206. U.S. Regulations for Online Classes

To be eligible for U.S. federal financial aid funding, colleges and universities offering distance learning programs must satisfy new federal regulations that went into effect in July 2020 and July 2021.  In this episode, Russell Poulin joins us to discuss how these requirements have changed and what these changes mean for faculty and institutions offering online classes.

Russ is the Executive Director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), and the Vice President for Technology Enhanced Education at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.



John: To be eligible for U.S. federal financial aid funding, colleges and universities offering distance learning programs must satisfy new federal regulations that went into effect in July 2020 and July 2021. In this episode, we examine how these requirements have changed and what these changes mean for faculty and institutions offering online classes.


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: Judie Littlejohn is joining us as a guest host for this episode. Judie is the instructional designer for Genesee Community College, and has been a guest on several of our past episodes.

Judie: And our guest today is Russ Poulin. Russ is the Executive Director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), and the Vice President for Technology Enhanced Education at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which, of course is WICHE. Welcome, Russ.

Russell: Oh, it’s so great to be here. Thanks for asking me.

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

Russell: Oh, yes, I’m drinking tea and I live in Longmont, Colorado, which is near Boulder and we have Celestial Seasonings here, and so, I’m drinking Earl Grey that has probiotics in it. That’s a new product for them.

Judie: So you have Earl Grey, but I’ve got Lady Grey black tea from Twinings.

Russell: Oh, very nice!

John: And I have pineapple ginger green tea from the Republic of Tea. We’ve invited you here to discuss the new federal regulations concerning regular and substantive interaction in distance-learning courses. These regulations went into effect in July 2021. We also would like to talk a little bit about the requirements for identity verification that went into effect a year earlier, but before we discuss this, could you tell us a little bit about WCET?

Russell: Oh, I’d love to, and thank you for asking. And so WCET is part of WICHE, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which is a regional higher education compact focused on the west, but back in 1989, they started WCET to focus on educational technologies, distance ed, online learning – which wasn’t a thing yet then – and, even from the start, we had other states that came in, and now we’ve grown and now we have, members through all 50 states and Canada and even Australia. And our members, are institutions and organizations and corporations interested in the use of distance ed.

Judie: How did WCET become the go-to source for information on regular and substantive interaction?

Russell: Well, we were hearing from members that there was some confusion about exactly what they were supposed to do with this, and that there wasn’t complete clear guidance from the US Department of Education and so Van Davis, who worked at Blackboard at that time, and now works for us here at WCET. And what we did was that we went through all of the guidance, there were some guidance that had been given, and also the findings against several institutions and then tried to put together what is it that they were looking for? What is it that is expected? And then we put together a blog post of our findings, and put that out there, and for like, four or five years, no matter what else we published, that ended up being the top blog post for the year because people were seeing that that was the only place where somebody had compiled this all together and knew what to do. And then in 2019, I was named to the Department of Education’s negotiated rulemaking subcommittee that worked on new rules, and there are people who actually get together and write these rules – you can imagine how exciting that is – and I was part of that and worked on it. And one of the issues that we worked on was this distance education issue and updating this regular and substantive interaction part of it and so you could say I was in the room where it happened! [LAUGHTER]

John: So basically, there was a gap out there that needed to be filled, and there was a lot of concern because of the sanctions that were placed against Western Governors University?

Russell: Yeah, it’d been unclear, and then also yeah, there was these findings against Western Governors University that their courses were all correspondence courses, and that they were expected to pay back – really, when you got to the end of it – it was a billion dollars which they didn’t have in their pockets at the time, and so it really caught the attention of a lot of people and this was a rule that was first written in 1992, had incomplete guidance. It was being administered in different ways and so it was time for a real update and more details about what is it exactly that they’re expecting? And so we worked on that, and we also were able to put in that there’s greater reliance in terms of the relationship between the accrediting agency and the institution, because there were times where it seemed like the auditors were sort of overruling that, and that doesn’t make sense because if you’re meeting what the accreditors want, why is this out of balance?

Judie: So what is needed, then, to differentiate a correspondence course from a credit-bearing online course?

Russell: So, it’s really good to go back and make that distinction and remind people that this is all about federal financial aid and what qualifies for federal financial aid. And they always want to get into, “Well… interaction, the academics, and the pedagogy of it.” Well, okay, put that aside [LAUGHTER] for the moment, we’re talking about, for federal purposes, what qualifies for federal aid and what does not? And the idea was that distance education is something that qualifies for full federal aid, whereas correspondence response education… that you might not get full aid for those courses or if you have enough correspondence students or enough correspondence courses… if over 50% of your students or courses are labeled as correspondence… then your institution is now ineligible for aid, and that’s what happened with Western Governors University. And so, it’s good to be clear, especially as we’re seeing more and more distance ed, hyflex, hybrid sorts of courses about what fits and what does not, and what activities work. We need to know what happens, so that we know that we’re in line, so that we keep our federal financial aid for students.

John: The technology for offering online courses has changed quite a bit since the initial regulations were developed. Under the current revisions, what is meant by interaction in that definition of regular and substantive interaction?

Russell: Yeah, that’s a good point that this rule was written in 1992, prior to online learning [LAUGHTER]. There’s been a lot of changes. But you really do need to parse out the parts of it, and so thanks for asking about the interaction part of it because back in the old definition, prior to July 1, that there’s this really odd thing that, the only thing that counted for interaction was something that was done by the instructor. So, providing a lecture, providing a video, providing an assessment or providing an assignment, any of those sorts of things. Those are the only things that counted, so our interaction here… “Yeah, you said something and I’m the instructor that didn’t count what you said” That’s weird. So, now, there are parts of it (freshly hidden in the regular part of the definition) that if you go down there, that you’ll see that there’s the expectation that you respond to students and student requests. So, at least we’ve made that move that the student being part of the interaction is now a part of what counts, and that’s the great move forward.

Judie: And what is expected for substantive interaction, like how do you define the substantive part?

Russell: So going back again to the old one, that it was all just about content, that if you’re teaching a history course, as one might, that you’re talking about what happened in a particular battle, or what happened in 1792, or those sorts of things, particular things about the course, and interactions about basketball or other extraneous things didn’t count. But under the new rule, we’ve gone to an activity-based notion of it, and I’m going to read these, so stay with me on this, and they’re very short. So one, one of the activities is providing direct instruction. Two, is assessing or providing feedback on coursework. Three is providing information or responding to questions about the content or competencies. Four is facilitating a group discussion. Five is other instructional activities, as approved by the accreditor, that’s a really wide open one. But for these that, if you have any type of online course, I sure hope that you’re assessing what the students are doing, I sure hope that you’re responding to them when they ask questions, and so, you’ve already got two of those right there. The one that’s really in question is the one about direct instruction, and…everyplace else they talk about synchronous or asynchronous, but I know through some things that we learned about the Department of Ed’s thinking of that, and we asked this question directly of them during a webinar about direct instruction. At that time, they said that it was only synchronous education, and sometimes people freak out when I say that, and we are asking for clarification on that in writing, but remember that it’s two of the five, so even if they define it as just synchronous instruction, you’re probably meeting at least three of those five already if you have any type of quality course.

John: One of the issues, I think, that you’re also seeking to resolve is whether synchronous online office hours would count. Has there been any feedback on that yet?

Russell: Yeah, it seemed to us quite clear about the office hours, that that is something that would count and it’s something that did not count in the past. And so, it’s an interesting change for that and one of the reasons that they did that was one of the groups I was representing was competency-based education, and so, we’re going to get into notion of regular here in a moment, you know, how do you define regular for something that, by definition, is irregular in terms of competency based? And it’s based upon student pacing over the faculty pacing, and so, there’s a nod to that in terms of if you have regular office hours and have that posted on the syllabus or somewhere that that would count. And we’ve had some pushback from our financial aid friends, because that’s new to them. They said, “Well, that’s never counted before.” And so again, this is something where we’ve asked the question of the department and hope to get that in writing yet again so that that’s reaffirmed and everybody’s under the same understanding for that one.

Judie: You started to talk about regular, so how do you define “regular” interaction?

Russell: So regular? Yeah, as I was alluding to, that was the hardest one to do, because remember, we’re writing these for, depending on how you count, four to six thousand institutions. Some have short courses, some have competency-based, you think of every variation that you have out there. So saying “meeting once a week,” or doing something once a week just didn’t work because it didn’t fit all those different ones, and once a week would not be enough in a five- or six-week course, that’d be too little. So, we tried a formula and that was a disaster. So anyway, so we have these words, and then there’s a lot more, again, back to the relationship with the accreditor on this and what works. So, these are a little bit vague, but you need to work with your accreditor and how they’re defining these. So there’s really two parts to this. The first is going to be predictable and scheduled, and so this is something where either you have it in your syllabus, and then you have the syllabus at the start and here’s when things are going to happen, and then with that, that you may actually have a two- or three-week break where an instructor is not putting things out or you don’t have interactions, because it makes academic sense that you have the people out doing a paper or group work for two to three weeks and doing that. So that once a week would actually not work there, right? Or the predictable part of it was that maybe it’s not exactly in the syllabus, but what you do is you say, “Every Wednesday, we’re gonna meet or have office hours, or we’ll do something at webinar times.” So something predictable. So, that’s the first part of it. The second part of it was about monitoring the students’ academic engagement. And that was something we really brought in with competency-based education in mind, where what you’re doing is that you are actively following the student and making sure that they’re not out there on their own, and that you’re making sure that the student’s not floating and that you’re seeing that, “Okay, do they need interaction? Do they need some intervention?” Or the second part of that is what I alluded to before, or that the student says, “Okay, I need help with this,” or “I’m ready to move on to the next part of my competencies.” So that’s the other part of it is the bringing that together in terms of monitoring the engagement, so something that’s predictable, scheduled, and then also, outside of that, that you’re actually monitoring and interacting with the student.

John: Are there any requirements concerning the extent to which there should be interactions with individual students as compared to interactions with the class as a whole?

Russell: Well, both of them count. So if you’re giving a lecture, or if you’re doing a group discussion and doing that, that that’s a group thing, and so that counts. And also, remember, the second part of the regular was that you are responding to student requests, and so that’s on an individual basis. And when there is a federal financial aid review, or ”audit” as it’s called, of your institution, what they’ll do is they’ll go and take a sample of classes, and that they’ll look to see what happened in that course? Were there group interactions? Were there individual interactions? That they’ll look to see what happened and then they’ll look to see, does it meet the regulations? And have you developed faculty? Have you let them know that these are the expectations of them? That they’re looking for those sorts of things, and did it actually have an effect in the courses?

Judie: So what would be some examples of regular and substantive interaction that we could build into a course?

Russell: Yeah, that’s a really good question. You’re an instructional designer, you plan the whole course out, right? And you’re going to get more points on the regular side for the predictable and scheduled if you have a syllabus, that… it doesn’t have to be detailed down to every last thing that you’re going to do… but at least you’re showing that what are the expectations along the way? That, when are you going to have assessments? That, if you’re – let’s say that for some courses – that you’ll send out a video with a different lesson every Monday or every Friday, what you’re doing is that you’re hitting the marks on the regular, another is that you are showing that you have some expectations, in terms of the feedback and the feedback loop. And sometimes institutions have this as a policy, sometimes they leave it to the faculty member. But the more classes that you have where you show that the faculty person… you don’t have to respond immediately… but they’re showing that they will respond in 72 hours, not counting a weekend… that they will respond to the students. And there’s that expectation that they will do that because I had a question from one, that they had a faculty member that they put the discussion out there at the start of semester and then graded it at the end of the semester [LAUGHTER]. And first of all, that’s terrible teaching practice, let’s start with that, nevermind the regulations, but that faculty person thought it was good. And the other is, that there’s this expectation that, as you go along that you’re working with the students. So those are some examples of things that you’d want to do there.

Judie: So just a couple of different things that I like to try here is, I really like to try to encourage faculty to give feedback prior to the next due date. That just makes sense, so that if a student is making an error, they’re not going to repeat the same error because they haven’t gotten their feedback yet. So I just think, pedagogically, it makes sense to give the feedback as soon as possible. But I also like to just have faculty create a communication plan when they’re developing their course. I think faculty plan in their heads, you know, “I’m going to send this announcement, I’ll do this feedback, I’ll do X, Y, and Z.” But when they sit down and really map it out in a communication plan for their course, I think that really helps get into that regular schedule. And whether it’s date driven, or day-of-the-week driven or at specific points throughout the course when students reach different milestones, I think that really helps them. My understanding is that those types of things would help people meet the regular and substantive interaction definition. What do you think of that?

Russell: I love both of those ideas, and actually that, really, if you work with the instructional designers, look at what works in terms of good pedagogy, that these are the things that you’re talking about is that having a plan ahead of time and being open with the students so that they know, and then getting back to the students in between assessments so they have the feedback in terms of, they know where they might be falling behind a little bit in some areas and so that they know, “Oh, I don’t quite get that concept. And then, I have a math background and that was so key in mathematics that, if you don’t get this one, you’re not going to do any better on the next test right? And that’s probably true in so many different fields as well. And so, I love both of those ideas in terms of doing things and where you’re informing the student, and then keeping them engaged and then constantly moving them forward.

Judie: It’s great to hear that kind of feedback from you, thanks! [LAUGHTER] I hear a lot from faculty now, especially during COVID, when many are teaching in Zoom. And so they’ll record a live lecture with their students and, assuming that FERPA rules are followed, and there’s no students caught in the video or audio, they want to just show that recording again in the next semester, and want to know if they’re meeting regular and substantive interaction that way. And I tell them that, when they’re giving their lecture, that is regular and substantive interaction when they’re engaged with their live students. But I say that once you make a recording, and put it in the course, it becomes course content, because it’s no longer a unique experience with those individuals talking about their understanding of the course content. And I see like a real fine line there and I wonder what you think of that? Or how that might be interpreted? What do you think of using old recordings versus always expecting some sort of fresh and unique interaction with the students?

Russell: Yeah, I think if that’s all that you did, I think that you’d have a hard time in terms of meeting the regular and substantive interaction, and this is the one where we get back to the direct instruction question on that one, and we did gather that question plus several others and pose them to the Department of Education, because we felt that even since they released the rule that we were hearing different things from them than from the accreditors. And so I’m a little hesitant to give you a yes, that works or not, under the new rules or not until we get a better answer from the Department. My feeling was that, under the old rules that I felt a little bit better about that that probably was problematic. It might still be, but I’m kind of curious to see what they say about the synchronous versus asynchronous going forward. I think that, if that’s all that you relied on, I think that that’d be problematic that you would need to have other sorts of interactions that might make that work.

Judie: Thanks.

John: But videos that were custom created for that week’s activities, or that provide feedback for the class would count, right?

Russell: Yeah, the ones that are custom created.

Judie: I encourage them to make like small targeted videos for clarification. Like, to address a specific topic that they know that students struggle with, as opposed to just making an hour video of you standing at the front of the classroom, talking to people that future students don’t even know.

Russell: Yeah, and I think if you just use the video over and over again, and I certainly saw this in some engineering courses where they’re using the same ones that, what happens is that you have to update your materials every once in a while, too [LAUGHTER].

Judie: Oh, sure

Russell: You need to be doing that. And so I remember witnessing a course where they were falling behind on some facts or raised a lot of questions about advances that had happened after the video had happened, or were quite clearly dated, because they were talking about things that were going on in space as a future thing, instead of a past thing. And so I think, if nothing else, that you’re going beyond whether you meet these rules or not, that you’re diminishing confidence of students in terms of the value of what they’re receiving.

Judie: Sure, that’s a good point.

Russell: One other issue that we didn’t touch on so far had to do with the definition of an instructor, and that was a difficult one for us. And that was another one that Western Governors University got hit on this one. It was a finding against them. And that it seemed like some of the definitions meant like an instructor, that there was one person that was in front, and that a lot of institutions have gone to team teaching or bundled instruction, or using GAs or TAs or there’s several people in the course and with the unbundled instruction that WGU did that they had one content expert providing the content of the course and another one doing the assessment and maybe somebody else doing some of the advising. So you broke it up and that they weren’t counting that even though it was approved by their accrediting agency. So that is one where we have worked on “instructor” and we’re very clear in this, that it is what is approved by the accrediting agency that that is what counts. T hat was sort of alluded to before, now it’s very clear. And so if you have a non-traditional sort of model for your instructors or faculties, you may want to talk to your accrediting agency about how they view that and get something in writing about that.

John: I think that is a pretty common issue where there’s often a master course developed by the content expert and then again, there are instructional teams that work on the whole course, but the division there can vary quite a bit. And I know there’s a lot of interest in institutions in trying to scale online education to make it more efficient, and this is an area that certainly needs to be addressed with the accrediting agencies.

Russell: Definitely, definitely, yeah.

Judie: So these rules that we’ve been talking about also addressed student identity verification. So is the student identity verification related to the regular and substantive interaction? Or is this another area that requires a more precise definition?

Russell: This is actually a whole other area that was in a different part of the regulations, and this is one that actually went into effect in July of 2020, and it’s part of what the accrediting rules are, and there’s a whole list of things that the accrediting agencies are supposed to be looking for when they’re doing your accrediting reviews. One of the things that they’re supposed to be doing is making sure that the institution has, really, policies and processes to make sure that the student who enrolls in the course is the same one who’s completing and submitting the assignments in there. So it really is about academic cheating, and that this is only in the distance-ed world that they have to do this. I have to tell you, in a subcommittee, we tried to expand it and got beat back. So, sorry we lost that fight for you. But it’s still in distance ed where the accreditors are expected to check for that to make sure. And then the big change that happened in that is that, previously, there were some, what were considered ‘“examples” in there. And one was that you had some sort of ID, some sort of login ID for that or that you did proctoring, and that those were meant as examples. And those were taken out, because all too often, what would happen is that an institution would say, “Well, we have an ID!” and they would do nothing else. And so that was clearly insufficient in terms of doing it, and so, they’re raising the bar. The intent is that you have a plan, and that you’re executing the plan, and that you’ve worked that out with your accreditor, and that when that financial aid review happens, that you will be able to demonstrate what you’re doing and if it’s effective. Another part of it, there’s a second section to it, that also talks about that if you have additional costs, and so, let’s say that you’re using a proctoring software, and that that costs so much per student, that you have to notify the student at time of registration, that there’s an extra cost for that. And this is something that a lot of institutions have fallen short on, because what they’ll do is that they’ll notify the student in the syllabus, and so the first day that the student starts they see the syllabus, and all of a sudden they have to pay more money. And the idea is that the student should be able to have a choice at the time they’re picking between which course that they might take or know that they’re going to have an additional cost for participating in that course. And that rule is out there, and it’s a good one, because you’re being clearer to the consumer about what’s going on.

John: So authentication with a password to a course management system is not sufficient, and some type of proctoring software is, but there’s a lot of concerns raised with proctoring. Are there any other ways to authenticate students that meet the requirements without moving to software proctoring solutions?

Russell: Yeah, and I think that over the last year that we’ve seen, the concerns about proctoring software have risen to the fore, and there’s some good ones and that they do some good things, and so you should not throw them all out. But yet, you should pay attention to the concerns about that. But there are ways that we have worked on this in terms of different ways that faculty can work in terms of their assessments. One of the things we talked about is face-to-face proctoring, As distance ed grows, though, that gets to be harder and harder to find enough proctoring sites and the ability to do that, but that is an option. Some of the other things that have been proposed have to do with how you do assessments, and that having more frequent assessments and doing things where it’s easier to take the course than it is to cheat. That if you do like one or two big assessments per term, that it’s a lot easier to get someone to do those for you or the big papers and all that, so that’s one. There’s others where getting people involved in terms of group coursework, or other sorts of authentic assessment type of things, where you get involved in different sorts of things, where you have to stay engaged more and more often through the course, and it’s harder to get somebody else to do that for you. There are people who will take the whole course for you… that’s a problem. But the more barriers that you can put up, and we really do love our instructional designers, but the more that we can do to help faculty with thinking about assessment strategies and effective assessment strategies, the better off that will be with all of this. Aso there are other areas like… oh shoot, I’m blanking on… ICAI, they have a lot of strategies as well out there, and for some reason, it’s early in the morning here and I’m blanking on their name, but there’s an institute for academic integrity that has a lot of good resources on this issue.

Judie: Yeah, I think it’s great to encourage all faculty to work with their instructional designers on authentic assessment.

Russell: Yes, yes, yes! That success will be more sure if you work with your instructional designer.

Judie: So, do you think that this authentication concern is only for assessments? Or is it for day-to-day coursework and interactions, too?

Russell: Yeah, it’s really about any type of quiz or paper or anything that you’re going to be evaluating the student on. That’s really what it’s looking at, because there’s the opportunity for cheating or something bad to happen there. So there are other things that you do in terms of papers, you know, with Turnitin or other sorts of activities that people do or trying to create papers that are more authentic or real: “Write something about your hometown or work on a project in your hometown where there’s not a lot of papers.” [LAUGHTER] So, you can do those sorts of things where it’s harder to plagiarize.

John: It’s really nice to hear that open pedagogy projects, videos that students create, where they’re actively engaged in it, group projects, and all those things can serve the same role without moving to the extreme of proctoring.

Russell: Yes.

John: It is good to note that any courses that require proctoring must list that up front so that students are aware of the cost. And the other issue with that is, as colleges enroll more first-gen students and more students from the lower income quintile, many students won’t have computers or networks that will necessarily support proctoring software. If students are working on their course through their smartphones, most proctoring solutions don’t work with smartphones. But it’s pretty easy for the student to take a video of themselves talking about something, so allowing faculty to have more options for authentication is something that allows for a more inclusive learning environment.

Russell: That was a huge lesson from the move to remote learning due to the pandemic, that you had so many students who did not plan to be in a remote course that uses online tools… that they were using, as you said, cell phones or different types of tablets that were not compatible with some of these proctoring software solutions, or that they didn’t have the adequate bandwidth for taking the test in that way with a full video… that that was a real problem, privacy issues with it. So there were all sorts of things that were problematic with that. And so, being upfront with the students is very good and we do often cite that there wasn’t a federal finding, but it was a student in Nevada, who was in a course and they were not notified that they were going to be using proctoring software. The student was pre-law, decided to flex his pre-law muscles, and got a whole bunch of students behind him and took it to the institution and ultimately went to the Board of Regents there, and all of those students had all of their fees repaid. It wasn’t a federal finding, but what was shown was that they were out of compliance with the federal rule, and the Board of Regents decided to remedy that.

Judie: So looking at regulations like this, we can see that online classes are held to a higher standard than face-to-face classes. Do you think similar requirements should also be implemented for face-to-face classes?

Russell: Well, I think what’s happening is that the vast majority of courses are now digital courses. And whether it is fully online, whether it’s hybrid, hyflex, blended, or just the old term that the OLC used to use of “web enhanced,” that you use the web a lot, even though that you meet face to face Monday-Wednesday-Friday, that we’re seeing all these digital tools going throughout. And what happened with the pandemic? It really took off, right? And so there’s even more of that is gonna happen. And some surveys that one of our organizations, Every Learner Everywhere did, that there was more interest and uptake from faculty in terms of, “Well, I’ve done this now I should do it again.” And so I think what’s happened is that we’re gonna see more and more use of digital technologies through, if not every course, the vast majority of courses. Well, the thing that happens is that these same sorts of problems are in all of these. And you and I know, keep this as our secret between us [LAUGHTER] but, all this stuff was happening even without technologies, right?

Judie: Right.

Russell: A lot of the cheating scandals in some of the service academies in the last few years had very little to do with technologies other than sharing some information. So we know that’s going on. So it’s gonna be interesting. This is one of the things that we’re looking at that I bet we’re going to see a lot of new guidance coming out of this Department of Education that recognizes that and may expand this out quite a bit more, because there are people in the department who have huge concerns about consumer protection issues and the use of online or digital learning regardless of where it’s used, and that they’re seeing that some of these rules need to be applied more broadly. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see that we get guidance that says exactly that coming out and that we have James Kvaal was just finally approved as the Undersecretary there. I think that that staff has been working on these sorts of things, and have been waiting for him to be approved. I would not be surprised that in the next three to six months that we don’t start seeing some new guidance coming out or answers to our questions. I don’t think they wanted to answer our questions until James Kvaal was in. And so I think that we’ll see clarifications and guidance about some of these things where we’ve had questions before, and how do they apply in a hyflex setting? How do they apply in a blended setting?

Judie: That’s good news.

John: And whether the rules are expanded or not, they’re just good practice… that regular and substantive interaction is good pedagogy.

RUSSEL: Yes! [LAUGHTER] Yeah, you really nailed it with that. And that was one of the things that surely the people that run the subcommittee and then the main committee were trying to look at: “What do we do that makes sense in terms of best serving the students?” And we have to remember at the end that these are consumer-protection practices that have to do that, there are also federal-financial-aid protections that aid is going to worthy activities, and so we need to remember that in all this.

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

Russell: Well, I kind of previewed thata bit, that I really do believe that we’re likely to see several more clarifications coming out, or maybe some surprises coming out in the next few months. And so I think it would be good for people to pay attention to what’s going on, and we certainly write about whatever comes out in our WCET Frontiers blogs. So, be watching for that. And on something completely different, that we’re getting together some folks to work on the issue about veterans and their housing allowance. And just quickly on that, that veterans who take all their courses online, get about half or a little bit more of the housing allowance of veterans who take just one course face to face… they could have it all online, but just one course face to face. And it really is antiquated thinking, and it’s something that we need to get fixed. Because, I could be the same student in one term, take all my courses online, and the next term take just one course face to face. I have the same housing cost, I have the same family [LAUGHTER] I still need to eat, but somehow my aid is less. And so we’re working on that one.

John: And you shared many resources with us that we’ll include in the show notes, so those will be available on the website. Well, thank you for joining us, this was really helpful, and I think it’s going to benefit a lot of institutions and a lot of faculty and instructional designers as they plan for future semesters.

Russell: Well, it was a great pleasure being here with you today, and having a little bit of tea in the morning is always good. And so thank you, Judie, thank you, John for inviting me and for having me here.

Judie: Yes, thank you. This was fun. Take care.


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

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


205. Tutoring

Equity gaps in educational outcomes play a major role in perpetuating economic inequality. In this episode, Philip Oreopoulis  joins us to discuss his research examining how tutoring and computer-aided instruction can be used to reduce disparities in educational outcomes. Philip is a Distinguished Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, the Education co-chair of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and an award-winning researcher who has conducted a wide variety of studies relating to education and educational policy.



John: Equity gaps in educational outcomes play a major role in perpetuating economic inequality. In this episode, we discuss research examining how tutoring and computer-aided instruction can be used to reduce disparities in educational outcomes.


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 Philip Oreopoulis. Philip is a Distinguished Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, the Education co-chair of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and an award-winning researcher who has conducted a wide variety of studies relating to education and educational policy. Welcome, Philip.

Philip: Thanks so much for having me.

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

Philip: My tea is coffee. I love coffee. I once looked for a reason not to drink coffee, I couldn’t find one. I love my black coffee.

Rebecca: A true researcher at heart. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I am drinking a bing cherry black tea, a custom Tea Republic tea made for Harry & David.

Rebecca: And I have Irish breakfast tea. I really need to get some new tea [LAUGHTER]. I’m going to a tea store this weekend, so I’m looking forward to getting some new options.

John: And we have lots of tea in the office, some of which may not be as fresh as it was a year and a half ago. But this one still is good. It was purchased right before the shutdown.

Philip: You guys are inspiring me. I think I’m gonna have some tea sometime today.

Rebecca: All right, good, good.

John: In a November 2020 Scientific American article, you describe a meta analysis that you worked on with some colleagues that found that tutoring results in significant improvements in student learning. Could you describe this meta analysis a bit and what you found?

Philip: To backtrack a little bit, how it got started: my colleagues at J-PAL, Vincent Quan, Andre Nickow, and I, had heard about the potential of tutoring to be an effective form for increasing test score learning performance. For example, there’s Benjamin Bloom’s seminal article in the 80s, where he had two very small studies done by his students that both found off the charts improvement from offering tutoring in randomized control trials. In fact, that’s why he called it the ‘“2 sigma problem” that he found estimated impact from these two small studies were raising learning performances by enough to potentially solve most of our problems that we would be having in education policy. There were a number of recent studies as well, a randomized control trial coming out from the University of Chicago’s Ed lab, also finding very promising results from an RCT looking at providing in-class tutoring to grade nine students. And so we wanted to explore whether there was some consistency in these results, so we decided to try to take a more systematic look, and we gathered up all the RCTs, randomized control trials, in the last 40 years for about 96 studies, and we took a look and we found that consensus was quite remarkable. About 80% of those studies found significant effects larger than .2 of a standard deviation, and the average effect size was .38 of a standard deviation, which is like the equivalent of almost an entire extra year of school, from receiving these programs. And not only were the impacts really quite meaningful, as about as large as you get from education interventions, but they were consistent across the board. I think that this is about as much consistency as you’re ever going to get in an education policy intervention. So we were quite excited about that. We found that the effects were pretty consistent no matter which type of program that you looked at. They were larger for things like in-school delivery, three days a week, one-to-one delivery, full time tutors, but even in cases where that wasn’t the case, usually there were still significant effects.

Rebecca: Can you talk about what age the students were, what grades they were in?

Philip: It was for K-12.

John: I think it’s probably safe to assume, though, that the same effect would hold in the college environment as well. Those are some pretty dramatic effects.

Philip: Of course, to some extent, maybe it’s not that surprising. Giving instruction one-to-one leads to higher learning gains, and the biggest challenge, of course, is cost. We can’t all have our own teacher when we go to school. And so the biggest challenge, which gets back to Bloom’s point calling this the 2 sigma problem, is I think we have a powerful intervention to help education, it’s just that it costs too much to implement it on a larger scale. So the fundamental problem is to figure out a way to scale this in a way that can complement the classroom instruction.

John: And so that’s one of the things I think you’re looking at now, how this can be scaled up in a more cost effective manner. Could you tell us a little bit about your current research in terms of computer-assisted learning?

Philip: Sure. So computer-assisted learning or computer-assisted instruction is a type of educational software designed to help students progress through topics at their own pace. It has a lot of similar features as what you might receive when you’re receiving tutoring. So a typical example might be Khan Academy, MATHia, there’s lots of other types of software designed to help with different topics, math and reading, but they all have these sort of common features that allow students to progress through topics at their own pace. You receive immediate feedback from trying to work through your own problems and a chance to understand where you went wrong. If you do make a mistake, there’s data that’s generated from going through it that someone like a teacher might be able to follow and respond to. And so computer-assisted learning can, in some ways, simulate the tutoring experience, but of course, at a much lower cost. The challenge is you don’t have a real person guiding you through it. So even though a platform like Khan Academy is easily accessible, your willingness or motivation to go through it on your own is probably not as great as if you had a real person guiding you through the same material. So there has been some experimental evidence on computer-assisted learning, not as much as theories on tutoring, but of the 15 or 20 randomized control trials that have been done in this area, they have also been showing quite promising results. In cases where computer-assisted learning is provided, especially during a school setting, those receiving it also seemed to be performing at significantly higher rates than those in the comparison group. So there does seem to be some promise at using computer-assisted learning to generate the gains that we see from tutoring. But the way to introduce it, the instructions that teachers need to learn how to use it effectively, are not yet maybe as developed as we’d like them to be. So getting to, I guess jump into what I’m working on, I think that there’s a lot of potential for leveraging existing resources to combine with computer-assisted learning in a way that might come close to the tutoring experience. And so what I’m thinking of is in the classroom, that the kind of facilitated practice that might go on, say, in a math subject might be much better through a tool like Khan Academy than paper and pencil that we often give students. And so the question I’m investigating is around reshuffling the classroom in a way where the teacher is trained how to use computer-assisted learning more effectively in the classroom to generate that type of experience. So in the context of the program that I’m looking at now, which tries to integrate Khan Academy more into math classes, the teacher is still instructing and presenting topics, but now emphasizing the students following an individualized roadmap that allows the students to progress at their own pace, rather than having to keep up even if they’re missing on topics and not understanding. So the program which we’re calling “Coaching with Khan Academy,” or CWK, has students receive a roadmap of incremental topics and videos to follow at the start of school that roughly proceed in the same order that the teacher is going through. Now, the teacher has the students to try to work on this roadmap for at least an hour, an hour and a half a week, and tries to facilitate that time during the class and encourage more done at home, and the students then have the ability to hopefully get into a routine of watching a video and taking the exercises, and if they don’t score high enough on the exercises they’re asked to try to understand why they made the mistake using the hints and tips and guidance that Khan provides or gets help from the teacher, and then repeat it so that they don’t move on to the next topic until they’ve mastered that. So the students are not proceeding all in the same pace, but it is just a much better way to learn math such that the students don’t go on to the next topic until they’ve established a strong enough foundation on the first one.

John: During the global pandemic, most high schools moved to emergency remote instruction for an extended period, and there’s quite a bit of evidence that that led to a decline in overall learning, but also some growing achievement gaps which are tied to household wealth and the wealth of the school districts in which the students reside. What types of policies could be implemented at the K-12 level so that students are more equally prepared for entry into college

Philip: On COVID, we’ve all been exposed to online learning now, and most research suggests that it’s not a great substitute for in-person but there are certain benefits from being able to speak with a real person over a computer in regards to tutoring. So the biggest one is convenience, both for the tutor and the tutee. It’s nice to be able to jump in on a call and spend just 30 minutes on that or an hour, and not have to drive to the person’s location or do this after school. The opportunity to facilitate more tutoring, I think, is increased by having this online access. So I think there’s a lot of interesting promises from that. This one particularly interesting study that was done during COVID last summer, where a group of Italian faculty organized a volunteer tutoring experiment where they got the Deans of their respective universities to invite university students to volunteer their time, three to six hours a week to reach out and connect with students who have been struggling in the high schools and lower grades. And on the flip side, they got the school districts of several locations in Italy to ask teachers to identify students that they thought could benefit from having this one-on-one instruction. And then the response was great in both ways, there were a lot of people willing to volunteer their time for this effort, and there was also a lot of perceived need for students that needed this. And so from this large set-up, they randomized who they were able to give this offer of assistance to. And it was done all online, sometimes over the phone, but more often through Zoom, or Skype, or whatever was most convenient for the match to take place. The tutors met with tutees, for three hours a week, over six weeks. The topics were either math, Italian, or English, and then at the end, the researchers collected the survey and found similar gains to what we were finding in the online overall. Not only that, but they also collected data on mental health and found improvements in feelings of connection, more positive outlook on life. And what’s also interesting as they seem to show improvements and positive outcomes for the tutors themselves, as well. So it stands the potential for a win-win, and this was all done online. So it’s like the only online study I know, but it seems to show the potential that it might be done there. One other example I should mention is Khan Academy has also initiated another organization that facilitates free volunteer online tutoring. It’s called ‘schoolhouse.world’ and it’s been interesting to watch that trying to get up and running. Their system allows anyone in the world to volunteer their time as a tutor, and then they try to connect anyone in the world wanting to receive that tutoring. And you get some sense of some of the challenges from doing that. How do you screen for quality? And also, how do you screen for safety? So they’ve had to go away from a one to one model to more of a group model. They’ve had to have systems in place to check the quality of the tutoring, what’s being discussed. They’ve had to switch to allowing only high school students to receive the tutoring and a few other challenges. And so there’s challenges but also a lot of potential in this that wasn’t available from always having to meet your tutor in school or after school or face-to-face. So the potential scalability is enormous, and that’s where the intriguing possibilities are with that tool.

Rebecca: So if we’re looking to reduce achievement gaps, we’ve talked a little bit about COVID and the mix of instruction that students might’ve had during COVID, the quality of instruction, access to technology, to even have interactions with teachers in some cases, and historically even, differences in ability when students arrive in higher ed. What are some of the things that the higher ed community might be thinking about in terms of this research? Should we be advocating for certain kinds of policies or programs in K-12? Should we be trying to institute some of these things in higher ed? What are your thoughts on that?

Philip: So just in terms of advocacy and thinking about facilitating more equality, there’s no question that tutoring has, in general, been an unequal program. There’s the whole private sector of tutoring where a lot of households for more affluent families seem to receive it than those from less affluent households. And so one thing we can do as policy-makers is to try to facilitate more tutoring to happen in schools, especially at schools for more disadvantaged backgrounds. We can also focus on providing tutoring to those who need it most. I think that there is a growing awareness of the potential for tutoring to make a real difference in helping address the learning loss that may have occurred with the pandemic and just helping address education inequalities in general. And so a lot of resources have started going towards trying to increase the amount of tutoring happening in schools. I think that the more we understand how to implement it successfully, the more guidance that we can provide the K-12 sector in trying to introduce that. I think that there is a lot of optimism now around its potential. I think tutoring is one of the most effective programs that we can offer to make a meaningful difference at scale, such that we can get more students arriving into post-secondary ready to handle it and succeed well there. So that’s on that end. I think that there’s no reason why we also can’t consider tutoring at the post-secondary level as well, and the potential benefits that might come from that. Even if we just look at first-year calculus, or other subjects in math, computer-assisted learning is well developed even at that level, the need for tutoring at that level is there as well. And so it really does go from that importance of establishing a foundation that one might benefit from tutoring at earlier ages. But even at the post-secondary level, regardless of what level the student is, we can all benefit from one-on-one instruction compared to being in a calculus class of 500, right? I think there has been less research that’s been done in that area, but the evidence certainly points to the direction that tutoring at the post-secondary level would be also effective and important to consider.

John: And you mentioned that Italian experiment where college students were providing tutoring, and you mentioned that that was a very positive experience for the college students as well. That might be an interesting model where college students could improve their own skills and develop a bit more automaticity and more practice in basic concepts, while helping bring students up to a higher level in secondary schools. That’s a program that I think offers a lot of potential.

Philip: So I would agree, absolutely, the expression is you don’t really understand something until you teach it. I think that there’s something to be said for that. I think that there’s also a lot of skills and experience that is gained from trying to help others, from trying to connect with perhaps younger individuals that have not had the same background as you. I think that the experience is also attractive to employers looking at who to hire. I think there’s huge gains from all the things that you might volunteer or use your time for in college, spending some time to volunteer to do something like tutoring could be a very rewarding thing as well. So I’m also excited about that model. I think that there are ways to try to facilitate that kind of model at scale and more research needs to be done to explore how to do that.

Rebecca: One of the things that I heard you mentioned early on in the conversation is the idea that, historically, folks who had access to tutoring are more affluent. So the students who most need the tutoring are the ones that aren’t always getting it, because they can’t afford it. So I love the idea of having it in schools or it’s a part of our programs. But also I think sometimes tutoring has a negative connotation to it. It’s like a deficit model. Especially I’ve seen this in higher ed, students don’t want to go to a tutor because it makes them feel like they’re dumb or something.

