with AI.

Marc: Paul Fyfe, Yes.

Robert: Yes, thank you. And so he, in so many words, he basically designed the assignment so that students would have AI write their paper and almost uniformly they said, “Please, let me just write my paper, because it’d be a lot simpler. And I would like the writing a lot more.” So that type of engagement is really helpful, I think, because they were able to fully utilize the AI that they could access, and then try a bunch of different purposes with it, a bunch of different applications with it, and then form an opinion about what its strengths and weaknesses were. And then they pretty quickly saw its limitations. So, I mean, to specifically answer your question, John, I do think it can be helpful with a wide range of tasks. Again, invention stage, if I just have an idea, I can pop an idea in there and ask for more information and I’ll get more information. Hopefully, it will be reliable. But sometimes I’ll get a good deal of information and it’ll encourage me to keep writing. There are AI tools that are good about finding sources, there are AI tools that will continue to help you shift voice. So we’ve seen a lot of people do some fun things with shifting voice. Well, I can think of a lot of different types of writing assignments where I might try to insert voice, and people would be invited to think about the impact of voice on the message and on the purpose. And let’s not forget, so one of the things that irks Marc and myself is that a lot of our friends in the computer science world think of writing as a problem to solve. And we don’t think of writing that way. But, as I said to Marc the other day when we were talking about this, if I’m trying to write an email to my boss in a second language, writing is a problem for me to solve. And so Grammarly has proven to us that there are a large number of people in our world who need different levels of literacy in different applications with different purposes and they’re willing to compensate them for some additional expertise. So I had tried to design a course to teach in the fall, we were to engage AI tools, specifically in a composition class, and I had to pull the plug on my own proposal because the tools were evolving too quickly, Marc and Marc’s team solved the riddle because they decided that they could identify the tools on an assignment basis. So it would be a unit within the course. And so when they shrank that timeline, they had a better chance the tools they identified at the beginning of the unit would still be relatively the same by the time they got to the end of the unit. So getting a menu or a suite of different AI tools that you want to explore, explore them with your students, give them spaces to reflect, always make sure that you’re validating whatever is being said if you’re going to use it, and then always cite it. Those are the ground rules that we’re thinking about when we’re engaging the different tools and then, I don’t know, it can be fun.

Marc: You mean writing can be fun? I’ve never heard such things.

Rebecca: It would be incredible. One of the things that I hear you underscoring related to citations, it was making me think about the ways that I have students already using third party materials in a design class, where we use third party materials when we’re writing a research paper, because we are using citations. So we have methods for documenting these things and making it clearer to an audience, what’s ours and what’s not. So it’s not like it’s some brand new kind of thing that we’re trying to do in terms of documenting that or communicating that to someone else. It’s just adapting it a bit, because it’s a slightly different thing that we’re using, or a different third party tool that we’re using or third party material that we’re using, but I have my students write a copyright documentation for things that they’re doing, like, what’s the license for the images that they’re using that don’t require attribution? I go through the whole list, the fonts that they’re using and the license that they’re using for that? So for me, this seems like an obvious next step or a way that that same process of providing that attribution or that documentation would work well in this atmosphere.

Robert: I think the challenge, and Marc and I’ve talked about this before, the challenge is when you shift from a writing support tool to a writing generation tool. So most of us aren’t thinking about documenting spell checker in Microsoft Word, because we don’t see that as content that is original in some way, right? But it definitely affects our writing, nor do we cite smart compose, Google’s sentence completion tool. But how do you know when you’ve gone from smart compose, providing just a correct way to finish your own thought, to smart compose giving you a new thought. And that’s an interesting dilemma. If we can just take a wee nip of schadenfreude, it was interesting to see that the machine learning conference recently had to amend its own paper submission, Marc was pointing this out to me, their own papers submission guidelines to say: “if you use AI tools, you can’t submit.” And then they had to try to distinguish between writing generators and writing assistance. And so that’s just not an easy thing to do. But it’s just going to involve trust between writers and audiences.

Marc: Yeah, I don’t envy the task of any of our disciplinary conventions trying to do this. We could invest some time in doing this with ChatGPT or thinking about this. But then it’s not even clear if ChatGPT is going to be the end of the road here. We’re talking about this as just another version of AI and how he would do that. I’ve seen some people arguing on social media about the fact that a student or anyone who is using an AI should then track down that idea that the AI is spitting out. And I think that’s incredibly futile because it’s trained on the internet, you don’t know how this idea came about. And that’s one of the really big challenges with this type of technology is that it breaks the chain of citations that was used to actually, for lack of a better word, to generate text. I was gonna say to show knowledge, but it can’t really show knowledge, it’s just basically generated an idea, or mimicked an idea. So that really is going to be a huge challenge that we’re going to have to face too and think about. It’s going to be something that will require a lot of dialogue between ourselves, our students. And also thinking about where we want them to use this technology. I think for right now, it’s something that you want to use a language model with your students, or invite them to use it too, tell them to reflect on that process, as Bob mentioned earlier too. There are some tools out there, LEX is one of them, where you could actually track what was being built in your document with the AI, which sort of like glow and be highlighted. So there are going to be some tools on the market that will do this. It is going to be a challenge, though, especially when people start going wild with it, because when you’re working with AI, when it just takes a few seconds to generate a thing and keeping track of that is going to be something that will require a great deal of not only trust with our students, but you really are going to have to sit down and tell them, “Look, you’re gonna have to slow down a little bit, and not let the actual text generations sort of take over your thinking process and your actual writing process.”

Robert: Speaking a little bit of process right now, I’m working on a project with a colleague in computer science. And we’re looking at that ancient technology, Google smart compose. And much to my surprise, I couldn’t find a literature where anyone had really spent time looking at the impact of the suggestions on open-ended writing. I did find some research that had been done on smaller writing. So, for instance, there was a project that asked writers to compose captions for images, but I didn’t see anything longer than that. So that’s what we did in the fall, we got 119 participants, and we asked them to write an open-ended response, an essay essentially, a short essay in response to a common prompt. Half of the writers had Google smart, compose enabled, and half didn’t. And we’re going through the data now to see how the suggestions actually affect writers’ process and product. So we’re looking at the product right now. One of our hypotheses is that the Google smart compose participants will have writing that is more similar, because essentially they will be given similar suggestions about how to complete their sentences. And we expect that in the non-smart compose enabled population we’ll find that there was more lexical and syntactical diversity in those writing products. On the writing process side, we’re creating, as far as I know, new measures to determine whether they accept suggestions, edit suggestions, or reject suggestions. And we all do some of all three of those usually, but the time spent. And so we’re trying to see if there’s correlations between the amount of time spent, and then again, the length of text, the complexity of text, because if you’re editing something else, you’re probably not thinking about your own ideas, and how to bring those forward. But overall, what we’re hoping to suggest, and, again, because we’re not able to really see what’s happening in smart compose, we’re having to operate with it as a black box. What we’re hoping to suggest is that our colleagues in software development start inviting writers into the process of articulating our writing profile. So let’s say, for instance, you might see an iteration in the future of Google smart compose that says, “Hey, I noticed that you’re rejecting absolutely everything we’re sending to you. Do you want to turn this off?” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

Robert: Or “I noticed that you’re accepting things very quickly. Would you like for us to increase the amplitude and give you more more quickly?” Understanding those types of interactions and preferences can help them build profiles and the profiles can then hopefully make the tools more useful. So, I know that they, of course, do customize suggestions over time. So I know that the tool does grow. I think as John you might have said, you know, how long is it learning to write, well, they learn to write with us. In fact, those are features that Grammarly competes with its competitors on. It’s like our tool will train up or quickly. At any rate, what does it mean to help students learn to work alongside AI? Well, what I believe, when it comes to writing, part of what it’s going to mean, is help them to understand more quickly what the tool is giving them, what they want, and how they can harness the tool to their purposes. And until the tools are somewhat stable and until the writers are invited into the process of understanding the affordances of the tool and the feature sets. That’s just not possible.

John: Where do you see this moral panic as going? Is this something that’s likely to fade in the near future? And we’ve seen similar things in the past. I’ve been around for a while. I remember reactions to calculators and whether they should be used to allow people to take square roots instead of going through that elaborate tedious process. I remember using card catalogs and using printed indexes for journals to try to find things. And the tools that we have available have allowed us to be a lot more productive. Is it likely that we’ll move to a position where people will accept these tools as being useful productivity tools soon? Or is this something different than those past cases?

Marc: Well, I think the panic is definitely set in right now. And I think we’re going to be in for some waves of hype and panic. We’ve already seen it from last year. I think everyone kind of got huge dose of it with ChatGPT. But we were kind of getting the panic and hype mode when we first came across this in May, wondering what this technology was, how would it actually impact our teaching, how would it impact our students too. There’s a lot of talk right now about trying to do AI detection. Most of the software out there is trying to use some form of AI to detect AI. They’re trying to use an older version of GPT called GPT2 that was open source and open release before openAI decided to sort of lock everything down. Sometimes it will pick up AI generated text, sometimes it’ll mislabel it. I obviously don’t want to see a faculty member take a student up on academic dishonesty charges based on a tool that may be correct or may not be correct, based off of that sort of a framework. TurnItIn is working on a process where they’re going to try to capture more data from students that they already have. If they can capture big enough writing samples, they can then use that to compare your version of your work to an AI or someone who’s bought a paper from a paper mill or contract cheating because of course, a student’s writing never changes over the course of their academic career. And our writing never changes either. It’s completely silly. We’ve been sort of conditioned, though, when we see new technologies come along to have it’s sort of equivalent to mitigate its impact on our lives. We have this new thing, it’s disruptive. Alright, well give me the other thing that gets rid of it so I don’t have to deal with it. I don’t think we’re going to have that with this. I’m empathetic to people. I know that that’s a really hard thing for them to hear. Again, I made the joke too about the New York City school districts banning this but, from their perspective, those people are terrified. I don’t blame them. When we deal with higher education, for the most part, students have those skills set that they’re going to be using for the rest of their lives. We’re just explaining them and preparing them to go into professional fields. If this is a situation where you’re talking K through 12, where a student doesn’t have all the reading or grammatical knowledge they need to be successful and they start using AI, that could be a problem. So I think talking to our students is the best way to establish healthy boundaries, and getting them to understand how they want to use this tool for themselves. Students, as Bob mentioned too, and what Paul Fyfe was doing with his actual research, students are setting their own boundaries with this, they’re figuring out that this is not working the way the marketing hype is telling them it is, too. So, we just have to be conscious of that and keep these conversations going.

Robert: Writing with Wikipedia was my panic moment or my cultural panic moment. And my response then was much as the same as it is now. Cool. Let’s check it out. And Yochai Benkler has a quote, and I don’t have it exactly right in front of me, but he says something like all other things being equal, things that are easier to do, are going to be more likely to get done. And the second part, he says is all of the things are never equal. So that was just like the point of Wikipedia, right? Like people really worried about commons based peer production and collaborative knowledge building and inaccuracies and biases, which are there still, creeping their way in and displacing Encyclopedia Britannica and peer-reviewed resources. And they were right, if they were worried because Benkler is right. It’s a lot easier to get your information from Wikipedia and if it’s easier, that’s the way it’s going to come. You can’t do a Google search without pulling up a tile that’s been accessed through Wikipedia. But the good news is is now the phrase about Wikipedia that she’s is that Wikipedia is known as the good grown up of the internet, because the funny thing is that the community seems so fractious and sharp elbowed at first about who was right in producing a Wikipedia page about Battlestar Galactica. Well, so that grew over time, and more and more folks in higher education and more and more experts got involved and the system’s improved, and it’s uneven, but it is still the world’s largest free resource of knowledge. And it’s because it’s free, because it’s open and very accessible, then it enters into our universe of what we know. I think the same thing holds here, right? If it’s as easy to use as it is now, the developers are working on ways to make it easier still. So we’re not going to stop this, we just got to think about ways that we can better understand it and indicate, where we need to, that we’re using it and how we’re using it, for what ends and what purposes. And so your question, John, I think was around or at least you used productivity. So I don’t agree with his essay, and I certainly don’t agree with a lot that he’s done, but Sam Altman, one of the OpenAI co-founders, does have this essay, his basic argument is that in the long run, what AI is doing is reducing the cost of labor. So that will affect every aspect of life, that it’s just a matter of time before AI is applied to every aspect of life. And so then we’re dropping costs for everyone. And his argument is we are therefore improving the lives and living standards of everyone. I’m not there. But I think it’s a really interesting argument to make if you take it that long. Now, as you mentioned earlier about earlier technologies… the calculator moment, for folks in mathematics. My personal preference would be to have someone else’s ox get gored before mine is, but we’re up, so we have to deal with it. And our friends in art, they’re dealing with it as well. It’s just a matter of time before our friends in the music, obviously our friends in motion capture are dealing with it, I think you’re handling it in design as well. So it’s just a matter of time before we all figure it out. So that we have to sort of learn from each other in terms of what our responses were. And I think there’ll be sort of these general trends, we might as well explore these tools, because this is the world where our students will be graduating. And so helping them understand the implications, the ethical usage, the citation system purposes, it’d be great if we had partners on the other side that would telegraph to us a little bit more about what the scope and the purpose and the origins of these tools are. But we don’t have that just yet.

Marc: I agree completely with what Bob said, too.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s been interesting in the arts is the conversation around copyright and what’s being input into the data sets initially, and that that’s often copyright protected material. And then therefore, what’s getting spit out is derivative of that. And so there becomes some interesting conversations around whether or not that’s a fair use whether or not that’s copyright violation, whether or not that’s plagiarism. So I’m curious to hear your thoughts on whether or not these similar concerns are being raised. over ChatGPT or other systems that you’ve been interacting with.

Marc: Writing’s a little bit different, I think there are some pretty intense anti-AI people out there who basically say that this is just a plagiarism generator. I see what they’re saying, but any sort of terminology with plagiarism, it doesn’t really make sense. Because it doesn’t really focus on the fact that it’s stealing from one idea. It’s just using fast and massive chunks of really just data from the internet. And some of that data doesn’t even have a clear source. So it’s not even really clear how that goes back to it. But that is definitely part of the debate. Thank God I’m not a graphic artist, ‘cause I don’t know, I’ve talked to a few friends of mine who are in graphic arts and they’re not dealing with this as well as we are, I can say that, to say the least too. And you can kind of follow along with some of the discourse on social media too. It’s been getting intense. But I do think that we will see some movement within all these fields about how they’re going to treat generative text or generative image, generative code, and all that way. In fact, openAI is being sued now in the coding business too, because they’re copilot product was supposedly capable of reproducing an entire string of code, not just generating, but reproducing it from what it was trained on too. So I think it is an evolving field, and we’re gonna see where our feet land, but for right now, the technology is definitely moving underneath us as we’re talking about all this in terms of both plagiarism and copyright in all the things.. And I’m with Bob, I want to be able to cite these tools and be able to understand it. I also am kind of aware of the fact that if we start bringing in really hardcore citation into this, we don’t want to treat the technology as a person, right? You don’t want to treat the ideas coming from the machine necessarily, we want to treat this as “I use this tool to help me with this process.” And that becomes complicated, too, because then you have to understand the nuance of how that was used and what sort of context it was used in too. So yeah, it’s it’s going to be the wild west for a while.

Robert: I wanted to turn it back on our hosts for a second if I can and ask Rebecca and John a question. So I’ve could remember the title of Sam Altman’s essay, It’s Moore’s Law for everything. That really, I think, encapsulates his point. What do y’all think as people in higher education? Do you think this is unleashing a technology that’s going to make our graduates more productive in meaningful ways? Or is it unleashing a technology that questions what productivity means?

Rebecca: I think it depends on who is using it.

John: …and how it’s being used.

Rebecca: Yeah, the intent behind it… I think it can be used in both ways, it can be used to be a really great tool to support work and things that we’re exploring and doing and also presents challenges. And people are definitely trained to use it to shortcut things in ways that maybe it doesn’t make sense to shortcut or undermines their learning or undermines contributions to our knowledge.

John: And I’d agree pretty much with all of that, that it has a potential for making people more productive in their writing by helping get past writer’s block and other issues. And it gives people a variety of ways of perhaps phrasing something that they can then mix together in a way that better reflects what they’re trying to say. And I think it’s a logical extension of many of those other tools we have, but it is also going to be very disruptive for those people who have very formulaic types of assignments that are very open ended, those are not going to be very meaningful in a world in which we have such tools. But on the other hand, we’re living in a world in which we have such tools, and those tools are not going to go away, and they’re not going to become less powerful over time. And I think we’ll have to see. Whenever there’s a new technology, we have some people who really praise it, because it’s opening up these wonderful possibilities, such as television was going to make education universal in all sorts of wonderful ways and the internet was going to do the same thing. Both have provided some really big benefits. But there’s often costs that are unanticipated, and often benefits that are unanticipated, and we have to try to use them most effectively.

Robert: So one of the things I‘ve appreciated about this conversation it’s that you guys have made me think even more, so I want to follow up on what you’re saying, and maybe articulate my anxiety a little better. So Emad Mostaque, I think is his name, is the developer or the CEO of Stability AI, and he was on Hard Fork. And I listened to the interview and he basically said, “Creativity is too hard and we’re going to make it easy. We’re going to make people poop rainbows.” He did use the phrase poop rainbows [LAUGHTER] but I don’t remember if that was exactly the setup. And so I’m not an art teacher, but I’m screaming at the podcast. No, it’s not just about who can draw the most accurate version of a banana in a bowl, it’s the process of learning to engage the world around you through visual representation, and I’m not an art teacher. So that’s my fear for writing. I guess my question for everybody here is, do you think these tools will serve as a barrier, because they’ll provide a fake substitute for the real thing that we then have to help people get past? Or will that engagement with the fake thing get their wheels turning and help them find that as a stepping stone and a reduction to the deeper engagement with literacy or visual representation.

Rebecca: I think we already have examples that exist, that the scope of what someone might do so that it appears, looks, feels really similar to something someone already created. So templates do that, any sort of common code set that people might use to build a website, for example, they all then have similar layouts and designs, these things already exist.That may work in a particular area. But then there’s also examples in that same space, where people are doing really innovative things. So there is still creativity. In fact, maybe it motivates people to be more creative, because they’re sick of thinking the same thing over and over again. [LAUGHTER]

John: And going back to issues of copyright, that’s a recent historical phenomenon. There was a time when people recognized that all the work that was being done built on earlier work, that artists explicitly copied other artists to become better and to develop their own creativity. And I think this is just a more rapid way of doing much of the same thing, that it’s building on past work. And while we cite people in our studies, those people cited other people who cited other people who learned from lots of people who were never cited, and this is already taking place, it’s just going to be a little bit harder to track the origin of some of the materials.