Philip: My first reaction to that is that tutoring can be beneficial at any level. For example, in the Khoaching with Khan project that I’m looking at, the potential is to help all students in the class regardless of their level, because every student can be given their own individual roadmap. And that not only includes those that are behind grade level that benefit from establishing a stronger foundation in that earlier material so that they can catch up, it also includes those at a higher level that don’t have to be held back or wait for the instructor to cover new material can use a platform like Khan Academy or a tutor to work on more challenging material that interest them. And so how to remove that stigma that exists in general, I agree the usual perception is when someone asks, “Do you need a tutor?” it’s because you’re struggling. It doesn’t need to be that way, but at the same time, I think the more we become aware of the benefits from the tutoring, the more we realize that it’s a great resource to take advantage of. Getting back at the college level, I don’t know about your own experiences, but it always amazes me how few students take advantage of all the free tutoring that’s being offered by the universities through, like, office hours. The opportunity for receiving one-on-one discussion is often there, and yet so few students seem to take advantage of it, perhaps because of that stigma or perhaps they’re too busy. Some of us, when we went through college, were pleasantly surprised by how much you can get with office hours of graduate students and extra tutoring and how much you can learn from that process.

John: As in a lot of classes, students are treated as if one-size-fits-all education and students come in, especially in subjects such as math where there is a very rigid structure, if you don’t have a solid foundation and concepts, learning new topics is not going to be very productive, because you don’t have that foundation to connect to. And I see that in my own classes, and it’s a bit of a challenge to try to do that. Because of issues of scale I often teach large classes, I try to rely on peer instruction as much as possible with small group activities. Could small group peer interactions in working through problems and problem sets achieve something similar to the one on one attention?

Philip: In the literature, it’s called peer-to-peer, we did not look at peer-to-peer in our meta analysis on tutoring, but there is some literature and there’s some effort to consider that. It’s a little bit of a different model, because you’re relying on slightly older students or similar students to help assist other students. I think more research needs to be done on how to make that happen effectively. On one hand, the potential is there to make this a scalable, effective program that doesn’t cost very much. On the other hand, monitoring quality and the potential to train to be a tutor and to do a good job with it may not be there as much as with the regular type of tutoring program.

John: In particular, I was thinking of activities in class where students work on problems in groups, and they try to argue out solutions. They work together and they can explain to each other things they don’t understand, but the key aspect of that is they get feedback on whether they’re correct or not, some constructive feedback on where they went astray. But I was just thinking that those types of small group interactions could provide some of the benefits without that stigma of needing to go to tutoring and perhaps at a higher scale than tutoring might work.

Philip: The advice that I often give my students is to study until you feel you can explain it to someone else. And so there’s a similar, perhaps, mechanism at play when we’re thinking about that. When you try to write down a concept or explain it, even to yourself, out loud or to someone else, you quickly realize what you understand and what you don’t. There does seem to be a lot of potential there.

Rebecca: Sounds like one of the keys to reducing stigma around all of this is making the coaching or this tutoring model just something that’s normalized. Maybe it’s normalized in class, it’s normalized through the school day, and then people might be more apt to take advantage of it because they have access to it. But also, it becomes a standard way of being, that’s what other people around them are also doing.

Philip: Absolutely! I think if we can reframe tutoring as just individualized instruction or personalized instruction, then we can all understand the potential benefits of receiving more personal help than in a classroom setting, and that goes for pretty much anyone.

Rebecca: It really also matches up well with a lot of universal design for learning principles of flexibility as well, and allowing students to go at their own pace and finding ways of teaching and learning that match well for students and where they’re at.

Philip: And of course, the issue is scale. Getting children to learn in a classroom of 25 to 30 students, when these students vary enormously in academic levels, is just really difficult. And trying to figure out a way to provide that individual attention is the challenge that all teachers face and have been facing for many, many years. And if we can find a way to scale adding on or providing more and more individualized attention, it has the potential, I think, to make a real difference in education. Of all the potential policies that we can be looking at, I do think that, at the school level, leaning towards more individualized instruction is where we should be looking at, for a solution.

Rebecca: It’s so interesting to me that we’re having this conversation early on in our semester, because after teaching online for a year, which I hadn’t done previously, I’ve really worked to make my classes more flexible and actually offer some of those kinds of models that you’re describing where students are going more at their own pace, and that they can get some individualized instruction when they need it and that they need to do this mastery learning so that they build on things over time. It looks to me like maybe I need to look more into tutoring and coaching models that have worked really well to see if I can’t implement some of that more during class time.

Philip: There may be different ways to do it. Some may be more effective than others, but I do think, getting back at what John was saying, it’s harder to provide that individual support or help to students arriving in college without that foundation. I have done some other work at the college level, trying to facilitate more personal attention to students arriving, trying to help them out and encourage them to get into better habits, and it has proved quite difficult to change behavior, and so I have found myself reacting to that by focusing more on earlier grades to see if there might be more promise on trying to foster better study habits, better learning habits, earlier on with the hope that students arrive in college more prepared.

John: I think that’s one of the things a lot of behavioral economic studies have found. Interventions that result in long-term changes of behavior are challenging in general.

Philip: Absolutely.

John: And I think you’ve done some research on that.

Philip: Absolutely. So if we have to change one-time actions, like helping students through applying for college, applying for financial aid, those types of interventions are much more promising at affecting one-time goals than to change habits or routines that involve much more continuous behavior. So helping someone study more effectively, spend more time studying, these are much harder problems to solve. And maybe low-cost nudges that we’ve been looking at in the literature may not be as effective. I think that does tie back into how my perspective has changed over time. It’s hard to have significant influence without personal connection. It’s a lot more expensive, but there’s only so far you can go with sending an email or a text message or a one-time meeting in trying to change someone’s learning trajectory or life trajectory. And the more you sort of look at education policies that have been successful, the more you notice that they often come with this personal connection that’s been important for making that meaningful change.

Rebecca: It seems like we should all be really advocating then for these much more early interventions. It’s much more cost effective if we get those habits in place really early [LAUGHTER].

Philip: I will say there’s surprisingly not enough research on the long-term effects of tutoring. I’ve seen one study that has found that the benefits of receiving that tutoring continued one year past the program ended; the effects faded, but not by that much, and that’s the only study I’m aware of that actually does a long-term study. So on the question of whether we can have these life-changing impacts from targeting earlier ages, certainly, there’s a literature for the very young… like, almost helping at the household, but at the school, I think that more work could be done.

John: And that could be a really productive research area. Before we started recording, we were talking a little bit about, with the pandemic, creating our own videos. Could you talk a little bit about how you try to implement what you’ve learned in your own classes at the college level?

Philip: Yeah, I think that using the situation last year to put my lectures online has freed up space in the actual lectures to be more interactive. So I think it was a benefit both ways. The videos of the lectures themselves became more streamlined, I got a chance to break them up into smaller parts, sort of like Khan Academy videos, where instead of one video that’s two hours long, that goes all over the place, and you’re staring at me and the Blackboard, I created five- to ten-minute videos of vignettes that I could focus on with slides and have a series of these videos that students could watch at their own pace. I could edit them and make sure that the video is as succinct as possible and gets across what I really want to say. So that was good on the video side, and then on the actual lecture side, we spent that time going through problem sets and answering questions and it was much more interactive, closer to the spirit of more personalized instruction. So there was more opportunity for questions, more opportunities for the students to get more involved, and I think it did lead to more satisfaction of that approach. Obviously, the big question is, ‘Do they really watch the videos when they’re asked to do it on their own?’ I think there are ways to try to incentivize that, but just like any class, the students really perk up when they’re working on a problem that was, say, a previous exam question.

John: I’ve used a very similar approach. I’ve used videos for like 20 some years in my classes, but one thing I started doing last year is I embedded questions in the middle of the videos, and that’s a pretty effective incentive structure. It does get them all watching the videos, and at least thinking about it and trying to make some connections while they do it, and that’s worked pretty well.

Philip: Not only that, but you can make them mandatory for class participation. So you stick those questions in and they have to watch the video to find the questions when they pop up, there’s software that can do that. And then you can make it as a way to encourage them to have to watch the video.

John: Do you think that more use of computer-aided instruction is going to be helpful in allowing more students to be successful?

Philip: I’m very optimistic on this potential of leveraging computers with teachers and parents working together on trying to facilitate high-dosage practice. We’ve been talking mostly in math, but it could also be language as well, and maybe other topics. But I think this really is a good way to learn, as long as the practice time is long enough, and the student’s not stuck. I think that it takes a while to get into the habit, getting used to the software, getting used to the routine, both for the teacher providing this and for the student doing it, and so that, for me, right now, is the biggest challenge. I am optimistic that if we can facilitate a way to help teachers and students get to that higher-dose practice using computers, then very good things will happen. I think that the evidence is highly suggestive that the high dosage is a worthwhile thing to get done. I’m hoping that we can generate evidence that that’s the case, but we are finding that there are challenges because there’s a learning curve, it is changing the way that the classroom is done and changing the way the student usually learns, but I’m optimistic that if we can get past that, the students and the teachers will come to like this approach, and that we can do more of it at scale.

John: And I think a lot of people began experimenting with some sort of a flipped approach where they created videos and then use the classroom for more interactive activities, ast least at the college level, I don’t think that’s happened quite as much at the secondary school level. But I think that has helped provide at least some professional development for faculty. But it is an adjustment that students are not adjusting to perhaps as easily as I would like, I know I always have trouble getting across to students that there is some benefit of working through problems in class and watching videos and learning some of the basic concepts outside of class. Students would rather be lectured to, there was that big study that was done at Harvard not too long ago, where students were asked about active learning classes versus lecture classes, and the research certainly showed that active learning in the classroom led to significant learning gains, but students perceived a higher learning gain from lecture classes, and that’s where I think that issue of students’ adjustment is a challenge, and until we get to see a large amount of this occurring, it’s going to be a while convincing students of this, because it’s really easy to sit there in a lecture and nod and smile and have it all make sense and it seems to fit together very logically, but then when you try to apply it, there’s a bit of a problem, and then the questions are somehow unfair. But when students are faced with problems and interactive work in class, they’re confronted by not knowing things as well as perhaps they thought they did, and it’s not as pleasant of an experience. And I think that’s the source of that metacognition, that students perceive that lectures are more effective, because it’s easy to sit there and listen in, and it all seems reasonable. But the problem is when they try to work through problems and realize they don’t quite have those connections fully there yet.

Philip: The lecture seems to make so much sense until you sit down when you get home and try to go over it again, but I do think there’s the potential for this middle ground that even in the experiment we’re looking at, we’re not entirely flipping the class, in fact, we want to work with the teacher to understand what their own preferences are, while still trying to hit this high dosage of practice, which may occur in class, but also could occur at home as well. And I think that there is something to be said by having a lecture of a new topic being done in class, in person, with the real person. It gets back to that importance of personal connection that the computer is not able to provide. And so maybe there is a sweet spot around providing real instruction, real empathy, but also enough time to be working through these problems at your own pace. My vision for the Khan project is that students say, in grade four, getting 90 minutes of math a day, maybe half an hour of that would be the teacher’s own instruction of a new topic, but then a lot of the other time would be students working on their own devices, while the teacher takes the time… instead of just sitting up at their desk… walks around and spends a lot of time looking over the student’s shoulder, using the data that they’re seeing to understand who’s struggling and where, and spends a lot of time working individually while the student is using the computer. So there’s still that interaction going on and taking advantage of the personalization. I think they too can go really well together.

Rebecca: That’s definitely something I’ve been experimenting with. I went all the way flipped before, and right now I think I’m right in the middle. There’s some flipped, there’s some demos that are live so that people can interact and ask questions, and then there’s lots of practice with individualized attention. And it does take a little time to get everyone on board, to get everyone trained to do things in a new way. So in a 15-week semester, it might take two full weeks to develop new habits and workflows for everyone, but really after we get over that two- week hurdle at the beginning of the semester, my classes tend to settle into a routine that seems really productive and that students have been pretty positive about.

Philip: A key feature of the coaching with Khan program, is that every teacher gets their own coach that we spell with a “kh,” and our coaches meet with the teacher prior to school to go over our suggested recipe to follow, but then they don’t just leave it at that, they keep working with the teachers to check in and try to troubleshoot or brainstorm or reassure and remind the teacher until things are going smoothly. But it can take longer than two weeks to figure out how things are going, and then on the student side, it can take a while for them to adapt and understand that there’s some independence on their own for wanting to do it. The hope is that the students start to gain confidence when they see their own progress, when they see that maybe they didn’t consider themselves a strong math student, but if you start them at the right spot on this roadmap, and then they proceed incrementally, and they can see that they are advancing, then they start to understand the potential benefits and internalize the desire to keep going on their own.

Rebecca: Yeah, that autonomy and that empowerment, I think, is really key to the whole puzzle. And I think something that probably tutoring historically helps students achieve is that they can do this. They might have a little extra guidance initially, but then they achieve it and can do it, and that’s really empowering.

John: That’s our hope

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

Philip: What’s next? I think I made some notes on that. [LAUGHTER] So I think the issue around tutoring and individualized learning is all about, now, scale. I don’t think we need another study to demonstrate that one-on-one instruction, or one-on-two is an effective additional tool for learning, that more should be done if it were possible. A lot of resources are now going into trying to provide individualized instruction. I think a lot of policymakers and governments are looking to tutoring as a way to address some of the learning loss that may have gone on during the pandemic, and I think, in that space, there’s some optimism by researchers and policymakers to try to understand what types of scale up are better than others in a way that we can make a meaningful difference at the aggregate level.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much. I’m really excited to hear more as your research develops and more information becomes available!

Philip: It was a pleasure to get a chance to chat with you guys. It’s a topic I’ve been spending a lot of time on and losing a bit of sleep on trying to get things to work. The experiment that we have going on, this is going on in Texas, and one of the challenges of doing a field experiment is that so many things go wrong while you’re trying to deal with real people, real students, and provide evidence that this is a good idea. And it’s always a bit frustrating to face these challenges, like just account issues, students have trouble getting on to Khan Academy and the teachers getting frustrated, and it would be a shame to have those issues that can be worked out actually create this wedge from the program going smoothly and making the difference between having these great impacts or not. So it is stressful, but I think it’s worth it to try to keep at it, and I hope to be able to do so. With funding and policy support we’ll just keep trying. I think there’s a lot of interest in it, I think that it hasn’t been difficult to motivate these ideas and wanting to do more on it. So thanks a lot for giving me the chance to share these thoughts.

John: Your work is incredibly important. And so much income inequality is associated with differences in educational attainment, that understanding these achievement gaps and what we can do to narrow them can have a really dramatic impact on society.

Philip: Fingers crossed!


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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle.


204. Preventing Workplace Burnout

Faculty who have spent the past 18 months teaching during a global pandemic often report that they are experiencing burnout. In this episode, Kristin Croyle joins us to discuss the causes and symptoms of burnout and strategies that individuals and campus leaders can use to reduce faculty burnout.  Kristen is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego.


  • Maslach, C. (2018). Understanding Job Burnout, presentation at the Devops Enterprise Summit, October 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRPBkCW0R5E
  • Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Occupational Behaviour, 2(2), 99–113.
  • Maslach, C. (2017).  Finding Solutions to the Problem of Burnout.  Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 69 (2), 143–152.
  • Karlan, Dean (2019). Commitment Devices. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 103. October 16.


John: Faculty who have spent the past 18 months teaching during a global pandemic often report that they are experiencing burnout. In this episode, we examine the causes and symptoms of burnout and discuss strategies that individuals and campus leaders can use to reduce faculty burnout.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Kristin Croyle. Kristn is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego. Welcome back, Kristin.

Kristin: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

John: It’s good to talk to you again. Our teas today are…

Kristin: I’m doing an oolong jasmine green tea this morning.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.

Kristin: Yeah, it’s very tasty.

John: I had never heard of an oolong green tea.

Kristin: Actually, it is one that I snagged from a University event. They’re the ones that show up on the tea tables when there’s occasional tea. So I grabbed it off of the Provost Council meeting yesterday. It’s good to use the actual University resources that are available. It is tasty, though.

Rebecca: I have just an Irish breakfast this morning.

John: And I have a black raspberry green tea from The Tea Republic, which I got from our office and it has not gone bad. It’s one of a few [LAUGHTER] that have not gone bad during the year and a half that we were away.

Kristin: It still has flavor and has not completely deteriorated to dust, that’s good.

John: It tastes wonderful.

Rebecca: Yeah, when your tea starts tasting like dust, we’ve had a guest who mentioned this… we’re good.

Kristin: Yes, yes. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So we invited you here today to discuss the topic of faculty burnout. What are the symptoms of burnout?

Kristin: I’ll preface this by saying that much of what we’re going to talk about today is based on the research of Christina Maslach, who’s an Emeritus Professor at UC Berkeley, and she’s been working on this topic with her collaborators such as Michael Leiter since the 1980s. So, as an international authority, much of what we know about workplace burnout is really based on her research, and we owe a debt of gratitude to her, absolutely. One of the things that Dr. Maslach has looked at is what characterizes burnout, and there’s a specific definition. Actually, the World Health Organization, just a couple years ago, added burnout to their compendium of areas of concern and it’s important as we talk about it to recognize that they added it in a way that’s consistent with her research, which is that it is, an “ occupational phenomenon.” Meaning that, it’s a characteristic of the workplace and the fit between the workplace and the individuals in the workplace. It’s not an individual problem. It’s not a mental disorder. It’s not individually diagnosable, and it’s experienced individually, but it’s experienced individually because of the workplace situation. So as we talk about it, and we’re going to be often talking about the individual experience of it, but we can keep in mind, all the time, that even though it’s about the individual experience, it’s not an individual problem, it’s a workplace problem and the way that burnout is characterized is in three components that people experience. One is exhaustion, and of course, all of us will recognize all of these things, because these are normal human experiences. It’s just when they come together in kind of a toxic combo, that it becomes burnout. So the first one is exhaustion, feeling emotionally drained and physically exhausted by work, on a consistent basis. The second one is cynicism, feeling callous, for example, or not caring what happens at work, and sometimes faculty who are feeling particularly cynical, you’ll hear this in the way they talk about their students and their colleagues. A student will come to them with a tough situation, and they’ll basically be communicating “I don’t care what is happening to you in your life, all I care about is what I need to accomplish,” which is an experience of cynicism. The third characteristic is a feeling of ineffectiveness, feeling like you’re not accomplishing worthwhile things in the workplace, or kind of a decline of professional efficacy. An example of this for faculty is feeling like no matter what you do, your students are not going to learn, that you can’t be helpful to your colleagues, that in the past, you may have felt like a resource and that you could accomplish something in the workplace, and now you feel like you don’t have anything to offer. And it’s important to think of those, together, as an experience of burnout, and not as the God’s truth. For example, in feelings of ineffectiveness, that’s a feeling, a perception of ineffectiveness, a subjective experience. If someone feels like they don’t have anything to offer, that doesn’t mean they actually have nothing to offer. If they are feeling cynical, it doesn’t mean that their colleagues and their students actually don’t matter, even if they have that feeling at the moment. If they’re feeling emotionally exhausted, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have reservoirs underneath that. So this is a subjective experience, together, and yes, people can feel different combinations of that. The way that Dr. Maslach looks at it, if you have all three together that are relatively high, that’s burnout. If you have more one versus another, they don’t characterize that in their research as burnout, but of course, we’re really talking more about the subjective experience. If you’re completely exhausted by work, but you’re not high in cynicism, it’s still not a very pleasant experience, whether or not in a research setting that would be called burnout.

Rebecca: Because we’re talking about burnout today, some faculty might say, casually, I feel really burned out, but maybe don’t really fit that definition, but maybe really experiencing high stress or feeling really overwhelmed. So, as we’re talking about things today, are the pieces of advice that we talk about things that will help those individuals as well, or is there a different set of characteristics or things we should be thinking about?

Kristin: Oh, absolutely, it will absolutely be helpful, because, as we’re talking about it, the experience of burnout is a subjective internal experience, and just because it’s defined one way in a research setting doesn’t mean that someone can’t say to themselves, boy, I am really burned out… totally fine. I mean, we use similar words like “I feel really depressed” when, clearly, we’re not experiencing clinical depression. It’s a subjective mood state of feeling sad, and maybe losing some interest for a little while, but it’s not at a kind of a professional definitional level, it doesn’t really matter for the individual. If you’re saying “I’m feeling burned out,” …yes, absolutely, all of this stuff will still apply.

John: What are the causes of burnout?

Kristin: That’s an important point because, I think I’m just going to use the same answer to every question, by the way… [LAUGHTER] We’ll just start by saying that burnout is a workplace phenomenon, but it’s experienced individually, so it’s not an individual problem. I’ll just start by saying that for every answer. So when we talk about what are the causes of burnout, there are some individual factors that can contribute, but it really is an issue of workplace and individual fit. So, in the research, they tend to look at six characteristics of the workplace. And this is based on lots and lots of interesting work with different types of workplaces. So, let’s go through the six. First one is workload, and remember, this is always a question of individual to workplace fit. So if the workplace is manageable, with time to rest and recover, people are less likely to experience burnout, but of course, some individuals vary in what workload they consider to be manageable. The second aspect is control, when people can influence decisions that impact them, when they can exercise autonomy in the workplace, when they can get the things they need to do their job, those aspects of control help. Now people on the podcast should know that even though we’re doing this remotely, we can see each other’s faces. I like the nods I’m getting here, that when you feel like you can influence the things that you need to do your job, that aspect of control can reduce burnout. The third one is reward, that there are rewards that are commensurate with the work, and sometimes those rewards are specific to the individual needs, financial rewards, institutional rewards, social benefits, the whole slate of rewards. We know that being underpaid does not help, but also never being told “thank you,” also doesn’t help. So making sure that there are a slate of rewards that are commensurate with the work and commensurate with the needs of the people who work there. So there’s three: workload, control and reward. Next one is community, that there are job related relationships that are characterized by social support and effective conflict management. We know, for example, in higher ed, that one of the top reasons that faculty will leave is because their colleagues are not nice to them, a kind of a broken culture at the departmental level, that that kind of broken community builds burnout and drives people away from one institution to another. The fifth aspect is fairness, that decisions at work are perceived as fair and equitable. And anyone who’s been in any workplace longer than about six months, you understand how important this is, right? Even if stuff is just really a struggle, if it’s perceived as fairly impacting people, that some people are not getting ahead over others in mysterious ways, that is much easier to take, like we’re all in this together, this is happening in a way that is fair. And the last one is values, that the individual’s ideals and motivations that are relevant to work are consistent with the practices and values of the employer. I interviewed a highly qualified person for a faculty position fairly recently, and one of the reasons that she was on the job market… she was already in a tenure-track position. She was on the job market because the institution she was at was dramatically changing. They were structurally changing, everything was different, and one of the things that she had valued was undergraduate research, and that was not going to be an important value of the institution going forward. So it kind of broke her relationship with her employer. Another way that we’re seeing this with COVID is when you hear people talk about “I didn’t get into this work for this reason,” that sometimes speaks to a values mismatch. You hear it often with healthcare workers who are under a lot of stress right now, you hear them talking about having to make decisions about who to help first, having to tell people: “You can’t be with your loved one while they’re dying” …those are things that directly cut against the things that got them into healthcare, and it builds this feeling of burnout. So those are the six aspects: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. And those pieces, the mismatch between the individual and the workplace, in any of those areas can dramatically contribute to burnout.

John: And I think the pandemic may have affected nearly all those categories. Could we perhaps talk about some of the ways in which the pandemic may have affected things like control and some of those other issues?

Kristin: Absolutely, absolutely. And I would bet anyone in higher ed, who’s listening to this, could write them down immediately. Like, for example, “How has the pandemic affected your workload like, “Fwahah… these 83 different ways,” and you know, the most obvious example is when people were asked to go remote very suddenly, especially people who had not been teaching in an online environment… that the workload, like straight up, of just having to completely retool materials that were intended for one delivery into another one…. whether or not you had the underlying knowledge base for that, or an orientation towards it… just separating all of that out, just the work involved in shifting everything was dramatic. Control is also a really excellent example. Control is something that has made the pandemic so stressful for so many people in so many different professions, that there are critical aspects of our work lives that we now feel are controlled by an invisible virus. Our feelings of how we control our environment and what keeps us safe, have been completely thrown out the window. And at the same time, our ability to shape our workplace, our individual ability to shape our workplace to maintain that sense of control, has also been completely thrown out the window. I know there were some faculty who would have preferred to stay face to face even when we moved things remote, whose sense of risk was low, and were upset that they had to make that change, and that there are faculty who would much prefer to stay completely remote now, even though institutionally, that’s not always a choice, especially across the country, different institutions are in very different places where faculty may not have as much control as they would typically have over how they’re delivering their classes, how they’re interacting with their colleagues, how they are interacting with their students. And, when you’re talking about something that is a literal existential threat, that is terrifying in a way that I can see would dramatically increase this loss of control and experience of burnout and we could talk about all the other ones as well… [LAUGHTER].

John: But those are certainly the big ones, I think, and I think Rebecca and I have both experienced those as well in different ways, but it’s been…a challenge.

Kristin: Absolutely. I also think that from some of the things I hear from colleagues in other states, some legislatures or boards that have gotten very involved with how universities are delivering their classes, I think that also contributes to burnout for both faculty and administrators where you think you’re doing the best thing you can and then somebody who has no idea how you’re doing your job, or how a university work says “No, this is the way we’re going to do it” …that can be a crazy-making experience. Rebecca and John know that I relocated to New York just two years ago. I’m happy to be in New York, where universities are empowered to make more of their own decisions, then in some states, and my heart goes out to our colleagues in some states where they have been prevented from making decisions that they think are good for their students and for their faculty.

John: That was a topic we talked a little bit about last week in the episode dealing with legislatures affecting what topics are allowed in the classroom.

Kristin: Exactly

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between burnout, the workplace phenomenon and discussions around work-life balance?

Kristin: Yes, work-life balance is a really fraught topic, isn’t it? On the surface of it, it seems like this great ideal that we’re all shooting for, right? That we can hit some individually adjusted perfect balance, but underneath it is all of this social baggage of who is positioned in a way to be able to achieve what is more of a work-life balance, who is socially and economically positioned in such a way as to have that be almost a completely unattainable goal, all of that kind of stuff. So, I think that there are similarities to kind of pushing for the ideal work-life balance and the concept of burnout. Because work- life balance is also experienced individually and there are aspects that you can individually control, but it is also a workplace phenomenon. So I know we’ve seen in the news, for example, that China is having conversations about the 9-9-6 work week. If you’ve seen this, the 9-9-6 work week is the idea that you should work from 9am to 9pm six days a week, and this is an ideal that is pushed in some companies. And finally in China, people are saying, “Wait, no!”

Rebecca: That sounds horrible.

Kristin: This is not good for people… like they collapse from exhaustion and illness. So we can say that work-life balance is an individual ideal, but at the same time, there are workplace variables that push people in one direction or another, that’s in a broader sense. It’s hard to hold that kind of dialectic in mind, that the work environment requires this of me on the one hand, but on the other hand, I still have control over many aspects. How can I exercise and grow that control in a way that can help me to live a healthier life? That those two things are both simultaneously true and need to be kept in mind at the same time. So burnout is a great example of that. Burnout is a workplace phenomenon that is best addressed institutionally or across the workplace culture, but at the same time, individuals maintain control over various aspects of their lives, and how do you focus on the pieces you can control and make the most of your areas of influence over your own life, over your own time, over the way that you’re allocating your energies and your emotions?

John: Since most of our listeners don’t have control over their workplace environment to the extent that they might like, what can individuals do when they’re faced with an environment where they’re feeling these types of pressures?

Kristin: So one thing that helps me to keep in mind is the three components of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness. And I know, for myself, that when I am edging towards burnout, ineffectiveness is one of the first things that I start to feel. I start to feel like I don’t have anything to contribute, and I recognize that that’s a sign of burnout, and I tell myself that I actually do have things to contribute. Just because I don’t feel that in the moment, it’s not a sign I don’t have something to say, it’s a sign that I need to take more stock of how I’m approaching things and reduce my level of stress. So, the first thing I would suggest is keeping in mind what are signs of burnout, because otherwise, it’s very easy for people to blame themselves and see it as an individual weakness… say, “I’m just not up to this,” when really an alternative interpretation is “I’m experiencing burnout. It’s not an individual flaw, it’s not an individual weakness, and there are things that I can do about this,” and at the same time, those three things, exhaustion, cynicism and effectiveness, what you’re shooting for is kind of the counter for that. So what can you do that counters exhaustion? What can you do that builds your energy? What can you do to counter cynicism? What can you do to build your emotional engagement and your compassion? And for ineffectiveness, what can you do that builds your sense of effectiveness and your sense of accomplishment? So there are a number of things that we all have individual control over that help us to build our energy, to build our emotional engagement, and to build our sense of accomplishment. Just for example, all three of us have worked very hard to figure out how do we set boundaries in time? We don’t have magical solutions to this, but we try really hard. How do you decide when to stop working and to start having fun, or sleeping or exercising? Because those are all things that build energy, and when you don’t set those boundaries of time, it sucks the energy out of you, because you’re spending all of this time exhausting yourself in the workplace, and although we may feel some pressures to spend all our time exhausting ourselves in the workplace, that actually is not required. We do have some control over that. Now, I’m specifically speaking about a university setting, there are certainly some workplaces where it is literally a job requirement to exhaust yourself in the workplace, and that is really a toxic environment to be in. I know we’ve seen that with some health-care workers where they have been given no choice but to exhaust themselves in the workplace, and it’s a horrible situation to be in. So when I’m talking about a university workplace where we may feel like we have to put everything into our jobs all the time, but that’s actually not a job requirement. So how do we say, “I’m going to stop working now, because it’s 11 o’clock at night and one should sometimes go to bed and get some sleep?”

Rebecca: I hear it’s good for brain function.

Kristin: Yes exactly, and those things actually help us to be more effective at work. I often don’t do email on the weekends, for example, which for a Dean is unusual, but that’s because we spend 30 years socializing as grad students, and further on, that you work all the time, nonstop seven days a week, because that’s how academia works. It doesn’t have to work that way. So as another example, how can people, if they’re feeling cynical, if they recognize that increase of cynicism, how can they address that? Because one thing that brings people into higher ed is often a connection to students, especially in institutions like ours, comprehensive institutions that really value undergraduate education. We hire people who got into higher ed because they love students, and they are excited by working with students, and they have compassion for students, and they want them to live better lives when they graduate, and it can be particularly distressing for people who got into higher ed for those reasons to feel that aspect of themselves retreating, to lose patience and to lose compassion for their students. So what if you feel that? What can you do? So the first thing is, you recognize it’s a sign of burnout, you say “This is not me, this is not my weakness, this is not me becoming a harder person, this is a sign of burnout.” So it helps you to identify it as external to yourself, and something that you can approach as a problem instead of an individual failing. And then, oftentimes, we find that when you want to be feeling something that you’re not feeling, honestly “fake it till you make it” is not a bad approach. So if your student says this terrible thing is happening in my life, I need some accommodation for that in this class, perhaps some days, you have a hard time coming up with a compassionate response to that. That’s okay, as long as you don’t tell that to the student, you have it in your heart, like I just don’t have the depth of compassion that I typically have, so today, I’m going to say to the student, “I’m so sorry, you’re going through that, let’s talk about what kind of accommodations will work for class for now.” If they need extended deadlines or something like that, because later, you know, you’re going to go back to that, and you will feel it. It’s okay to say, I’m sorry, you’re going through that knowing that, cognitively, you’re sorry, and later you can be emotionally sorry for them, if that makes sense. And you’re allowed to have more depths of compassion some days than others or more depth some semesters than others, that’s okay. As long as the way that you respond to your students is the way that you want them to feel. I’m not expressing that very well. It’s okay when you feel emotionally out of control inside, it’s okay to go to your social support network and talk about that. It doesn’t have to affect the way that you work with your students. And I know some of the faculty that I have worked with that sometimes go through this, they feel horrible later if they don’t treat their students with compassion, because they were having a bad day.

John: I think also, with a pandemic, some of those support networks broke down a little bit, making it a little harder for faculty to connect to their support networks.

Kristin: Oh, that’s absolutely true, partly because we are social creatures who have evolved to be able to respond to in-person support, and when we’re not able to access that in-person support in the same ways, it doesn’t feel as powerful. I lived in Texas for many years, and hugging is, in South Texas, a big thing. You hug your colleagues when you see them, you hug a stranger when you meet them, there’s sometimes a little cheek kiss in there, you hug when you’re happy, you hug when you’re sad. There were like 80 hugs in my professional day when I worked in Texas. And, if you’re used to that level of both physical connection and social connectedness, and that is suddenly withdrawn, like it has been in the pandemic, it’s very difficult to feel the same kind of level of support. Plus many people in higher ed, we get our professional support from colleagues that we feel friendly with, but we’re not close enough friends that we would seek each other out if you have to work at it. So like, going to a department meeting, the meeting may not be that fun, but seeing your colleagues can be a highlight, like “How are things going?” …but you’re not close enough friends that you actually seek each other out outside of that. During the peak of the pandemic, those kinds of relationships were very difficult to maintain, because you weren’t having those kind of casual informal social interactions, they had to be planned and scheduled. Is this is going to be outside with masks or is this going to be in video? And without having a social support network that was that strong, much of those kind of collegial connections just melted away, and I think all of us have seen the effects of that on social loosening between colleagues and how it shows up in email and how it shows up in like people are just kind of rude to each other sometimes, because they haven’t seen each other and they haven’t rebuilt those social connections, But I should be talking more about how to build a defense against burnout. So we talked about setting time boundaries, I think that’s really important. Another aspect that, okay, it’s gonna sound individual and it is individual, but remember, burnout is a workplace phenomenon. Didn’t I say that I would say that over and over? One of the reasons that burnout can be so damaging is that it physically stresses you, and it can set you up for health impacts. So a way to build your physical resilience can also help as a response to feeling burned out. So making sure that you’re taking care of your health the best that you can. If that is starting to walk when you’re not walking, making sure that you take ergonomic breaks at work to stretch, watching how much you’re drinking, all of those aspects that build physical resilience, they make you more resistant to the stress response of the exhaustion aspect of burnout and they’ll also help protect you against the health effects that can come from an extended period of burnout.

Rebecca: Things like eating lunch seem important too in that department, right?

Kristin: Yes.

Rebecca: Because, one of those time barriers… that lunch just escapes away. There’s all these meetings.

Kristin: Yes, absolutely, absolutely! I had a wonderful colleague that I worked with that was so committed to students, and in her job, she was both an instructor and an advisor for a fairly large number of students, and I talked to her when she was feeling really stressed out one semester, and she said, “I don’t have time to eat or go to the bathroom. From the start of the day, to the end of the day, I’m talking to students non-stop.” And we talked about how she could build control back into her life, and as the teacher of these students, she was the one making the appointments, and they would come with a question, but she would set the agenda of how you address that. So it’s not good for your students to see that you don’t eat and go to the bathroom, it’s okay to say, “I’ve been talking to students for two hours, I need to take a restroom break, I’ll come back in 10 minutes.” That’s okay. It’s also okay to say “I need an hour here for lunch, because I also need to kind of disengage.” So we talked about how she could set time barriers so that she literally was making herself go to the bathroom and eat. Also, as just a side note, her other colleagues who had similar job responsibilities did not have this issue. That doesn’t mean it was her fault. It wasn’t her fault, it was a mismatch between what she was being asked to do and her, like a workplace issue. But, it also speaks to how boosting your own level of control can help to combat burnout. And we see this also sometimes in our colleagues who are like, I’ve been assigning these amazing projects and papers for students, and they take me so long to grade and I give them six versions of feedback along the way, and they never make revisions. They can figure out how to achieve those learning outcomes in a way that requires less instructor time. So how to exercise control in a way so that you can pull back some of that time, pull back some more flexibility.

John: And maybe doing things other than work to get back some of that work-life balance can help. I know I recently started playing with a band again.

Kristin: Yay.

John: Somehow in the next couple of weeks, I’ve got to learn 60 songs [LAUGHTER] before we do this long show. But it does help, it’s very refreshing to do something that’s not involving Zoom meetings for 8 to 10 to 12 hours a day.

Kristin: Absolutely, absolutely. I worked with a psychologist who ran one of the only inpatient PTSD units in the country who was really fabulous, and that was a high area of potential burnout and emotional exhaustion, listening to people talk about their traumatic experiences. And his advice, which is just the same as the literature is, you got to have fun, you got to have fun in between all those. In fact, he said, “the more stressful the work situation, the bigger the fun has to be, you have to have big fun.” Oftentimes, when people feel exhausted, it’s difficult for them to imagine doing something that would be enjoyable, it’s difficult for them to plan it, it’s difficult for them to think it’s gonna be any fun to imagine it as being fun. Don’t let any of that stop you, you just do it anyway. You say, “Usually, I like to do this, I don’t feel like doing it right now, but go do it anyway.” Because it really does have a mood lifting effect, even if you don’t feel like it when you’re going into it, and that can be little fun, it can be going on a walk with somebody that you like and enjoying nature, it can be big fun. Many of us are not doing a lot of traveling right now, and it can also include sometimes people who practice mindfulness experience increased joy in their daily life as well, because they can kind of suck the little moments of joy out of the day in a more focused way.

Rebecca: I know one strategy I used during the summer when I was starting to feel overwhelmed, was I just signed up to take a poetry class because I had time to do extra stuff, and I paid for it, and it had a regular meeting time, and it had a schedule associated with it, and it really helped me get back on a creative path, because there were some structure to it. So I didn’t have to put any brain work into the structure, I just signed up, and then the structure came to me, and that really helped because that was one less thing I had to think about.

Kristin: Mmhmm, absolutely.

John: We’ve talked a little bit about what individuals could do when they start to experience the symptoms of burnout, what might institutions do to help reduce the likelihood of burnout?