Marc: Yeah, I completely agree. I also think that one thing that we get caught up in our own sort of disciplinary own sort of world of higher education is that this tool may not be really that disruptive to us, or may not be as beneficial to us as it would be somewhere else in some other sorts of context. You think about the global South, that is lacking resources, a tool like this, that is multilingual, that can actually help under-resourced districts or under-resourced entire countries, in some cases. That could have an immense impact on equity, in ways that we haven’t seen. That said, there’s also going to be these bad actors that are going to be using the technology to really do lots of weird, crazy things. And you can kind of follow along with this live on Twitter, which is what I’ve been doing. And every day, there’s another thing that they’re doing. In fact, one guy today offered anyone who’s going to argue a case before the Supreme Court a million dollars if they put in their Apple Air Pods and let the AI argue the case for them. And my response is, if you ever want the federal government to ban a technology in lightning speed, that is the methodology to go through and do so. But there’s going to be stunts, there’s already stunts. And Annette Vee was writing about GPT4chan, which is a developer that used an old version of GPT2 on 4chan, the horrible toxic message board, and deployed that bot for about three days where it posted 30,000 times. In 2016, we had the election issues with the Russians coming through, now you’re going to have people with chat bots do this. So it can help with education, definitely, I think that we’re kind of small potatoes compared to the way the rest of the world is going to probably be looking at this technology. I hope it’s not in that way, necessarily, I hope that they can kind of get some safety guardrails put in place. But it’s definitely gonna be a wild ride, for sure.

John: Being an economist, one of the things I have to mention in response to that is there a lot of studies that found that a major determinant of the level of economic growth and development in many countries is the degree of ethno-linguistic fractionalization, that the more languages there are and the more separate cultures you have within the society, the harder it is to expand. So tools like this can help break those things down and can unleash a lot of potential growth and improvement in countries where there are some significant barriers to that.

Marc: Absolutely. I just really want to re-emphasize the point that I brought up at the beginning too, especially now in the wake of what Bob said too. I was not introduced to Wikipedia in a way that would be interesting or anything else. I was introduced to this as a college student with a professor saying to me, “This is a bad thing. This is not going to be helpful to you. Do not use this.” Keep that in mind, the power that you have as an educator when you’re talking about this with your students too, that you are informing their decisions about the world too, about what this tool actually is, when you’re introducing talking about this with them, when you’re actually putting the policy in place of yourself of saying “This is banned.” And I just kind of want to make sure that everyone is really kind of thinking about that now with this because we do actually have a lot of power in this. I know we feel completely powerless in some ways. It’s a little odd that the discussions have been about this. But we actually have a lot of power in how we shape the discussion of this, especially with our students.

Robert: Yeah, that’s a great point and I’m glad you raised it. My question is, I wonder, John, as an economist, and also what you think Rebecca as well, do you guys by the Moore’s Law for Everything argument? So 20, 30 years from now, does generative AI increase the standard of living for people globally?

John: Well, I think it goes back to your point that if we make things easier to do, it frees up time to allow us to do other things and to be more creative. So I think there is something to that.

Rebecca: Yeah. And sometimes creativity is the long game. It’s something that you want to do over a period of time and you have to have the time to put into it. I think it’s an interesting argument.

John: I have been waiting for those flying cars for a long time, but at least now we’re getting closer to self-driving cars.

Robert: I was about to say they gave you a driverless car instead. [LAUGHTER]

John: But, you know, a driverless car frees up time where you could do other things during that time, which could be having conversations or could be reading, it could be many things that might be more enjoyable than driving, especially if there’s a lot of traffic congestion.

Rebecca: …or you could take a train, in which case, you’re also not driving, John

John: …and you’re probably not in the US, [LAUGHTER] or at least not in most parts of the US, unfortunately.

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

Marc: What’s next? Oh, goodness. Well, again, like I said, there are going to be waves of hype and panic, we’re in the “my students are going to cheat phase.” The next wave is when educators actually realize they can use this to actually grade essays, grade writing, and grade tests, that’s going to be the next “Oh, wait” moment that we’re going to have to see too. That will be both on hype and panic too. And to me, it’s going to be the next conversation we need to have. Because we’re gonna have to establish these boundaries, kind of in real time, about what we want to actually do with this. They are talking about GPT4, this is the next version of this. It’s going to be supposedly bigger than ChatGPT and more capable. We know all the hype that you can kind of repeat about this sort of thing too. But 2023 is probably going to be a pretty wild year. I don’t know what’s gonna go beyond that. But I just know that we’re going to be talking about this for the next, at least,12 months for sure.

Robert: I agree with Marc, I think an discipline at least, the next panic or I don’t know, jubilee, will be around automated writing evaluators, which exists and are commercially available. But the big problem is the research area known as explainable AI, which is to me tremendously fascinating, that you can build neural nets that will find answers to how to play Go, that after I don’t know how many hundreds of years or even 1000s of years that humans have played Go, find winning strategies that no one has ever found before, but then not be able to tell you how they were found. That’s the central paradox. I would like to say I hope explainable AI is next. But I think, before we get explainable AI, we’re gonna have a lot more disruptions, a lot more ripples when unexplainable AI is deployed without a lot of context.

John: One of the things I’ve seen popping up in Twitter is with those AI detectors that apparently ChatGPT, if you ask it to rewrite a document so it cannot be detected by the detectors, will rewrite it in a way where it comes back with a really low score. So it could very well be an issue where we’re gonna see some escalation. But that may not be the most productive channel for this type of research or progress.

Rebecca: Sounds like many more conversations of ethics to come. Thank you so much for your time and joining us.

Marc: Well, thank you both.

John: Well, thank you. Everyone has been talking about this and I’m really glad we were able to meet with you and talk about this a bit.

Robert: Yes. Thank you for the invitation. It’s been fun to talk. If there’s any way that we can add to the conversation as you go forward, we’d be happy to be in touch again. So thank you.

John: I’m sure we’ll be in touch.

Marc: The next panic, we’re always available. [LAUGHTER]

John: The day’s not over yet. [LAUGHTER]


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.


273. North of Neutral

Reports of student mental health concerns have been rising steadily during the last few years. The traditional approach is to assist those dealing with these concerns only after they have been reported. In this episode, Amy Bidwell joins us to discuss an alternative approach that focuses on strategies that can help our students improve their ability to thrive, even under adverse conditions.

Show Notes

  • A video in which Christpher Peterson described positive psychology.
  • Martin Seligman
  • Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 1-53). Academic Press.
  • PubMed
  • Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. JHU Press.


John: Reports of student mental health concerns have been rising steadily during the last few years. The traditional approach is to assist those dealing with these concerns only after they have been reported. In this episode, we explore an alternative approach that focuses on strategies that can help our students improve their ability to thrive, even under adverse conditions.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guest today is Amy Bidwell, an associate professor and the chair of the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome back, Amy.

Amy: Thank you, John. Thank you, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Amy, are you drinking tea?

Amy: I had tea earlier. And I was going to show you my mug but you can’t really see it anyways, It’s called Be Well, but it was a new raspberry green tea that I got for Christmas. Very good actually.

Rebecca: That sounds good. How about you, John?

John: And on a similar theme, mine isn’t so much “be well,” but it is a blueberry green tea.

Rebecca: Mine at least sounds well. It’s the Hunan Jig.

Amy: I don’t know what that is.

Rebecca: It’s a black tea that has some blonde tips in it. That’s pretty tasty.

Amy: Wow, I was thinking, the blueberry one, lots of antioxidants. That’s good.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss some strategies that can be used for anyone to improve their morale during these relatively challenging times. Could you talk a little bit about some strategies that people can use to improve their general mood?

Amy: Definitely. Thank you, John. Thank you, Rebecca, for having me. One thing that I would love to just start with is the fact that we all know generally what we’re supposed to do to stay well, yet, we aren’t exactly well, especially right now. And so I think the approach that I take from this is slightly different in a sense, where it really looks at the overall person in terms of more, how do we thrive in life? Not “are we healthy?” Because that’s one thing. Yes, we’re drinking our blueberry tea. But are we actually thriving in life? Are we happy in life. And I think that there’s a distinct difference there. There’s the “I’m healthy,” and “I’m well.” And if you go to the doctor, and you get a good, clean checkup, and your cholesterol is good, and your blood pressure is good, you walk out and you’re like, “Ah, good, I’m healthy,” but are you well? and that’s really the perspective that I take. Because if you look at overall health, it really looks at “are all of your measurements healthy?” But what thriving really looks at is we really want to stay with what we call “north of neutral.” And Christopher Peterson is a huge researcher, he has since passed, that really put this into the forefront, which is how do we stay north of neutral? So the typical kind of treatment method of health is to make sure that we’re treating any sort of issues so that you can be healthy. Well, staying north of neutral is really developing skills in your toolbox, resources in your toolbox, to allow yourself to stay healthy and well, so that when adverse things happen, like major pandemics, your body, your mental state, your physical state, can actually absorb that trauma and that stress and be able to handle it and still be considered well. And that’s really the difference. So if we look at a treatment method, from more of the traditional psychological perspective, really take somebody that may have some mental health issues, disorders and then treat them to get them at that zero baseline. So we go from maybe a negative seven, where we have some sort of mental health disorder, to a zero, but then when a pandemic hits, or something as simple as a nasty email that pops into your inbox just really bothers you, right? So you’re now at a zero and then you went back to your negative. We don’t want that negative, right? So if we can keep people north of neutral, and so again, at maybe a positive six, positive seven, when they get that nasty email, it might pop them to maybe a four, but they’re still on that positive side. And so that’s really that difference. And obviously, when you have significant trauma, a death in the family, a pandemic, loss of job, those are going to impact your overall well being much more. But again, if you can stay north of neutral, it still won’t get you to that zero or negative side. And so a lot of the tools and strategies that I have researched myself, but there’s actually an enormous amount of research… I counted this morning, I have 77 articles on my computer right now that are waiting for me to do a systemic review on. I haven’t done it yet. They’ve been sitting there and they’re going to get done soon. Martin Seligman is kind of the founder of positive psychology in the modern day, and he was, I believe it was in 96ish, he was the American Psychological Association president for a year and that’s when he really started working with Christopher Peterson and kind of looked at this phenomenon of north of neutral. And why are we focusing so much on treatment, when we could actually be focusing on prevention? So he started this positive psychology movement, which has since really turned into more the study of human flourishing. Some of the theory that Martin Seligman came up with is this theory of wellbeing that looks at PERMA. And what PERMA is, is positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, accomplishments, and then since over the past 10 years, vitality has been attached to that. But what that is, is those are those six components that an individual must have in order to truly flourish and thrive in life. So staying north of neutral. And what I’ve really been researching is those six aspects, and I’ve actually used them in my classroom a lot.

Rebecca: One of the things that we’re always thinking about is, and we’ve talked a lot about mental health challenges that our students are facing and also burnout [LAUGHTER] that faculty are facing from addressing a lot of the urgency around the pandemic, and you’re talking a lot about moving to north of neutral, I think many of us are feeling like AAAHHHH, [LAUGHTER] still having a lot of stress. So what are some strategies to help us as faculty and staff maybe stay north of neutral or get a little above neutral so that we are able to handle the stressors of our everyday jobs and the added stress of working with other people?

Amy: Rebecca, that’s a great question. There’s many answers, but the easiest that everybody can do right now is social media. So what I mean by that is, I don’t know what the percentage is, but John, you probably have this stat somewhere, the percentage of negative comments that are on social media versus positive. My number one recommendation is, and I did this myself, I have completely gotten off social media. Now, when I say that, I still use Pinterest once a while, I’m not sure if that’s considered social media, but I do have a backyard I’m trying to landscape. But when you get up in the morning, everybody grabs their phone to turn their alarm off, you need to put that phone right back down. A lot of the research says that for the first hour that you’re awake, no technology… imagine that, like John, comprehend that one. He’s thinking, nope, that’s not gonna happen. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ll see. I’m mostly just on Facebook and Twitter, and that’s only positive material, [LAUGHTER], as I’m sure you’ve experienced too.

Amy: Which is why I don’t have Facebook and Twitter anymore. [LAUGHTER] And honestly, it’s funny, because I’ve had this conversation with people about Facebook. And of course, you know, in my generation, that’s kind of what it was. My daughter does Snapchat, but I’m the Facebook generation. So the thing is, even if you go on today, and you see your best friend in this beautiful Caribbean vacation, it’s supposed to be something happy, right? Well, not so much. Because as I’m sitting in my office, I’m looking at a rainy gray sky. So immediately, my emotion has now changed. And ironically, as I’m miserable looking out my window, because it’s gray and gloomy out, I just received an email from someone berating me about something I didn’t do. So now I’ve just gotten a little bit higher, and it just compiles and then I have someone knocking on my office door… this isn’t really happening… but someone knocking on my office door asking more from me. And it’s like, AAhh, I can’t do it. And all this started with looking at my friend’s Caribbean vacation. And again, there’s a ton of research to support how our emotions are affected the second we wake up. So another tool that’s really great… and I got my students to do this… is okay, your alarm goes off, you turn the alarm off, you turn your phone off, you’re not gonna get on technology. Before you get out of bed, visualize your day. So for instance, Rebecca, you had already mentioned that you have three recordings on Friday. So immediately that’s stress, right, the immediate stress that that can cause. I’ll use a different example. I unfortunately had a cousin pass away unexpectedly a few months ago. And all of a sudden, I found out I had to drive my mother to North Carolina. So in a car for 12 hours with my mother, just the two of us. And it was like, “Okay, the next day we had to go.” And so when I woke up in the morning, I immediately visualized what my day could look like, not what I’m thinking it might look like but what do I want it to look like? And so by doing that, the second you wake up, visualizing the good in your day, instead of “Oh my gosh, I have five meetings, three recordings. I have to sit in the car for 12 hours with my mother,” those types of little tiny things are things that can really help us

Rebecca: I think in a time of great distress, little things are always a good first step, for sure.

Amy: And that’s what it’s a lot about, is these little things. And when people think of positive psychology and the science of happiness, they kind of immediately go to oh, “let’s just walk in a room and be happy.” It’s not that at all, it’s these little tiny things. And again, it starts with the second you wake up in the morning. A tool that I used with my students, that was amazing, first time I ever did it this November, right before Thanksgiving break, I had them all sit in class and write a letter to someone that they’re grateful for, and grateful letters, they have been researched for the last few decades of the importance of positive emotion. But the kicker was they had to write it, then when they went home, they had to go to the person’s house, stand there and read it to them. They said it was literally life changing. And not only that, the research shows that doing grateful letters or gratefulness, the impact over a long period of time is substantial. And so that’s a really great simple, simple thing that we can do to help improve our day-to-day emotions.

John: And even just reflections on things to be grateful each day have been shown to be effective in improving overall happiness and satisfaction.

Rebecca: If we all start with a little more gratitude, we probably will be much happier when we’re around other people and [LAUGHTER] we’ll spread the gratitude-ness. [LAUGHTER]

Amy: But Rebecca, what you said, that’s actually scientifically proven, that if the three of us are in a room together, and I come in in a more positive mood, it immediately affects you too. And so I have really changed as a department chair. Unfortunately, when I took over as department chair COVID hit the next semester. So my whole experience as chair has essentially been putting band aids on things. But the first 18 months or so I would walk in a room like a chicken with my head cut off. And what happens is that vibe is now spread across my conference room. Since I started taking this nine-month training that I was granted funding through SAMSHA and the Counseling Center to basically learn the scientific study of human flourishing, I have completely changed my approach to meetings. And it’s something as simple as my attitude walking through the door. I’m not rushed. I’m not flustered. It completely changes the vibe of your staff.

REBECCAS: …or of a classroom, I am sure.

Amy: Yes, and I haven’t mastered the art of getting to class early yet. At some point I will. I get there on time, but definitely not early. I agree with that 100%, and I certainly can share some ideas of things to use in the classroom as well.

John: You started with an acronym, maybe if you could talk a little bit about each of the components and provide an example of how each component can be used in practice.

Amy: Definitely. So, again, PERMA-V. So P is positive emotion. And that’s really where most of the research is at this point. And this is something in the classroom that can be really important because if we look at Barbara Fredrickson’s research on broaden and build, there is so much research on changing the attitude of the classroom the second you walk in to more of a positive state. It could be that, and I was just discussing this with someone earlier on a meeting, having each person go around and just quickly yell out one thing that they’re grateful for that day. Now, obviously, John, in your 400 Student economics class that might take some time. With that said, if you just, once a week or twice a week, have three people randomly do it, it keeps people on their toes. And that immediately changes the vibe of the classroom, which then increases those individuals’ ability to learn and retain information. So the positive emotions, there’s a ton of research with that, from an employee/faculty idea is this kind of negativity bias. And again, that’s something that’s been studied a lot. And that’s the thought of going in with that negative emotion. So I’m walking into a staff meeting, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we have another meeting about meetings. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to listen to this person just sit on their soapbox.” So going in with a positive attitude and saying, “I’m excited to see my colleagues again,” really changes things up. The next one is engagement. And this is where you are in a situation where you are 100% engaged in what you’re doing. And so I can just see looking at John and Rebecca they’re just totally engaged with what I’m saying.

Rebecca: And so you only can see that because we’re on video while we’re recording [LAUGHTER]

Amy: But, you were so engaged with what I’m saying, I’m sure. And I know everybody that listens to the Tea for Teaching is very much engaged in what they’re listening to. And so think of something that you can do every day where you completely lose track of time. For me, it’s reading, I just absolutely love to read. I’m going to say actually, it’s also going down the research black hole on PubMed. But those are the things where you completely lose track of time. Your classroom, you want to give students activities or something that they can do where they actually are so engaged that they lose track of time, which I don’t know if anyone’s really mastered that yet, but we’ll get there. Relationships, research shows that social wellness, in fact, a lot of the COVID research now they’re saying that the social isolation that we experienced during COVID was more detrimental to our health than obesity. So I find that interesting. Relationships from a college perspective, one of the number one reasons students leave college, they don’t feel socially connected to the campus. We have to provide relationships. So breaking down those barriers with our students where the professor is up here and students down here, we want to try to create those relationships where the students understand that it’s not just this person speaking to us, but they’re with us.

Rebecca: It seems like the Relationship-Rich Education book would be a great resource for people to tap into to think about ways and roles that relationships play in a positive affect towards their college or university.