Kristin: It’s a great question and something that all workplaces need to have an eye on. In fact, some of the most interesting work that Dr. Maslach has done is working with workplaces and helping them to identify what are the sources of burnout in your workplace and how can you institutionally address it? For universities, I’m going to shift it slightly to what can leaders do. So the first thing I would say, is to watch for their own burnout, because you know that one of the aspects of burnout is cynicism, this reduced feeling of compassion. Another is feeling of ineffectiveness. If you’re expecting someone to provide leadership, you want them to have compassion for the people at the institution, and you want them to feel like that if they do something, it’s actually going to make a difference, as opposed to feeling like it’s not gonna matter whatever they do. So to watch for signs in their own burnout, and recognize that if that’s impacting their work, that they need to address that before it impacts the people that they have some responsibility for. But in general, we know that one thing that reduces workplace stress in crisis and I would characterize us as having been in a constant crisis for the last year and a half, one thing that definitely helps is to provide information, lots of information. Be as clear as possible, communicate more often than you think you have to, in multiple modalities, just communicate, communicate, communicate, because in the crisis mode, it’s very easy for people’s emotions to escalate quickly if they feel that important things are not being addressed, or they don’t know what’s going on. So over-communicate, and do what you can, in every aspect, to build faculty, staff and student experiences of control. So there are some things where the institution has to take control, there has to be some direction. It’s very important, for example, that we stay in the black in our budget, because we really want people to get paid. That’s true for every university, that there are institutional goals that protect everyone, and sometimes you have to set direction that requires that. But at the same time, there are aspects where you can cede as much control as possible. It’s very helpful if you’re already in an environment in which there is a strong tradition of shared faculty and administrative governance, but there are aspects where faculty, staff and students can exercise control over their own lives and over what’s happening to them. Every piece that you can build for that can help. At the same time, it is another dialectic where if you say, “We don’t know what to do, what do you want to do?’ to someone who is heavily burned out, they may not be able to come up with a solution, and it’s a leader’s job to be able to come up with a solution. So you don’t say “We don’t know what to do? What do you guys think?” And sometimes the answer to that is, “Well, we don’t know either it’s your job, figure it out,” and that’s a fine answer. So if that’s the answer to the Dean or the Provost or the President, then they need to figure it out, [LAUGHTER] while allowing as much flexibility as possible. Another aspect, I think, is that we need to be extra conscious of faculty, staff, and students who have comparatively less institutional power. So in a time of crisis, with widespread levels of burnout, it’s definitely going to affect some people more than others, and those people are often on the margins of having a voice or having power to create institutional change. They’re people who may be already under extra stress because of low pay or because of discriminatory experiences in their department or inequitable workload assignment. Those people are already getting the short end of the stick, and may be more prone to burnout because of it, and may have less power to say anything. So it’s an institutional responsibility to be extra conscious of those voices, to go the extra mile to find out what their perspectives are, and to build them into whatever we can do to, again, build experiences of control. And finally, I think all of us should be practicing compassion as much as we can. We may not agree, that’s okay. Higher ed is really good at having disagreements. We have disagreements about ideas, we have very fundamental disagreements about policy, that’s okay. We can even say like “this person is super freaked out about going into the classroom right now, because of their own assessment of risk that is completely independent of anything else, and this person is not.” That doesn’t mean one of them is right or wrong, it means that their own perceptions are different, and that we should have compassion for people who have different perspectives on what is happening in their lives. I recognize that that list is too global. I would really like to say, “Here are these specific things that we should do,” but it does differ by institutional contexts. In terms of specifics, though, I think communicating as often as possible in multiple modalities and making sure that voices are in the room. Those are two specific things. When decisions are being made that affect their lives, faculty, students, and staff should be in the room so their voices can be heard, so that they can exercise as much control as possible over their workplace situations.

Rebecca: Sounds to me to based on what you were saying, Kristin, is that when we’re thinking about faculty or staff voices that need to be in the room, it’s not just tenured faculty, or full-time faculty or full-time staff, but people that are on a range of situations from those who might be really part-time to those who have been really established with the institution and been there for a long time.

Kristin: Absolutely, absolutely. And doing it in such a way that… and this is, I think, a tricky part… adjunct voices, for example, are very important in determining how to move forward in ways that affect adjunct work, but at the same time, we don’t want to burden them with extra service requirements of serving on a bunch of committees or put them in a position where they feel that their contracts are already unstable if they speak up and say something… are they going to lose a potential adjunct contract in the future? So it’s a hard line to walk, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. There is a way to make sure that untenured faculty, both part-time and full-time, have a voice in determining how the institution moves forward.

Rebecca: Some of that sounds like anonymity might sometimes be important to providing some feedback, especially with part time faculty.

Kristin: That’s an excellent point.

Rebecca: Maybe they can’t be in the room, but we can certainly ask them for feedback, in an anonymous platform, so that we have at least a representation of their voices in the room, even if they’re not there.

Kristin: Absolutely, and I appreciate the unionized environment in New York, where there is an alternative pathway to provide input, where people can feel protected in a different way.

John: Anonymity is one good way of providing that feedback, but also having a sense of trust that what you say will be taken under consideration seriously, and I think our campus has done a pretty good job with that, compared to what I’ve heard from many other campuses.

Kristin: I think so too. Both in the classroom, and in leadership, we have to walk that tricky line of like, “I think I know what I’m doing, but at the same time, I have to really welcome critical feedback.” Like if your students say, “I really don’t understand what you’re talking about,” you have to have some experience of gratitude for that, that somebody said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” so that you can explain. And similarly in leadership, when faculty say, “this is a dumb idea, don’t do this,” we have to be able to experience some gratitude for that feedback and say, “Well, thank you for pointing out all those potential horrible downsides that had not been considered.” So cultivating that attitude of trust and safety, because then you, on the one hand, you get some pretty negative feedback sometimes, so you suck it up. But at the same time, you need to feel grateful for that negative feedback, because it really does make the institution a better place. One aspect that we didn’t touch on, I just want to pop in, in higher ed, full-time faculty more than part-time, but full-time faculty of all ranks tend to have somewhat more control over their assigned work over time than in other workplaces, and that is another way to combat burnout in the long run. So if you say I have been doing the same thing for years, and I just can’t take it anymore, there’s so much interesting stuff that can be done at a university. If you got a better idea of how to spend your time, probably somebody is going to let you do it. I worked with a wonderful woman, I will give her a shout-out even though I don’t think she’ll hear us: Wendy James-Aldridge was my most influential Department Chair as an Assistant Professor, and Wendy was a great researcher. She studied primate family relationships for decades at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, but she was also a talented administrator, she was a great teacher, and she told me one day, “You know, when I just get tired of dealing with students, after years of a heavy teaching load, I go be Department Chair, and then I do some stuff, and I push some paper around, I take care of faculty, and then whenI get tired of dealing with faculty, complaints and paperwork, then I went to chair the faculty assembly and did that for a while, and then when I got tired of that, then I went back to full-time teaching.” And this is over decades of a career, and it’s a really great example that when work seems like a slog, you can actually change, if you have enough control, which in higher ed we often do, you can actually change the proportion of your time. And every university, I would hazard a guess, has some great faculty who are leading a center somewhere. And they often do that when they were doing one thing and being very successful at it and thought, “Hey, I would be really interested and excited to do this other thing,” then you do that for a while and you say, “Hey, you know what would be interesting? To do a different thing, because I like to learn, I like to grow,” You do a different thing, and in higher ed, we can actually do that. In many workplaces, that is not really an option. And I’ll say it again, as Dean, I can say, there’s so many things that need to be done that if someone comes up to me and says, “I have this idea, I want to do this really interesting thing that needs to be done,” there’s usually a way to make that happen, because we need a lot of stuff to be done. So I’d also suggest that people think about both control in the short term, how can you control your time and how you’re spending your time and allocating your emotional investment, but also think about control in the long term. If you’re tired of what you’re doing, and your institution gives sabbaticals, take a sabbatical, move in a different direction, apply for a leadership position, write a grant, those are all things that actually can help refresh people’s sense of engagement with their workplace. It’s interesting to me that sometimes the solution for burnout is not less work, it’s different work.

Rebecca: I’m definitely someone who has had a lot of different interests and jumps around and does all kinds of different projects, from research to creative work.

Kristin: Oftentimes, when I’m feeling particularly ineffective, I will listen to the podcast or do a good hour of development, because that kind of learning helps to re-engage me emotionally. And then I don’t feel so ineffective. It’s like, “hey, those are good ideas, I have ideas, I am thinking about these ideas.” I now have a little rejuvenation of energy, and I think a lot of academics are that way, we get turned on by learning and we get turned on by stretching and doing different things.

John: I know that’s something I’ve enjoyed about the podcast. I’ve received a lot of inspiration by the suggestions from our guests. The main problem is trying not to implement too many of them all at once. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: All at the same time, all at the same time, yeah.

Rebecca: I know one of the lessons that I tucked away from that poetry class I’ve been taking was the idea of generative reading, and that’s really what you’re talking about.

Kristin: Yes.

Rebecca: Consuming something else from some other folks to be exposed to new ideas to remind yourself that you also have ideas.

Kristin: Yes, absolutely. I’ll add one other strategy: oftentimes we find people to hyper focus on their areas of weakness, and say, “I’m so stressed out, I have to get better at these 28 things,” and oftentimes, that kind of focus actually doesn’t help. It can be much more helpful to focus on your areas of strength. Say, “You know what, I’m bad at these things, but I’m good at this stuff, I’m gonna do this stuff I’m good at.” So for example, I am not good at writing by myself, I have never been good at writing by myself, I find it completely unrewarding. If I had a deadline, I would usually hit it, but if I have a collaborator, I can write because the social motivation is much more interesting to me.

John: A commitment device, as we talked about on an earlier podcast.

Kristin: Exactly, I also find writing articles to be really boring, but I can write a grant with no problem, because I see the impact it’s going to have, and that is much more motivating to me. So I could spend my career beating myself up for being bad at writing articles by myself, or I could spend my career saying, “You know what I like to write grants with a team, something that will make a difference, and that’s less frustrating for me, it’s much more rewarding, it has better impact for the institution because I’m actually doing something that I’m good at, as opposed to just trying to build what I’m bad at.” We spend so much time trying to say “I am bad at this, I should be better.” Well, that’s actually not very helpful. So the next time you find yourself thinking that you can say, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, what am I good at? I’m gonna focus on that instead.” And that can also help to combat that feeling of exhaustion, because you’re always trying to remediate what you’re bad at and being tired and being worn out. Uh hnnn. What are you good at? Where will you find that energy? What gets you intellectually engaged again?

Rebecca: Sounds to me like in tenure, promotion, retention practices that focus on the contributions made by an individual, rather than specific kinds of contributions, like contributions that are a good fit for the individual and the institution, would be something worth rewarding and emphasizing.

Kristin: Absolutely, and we see that at the Associate Professor level, how can we kind of spread it more to the Assistant Professor level, where when people are promoted to Associate and given tenure, sometimes they blossom in an unexpected way, because they don’t feel so much pressure to be evenly achieving across multiple areas.

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

Kristin: What’s next? That’s a good question. As Dean, I am very focused on what role that I can play and what role can the college play in supporting our faculty and students and I will remain both focused on COVID, ‘cause, you know, it kind of is a cloud over everything, right? But, at the same time, thinking about “What do we do next? What are we learning now? What can we use now that we can leverage to come out of this in a different and new way?” How about you two?

Rebecca: It’s always an adventure, right? [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Yes, it is, yes, it is.

Rebecca: Well, what’s next, I’m going to learn my new job, which is the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at SUN- Oswego.

Kristin: Well congratulations! And I am excited to work with you in all of the capacities that you have been in, including this new one, and the nice thing for me is that the Graduate Studies Office is right down the hall, so I’ll get the chance to see Rebecca more.

Rebecca: Definitely!

John: What’s next for me is continuing in the classroom after a nice long break. It was really exciting to be back in the classroom. I wish more than 60% of my students had been vaccinated that first day, but working with a challenging environment where I have a number of students in quarantine, a number of students testing positive every few days, and handling that mix in face-to-face and online is a challenge, especially when you have a very interactive class environment where there’s a lot of polling and group work taking place that, as many people experienced last year, it’s very challenging, and I was kind of happy to avoid it, but it’s so much more energizing, for me at least, to be back in that classroom environment.

Kristin: Right, absolutely. Well, good luck to you and to your students.


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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle.


203. Critical Race Theory

Multiple states have introduced legislation banning the discussion of critical race theory at all levels of public education. In this episode Cyndi Kernahan and Moira Lynch join us to explore what these bills actually say, the motivations behind them, and the impact this has on teaching in higher education. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor. Moira is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics, Geography, and International Studies, also at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls.



John: Multiple states have introduced legislation banning the discussion of critical race theory at all levels of public education. In this episode we explore what these bills actually say, the motivations behind them, and the impact that this has on teaching in higher education.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Cyndi Kernahan, and Moira Lynch. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor. Moira is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics, Geography, and International Studies, also at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. Welcome Moira, and welcome back, Cyndi.

Cyndi: Thank you.

Moira: Thanks for having us.

John: Our teas today are…

Cyndi: I’m drinking blueberry green tea.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds good!

Moira: I had English breakfast and I left it downstairs.

Rebecca: Oops. [LAUGHTER] I have Earl Grey although Moira, don’t worry, I came initially with just a cup of hot water and I was like, oops, that’s not tea.

John: And I have ginger peach green tea. Is your blueberry green tea the Tea Republic one?

Cyndi: It is, I love them so much.

John: I do too. It’s really good.

Cyndi: And I took a page from you guys. I have to say we’re opening our CTL space officially next Tuesday. We were supposed to open last year but pandemic, and I took a page from y’all: I bought a kettle and tea because you guys inspired me. {LAUGHTER] So we will have a tea maker at the UW River Falls CTL space.

Rebecca: Representing, awesome!

John: Nice! We actually, I should note, have three. We have two tea kettles and we have a Breville tea maker, which will set the temperature and the strength of the tea for each of the major types of tea.

Cyndi: Of course you do.

John: We’ve been doing this for a while now.

Rebecca: Yeah, hashtag tea nerds.

John: We’ve invited you here, to talk about a column you wrote for the Cap Times on a bill that would ban the discussion of critical race theory in K-12 and higher education in the state of Wisconsin. What has happened with this bill? Has it passed or is it still under discussion?

Moira: This is a bill that… there’s actually two parts to it… There’s a Bill 409, which is targeting universities and colleges in Wisconsin. And then there’s a Bill 411, which is targeting K through 12 schools. And it hasn’t passed. It was proposed in June, just this past June… 2021. And then they only recently had a public hearing, a pretty divisive and rancorous public hearing, on August 11th on the bill, but no, it hasn’t gone to a vote yet. So the bill, basically, is banning particular concepts from the classroom. That’s its intent, including ideas like that one race or sex is superior to another, a person is inherently racist by virtue of his or her race or sex, a person should feel guilty for past acts committed by people of his or her race or sex. And there’s a few other pieces of language, but also it includes language that schools that would engage in instruction, that aligns with these ideas, would lose 10% of their annual state funding. There’s a couple other pieces to the bills, too, that are important to mention about ideas around educators publishing their curriculum, making it public and that being monitored in some form if this bill should pass. And that would be at the college and university level, but also at the K through 12 level. It also has some language on training. So institutions that are training on diversity and inclusion, for example, would be subject to some of these same ideas about what they can and cannot talk about in their training.

Cyndi: EDUCAUSE is keeping up with this, a lot of places are keeping up with this, I think the Chronicle of Higher Ed has a map as well. And there are 12 states that have passed something like this. And they all look a little different. So, Wisconsin’s looks very similar, I should say, because there’s a strategy here, but there are 12 states who have passed things like this, and there are variations on them. There’s more that seemed to be focused on the K-12 system, but many of them are focused on higher ed as well, like Florida really stands out as being very focused on their higher education system. So you can go and look, I think the EDUCAUSE article is really good, I can send that to y’all, but it sort of shows you like the map and where each state is in terms of where these bans are at. So this is a pretty serious issue going into the Fall semester.

John: We can share a link to that in the show notes. This has been a phenomenon we’ve been seeing a lot recently. We saw it over the previous four years in the White House with many federal agencies and we’re seeing it again in lots of red states, it appears. Why is this happening?

Cyndi: Yeah, I can start. I don’t think it’s any accident that a year ago, we were still talking about… I mean we still are talking about… the protests around George Floyd and the summer that we had that was so remarkable in terms of how many people went out and protested. So I think this is a response to that. That’s what it feels like to me. And it’s an ongoing response. We see this when you look at the history of race and racism, where there’s movement and backlash, movement and backlash. Carol Anderson writes about this really well. Many people write about it well, but that book in particular, White Rage, is a great source where she talks about that sort of movement forward and the backlash, and so I think it’s part of that. I think it’s always been part of a larger political strategy too, which I know Moira can speak better to than I can around using this in terms of gaining votes. I know you can speak to that better than me.

Moira: Yeah, I would agree with Cindy, that I think there’s a lot of backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. And a lot of times the legislation even brings that in to the conversation or you hear that at school board meetings a lot in terms of what people perceive that movement to be, and whether they see it as a threat or not. And that often goes along with what people are speaking about at school board meetings and in college university settings around this type of legislation. But it is definitely stemming from a political strategy, in the sense that a Conservative activist, Christopher Rufo, spoke on Fox News last summer, talking about critical race theory in particular and how it was kind of this insidious element or form of indoctrination that was really moving through the education system. And that got the attention of President Trump. And he wrote a new Executive Order in which you can see much of the language in the legislation across the states, as Cindy described, taking their language directly from the Trump executive order, making sure that this was prohibited as much as possible in the educational setting. Biden has since rescinded that Executive Order since coming into office. But this is definitely a strategy that Conservative activists acknowledge and others also acknowledge ahead of the 2022 elections and beyond. And so there are different folks who are… you’ll see in conservative political party members… that are making statements, people who are interested in running for president eventually, that are definitely taking a stand on this and making sure that their voice is heard on this legislation in their own state or in other spaces. And so it’s definitely kind of part and parcel of how cultural wars have played out in the past in politics in which parties use a particular cultural hot point hot button issue to rally voters and constituents toward them on a particular cause.

Rebecca: In the past year, we’ve seen many campuses really pushed towards diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, whatever those are, and whatever those look like on a particular campus, they’re different, but there’s definitely a movement in that direction throughout higher ed. how is this impacting that movement? What are the long-term implications of this kind of legislation happening across multiple states in these moves to really have equity in higher education, and really, in K-12, too?

Cyndi: I think it complicates it, and anybody who reads the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed on a regular basis knows that there’s always been backlash against higher ed, the idea that what we’re teaching is indoctrination or somehow wrong and brainwashing students, liberalizing students, that that idea is not new. I think what this does is it just sort of raises the stakes even more. As someone who teaches about this and works on initiatives like that on my campus level, I’m very involved in all of that work. And so it feels like we’re under even more scrutiny. So there have been incidents on this campus. For example, over the summer, there was a website that was inadvertently linked to our website, and it generated a lot of controversy on the right. And there was a lot of pushback. And so there were people calling the campus and saying, why are you linking to this website? We shouldn’t have necessarily been linking to that website, and again, it was an inadvertent mistake. But it was so clear to me over the summer, when this happened, like “Wow, people are really watching closely.” And so I think that’s part of what complicates that work is that there’s just going to be a lot of scrutiny, a lot of watching what we’re doing. And we already know, and this happens on a lot of campuses, that campus web pages are looked at closely, what instructors are teaching are looked at really closely. I thought the situation at Boise State was really instructive. If you all followed tha, where the Idaho State Legislature took funding away from Boise State and gave it to another Idaho college because allegedly there was this incident where a white student was shamed in an online class around racism. But when you actually dug into it, that student was not shamed by the instructor. There was some back and forth between the student and other students in the chat. It was a synchronous session, but the instructor actually handled it beautifully. The instructor checked in on the student to make sure they were okay. She saw that there was some conflict between students and handled it really, really well, I thought, from my read of the reporting of that. But that incident of allegedly a student being shamed was sent to a legislator who then, just based on that hearsay, said, “Okay, we’re taking $400,000 [I think it was] away from the school.” So I think the scrutiny is part of what really complicates this and makes it harder to do that work.

Moira: I think one of the problems, to your question, Rebecca, about what kind of impact too, is the critical race theory has become this catch-all term for anything that is taught in K through 12 settings or colleges and universities that’s related to race, anti-racism, systemic racism, racial injustice. I mean, the list goes on and on. And as Cyndi has said, these courses have existed for a long time. There’s a lot of work on this in different settings and different forms. So there’s a lot of confusion about what critical race theory is, and is not. And most of the laws that have been passed and that are even being considered don’t even have that term in the law, or if they do, it’s not accurately characterized. So it’s become this vessel to control how race and racism is taught in these settings. And that’s a very powerful instrument. And I want to give you an example, there’s a website called criticalrace.org in which Conservative activists are basically keeping tabs on everything that they can find that colleges and universities teach or had programming on or training related to race, anti-racism, etc. But when you go through different colleges and you look at what they take notes on, it’s not critical race theory… Is there a course? Yes or no? They actually just list anything that has race or anti-racism in it. So it could be a speaker that spoke two years ago, it could be a program for first years on anti-racism, it could be a lecture, it could be training, you can see it’s just this catch-all list that they are collecting to identify a problem. But what’s not clear is what the problem is, in terms of collecting this list of information from a college or university. It’s not clear in this website, for example, what is problematic about any of this programming or how it fits into this larger narrative of it being indoctrination.

John: Is there any evidence that critical race theory is actually being taught anywhere in the K through 12 environment?

Cyndi: Not that I know of, this is just from listening to reports about it, but it wouldn’t make sense for it to be taught in a K-12 setting. I mean, even in undergraduate classes, I’ve never formally taught critical race theory. And part of what’s confusing about it, and I do think it’s sort of useful, I guess, as a catch-all term for the folks who want to stop any discussion of racism, because it’s like this projection screen that a lot of stuff gets thrown on. I mean, really, if you look at the definition of critical race theory, part of what’s so complicated about it is it’s not one thing, it’s really a framework. So it’s a way of looking at things like laws and policies across a variety of domains: health care, education, the justice system, etc., and saying, “Let’s look at where there are racial disparities and disadvantage and let’s try to understand that.” So it’s looking at those things with a critical lens. One example I might give from work that we do is I was thinking about a financial aid policy of verification, I’m sure you all are familiar with this, that ensnares tons of students, including lots of my students, where you have to go through and provide more documentation to be able to receive your financial aid. A critical race perspective on that would say, “How is that happening? How is that disproportionately harming students of color?” …because it is, and there’s research that shows that it is. So that’s what CRT is, is it’s looking at things from a critical framework and saying, “Let’s look at it and see the ways in which racism is operating here that we might not recognize, because that’s one of the sets of assumptions is that it’s systemic, it’s not just individual.” Race is a social construction. Depending on what source you look at, there’s like five or seven different assumptions that are made within the framework of CRT. So, it really wouldn’t make sense for it to be taught to little kids. And then even at the college level, you might not necessarily teach in that way. I mean, I know most of what I spend my time teaching are really those core assumptions, which are understanding how race is a social construction and what that means. Understanding what it means that racism is systemic, and not just individual. And I think when you drill down, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, what I think people really want to ban is feelings. They want to ban people’s feelings around this. So there’s a lot of emphasis, if you listen to the way legislators talk about this, they’re very worried about white people being embarrassed or shamed. And so the idea is, let’s not teach about this in this way in which we think about it as this large encompassing framework, because there’s the assumption that that will make white students feel uncomfortable and embarrassed and ashamed to be white, when I would argue if you’re teaching well, and most people I know who teach this teach very well, that’s not a pedagogical technique that we use. We don’t want to shame people because they don’t learn in that way. And so that’s what’s, at least for me, as one who’s taught about this for so long, is so maddening. It’s like you’re mischaracterizing the way we teach and also mischaracterizing what it is that we’re teaching. It’s not critical race theory. It’s before tha,t just trying to get on the same page of what race is what racism actually is.

Rebecca: It sounds to me like many of the objectives of people who are pursuing this legislation is to just ban discussion of racism, and particular history. And I know that even when I was a student, many perspectives weren’t taught in K-12. So is it a return to a status quo of teaching a particular perspective and only offering that perspective and pushing against other perspectives being offered? Or is it something else?

Moira: I teach international relations and international relations, as a field, was silent for decades on race. So you just didn’t see people publish about it, Textbooks didn’t cover it. It’s just this gaping hole until more recently, textbooks have chapters on race and world politics or more chapters on post-colonial theory, for example. And some of that is also very American-centric. The way Americans taught it in universities was very narrow. However, in other parts of the world race was very much part and parcel of how you would learn about International Relations at the college level. And I talk about that with my students, because when we read about recent world politics, and we look at post-colonial theory, it’s incredibly helpful for them to be able to see historical patterns and systems that have shaped foreign policy decisions, that have shaped why a country’s development has stayed at a lower level as opposed to a higher level. It gives them tools to understand and make sense of some of the outcomes we see that don’t always make sense, especially in places very far from here that are very hard to understand if you have only lived United States and don’t have a lot of context for what’s happening in other parts of the world. So even just being able to explain really diverse patterns of development, conflict, stability in the African continent, is something that the colonial lens, and the colonial period helps them to grasp and make sense of particular outcomes. And we couldn’t do that unless we talked about racial oppression. We talked about colonialization and the slave trade. We couldn’t make sense of that, without that context of institutional racism. To your point about are we going backwards, in that field of international relations, I’m only recently seeing this great movement forward. And actually, textbooks are now a lot more inclusive of these histories than they used to be and so I’m very sensitive to this, because I can see it just moving away. And this omission and this silencing could really have a huge impact on an international relations course.

Cyndi: Yeah, it definitely seems like we’re just getting started and actually including other people in a lot of our curriculum. I think about psychology and the ways in which so much has been left out. And it’s just now starting to be included. So again, I think this is kind of that backlash piece that we see where finally this kind of history and work is being included. And it’s like “No, no, no, wait, wait, wait, we don’t want that.” And, you know, we’ve seen this before. The Tucson School District, they attempted to ban ethnic studies that was ultimately overturned. But it took many, many years to get that changed. So I think that’s what we’re seeing, there’s movement forward, it’s a little bit more inclusive, there’s more focus on it. And it’s interesting, because the backlash is so swift, even to just a little bit of inclusion. We still know… the Southern Poverty Law Center put out a report… I think it’s been a couple of years ago now, looking at the K-12 system showing that really slavery is not taught well, for most American students, it’s not taught particularly well. But even just a little bit of inclusion has sparked this intense backlash. And again, I keep thinking about how so much of it is focused on feelings. It’s very interesting. We don’t want anybody to feel bad. And there’s this assumption that students will feel bad if they learn, essentially, the truth about American history and American present. They just really irks me as an instructor, because that’s not what I see. Students like learning this for the most part. I mean, I have some resistance. But for the most part, students are grateful. The number one comment I always get is, “Why did no one tell me any of this?” And so what I see is that they’re grateful to learn the truth and the flaws and the messiness of our history and who we are as people. They’re grateful for that for the most part.

Rebecca: I would think the most tricky feelings are actually the ones of being betrayed or like, lied to.

Cyndi: Often, there’s a lot of guilt. I’ve talked about that a lot. There’s a lot of guilt, there’s a lot of helplessness. “How do I deal with this?” And so, you know, there’s a lot of management of those feelings. So yeah, that’s a great point.

Moira: I think, too, one of the interesting patterns that we’re seeing with these laws, and it’s the same for Wisconsin, in terms of the proposed bills, is that there isn’t data or evidence of how any of this education that they seem to be pointing to is harmful. They say it’s harmful, and the feelings are being hurt, as Cindy was saying, but we don’t have any data or evidence of harm. And even in the hearing on August 11 in Wisconsin, some of the people testifying, the senators, but also teachers, asked about that. “What is the data? What exactly do you want us to not do? What do you think is harmful?” And it’s difficult for some of the sponsors of the bill to answer that question. They actually couldn’t answer that question on August 11. And I think that’s really telling,

Cyndi: It’s often just all anecdote. It’s just like the Boise State example. It’s like, “Well, I heard someone said that there was this” …and even the thing that kicked part of this off with Christopher Rufo that Moira was referencing earlier was, I believe it was a city worker in the city of Seattle who had seen a presentation and just took a picture of the slide and send it somewhere. So it wasn’t necessarily bad feelings, it was just like, “This could make me feel bad or something,” I think. So it’s very amorphous and there’s a lot of assumptions being made that aren’t well evidenced at all for this.

Moira: And everything out of context.

Cyndi: Yes, very much so.

John: Is this related to a concern about the decline of the white majority that had controlled the narrative for so long, and perhaps a backlash to that, which is showing up in voter suppression efforts in so many other areas?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think the backlash framing is interesting. Right now I’m reading a great book. Ashley Jardina, is a political scientist who wrote the book, White Identity Politics. I’m not all the way through it. It’s really fun to read so far. But she talks a lot about that, about how there’s this salience around white identity that’s happening now, because of this demographic shift. And so that this is part of that larger thing. So there’s this sense of threat. And this is a response to that. So I think it makes our job as teachers, when we teach about this, more tricky and more challenging in some ways, but it’s of a piece with what we’ve always had to deal with. And I think a lot of the techniques for working with it are probably going to be the same. I know at the K-12 level, it’s harder for them, because they have less academic freedom. But I think at the college level, a lot of just good teaching is the way that we’re going to have to continue to work with this backlash and threat that people feel.

Moira: I would agree. And I think that you hear whiteness and white identity and white privilege more often, I think, in a positive way, in the sense that it’s not these kind of niche areas or people. The good part is that people understand that more. And they understand that white identity is constructed just as much as black identity, just as much as any other racial category, they’re all constructed. And so I think, at least in my experience, when I talk to students about that, in that way, that social construction is this very real phenomenon, not just of identities, but many things. Sovereignty is a social construction. Norms have evolved over time about what states can or cannot do. It becomes something more within their grasp to know that this is a product of social forces that have huge impacts that we take for granted, that we internalize… myself and my peers… that we can dismantle, we can challenge, we can push against in the name of justice, in the name of more equitable outcomes. And I think it’s a tool that can be harnessed in that way. And so that’s something that I think absolutely produces the backlash, to your point, because people understand it as a movement to make people feel bad about whiteness, but actually, we all have constructed identities. And so we all are grappling with the ways in which those constructions are harmful.

Cyndi: And I think that actually gives us part of the way through this as teachers, I would say, because I’ve always thought about these two, sort of broad categories for thinking about teaching about race and racism. But even more so in the face of this, like I’m thinking about them more. So, one is the focusing on that institutional layer of things. We have so much focus on: “Are you a good or a bad person? Are you racist or not?” Particularly for white students. And if we can get beyond that, and really think about, “Yes, there is this individual layer, like the attitudes you hold, the behaviors that you display, but there’s also this bigger institutional part, where, as Moira said, all of our identities are constructed, and all of us are part of these larger systems, that we didn’t really ask to be a part of.” And so in many ways, that’s very freeing and liberating for students to see that, “Oh, yeah, I’m part of this harmful system, but it’s harmful to me, too.” It’s not as harmful to white people as it is to people of color, but there’s harm for everyone. It’s not just about me, it’s about this larger system. And that helps to, I think, get students away from just sort of the feelings of it, feeling bad, feeling guilty. It’s like, “No, let’s look at this in its entirety.” So I think that’s a really important thing when we think about how to teach in the face of this larger layer of scrutiny, is that, actually, that focus on the institutional level is helpful. That’s ironic, because that’s the thing that they want to ban. But I would argue that that’s actually a useful thing if you don’t want people to feel as bad. There’s some level of feeling that’s going to be there. But getting away from that, I think, is really helpful. That, and just creating as much belonging and community in your classes… you need to, that’s the second thing. And one more, I’ll just add, I’m a white instructor, and I’m tenured and all of that… it’s much easier. I think it’s really incumbent upon all of us in higher ed to recognize that this is a lot harder for instructors of color. It always has been and this makes it even harder. And for people who are adjunct instructors, graduate students, people who are not tenured yet, this is a really important issue that I hope that colleagues and administrators are paying attention to, I really do.

Moira: I just want to add one thing about the focus on the individual. The legislation ,even an opinion from an Attorney General in Arkansas recently just lists all these things that she sees as potentially violating anti-discrimination laws. But she only uses the language of the individual, the individual will feel this, the individual will be made to… So I think that, if we just step back for a minute and think about how social studies courses are taught in the K through 12 level, and we talk about how history courses… just very broadly for a minute… history courses are taught at the college and university level, they are never about who in this room is responsible for what happened. “This historical event that we’re talking about today, are you responsible? Are your ancestors responsible?” History has always talked about painful events. History courses, or social studies courses, have always talked about painful events, painful events in our history or others’ histories. And it isn’t about your ancestors’ responsibility or individual’s responsibility in the room. We talk about different forms of oppression. Even if you just think about workers’ rights at the beginning of the 20th century, when we think about who is oppressing or who was not giving a fair treatment to people in coal mines or in factories, we don’t talk about people’s ancestors in the room when we’re talking about those oppressions. We’re talking about that as a historical event that we learn from and that we then think about systems going forward from those events, our workers rights movements, child labor laws, etc. And so I think that’s something that is worth reflecting on, that that is the norm. What Cindy is describing is the norm. And many teachers in Wisconsin also said, this is the norm in terms of how we teach history, but it’s not about individual fault or blame.

John: We’re lucky in New York state that we don’t face this issue. But what can we do as individual faculty members to help push back against this type of thing?

Cyndi: Maybe I’m naive, but I really think teaching well is really important. And a lot of what we all know, in terms of good pedagogy, being inclusive, creating as much community as possible, creating a strong sense of belonging, I think all of that is going to be useful to fight back against the sort of stereotyped ideas of what we do as college faculty, and that we’re not brainwashing, we’re not doing that, what we’re doing is trying to bring students along and help them learn, I think about that Boise State instructor who really did what you should do in a situation like that. And so doing as much of that as possible and being focused on each other and being protective, like what I said before about really thinking about who are the more marginalized instructors on my campus that are doing this work? And do people really understand how hard that is? In my department, we take it for granted that the folks who teach statistics and methods, that’s harder, and their evaluations might not look as good as the folks who are teaching other stuff, like what I teach, social psychology, or things like that, that are more “fun.” I think, as colleagues, being aware how difficult this is and how hard it is, I heard a colleague this morning, say… she teaches about racism as part of a communications course… and she said, “I’m going to be taping my lectures, and not just so students have more access, but also because I am concerned that what I say could be mischaracterized, and so I want to make sure that I have it on the record.” And that’s the thing, that if you don’t teach about this, you might not understand that people are really afraid and feeling paranoid, for good reason. Because there is, like I said, that heightened scrutiny. So I think understanding that heightened scrutiny, pushing back against as much as possible, pushing our legislators to truly understand what it is we actually do instead of what it is that they sort of think that we do, and also being involved in our local communities like the school boards and things like that, because this is, as Moira said earlier, this is strategy, and it’s happening everywhere. So my guess is even in New York State, there’s probably some school districts where this is coming up, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be. it’s a nice big state, so I’m sure that that’s happening there. So that’s what comes to my mind.

John: Even though there hasn’t been any state legislative motions on this, we certainly have students who will share those views and who will push back. And while I don’t believe it’s happening in our institution, certainly in many institutions in New York, students have recorded portions of videos and posted them and so forth. I think that point you made about an instructor recording their classes to protect themselves is a suggestion I’ve often made to faculty, because people will sometimes say, well, what if I say something that I shouldn’t? I said, “Well, first, you probably shouldn’t be saying things that you shouldn’t.” But they’re concerned that students may take something out of context. And I said, “But if you have the video, you have the context, you’re much less likely to be protected if a student’s there with a smartphone, taking bits and pieces of what you’re saying and then perhaps editing parts of that out of context. It’s much better to have it within the setting.” I’ve actually encouraged people to record their classes to provide that sort of protection, if they’re not discussing really sensitive issues.

Rebecca: One thing that I wanted to ask a little bit about is you mentioned before about how many fields are just starting to be more inclusive in their classes. For example, in our design classes, we actually are providing more examples from different types of designers from around the world. Do you see some of this legislation and this pushback, starting to push back on some of that inclusivity or giving some instructors who are just starting to introduce some of these ideas… where maybe the topic isn’t about race and racism – that’s not the subject matter of the class – but you’re trying to be more inclusive, you’re moving in this direction. What should we be thinking about as instructors who are doing this work for the first time, or we’re just doing it more than we ever had before?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think it’s a real concern. I always make a distinction between inclusive teaching generally, which isn’t necessarily talking about racism, or systems of oppression. And there’s a lot of good work on that, I would just shout out Viji Sathi, and Kelly Hogan who I know you all have had on and they have a book coming out next year about inclusive pedagogy that I think is gonna be awesome. And so in working on those techniques, and I find a lot working with instructors that you hear a lot like, “I don’t want to talk about that, I don’t know how to talk about that, that’s going to be too controversial and I won’t be able to cover it.” So maybe don’t start there. Instead, just start with some of these inclusive teaching practices as much as possible. And then working into adding that content as much as possible. And just using as many outside resources as possible to make you feel comfortable. So, I always say, “Go look at your professional association, because they’ve thought about this, there’s going to be a diversity committee in the American Chemical Society, I think, is what it’s called, I’m probably getting that wrong. My chemistry friends will correct me, I’m sure. But there’s a diversity committee who has thought about this, like how do you increase representation. So use that and don’t try to recreate the wheel. And also make sure you just start again with those good inclusive teaching practices, which don’t necessarily require you to be talking about really controversial stuff, but allow you to still create as much equity and access. So I know the new center at Uni of River Falls, we’re going to be running some inclusive teaching workshops this year. And that’s part of why is because we want to make sure that we’re giving people the tools to be able to do that as much as possible.

Rebecca: But certainly a strategy we’re using here as well. We had Viji Saffy and Kelly Hogan here right at the start of our semester to kick off some inclusive pedagogy workshops.

Moira: Yeah, I would just add that this is in the frame of mind for inclusive teaching, but also this idea of pay attention to the different experiences in your classrooms, and also look at what kinds of voices are in your readings, who is not being heard, what perspective is not necessarily being heard here. That’s obviously an element of inclusive teaching. But I think it’s something that is easily overlooked. I’m going to speak for political science, because that’s mine, and they are terrible at this. And I’ve just been at institutions where you get a diversity assignment with your course, if you have a certain level of multiple voices and perspectives being taught on your particular international relations topic, for example. And that’s an odd system that many of us universities have, it’s this extra thing that some courses will do to include a variety of voices on the subject of foreign policy, for example, when the norm is to not do that. But if you do that, you will get a designation. And that’s my own experience in political science, I’ll only speak to that. But I think that that’s something to reflect on as a department, whatever the discipline you’re in, in terms of “What do these designations tell us if you have a system like that? What does it mean for what we’re teaching and what we’re bringing to our students in our department? And how could we do better?”

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

Cyndi: Well, the semester is next [LAUGHTER]… the semester starting next, I’ll just say two other quick things: we’re opening our official CTL space next week, which I’m very excited about, because we have not, at UW River Falls, had a center. Well, we started in March of 2020, which is not a time you should start a center, but we did. [LAUGHTER] So we were virtual for the whole first year. And also I’m working on a research project with a colleague in our sociology department, where we’re looking at how do students learn about structural racism most effectively? And how do they learn it across different sorts of classes? So, intro level sociology versus an upper-level course like mine. So that’s what’s next for me is looking at that data and following up on that to better understand that process for students.