Amy: In fact, when I was reading that book, I was part of that book club, it was almost like I was reading a book on human flourishing, it was spot on; everything that they said was spot on. So I agree with that. Meaning… meaning is “What is your overall purpose in life?” And I do this with my students, especially with first-year students. Okay, what do you want to do when you graduate? Okay, I want to be an engineer, I want to be an economist. But what is your passion? What is your purpose? In 10 years from now, when your alarm goes off on a Monday morning, after a long weekend, do you jump out of bed? Or do you say, “Uh, I gotta go collect my paycheck.” You want to do something that truly brings you some sort of purpose or meaning. For me, it’s helping my daughter with her homework. That’s not much. But that gives me a sense of purpose. Accomplishment… we all know we need this, not to say that we give everybody a trophy, but we need to experience some sort of excellence or accomplishments. And this goes back, John, I know you’ve talked a lot about low stakes-grading and low-stakes assignments. Students need that, because it’s giving them that little touch of positivity, that touch of achievement. Accomplishment increases their emotions. And then the last one is vitality. This is what we hear about when we think of well-being. This is our health. This is our mental health. This is our physical health. This is getting enough sleep, decreased stress. But in general, like I said, the PERMA-V theory of well-being states that we should experience all of these each day. And it can be in small amounts, very small amounts, something as simple as actually saying hi to the person at Dunkin Donuts, instead of just saying hi, it’s like, hi, like look them in the eye, something as simple as that can increase positive emotion.

John: How have students responded when you’ve discussed some of these strategies in your classes?

Amy: It’s interesting, because if you ask my students what positive psychology is… actually, they would know because I do use that term a lot. But half the time they don’t even know what they’re doing, like in terms of “Oh, this is actually increasing my happiness,” or “this is actually making me feel fulfilled.” And so in my first-year course, in my Be Well course, I probably, if I had to take a guess, about 15 activities throughout the semester that I incorporate that are specifically evidence-based activities and resources that I implement. And in fact, I am currently collaborating with a group from the UK to implement the exact same resources and activities in both communities, both schools. But the students, because I actually did evaluate the effectiveness of it… it’s amazing. And I’m not just saying that from an anecdotal perspective, I did actually do the research. I’m in the process of analyzing the data right now. And we did some mixed methods analysis to look at: 1. did it actually help improve their ability to flourish and thrive? So we’re using evidence-based validated surveys to measure this. And then we’re also doing qualitative data where we’re doing some semi-structured interviewing and looking at the themes that are being pulled and one thing that always kept coming to the top was this theme of this positive emotion in the classroom. So the atmosphere that I portrayed, but in my class, it’s slightly unique… so I do have coaches that I use and their attitude in the classroom. And one thing that we did in almost all of our classes is the one thing that you’re grateful for. That was something that we did all the time that they absolutely loved. But the visualization that we used to do, we would spend the first five minutes of class journaling. And I know this isn’t feasible in all classes. But even if you did two minutes of journaling, by visualizing, what is the rest of my day going to look like? Because again, if you sit there and say, “Oh, my gosh, I have three more classes today,” there goes that emotion. And so we visualize “What does this day look like?” Yes, you have three classes after this. But let me write down and visualize how I can actually make this day look a little better. It sounds superficial, but it had huge impact on them. The low-stakes assignments they really liked, because of that sense of achievement was really, really important. The social connections… and again, I don’t teach large classrooms, the largest I’ve ever taught was 50 students… so I don’t know what this could look like in a large group setting, but they really loved having this kind of collaborative group that they were able to text and become friends with, that really enhanced the relationships. So those are some of the main themes. I would say stay tuned, because my colleague Jessica Harris and I are literally in the midst of writing a paper that will be submitted by the end of the month on all the data that we’ve collected on this whole positive psychology in the classroom.

Rebecca: I’m curious, Amy, about some initial resistance that you might get from some students, and then maybe they try it, and it works well. And how you might counter some of that initial resistance that you might get.

Amy: Great question. And I will tell you that 90% of the time, I have resistance, so I’m not going to pretend that this is all happy-ology. It’s not, it is difficult, and I would say you just keep doing it. So, for instance, one thing you’re grateful for, it’s like, “ah…Mom, really?” and they all say “Oh, my family, my friends.” Well, then I take that off the table, and it makes them dig a little deeper. But this is the thing, Rebecca, is I don’t need to keep reiterating the importance because they do it once and they feel it, they actually feel the change that it has in their emotions. There’s a great tool… I would love to do this… I’ve yet to do this in my class… but, I went to a happiness retreat two years ago. And one of the activities that we had to do, and these were complete strangers, we had to stare into the individual’s eyes for five minutes. I mean, you could blink it wasn’t like a game, but you literally just stare into their eyes, the emotion that comes up with that is intense. And so you just do this once, and the students feel it, they feel the change that it has in their emotion, and they buy into it. But no doubt, resistance is there. It’s just a matter of “Guys, let’s just play along, play along with me, try this out. Let me know what it feels like.” Meditation… I would do it with meditation. I’d say it got the most resistance with that. But we worked around it. And now I think there’s probably more students in the class that meditate than not.

John: One criticism of positive psychology and also the research on grit and on growth mindset is that it’s sometimes accused of being a very western individualistic approach, which ignores the role of society in influencing happiness and economic inequality. And the fact that some people are in really difficult circumstances, and it assigns responsibility for their happiness to them, when there are societal influences. Given those concerns, why might it still be worthwhile to work on these things?

Amy: Great question. And the importance of that question in this day and age is huge. The research shows that anywhere from about 40 to 50% of our overall happiness is genetically influenced. Then we have about 10% that is affected by our circumstances. So our financial circumstances, our socioeconomic circumstances, where we live, but there’s about 40% that is in 100% our control, so there are controllable factors. And so there is no doubt that if you are struggling financially, and I know during COVID we had lots of people losing jobs, but just from an equity perspective, you still have 40% that’s in your control on your day-to-day activities, in your day-to-day actions. And there’s a lot of research about happiness and money. And John, you probably know more about that than I do being an economist. And I don’t know if this is still the case, I know at one point, they said that as long as your overall needs are met, that any additional financial gain doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, I have since read things that are kind of saying the opposite.

John: The original research on thst was a little bit flawed in that it was treating the impact of additional income as being a linear effect, so that $1,000 increase in income would have the same effect on someone whose income was $10,000 a year as it would for someone who was making $1.5 million a year. And it turned out that for higher incomes, the same dollar increase did not yield as much of an effect. However, once they use a log transformation and they looked at percentage changes that broke down. And it turned out that, in most of the studies that I’ve seen, it’s a percent change in income which matters. So it takes much more income to make a really wealthy person happier than it does for a poor person. But when you allow for that, income seems to be extremely important, but also so does relative income. Because, in general, when societies become wealthier, people often will revert back to their original happiness when there’s a sudden change in income. But in general, at any given time, an increase in income, will improve happiness, but it’s the percent increase in income that seems to matter the most.

Amy: That definitely makes sense, and one of the things that we study in this human flourishing realm is the hedonic treadmill. And so this hedonic treadmill really kind of gets at what you were just saying, and from a financial perspective, and going back to your original question, from a financial perspective, money can buy happiness in a sense, where if it’s pouring rain out, and I have to walk to campus versus getting an Uber. If I have the money to get an Uber, then I’m going to be happier, because now I’m not soaking wet. But what this hedonic treadmill says is this kind of setpoint that we have, so we get a new job, and we get a 20% increase in a raise, we are happier for a momentary period of time, but we go back down to that setpoint. And that setpoint might be a little higher now, because our financial status has changed. But it’s that whole idea of keeping up with the Joneses. If we start to make more money, we live in different areas we associate possibly with different people, and so now your setpoint has actually increased. But does your happiness correlate with that? And research says no, because you get back down to that set point where, “Okay, it’s great, I got a 20% raise, but now I want this $100,000 car instead of the $40,000 car.” And so we’re constantly reaching for that next best thing. And if we look at it from that perspective, it doesn’t matter what your financial situation is, it doesn’t change the fact that you have control over 40% of your happiness on a day-to-day basis. And the research has shown that it’s the small wins that you have every day that create more happiness than these larger wins, where I just was promoted to tenure, or I just got this new car, that space that brings you back down, whereas our every day strategies that we can use is what really going to make a difference. So again, that’s in our control. And it’s really unrelated to our financial or socioeconomic status. Because, again, if we use example of getting up in the morning and staying off social media, that has nothing to do with anything other than your controllable factors.

John: And also, as individuals, we’re not going to be able to eliminate the inequities in our society, but we can perhaps try to make lives better for ourselves and for the people around us, including our students.

Amy: And I think of the negativity bias as soon as you said that, because I can think of a handful of students where when they tell me their stories, I want to cry, because they’re so deep, and they’re so intense, and they struggle so much, and where they are, I just want to give them a hug because I’m so proud of where they are. But what makes one person who’s from the exact same background struggle when somebody else from that exact same situation thrives and is resilient. And I think a lot of it’s this negativity bias where you come into your space, your classroom, wherever it is, with this thought of “Woe is me, I’ve been given these bad circumstances, I’m not going to thrive. I can’t do this.” Whereas another individual that has those same circumstances walks into the room and says, “I am so grateful for this opportunity, I am going to take full advantage of it and thrive in this community.” And so I think that’s really where we get into this individualistic change in response.

Rebecca: And I think that there is that community aspect that you’re mentioning too of relationships or just how your emotional state at any given time does impact the people around you, because they’re responding to that emotional state.

Amy: Yeah, I think of all those times that I have that unfortunate poor student that decides to walk in my office right after I read a nasty email, I’m like, “Oh, man, I don’t want to take this out on you, but you’re just my first person that walks through the door.”

Rebecca: I’m sure there’s much of that that happens that we are unaware of, but maybe could be become more aware of and actively take action on.

John: You mentioned earlier issues with mobile devices and with social media. And this is one of those issues we see in our classes where students may be continuously using these things, while they perceive themselves as being focused on class as well. And yet there is a fair amount of research dealing with our ability to multitask. How do you address that with your students?

Amy: Well, I used to take the approach that probably most faculty took, which was no cell phone. Well, obviously, that doesn’t work. Because although they think they’re sneaky, they’re still sneaking them out. I have gone with more of a passive aggressive approach, which I’m actually finding is working pretty well. And it’s not passive aggressive, but in a sense, it is. I explain to them this concept of multitasking, and that you can’t multitask. If I’m speaking to you, you can’t be doing anything else. And so I go with, if you are not 100% engaged in my class, or want to be engaged in my class, you shouldn’t be here. And what I mean by that is, if you are going to check that text message, that immediately means that you’re not multitasking, which means you don’t find this classroom important enough to you. So don’t be here, I’ve yet to have anyone leave. And I will be honest with you, they all literally put their phones away. And then I tell them about the research of, even if they have their cell phone laying on the table, because you know, you’ll tell them to put it away, and they just put it on the desk and flip it over. There’s research to show the anxiety that that cell phone brings to the person next to you. Because the stress that the individual has that’s sitting next to you is thinking, “Oh, when is that person going to pick up that phone? And when is that going to now distract me because I see them picking their phone up.” And so I kind of take that approach of you can’t multitask. And it actually has helped. I would like to throw faculty under the bus with this. When we’re in meetings on Zoom, can anybody literally say that we sit there and we’re giving 100% attention to our Zoom meeting? Or do we have another screen with email on it. We’ve all been there. It’s not increasing your ability to thrive, multitasking cannot work. And this is something as simple as when you talk with your significant other, you sit there and you put everything down, and you talk to them and you look them in the eye, and it’ll immediately increase your emotion.

Rebecca: Of course, we always have students that need devices for accommodation reasons, perhaps to take notes and things or maybe a student has children and they’re sick, and you’re kind of monitoring. So there are occasions where we’re forced into multitasking, even though we know it’s not the best situation. But making people aware of how that might distract or impact others can be really helpful. I know one strategy I’ve used is encouraging people that need to be monitoring or using their devices to be more on the periphery so that they’re not right next to someone where it might be distracting,

Amy: …or cell phone breaks. I know teachers that will do a text break, a two-minute text break. I haven’t done that. And to go back to what you said, Rebecca, I have one or two times actually answered my daughter on my watch in the middle of class because if my daughter is calling me in the middle of the day, something’s wrong. I get that. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I do have to say that some of my highest productivity is during zoom meetings, when I can actually get some work done without other interruptions.

Amy: I agree, John, I so want to agree with you. And I so, so do it. So this is one of those things, do as I say, not as I do. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Well, it may be that you’re just focused on the other task, right? And the other thing’s just background noise. [LAUGHTER]

Amy: That’s it. That‘s definitely it.

Rebecca: You’re not really multitasking, you’re just tasking with the illusion that you’re doing two things.

John: Right. So our names are up on the screen. And it looks like we’re focused if we have the cameras on.

Amy: …except when you see your eyes, the eyes drop because you could tell you’re reading the email lower.

John: or one of the resources shared by the presenter. [LAUGHTER]

Amy: Of course.

John: That’s a good excuse to do that.

Amy: There we go.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

Amy: What’s next? I have amazing stuff that’s coming up down the pike. I am in the midst of creating a brand new course called Thrive, which I actually I have been offering. And it’s 100% about positive psychology, it’s actually a seven-week course. And each week, we do a different aspect of PERMA-V. And I’m hoping to offer that to as many students as possible. But I’m also in the thought process in my brain of putting together some sort of training type thing to help individual faculty learn some of these strategies. And that training will probably start with a spring CELTworkshop that I might do during breakout in the spring of how to actually take what we just talked about and give you substantial resources that you can actually use. So I’m in the process of having a student work with me right now to create a website that has just drop down menus of all the resources so that people can just pull right from that and say, “Let’s do this today.”

Rebecca: Sounds like a great resource to look forward to. Thanks for joining us, Amy.

Amy: Thank you. This was great.

John: It’s always great talking to you.


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

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


272. Mind Over Monsters

During the last few years, college students have been reporting mental health concerns at unprecedented levels, straining the resources provided by college and university counseling centers. In this episode, Sarah Rose Cavanagh joins us to discuss the role that faculty can play in addressing these concerns.

Sarah is a psychologist, professor and Senior Associate Director for Teaching and Learning at Simmons University. She is the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion and Hivemind: Thinking Alike in a Divided World as well as numerous academic articles and essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lit Hub, Inside Higher Ed, and Vice. Her most recent book, Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge will be released in spring 2023.

Show Notes

  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2019). Hivemind: The new science of tribalism in our divided world. Grand Central Publishing.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (forthcoming, 2023). Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge. Beacon Press.
  • Elizabeth Romero
  • Ryan Glode
  • Reacting to the Past
  • Jasmin Veerapen
  • Gary Senecal
  • Miller, L. (2020). Why Fish Don’t Exist: a story of loss, love, and the hidden order of life. Simon & Schuster.
  • Robert Sapolsky’s Publications
  • Auel, J. M. (2002). The Clan of the Cave Bear. Bantam.
  • Kelly Leonard
  • Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-Rich Education: How human connections drive success in college. JHU Press.
  • Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan
  • Michele Lemons
  • James Lang


John: During the last few years, college students have been reporting mental health concerns at unprecedented levels, straining the resources provided by college and university counseling centers. In this episode, we discuss the role that faculty can play in addressing these concerns.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Sarah Rose Cavanagh. Sarah is a psychologist, professor and Senior Associate Director for Teaching and Learning at Simmons University. She is the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion and Hivemind: Thinking Alike in a Divided World as well as numerous academic articles and essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lit Hub, Inside Higher Ed, and Vice. Her most recent book, Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge will be released in spring 2023.

Welcome back, Sarah.

Sarah: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.

John: Today’s teas are:… Sarah, are you drinking any tea?

Sarah: No, I always disappoint you. I am yet again drinking coffee.

Rebecca: Yet again, such a stable person in our lives with your coffee. [LAUGHTER] I have blue sapphire tea.

Sarah: That’s a pretty name.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s tasty. And my new favorite.

John: And I am drinking spring cherry green tea here in the midst of winter in upstate New York. We’ve invited you here today to discuss Mind over Monsters. Could you talk a little bit about the origin of this project?

Sarah: For me, I think writing is more organic than it is planned, and so it felt a little bit like the book decided it needed to be written, rather than I decided to write the book. There was just such a groundswell of interest around young adult’s mental health, people talking about it, podcasts, books. And I am a college professor, I’m a psychologist, I am an educational developer. I’m the mom of an adolescent, and so I couldn’t help but be concerned and interested in this topic. And I also felt that, as someone who has struggled with anxiety my entire life, panic disorder in particular, that I had some small bits of wisdom from my lived experiences to share. And so it just all came together.

John: How prevalent are mental health issues among youth today?

Sarah: They’re pretty prevalent, unfortunately. Some people have even labeled it an epidemic. For instance, in 2021, three of the major American organizations dedicated to youth and adolescent mental health joined together and declared a national state of emergency, which was an unprecedented move. And they cited in particular the effects of the pandemic and the fact that already marginalized groups along lines of race and ethnicity, gender, and sexuality and income were bearing the brunt of the psychological effects of the pandemic. But also there’s a lot of complexities surrounding figuring out whether rates have truly changed or whether there’s also changes in stigma surrounding mental health, which are laudatory changes, we want people not to feel stigma, and to come out and reach out for treatment. There’s also changes in the thresholds of the diagnoses themselves, they shift every several years. And there’s also changes in people’s willingness to seek treatment, and also their decisions about the level at which they might need treatment. And so there’s some evidence that a lot of these complexities may be making epidemics seem worse than it is. But what is clear is that more young adults and especially college students are expressing more distress and asking for help with that distress. Counseling centers on campus are absolutely overwhelmed and students are expressing a lot of frustration with not receiving the level and the timing of care that they need in those settings, and so clearly, we need changes.

Rebecca: In a lot of public conversations, we’re hearing debates about needing to show compassion to adolescents who are struggling, but then also others who argue that youth is too coddled. Can you talk a little bit about what you would advocate for?

Sarah: And that’s a delightfully easy setup for me, [LAUGHTER] because in the subtitle of the book is “compassionate challenge and why we need to support youth mental health with compassionate challenge.” And I argue that this debate and tension between compassion and challenge is one of these false dichotomies that we human beings seem to adore. [LAUGHTER] Students clearly need compassion, and I think compassion has to come first. For me, what that looks like is establishing classroom communities and learning environments on campus that are characterized by safety and by a feeling of belongingness. You need to feel safe enough to take risks. And you need to feel that you’re supported not just by your instructor, but also your fellow students and the Student Success Office and all of the people on campus. But once we’ve established that grounding and that safe setting, then I think to truly learn and grow, we do need to take risks, we do need to step outside our comfort zones, and we need to be challenged. And I think that challenge can be very positive. I spend one of the last chapters of the book really digging into the science of play, and how play is all about being vulnerable and taking risks and play can be scary. And you can only play in settings where you, again, feel safe. And I think, finally, what I call compassionate challenge isn’t just important for teaching and learning. As I draw out in two interviews with clinical psychologists Ryan Glode and Elly Romero, compassionate challenge is also really key to addressing anxiety and symptoms of mental health. And I don’t think we’re going to be doing any therapy in the classroom, but learning environments marked by compassionate challenge are ones that are consistent with principles that help address and resolve anxiety, which again, involves facing your fears, and environments where you’re technically safe and there’s a facilitator there to help you manage those risks.