Moira: I’ll also say, no matter what discipline you’re in, what’s happening, this pattern and this movement that we’ve been talking about is something that is worth talking about, with young people at the college level, no matter what discipline you’re in, to kind of pose it as “What do you know? What do you understand about this? What have you heard? What questions do you have?” kind of topic, it could be an icebreaker, it could be further into the term, but just in terms of even just hearing from them about what they think about their own learning at their campus, and how this may or may not affect what they do, and put it in their hands to hear a little bit about what they think you don’t hear a lot from the students in these debates. Obviously, young people, people of elementary school age are not necessarily going to testify at a hearing. But I think that’s an important absence here is that we don’t hear from young college students necessarily all the time about what their interests are, what they understand of their experience on campus.

Rebecca: Imagine that.. asking students.

Moira: Ask the students! [LAUGHTER] That’s a great point.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for your insights, and food for thought as we move into the fall semester.

Moira: Yeah. Thanks for having us.

John: Thank you for joining us.

Cyndi: Thanks so much for having us!


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.


202. Returning to the classroom

As we move into the fall semester, most institutions had planned on return to primarily face-to-face classroom instruction. However, the growth of the delta variant has cast some doubt on that and it’s likely that we’re going to be seeing some disruptions as infections spread on our campuses. In this episode, we discuss some things that faculty may want to keep in mind as we move into the fall semester.


  • Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2020). “Structured for Inclusion.Tea for Teaching podcast. September 16.
  • Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2019). Want to reach all of your students? Here’s how to make your teaching more inclusive. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2017). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work?. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453-468.
  • Hogan, K.A. and Sathy, V. (forthcoming, 2022). Embracing Diversity: A Guide to Teaching Inclusively. WVU Press.
  • Hogan, Kelly A, and Sathy, Viji (2020). “Optimizing Student Learning and Inclusion in Quantitative Courses.” in Rodgers, Joseph Lee, ed. (2020). Teaching Statistics and Quantitative Methods in the 21st Century. Routledge.
  • Panter, A.T.,; Sathy, Viji; and Hogan, Kelly A (2020). “8 Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching.” Chronicle of Higher Education. April 7.


John: As we move into the fall semester, most institutions had planned on a return to primarily face-to-face classroom instruction. However, the growth of the Delta variant has cast some doubt on that and it’s likely that we’re going to be seeing some disruptions as infections spread on our campuses. We may have students going into quarantine, we may have temporary closures, and faculty themselves may end up in quarantine because of their own or family exposure to COVID. So we thought it would be helpful if we talked a little bit about some things that faculty may want to keep in mind as we move into the fall semester.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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


Rebecca: One of the things that I think many faculty were looking forward to over the summer was maybe a fall that looked a lot more like the ways that they had teached previously, unmasked, perhaps because of vaccination mandates. And there’s still a lot of uncertainty on many campuses around that and vaccination rates of students. So many faculty are finding themselves in situations where they’re going to be masked and their students are masked as well. Although we had some faculty certainly teach that way in the spring, it’s new to many faculty across the country. And so we thought today, we could do some tips about things to think about in the classroom or other face-to-face situations where masks are involved. Our teas today are…John, what are you drinking?

John: Ginger peach green tea. And Rebecca?

Rebecca: I have a decaf Irish breakfast today. And why is it decaf? Because I ran out of the caffeinated tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: I know in office where there is a lot of tea, although I did throw some of the older tea out that had been sitting there for a while. Because our campus has moved at least mostly back to face-to-face instruction. We just had an academic affairs retreat with quite a few faculty present in person, but also quite a few faculty present remotely. And I suspect we’ll be seeing many such events as we move through the fall semester. So you mentioned the issue of masks. And for those of us who set out last year because of health conditions or other concerns. We were not used to teaching with mass. So maybe we could talk a little bit about something that faculty who are teaching with masks for the first time should take into account.

Rebecca: I know that John and I have recently done some campus events. And the first thing I noticed being masked all day was that I couldn’t breathe. I ran out of air, you might get more winded than you’re used to, which might slow you down. But you want to think about how to pace yourself and maybe even making sure you have water. And then it’s also awkward to take your mask off and get a drink of water. So you may want to think about that maybe even practice ahead of time so that you don’t feel like an idiot, trying to figure out how to get a drink.

John: I had to give a really short presentation to our new faculty in person. And I very quickly ran out of breath because I was in a room where it was a very big room and there were no microphones, which was probably not ideal. Which brings us to one of the first things we’d recommend, which is that in the classroom, you should use a microphone. That’s always a good idea because there may be distractions and having clear audio would always be helpful, but it’s especially important if your voice is going to be muffled behind a mask.

Rebecca: And we may think typically of this being something only for a big lecture hall. But I would argue that even in smaller classrooms, it could be incredibly helpful. Another thing to consider too is students in the class not only need to be able to hear you but each other. So if there’s not a microphone to pass around to students, for example, then you want to make sure that you’re repeating questions or comments that students are making so that everyone has the benefit of conversation. This can also be true if you happen to have students who are Zooming in because they’re in quarantine or something else to make sure that they can hear what’s going on in the class as well.

John: Because it’s going to be harder for everyone to hear each other you should be prepared to speak a little more slowly than you might normally to make it easier for students. And also you may want to minimize the amount of time you spend talking in class. If you have not already cut back on lecturing, this would probably be a great time to replace a lecture-based class with the use of more active learning activities where there’s more small local discussions taking place, rather than one person having a voice at trying to fill the whole classroom.

Rebecca: I think those more intimate settings can be helpful to deal with volume and things, you may need more space between groups because they may actually be louder than you’re accustomed to, because of the masks and people needing to try to speak up. So you might want to plan with that and be flexible and ready to adjust. And making sure you’re supplementing with videos and other things for clarifications. You’re noticing a lot of issues that are arising, you know, just-in-time teaching techniques, maybe those need to be a little bit of video follow up too, just to make sure that everyone got that information. You may also want to think about using slides or other digital materials to supplement what’s happening in the classroom to reinforce terms, concepts, ideas, etc., just to make sure that everyone can get that information, especially if anyone’s having trouble hearing.

John: And in general, the use of videos is something that many of us have been recommending anyway, because students can listen to them at their own pace. When you record them, you’re recording them typically at a computer without a mask on, so your voice will be much clearer. And it will make it much easier for students to understand what you’re trying to say. And they can listen to it at their own pace and as often as they need to. So there’s a lot of good reasons to do that, in general. And once you’ve created them, many of them can be used multiple times in multiple years. So if you haven’t done it, that can be helpful.

Rebecca: What we hope that you’re hearing is this idea of multimodal ways of engagement. We mentioned having slides or text-based materials, video materials and activities that might all address some of the same concepts and ideas so that there’s many ways that students can dip in and engage with the material and the content of the class.

John: And when you have students engage in activities in the classroom, don’t just give them instructions early, provide the instructions in writing with a shared document, perhaps a Google Drive document, or put them up on a slide on the screen, if that works better in your environment. But because students may have trouble understanding instructions because of the mask and your muffled voice, giving them other ways to see the instructions and refer back to them is going to reduce uncertainty. And it tends to be a very effective tool in any case, as Viji Sathi and Kelly Hogan have noted, giving students more structure tends to be really effective in reducing achievement gaps for students as well.

Rebecca: This is a really great time to mention the use of polling, as well, to collect information from students. Usually when we’re doing polls, you might present something both in text and orally, so there’s a couple of different ways to get that information. But one of the things you could poll on is how well students are able to hear and the general happenings in the class and what people need. So I would highly encourage doing some polling around those kinds of needs early on in the semester, because we’re all learning and adapting and trying to figure it out together. And the more you can collaboratively do that with students to meet the needs that they’re identifying, the better.

John: With polling, you’ve got a variety of questions you can use. But you can also use things like Jamboard and other whiteboard activities, or even Google Forms where students are submitting things in text rather than verbally. The more communications that take place in a nonverbal format, the more clear that communications will tend to be while we still have mass requirements in effect.

Rebecca: So you’ll notice these digital things that you started adopting, maybe when you were teaching online, can still have a really important place in a physical classroom, we can have those small group conversations and really enjoy the presence of other humans, but also supplement with some of this technology that can help fill in some gaps that we might still have. One of those gaps that we might have is the expressions we’re used to seeing. Even if you were using Zoom, for example, you got to see at least some expressions from students who might have had cameras on, but things can be lost in translation behind a mask, facial expressions might be hidden. So you may need to feel like you’re overexplaining. If you have a lot of emotion embedded in what you’re saying, you might need to actually say what that emotion is: “I’m really excited about this,” or, “I’m really happy to see this.” Rather than just expecting students to hear that change and inflection in your voice because it may be a lot harder to detect than it would be otherwise. One of the things that we mentioned at the top of this episode is really thinking about the many different circumstances that can arise and being prepared this semester. That means backup plans and probably backup plans for your backup plans. We can’t be too prepared. So some things that I know that I faced as a faculty member is, I have a daughter who’s four who’s been quarantined three times from daycare because of exposure to COVID-19. So you may be exposed, your family members might be exposed, so you may not be able to be in person. But the same thing can be true of your students and your students’ families, they might have kids too. So there’s a big complex web of people that may be not able to be or may not be able to participate in person and figuring out a way to make things go on or continue in their absence or in your absence is important. So maybe that means switching to Zoom. If you have to go into quarantine, maybe that means recording your classes and providing that to students who are out. It could be a lot of different things. How will I accommodate this circumstance? is a key question to ask without getting too overwhelmed with trying to do too many things.

John: I already had a situation where I’m teaching a relatively small intro class this time, I only have 189 students in person. And I already received an email from one of those students saying that they will be in quarantine for the first week or so of the term. It’s an international student who just arrived and has to go into quarantine for two weeks before they’re allowed to participate in classes. So you should expect that there’s a good chance that some of your students, even in small classes like mine, might end up having to go into quarantine. And you do want to provide ways for those students to be successful in the class. So I will be live streaming my class in Zoom for those who can’t participate in person.

Rebecca: And like John is mentioning, you probably won’t have a big heads up. Things are going to happen rapidly, and we need to be able to respond rapidly. So think about what works for you and your workflow and the kind of classes you teach. Maybe that means live streaming with Zoom. But if that’s not going to work for you, for whatever reason, then maybe that means recording a class session, or providing an asynchronous equivalent that you’ve developed in previous semesters that can just be made available to students if they need to be out, for example.

John: And we should remember that the last year has been extremely difficult for everybody and some people have been much more heavily affected. And we will be dealing with lots of cases of trauma for both faculty and for students. And we should be prepared for that by, at the very least, having mental health resources available to share with your students could be really helpful. And I suspect many faculty may benefit from that as well.

Rebecca: I think one of the key things is demonstrating care. We talked a lot about this on the podcast over the past year, demonstrating care, caring for students, what does it mean to be in a community of care and acknowledging that the people in your classes, including yourself, are humans who have emotions, can be really helpful. And affirming that people may be experiencing all kinds of trauma from a wide variety of things, not just COVID-19 related, but they might have family members in Afghanistan, they may be a student of color, they may be a student who survived sexual assault, there’s a wide variety of things. And people have been faced or traumatized by that we need to just be aware of and sensitive to. And doing those occasional check ins with students over the course of the semester just saying like, “Hey, how’s it going? Remember, these resources are available,” can go a long way. I remember that last semester, I had students say that no one else had asked them. And it’s not, I think, because our faculty don’t care, because I actually think we have a really deeply caring faculty. So just making sure you’re actually asking the question and making a little space for that is really important.

John: And also consider being more flexible, if possible, with some of your assignments, perhaps not being as rigid with deadlines as you might normally be. Because when students are dealing with issues that may involve life and death of family members, or with family members losing jobs because of economic disruptions, just being more flexible, in general, can be helpful.

Rebecca: Some of that flexibility comes in just providing some grace, like low stakes assignments, or the ability to drop low quiz grades, the ability to make mistakes and learn from it. These are things that aren’t just COVID related or kind of a transitioning back to the classroom related these are really good practices, so that students can develop a growth mindset and really improve over time and we give them the space to improve and the space to learn from mistakes, the space to have life happen, and just let it go and move on.

John: There are so many sources of trauma, we don’t need to make our classes an additional source for our students. We want to provide an environment that’s supportive and nurturing so that students can be successful in our classes. Many faculty have traditionally been very rigid about their deadlines and about the course requirements. But now is an especially good time to reconsider some of those policies.

Rebecca: Along those same lines, we want to be making sure that our students have access in all kinds of ways. So digital materials should meet digital accessibility standards. But we also want to think about cost of books, equipment, etc. and making sure that students have access to what they need no matter where they are. So keeping equipment needs down, software down, book costs down so that students can have access using OERs are all things that we can be thinking about. Digital resources might be particularly helpful at this time, especially if students have to rapidly move into quarantine, it might give them more possibility to have access to things.

John: We’re talking about the need perhaps to keep costs as low as possible in the context of COVID. But in general, we’re seeing a much more diverse mix of students entering our colleges with a much larger proportion of first generation students than at any time before, and many of those students are coming from very low-income households. And in general, I think we need to focus more heavily on the needs of those students, because students who come in with fewer resources tend to be much less successful. And we want to increase the chances of success by keeping costs as low as possible.

Rebecca: As we’re thinking about these same students, many of them are working at part time or even full time or have families that they’re caring for. So doing things like continuing to offer office hours virtually through Zoom or other techniques can be really helpful in meeting students at times that would have been more inconvenient for you, but now are more convenient if you can Zoom in quickly, because you don’t have to be in your office. The same is true for students. So maybe consider continuing that option if it was something that you were offering before in order to accommodate students more.

John: And we’re also in a somewhat unique circumstance this time in that many students have not been in a classroom regularly for over a year. That varies geographically quite a bit but many students have been taking classes from home and the quality of that instruction has varied dramatically across school districts and across households. Given the way we fund schools, primarily through local school property taxes, wealthy school districts have lots of resources for professional development for their teachers. And the students tend to have much better internet connections and have more resources to allow them to be successful in school remotely. In low-income school districts, though, students will often have very poor internet connections, they’ll be using shared devices. And in general, the quality of instruction in those schools and the preparation of the teachers is often quite a bit less. And it’s very likely that we’re going to see a much greater variability in the prior learning of students entering our colleges.

Rebecca: And part of that was our own as a teaching universe],like either higher ed or K12, shifting to modalities that many of us were unfamiliar with. The quality of instruction may just not have been as good and certainly not any of our intentions as instructors. But there’s a learning curve. And some of us took some time to figure out how to do things. And we’re still learning, we’re still trying to get it right. And so students may really need additional structure, more structure than you’re used to providing to help guide them through the materials, to guide them through the semester, to guide them through in person experiences, because they haven’t really interacted with peers that they don’t know, in quite a long time. So the more we can provide guidance, structure, specific roles, even saying, “Hey, we’re going to get into small groups, the first thing you want to do is introduce yourself to one another.” We might need to provide those little extra prompts just to make sure that everyone has equal footing when they start an activity.

John: We’ve mentioned this a little bit before but providing more support or resources, providing videos, practice tests, online tutorials, links to YouTube videos. In almost any discipline, you’ll find someone out there has created some resources that could be helpful for your students. Finding and sharing those with students can take a little bit of time, but it can yield some really dramatic benefits for students who are coming in with very diverse backgrounds.

Rebecca: You can also encourage students to share those materials with each other by providing a platform to do that, you can use discussion boards in your learning management system, you could use tools like Slack or chat capabilities. There’s many ways that we could do this. But the workload doesn’t need to be all on you because there are students who are going to find and be willing to share materials as well.

John: And it’s also really important that we give students early and frequent feedback so that they don’t get to a high-stakes exam and discover that they weren’t quite as ready as they thought they would be. Giving students a chance to practice, to try things, and to see how they’re doing when there’s time to improve can be really useful. So give students feedback as quickly as you can and as often as you can.

Rebecca: And for some of us, that might really mean putting some time in your calendar the first couple of weeks of school to make sure that you grade some things and actually putting it in like it’s an appointment, to make sure it gets done so that students are getting what they need.

John: And you can also, though in a learning management system, create some self-graded quizzes. So it doesn’t have to be something that requires more grading work, but it gives students that immediate feedback. Giving personalized feedback would generally be better, but in larger classes using some automated self-grading quizzes can at least help with that process.

Rebecca: One of the things that I had been thinking about over the summer is how many students that I had that were transfer students or first-year students who never actually stepped foot on campus yet. So we have sophomores and juniors and seniors who may really be unfamiliar with the campus but are physically there. So one of the things that we want to do is think about orienting our students to physical resources that are available. Like, where is the health center? Where are the computer labs? Where are there really nice spaces to sit outside where you have an internet connection? Right? Where are some nice places to socialize? All of these things we might just expect students to know. But in many cases, students have been away or remote for periods of time and they really need to be oriented to these spaces. So I know that I had brainstormed ideas of things that we could do in class that might actually take us to some of those physical spaces, either outside of class or during class. And so I’d encourage you all to think about ways to incorporate some of the physicality of in-person experiences if you’re teaching in person. One of the things that I’ve been really excited about, having taught synchronously online over the past semester, are some of these really great collaborative virtual tools that allow for all kinds of participation. I’m sure you’ve heard me mention things about virtual whiteboards, I think I’m a fanatic or something now. I should be, like, an advertisement for all of them. But I really enjoy the ability to collaborate with students, have them provide their opinions, get their questions, get their brainstorms, whatever it might be that we’re doing in class through sticky notes or whiteboard activities, which can be set up to be anonymous, or with names attached, depending on what platform you’re using. And there are some real benefits to having some opportunities for some anonymous participation so that you can get a real pulse on what’s going on in the class without people being concerned about being judged or being afraid to speak up.

John: In general, students who are first-generation students often don’t have the same level of confidence in their success. They haven’t seen as many of their peers going to college and being successful. And the more we can do to help students build confidence that they belong there, and simply telling them that “You belong here,” could be a good starting point. But working towards building a growth mindset, let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes, we want to make sure that they don’t see struggle as being a sign of failure. To make sure that they understand and to reinforce that struggling to learn things is an essential part of learning.

Rebecca: And I think along those same lines, I know, I see this a lot with students, is that they’re afraid to ask for help. Because asking for help is a sign of failure or a sign of weakness or lack of expertise. So making it comfortable and having them have the ability to ask for help and get help is really important and encouraging that early is incredibly important for student success. So if someone’s really struggling with an early concept in that class where the concepts build on one another, and they don’t understand a really foundational idea early on in the semester, and they don’t get the help they need early on, then they’re not going to do any better over the course of the semester. So we need to find ways to welcome those kinds of questions and make it safe to ask those questions and also to get the extra help that some students might actually need.

John: And also to help students feel more comfortable using more small group discussions more think-pair-share type of activities that do not put the same implicit pressure on students to take a stand in front of the whole class, and that anonymous participation that you mentioned, can also be helpful through polls or virtual whiteboards to help students become a little bit more confident and be willing to share their voices more frequently.

Rebecca: I know one tip that I’ve taken away from Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan is the idea of when you’re doing small group work, having an assigned reporter to just speak on behalf of the group. And so it’s not an individual’s response but it’s the response on behalf of the group. So there’s not so much pressure to be right, because it’s reflective of a collaborative effort and that allows more voices to be heard. And maybe opportunities for others to speak out that might not normally be comfortable speaking out, or seen as experts, or seen as people who are able to speak out or allowed to speak out.

John: So we’d like to wish you all a happy and successful semester and we hope everything goes smoothly but we also hope that you’re prepared for times that may not go as smoothly as you’d like.

Rebecca: I know one thing that I’m wishing for everyone is the collegiality that I’ve seen across our institution and across institutions of sharing resources supporting one another. And I hope that we’ll keep up this spirit collectively to improve the student experience for all students moving forward.


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.


201. Beyond Trigger Warnings

Many of us have been told to provide trigger warnings to protect students who have been harassed, sexually assaulted, or abused. In this episode, Nicole Bedera joins us to discuss a survivor-centered approach that includes and supports rather than excludes those who have been traumatized. Nicole is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality with an emphasis on college sexual violence.



John: Many of us have been told to provide trigger warnings to protect students who have been harassed, sexually assaulted, or abused. In this episode, we’ll discuss a survivor-centered approach that includes and supports rather than excludes those who have been traumatized.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Nicole Bedera. Nicole is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality with an emphasis on college sexual violence. Welcome, Nicole.

Nicole: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

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

Nicole: I’m not drinking tea. I just have water.

Rebecca: Right, being hydrated is good.

Nicole: Yeah, boring but useful, right?

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely. Speaking of boring, I have English afternoon.

John: Well, we’re back to a new normal, at least. [LAUGHTER] ??Normal. In this way, at least everything else may be different, but that’s still the same. And I have T forte blackcurrant tea today.

Rebecca: Ah, an old favorite.

John: It is. It’s a wonderful tea.

Rebecca: We invited you here today to discuss “Beyond Trigger Warnings: A Survivor-Centered Approach to Teaching on Sexual Violence and Avoiding Institutional Betrayal,“ an article you published in Teaching Sociology. In this article, you voiced concerns about the use of trigger warnings. Could you describe these concerns to our listeners?

Nicole: Yes. So my critique of trigger warnings is pretty different from the one that you hear most of the time because it’s very survivor focused. So instead of saying things like we often hear, “Well, trigger warnings are making people weak. If you’re strong enough or tough enough, the world is hard and we shouldn’t be sheltering our students so much.” If anything, I’m probably pro sheltering them a little bit more. A very different way, a very different way. My biggest concern about trigger warnings is they treat survivors like they’re the problem in a classroom. And the biggest problem about that is that it actually undermines the very spirit of Title IX. So what Title IX is about, it doesn’t actually say anything about sexual assault, it’s an issue of gender equity, it’s a sentence long, and the law says that regardless of sex, you should be able to have an equal education. And the reason that sexual assault and harassment comes into it is because it so commonly impacts women specifically, that was what they were arguing at the time. Now we know more, that it also affects a lot of trans, gender nonbinary folks, basically people who are not cisgender men are disadvantaged in their educations, because trauma makes it more difficult to interact. So trauma does things, like it affects the way that you form memories. And that’s why we see on college campuses that it’s so important for survivors to have access to stuff like academic accommodations, to be able to take that midterm a little later, because they actually just might need more time to study because of how trauma brain works. So the whole point of the way that we enact Title IX on college campuses is to make sure that having a history of trauma doesn’t get in the way of your ability to get good grades to get into graduate school, whatever else might be happening, to just pay attention to materials that are important to know. When we use trigger warnings in conversations about sexual assault, the way that usually happens is we tell survivors, “Hey, we’re going to be talking about sexual assault today, if that makes you uncomfortable, you are welcome to leave, you don’t have to come to class today.” Which means we’re asking them to forfeit their education for the comfort of all the other students in class. And so the centerpiece of this argument, that I’m making, is just we shouldn’t do that anymore. It doesn’t make any sense to tell survivors, “Hey, this issue that really affects you, and it’s really important, we don’t think you should be part of the conversation.” That’s not fair from an educational standpoint, or just an equity standpoint.

Rebecca: So what are some of the strategies we can use to include survivors and make them a central part of the conversation and dialogues that are happening in class rather than skirting them or brushing them away?

Nicole: Well, one of the most important things to recognize is that a lot of the things that make survivors upset in our classrooms have nothing to do with triggers. They’re better described as something called institutional betrayal. Institutional betrayal is when you go to someone who works for an institution for help. And instead of helping you they hurt you more. So often these things that are so upsetting for survivors are actually new traumas caused by their professors or other students in class. So when we’re talking about what to do to make survivors more comfortable, rather than saying, “Hey, leave the room, because I’m going to say things that upset you,” we could just stop saying things that will be upsetting, and instead take an approach to talking about sexual violence that is more inclusive of what survivors need to know, where we’re not saying things like, for example, rape myths, or other damaging stereotypes about sexual assault. And I’m a social scientist, I’m a sociologist, and a lot of this stuff just means telling the truth about sexual assault instead of propagating myths and lies that are throughout our society about sexual violence. And so for instructors, step one is knowing your stuff, is knowing what’s really true in these cases,

John: What specific things should instructors know to be prepared to address such issues?

Nicole: Oh, one of the things that a lot of instructors don’t seem to know, and I don’t even get into this in the article, so people listening to the podcast are really getting something special here. But, one of the things that instructors don’t seem to know is that false allegations are pretty rare. And so something that I’ve seen repeatedly happening in classrooms that can be really harmful is for example, setting up a debate where one person is going to take a pro-victim side and another person is going to take a pro-accused side. And these debates often turn into people saying, “But, I was falsely accused, or, “What if I was falsely accused? Don’t I deserve more protections? Don’t I deserve to be…” I don’t know, whatever it is that people are saying the accused students deserve in these cases. And that can be really traumatizing for survivors, because they’re not lying, false allegations are not common. And the entire classroom is being taught that you shouldn’t believe survivors when they come forward, that you should question them. And that instead of saying, our ideal response to sexual assault would be when a survivor comes forward and says, “Hey, something isn’t working for me in this classroom, something isn’t working for me on campus, I can’t sleep in my dorm because my perpetrator lives down the hall,” whatever it is, instead of everybody saying, “Hmm, but what if that’s a lie?” it would be better to just say, “Do you need to move dorms? Do you need help in your classes?” And so when survivors have to sit through things like the damaging myth of false allegations that’s going to inherently be harmful, especially coming from professors. Because professors are supposed to be the ones that are holding knowledge and sharing knowledge with other groups, we’re in quite a position of power in our classrooms, we’re often the one standing in front of maybe hundreds of students at a large university, telling them what the truth is. And so the ripple effect is not only on that victim, who’s saying, “Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that maybe a lot of people lie. And maybe I should feel guilty or ashamed and I shouldn’t tell people and they’re right to question me.” That’s something a survivor might feel. But also all of the other students in class are thinking, like, wow, victims lie, or these people call themselves victims lie, maybe I should be more suspicious. So it has a really big ripple effect across society. And this is something that I think is really central to college sexual assault in particular, because it’s not just that what happens in our classroom stays in our classrooms. We’re teaching young people, and sometimes not so young people, what to expect in the workplace, what is normal, and we can sort of see that ripple effect across society.

John: So the focus should be on providing support for the victims, and listening to them, and trying to make them more comfortable in the classroom.

Nicole: Yeah, that’s exactly it. And there are a lot of things that you can do to make survivors feel more comfortable. The first recommendation in the article is just, know your stuff. Stop telling lies about sexual violence in your classroom, it’s a really straightforward one. But survivors also have some other needs that can make them feel more comfortable when talking about difficult topics. And so things like letting everyone know in advance that it’s okay to have an emotional response to the material, and that people who are not survivors may also have an emotional response to the material. That can make survivors feel a lot more comfortable staying in the classroom. Because if you don’t set something like that up, survivors are going to feel like, if I cry, or if I get upset, everyone’s going to know that I’m a victim. And I don’t want everyone to know, I’m a victim. So maybe I should skip class today to keep that secret, especially if, say, the perpetrator is in their friend group, the perpetrator is in the class, which happens as much as we don’t like to think about. It’s better if they can just say, “You know what, it’s okay, if I’m emotional, and I can just fit in. And it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.” That can also help too, I mean, other students who aren’t survivors do feel uncomfortable if they get emotional about this stuff, as well. And one of the ways that they can sometimes, unintentionally, create a kind of difficult dynamic in the classroom is by them wanting to process their feelings as being, “Oh, it’s so hard for me, my friend was sexually assaulted.” And people who don’t have those experiences are often a lot more open with those stories than people who are victims themselves. And so they might, for example, tell the story of another student sitting in class and tell their story of sexual assault that maybe that student didn’t want to hear. And so when instead of saying, “All right, we’re not going to address the emotional component, we’re not going to set standards around how people feel in this classroom, anything can happen,” as opposed to saying, “It’s okay if you get upset, and we can talk about some of the things that made you upset. Also, while we’re on it, let’s be really cautious about not sharing people’s personal stories, because we want to make sure everybody gets to choose whether or not we know their stories and whether or not we talk about them as an educational exercise.” So things like that can just be really helpful, really, really helpful.

John: In the article, you also noted that just talking about the issue is not always a trigger, that there are many things that could serve as triggers, you mentioned, it could be the smell of certain gum that the perpetrator had been chewing or a song that was playing at the time of the attack. So it sounds as if triggers could happen at any time and we should be prepared for that possibility.

Nicole: Right. A lot of the way we talk about triggers is, again, using this pretty conservative logic that victims are so sensitive and so fragile. And so if you even mention sexual assault around them, they can’t handle it. So first of all, that’s not true. Lots of victims talk a lot about sexual assault, there’s a reason that therapy, for example, is healing instead of necessarily hurtful. If just the mention of sexual assault, the reminder it exists was hurtful, therapy would not be helpful, right? But on the other hand, there are lots of things that trigger a traumatic response that have nothing to do with sexual assault. And some of them are really unpredictable. I trained as a victim advocate and worked as a victim advocate before I came to graduate school. And in my training, one of the things that they told us was about the story of a survivor who thought she was making a lot of progress and healing from her trauma but then had this setback and she couldn’t identify why she was so upset all the time. And the reason was really simple: something had changed in her life. I don’t remember if she’d gotten a new apartment or a new job, what it was doesn’t matter. But she now had to walk by a KFC every day. And she’d been sexually assaulted behind a KFC. And so that smell of fried chicken was triggering a panicked response in her. And ironically enough, the rape crisis center I worked at was also next to a KFC. So coming into her sessions, she was also getting triggered. And that’s something that nobody ever could have guessed. So when choosing where the rape crisis center should be, they probably weren’t thinking, oh, but what if KFC moves in next door that can be triggering for victims, right? It’s not something you think about. And so instructors really should be prepared for if a survivor gets triggered in the classroom, if they get really upset, you don’t need to know why, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to make a huge adjustment. If it’s something that random, right, if it’s not your fault, if it’s something totally random, then that makes sense. But you do need to have ways to help survivors know what to do in that situation to say, “Hey, you know, if you do need to step out for a minute, that’s okay, you don’t owe me any information, you don’t have to apologize, you don’t have to explain your behavior if you are in a place where you are reliving your trauma, and you cannot pay attention, but it is fine to step away for a moment. And you can also rejoin class five minutes later, if you feel better,” which I think is something a lot of survivors don’t hear enough from their professors. They hear a lot of how to leave but not how to come back, or they worry that it’s too disruptive to come back. I want to add, too, that some of these triggers are a little bit more predictable. So for example, if the perpetrator is in the classroom, and the perpetrator is engaging in ways that are scary, or they’re even maybe whispering while the victim is trying to make a comment in class. That isn’t posing a direct threat in the moment, but it’s going to be a trigger of the assault. Or if the perpetrator’s friends are present or anything that’s going to be a constant reminder of the assault. And these are things that, again, to the instructor look totally random. Because you have no idea what the relationship is between your students, you have no idea why one student is uncomfortable or afraid in the presence of another. And so we do have to think about triggers. Instead of trying to say we’re going to control it and make sure they never happen in our classroom saying okay, we actually do need to know what to do when they happen to make sure that victims can still continue to learn in this classroom space.

Rebecca: In your article, you talk a lot about ways to set the tone at the beginning of class and in the syllabus. Can you talk a little bit about how to set that tone for the class so that students do know what to do if they are triggered, if there’s something that they want to reveal to you, ways that we can continue to support them and know that we’ll support them throughout the semester?

Nicole: Yeah, I have a couple of different things that I do at the beginning of the semester, depending on what the class is. I am a sexual violence researcher. I teach classes that are just on sexual violence every day, we talk about sexual violence in class. So in a class like that, I set the tone in a pretty different way, in a pretty intentional way where we start from the very beginning. I have them read a chapter about how difficult it is to do sexual violence research and hear these stories all the time. And it’s their first day’s homework, just in case they don’t have time to read it, I set aside some time in class to at least skim it and to talk through, not so much this is going to be a terrible experience, even though the chapter is a little hard to read, but just say: What makes you anxious? What are you nervous about? Let’s talk about it from the very beginning of the term. And then that turns into a class of, “Okay, so what do you need? When you feel those things, you’re afraid that you’re going to get overwhelmingly emotional in class, what would make you feel like you could stay in the classroom? What can we do as a community to make you feel comfortable?” Because if you don’t have a conversation, most people when someone starts crying next to them just feel awkward, especially if they don’t know them that well. And I will say that one of the things that happens in my classes, the students tend to get to know each other a lot better than they do in other classes, because these are really vulnerable conversations. And that can be nice for even just basic things like working on group projects, or studying for exams, so it’s kind of an unintended and positive consequence of this kind of conversation. We also watch a video where we talk about the importance of vulnerability and how to be able to address these feelings. We need to talk about vulnerability, it’s a Brené Brown video, many of the listeners have probably already seen it, it’s gone very, very viral very, very many times. But after that we talk about this idea of communal vulnerability. So instead of saying, “Okay, like, I need to think about what I do for myself,” which is something that I think we all tend to do when we think about some things can be overwhelming, we think about, okay, what about when it’s hard for me? And I try to turn the conversation to say, “What about when it’s hard for the person next to you?” So what do you need and what can you give? And that’s the conversation on day one in the classes where we’re talking about violence all the time. In classes like, intro to sociology, where we’re talking about sexual assault maybe one week out of the term, I still, on the first day of class, I don’t necessarily talk about sexual assault very much I do point it out on the syllabus to let people know, “Hey, there’s some stuff coming up in the class.” But I don’t just bring that up in sexual violence. We talk about a lot of different kinds of violence in my classes in general. So I’ll have the same conversation about something like police brutality to be like, “Hey, heads up, it’s coming.” And then, knowing that these tough topics are coming up, I will ask students, “All right, this stuff can be pretty controversial,” which is sort of a weird way of putting it, but, “this stuff can be controversial or hurtful or personal. And so what do you want to happen when conflict arises?” And I use that question to open the same conversation about, what do we do when we need someone to step in, because something bad happens? That’s really what it’s code for. And so even though we’re not explicitly talking about violence on the first day, which I try to avoid a little bit, because the students weren’t prepared, they didn’t know that was going to happen. So that can be pretty shocking. Instead, we still get to flesh out some of those norms around, what do we do if someone gets upset? When do you want me to intervene, as an instructor and say, “All right, actually, that wasn’t okay. And we’re not going to tolerate that kind of statement, or whatever it is in the classroom.” And yeah, it’s worked pretty well. Even distance learning, during the pandemic, I was surprised by how well it worked in some of my classes.

Rebecca: One of the questions that I think often comes up where we’re talking about any sorts of inclusive pedagogy or trauma informed pedagogy are kind of two things. One is, I don’t teach a class where these are topics. So how do I set the stage in a class like that? And then the other thing that comes up is, I’m not a counselor. So how am I supposed to deal with this? So can you address those two common concerns that people have?

Nicole: Yeah, so one thing we know about sexual violence and trauma is it doesn’t turn off just because you’re in math class, like, it doesn’t just go away. And so regardless of what topic you’re teaching, a lot of professors are going to hear this stuff. And a lot of the stuff that I cover in the article about things like students coming to you and telling you they’re a survivor in office hours. That happens, especially to women faculty, regardless of discipline, and so you do need to still be prepared for it. And that’s going to be the same case for like graduate student instructors, they come to you, they find you more comfortable than their professors a lot of the time. And so some things that you can do is just include some syllabus statements that have resources covered. A lot of schools do require a syllabus statement already talking about what Title IX is and your Title IX rights. And I remember being a student when this stuff was introduced on college campuses. The first year it was in my alma mater’s syllabus statement requirement, I was in my senior year. And so many of the professors complained about it, or they dismissed it and they said, “We’re not going to cover this because it’s not important to the class.” And for a survivor sitting there, that sends a pretty clear message that they can’t come to you when they need help, that you don’t know what to do, that maybe what happened to them isn’t important. And so one thing you can do is just actually talk about the syllabus statements. And you know, you don’t have to like them, either, I’ll say that. And I’m going to say specifically, you don’t have to like them and think that they’re sufficient. I don’t. And so when I talk to students about them, I actually explicitly say, “So this statement is here. And I’m not going to read it, because I don’t think that it covers everything that you need to know. But I’ve included these other resources that I think are important. So we’re going to talk about when you need this stuff, if anyone in this class needs the stuff, here’s what’s in the syllabus. And do you have any questions?” And that’s something I ask a lot. Has anybody ever actually read the Title IX statement? And if they did, do you know what Title IX is? Do you know what the office offers? Do you know where the victim advocacy office is? So anybody, regardless of discipline, can have that conversation on the first day. The other thing you can do, again, you don’t have to couch all of this in discussing sexual violence, like you can just do this to be a compassionate instructor, but to tell students how you can handle whatever concerns might come up. Whether it’s something like a family member getting sick, or you needing to be hospitalized for a period of time, or, yeah, sexual assault to set a standard of this is how you can come to me with these questions, this is how you can talk to me if you need something, if there’s a problem. And to set some expectations around, you don’t have to tell me what happened to you. This is just how you can get help if you need it. You don’t owe me your traumatic story to get help. And so that’s one thing I would recommend, as well as just being aware that if you’re seeing a dynamic between students that seems disruptive or uncomfortable, being prepared to check in, say, “Hey, what’s going on,” and knowing that, for example, if you have a victim and perpetrator in the same class, the perpetrator is going to lie to you. And they’re going to make it sound like the victim is the one who has the problem. So being prepared to sort of parse out some of those difficulties, which might mean bringing in someone more qualified than you. Which brings me to the second half of your question: If I’m not a counselor, I don’t want to talk about this stuff. So what do I do? I actually think that’s perfectly fine. I think it’s perfectly fine when a student comes to you, and they’re looking for help to say, “Hey, I support you. And I want you to get everything you need. And also the things that you’re asking for do require the help of someone who knows what they’re doing. And that’s not me.” And there’s absolutely nothing wrong in saying, “I will help you find the resources available on campus.” And this is a conversation that I just don’t think you should have to have with a professor. And a lot of the victims, so in my research, I interview victims about their experiences seeking help on campus. And one of the things they bring up the most is they’re just really, really nervous that their professors will think differently of them and they’re nervous they’re going to have to tell the story of their sexual assault. A lot of them do not want to tell you, they’re telling you because they feel like they have to to get you to give them help. And so if you make really clear, I don’t need to hear the story, I do want to help you. And you can even say things like, “I’m not a counselor, but here is what I can offer.” Because it’s really dismissive, if you just say, “I’m not a counselor, I’m not helping you.” But if instead you say, “I am not a counselor, but I can connect you to a counselor, I can tell you where they are on campus, or in the community, or wherever. And also, if you need anything in my class, here’s a template, for example, for how you can email me. You can be like, hey, Professor Bedera, I really need an extension, I’m having a hard time with this assignment. And we can set up in advance how much information you need to share, or whatever it is.” So make sure when you’re saying, “I’m not a counselor, and I can’t help you with the emotional help that you need,” to make sure you offer something too.

Rebecca: One of the things that you also mentioned, Nicole, is that that labor is a little more heavy on female faculty. Can you talk a little bit about managing that labor and the emotional toll that might take on faculty and maybe what faculty members who are experiencing hearing a lot of these stories can do?