Rebecca: John and I were talking earlier about some of the things that I had observed in my own classroom in the last year with an increase in desire for perfection, like kind of perfectionism or anxiety around not being perfect and not being right and working with students in class and trying to find ways to help students work through that so that they could take risks or could show things in progress to get feedback so that they could continue to improve. Can you talk a little bit more about what that might look like in a classroom?

Sarah: Well, I think that a lot of that brings up assessment and grading. And I think why we see that perfectionism in the classroom is that students are very concerned about their grades, because they believe, to some extent rightly, that their grades are going to translate into future security, and to getting into the right graduate school or getting the right job. And we do this to students. In high school, we train them to be so focused on the grades in order to get into the correct college and I have a high schooler and her grades are constantly just streaming, coming in in real time to her phone. And then we’re surprised when students get to college and they’re too focused on their grades. [LAUGHTER] And so I think that helping students with that need for perfection is probably reforming our grading systems so that there isn’t that need, that that focus on perfectionism isn’t necessarily rewarded in the same way. And instead, we’re rewarding taking risks and doing something creative, and maybe failing and having multiple iterations of something and seeing that work can grow over time, which, I think, amplifies creativity

Rebecca: There’s a lot more focus on process than on the product, then.

Sarah: Yes.

John: You mentioned using play in classrooms, what would be an example of the use of play in the classroom?

Sarah: Well, I think you can directly play through using improv, and especially in the early parts of the semester when you’re all getting to know each other, a lot of icebreakers are very playful. And community building can be very playful. I think there are ways like the whole reacting to the past role playing approach in history. You can easily roleplay in literature classes. So I think you can directly play. I think that what play can also be is almost like a philosophy or a stance that you take, that what we’re doing in the classroom is not dire. And, related to the grading that we were just talking about, there aren’t large stakes, that what we’re doing here is this is kind of a sandbox, where we’re playing with intellectual ideas, we’re testing things out, we’re experimenting. And there’s a sense in which it’s lighthearted, even when the topics are not light hearted, I think that we can take this lighthearted stance with our students. And I think also mixing things up and not getting too into routines, can also be playful. And I feel like I have a lot of tricks in my teaching bag, different discussion techniques and ways of getting us up and moving and things like that. But there’s always a point, kind of through the three-quarter mark of the semester, where they’ve seen it all. And so I try to save one or two things for that point in the semester and kind of throw everything out the window and do something entirely different. And I think that that can be playful as well. And so I don’t think that play in the classroom is all about things that we think of as play proper, like improv and roleplay; it can also be all of these other techniques.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve studied in the past is play. And one of the things that’s interesting about play is that there’s rules and there’s structure. And so a lot of times we think that play is just chaos, but actually play almost always has rules. They might not be formal rules, they might be informal rules. But that’s a way that people can feel safe and able to play is that they understand what the structure is and what the rules are.

Sarah: Those are great points.

Rebecca: You think that it’s hard to facilitate because it might seem so foreign, but actually we’re all very familiar with play. And it is actually incredibly structured. We know that structured things can be really inclusive. And so you might be hesitant to try something that seems like it might be unstructured, but I think, lo and behold, play is actually structured.

Sarah: Yeah, and a lot of those classic improv activities have strict rules in fact and one of the rules is that there’s a kindness.So, even when animals play… you know, I watch dogs play a lot at dog parks, and it can get quite vicious looking, but the animals are safe, you don’t harm each other and that is a strict rule of play as well.

John: Some of this book is drawn from research you conducted as part of the Student Voices project. Could you tell us a little bit about that project?

Sarah: Absolutely. So this was a project that grew out of my last grant from the Davis Educational Foundation. I had done a quantitative study that I talked with you all about in the past. And we had some funds left. And I had an honor student, Jasmin Veerapen, who’s now at Columbia, getting her social work degree, and she needed an honors thesis project. And so we collaborated together and ran a qualitative follow up and interviewed students from 35 different very diverse types of institutions across the country. And it was not a project focused explicitly on mental health, but on emotions and learning. So for instance, the first two questions we asked of all of our participants was: What was the best learning experience you have had in college, and tell us all about it?” And the second was, “What was one of the worst learning experiences you had in college?” ..and their insights are all so rich, and I share a number of their wonderful stories in the book. It’s a great pleasure.

John: Would that be something that you’d encourage faculty to do in their own classes?

Sarah: Yes, it was very illustrative, a lot came out of that. And we actually had worked with a consultant, Gary Senecal, because this was my first qualitative research study, and so I didn’t really know what I was doing. And he’s done a lot of qualitative research, and so he was our consultant. And he helped us shape the questions. And I think he had a large role in shaping those first two questions, because they’re just open ended enough that students share very different things, but then they all coalesce, and so it was very informative. And I think many professors could learn a lot asking their students those questions.

Rebecca: You included many narratives throughout your book, some of your own personal stories and some of the stories of student voices from this project. Can you talk about why you decided to include narrative as a part of the book?

Sarah: Yes, when I think about the books that I most like to read, the nonfiction books that I most like to read, they have a really strong narrative component. So I recently read Why Fish Don’t Exist, which was one of my favorite reads out of the last few years. And I love Robert Sapolsky’s books, and I’m a story person. And I mostly read fiction. And so I really enjoy nonfiction that has a strong narrative component. So that was one of my motivations, that I wanted to write a book that was like the books that I like to read. I think that story, though, also is really compelling. I think that there are insights that are embedded in stories that things like quantitative data can’t always tap into in the same way. And I think in particular, for topics like this, and for emotions and for students’ perceptions of their own learning, I think that we need story.

John: In addition to narrative, which is really compelling in your book, you also bring in a number of other disciplinary studies. Could you talk a little bit about some of the other disciplines and some of the other research your book relies on

Sarah: That’s a little, maybe, too far into humanities, I’m a little worried. I am a social scientist by training. And I’m very aware of the fact that there is disciplinary expertise. But I do bring in a lot of humanity’s work, in particular monster theory. So I read quite a bit of monster theory, which wasn’t even something that I knew existed before then, but that’s in there. I do something that I get from my mother. I used to make fun of my mother for always citing literature and stories as evidence for things. I would take an anthropology class and come home from college, and we would talk about it. And she would shake her head at me and say, “Well, that’s not how it happened, in Clan of the Cave Bear. [LAUGHTER] But I do a little bit about that. So I bring in some stories from novels and short stories that I think illustrate the points that I’m trying to make as well. And then I think, most compellingly, I bring in actual experts from their disciplines. So I interview a sociologist about her research on trigger warnings. I interview a Latin American Studies scholar about his work on vocation, which I found so fascinating. And I also interviewed a couple of clinicians, as I said, and Kelly Leonard who is a Second City improv person, and so I bring in those other disciplines through the lens of the people I’m interviewing.

Rebecca: Sometimes it’s really helpful to have these illustrations because statistics can go only so far in helping us understand what that actually looks like and feels like in our classrooms or in the experience that students are having because we can feel really far removed… or I’m feeling farther and farther removed [LAUGHTER] from students and it helps to hear things in their own voices. And we don’t always ask them enough. I wish we asked more.

John: …which is something really troubling to those of us who focus mostly on statistical analyses, and so forth. [LAUGHTER] But it’s true, a compelling story can be much more effective in convincing people of some concept than any number of studies that you might present to them.

Sarah: But we do have lots of citations for people like you, John. But I tried to bring both sources to the table,

Rebecca: …which is good, because you got both of us here.

Sarah: Mm hmm.

Rebecca: So can you talk a little bit about the intended audience of your book?

Sarah: Absolutely. My primary audience, I think, is people who are doing the work of higher education, so college instructors, staff like me who work in teaching centers, and student success offices, administrators, and so it does have a strong higher ed thread throughout. That said, I don’t think there’s a super bright line between especially late high school and early college in some of these concerns. And I think it could be useful for high school educators, especially those who might be advising students about the college selection process. I think that there is some insight and some sections, maybe, that could be of interest to college students themselves, and possibly their parents. But I would want them to know that it’s not a parenting book. I don’t want anyone to pick it up thinking it’s a parenting book. There’s long sections, again, on trigger warnings and institutions needing to actually carry out their DE&I statements. And someone picking it up thinking they’re going to get some pithy advice about parenting is not going to be satisfied.

John: Would this be a good focus for faculty reading groups or book clubs?

Sarah: I think so. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: We think so too. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, it looks like, yeah, it looks like some really wonderful topics that you’re exploring to think about all of higher ed in a lot of ways, and perhaps some reimagining that needs to happen.

Sarah: Oh, thank you.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what we, as educators or people working in higher ed, can do to create a more compassionate and challenging environment for our students? What are some actions we can take?