Nicole: Yeah, you need to take care of yourselves, especially because we know that a lot of faculty are survivors themselves of campus sexual assault, or perhaps are being sexually harassed right now. They have survivors coming to them for help and they are experiencing the betrayals of the institution themselves as faculty. That’s a really difficult position to be in. So it’s really important to take care of yourself. And so one of the things that’s actually came from an R&R, so thank you reviewers for pushing me to include this in the article. But one of the things that I talk about is my own sort of ritual for self care, because I share these stories all the time. I also, because I cover these issues of violence pretty explicitly, hear about lots of other types of violence my students are experiencing all the time. And it does, it takes a toll you get exhausted and just sad. It just feels heavy. And then it does start to get into your head of like, okay, so how do I come back to class and pile on? Especially in a discipline like sociology, where we’re not really known for bringing good news to our students. And so some of the things that I do, is just in general I sort of have some supports in place, I have other faculty, graduate students, friends, who I can chat with about these things. I think it’s a good idea to keep these conversations pretty power neutral. So if you’re a faculty, go to other faculty, don’t go to your graduate students, if you’re a graduate student, maybe your advisor can help you but also, you’ll probably be able to speak more openly to other graduate students. So make sure that you’re thinking about the power dynamics involved there, too. And so for me, studying sexual violence, I mostly hang out with other sexual violence researchers when talking about this kind of stuff, because it’s really easy to talk to each other. You don’t have to back up and explain something, which is another thing to think about when you’re choosing who you’re using as your support system. Maybe somebody who is a good friend doesn’t know very much about this stuff. And so you find yourself having to educate them the whole way and that’s pretty tiring. So if your support system isn’t working for you, and it’s more tiring than it is useful, find someone else. But that support is really, really helpful for me, just as a regular thing that exists. And then I also have some stuff where when I’m sort of in an emergency, when something particularly bad happened, I have my short term measures to see if it’ll fix it, which are a lot of traditional self care, kind of things. Like I eat mac and cheese after a bad day, just always, that goes back to my victim advocacy days. But I also do things like, dating back to my victim advocacy days, they talked about the importance of having a ritual, especially when one of the things that victim advocates will do is they’ll manage crisis lines. So if you’ve ever seen those numbers, maybe you put them on your syllabus to say, “This is who you call, if you need to talk to someone.” That’s something that I did as a victim advocate, and you’re doing that often in your home. And so just like we’re teaching in our homes, a lot of us still are right now, it can be hard to get that separation at the end of the day. So they taught us about the importance of a ritual. And it sounded so hokey to me, because the person who I was talking to said, “Oh, I wash my hands after every call to tell myself it’s over and I can relax.” Oh my God, that would not work. I’m not doing that. But then I started working in the hospitals where, yeah, I washed my hands after every time I left the hospital because of germs. And the one night that I forgot to wash my hands was the one night I couldn’t sleep, it makes such a huge difference. So my research assistants, the people I talk about this the most with and they’ve come up with a bunch of different things that they do, as just sort of that, wow, that was kind of heavy. And I need to give myself a mental break. So some of them will get a cup of tea, is actually on the list.

Rebecca: It’s a good choice.

Nicole: Yeah, exactly. It’s a good choice, or a glass of water, or take a walk around the block, or text a specific friend, or pet an animal, whatever it might be. Just something that will tell you, “Okay, this is fine.” But sometimes that won’t be enough. Sometimes these little rituals that we have these things that we do for self care will not be adequate. And so in those cases, it’s important to do the harder hitting stuff, like speaking to a therapist, maybe calling one of these crisis lines and asking for some assistance, getting some validation, and they’ll have some ideas of people who you can talk to. And then the stuff that’s really boring about self care too, like, maybe there’s just a lot on your plate right now and that’s why you don’t have time or emotional energy to think about this stuff. And so, that to-do list of things that we all don’t get through like making a doctor’s appointment, or paying your bills, or whatever, like doing some of that stuff so that you have mental space to think through those things. That stuff is really, really important. And then also just to be honest with yourself and check in with yourself. If you are a survivor, about: How do I feel about this? Am I projecting onto the student? Am I doing a good job caring for them? Or am I actually making it a little bit worse? And so that’s actually where the boundary setting becomes important again, because as much as you might want to be there for your students, if you yourself are triggered, you can’t be, you’re going to end up hurting them instead. And so instead of just forcing yourself to get through that meeting, saying, “Hey,” you don’t have to tell them why, but just, “I don’t think I’m the best person for this conversation, and I want to support you, but can I help you find someone who will be able to support you better?” And it’s so important to take care of yourself as much as you’re taking care of your students.

John: One of the things that comes up in your article is the issue of institutional betrayal. Could you talk a little bit about some of the ways in which that shows up in practice, and perhaps what faculty could do to encourage the institution to move in a better direction on these issues?

Nicole: Yeah, that’s a really good question to ask right now. Because actually, the Biden administration is making huge changes to the way Title IX and campus sexual assault are managed. So far, it’s been kind of a quiet process, there have been some survivor listening sessions, but not a whole lot else is happening, at least that the public can see. So they’re doing a lot of things behind closed doors, making conversations about what to do next. But it’s something you should keep an ear to the ground for. Because if there are things you really care about, policy is being made. And so, for example, a lot of sexual assault researchers, including myself, have signed on to petitions to try to get rid of the mandatory reporting requirement, because it doesn’t serve survivors, it hurts them. Survivors need to be in control of what happens when they tell their stories, not be forced into an investigation or talking to the police or whatever else is happening on college campuses. They need the right to choose. And so this is a really good moment to think about things like contacting your legislators, sending a little email to the Department of Education, as well as the Title IX staff at your school because a lot of them are involved in these conversations. And they have the connections to people who are really involved in these conversations. So if you care about this stuff, speak up. So that’s thing number one, to address institutional betrayal, but I mentioned at the beginning that institutional betrayals are new traumas, they are similar in severity to a sexual assault itself. So if you’re wondering how important or bad this is, it’s really bad, it’s really, really bad. Before we had the term institutional betrayal, a lot of people got at the same idea by calling it the second rape. And there they were talking specifically about the criminal justice system, and the way that it defiled survivors and institutional betrayals a little bit broader. But yeah, the idea is that a university, which is where this comes from, but really any institution’s action, or inaction, can be just as traumatizing as the assault itself. And so some of the things that come up are things, like, survivors being punished for telling their stories. So if we put this in the context of a classroom, if a survivor discloses to you, say in an essay, that they were sexually assaulted, and then you call the police, which they didn’t want, that can feel like a punishment. Or if you get awkward around them, and you don’t call on them in class anymore, you treat them like they’re super fragile, and they can’t handle anything, that’s going to feel like a punishment for disclosing. Some survivors, also, I can think of cases from my research, where if a survivor was accusing another faculty member of sexual assault, the faculty in that department would retaliate against them and treat them poorly. So that’s a form of punishment, too. And so there are a lot of things that we are doing as faculty that are hurting survivors in a new way. And so a really important thing is to think about things from the perspective of that student, think about what they need, put yourself back in the shoes of being a student. And about maybe you look at them, and you say, “Well, they’re not handling my policies right. My syllabus says that they need to contact me in this way. And the way that they ask for accommodations was wrong.” Instead of thinking that way, remember how overwhelming it is to be a college student, remember that the norms of academia are foreign to you and might be a little bit harder to learn if you were dealing with trauma at the same time, and to be gentle about it. But yeah, when I think about institutional betrayals that happened in classrooms, a lot of them really are around mandatory reporting, which is part of why I bring it up. And it’s one of the questions that I get most often is: I want to help survivors, but I’m a mandatory reporter. So what can I do aside from just report them? And in these cases, in the article I do not pull any punches here, I just say: don’t do it, defy your campus policies. Sometimes the policies are unjust, and you shouldn’t follow them just because it’s the rules. If you know that it’s hurting someone, use your better judgment. But this is also again, a really important time to think about these things that your survivor activists on campus, every campus has them, every single one across the country, including some of the more conservative religious schools, you wouldn’t expect. I went to undergrad in Utah and I’m going to tell you that BYU has survivor activists making a lot of noise on their campus, and they can tell you what they need. And so listen to them and support them, especially in these moments. It’s so weird to talk about this stuff right now, from a federal policy standpoint, because campus sexual violence is in this strange gray area where the Biden administration hasn’t completely repealed what the Trump administration did, but they’re not enforcing all of it, but they kind of are. And the Trump administration’s rules were really, really vague. And so there were a lot of things that schools could do, but they could also choose not to. So right now universities have a huge amount of latitude in how they want to handle this stuff, they don’t really have the excuse of saying, “Oh, the federal government says that we can’t do X, Y, or Z for survivors.” In most cases, they can probably give survivors exactly what they’re looking for. And so as faculty, we can really support survivor activists in doing things. One of my favorite ways that survivors can get help from faculty, is we understand the complex web of bureaucracy on college campuses. So if you have a student in your class, who is really excited about survivor advocacy, they’ve been doing activism on campus, and they just can’t seem to find the right person to direct their concerns at, you can probably identify, “Actually, it’s this person in the dean of students office that needs to hear what you’re saying,” or, “This is the email for the Title IX coordinator,” or whatever it is, really small things. But one thing we all need to be doing right now is just holding our universities accountable. Because as much as they say that they take sexual violence seriously, I think anyone who spent time on a campus for very long knows that they would really prefer to not have to deal with these cases, to not have to discuss these things, to just be able to go back to ignoring sexual violence like they did 15 years ago. And the best thing we can do is just make that hard on them and say, “No, we’re not, we’re not going to ignore survivors, we’re going to do the right thing and support them.” Especially because a lot of the survivors never would have met their assailants unless we looked the other way at fraternity parties, unless we looked the other way for whatever the football team decides to do, we’re all sort of complicit in this. And that’s why the institutional betrayals run so deep. And that’s the other thing about institutional betrayal is whether or not it’s fair, survivors don’t understand these bureaucracies. They don’t know who is responsible for these decisions. And I can’t tell you how many survivors I’ve interviewed who said that they distrusted their professors because of decisions made by Title IX, or the Dean of students office, or whatever other organization on campus. And so a lot of your students are coming to your classroom already from a place of distrust, not knowing who will take care of them and who will not. And so making really clear that if you’re going to make those promises to be there for survivors, you really do need to get up for them, even when it can be difficult. And you have to earn that trust from the very beginning.

Rebecca: One thing that we haven’t covered, but seems very important to cover is how common sexual assault is on campuses.

Nicole: It is very, very common. There are so many different types of numbers that I can throw your way. But I’m going to give you three statistics that I just think everybody should know. One, everybody on a college campus should know at least, and one of them is just the number you’ve probably heard before, which is that one in five women on college campuses will be sexually assaulted. And one in five is actually one of the more conservative estimates coming from the research world. It uses, we’re going to get a little technical, and so we’re going to go for it, it uses cross sectional data. So for anybody who’s not a social scientist, that is when researcher comes in, and they give a survey out to every student, it doesn’t matter if they’ve been on campus for four years or one week, and they ask them about their sexual assault experiences. So it would stand to reason that those students who’ve been on campus for a year or less still might be sexually assaulted if we were to follow them all the way through. In the most harrowing studies, they do follow students all the way through their sexual assault experiences all the way through college. And that captures not only students who otherwise, they would have gotten that questionnaire before they were assaulted maybe a year later, but also students who at the end might have downplayed or minimized something that happened to them because people on campus suggested they should. And so that wasn’t captured in the data either. So when we look at this type of data, when we look at asking students across all of their time in college about sexual assault, and asking them every year, we find that the number might be closer to one in three. So it’s a lot more common than even your campus sexual assault prevention trainings are probably telling you. The other number that I think is really important to know, and I guess as an addition, on to that number, we don’t have a ton of great data about the experiences of people who are not cisgender women. But we do know that sexual assault is more common among trans students. It is more common among queer women in particular. And even among cisgender men, estimates say that it’s happening pretty often not as often as the other groups, but it’s still happening pretty often. There’s some difficulties in defining it, the studies are a little messy. But yeah, it’s happening across campus. If you look across a lecture hall, a lot of students and you picture, on average, about a third of your students have been sexually assaulted while in school. This does not include childhood sexual abuse, this does not happen to them in high school before they got to college. You’re talking about a lot of survivors in your classroom. It’s not one challenging student, it’s not one difficult student. And so if you really are telling students, “Hey, if you’re a sexual assault survivor, and you can’t handle it, leave,” it’s surprising we don’t often see a third of students getting up and walking out. But the other number that I want to comment on and again, I keep bringing this up, because it’s something we don’t like to think about is the perpetration rate. And the best study that we have so far finds that 1 in 10 men on college campuses committed sexual assault before they graduate. So the perpetrators are very much in the midst as well. Everybody involved in sexual assaults will be in your classroom at one point or another. Statistically speaking, you can’t avoid it. And I’ll add one more thing too, which is that all of this research is on undergraduates, and the little bit of research we have now about graduate students finds that graduate students are the most likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted on campus.

Rebecca: With those disturbing facts in mind, what is the psychological and academic consequences of victims being triggered again and again, or being victims of institutional betrayal throughout their college education?

Nicole: Anybody who’s really interested in this question should go to Know Your IX’s website and read their new report that came out just a month ago, maybe two months ago, called “The Cost of Reporting.” And it gets into the experience of institutional betrayal specifically. And what we find is that survivors who have been betrayed in comparison to other survivors are more likely to drop out, they are more likely to have a lower GPA. I actually read a paper that if the findings, we’ll see if they’re replicated, but if they hold would suggests that a woman experiencing sexual assault is the best predictor of her college GPA. Because whether or not she experienced sexual assault, that’s a better predictor than the SAT, it’s a better predictor than high school GPA. So we know that the impact on education is really, really significant. And that’s a big part of why professors should care about it. Survivors are having a really hard time in all of our classes. I’m really glad you asked this question because everybody sort of assumes, oh, sexual assault is bad. We know rape is bad. But if you ask people why they often can’t put a finger on it. And so I’m going to do that for you. I’m going to tell you exactly why sexual assault is wrong. And so I’m going to start with the stuff you know, which is, it is psychologically distressing, survivors are more likely to have difficulties with things like sleep, they’re more likely to have anxiety, depression, PTSD symptoms, like flashbacks, uncontrollable sort of psychological reactions and distress, and they have a hard time with things like feeling comfortable with sex as well. But there are also a lot of other impacts of sexual violence we don’t talk about as much. One is chronic health problems. Survivors are a lot more likely to have chronic headaches and chronic back aches than other populations. I also know of survivors, some of these things are a little bit more difficult to tease out, but who they know individually, that their sexual assault led them to have other chronic health problems. I knew one survivor, one of the ways that she managed the trauma for sexual assault was through controlling her eating, which is pretty common is for survivors to develop eating disorders. But hers was so severe that she had created lesions on her throat that were precancerous. And so she’s having conversations with oncologists about how likely she is to develop cancer in her early 20s. And this is directly related to the way that she was managing the stress of her sexual assault and the trauma of her sexual assault. So chronic health conditions play a really big role as well. There is a huge financial impact for being sexually assaulted. It’s going to affect your career trajectory, especially if you are on a college campus. This is research I want to do but have not done yet, is to describe a little more about how that happens. We know that it affects things like lifetime earnings, but we don’t know for example, if sexual assault makes survivors want to change their majors to get away from their perpetrators or to get to places that are more friendly to survivors, which will probably, if you’re a woman, going to end up to be more feminine majors on campus, the ones where they’re a lot more women in the room might feel more comfortable. And so anecdotally, I’ve heard a lot of that kind of stuff in my research, but jury’s still out on whether or not it’s a really huge issue, but even if it’s one survivor that matters. And then the other thing I’ll say is that sexual assault, once you’ve been victimized, you’re at a higher risk of being victimized again, especially if you are hearing blaming comments, especially if you come to think that it is your responsibility to prevent sexual assault. In my research I’ve heard so many stories of survivors who when they were in a dangerous situation recognized it but thought it was their responsibility to change their perpetrators behavior, felt like they kind of had to freeze and just sit through it because of those blaming comments. And this is a really important thing to pull out too, is that this is a scary list. But access to supportive resources, to a supportive community can make it less likely that survivors have to experience all of these impacts, they are not a given, they’re not part of the trauma, they’re part of the institutional betrayal, they’re part of the response to trauma. And then the last one that we talk a lot, interestingly enough, about how being accused of sexual assault, anecdotally has led to suicidal ideation. There’s no research to support that, necessarily, the two are connected, but it’s the phrase that we hear a lot in our society, is accusing someone of sexual assault could end their life. But in reality, we do know that survivors are at a very high risk of suicide in the aftermath of sexual assault. And that intensifies after institutional betrayal. This feeling of not only did my perpetrator hurt me, but other people are going to continue to hurt me and no one cares, and if this happens again no one will do anything about it. That’s a really heavy burden to be on survivors. And that kind of thinking, that kind of nobody cares, nobody at my university is going to do anything to support me, that is something that professors contribute to so it’s a really important one for us to think about. It’s a heavy list.

John: It is.

Rebecca: I’m feeling the weight of it.

Nicole: Yeah, it’s sort of worse than we even usually hear about. And it does come up in really small ways too. So I used to work with a program that taught fraternity men around campus sexual violence and it was intended to prevent campus sexual violence. And I was having the hardest time getting through to them, as you can imagine, and I was working with a really challenging fraternity. This fraternity was the reason the prevention program was implemented because they used to use gang rape as a hazing ritual. And it had been long enough, since that was happening, that the current brothers and the fraternity wasn’t that long ago, it was less than10 years, but none of them were students at the time. And so they were really angry that they still had to sit through these prevention trainings, and they just didn’t get why this stuff mattered. And in one particularly tense encounter, one of them said to me, “Nobody even cares about this anymore. Everyone has moved on.” And I was just thinking, the victims of your fraternity have not moved on. They’re not done feeling this, they probably will never fully escape what this fraternity did to them. And I went home, and I got on Facebook, and I wrote, just to my friends, “Hey, I’m working with this fraternity,” sort of explained the situation, said they’re not getting it, “Would any of you record a message for them if you were sexually assaulted at least five years ago?” which is how long it had been since the last gang rape, “If you were sexually assaulted five years ago, will you record a message saying how it still affects you today.” So a few of my friends sent in recordings for them, I actually still use these in classes with the consent of the survivors. Some of them, some have withdrawn consent, I don’t use those anymore. But they listened to the first one and they felt really uncomfortable, but nobody’s really saying anything, like one guy was kind of pushing back and being, like, “Well that’s just one story.” And they listened to the second one. And it was the third one that kind of broke them. And one of the men who was getting really emotional, the detail that stood out to him was that the victim had described how in the aftermath of her sexual assault, one of the ways that she coped, I forgot to mention this one, was through alcohol and drug abuse. And that had really impacted her grades. We kind of know this, that our students are going to parties on a regular basis, some of them are going to be good students, and some of them you know, if you’re hungover in class, you’re not getting the material. And so that’s sort of how she framed it. She was like, I was not a great student, because I was abusing substances, not the language she would use. But she said that she wanted to go to law school, and that studying for the LSAT was so stressful, because to be able to get in now, because her grades were so bad, she needed a near perfect score. And this man who was getting emotional said, “I’m studying for the LSAT. And I used to go to class hungover because I was partying in this fraternity and people like my brothers from a few years ago, were the ones who put her in the situation. And I know how stressful it is. I know how hard this is. And it is so unfair that I made the decision to blow off my academics and she didn’t.” Those little details, I think, really helped us understand what exactly the stakes are for survivors. Usually we talk about this stuff sort of in the abstract because it’s more comfortable, it’s so personal, it’s so scary. But hearing the weight of all of this is really important. I’m glad you asked.

Rebecca: I think those personal stories are what really helps people connect to the data, the data is really easy to ignore, if it feels really abstract.

Nicole: Yeah, I mean, it’s one of the reasons the Me Too movement has been so powerful, because when you hear about sexual assault survivors, maybe watch a True Crime documentary here and there. These are not people you know. It’s not the same experience as getting onto your own social media profile and seeing someone who you thought you were really close to, and realizing that they had the secret that they were holding to themselves, and that they were sexually assaulted and realizing, oh, wow, maybe I actually said some things in front of them that were not supportive because I didn’t realize there was a survivor in the room. And that’s something that I really just think we should all be thinking about more often is most of the time there is a survivor in the room. The problem is so widespread, it is so everywhere, that even when we’re talking about just campus sexual assault, if that was the only time sexual assault happened in anyone’s lifetimes, chances are, if there are 10 people in a room, there’re going to be some survivors, multiple, present. And yeah, we don’t really think about the personal stories very much. And we don’t really think about how, the other thing, maybe the gem that comes out of all of my classes, my students say this thing that resonates with them the most, is that we’re all really comfortable supporting survivors in the abstract. Maybe we don’t do it because we don’t realize how important it is but we’re willing to do it. The messiness, and it’s why I keep bringing it up, is when there’s a perpetrator, who you also know. That’s when people start to turn because the uncomfortable reality is that we all do know and love a rapist. They are in our inner circle just as much. Again, assuming all sexual violence happens on college campuses, which it does not, it’s 1 in 10 men. And so the idea that we only have survivors around and we don’t have any perpetrators, and that what they want will not come into conflict is the difficult part. And this is something that I’ve seen play out in the classroom over and over and over again, is this idea of, well, I have both students in my class. And I want to be fair equally to both students. And that’s not really a fair position to take, because there’s such a big power disparity between the two of them. What a rapist wants, which may be also to use your class to control and humiliate and harm their victim, that does happen, if that’s what they want you can’t really put that in comparison to a victim who just wants to get their degree and get out of there, which is what most of them really do want to do. And so yeah, it’s messy. It’s messy, and it’s personal, and parsing out all of the difficulties of, really the hard stuff that you have to do when a survivor comes to you and says, “I need something.” It’s not always an easy decision, especially if you haven’t thought in advance about what you’re going to do in a situation like that one.

Rebecca: That’s a lot of things for us to be thinking about as we prepare for the fall and get ready for this semester, what resources we might want to have bookmarked on our computers, things that we want to put in our syllabus how we might want to handle setting the stage the first day.

Nicole: Yeah, definitely. I’m glad that this podcast is dropping when it is, because thinking about this stuff from the beginning of the semester is a lot easier than if something comes up in the middle and you’ve never thought about it. It can be so stressful and overwhelming, I get lots of panicked emails from people that are, like, “Oh my God, I’ve never thought about this, what do I do?” And it’s in those moments that we don’t know what to do that we sort of fall back on what’s culturally normative. And in our society, that’s usually the side of the perpetrator. We don’t like to think about it but that’s true, that’s the way our society operates. Or, to just say, “This is too difficult and I’m not going to do anything.” Inaction is what we’ve all been trained to do in these cases. And so thinking through in advance some of the things that you can do, resources you can draw upon. And even just the way that if you need a minute, what sentence you’re going to say, to tell someone that you need some time to think this through, and that you’re going to go explore some options. And to know in advance, who am I going to ask? It should not be your school Title IX coordinator, it should not be the people who you’ve been taught on your campus are the ones that can answer these questions. And the reason for that is because they have conflicting roles, it’s a conflict of interest. All of these organizations on campus are also trying to protect the university. And so they’re going to be thinking about things, like, what causes liability in the classroom? which isn’t necessarily what’s best for survivors. And so if you’re thinking about who you should ask on campus, the people you should ask are the victim advocates. It really is, if you have campus victim advocates, or even community victim advocates that you can reach out to, that is where I would start because they’re the true experts on sexual violence, as are the survivors themselves. When you’re sort of in a lurch you can turn to your students and say, “You don’t have to have an answer to this question. But in case you do, do you know what you need? Do you know what exactly what you’re looking for? And again, if you don’t know, we can figure it out together. And I can come to you with a lot of options.” One thing that campus victim advocates do all the time is they create options where survivors didn’t think there were any and so it’s normal for survivors to not know what they want, and to not know what’s available, especially if most of the time when they’ve been asking for help, they haven’t been getting it, that lowers their expectations over and over. This is the subject of my dissertation. But to be able to say, “I know where I’m going to go. And I’m going to take your input because I recognize who the true experts on sexual violence are on this campus,” is a really good place to start. Most professors are not experts on issues of sexual violence. And it can be really uncomfortable for us when we’re supposed to be the keepers of knowledge to say to our students, “I don’t know something,” or, “I’ve made a mistake.” But those are things you should get really, really comfortable with. Because to do anything else, to try to maintain your power in the classroom, to try to make yourself look like the all-knower or whatever it is, can be really damaging. And so practice, get comfortable in your head with how you’re going to say to a survivor, “I really messed up,” and “I am so sorry.” Or if something happens in your classroom, we haven’t talked about this very much, but sometimes the problem is not you. The problem is other students were making victim-blaming comments or something like that in a class discussion. And professors often say, “I didn’t know how to handle that situation.” That’s an okay response. It is okay, when that’s happening, to interrupt and say, “I don’t know how to handle this. I do not know how to handle this. And I’m worried that if this conversation continues, it could be really harmful. We’re going to take a break. I’m going to take a few minutes to collect my thoughts.” And maybe in some cases, even ending class early and then addressing it when you come back. You do have to address it if you do that, you can’t just move on and pretend it never happened that is so awkward, and it does send the message that you’re not comfortable talking about sexual violence, you’re not comfortable supporting survivors. But if you don’t know what to do, instead of just sort of making it up as you go, sometimes it is better to just say, “Actually, I’m going to seek an expert here.” And that’s really, really important. We are pretty lucky as professors, because on a lot of campuses, there are experts who are available and trained to help you again, it’s not going to be your Title IX coordinator, they are going to give you the basic legalistic spiel about the mandatory reporting policy and what is available. But if you reach out to the campus victim advocate and say, “This happened in my classroom, what do I do,” a lot of victim advocates will come to your next class, they will facilitate that discussion, you can have the expert in the room, you don’t have to be the one to do it if it’s making you uncomfortable. Victim advocates often can be requested to come into some of these spaces, if you’re holding an event or something that’s on campus sexual violence. They’re very busy, and they’re very under-resourced across the board, across the university. So you might not want to make a habit of bringing them into every discussion because that’s taking something away from survivors on the other end, but even to say, “Hey, for the last five minutes of class, we’re going to have a victim advocate come by and pass out some flyers and they’ll be here if you need to talk.” That’s something that a lot of them are very happy to do. And so we’re very, very lucky. We don’t have to do this on our own.

Rebecca: That’s a really good reminder, Nicole, for sure.

Nicole: It’s funny, right before this, I was working on my book manuscript and I was writing about how under-resourced victim advocates are. And one thing that was striking me is that they get kind of hidden away, that as much as faculty on a regular basis saying, “Hey, we want information about what to do,” very rarely do the victim advocates, especially without somebody there to, like, keep them in line, very rarely do we get to talk to them as faculty. We might get an email from them saying, “Hey, a student needs something,” and you’re very polite and professional back, one would hope. But we don’t actually think of them as experts on sexual violence who could come into our classroom or answer our questions, and they really are. And that actually is another thing you can do that every single one of us listening can do to support survivors on our campuses, every victim advocacy office in the country is under-resourced. And it’s not because universities lack the resources, but because there isn’t enough pressure to allocate them to victim advocacy. So something you could do now is say, “Hey, we really want another victim advocate, doesn’t matter how many you have, let’s add one more.” Or, “Let’s make sure that they have a space that works for them. Let’s make sure they’re in a place that’s comfortable that students can go to.” But think about ways that you can support the people who support victims.

Rebecca: So that’s a lot to think about.

Nicole: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: There’s a lot here. But we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Nicole: I hope that everybody goes and makes some changes to their syllabus, looks up some crisis lines and things like that in your local area to add. That’s a really simple thing you can do today and it does not take a lot of energy or effort. So at least do that. I also hope that everybody thinks about, okay, as I was listening to the podcast, some things were a little close to home, or maybe that could be useful and think about integrating it into your classes. So that’s obvious, thinking about, how can I change my first day activities? How can I prepare for discussions that go awry? things like that. If you’re looking for some more specific examples, there are a lot more in the article that I wrote too, so you can go take a look at that as the thing that’s next. And actually, the entire issue of Teaching Sociology that it came out in, is about teaching issues of sex and sexuality. So the whole thing is great, and you can read the whole thing. But in terms of supporting survivors themselves, I’m going to harp again, on that now is a really politically important moment to change the federal policy, to change the rules about how survivors are supported. And under the Trump administration, a lot of support for survivors were rolled back. And a lot of things happened that made it more difficult for people to support survivors in the way that they need. And so this is a really, really great time to, again, contact your representatives. Title IX is great. It’s what we have. And so it’s better than nothing to have the federal government coming in and saying, “We want you to take care of sexual assault survivors in this way.” But it’s not very specific. It’s a federal regulation so the guidance is more of recommendations rather than laws, it all gets adjudicated in the courts, it’s not a very strong piece of legislation, the way that it’s being enacted. So something that a lot of advocates are pushing for right now is to get Congress to pass a more comprehensive set of rules and regulations about how to protect survivors on campus. And that would be really nice because it can also sidestep some of these uncomfortable conversations that have come up in the past year, some things that the Trump administration did that were huge steps backward and are moving us in the wrong direction. So for example, you probably haven’t heard of this one, but under the Trump administration, there is a way for perpetrators of sexual assault to remove their confessions from evidence and Title IX cases. That is currently the regulation, even if a perpetrator has confessed to what they have done, there are ways for them to take that confession back. And so stuff like that is really difficult to walk around to some degree, the Biden administration could just say, “We’re not going to keep it,” but then the next president could put it right back in place. It’s very unstable and survivors are really depending on elections for support. So one thing you can do is go to your legislators and say, “It’s really past time to pass reforms for campus sexual assault, and here’s some organizations you should look to, like End Rape on Campus and Know Your IX.” Make some noise on your campus, go to your campus offices and say that you care. If you talk about this with other faculty, the more names that are on the petition saying that you want a space at the table that you want to change something specific, the better. And, yeah, it’s a reminder, a lot of the things that your school is doing and saying is the law, like mandatory reporting, is not the law. You don’t have to be on a campus that does mandatory reporting. It’s not required. And so if stuff like that bothers you, let your campus know.

Rebecca: Well, thank you, Nicole, for a really informative conversation. And I hope that many faculty start thinking about these things in a different way than they have in the past.

Nicole: Yeah, thank you for having me and I hope this was useful.


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.


200. Teaching for the Public Good

When designing a course, faculty and instructional designers often focus on the course as a discrete entity without considering its role in the institution and society. In this episode, Robin DeRosa joins us to discuss how our classes and institutions can help to support broader social objectives.  Robin is the Director of the Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University, Robin had long been an editor of Hybrid Pedagogy and is a co-founder of the Open Pedagogy Notebook. She has also published on a wide variety of topics related to higher education, including open pedagogy, remote learning, and value-centered instruction planning.

Show Notes


John: When designing a course, faculty and instructional designers often focus on the course as a discrete entity without considering its role in the institution and society. In this episode, we examine how our classes and institutions can help to support broader social objectives.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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


John: Our guest today is Robin DeRosa, the Director of the Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University. Robin had long been an editor of Hybrid Pedagogy and is a co-founder of the Open Pedagogy notebook. She has also published on a wide variety of topics related to higher education, including open pedagogy, remote learning, and value-centered instruction planning. Welcome back, Robin.

Robin: Thanks, you guys. I’m so happy to be here.

Rebecca: We’re excited to talk to you again.

John: The last time it was one of our early podcasts and it was in person and that was so much nicer. But we’re happy to see you here.

Robin: It was amazing too, because you guys have really fancy equipment, headphones, microphones. And I still periodically take out those photos of myself recording that podcast because I felt like such a big cheese.

Rebecca: We had such good time.

John: We’ve used that in several presentations, because we don’t have that many pictures of people doing it and it was because you suggested “Let’s get a photo.” You mean most people aren’t like, “Oh, take a picture of me with my fancy headphones on.” And shortly after that, if you remember when we recorded it, it was next to a cafe where there was a cart moving by that sounded like a train going by. And it was a blender, and it was a coffee grinder, and it was a toilet flushing. We moved to a new location, which was an old recording studio, shortly after that, which is really confined and crowded and cramped. So it wasn’t really the most conducive place to take photos. And for some reason, since March, we haven’t actually talked to anybody in person, including each other.

Robin: I wonder why. I, just, who knows?

Rebecca: It’s a weird thing, it’s just a weird thing. But today’s teas are…

Robin: My tea is a very standard and reliable honey chamomile. So if I do doze off in the middle of the podcast, it will be because I’m so relaxed from this very sleepy tea.

Rebecca: We all need a little relaxation these days.

Robin: That’s right.

John: And I’m drinking a ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: Oh, a standard. I’ve got golden monkey today, because I was looking forward to talking to Robin. So, brought out the fancy stuff.

John: And that is her favorite tea for some of our most favorite guests.

Rebecca: So we invited you here today to talk a little bit about your recent article, “Never forget: your course is not only yours.” And in this article, you talk about course and curriculum development, often starting with course content or course structure without really the consideration of the larger role the course plays in the institution and the larger role the institution plays in society. So, can you first start by sharing the role institutions do play in doing the work of the public good?

Robin: Yeah, that’s a nut of a question because I feel like if we could do a better job in public higher ed, of answering that question, just even internally, we would be in a much stronger position to advocate for our needs in sustaining our institutions. So I’ve really been spending time recently trying to think about not taking the definition of an institution for granted and not thinking about it, I mean, certainly not now post COVID, as a collection of buildings. But what is the work of the institution? We know maybe what the work is of a course. What is exactly the work of an institution? Is it just to graduate and credential people? I think probably not. There’s cheaper and easier ways to get a credential, that’s for sure. So I’m really thinking that the way we understand publics, it’s hard to understand publics without thinking about institutions. Because you have to, in some ways, imagine a collective. A public has to have some kind of shape or structure to it. It’s different than just a mess or swarm of people. It’s got some kind of architecture. And the only way for me to imagine that is to think about public institutions. I think that is where our public’s in here. That’s what a public is. It’s the collection of public institutions that are created to serve. So if that’s the case, I think, as a public institution, I might think about something like public health care, for example. I think, “Okay, not only what do we need to serve the individual student, who we sometimes call the consumer now.” I was in a situation earlier where I heard somebody using that name interchangeably with students. And that is because we do think of college in many ways as a consumer good. Are you going to get your value out of college? And here’s the ROI that college will deliver through the college earnings premium, you’ll make 145% more money. And that’s all true, and it’s fine. But I’m interested in that other corollary question, which is, “What value do institutions deliver to publics beyond the individual consumers or students who attend?” It was interesting to me to think about this during a public health crisis because lots of colleges were involved in vaccinations. And then lots of colleges weren’t. The question to me about, like, “Does a college play a role in public health?” So we know from some of the economic research about colleges, that public colleges, and John, you were actually just sort of, I knew the body of literature you were citing offhand as we were chatting before the show, we’re talking about folks like Philip Trostel, and others who have done studies to kind of demonstrate the value of public institutions to the public good. And that includes things like public colleges delivering longevity, happier marriages, better cognitive functioning to children, regional wage increases whether or not a person goes to college. So I started thinking, like, we can talk about the value of public institutions. But how often do faculty and instructional designers think about any of those things when they’re on the ground doing their actual work? And could we get a more powerful amplification of these contributions we’re making to the public good if we actually design intentionally for that piece of the work? So we’re not just serving our students with their particular learning outcomes. But we’re trying to think about building a course on organic chemistry that also pays attention to these larger ways that the institution is serving, whether it be the region, the state, the nation, or globally. So it’s really a question of how we shift instructional design, to ask about institutional mission and incorporate that into design practices.

Rebecca: One of the ideas that you brought up in your article was this idea of sites of practice, which I really latched on to. Because it moved away from thinking about an institution as something that’s just completely not touchable to something that we help create and participate in and help evolve. So can you talk a little bit about what you mean by sites of practice?

Robin: Yeah, and Lord knows, I often feel like my own institution is untouchable, and I direct faculty development, so to a certain degree, I have a fairly significant administrative job. But I still often feel like it doesn’t matter what I do, the institution is a behemoth that is fully disconnected from anything I do on the ground. That may actually be the case. But I’m trying to think of a new model for defining institutions that come less from some nebulous stratosphere, or some board of trustees or administrative board. And instead, to think, this actually comes from some of my work in English in the early days with critical theory, and God knows, probably even some critical race theory. So feel free to just shut me down now, just cancel me right now. But I think that it’s in the practice, it’s in the being and the doing that we actually create the shape of who we are as an institution. And sometimes you can see this because you’ll, for example, look at some web PR, or hear a tour guide for your institution and realize, like, “Gosh, that really doesn’t, doesn’t seem to be what we really are.” So you can recognize that the thing you really are is a thing and you know it and you know it because you’re working in it. And I guess the hope I have is that, if we can get faculty and staff to talk more in a meta way, or intentionally, actually, about the practices that we’re using, and how we think they set the tone for who we are as an institution, that will be the institution, like it or not. Nobody has the power to make the institution what it isn’t. And so if through the work, if you can make the work visible, and you can talk about the work in intelligent ways, I think that does have the ability to shape what the institution is actually capable of. I think one of the larger problems, though, is like, except maybe in, like, committee work. In general, we don’t have these conversations as academics, and we’re very content focused, and we’re very focused on our majors, perhaps. And then I think staff have an even harder problem, which is they are generally really required to stay in their swim lanes, they don’t enjoy the freedom to ask questions about how their daily work and their tasks could be shifted to create a different shape. They’re just sort of told, “Here’s what needs to be accomplished.” And I think we’re really kind of failing to get the impact that we could be getting out of our public institutions by not letting faculty and staff have more conversations about how their daily work could do more for how the institution serves its publics.

John: What are some specific things that individual faculty members might be able to do to help shift the institution a little bit, sort of like shifting an ocean liner, perhaps, but shifting it in a direction that may be more positive? What are some individual tasks, perhaps, or individual activities that you can think of that faculty might be able to undertake?

Robin: Well, I think first, and this is some work that is really heavily influenced by my colleague, Martha Bertus. And then our colleagues, Sean Michael Morris, and Jesse Stommel, particularly Sean Michael Morris, who’s done a lot of writing recently about what he calls critical instructional design, which comes out of the world of critical digital pedagogy. But really, where they started in asking questions about how to rethink instructional design was to ask questions, instead of a sort of classic, say, backwards design model where you’re starting with learning outcomes and mapping those two activities, and then mapping those activities to assessments, and it’s all very predetermined. There’s a lot more co-learning happening, where students are welcomed into the process of learning design, and they’re encouraged to critically notice the learning environment that they are part of, so that when you talk about, “We teach our students learn how to learn,” it gives some teeth to that, because you’re making the learning process visible, you’re engaging them in conversations about the learning process. And that design just becomes something that you can now also discuss and focus on. So I think, similarly here, I’m suggesting that we take kind of a critical stance, and sometimes that word can be a little bit intimidating, but I think it really means intentional or thoughtful in this regard. So that instead of just jumping to your content, you’re instead asking questions about, “What kind of scholar do I want my students to emerge from this class like? What are the qualities of scholarship that I hope that they’re invested with?” It’s about asking, “What role you hope the work that they do in your course will do in the wider world? And therefore, what role you think the academy is playing?” Is it just job training for the future? Which is certainly one valid possibility. But they’re also, for example, if you teach, we have a very significant number of health majors. It’s a very popular field right now, especially in regional colleges and community colleges. We’re seeing lots of people interested in healthcare, because it’s a growing field. And there’s jobs and there’s need, but also to see that during a global pandemic, there’s lots of students interested in studying health. I think part of the question is, “Okay, what do we think the role is of a public university during a global pandemic? How should it be behaving? What messaging should it be putting out? How should it be related to public health messages?” Our local hospital was putting out lots of public health messages, they did a video every week. And I wondered, why wouldn’t that be the kind of thing that a university health program or nursing program wouldn’t also be involved in? So public health, I think, is a really interesting place to start. But we can think about other things that have been in the news lately, things like housing and food insecurity with social work majors or people who are studying economics, for example, or even studying nutrition. There are some very rich things going on in the world that historians can contribute to at the moment, if you have been watching the news. So I think one of the questions I have is, I’m concerned when I see our public institutions shrinking from those responsibilities to be leaders in opening public debate and amplifying public knowledge in issues that are really important for sustainable healthy communities. And right now, in New Hampshire, we’ve got legislation, it just became law, that says educators can no longer discuss divisive concepts in the classroom. And there are a whole series of examples that come out of this fear mongering around critical race theory. It took me at least three years of graduate school to be able to really explain critical race theory, like I’m pretty sure these people do not mean critical race theory when they say critical race theory. But I’m concerned about public institutions that aren’t stepping up to explain why that legislation is so problematic. So I guess what I’m interested in is, how can faculty and staff in their daily work, start moving the institution into more public relationships on issues the public clearly needs education about? And I don’t mean explaining to uneducated people what’s right, I mean, education in its best sense, which is informed debate, civil discourse, history, science, right. Like the kinds of things that we can bring into the marketplace of ideas and share. But I see now a shrinking of public institutions from those responsibilities, fear that legislators are going to rescind even more public funding if you get perceived as partisan or ideological and those things concern me. I think there’s a, just like public healthcare and public transportation have roles in societies, so do public institutions of higher education. But my question for most people now is, “What role does the public university in your town play?” I don’t know that people could tell you beyond, “Oh, that’s where kids go to college.” That’s important. But, “What else are you there for?” is the question I would ask.

John: Would a starting point be expanding community based service learning type activities, where students directly engage with some of the problems of the community by working with community members?

Robin: I think so. I think service learning is a great example of that. Service learning, of course, is like, you know, flawed and difficult for a whole bunch of reasons as well. But really, what in general, you’re getting out there, I think, is the idea of just a more porous boundary between the public and the academy. And in its best sense, a public academy would really be interested in not just educating the public, but educating the public for the public. So I get a little bit concerned when I see all of our interest being in how to create students who are more marketable for competing against each other for jobs. Like I get that, our students need jobs. I mean, many of my students are Pell-eligible poor students, and they, especially with the debt load they’re carrying in New Hampshire, highest in the nation, they need jobs after they graduate. But on the other hand, there’s other ways to be thinking about creating economically sustainable communities, besides just, “You will be better than everybody else in this field. And so you’ll kick their asses and get the job.” I’m thinking more about, “Can public institutions in areas also be creating programs and things that ultimately, like, are the jobs that the students are going to be inhabiting?” And it’s one of the reasons I like the community college model. An example of this, I think, is, I can’t remember what state it was, but they were allowing people to register to vote at their primary care physician’s office when they went in for their yearly physicals. So one of the questions they were asked is, “Are you registered to vote? No. Would you like us to do that for you right now, like, we can do it.” This idea of, like, integrated care for the public good creating voting citizens and make sure they’re healthy and that they’re educated and they have childcare. My dream of a true community college would be a place where all those services existed together. But those aren’t just like welfare, social services, right? These are social services that give back, there’s return. So I think there’s a lot more potential if institutions could, public institutions in particular, could say, “You know what, we’re okay saying that we have a stake in the public good.” Like, “We are okay saying, it’s on us to make this region/state stronger, healthier, economically viable, equitable.” Right now, I don’t know that I’m seeing our institutions take those positions, we’re very focused on individual consumer success.

Rebecca: Seems like one of the key pieces to that puzzle is treating the local community that you’re situated in, as an expert on the local community, so that there’s some contributions to the conversations and some seeds to what those conversations should even be. Rather than making those decisions and plopping them on to a community because that tends not to work. That’s why we have institutions on hills and things, right, and there’s that divide.

Robin: College on a hill. That’s exactly right. And obviously, none of what I’m saying here is new in terms of pedagogy, and to think about in terms of somebody like Freire, a sort of talking about the revolution cannot be taught by someone external to the revolutionary community. So you are growing things from inside. And I think that’s absolutely true. And I think a piece of that, that hit me with instructional design during COVID, particularly, is as people were moving remote and moving online, you’re seeing much more outsourcing to things like edtech products to assure quality and remote delivery, for example. And there are a million problems with this, for example, like lots of people will tell you that they don’t believe in for-profit, higher education. Even middle-of-the-road people will say, “Yeah, institutions should not be for profit, and they do scam students.” But we have no problem with massive for-profit industries, right in the center of our public institutions, right? And I’m talking about things like the textbook conglomerates, I’m talking about things like edtech corporations that run Canvas or whatever, I’m talking about our dining services ancillaries that keep our public institutions running. And I think we saw in times of crisis, a real falling into the pitch, that some external thing could save us. You can hire a consultant, like Huron, and pay them $700,000 and they’ll tell you what’s wrong with your institution. And you can get an OPM to manage your new online thing and that’ll be great. But I just don’t think this is how publics get built. You cannot serve the public good, unless the public is somehow in that sustainability loop. So it really is about building an institution that’s much more integrated with the world outside. The thing is, faculty are pretty good at this, like faculty now are starting to get really interested in this kind of work. They’re doing project-based work. They’re doing open education, they’re interested in connected learning. But we don’t talk about that institutionally. And we don’t necessarily integrate it with our strategic plans. We don’t necessarily have coherence from one class or section to another. My question is, we might need to start making sure faculty have the vocabulary and education to think more intentionally about what they’re doing in their classes, and how it really is affecting what their institution could be. And if they can talk to each other and we can develop some synergies around that I think we could potentially be, I’m still fairly cynical at this point because so many things are going in the wrong direction in public higher ed, but I do think we actually have the skill in our faculty, staff, particularly staff, I’ll say, but our designers, to do this work. But coordinating it is hard. And we throw a lot of bad ideas after bad ideas that keep us away from what I think is a pure mission, which is really to focus on how we work with students in our communities.

Rebecca: One of the things that we often think about is that power sits with administration. And you’re really talking about the idea that an institution is really about the work that’s being done and who’s doing it. And so we’ve talked a bit about faculty, but I’m wondering if we can talk a little bit about both staff and students and their role in creating an institution and also steering an institution. Students are actually a key to all of this. And it certainly has been woven into our conversation here, but not maybe pulled out explicitly. But we often don’t think of that because we think of them as being consumers, or that’s how the conversation goes, rather than they are the community that we’re hoping to serve, because they’re the ones that bring the community forward. They are the ones who will be leading our community.

Robin: And we so undo ourselves by basically training students into a compliance model, which is so much of K12, and higher education. And so when you do open up learning opportunities that are really co-developed with students, or that are very learner driven, you do get pushback from students who are like, “That’s not what I’m paying you for, I’m paying for you to teach me something and I need to get a job.” And I understand that, like, what other response would there be given how we’ve set up the system? But I think that that’s not about blaming students, that’s about understanding. We get what we paid for, so to speak. We designed that. And that’s a designed response. And so it’s going to take some intentional design to create a students-as-partners model. Five years ago, or whatever, we’d say, “Oh, I’m so student-centered.” And we would mean like, “We have class discussion, right? I don’t just lecture the whole time.” I think now we’ve graduated past that where people understand running a classroom where students have agency to speak and ask critical questions and stuff. But now it’s probably time, at least in some of their classes, to say, “You really need to learn to curate materials, you can’t just study what I give you, you also have to learn to figure out what we need to study to get where we need to go.” I also believe that if I’m trying to diversify my curriculum, part of the way I need to do that is to understand that new voices and new perspectives are going to have more to offer than I can offer all on my own so I’m going to need to involve those students. So we need to start thinking about our instructional design as a way of creating the kinds of citizens/members of the knowledge commons that we hope will take our culture to its next iteration. And I think we’re, lots of teaching and learning centers are really good now at helping people figure out activities. I mean, this is kind of what we built open pedagogy.org for, it’s really a website about activities that see students as contributors to the knowledge commons, not just consumers. Staff is another question. I actually think we’re further behind on staff than we are with students because again, that kind of student-centered thing propelled us into the beginnings of some of those critical questions about students and their agency and learner-centered classrooms. But staff, I think, we do a pretty lousy job of understanding the role that staff play in academia. And I don’t just mean in, like, the university operations, but I mean in, like, building a world of knowledge, I just think we could do a lot more. So for example, in the office that I run now, and it makes it sound like such a busy center, there’s four of us, I should specify, we could easily have 40 of us, and it would be amazing. But the four people are here, we have very different jobs. And this sort of faculty development director, someone else directs the student major that lives in our program. Another person is basically a lead instructional designer, and somebody else is more of an administrative assistant and advisor. We are all cross trained on every piece of that puzzle. Every single one of us participates in teaching, like actually teaching, we all do advising, we all do some admin, we all know every aspect. And it doesn’t mean we don’t have our expertise and we definitely have our jobs. But we talked so much about treating the student holistically, but we still really insist on staff staying in their place. I know that sounds awful but I really think that’s how many staff are treated. I don’t think you can have a holistic approach to students without relaxing the boundaries between people, especially people in team-based settings. So I think faculty have contributed to kind of rarifying the academic space a little bit. And I just don’t think, as somebody who comes out of interdisciplinary studies, we’re very interested in transdisciplinarity, the outside world does not have disciplines, right, they just have things. And I think staff can really help us translate some of the academic work of the academy, because staff work often looks more like the community work that we’re doing outside of the college. So there’s some really rich opportunities there to merge teaching with staff operations, and get students partnering more with staff, and staff working more on projects, and staff helping more in classrooms, and faculty, for God’s sake, understanding more about financial aid, for example, the Bursar’s office, the Registrar, it’s just a win-win. So I think a lot of what I’m talking about when I’m trying to think about instructional design is just, let’s be more intentional about designing an integrated university, wherever you are. So if what you do is make courses, it’s time to think about how your course functions with the student life office and the diversity and equity office and the food pantry. And the same thing for staff to be invited in, I think, to those academic experiences.

Rebecca: One of the things that struck me about the subtitle of your article, “The course is not only yours,” is part of what we’ve been talking about is this bigger kind of public knowledge, which is completely tied to all our earlier work about OER’s and open pedagogy. And I was just hoping you might talk a little bit about how those ideas of access tied to this bigger idea that you’re describing here.

Robin: When I first started my work in Open, I was obviously interested in the access issues about the high cost of textbooks and the really significant social justice issue that inheres in what seems like a really stupid issue. But I moved from that to being much more interested in the pedagogy just because I was teaching English and having after 15, 20 years in the classroom, having amazing experiences once I started working with students on creating learning materials and doing non-disposable assignments, and it just really energized students to work more authentically. But I think the next phase of my development at Open was really about thinking like, “Okay, so what about this is public work?” Because there’s a difference, I think, between open and public, and I think open is kind of a neutral word in the sense that I don’t know that it’s always good. I mean, I definitely know it’s not always good. I always think, open is not the opposite of private, private things can be great. And sometimes open things can be really abusive. Tara Robertson has written about this. And it really was like an epiphany for me when I read her piece on this, but it was about a lesbian, and maybe this is, like, not good for your G-rated podcast, so you could edit me out, but a lesbian porn magazine from the whatever 70’s, I think 80’s, called On Our Backs, and it was a print magazine, very feminist magazine. For very obvious reasons, women’s studies scholars are really interested in that work, and they digitized the collection and made it open. What’s interesting, though, is a lot of those women are alive and they were taking those photographs for a very select group of subscribers in a print journal. And there’s some really interesting questions I think about power and consent and what it means. And obviously there’s scholarly value to having those resources open, I don’t dispute that. But I would not argue that it’s a particularly feminist move or a move with social justice at its core. It’s not enough to just make things free and open all the time, we have to really think about what makes our public life healthier for all of us, and I don’t mean physically healthier, but better for all of us. And when I think about better, I think I’ve kind of landed mostly on the question of equity. Because it’s not really about incredible quality of life for certain people, it’s really about, how can we get the best outcomes for the widest and most diverse group of people? And for that, you can’t just think about openly licensing materials, you have to think about the values that are pushing you and you have to think about what the role is of the institution that you’re working in. And that became my next iteration. I still think open pedagogy and OER and open licenses are really big tools for doing a lot of this work, but I think the work is bigger.

John: So it involves taking, not just creating things for public consumption, but creating things that actually are useful for society as a whole. Would that be a good way of thinking about it?

Robin: I think so. My friend, Jim Grimm is an economist, and he describes it in a way that I find very, very helpful. He’s talking about a concept that you probably know the tragedy of the commons, and the sort of debunked idea at this point that you can never have common pool resources, because the second you open the pasture for anybody to graze, it’s going to get overgrazed and destroyed by the richest guy with the biggest cows or whatever, and then you’re done. So don’t even try. But Jim’s point is that commons is not a set of resources. A commons is not a meadow, it’s not a place. The way he says it is that the commons is a verb. It’s a series of agreements that people make about decisions that they’re going to make collectively, in order to get outcomes that work for everybody. I would say that verb, the verb of commons-ing is what we should do in public institutions. That’s the place for that kind of verbing, where we don’t overgraze our meadows, just because that guy’s going to get a good job out of it. We’re thinking more broadly about preserving an ecosystem where we can continue to learn and grow and increase our quality of life. So the idea of commons being a verb has been very helpful to me in moving from the focus in OER, the artifacts, to focusing instead on the practices that, and the collaborations that, keep us working together in sync.

Rebecca: Speaking of tools, we just talked about OER and open licensing as a tool to do some of this work. You’ve also worked on the ACE framework, that also seems like a really important tool for this work. Can you talk just a little bit about that and introduce folks to that tool?

Robin: Yeah, the ACE framework was sort of the first step that Martha and I took into rethinking instructional design. And it was a COVID designed tool, but more broadly than COVID, it’s really for teaching during a time of crisis. So I’ve talked about ACE, sometimes with faculty in California who are dealing with wildfires that have displaced their whole student body from working on campus, for example, or other issues like that. So I think it’s kind of adaptable. But ACE stands for adaptability, connection, and equity. And basically, we designed it to suggest that during a highly misnamed COVID pivot, which makes it sound like it was so delicate and beautiful when we all pirouetted into remote learning…

Rebecca: …and there were definitely jazz hands involved.

Robin: Oh, yeah. Meanwhile, authentically, people were dying, and people’s families were not having enough to eat, just, really. So what we wanted to do was to say, okay, it’s not going to be about Zoom. If this is about Zoom, it is really impossible to imagine that you would not completely alienate your student body. So we designed a framework to basically say, of course, you’re going to probably use some Zoom, and we will definitely support you in learning whatever new tools and technologies you need. But before that, let’s think intentionally about the realities that our students are going to be encountering, and the realities that we are going to be encountering, as we teach.

Rebecca: Yeah!

Robin: Exactly. With our babies on our laps, and whatever else, Rebecca. So the key to the ACE is really that very idea. It has practices, lots of practices, we get very concrete and specific, you know, we’re not just like, “You should care about people,” like, they’ll tell you what to try and how to do it. And it has activities and it has examples, but it’s really saying, start with your values. Start with a framework. Don’t just jump to the tech tool as particularly one that’s sold to you by a for profit company that’s going to give it to you for free for a year, so that you will build up a dependence on it and need it later. Like, there’s nefarious stuff going on. Let’s start by asking, “What do your students need during this time of crisis? What do your courses need in order to adapt?” And then we’ll figure out that other stuff once we’ve asked using our expertise as humans and faculty, not just listening to vendors, and then we can make better decisions. And that pivot had to happen so quickly that it was an obvious pitfall that we were just going to take the first thing that was put in front of us, and that that was going to be considered a solution. The reality is there was going to be no solution to teaching and learning during COVID. So you better have a robust framework, so that you can keep coping for the 18 months that you’re going to be doing this. And let’s hope it’s not, you know, another 18 months.

Rebecca: And there will continue to be crises that follow us. It’s not the same, but we have students who have been traumatized, we have faculty and staff who have been traumatized.

Robin: And so many students who had the worst parts of COVID, especially where I was, a quarter of our students got COVID at Plymouth State. But we didn’t have a ton of illness but we had huge economic fallout, poverty immediately in much of our student body. But what I heard from my most vulnerable students was, “Yeah, this is bad, but it’s been this bad for a long time, I actually feel better, because now people are paying attention. The fact that people care now that I can’t afford my meals, the fact that people see that I don’t have Wifi at home, the fact that you’re thinking about how to loan me a laptop.” So I think the wake up call was really less for the people who are suffering the worst and it was more for the people who had been lucky enough not to be suffering all along.

John: And to be able to ignore the suffering that was going on because it was hidden on our institutions.

Robin: Exactly. And to think, “Hey, I’m an early americanist, it’s not really my gig, housing insecurity is not really my gig.” You know what? It is your gig because 10% of your class is housing insecure, or even homeless right now. So how do you expect them to care about the Haitian Revolution or whatever? So there’s no silver lining to COVID. But it was a helpful wake up call. And I think most people who use the ACE framework both at Plymouth State and in other places, by the time they really had engaged with the framework, they realized, “Oh, yeah, I mean, this is for COVID, but it’s also for anybody who might teach human beings.” Because human beings tend to have challenges and traumas, you’re not going to go through 18 years of schooling, and not have significant challenges and traumas somewhere along the way, almost everybody. So I think it’s good if we build that into how we approach our design.

Rebecca: Although there’s still a lot of challenges, I still feel very hopeful. And I think a lot of the things that you’ve been talking about Robin, although maybe come out of some frustration, I think are a hopeful look at the way that the future can be and the way that we can all contribute to that.

Robin: We had a pretty rich last three weeks in faculty development at Plymouth, we’re running a bunch of different cohorts. And, I mean, I come out of these things and I’m like, “These people are amazing!” We have a staff learning community, and then a mixed faculty and staff learning community. And we, just like you guys, we have a beautiful, beautiful campus, and our students are fantastic. So there isn’t anything here that shouldn’t be working. It’s the same thing we were talking about earlier too. The return on investment and public higher ed, like it’s a no brainer. So it makes it more frustrating, on the one hand, because you do see how much potential there is. But on the other hand, it doesn’t seem like a pipe dream. Just like it doesn’t seem like a pipe dream to vaccinate with a vaccine that’s almost 100% effective. Like, “Hey, guys, you really could make this go away if you wanted to.” So there’s a lot of political will that we’ve got to work on. But the tools are within our reach for sure.

John: So we always end with the question, what’s next?

Robin: So two things are next. The first is I’m going to take a vacation to Monhegan Island, and it’s an island off the coast of Maine and my favorite place on earth. And I had to learn how to put my vacation days requests into the online system that we have. I had never done it before. Even though I’ve had this job for two and a half years. So I was like okay, that’s a sign I need a vacation. So the next thing that’s happening is a break. And I do just want to say to all my colleagues, like, you’ve got to find some rest, because I’ve never seen people pushed to the breaking point like we all have been over the last bunch of months. I’m thankful for my dogs during the pandemic. I have one on my lap right now and she just woke up for the tail end of the podcast so what great timing. But I think after that my interest is probably in working on a new initiative with Martha, she’s calling it now is really in some ways her baby, but it’s called Design Forward. We’re working on it in relationship with John and Jesse and some of the hybrid ped folks. And we’re really interested in seeing where critical instructional design could go in terms of, I think, building a more hopeful and sustainable vision for the future of higher ed. So we’re going to be working on that, particularly internally at Plymouth State but I think maybe some of these partnerships with the hybrid ped folks will allow us to do some nice sharing more broadly as well, with those materials that we’re working on.

Rebecca: Enjoy your rest, well deserved rest.

Robin: Thank you. I definitely intend to even though I have to leave my dogs at home, which just seems terrible. But other than that, I’m really looking forward to it.

Rebecca: We’ll be looking forward to seeing your next adventure come out as it starts being shared out as well.

John: Thank you. It’s always great talking to you. And you’ve inspired a lot of us to try a lot of new things with open education, open pedagogy, and so much more.

Robin: Well, thanks for having me and a shout out to, not just you guys, but really all my SUNY friends because there’s many of your campuses that have been partners with me in a lot of the work especially in OER, so it’s great to see you guys


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

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


199. Revisiting Diverse Classrooms

As diversity and inclusion initiatives mature, evaluation and improvement are prioritized. In this episode, Melina Ivanchikova and Matt Ouelett join us to discuss how one such program has evolved. Matt is the Founding Executive Director at Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation. Melina is the Associate Director for inclusive Teaching in the Center. They developed Cornell’s EdX MOOC on Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom.



As diversity and inclusion initiatives mature, evaluation and improvement are prioritized. In this episode, we discuss how one such program has evolved.


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

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

…and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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


Our guests today are Melina Ivanchikova and Matt Ouelett. Matt is the Founding Executive Director at Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation. Melina is the Associate Director for inclusive Teaching in the center. Welcome back.

Thank you. Delighted to join you again.

It’s great to be here.

It’s good to talk to you again. This is overdue. We had planned to talk to you after we had taken a group of people through the Inclusive Teaching MOOC that we’ll be talking about, and then this pandemic intervened, and we didn’t quite get to that. So I’m glad we’re finally able to schedule this. Our teas today are:

I’m personally not drinking anything right now. But if I was, I’d be drinking something in the family of Earl Grey. I like a black tea.

It’s definitely the Earl Grey time of day,.I’m just drinking water, because of the heat.

90 degree weather.

I want to hold up a tea that Matt occasionally brings for us at staff meetings, which is a gift. You put this little bulb into hot water and it opens up slowly into a flower and has this beautiful aroma to it, and everybody delights in it. So it just causes this moment of group joy. But Matt will know what the name of that tea is.

It’s a green tea, I think it’s sometimes referred to as a lotus bloom. So, thank you, Melina, that’s really kind of you to mention that.

And I have sa easonally inappropriate Christmas tea. [LAUGHTER]

That sounds good.

I was looking for a little spice.

Spices are cooling.

I also have a seasonally inappropriate spring cherry green tea.

They both sound delicious.

MELIN: I wish we could be in the same room together.

and tea testing. [LAUGHTER]


We have all the teas. [LAUGHTER]

In our conference room, we have hundreds of teas. If you’re ever up on campus, we’re happy to share some with you. In an earlier podcast, we talked to you about the Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom MOOC that you were developing at Cornell and were to release shortly. We had agreed to discuss this after we had a cohort of our faculty go through it. But we had a few other things intervene, including a global pandemic, and we’ve actually had three cohorts go through it. And we’d like to talk to you about the MOOC, and, in general, how it’s gone and where it’s going. But because it’s been a while since we’ve talked about this, could you provide a little bit of background on the origin of this MOOC?

in 2017, when the Center for Teaching innovation was first formed, we were trying to discern strategic projects that were of interest to our selves, but also serve the common good sort of attach themselves to initiatives that were campus wide. And Melina and I gained the support of senior academic leaders to do a course for faculty on campus related to teaching inclusively. So initially, the genesis of this idea was a professional faculty development experience on campus. And then the more that we got sort of embedded in the project, it became really clear to us that it could also answer another strong desire that we had, which was to contribute something broader, something that other institutions could take advantage of, as well. So that’s where the genesis of the idea have moved from an on campus resource to something on a platform like EdX. They’ve been great colleagues, and really wonderful to work with. But it galvanized us, I think, to think both more broadly, but also more specifically, and by more broadly, I mean, we were trying to think about what in the US context stands up to an international conversation around social justice, equity and diversity, and what is uniquely American, and also, for u,s what was uniquely Cornell’s context versus what might have resonance more broadly. So the process of putting it together was really driven locally. But our eye was always on trying to deliver something that might be of use to our colleagues more broadly. Melina, does that resonate for you?

Yes, I think we were doing our best at the beginning, floating ideas, and pleasantly surprised when we got the confirmation from our senior leadership. They really thought it would be a good way, and a different way to provide an opportunity for people to engage with this kind of a course, either in groups together or asynchronously by oneself to have a private learning experience. But what appealed was an online asynchronous experience, that wasn’t going to be hours and hours. Early on, we had a lot of conversations about how to keep this to four or five weeks, something reasonable, for professional busy people.

That length was one of the things I really appreciated about it in that it was a really nice concise, but very specific and detailed, all at the same time. So it really felt manageable. I know we had like three cohorts go through on our campus and I was unable to follow along during the first ones but I was following along right when the pandemic hit and found taking the course at that particular moment really poignant.

This was our experience on our campus too. I’ll be just very honest with you and say I felt honor would be served if Melina and I offered the course one time on campus and we had anybody take at it. It’s sort of like we delivered and after that it’s sort of up to the universe to find footing. But we have consistently had really excellent participation on campus. And I’ll let Melina speak more to the facts and figures. But even this spring, we’re literally just now completing a spring version of it on campus. And we’ve had a really lovely distribution between faculty, graduate students and staff… almost a third, a third, a third, again, and the interest doesn’t seem to be diminishing. And so, Rebecca, I can’t wait to hear more from you and John about what your experiences were with your cohorts. Because part of the joy of doing this is hearing back from campuses. Did it help? Did it galvanize and help facilitate some conversations that were context specific? And we really hope that we could provide the general introductory sort of framework, provide some useful resources in terms of exercises, but then really trust the process would unfold at a campus level in the way that it needed to. So that’s not a rhetorical question, I would love to hear more.

To be honest, I was really hoping we could turn the conversation there, too. I really wanted to hear how your local learning communities went three is a significant number.

It’s fantastic. Yeah, that’s serious dedication, and a sign of positive response. So we’d love to hear more.

Each time, I think, we had between 30 and 45 people attending, somewhere in that range. They were mostly faculty, but we did have a few administrators. And one thing that was really effective is one of the faculty members, in the third iteration of that, brought in a couple of her students. And that made it much more powerful. Because while the stories that are provided in the MOOC, in the videos from Cornell students and Cornell faculty are very well done and very moving, when a student gets up and talks about their own experiences and the challenges they face, as a local example of that it’s even more powerful. A number of people signed up for it on their own. But most of the people actually met every week, where we provided three or four times to let people come in at times that were convenient. We’d watch most or all of the videos, and then we discuss each of them. Sometimes we didn’t get through all of them, because the discussions went for a long time. Other times, we were able to get through most of them, and then people did the rest of the work on their own outside. But the discussions were really effective. And having people talk about it in person worked really well. And I think it helped ensure that everyone finished the MOOC, or that nearly everyone finished the MOOC. I know we had some people who didn’t do all the written work, but they at least attended most or all the sessions. And for us, at least, I think having the weekly meeting served as a nice commitment device, which tended to help maintain persistence. And it worked really well. And people have been asking about when we’re going to take another cohort through. And we’ll be planning to do that this fall. I think overall it was a tremendous success on campus. And we did have a few administrators attend, but not quite as many as you received. And we did have some staff members too. But it was mostly faculty.

I think it was a really nice complement to some of the other work that we had already started doing, but just didn’t have the capacity to roll out the equivalent of that course on our own. And so it was really, really helpful to us. We had done a couple of reading groups related to racism previous to that. We have a really robust accessibility program on our campus and have been doing a lot of professional development around disability and accessibility. And so leveling up to inclusive pedagogy is really where we wanted to be going. [LAUGHTER] And this was a really nice structured way for us to get there. So we’ve been really thrilled with how many people have participated. And I think it really informed a lot of the work that folks did over the past year during the pandemic as well, people became really aware of some of the inequities that weren’t as visible previously.

Thank you so much for sharing some details. It’s delightful, even just to picture briefly how you chose to facilitate those and the responses. I love the searching for authentic stories from your own campus, with having students present. That seems really exciting. This might be a good time to mention a couple of things. One is that we made the decision in January to move from a instructor-paced model to having it be a self-paced model, which means now that the course is open all year round. And the reason for that was to give campuses and facilitators more flexibility to run the course on the schedule that worked for them, because we kept trying to guess and get it right, but sometimes we’d get right in the middle of the busiest part of the semester, which some people loved but other people… it didn’t work so well for them. So I think that’s a good decision. We started to wonder more about how are people facilitating the course we’re doing and trying to reach out to them and have conversations or looking for a little bit of feedback, even informally, just like this, to see how things were going. So, we heard similar things from a few others like they got inspired to look for the stories that were from their own community, in their own students. And there’s many places to look for stories like that: the student newspapers, conversations with faculty, as you’ve described,

I love your strategy of a faculty member bringing their own students and that there’s no substitute for that. So I love that…that’s a great idea. Can I say too, Melina, this is a little bit of the inside part. But it was a big moment for us to let go of the instructor-led version of the MOOC and partially, we just needed to have a reassurance that we had done a good job, that the quality of the work was substantial enough that it could just sort of go forth. And we were always confident that our colleagues could facilitate it well. I think, John and Rebecca, it’s such a compliment to your on campus facilitation, because we know the number one thing here is not the advertising, it’s word of mouth. And if colleagues are saying to their friends and associates, “Oh, yeah, it wasn’t a terrible thing, you know, it was an okay use of my time” …then we know that’s so much more persuasive than any kind of blitz you could do through email or anything else. And if you’re continuing to get this large group, and that’s a significant proportion of your faculty continuing to find this a good use of their time, then Melina, we can take a deep breath now. We can sort of say, “It’s okay, we let our baby go out into the world, and it’s gonna be okay.”

But last year was a very unique year. So we had a giant boost. As soon as the pandemic started, people enrolled in the course. We decided to run the course again, earlier than we had planned in response to the street movement and fighting for racial justice. And we had a giant leap in attendance here at Cornell as a result of that. And then we run another learning community series in October. And then Matt mentioned, we ran one in the spring too. We do have some fun things to report out on in terms of patterns of what people are saying about what they’re learning. We have a pre-post survey that gives us a sense of how people feel at the beginning, and then matches to their experience of how they feel at the end. And so I was surprised by the things that floated to the top. So I can share what the top four things were. The number one thing that they moved the most on… so this was things that they’ve collectively they move the most on… So the first one was, “I’m aware of campus resources to support colleagues and students in sustaining inclusive learning environments.” I don’t know why that one’s surprised me. But I think even though our course is sort of the Cornell example, most college campuses in the US have all sorts of support and offices in place. And so this might have been the place where they finally got to hear the list of all the different offices that support student learning and accessibility. The second one was “I feel prepared to address controversial comments that may arise in class.” But that was one worry that we had initially, was that an asynchronous online course would never take the place of a face-to-face learning experience. This shows me and Matt’s bias also, because we’ve been strongly face-to-face instructors for most of our teaching careers. So we had to learn, ourselves, how to be online instructors, and what that meant… how to have a stronger presence in the course itself. So between our pilot version of the course and the second iteration, we added more videos of ourselves. And so we were very gratified by seeing this number of people feel more competent around this. The other one is “I’m informed about specific strategies for creating more inclusive classrooms.” And the fourth one is “I feel confident I can evaluate my course structure and materials for inclusivity.” So that’s where things are trending very strongly. We’re hoping to publish some findings pretty soon about that. And then the other response that we hear over and over again, is how moving the videos were, which to me is personally gratifying, because from the moment when I was a little girl, my father used to read to me every night before bed and, tried and true, I do the same with my kids. Stories were just my way into learning about the world and continue to be so. So it’s just the thing that moves us, our emotions, it’s the thing that makes us open to caring about systemic change, because the door opens to us through individuals… the stories and experiences of discrimination. When we share in community about our own experiences of discrimination and bias, and even our own mistakes that we’ve made with others. I think that kind of learning is so powerful. And so I think that we were able, through the videos, to lift that experience of storytelling,

The narratives in there are extremely powerful, and people reacted really positively to them.

…especially because there were such a wide variety of disciplines reflected, which I think is really important and sometimes can be challenging for an individual campus to do a small workshop series or something and get that broad of representation at each little event. You might have representation throughout a whole semester or a whole academic year, but maybe difficult to have that much representation in a single sitting of something

Absolutely. Even like the tried and true method of a panel, It doesn’t really necessarily lend itself for people to really do a deep dive or really share. The other thing that I’ve come to appreciate even more deeply is the power of getting out ahead of a crisis and providing an opportunity for folks to just talk, to grapple with ideas, provide them some frameworks. They may not like Melina and I had this very interesting conversation with one of our colleagues who was going through the reading list saying, “too aggressive,” “not deep enough,” and was just sort of a typical faculty critique of the reading list. I was like, “Super engaged, I love it.” Absolutely. Bring it on. I’m not changing any of the readings, but I loved having that conversation, because I thought, that’s someone who’s really gotten engaged and is trying to figure out how to apply this in the context of her work and her discipline and her students. And for me, that’s the best that it gets. But it is this capacity building or resilience building. So all of your cohorts, all those folks who sat together, that’s a transformative human experience. It sort of harkens back to the sitting around the campfire. They’ve had this moment together that… I don’t know when or how, but I’m positive it will do good. It will do good for the campus. And it will do good for students. And nothing else, like Melina was suggesting, it gives you a small cohort of colleagues to rely on and to say, “I’m not really sure about this, what do you think? What would you do in this situation?” And the other thing that we came to learn, which I have to say, Melina and I were both very slow to want to do anything online. But we also were very suspicious of lurkers. And we were sort of like, “Well, where are these people? They’ve signed up, but they’re here, but they’re not posting anything in the discussion board. But I’ve now come to really embrace lurking as a form of learning. I’m not dismissive of it at all. I think some people want to be in the conversation. They’re taking it in, they’re absorbing it, but they just don’t feel like they have a lot they want to say yet. Or someone else has already said it, or they’re waiting to see what other people have to say. So Melina and I have, a number of times, come back around to this conversation about what does it mean to really be engaged. And I think our growth edge, our learning, has been to really expand that definition of what it means to be engaged. So if you sign up for the course, but you never log in, that’s not engaged, that’s wishful thinking. But if you sign in and you tap through any of the videos, or even look at the resources, like I had to smile when you said your colleague maybe didn’t do all of the writing. Not a problem. What we’re finding is that people will circle back around. Like we’ve had a number of people who’ve taken the course twice. I think that’s a phenomenal commitment on a faculty member’s part, I mean, just given how stretched everybody is for time.

Yeah, I have a faculty member who emailed me today saying I can’t wait for next spring, when will offer learning community opportunities again, so that I can take it for the third time. [LAUGHTER] And she was trying to remember where she could find the references to active learning strategies. So I’m like, “those are in Module Three.” “Oh, great.” That’s what she was really looking for. There was a new faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh who contacted me what seems like ages ago, it turns out, it was only last December, but it feels like three years ago, and she wanted to talk about how we made the videos because she wanted to make videos on her own campus. And so that was really inspiring. And she recently reached out again, and I met with her this morning, and she’s gotten all her academic leadership on board, they’re going to make their own asynchronous class, they have a video team in place to make it. This is inspiring, because our action plans are always inspiring. And sometimes a person’s action plan is this is a draft of my syllabus diversity statement, or this is my plan for TAs or graduate students. Sometimes they’re thinking of a plan that will be years down the road, or they’re thinking how to bring in diversified speakers. All of those are strategies that we took all of the action plans that people had submitted locally and made word clouds with them, and the word student is the thing. It just stood out as the most giant thing. And so I thought, wow, this is telling me that student centered learning strategies are the thing that people are walking away with. It was a litmus test, but this person took it over and above. And so I just thought, it’s a ripple effect. It’s her project. And she’ll go on to inspire others. We’ve had people come back and say, “Can you do one for librarians? Can you do one for teaching graduate students? Can you do one for the law profession or medical profession?” She’s making one that’s anchored in the medical profession. So I just celebrated her and said, “I hope you can make it a MOOC and not just for your own campus.” Maybe the same thing will happen to them that happened to us, which is they’ll start small and then dive out.

It’s amazing how projects sometimes balloon like that.[LAUGHTER] Like, wow, that’s not quite what I had in mind and now I have this giant thing that I’m doing. We’re glad that it happened. I wanted to comment a little bit, Matt, on lurking. As a lurker, I thought I might just confess, like what lurkers do. So I followed along twice, the first time I was an active lurker, in part because I was doing a lot of self reflection, and I didn’t want to communicate with other people while I was processing. I had to have some of that time and space to process for myself and how that related to other diversity, equity and inclusion things that I was engaged in, and so that I could then articulate to other people how that fit in with what I was doing, because I needed that time and space to process. And then the second time, I was an active, engaged participant, but I definitely lurked the first time and it was really to have that self-reflection time.

I’m so glad you did. You have to do that. Otherwise, the tension between making ourselves vulnerable and protecting ourselves can be immobilizing. I’m delighted to hear that. I actually think, Milena, that might be something interesting. We figured out early on that people needed us to normalize posting to a discussion list is not academic writing, just post your thought and let things evolve. And we sort of struggled with that and figured out some language on that. But now I’m wondering… Rebecca, do you think it would be helpful if we posted a little something about the benefit of being a lurker, to just sort of normalize that and say, “This is really emotional, and it’s deep And maybe you just want to slide through and focus on yourself, and that’s perfectly fine.”

Yeah, maybe we don’t call it lurking. But really, it’s more like a journaling


Like a self reflection kind of activity. Like I did a lot of the activities a first time just kind of in my notebook and was thinking through things.

See, I think you’ve put your finger on one of the attributes of life in academia and higher ed that stymies this kind of work, which is we leap to action, and we don’t provide enough opportunity for ourselves to just do the kind of internal work we need to to feel some sense of groundedness. What do I think? What have my experiences been? What has worked for me and what am I still working on? …kind of things. And to be quite honest, you would have been my favorite student. If that was what you got in round one, I would have been totally happy, but moving it into the campus or into a discussion with your colleagues. That for me is icing on the cake, because you as a teacher will be transformed by that, where you’ll never approach any of this stuff the same way again.