Sarah: Well, I think you have to do the compassion piece first. And I think that colleges really need to be examining, and I think they are examining, there’s lots of other people sharing this message of compassion and relationship, rich education, thinking of Peter Felton and Leo Lambert’s book. And I think that we need to embed compassion in the atmosphere in the classroom and the dorms. I think that we need to pay a lot of attention to community. I think that we need to shore up resources in counseling centers. I’ve been attending, as part of the research for this book, lots of webinars with people who are looking at this topic from a lot of different frameworks. And there’s a lot of interesting work being done on peer support, which I’m both interested in and also wary of. I think that peers are our natural first source of support. And that peer support could be really life changing for a lot of college students. But just like we shouldn’t be doing therapy in the classroom, I don’t think it’s the responsibility of college students to do counseling for their fellow peers. And they’re trained to spot warning signs and to do the kind of heavy lifting that a lot of counseling involves. And so I think that we’re going to need to dedicate more resources to trained clinicians in our counseling centers. In my interview with Ryan Glode in the book, who is, again, a clinical counseling psychologist, he really feels that counseling centers provide just sort of venting sorts of therapy, and that he’s a strong advocate of cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, and that students need much more individualized treatment and approaches. And so I think that that’s an interesting thing to explore. And the last thing I would say is, I always say this, but faculty need more support and time, because there’s been a lot of great essays coming out, the last couple of weeks even I’ve seen, about the fact that student success is really faculty success, and faculty are where students get more of their support than anywhere else. And we can try to reach out to them in many different ways, but they land in our classrooms, we know that we’ll see them in their classrooms, even if they’re not leaving their dorm much, they usually come to class. And so it’s an entry point. Mentoring is such a strong part of the college experience and so wonderful for growth and mental health. And so I think that for faculty to really apply all of this and have really close student relationships and really rich classrooms and all of these things, they need more time and more support. And so I think that the two places I would put my support is in the counseling center and then in supporting faculty, giving them the kinds of time and the kinds of support that will allow them to be the teachers that they can be when they have the time to do so.

Rebecca: Are there specific places where you found compassion to be lacking that surprised you in your research? We know that there’s a [LAUGHTER] strain on counseling centers, but were there some other places that really rose to really needing some attention,

Sarah: None of the students we talked to had trouble coming up with either a best or worst learning experience. And the good ones are really, really good. And the poor ones were pretty poor. And so there’s a lot of unevenness, I think, and I think that that, when I talk as I just did about, if you just give faculty more time, then they’ll blossom, and then the students will blossom, and sometimes when I have conversations with administrators about that, or see policies being enacted on different campuses, I can tell that there’s a wariness that if you give faculty time, they’ll just either do more research, or they will check out and that there’s a danger there and we need to work faculty harder. And I do see in talking to the students about their best and worst learning experiences, that the people teaching those worst learning experiences really need to step up their game a little bit. And so I think that there are those pockets out there that still don’t apply themselves to their teaching or look at it as an onerous responsibility. But the good teachers are really fantastic. And so maybe leveling that out a little bit, bringing the worst learning experiences up to the best learning experiences might be somewhere I recommend some attention.

John: One of the areas where people often see a dichotomy between compassion and challenge is in terms of deadlines in courses where material later in the course build on material earlier in the course, it’s really easy for students who are struggling to get further and further behind when they don’t have at least some sort of a deadline. Do you have any strategies for addressing that, besides focusing on the learning rather than on grades? What can we do to help ensure that students make regular progress while still maintaining compassion?

Sarah: Um hmm. I think this is the question of the moment. [LAUGHTER] And I can tell you, I just had a conversation with a reporter at The Chronicle who was writing a whole big piece on just this issue. And we at Simmons just met with our advisory council, who are a group of about 12 faculty who we check in with about what faculty needs are. And this was their number one answer, like clearly. So we’re going to do a panel in the spring at Simmons, where we have some faculty with very different perspectives. We’re hoping to draw out some of these tensions and have this discussion. And so I do think it’s an excellent question. And I think that a deadline is a good example of where compassionate challenge needs to be. I think that all of us need the structure of deadlines. I myself benefit [LAUGHTER] greatly from the structure of deadlines and schedules. And I think especially for college students in the early years, if they’re so-called traditionally aged students, some of the process of those first year or two of college is learning time management and in scaffolding them into good time management. And so I think that structure is very important. As Rebecca was saying earlier, it’s also an inclusive teaching strategy, Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan have written extensively about that. But I think without compassion, deadlines are going to worsen student anxiety, and also it doesn’t make a lot of sense for contemporary life. And so some techniques that I’ve seen are things like using frequent tokens instead of just no deadlines or 100% flexibility with deadlines and things kind of pile up toward the end. You can have tokens where students can have a set number of missed assignments, or dropped assignments, or I need an extra week or two. I think that it’s important in whatever you do, if you are going to be flexible to be transparent with all of the students about it, because I think that some students will ask for flexibility and the other students won’t know that they can ask for flexibility. And a lot of that falls out along the lines where everything falls out and creates inequities. So I think that having some structure, but with some flexibility built in is probably the best way to go. I was interviewing a biology instructor for a different project. And she was telling me what she did is she had pretty close to unlimited flexibility within modules. So she had her whole semester set up in modules, but then you had to submit things within that module, because as you say, especially some fields, the information builds, and if you miss part, you’re going to be in trouble. And so I thought that was another interesting approach. But I agree that in particular when we’re thinking about mental health, that structure is better. And the last thing I’ll say is that at my previous campus, we had a panel of the Dean of first-year students, it was the head of our accessibility office, the head of our counseling center, and then a clinical counseling psychologist from our psychology department about issues surrounding student mental health. And one of the instructors asked about deadlines, and they were all unanimous, they said, deadlines are necessary. The worst thing you can do for a student high in anxiety is allow no deadlines or submissions whenever they like, because that will quickly get them into a negative place, and that they need that structure. So I think it’s a great example of the need for both compassion and challenge.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think about when I hear structure or certain kinds of support is routine. And you talked a little earlier about having some routine, but then disruptions to that routine. Can you talk about why some of the disruptions to the routine might be important, or why not having a routine all the time could be helpful for students?

Sarah: Well, I think the positives of routine are that they’re reassuring, for one thing. I think we all as human beings, it’s relaxing to settle into a routine, and it’s also lower in cognitive load. If you just know, okay, every Thursday, I have a homework assignment, every Tuesday I have a quiz, you don’t have to constantly be scrambling and figuring things out every week. And so I think that routines can be reassuring, and they can also be more transparent and easier to follow along. I think where the disruption is great is it re-energizes. So it’s great to be reassured and calm things down. But then that can get boring and kind of stultifying after a little while. And so once you have established the routine to mix things up once in a while, I think, can be re-energizing. And so I think that’s where a blend of the two can be really powerful.

Rebecca: You mentioned that you do this in your own classes. Can you share an example of one of the ways you mix things up in your own class,

Sarah: it’s not terribly exciting. But the one that I do this most clearly is in my motivation and emotion class. And in that class, we’re covering different topics and we’re reading research articles and doing presentations. And again, I try to mix things up, but I have a set number of things that I mix things up. And then usually right after Thanksgiving, I throw everything out the window and we just spend a week doing something different. And so we used to watch a movie together. And then we would write an essay about the motivation and emotion aspects and the themes that we’ve talked about all semester long, how it played out in those characters lives. And I was showing Lars and the Real Girl, I don’t know if it’s kind of an older movie now and stopped doing that for a while for a number of reasons. But then more recently, in this activity called “making the world a better place.” And I had a selection of psychological science articles, each one that tackled a societal problem, like climate change, or misinformation, and how we could use principles from recent psychological science research and to help improve this societal conundrum. And then we did small group work with snacks. And they would work on little group presentations all together that were very low stakes, and then present them to each other. And we would have a grant competition among them. But it was just this week where the routine was very different.

Rebecca: It sounds like almost a culminating point of the semester, instead of ramping up stress with a big project, it’s ramping down the stress with something that’s applied, but in a more low key way.

John: …but also valuable and fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely. To me, it sounds like: “[LOUD EXHALE]”

John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Sarah: Well, I have a new grant. Well, a semi-new grant. And it’s a National Science Foundation Incubator Grant with my co-PI, Michele Lemons of Assumption University. And it is examining assessment, feedback, and grading in undergraduate bio education in particular. And so we had a qualitative portion, we had a survey portion, and we had student interviews, and we’ve just wrapped data collection, So I have a lot of writing and meaning-making and analysis, and then a full proposal grant [LAUGHTER] to write. So on the research side, that’s what’s going on. And on the writing side, I don’t know yet. I have a few possible ideas. I’m in a writers group with Jim Lang, who I know you both know, and his new book, which is going to be fantastic… and you have to have him on the show… is all about how academics can successfully write trade books for a wider audience. And I’ve been enjoying the chapters as he’s been writing them. And I was reading his chapter on where to get your book idea, and I realized that I’ve written a couple of books now from my expertise, but I don’t have to stick with my expertise. I could do something super fun. And so I don’t know.

John: Not that your expertise isn’t fun or interesting. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Well, thank you. And anything I write will obviously have a strong psychology component, it’s just like in my bones at this point. But yeah, so stay tuned. We’ll see.

Rebecca: Sounds like some exciting things down the pike for sure.

John: We look forward to hearing more about that when you’re ready to share that.

Sarah: Oh, thanks.

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

Sarah: Thank you. Always a pleasure.

Rebecca: Yeah, I always learn stuff from our conversations, so I’m looking forward to having you on again in the future.

Sarah: Oh, thanks. Same.


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