I have a friend who’s an internet scholar, so she actually researches lurking. I read a draft of an article that she wrote where she actually talked about the importance of lurking for learning about different others… like basically, it was making an argument that lurking is a really good way to learn how to be an ally, to learn about groups that you’re not a member of, to learn what new vocabulary is out there, in terms of how to talk about certain topics. I know, there’s a lot of anxiety about offending people and getting the terms right. And I’m at the point now where I’m likely to make mistakes, because things have changed enough within my own lifetime that the vocabulary is constantly really being updated. I think that anything we can do to reduce anxiety and help people feel more connected to each other, to the course, to have opportunities to just reflect on their own experiences. And you’re not the only one who engaged with the course that way, Rebecca. The woman I talked to this morning did the same. She posted, but she would only post at the end of reading every other person’s reflections. And I’ll say, just in case somebody goes to the course and says, “Well, where are the discussion boards?” …that was one of the things that we ended up giving up in moving to the self-paced modality. And that’s because we couldn’t staff moderators 24/7. Before we were able to have a robust and temporary staff in place that would help us moderate the discussion boards. We just know that sometimes there are bad actors who aren’t there for learning. We never had trouble in our discussion boards, they were lovely, so that was such a difficult decision to make. But we revised the guide that we wrote for facilitators to just encourage thinking about and talking about alternative means to supplement those, whether it’s a closed Facebook group or a discussion board in Canvas, or leaving extra time during the face-to-face opportunities. But it sounds like, in your structure, your face-to-face opportunities are giving people plenty of opportunity for discussion.

Can you talk a little bit about how you facilitated at Cornell?

Sure, I’d be delighted to. It’s complicated because it’s not the same every time. So just to give you a sense, I co-facilitated with another staff member from our center, we did a faculty interdisciplinary learning community, same person with addition two other staff, one person from the graduate school. We did the one for graduate students and postdocs together with a slightly different curriculum. I partnered with a faculty member from the school for integrative Plant Sciences and we anchored that one in the department this last time. This is like the story of my life. I used to team teach as a community college professor, but I was the one that had to be the team teacher with everybody. So every year I had two or three new teaching partners for the same course. So I’d be basically begging them to use my course syllabus so that we could have a little bit of sanity for me. So I love this because people have different facilitation styles, they bring different skills to the table. So it’s very inspiring, and they’re very different. So the interdisciplinary faculty cohort is one kind of experience. The faculty there basically love hearing about similarities and differences, like they’re so relieved to find colleagues who care just as much as they do about inclusion. And they’re delighted to hear about strategies that maybe they can try and they’re also relieved to share the knotty points of difficulty that others may not be facing that are discipline specific to them. And then, in the cohorts that we’ve led that are anchored in the department, those conversations are just as rich because you can focus on things that are important to that group. So in the School For Integrative Plant Sciences, we asked the chair to provide a scenario for a difficult conversation so that we could have a little practice around that. And they’re remodeling their entranceway. So they’re having these discussions about how to portray their discipline. And so the argument is about the history of the discipline and all the white male people versus wanting to diversify the discipline nowadays and what they want to do. So we had a pretty amazing sort of hot topics dialogue that I think left them feeling more empowered and more ready. And the person who’s actually truly leading that initiative was also relieved to hear all the different opinions. And it was really important to hear the different perspectives. I don’t know if that completely answers your question. I’m just right, fresh out of doing those. So I kept a journal where I just kept writing down little ideas. Matt and I keep talking about writing a book about this. Like, I want to make sure I write about this and write about that and write about this. So it was a deeply reflective process for me. I keep learning a tremendous amount. And sometimes, to go back to Matt’s earlier comment, we’re not going to change the readings, but sometimes we do go and make updates or add references. we weren’t able to touch on every single identity category. And sometimes people don’t find themselves and they say, “Why didn’t you talk about this or that?” And so then we make an effort to do that. And I have a running list of edits that are ready to be worked on for the next version of the course that gets posted.

If I could tailgate, Melina, there are two points that you made that I just think are so evocative of our approach to this. One is we really wait to see who’s registered and how they fall out. Are there cohorts? Are there natural cohorts that emerge from that, and that was your point, Melina, about it being complicated, and sort of last minute, because we sort of wait to see who’s on board. And then your second point that I just want to reiterate is, it’s organic. And I think we’re both learning both about the DEI issues, but also about teaching and teaching in an online environment. And what does it mean to have a global perspective in a MOOC? This is new to both of us still. And so it’s always really interesting. And we’re trying to still… like Melina has revised the handbook for facilitators every single semester, because we keep getting really good ideas from folks across the spectrum who have tried some things out and said, “This really worked, and this didn’t.” And our goal always is to make it as useful as possible. So it also keeps it really interesting. So it’s the same course. But it’s never the same course, you know that, you’re both deeply embedded in teaching as well.

Yeah, the discussions vary dramatically depending on the specific composition. And when we were meeting three times a week, or four times a week one time, each discussion with a little different depending on who happened to show up that day. And it worked well, though. I appreciated the fact that I got to participate in many of those discussions.

In the ideal world, that’s exactly what it would be, you would sort of have a flipped classroom, you would do the online course. But you would always have a cohort of people to talk through your ideas with and I think that’s, for me, the ideal scenario. And I have to ask, are you assessing this? Obviously, people being there is one key assessment, that’s a huge vote of confidence. So clearly, you’re doing really well. The fact that they come back, that’s even better evidence.

We have not done any formal assessments. We’d like to, but we’re somewhat understaffed. We’d like to assess many more of the things that we’re doing at the teaching center, and certainly the effectiveness of this would be useful. I wish we had a good answer for you on that.

Actually, that’s a really good answer, John, because it’s sort of provoking me to think, together with Melina. We’ve got the protocol that we use, the pre-post, and Melina and our other colleague, Amy Cardace Ardays are working on publishing that protocol. But that might be something that if we can move that process along, that would give you something at the campus level, easy to administer, and really, really interesting. So it’s all self report, of course, but it at least gives you a sense of over time, in general, and an aggregated level, what our faculty finding useful about the experience in terms of their own learning and development. I hadn’t thought of that. Yeah,

I did a presentation at the IUPUI conference, and, as a result of that, I have started collaborating with a couple of other institutions who are in particular interested in how to assess their inclusive teaching interventions. And so, in one case, they started by wanting to use our protocol, but embed the protocol in the other part of their plan that they had in place. So we’ll be presenting together as a team this year at IUPUI, which I’m excited about. And I also think that assessing the learning communities is its own sticky wicket. The learning goals are both the same ones that are in the course and you also want to know whether the learning community itself went as well as it could have or what you might do differently because I still have a goal here locally at Cornell to have more of these department level immersions because those are the ones that have been pretty exciting because colleagues suddenly see each other with new eyes, like they see their colleagues as co-agents for change and social justice work instead of having the experience in the interdisciplinary group that I mentioned where they’re like, “Thank goodness, there’s someone over across campus who cares as much as I do.” So part of assessment is being able to tell your story persuasively about what you’re doing and why people should participate.

I think also, part of what assessment can do is reflect on what’s next. What’s the growth edge here? What would help people in the next step and so as Melina said, departments are our big go-to next step. We’re really interested in working with a coherent subset of people we’ll never get an entire department. And we don’t need that. We don’t need unanimity. We just need a core of consensus that this is a worthwhile use of their time. And what Melina hasn’t mentioned, is this other project she’s working on with another colleague of ours that I think is super interesting, which is curriculum mapping through a DEI lens. And so really, when we think about systemic change, in building more multicultural, inclusive institutions, the department is really the unit of analysis. That’s where the work happens. And it’s also where the chief stakeholders stay the longest. And so, Provosts rollover, Chancellors rollover, presidents come and go, but departments mostly stay intact. And so, if they choose to invest in this sort of critical analyses of DEI issues, there’s great possibility for really changing long term the experiences of undergrads and grads and also the people who are part of the department. It goes to recruitment and retention at every level, from undergrads,to grad students to new and junior faculty. So we’ve been sort of building, socializing the course on campus, building a sense that this is a good use of your time globally. And then Melina has… how many departments have you’ve worked with now? Four? Three?

We have three on deck for the fall, and had those initial conversations about getting things started and meeting them specifically where they are at in their process. People have expressed different beginning points or interests for where they want to get started. But this is what my colleague Kathleen Landy, who is really helping us to visualize difficult concepts in a very simple way. She’s basically created some tools that we can use to lead people through this process. And we’re socializing… it might not be the right word… but we’re basically getting the word out that this is a program and a service that we offer, and having some initial conversations with folks to just let them know what this is and how the resource works. And, so far, the reception has been really positive. And I think there’s just a different set of needs. We sometimes just talk about different entry points, maybe people want to think about curriculum, maybe they really want to think about pedagogy. I met with a group today that really wanted to help getting a discussion started about social identities and implicit bias. And so that’s really about instructor self reflection, and what our lived experiences have been, and then how we translate those into our teaching practices. So, one fantasy that I have is that our portfolio basically runs the gamut around that framework, so that people who want to work on curriculum have a rich tool for curriculum mapping, and then they also get the benefit of the facilitated dialogue and deeper conversations.

Yeah, I’m a big follower of the sort of John Dewey approach, start where the learner wants to start. And in many cases, all roads lead to Rome. It doesn’t really matter where we start if we have a holistic systems perspective.

… and the desire to start.

Absolutely. [LAUGHTER] That’s the critical piece. Exactly.

Which is an important threshold to cross over… the desire to start. People come to us because they want to, as opposed to this is now a university requirement or something like that, because that threshold is so important and meaningful.

I think a lot of campuses have reached that threshold now because the pandemic, as Rebecca had mentioned earlier, has revealed a lot of the inequities and challenges that our students face in ways that were always there, but that faculty may not have been as fully aware of. It’s much harder to ignore some of the challenges our students face when you had to deal with them in class every day, when you can see them struggling with things that would be hidden when they were on campus. Many people are ready for addressing these issues and these challenges.

I couldn’t agree more. I think timing is everything. And our hope is to build a port of entry. That, like Melina mentioned very early on, we do everything we can to bring people’s anxiety down so they can relax and be in a mode that allows the learning to take place. If it’s okay, I’d love to hear from the two of you about what would you like to see in Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom? What would you see as a next step?

We were thinking of maybe starting a podcast. [LAUGHTER] Just kidding, just kidding.

We’d be happy to help.

We love your podcast.


That was one of those projects that started small that blew up big as well. [LAUGHTER]

I do have an answer. One of the things that I think that we struggle with… limited resources… and also, the complexity of timing is always a challenge being able to bring people together at a specific time, so we offer things at multiple times. One of the things that we always have trouble measuring or reporting out Is what do people do with this information? And so some of the pre- and post-testing that you were mentioning before, I think, gets at that a little bit. But what’s the reflection that happens a specific period of time afterward, is something that we haven’t done yet. We haven’t engaged. I think we both have this inclination to want to do some of that stuff, but like, not always the capacity to do it. And then also, we’ve tried a couple of things like badges if you want to tell your story. And sometimes it’s hard to collect that information in a way that’s useful, that doesn’t take ages for someone to produce to submit it to us. And then also to like, analyze it. [LAUGHTER]

That’s a great point, we’ve bandied about this idea of sort of a retrospective survey, like a semester out, a year out, two years out, what remains important or salient? or what have you done differently? And we’re still, I think, in discussion. Is that a way to say it, Melina? We haven’t really resolved yet how to do that. And for us, it’s the same issue. It’s bandwidth.

I appreciated the fact that Matt was writing down your idea, Rebecca, [LAUGHTER] because sometimes it’s a matter of timing, getting us at the right flow of the creative curve, and also the amount of times that we get the same ask. So if somebody else had asked for more videos that had faculty talking about successful strategies and how to implement them. So we might be able to talk to your point and meet that person’s invitation. And the other requests that we’ve had, which we haven’t had bandwidth for, was to present a wider variety of different types of institutions, especially in module five when we’re talking about institutional change efforts. So that was one idea. We would love to explore these if we had the capacity.

On that issue, though, I do have to say that the people you chose to speak, I think, speak to all institutions. I think some people may have been concerned that this was coming out of Cornell, and we’re four-year public institution. But no one really left with any concerns about that. I think the issues that are addressed are pretty universal. I think that part works really well. One thing though, that I know a number of faculty were looking for is more specific guidance on what techniques could work to make their discussions a little more inclusive in class and what other techniques could be used to help improve the success of students who are struggling. And there’s so many things there that the issue gets really wide. And I think the topics you chose are really good and universal and apply to everyone. But I know a lot of people would like some things specifically, that could help narrow some of the challenges in STEM classes, where the success rates vary very dramatically. And a lot of faculty were raising questions about that, particularly in math and in the sciences, and so forth. There’s a lot that’s already there. There’s just so much you can do in a five-week class. And I think what you have there is wonderful.

What you’re saying, John, actually makes me think about a need to send a reminder to people that have participated in a cohort about all the resources that were available there, because now you’ve had time and space to reflect, maybe have tried some things in classes, and it might be worth revisiting some of the material again.

One thing that I wished we could do, which we just couldn’t quite figure out a way to do this, but in the MOOC, we had people post what their action plans were on the discussion board. So now we’ve lost access to being able to see those, but the ones that we get through our Cornell cohorts are pretty incredible. And the quality of those jumps up significantly when we have a learning community, like the learning community action plans. I think John said this earlier, like it just helps people finish the course and actually get through it just to be part of a learning community. But then also the quality of the action plans, I think because they’re presenting them to each other… our last session in our learning community is them presenting their plan… and then hearing their colleagues questions and feedback. And those have been really impressive. And I like, John, what you’re saying. I think people want to see some examples of this in action. Like sometimes I wish we could get sort of live footage of a classroom where someone’s doing a really great job and have the camera be… people know it’s there, but they can forget about it.

Melina and I’ve talked at length about sort of what’s missing in this experience is the experiential aspect. And there’s a certain component in the dialogue, the discussion that you host or facilitate that helps with that, that’s super helpful. Because even though you may not be having people do psychodrama, or acting out role plays or stuff like that, but just the act of talking through these moments can be enormously helpful. But we’ve been really trying to think about how the next step might be something that’s more experiential, because oftentimes, people just need literally the physicality of a practice, of a walk through. He says this, she says that, what do I do? Then something else gets said, then what do I do to that? And that sort of is part and parcel to building a sense of efficacy, like you don’t need to have all the answers but you do need to have some strategies that you feel are useful in the moment and don’t dig you into a deeper hole. So that’s one of the other things… I don’t have an answer for that yet, but we’ve been thinking.

Our DEI officer, Rodman King, has ran sessions on our campus that are like that,like little scenarios, and did small groups where people were talking through it and those are some really popular sessions, they always needed more time. People got really engaged and really wanted to talk through the details and really process. So we often didn’t get through more than one or two examples in a session, but it was a incredibly popular sessions when we’ve offered those.

Yeah, I love that idea. And people feel like there’s an expert in the room who can help them. And it’s theoretical, it’s a scenario, so they can risk making a mistake, but the practice is real, that level of physicalities It’s a wonderful idea.

Can I circle back to something John said earlier about the people being worried about the Cornelll voices being like too Cornell or something like that? I think that the reason that that doesn’t happen is because people were willing to make themselves vulnerable during the interview process. So they really come across as three dimensional complicated human beings who are willing to tell their stories of struggle and the background. And I actually think that we have a situation at Cornell, where the name of the institution itself basically has almost everybody suffering under some kind of horrible imposter [LAUGHTER] syndrome, which makes us maybe nicer people, I don’t know. But my experience here has been that my colleagues are incredibly kind and welcoming and eager to support their students’ learning… that always is shared among faculty everywhere, but they’re also eager to support each other’s learning in adult spaces. And that has continued to be a delightful point of engagement. I used to teach undergraduates and now all of my work is through our teaching center. And I really far prefer working with adults thinking about social identity in a different way, like maybe they arrived already. Oh, no, wait, there’s new things to learn.

I think that authenticity really comes through, which is really powerful. And I think you’re right. On camera, everyone feels really authentic. It doesn’t feel scripted. And I think that’s what’s important about it.

I totally agree, Rebecca, I’m really happy to hear that that’s your perception. Obviously, we picked the people. And part of it also was people relish the invitation to be honest, and to tell what their stories are as they are unfolding. And so I think, Melina, this is where you started, the power of the story, but it’s also the power of inviting people to share their story, that indication that “Yeah, we really want to hear it.” And I do want to do a little bit of a shout out for Melina, she was our… I don’t even know what to call her… executive producer. She was our talent manager. And so she did a lovely job of engaging everybody and getting them centered and made sure they had coffee or water, just sort of genuinely set the stage for a real dialogue, much like you and John do in this podcast. You just make it really easy to be present and say what’s on your mind.

Thanks. Speaking of invitations, we always invite people to tell us what’s going to happen next. So what’s next? [LAUGHTER]

Next is action plans, Melina and I still have to wrap up the class so… which is actually, even though it’s July, it’s our favorite part of the class. We love reading and responding. So we’ve chosen to do the responses to the action plans by brief recorded videos, mostly because it warms up the classroom. And also we start talking about it, and I think our feedback is far more robust. And we read for different things. So it’s always so interesting to me to hear what resonated for Melina and why. And so I’m really looking forward to that. And then, Melina…

What’s next… I want to do a deeper dive on the importance of storytelling. So this isn’t next on our MOOC, but just on what we’re thinking of offering next year through our center to support inclusive teaching, but just really enlivening and bringing to bear this idea that storytelling is an inclusive pedagogy, how to do it, when to do it, when it’s appropriate. It goes back to John’s question about how do you facilitate lively discussions? How do you bring in the personal and the individual when you’re wrestling with difficult scholarly ideas? Sometimes we get folks from STEM saying, “Oh, this is Social Sciences, like the humanities and social sciences should deal with this. So making it relevant, making a case for why who we are as people really matters to the way we learn, how we learn, how we feel in the classroom about affect. So we have a few projects related to that new avenue.

And there was also a brief mention of the possibility of a book. Is that something planned in the near term? Or is this a longer time horizon project?

Well, we have an outline. I think…

…that’s a start.

Yes, it’s a big start. We have the will, and we have the way, we just now need to do the work. But I think we could help people. I think we have some things to say about how campuses can galvanize around teaching and learning inclusively, as a modality for systemic change. People want to, like you were saying earlier, John, there’s a great interest in these issues now. The salience is higher than it’s ever been before. People I think are just not really sure how to get started. And I think that the Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom course tries to break it down and say there are multiple points of entry, any one of which is useful. We could sort of do that at the department level. Teaching in a course is one point of entry but also curriculum mapping and sort of the other things that we do with folks could work as well.

I love the idea of the ports of entry.

Thank you. It’s great talking to you again. And next time I do hope we can get together and have some tea in person, either on our campus or on yours or at some conference somewhere.

I would love that. And good luck to everybody who’s still teaching. Thank you all so much. It’s a pleasure.

Thank you.

Thank you.


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.

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


198. Active Learning Initiative Revisited

In episode 12 of this podcast, Doug McKee joined us to discuss the Active Learning Initiative at Cornell. In this episode, Doug returns to give us an update on this initiative and some initial findings on how this initiative has affected student learning. Doug is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics and an Active Learning Initiative Project Lead at Cornell University.



John: In episode 12 of this podcast, we discussed the Active Learning Initiative at Cornell. In this episode, we get an update on this initiative and some initial findings on how this initiative has affected student learning.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Doug McKee. Doug is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics and an Active Learning Initiative project lead at Cornell University. Welcome back, Doug.

Doug: Thank you, Rebecca. So glad to be here.

John: We’re happy to have you back. It’s been a while. I was looking back to see when our last episode was and it was in 2018. It seemed like it was just yesterday in the before times, or at least in that sense of how time seems to have been compressed the last year or so.

Doug: It also seems like it’s been like 20 years.

John: It does.

Rebecca: Yeah, at least those couple decades for sure.

Doug: But I’m glad to be back.

John: Our teas today are… the last time we asked you I think you said “I hate tea.”

Doug: I did. I remember that.

Rebecca: What kind of comment do you have about tea today?

Doug: Well, I can’t say I’ve acquired a taste for tea. I don’t mind Lipton tea out of a can. But I’m not drinking that today. Today, it’s ice water.

Rebecca: That’s a good healthy choice.

Doug: Yeah.

Rebecca: And the basis of tea.

Doug: Right. I’ve been listening to this other podcast. And they always start with “What are you drinking?” And it’s four hosts. And three of them are always talking about what kind of craft beer or liquor they’re drinking. And it’s the healthy one that drinks the tea.

Rebecca: See, this is a very healthy episode,

Doug: Right. It is.

Rebecca: I’ve got my English afternoon today, John.

John: And I have ginger peach green tea.

Doug: Ooh, nice. It sounds nice. Are you really drinking hot tea in the summer? Is that really a thing?

John: I do. All day I’ve been drinking iced tea, though. And so I switched over for the podcast, just because it’s what we do.

Doug: Got it.

John: When you will last on the podcast, we talked about the Active Learning Initiative at Cornell. And we thought this would be a good time to get an update on how things are going. And for those people who are not listening to our podcast back in 2018, could you just provide some information on that project and how it came about?

Doug: Sure, I think even the people that were listening back in 2018 might need a refresher. The Active Learning Initiative is a university wide project at Cornell, it was inspired by a similar project that Carl Wieman started at University of Colorado, and then brought to the University of British Columbia called the Science Education Initiative. And the idea was that if you want to improve teaching, instead of trying and getting individuals to improve their teaching, and instead of trying to do it at the university level, the right level was the department. And so departments would write proposals and compete for money, and they would promise to incorporate active learning methods, different evidence-based methods to improve courses. And they would use the money to hire outside people, usually postdocs in that discipline that really knew the material, but also knew about modern pedagogy to do the heavy lifting. My experience is when you tell faculty to make changes and use active learning, you get three kinds of pushback. You get, “I don’t know how to do it.” Well, this postdoc is the person that knows how to do it, and they can help with that. You get, “I don’t have time.” Well the postdoc is going to do the heavy lifting. And you get “It won’t work in my classroom. It only works in other people’s classrooms.” And a big part of the Active Learning Initiative, certainly as we’ve implemented it in the economics department is concurrent evaluation. So at the end of the process, you really have hard measures of the impact of the program. Now the program started, I think, in 2017, at Cornell with three departments, then in 19, they added six departments, and that was when I joined Cornell, and so one of those was economics. And then more recently, they added nine more departments. And they’re getting proposals together for phase four right now. Now, in economics, we said we’re going to transform our eight core classes, the details are always a little messier than the theory. But we’ve transformed six classes so far, and we just started working on the last two. The big stated goal is to change how we teach these big classes. And seven of these eight classes are required for the major. So we’re really completely changing the experience that students have going through the program. The second goal, which is not as explicit, but really important, was to train faculty. And we’ve worked with eight different instructors during the process so far. And over the next two years, we’re going to add five more. The two classes that we still have to work on have three different people teaching one and two teaching the other one. And that’s been, I think, a pretty good success. So the faculty we worked with have been pretty happy and learned a lot from the process and continue to use those methods. The third goal, that was fairly unstated, is changing the culture. So what we want is a much more teaching focus and quality of teaching focus in the departments. And I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job on that and instilling this kind of continuous improvement idea. And then the fourth major impact that we’ve had, I think, was not something we really saw coming. And that is that, in the process of doing all this work, we’ve developed these assessments of learning and gathered all this data about what’s happening in the classroom and who these students are that are coming in. We’ve collected a huge amount of data. At the same time, we’ve spent a lot of time reading the literature and learning all about how much we don’t know. And it’s managed to enable all this research. And so I was talking to Rebecca, before we started recording, saying that a big part of my job is now actually like doing research using this data. And it’s been super exciting and fulfilling. And John, you asked me earlier, again, before we started recording about the Teach Better podcast, which is a podcast that Edward O’Neill and I hosted for a long time, and we haven’t had any new episodes posted for a couple of years. And it’s not because the band is broken up. But we’ve just been busy with other things. And I would say that the time I would spend writing blog posts and recording podcasts is now writing papers, and presenting research at conferences. So that’s been pretty exciting.

Rebecca: One of the things that you mentioned, right at the start of talking about this program, are the different push backs we get from faculty, and so you addressed two in how the postdoc helps with the two. The last was, “I can’t do this in my class, you can do it in other classes.”

Doug: You show them research from physics, and they say “This is economics.” You show them research from economics, and they say, “That’s from a very different kind of an institution.” You show them research from economics in a very similar institution, and they say, “Well, I teach my class very differently.” And that’s hard.

John: There’s always some explanation that people can come up on why their class is somehow different than everyone else’s. What have you done to try to reach some of those faculty to help keep the initiative spreading?

Doug: I have the answer that I find really compelling that never work. And that is, there’s this really wonderful meta analysis by Freeman and a whole bunch of other co-authors about the impact of active learning in STEM. They go and they collect lots of really serious research, high- quality empirical methods, that shows our big learning gains from transitioning from a pure lecture environment, to an environment where students are active in the classroom. And they find that there are large, statistically significant effects in eight different disciplines. And when they test the hypothesis that the effect is exactly the same in all eight disciplines, they can’t reject the null hypothesis. In other words, the size of the effect in physics and chemistry and biology and math and engineering… they’re all pretty much the same. And so if they’re the same in all those disciplines, shouldn’t they be the same in economics, too, because surely economics is closer to some of these than physics is to biology. And I find that really compelling, but no one else does.

Rebecca: Alright, so what does work then?

Doug: Well, what does work is being really nice and saying, “Can we just try it? And surely there are things that you’ve wanted to change in your class for a while and haven’t had the resources. And my job is to help you improve your class. And I’ve got some ideas too, and I’m going to lay them out, and we’re going to try.” And they’re like, “Okay.” I mean, so much of it is just plain old social skills. And like, “trust me” and building that level of trust. And they go and they talk to their colleagues that have worked with me in the Active Learning Initiative. And “Yeah, he’s not so bad. Like “he seems at first like an arrogant jerk, [LAUGHTER] but he’s okay, he’s pretty reasonable to work with.”

John: And the chance to make some of those changes they might have been considering, with some support to help move that along, could be a useful incentive, too.

Rebecca: You never know when that option is going to come along again, right? [LAUGHTER]

Doug: Well, that’s true too. So if Carl Wieman was here (he’s kind of the godfather of teaching in physics), what he would say is “Don’t even try to convince them that these methods work better for student learning, because a lot of the faculty, they say they care, but they don’t actually care that much. Tell them it’s fun, and that it’s much more fulfilling to have students doing things and interacting with them during the class than just standing up there and giving the same old lecture every year.” And he says that’s really effective. I have not had great success with that. [LAUGHTER]

John: One thing that actually worked better than anything we’ve ever tried here in the teaching center was this pandemic.

Doug: Right. That’s totally true.

John: People learned they needed to try doing things in different ways and we gave them lots of workshops and talked about the importance of active learning and gave them lots of things that work in a variety of modalities that they would never have considered otherwise because they were comfortable with what they were doing. But when people didn’t have a choice in terms of restructuring their classes in some way, they were much more open to trying evidence-based approaches than we’ve ever seen before and we had many more people attend a workshop during a pandemic than we ever did and many of them have said, “I’m never going back to the way I was teaching this class before.” Did some of that happen at Cornell?

Doug: It for sure happened. And I’ve talked to colleagues all over the world that have said exactly the same thing. That is absolutely 100% true. Just the other day I was talking with an instructor, we’re going to be doing a bunch of things with them to their class, and the conversation started with, “I tried these three new things in my online class, and I really want to bring them to my in-person class.” But you two, in the teaching center, interact with lots of faculty every day, for a brief period of time. But with me, I interact with a very small number of faculty for a very long time. We did not suspend the Active Learning Initiative for the last year, but we were originally a five-year project. And we decided to stretch it to six years and go into like a lower energy mode, while we focused on staying above water

Rebecca: …as was necessary for just about everybody.

Doug: Yeah.

Rebecca: You have all these new departments joining the initiative. Do these departments interact and support one another? Are these like completely separate pockets?

Doug: Yeah, so that’s interesting. The postdocs for all the departments meet regularly and do training together. There’s not a huge amount of interaction between the instructors across departments, or even the instructors that run the department initiatives. That’s something I think fell by the wayside during the pandemic. But we’ll probably pick up again, as things hopefully normalize, because there’s huge benefits from it. We’ve certainly run into lots of things that these newer departments are running into now and they can benefit from our experience. And then they come in with really fresh ideas that we haven’t thought of.

Rebecca: The other thing you mentioned, too, is all this data you’ve collected. Can you talk a little bit about what that data has started to tell you?

Doug: Yeah, so the process that we follow when we transform a course starts with documenting the learning goals for the course. Learning goals are not topic. How we define learning goals… because I understand in the ed world, people get very militant about their definitions and differentiations between learning goals and learning objectives and other kinds of things. But what we call learning goals are things that we want students to be able to do by the end of the semester, and we can break it down such that it’s probably two to three pages long. And then we develop an assessment of those learning goals. We also write down, in the same way, these are the skills we expect students to have going into the class. Now when we have a sequence, the skills that they have at the end of intro are prerequisite skills for the intermediate level course a lot of the time. And so we’ve developed, I think, 10 assessments so far. We have two math assessments, one at the intro level, and one at the intermediate level, because we add calculus. We have our intro micro assessment, we have stats, we have a whole bunch. So we have test scores on these things at the beginning of the semester, and at the end of the semester. So we have all these assessments. At the same time, we ask students about attitudes at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester. So do you think about economics every day? Do you feel like you belong in this economics course? We have like four pretty standard questions that we asked at the beginning and the end of the semester. Often when we give exams, we have exam wrappers. So how much did you study for this exam? How much of the material have you seen before? That sort of thing. And then at the end of the semester, we have our standard course evaluations, then we also ask students there: Did you feel like you were part of a community? Do you feel comfortable asking questions? Do you like the other students in the class? …those sorts of things. And so with the assessments at the end of the semester, we can tell how the distribution of learning outcomes changes. And we always have a control semester where we don’t do anything we just measure. And then we make all the changes after that, in a different semester, so we can compare. And what we found is that it often takes more than one semester for you to see learning gains. So you do all this stuff and you look at the results. And sometimes there aren’t very strong results. But you note what worked and what didn’t work. And you can look at outcomes by learning goal. So you can say like, “Oh, this learning goal we did a lot better on but not this one.” And so you can refine and then that refinement process, we’ve been able to actually see improvements in learning. We can use those same tests to see if there are gaps between kind of mainstream students and students from underrepresented groups. So we compare outcomes of males and females, we compare outcomes by race. And what we found is those gaps declined as we incorporate more active learning methods. We found that… this is a kind of a big one that I did not see coming when we started this project… so, we knew clickers were going to be a big part of this and like having activities that students work on in class, that’s like the bread and butter, and we have all different kinds of activities we do and I could talk for hours about that, but the thing didn’t see coming was how useful assigning students to small groups at the beginning of the term and having them work together in those groups inside and outside the classroom. And it actually was even more helpful during the pandemic with the online classes. So that’s been pretty cool. And just that treatment has radically increased the sense of community among our students. So we’ve been really happy about that. So those, I think, are the big results.

John: So, have all those core classes switched to the use of persistent groups.

Doug: Yes, but the extent to which the groups are used differs across courses. In my courses, it’s incredibly intensive. I have them sit in those groups in the classroom, I encourage them to work together on problem sets outside class, we do two-stage exams where they take the exam individually and then they take it again, in their same small groups. And they have a semester long project that they work on in those same groups. Probably the least intensive, we have is our big intro micro class, students are assigned to groups, they work together in those groups in discussion section, but not in the lecture. Because with 200 students, and a 350-seat lecture hall, it’s not too bad. But if you’ve got 440 students in a 450 seat lecture hall, it’s a little harder to manage that.

John: Yes, it is. I often teach classes that size. And I’ve generally just done ad hoc groups rather than persistent groups, but it is something I’ve considered switching to.

Doug: Well, in the pandemic, I had lots of colleagues that tried the ad hoc groups, ‘cause in Zoom, you can just press a button, and boom, everybody’s in a randomly assigned group. And you don’t build any social capital with other students in the class, you’re like suddenly in a room, and everyone’s got their camera off. But if you know everybody in your group, then you turn your cameras on, and you’re like “Yay, another person, Hello.” It’s pretty different. And in the classroom, I think there’s a similar element. There’s this other piece, which is in the classroom, people tend to sit in the same place. There’s a lot of inertia there. But I also think the random assignment gets people talking to people they wouldn’t otherwise talk to. And it assures that nobody’s kind of left out. So I think that works pretty well.

Rebecca: That was one of the things that I wanted to follow up on with the persistent groups is that sometimes you have the one student who feels left out or doesn’t feel included or doesn’t participate or doesn’t contribute. And so how do you handle that if that same team is doing everything together from tests to projects.

Doug: So in my classes, when they do everything together, in the two-stage exams, there’s a pretty big payoff to getting everybody’s input. And so I’ve never seen students as engaged in a classroom as they are, when we do these two-stage exams, it’s about as high stakes as you can get. On the projects, there’s a peer rating component, where at three points in the semester, they have to rate their teammates and say, on a one to three scale, are they contributing a lot? Are they not contributing very much? Are they contributing nothing? …and they rate them on effort level and dependability. And then the first one is just informative. You learn what the average rating you got from your team is, and you can do something about it. And then the next two, it’s actually a pretty big part of your grade. And what happens is, the students either improve, they get the message that they have to contribute, which is great, or they don’t, but then the other students are like, “Well, at least they’re getting what they deserve.” And so they’re pretty happy, because so much of it is about fairness and justice, that they’re like I’m willing to do the work, I just think it’s not fair if they get the same grade as me because they didn’t do the work. I mean, every once in a while you get a group that just doesn’t work very well. And these are always different. Like, it’ll be like, you’ll just somehow have like the three guys that happen to know each other. And they’re like, let’s all just give each other great ratings and not do any work. And then there’s the fourth person who ends up doing all the work. And then you talk to the person, you’re like, “Look, don’t worry, I’ll take that into account when I make your grade for the class.” Now, we actually had an instructor this semester, who had a really creative solution to this, which is at the halfway point in the semester, they surveyed the class and allowed people to bail out of their group and go into a new pool and get reassigned to a new group. And I think like 20% of the class decided to do this. And it was pretty interesting. I haven’t looked closely to see if our community measures were higher in that class. But I’m intrigued. I might try that in my class.

John: I had something similar in my econometrics class this spring, I tried using persistent group, some were working really productively, and others just were not working. And I was getting some pretty regular complaints from people. I talked to them and said, “Well, often you’ll be working at some point in your life with people where you need to forge a good productive relationship,” but eventually it got to the point where I said “Okay, anyone who wants to switch out of their group is welcome to and we’ll just re-form some new groups after this and anyone who wants to stay could.” And the shifting helped the people who were really productive and were frustrated that some of their colleagues were not quite as productive were really happy to start working with other people who were in a similar position, and I think there was some really positive complementarities from those people. The remaining people in those groups may have sunk down a little bit in terms of their performance in the class, but they had the option of becoming a bit more active and working harder, and they just chose not to take it.

Doug: And some students will do that. And look, as important as I believe econometrics is, some students, they’re like, you know, I have other ideas about what’s important in college, and maybe it’s different classes. Maybe it’s the social aspect, and like, “Who am I to judge?” But, don’t expect an “A” if the social part of college is more important to you.

Rebecca: There’s also always the group too that when you start talking to all of them, they all think they’re doing something different. It’s really hard to get a read on who’s doing what, and this person thinks this person is not doing anything, and this other person thinks they’re not. Those conversations happened together, but a little intervention and clarity and communication can go a long way. And I’ve had some really dysfunctional teams become functional, just with a little intervention early on, when you realize that they’re all talking past each other and are all quite unhappy.

Doug: Do you have them identify their role and write down like, when they submit a group project, say who did what? And would you recommend it? Because I don’t do that. I’ve always wondered if I should do that.

Rebecca: I’ve gone back and forth. Sometimes I have projects where they have defined their roles. I do it in sprints, or break it into pieces. And so they might switch roles in each round or whatever.

Doug: Which they should.

Rebecca: Yeah, I do also, I tend to ask a question on the team evaluations, which I do multiple times throughout the semester that ask who contributed the most to the group? And why or what did you learn from each colleague, and those tend to be really informative, and reflection papers.

Doug: One more thing I want to add to this part of the discussion is, this is really important, but we always make sure not to isolate women or underrepresented minorities in groups, because when you do that, they, in general have a pretty bad experience. And we’re not going for that /we’re going for good.

John: In Episode 182, we had Olga Stoddard on the podcast, who talked about a study where she and some colleagues had done in an MBA program where they had persistent groups. And the groups that had only a single female ended up evaluating the contributions of a female participant much lower. And in fact, they rated themselves lower as well. And there was some really substantial gains in their perceived participation, when they represented a larger share of the group, when it was a majority female group. They’ll be following it up with some research on individuals from other underrepresented groups.

Doug: So when I first started doing these peer ratings, I had three categories. So in addition to effort and dependability, I had collegiality, because I was trying to capture like, is this person… they’re putting in effort to show up on time… but they’re just a jerk, and like you should get penalized for that. And what I found is that the male students all gave the female students low collegiality ratings, and the female students all gave the male students low collegiality ratings, so it was just like incorporating sexism into the grade, and I didn’t want to do that. So, I just removed it altogether. It didn’t help.

John: One of the things that I’ve been doing based on, actually something our Dean suggested when she gave a workshop on group activities, was having groups put together some type of a group agreement on how they would resolve conflicts and so forth at the very start of the semester. And that seems to have really significantly reduced many of these issues, and providing some time during the semester for them to talk over any group processing issues they may be having. So that if they are facing challenges with people contributing, they have a chance to work that out amongst themselves and just talk about that a little bit before the problem becomes more ingrained. And it seems to have been helpful.

Doug: That’s super interesting, I do something not as good, which is at the beginning of the semester, I do this exercise in class where they have to write down what they think are like the five behaviors that are consistent with a well functioning group. And then I’ve got mine. And then we do the big word cloud. And we talk about it like listening to what everyone in the group has to say, being nice, giving people the benefit of the doubt, things like that. I guess it’s more proactive rather than reactive. But I think there’s probably a role for both.

Rebecca: I’ve mentioned before in the podcast, too, that I’ve been doing an activity called a retrospective at regular intervals throughout the semester, which is like a group reflection. I’ve been using virtual whiteboards and sticky notes, to do it with some basic questions like “What should the group keep doing? What should the group stop doing?”

Doug: Oh, interesting.

Rebecca: “And what should the group start to do?” And that was, I found, really productive and the amount of team issues that I’ve had since I started doing that has been greatly reduced.

Doug: I’m writing this down, sot I can do it too. I like that idea a lot.

Rebecca: It’s worked surprisingly well. I’ve been using Miro, which is a virtual whiteboard. And they actually have a number of templates for different retrospectives that you could use as a starting point.

Doug: You like that better than Jamboard?

Rebecca: Yeah, it has way more features but I also teach design, so we need fancier things, and it needs to look nice and you can make it nice in there. [LAUGHTER]

Doug: I used Jamboard last semester and it was great. The breakout rooms actually were able to communicate a lot better with each other when they could all write on a Jamboard.

Rebecca: Yeah, my use of whiteboards virtually has greatly improved collaboration.

Doug: Right. I’m not sure what to do in the classroom now.

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: I used Jamboard in all my classes and I was thinking, should I ask students to do this while they’re in a big classroom? And I’m kind of thinking, yes.

Rebecca: Yes.

Doug: Maybe, yeah, maybe… because the alternative is like one person writing on a piece of paper, and everyone else leaning over their shoulder. And it’s not as good.

Rebecca: Oor wasting a lot of paper by using a lot of sticky notes.

Doug: Right.

Rebecca: Because you can do the physical version of it, but…

Doug: But it’s got to be big enough. In a class where you’ve got 200 students, you don’t really have enough whiteboard.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about the impact of these changes on student learning.

Doug: We see improvements in student learning, but it often takes more than one semester of refinement to get there. And I think that’s a really important lesson: that you have to be patient when you make these changes.

Rebecca: Hey, we’re new at something and you have to have practice. Is that what you’re saying, Doug?

Doug: Right, but how many times have you run into someone who said, “I tried clickers and it didn’t work in my class?” Like, of course, it didn’t work. When you got on the bike, did it work the first time you tried to ride it? No, of course not. We’ve managed to reduce achievement gaps in some classes and we’ve really increased the sense of community among people. I think, actually, those two are pretty strongly related. We’ve moved from a real laser focus on increasing average learning to a wider range of outcomes: more attitudes, more gaps, we spent a lot of time thinking about how to lift the bottom of the distribution, like, “Who are these people that are scoring in the bottom quarter of the class? And why?” So yeah, I would say those are the main results we’ve had.

John: And by building an environment which creates more of a sense of community, it’s more likely I think that persistence towards graduation and degree will increase. Have you looked at any data on that yet, in terms of student persistence as a result of some of these changes?

Doug: Well, at Cornell, most people end up getting their degree. So that’s a way in which I think like an Ivy League college is pretty different from a lot of other colleges. Does active learning work in the classroom? Yes, and that’s true no matter where you are. But issues of retention, we actually spend a lot of time thinking about retention. But when we say retention, what we’re talking about is how much do you remember of what you learned in the class after the class is over? How much do you retain in terms of the knowledge, and we’ve actually been analyzing a fair amount of data and collecting a lot of data on this. And in some cases, students forget a lot. In other cases, there are for sure cases where they retain a lot. And so we do a lot of following up students after the course is over, and then giving them the test, the same end of semester assessment again, and we’re in the midst of an NSF funded research project right now, to see how much active learning matters. So we’re following up with students in our kind of baseline courses, like one, two, and three years later, and following up with the students who’ve taken the same course but with active learning, and we’re seeing if the retention is different, I’m really excited about that. What we’ve seen so far, with different work, is that if you apply what you’ve learned in another course, or in an internship, your retention is far higher. So that’s a really great result, and we’re really happy about that and it’s intuitive. We have another result, which is that if you take a class where you learn a different set of methods for answering the same questions. So we see this, if you take a stats class, and then you take a machine learning class, where you learn a different set of methods for doing similar kinds of things, you actually perform much worse. Those methods that you learned, they just get substituted out of your brain and then new methods are plugged in. And it’s not good. There’s evidence for this in psychology, and even a name for it. It’s called adaptive forgetting. And I think there’s like real, pretty serious implications here for our teaching, that we need to do a better job kind of connecting these things together, so that this doesn’t happen. And then the third thing that we’re looking at is, are there systematic differences by gender and by race in retention. And the data is too preliminary now, but it looks like there might be. And that’s pretty scary and we don’t know why. And we really need to get to the bottom of that. But the first step is to identify the problem. And then the next step is to kind of hypothesize ways to fix the problem. I think we were identifying a pretty serious problem there.

John: And you do have some control measures there in the more traditional classes that you can compare that to to see what types of interventions may be best in reducing some of those gaps.

Doug: Yeah, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

John: We always end with a question, what’s next? And it sounds like you’ve got lots of plans for that.

Doug: So I feel like the Active Learning Initiative is chugging along and we have a process and we’re applying it and we’ve saved our macroeconomics courses for the end because there’s less consensus about what macro is then the other courses, and so that’s fine, but I’m not a macroeconomist, but it’s important and it needs to be done. So I’m pretty excited about collecting and analyzing this retention data that I was just talking about. I’ll give one more project that I’m excited about that we have going right now. We came up with this math assessment and we learned that the math assessment, if you give it at the beginning of the semester, in both our intro classes and our intermediate classes, it’s strongly predictive of how well the students do in the class. And so in particular, if you do badly on the math assessment, you’re much more likely to perform poorly in the class itself. And so some students, they just come in, and they’re behind on day one. And this semester, we are working jointly with colleagues at George Washington University and at the Copenhagen Business School. And in all three sites, we are trying something different to try to help these students, we’re all going to give the same math assessment at the beginning of the term. And we’re going to try different things to actually help these students succeed. And it’s going to be a little bit of a let… well, I was gonna say, let a 1000 flowers bloom, but it’s really like three flowers bloom… We’re gonna hope we can actually find a solution to a problem we identified. So that’s what’s next. That’s what’s on the agenda for the fall.

Rebecca: Maybe you’ll even find more than one solution.

Doug: That would be great. They’re pretty different in terms of how intensive they are. They go from: here are some online resources that you can work with, all the way to, why don’t you hold off on taking your intro class and take this full semester math for economics course, and then take intro, and then the Cornell treatment is actually an intermediate level treatment, the expensive treatment should work. But we’re gonna formally show that, but these other two… we don’t know. And so we’re looking forward to finding out. And we’re looking forward to helping a whole ton of students that would otherwise have a really bad experience in an economics course, and then never take another one.

John: And that was actually one of the things I was thinking about in terms of retention, that the retention isn’t only at the institution, it’s also persistence to that degree in that major, and we lose a lot of people in economics, and a lot of it is related to math ability.

Doug: Yeah, that’s right. I think it’s obscured by the fact that we get a lot of students that fall out of the hard sciences. So it seems like we’re getting a lot of students that are continuing, but they’re not really. we’re losing a whole bunch of we’re gaining some.

John: Thanks, Doug. It’s great talking to you. And I’m looking forward to seeing you at some economic conferences as they start to pick up more in person again.

Doug: I know, wouldn’t that be nice? I’m looking forward to it. The virtual conferences have been really good, but they for sure missed out on the social part.

Rebecca: And the travel part.

Doug: I don’t miss the travel that much.

John: I’ve been able to attend many more conferences, but it just doesn’t feel the same.

Doug: No.

Rebecca: There is something to be said about moving yourself to a different space, so that you can focus on what’s at hand, whether or not the travel and all the logistics associated with that are pleasant or not. There’s something about just moving yourself from the normal everyday to some other way that can be helpful in focusing.

Doug: …where the cats and the dogs and the kids can’t walk in on your session.

Rebecca: Indeed. Well, thanks so much, Doug. It’s always great to hear how things are going. And I hope we’ll get a future update as the project continues to move along.

Doug: Oh, yeah, I would love to.

John: Well, thank you. And I hope we do see a return of the band of the Teach Better podcast once things settle down.

Doug: Well, the crazy thing is, you always hear about these bands and their last tracks? And I’ve never really understood like, why didn’t they just put it on the album? What is this with the lost tracks that get released much later? We have two episodes that have never been published, and they’re really good.

John: That’s the easy way to bring it back.

Doug: So someday, we’ll release like the… [LAUGHTER] like the hidden tapes.

John: …the basement tapes. This been super fun you guys. It’s so nice to catch up.


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.


197. Humanized Teaching

Looking to the future as an instructor in higher education can seem daunting, especially as we plan for a more equitable future.  In this episode, Jesse Stommel joins us to discuss some of those challenges, search for hope, and discuss ways forward that are ethical, humane and flexible. Jesse is the Executive Director of the Hybrid Pedagogy nonprofit organization, and organization he founded in 2011. He is also the founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. Jesse recently served as the Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. He is the co-author,  with Sean Michael Morris, of An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, and, with Dorothy Kim, co-editor of Disrupting the Digital Humanities.



John: Looking to the future as an instructor in higher education can seem daunting, especially as we plan for a more equitable future. In this episode, we discuss some of those challenges, search for hope, and discuss ways forward that are ethical, humane and flexible.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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


John: Our guest today is Jesse Stommel. Jesse is the Executive Director of the Hybrid Pedagogy nonprofit organization, an organization he founded in 2011. He is also the founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. Jesse recently served as the Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. He is a co-author, with Sean Michael Morris of An Urgency of Teachers: the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, and with Dorothy Kim, the co-editor of Disrupting the Digital Humanities. Welcome, Jesse.

Jesse: Hi, it’s good to be with you all. Looking forward to our chat.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Jesse: I’m actually drinking peach honey sparkling water. It’s sort of tea infused.

Rebecca: Okay, that’s good. That counts. Also, it sounds really good. [LAUGHTER]

John: I have ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: …and I have a decaf Assam.

Jesse: I feel jealous of both of your teas.

Rebecca: It’s sad that we don’t have you in person in our office where we have a giant selection that you could choose from, we’ll send you a picture so you know what you missed out on. [LAUGHTER]

Jesse: Well, we’ll have to do that in the future.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

John: They’re slightly aged teas compared to when we last saw them about a year and a few months back, but they are there and some of them we’ll probably have to dispose of. [LAUGHTER] You’ve been a really important voice on behalf of inclusive teaching and very vocal on topics like trauma-infused pedagogy, designing with care in mind, ungrading, and equity more generally. What does it mean to be an ethical instructor as we approach the fall, still amidst the last stages of a pandemic?

Jesse: I wrote a piece with Sara Goldrick-Rab a few years ago, and for folks who don’t know, Sara Goldrick-Rab is an expert in higher education policy, particularly focusing on food and housing insecurity. And she and I wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Teaching the Students We Have, Not the Students We Wish We Had.” And ultimately, the thing that that piece charged me to do, and I’ve been working with Sara for, I think, close to eight years now and her work and the research that she’s done has really put a kind of specificity to my work on inclusive pedagogies and critical pedagogies that has charged me to think really carefully about how the material circumstances of our students affect their learning experience, and also how the material circumstances of teachers affect their teaching experience. And so if I think about how we begin to move back into classrooms, to find our way back to our institutions, to find our way back to the collaborations and colleagues we may have worked really closely with, I think that the key is for us to do really deep work thinking about who are our students? What do they need to be successful? How have they been affected by the last 18 months? And to do that same work with ourselves and our colleagues. Ask ourselves: who are we as teachers? What do we need to be successful? And I think institutions have a charge that they have to be really careful about how they quote unquote, pivot back to business as usual. I don’t think there’s a neat and tidy pivot back. And I don’t think business as usual is the appropriate place for us to turn to at this moment. So for institutions to ask hard questions of themselves, interrogate the things that they may have done to exclude many of the people who found themselves struggling during the pandemic, the things they did to exclude those students and faculty members well before the pandemic, to assure that they don’t continue the kind of exclusive practices that I’ve seen so many institutions coming to grips with in the last 18 months.

Rebecca: I really appreciate the focus that you’ve put on both students and also caring about colleagues and making sure that we’re being reciprocal in thinking about each other as humans and not just robots that we work with or something. In this conversation of getting back to campuses in the fall, what can we do to continue to humanize this practice with our colleagues too, that you just kind of focused a little bit on students, but what does this mean when we’re thinking about our colleagues and our relationships with our colleagues,

Jesse: I’ve been at several institutions that were struggling. So many of the people listening have found themselves at institutions that were struggling, I feel like the whole of public education is struggling at the current moment, but I’ve had some very specific circumstances at the last few institutions where I worked. About 10 years ago, I worked at Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon, and Marylhurst University ended up closing down because of financial insecurity. And I was there a few years before they closed down and sort of dealing with the environment and watching the writing on the wall get darker and darker. After that, I went to University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the Governor, Scott Walker, obliterated tenure across the system, taking one of the best public education state systems in our country and making it a mockery. And his decision had a rippling impact across the entire institution. And what I found in both of those situations was that in situations of precarity, situations of financial austerity… and in many cases, those are manufactured, and they’re manufactured, especially in the case of Scott Walker, for very particular political reasons. In situations of austerity and precarity, people start to turn on each other, the sort of fabric of the community that existed prior to those moments that I found myself in at those institutions, I watched it erode and it eroded very quickly. And so the importance of being kind to one another, the importance of supporting each other, supporting our students, certainly, but also supporting our colleagues, and the importance of administrations focusing their efforts not on finding a new contract to a remote proctoring solution, which will do harm to all of the students and all of the teachers at the institution, but to focus their investment and their energy on finding ways to support the community that beats at the heart of the institution. That’s ultimately what we have to do. And it’s so important right now, because I saw over the last 18 months, the same thing starting to happen at a lot of institutions. I saw institutions beginning to create cultures that were inhospitable to the kinds of work that we really want to do in education.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that comes up in addition to food insecurity and housing insecurity with our students is that during the pandemic it became visible, I think, for some folks, that part-time faculty, adjunct faculty, also have some of those insecurities that we often just don’t address or think about. How do you see us, as a larger higher education community starting to support those faculty more and really addressing those insecurities? What can we do?

Jesse: I think there’s an easy answer… that we should all commit to having a permanent full-time academic workforce at all of our institutions. And the truth is that when you look at what the expenses are of our institutions, there are ways to cut costs. Imagine an institution that has just spent $500,000, or if you’re the State of Illinois, just spent $23 million on a multi-year contract with a remote proctoring solution. Think about all of that money, and how many adjunct or precarious faculty that money could support. If you think about the pedagogical benefits of making faculty full-time non-precarious, versus the pedagogical deficit that gets created by creating a culture of suspicion at our institutions, there is money being spent on things doing harm to students that could be easily re channeled towards something like certainly student support, supporting students basic needs, or supporting the basic needs of faculty who are struggling. I think that there is a need right now for us to be really honest about how money is getting spent at institutions and how that money signals what our institutions value and what our institutions don’t value. It is quite clear, across the entirety of higher education, that the vast majority of our institutions do not support teachers or the work of teaching. And that is quite clear via the mass adjunctification across our institutions, as well as the failure to properly invest in the preparation of teachers or pedagogical support for teachers. And that didn’t change in the pandemic. I have not seen a huge amount of money suddenly getting funneled into faculty development and support… at most institutions, anyway.

Rebecca: I think many of the things that we’re talking about right now are all things that were happening before the pandemic, they just became more visible to some people during the pandemic.

Jesse: Yeah, and you mentioned food and housing insecurity, and then alluded to other struggles that people were having… mental health issues… certainly, we are all experiencing acute mental health issues because of the last 18 months. But there are so many people who were experiencing acute and chronic mental health issues prior to the pandemic that weren’t getting properly addressed. And if you also think about disabled students and faculty, and the ways that their needs were not being met prior to the pandemic. We figured out how to do remote work and remote teaching in the midst of the pandemic, or we figured out how to do it as best as each individual institution might have done, which is… your mileage may vary, I guess. [LAUGHTER] But, the truth is that there are so many faculty and students who are disabled in various ways who needed that kind of support well before the pandemic.

John: On a positive note, though, didn’t the pandemic help make some of these issues much more clear to faculty and administrators, when they saw the problems that students had in continuing and when they recognize the need to provide support for faculty who didn’t have computer access at home to even connect with their students remotely? Might that perhaps help lead to a change in mindset?

Jesse: On my Twitter bio, I am called an irascible optimist. That was a moniker given to me by Sean Michael Morris. And when he said that I thought: “That is indeed me.” And I’ve worn that moniker ever since he gave it to me, irascible optimist. I’ll be honest that I have been less optimistic in the last 18 years. And I recognize I’m being less optimistic in this initial start to this conversation than I would have been if we had talked two years ago. And part of that is because of what I have seen over the last 18 months, and the deep, deep struggles that I’ve seen so many of my students having, and so many of my colleagues having, and also the failures of so many state governments, the federal government, and institutions to really figure out what to do and how to handle this particular moment. So if I think about what we’ve learned, is that we’ve learned to listen to our gut, we’ve learned to acknowledge the things that we were already seeing. It’s not like suddenly we saw new things over the last 18 months, we were already seeing them. And so we learned that we actually have to take action. One of the sad things and this is going to keep us maybe on the pessimistic place for just a few more minutes, is that I worry that so many institutions came to grips with these things, because these things started to hit them in their pocketbook. And I hate that that was the reason that many institutions started to solve these issues. On the other hand, what I will say is that the kinds of conversations that I’ve had with fellow teachers over the last 18 months have felt incredible. I have felt more connected, even if my work has been harder than it ever has been. I have felt more connected to that work and more deeply connected to the colleagues that I work with. And I have found new connections, because I have seen so many individual teachers struggling and working so hard to help meet the needs of our present moment.

John: And I’m still fairly optimistic because of that. A lot of faculty were able to avoid some of those issues, even though they may have been generally aware of some of the challenges our students face. When they interacted with them in the classroom it wasn’t quite as clear as when they were hearing from students who were dealing with problems of just being at their class because they had work commitments or because they had other responsibilities. And they had network issues because they didn’t have stable network connections, or they were using a laptop that was 10 years old, and it wouldn’t work consistently. And I think faculty in general have become much more aware of the challenges of our students. I’m hopeful, at least, that that’s not going to disappear. And that that could help lead to more consistent support of students once we do return to whatever the new normal happens to be as we move back to more campus instruction.

Rebecca: I’m really hoping that faculty, given this kind of acknowledgement of a wide variety of struggles, will really work together and push administrators and push universities and push systems to change. Because if we don’t speak up together in a unified way, it’s not gonna happen.

Jesse: Yeah, Paulo Freire and bell hooks both talk about what they describe as critical hope… that hope is an action that we take not a passive state, that hope is a work… that hope is struggle. And just that idea that hope isn’t passive, we don’t sit back and wait and hope. Instead, we take the action of hope. And Maxine Greene, also a critical pedagogue, talks about imagining the world as though it could be otherwise. And so her word there is “imagination.” Again, something active, imagining the world as though it could be otherwise requires us to recognize our agency and how we can have a positive impact and a positive effect. And so pushing back where we can, drawing students into these conversations where we are able, insisting that student voices be centered in these conversations, these are things that we can do and that will have a necessarily good impact, even when we’re precarious and where we feel like our job might be at risk, there are still actions that we can take, and it’s a matter of figuring out how do I engage in the work of hope or the work of imagination.

Rebecca: See, we got to a more positive place. [LAUGHTER]

Jesse: Just give us a few minutes. [LAUGHTER]

John: One of the things you’re really known for is your work on ungrading and creating an environment that’s more conducive to learning. Could you just talk a little bit about that?

Jesse: So I’ll just say that I have been quote, unquote, ungrading for 21 years, it’s a practice that I started my first semester of teaching. And it’s a practice that has grown and changed over time. But, I often say that I have never put a grade on a piece of student work in my career. The truth is that that’s not exactly true, because I love co-teaching and when you co-teach you negotiate a pedagogy with your co-teacher, and so I have put grades on individual students’ work but it was always a discussion and a sort of process that I came to with another teacher. The interesting thing is that I’ve been doing this work as part of my practice for 21 years, but I didn’t start talking about it publicly. I mean, beyond just having conversations about it publicly. I didn’t start publicly writing about it, giving keynotes about it, etc., until 2017. So four years ago that I really started writing publicly about this. Ungrading was a word that I had used, but it wasn’t something that an entire way of my pedagogical thought was centered around. So it has been interesting to watch the transition in me as I’ve moved towards talking about this more publicly. And I’ll tell you the reasons I didn’t talk about it publicly. I was a road warrior adjunct for about nine years of my teaching, teaching at up to four institutions, nine classes a term, dealing with the rules and restrictions at four different institutions. And I also felt like my pedagogical approach to grading felt like something between me and the students I was working with. It was no one else’s business. It was a conversation I had with them. And I felt like I wanted to protect that space for students and me to work through that together. The reason that I changed my thinking and started writing more publicly is because, over the last 20 years, I’ve watched education become increasingly quantitative and watched the reliance on learning management systems, which turn students into rows in a spreadsheet and their work into columns in a spreadsheet. I’ve watched institutions grade and evaluate their teachers in increasingly quantifiable ways. And then I’ve watched, obviously, the turn towards algorithms and the Internet of Things and weird tools like plagiarism detection software that again, feels like it reduces us to cogs, and reduces our work to bits, ones and zeros. And so I felt the need to create a larger conversation and dialogue on this because increasingly, I recognize that grades were the biggest thorn in the side of critical pedagogy and the biggest thorn in the side of my pedagogy. And so many people felt like we’re increasingly struggling with grades as the thing that got in the way of them creating productive relationships with students. And ultimately, when I started writing about it, I was amazed at the response. And to some degree, I feel like there were so many people that had hit that wall, and that we’re feeling that increased quantification over many, many years, almost like frogs boiling in a pot of water. And the other amazing thing was how much conversations with the larger community of teachers, a larger community of students, helped continue to evolve and change my practice. I guess one of the other reasons I started writing and talking about it more publicly was because I needed a push. I needed students and colleagues to ask me to work even harder to ask even harder questions of myself. And the last thing I’ll say is that ungrading is just a word. The one thing I can’t stand about the word ungrading is it tries to take a huge variety of practices that push back on traditional grading, and tries to lump them into one word as though there is upgrading tm, you know, the thing Jesse invented and that you can buy from him for $19.99, [LAUGHTER] three payments, and that he’ll deliver it to you and it will be a stack of 20 best practices that if you implement will change your life and make your relationships with students better. And that’s just not the way pedagogy works. That’s not the way teaching works. And that’s certainly not the way something as complex as assessment works. And so ultimately, this has to be an ongoing dialogue, conversation between teachers, between teachers and students. And what works for one teacher in one context with one group of students won’t necessarily work neat and tidily for another.

John: You mentioned that your practice has evolved in some way. Could you talk a little bit about how your practices involving… I don’t want to say ungrading again… [LAUGHTER]

Jesse: No, I did help coin the term.

John: Ok.

Jesse: So I’m all right with us using the word “ungrading.” I think it is good for us to have a word for us to rally these conversations around because we need the energy and the catalyzing force that that term has caused, and so it’s useful and productive in that way. So I’ve done self evaluation, asking students to write process letters, to analyze their own learning, to reflect on their own learning. I’ve asked them to reflect on group and peer learning. And I’ve asked them to grade themselves. And over the course of my career, I almost always give students the grade they give themselves. For the most part, when I change a grade, it’s to raise the grade, especially in situations where I feel like bias has influenced the grades. The thing is bias, even self-internalized bias, affects how we review and evaluate our performance. And the thing that I’ve changed most about is I’ve started to get this nagging feeling that when I have students self evaluate and self grading that I’m taking everything that I don’t like about grades, everything that the research shows is ineffective about grades, everything that is emotionally harmful about grades and giving grades, and taking that and kind of passing the buck on to students. And so my project in ungrading, or my project in my own assessment practice, has always been to turn grades over on their back and inspect them and ask hard questions of them and wonder at them and raise our eyebrows at them so that we feel like we have more agents within a quantified system like we work in. And I don’t think I can necessarily do that by just taking all the problems of grades and passing that over to students. So I’ve started to rethink how I ask students to do that work of grading themselves. One of the things that I found is, over so many years, giving A, A-, B, B+, B, B- is that when students went to grade themselves, they would give themselves something like, “Oh, it’s either an A plus, or an A minus, or it’s a B plus.” And they would quibble these tiny details, which that kind of evidence suggests to me that I had passed the anxiety of grades and quantification on to them. And so recently, in the last two years, I’ve removed A minuses and pluses from the approach that I use, I tell students just round up. And it’s interesting, because the second that I did, that students stopped quibbling the tiny details, and this is really drawn from some writing by Peter Elbow, where he writes specifically about minimal grading, which taking 100 point scale or 1000 point scale and reducing it to a 10 point scale, or a five point scale, or a three, two, one point scale. And the more we reduce it, the more clear it becomes, and the more it communicates, and the more effective it is as an assessment tool. And so giving students less gradations to quibble about. But on the other hand, I also recognize that these are decisions that I’m making, that I still have power in the classroom and trying to think about an inspect my own power and privilege in the classroom and how I can begin to at least dismantle that, not to remove it, because I think classrooms need strong leaders, but at least to dismantle it enough that I’m leaving space for students to sort of carve out their own space within their educations.

Rebecca: Seems to me that a lot of the ungrading work is really tied to this idea of flexibility that you’ve talked about pretty frequently: being flexible as a teacher and offering options, but it’s also in popular in frameworks, like UDL. But I also know that the idea of providing flexibility can cause a lot of anxiety to a faculty member in trying to figure out how to do that and make it manageable and make it sustainable. Can you share some ideas about making that a sustainable practice and also what you mean by flexible options for students.

Jesse: So the interesting thing is flexible does become more complicated. If we are engaging in the work of teaching as a form of policing student learning, or even not policing, just monitoring, even, monitoring student learning, or collecting or gathering student learning or gathering evidence for student learning. The second that we as teachers move away from that role of feeling like we are the evaluators, we are meant to rank students, we’re there to police their learning, we’re there to ensure compliance…. which honestly, even good teachers, so much of that is baked into just how our system is structured, that we do it without even realizing that we’re doing it… even the structure and shape of a syllabus has so much of that baked into it. I think that flexibility becomes a lot easier when you hand that over to the students. So people often say, “Oh, well, you let your students do five different things for an assignment or you let them just pick something… anything?” And I say, “Well, I don’t let them I invite them to do that, first of all.” Second of al, “Well, then how do you manage all the different things you get at different times?” I say, “Well, I don’t consider myself the primary audience for student work, I create a space in my course where they can share this work with one another. And they can give one another feedback.” And then, “Well gosh, how do you deal with all of the requests that you might get?” I don’t ask my students to ask permission. I invite them to modify, remix, to take advantage of flexibility. So in other words, the more that I remove my bureaucratic burden, the more flexibility becomes super easy because if a student says to me, “Well, can I” I can say, “of course you can. I invite you to change, remix,” in some ways, I don’t even have to do the work of considering the request. Because the request isn’t necessary to the relationship. I’m sort of there to offer feedback to students, and to be surprised and to marvel at whatever it is that they end up doing for the course. The other thing that we often do is we think that our role is to rank students against one another. That’s one of the reasons why I can’t stand rubrics, because I feel like the entire structure of a rubric is set up to put student work into neat and tidy boxes. And when we do that, we essentially are ranking students against one another. And so if one student does something that is just in a completely different universe from another, how do you assure that they both earned the A ? Well, ultimately, if you just remove the idea that our work is to compare students to one another. One student does a traditional academic paper and the other gives you a piece of installation art that moves around campus and that you can’t even quite make sense of it. You don’t have to hold them up and say, “Well, how do I really justify giving that piece of performance art an A?” You take it on its own merit, and you recognize what it is, and you marvel at it. And you allow yourself to be surprised by it. The more flexible I am, the more fun teaching ends up being, people often when I say things like that think, “Oh, your classes, just chaos.” And actually, no, I’m a pretty type A person. I’m pretty OCD, I actually structure a really neat and tidy syllabus, the structure of my course, is very organized, partly because I sort of subscribe to improvisation within a frame, which I take from jazz music, but I don’t know much about jazz. So feel free to tell me if I’ve interpreted that completely wrongly. But this idea that we need a frame and a structure in order to improvise within it. And so you set up the sort of guardrails for students, to some extent their boundaries, but it’s more like their guardrails, you set them up so that students feel like they can experiment within the space of the classroom. And then, to some extent, it allows you and gives you the freedom to play without worrying if you’re just going to go completely off the deep end,

John: You mentioned being surprised by some of the things your students have come up with as ways of demonstrating their learning. Could you give us just a few examples of some of the more interesting projects your students have selected?

Jesse: I kind of alluded to it in our last conversation. But this was at University of Mary Washington, and the assignment was to reinvent, rebuild the internet. And the assignment had a very short prompt that gave space for students to interpret the instructions in so many different ways. And the answer to this assignment for a group of students was to create a pile of trash. And that pile of trash had multicolored bits of crumpled paper in it. And it was a piece of installation art that migrated around campus. And they took pictures of it in different locations around campus. And then at one point it showed up in our classroom, and they wrote an artist statement that talked about the detritus of the web, the deep and dark web and all the bits you can see and the bits you can’t see. And that was marvelous. The sort of meat of the project was how captivating and how just seeing this thing, and wondering at how this fit as an interpretation of the assignment. I often come into class, and when I’ve just picked something like a reading or designed an assignment, and I’ve kind of done it instinctually maybe it’s because I’m doing that reading for the first time, I’ll often go into class, and I’ll say, “Why did I choose this reading?” And I mean that honestly, it’s not a rhetorical question. It’s like, this is the first time I’ve taught this and I’m trying to figure out whether it fits and how it fits. And so ultimately, that’s what this group of students’ project did for me, is it forced me to ask myself, “Well, gosh, what is this course even about?” And to me, that project managed to get at the biggest question of the course, which is, what are we even doing here? Why are we talking about the internet, and for me, that was marvelous. On the other hand, another teacher might look at this pile of trash and say, “Hey, that’s just a pile of trash.” And so there’s something idiosyncratic about how we engage with student work. I’ve also read really, really good academic papers. And so even some of those have surprised me, in part because sometimes it’s that punctum in an academic paper where the academic paper is just going along, going through the motions of a traditional academic paper, and then it just veers. And then you have this moment like Roland Barthe’s punctum where all you can see, you almost have it burned into your retina, this sort of moment of friction within the work. And truthfully, those are the most interesting parts of education in general, is the parts where we do something that we weren’t expecting, or where students turn something in that we never would have imagined for a particular assignment.

Rebecca: One of the things that sometimes comes up with flexibilities not just the trepidation of a faculty member, but also of students. When there’s a lot of options available, students sometimes can freeze and not know what to do. You mentioned the guardrails. So how do those function? Or how do you make sure that those students that are overwhelmed by choice feel included?

Jesse: One thing is to have very clear parameters, and I tend to have really short provocations for students… let’s call them provocations instead of assignments, because even the idea of assignment suggests a transactional relationship between a teacher and students, I still haven’t found quite the right word, invitation doesn’t feel strong enough, but maybe provocation is what it is. So I try and be very, very clear to have very explicit instructions. And also to have them very short. I find that so often, we create assignment sheets that end up being longer than the papers themselves. I’ve seen two-page responses that have an assignment sheet that’s three or four pages describing what students should do and their two page response paper. And I think partly we do that because we’re anxious about the questions that we’ll get, and we’re anxious about students falling through the cracks. When what happens is the more words that we put in our assignments, or provocations, whatever you want to call them…. I think I’ll, for the purposes here, I’ll keep calling them assignments. I think that’s fine. We fill our assignments up with language that’s all there, in some ways defensively, but every single word we put in there is a pothole that a student might fall into. It’s a rabbit hole a student might fall down. And I find that the shorter my assignment descriptions are, the less questions I get, the longer they are, the more questions they get. And people just think, well, if I just answer all the questions in advance that I won’t get any questions. And that isn’t how it ends up working out, because students are really worried about what our expectations are. And I think we have to break that down. And the reason that a student feels overwhelmed by choice is because they’re worried about meeting our expectations. And so we have to make sure that, in our language, we make clear, this isn’t about my expectations, it’s about what you expect of yourself. And here’s the thing I don’t necessarily know that works if we’re using traditional grading systems, because ultimately, if you’re putting a grade on a thing, your expectations are what matters. But if you’re giving over some, or even all of that work to students, it starts to break down this idea. They recognize, “Oh, he’s not grading this anyway. So this really is about my expectations.” And if, when I engage with the work rather than approving of it or disapproving of it, instead, I encounter it the way a reader would, by having a reaction to it and telling students what my reaction is. And then I encourage students to do that for each other. Peter Elbow talks about ranking, evaluating and liking… ranking being the thing that we shouldn’t do, we shouldn’t rank students against one another, evaluating being a thing that still has a place because certainly there are times when students do need some amount of evaluation from an external mentor, I think those moments are much fewer than we end up doing. And then he talks about liking, which is just giving ourselves space to appreciate student work, to not have to evaluate it, to just enjoy it, and to respond to it and to be an expert reader for students.

John: Could you elaborate on that notion of being an expert reader for students? What sort of feedback do you provide them as an expert reader?

Jesse: Well, I think one of the things is that so much of our so many of our traditional grading systems call for us to be objective. And we can probably have a whole other podcast around objectivity versus subjectivity and whether they’re even possible. There’s a lot of research that shows the idea of objective grading is just a fallacy to begin with. But I think that it’s about allowing ourselves to have a subjective response, allowing ourselves to bring our full humanity to that moment of engaging with student work, to laugh at it, to wonder at it, to marvel at it, to be silent, to be struck silent, to raise our eyebrows at it, to ask hard questions of it. And so what that might actually look like with a group of students is letting them see me puzzling over it, letting them see me just work through my thinking about what I’m seeing. And so oftentimes, I have students do sort of expos in class where they bring all of their work and they just lay it out, whether it’s a paper, whether it’s a pile of trash, whether it’s a video, whether it’s a documentary, they lay their work out, and we just hang out together and go around and look at each other’s work. And what I sort of see my role there is just to model what it looks like to appreciate the efforts that they’ve made and to encounter their work and talk about my experience of it, as opposed to saying, “Oh, you did this? Well, this needs improvement.” …to sort of hold back that this needs improvement, because there are moments when that’s really important, but then other moments where it isn’t. For example, I taught first-year writing for a long time, and in first-year college writing, it’s not getting to success, it’s about just getting comfortable writing, just getting comfortable in your skin as a writer. And that means not a lot of that kind of evaluative feedback, it means more just here’s what happens to me when I encounter your words.

Rebecca: Some of what we’ve been talking about with this flexibility and ungrading is really starting to get a sense that individual students and members of a learning community really being members and belonging to that community. Can you elaborate on ways in addition to this flexibility idea that might help students from a wide variety of backgrounds feel like they belong, especially those that we saw during the pandemic and we know they existed before that, really struggling or having barriers and helping them really feel like “You really do belong here. You really should be here. We want you here.”

Jesse: I think that we do that from the very beginning and how we structure education at so many of our institutions, the reliance on the idea of seat time. classes that meet two days a week, Tuesday and Thursday for a set amount of hours, classes that meet Monday, Wednesday, Friday, really bizarre ways of thinking about hybrid learning or online learning where there’s too much of a reliance on synchronous engagement. Ultimately, when we make those kinds of decisions with how we structure education at our institutions, we’re telling whole swaths of students: “This isn’t built for you, this isn’t made for you.” And increasingly people talk about adult learners. Well, at the college level, all of our students are adult learners. And increasingly, the vast majority of them are working adult learners. And we’re not doing enough to structure education so that it acknowledges their experience. I had a student who was disabled, he had chronic migraines. And, luckily, at the time I worked at an institution where I was developing a new hybrid degree program. And I had in a sense developed the program not just for him, but for all of the students I was working with, who were like him in various ways, who had no access to education, without serious rethinking about how we build our curriculum. So thinking about when we move online, relying increasingly on asynchronous ways for students to engage asynchronously, because most of the students who turn to online need more flexibility, their time is not their own in many cases. And when we’re designing degree programs, rethinking things like the 15-week semester, rethinking things like seat time, rethinking things like classes that meet Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 50 minutes over the course of a 15-week period. Honestly, I increasingly think that’s absurd. What a weird structure…50 minutes three times a week, how is where a student is at on Monday any different than where they’re at on Wednesday, is 15 minutes really enough time for us to develop the kinds of thinking that we’re trying to get at in our courses. Ultimately, I think, just asking ourselves, are we continuing to teach students in the way that we are just because this is the way we have always done it? Or is this actually what will help students learn and give space for students to learn? Also, if we go back to those adjuncts, when I was a road warrior adjunct trying to teach a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class that met for 50 minutes, that was 45 minutes from my house, trying to fit that into my schedule with my other eight classes, was nearly impossible. What I needed more than anything was not just one approach, I needed to be able to teach one course asynchronously, one course on a tuesday, thursday schedule. So I needed a variety of different things in my schedule. And that’s what a lot of students are needing. The students at my institution, where I’m currently teaching still at University of Mary Washington, so many of them are quote unquote, traditional students who want face-to-face interaction. And so the institution says we are on ground residential institution, we will be back full time, everyone will be back at their desks in the fall. But that’s not what the students actually want. The students want most of their educational experience to be face to face, but they’re struggling to fill a schedule, because they’re also working. And so they need to be able to take some courses online, some courses hybrid, some courses face to face. And they really want to be able to build a much more thoughtful approach to education. And also, when we think about specific classes, some disciplines, some courses, lend themselves to one format, some lend themselves to another. So I think that that’s the way we invite students in is, from the start, actually building with the students. And not just for the students building for those students would be great, but also finding ways to build with them, and to design curriculum alongside of them. So it really meets their needs and challenges them appropriately.

John: One of the things that’s going to be a bit different this fall is that we’re going to have some students who are sophomores, even, who’ve never been on campus. And most students have not been interacting in person in classrooms for the last year and a half or so. What can we do to help create a sense of community when we bring these people together for the first time after this long break from face-to-face interaction?

Jesse: The first thing I’m thinking about is something that I started saying, from the very, very start of the quote unquote pivot to online, right around the beginning of the lockdown last year, I started to say, we need to make sure that it isn’t continuity of instruction that we’re trying to maintain, but continuity of the communities at the heart of our institutions. I don’t know if many institutions figured out how to support those communities online. I think they figured out how to keep the lights on and to keep people taking classes. But, I don’t necessarily know that the communities were maintained. What I worry about as we return to campus is that we will try and pick up right where we left with that continuity of instruction. Rather than realizing that where we need to most place our efforts is not just starting up the wheel of delivering content to students, what we need to do is figure out how to revitalize those communities. And that needs to be a huge part of our efforts. So if every teacher is imagining that they’re going to go back to teaching the same amount of content that they taught before the pandemic… one, they were probably trying to teach too much. They were probably teaching too much at the expense of developing community even two years ago, but recognizing that we need to put a lot more breathing room into our courses. And also a lot more conversation between courses, because communities don’t just exist in a vacuum, you don’t just have a community in your first-period class, and then a community in your second-period class community is living, breathing, and it’s sort of echoes between those spaces. So thinking about what happens between period one and period two. How are those two courses connected? What are students doing on campus? Where is the life of the institution? And how can we invest as much as possible into supporting that, and I don’t think it’s with algorithmic retention software. That is the worst possible thing that I see institutions turning to to try and support community. Algorithms are not going to help us build and maintain community, human beings are the ones who are good at that. So any dollar you’re spending on an algorithmic retention software, please give that to adjunct and contingent instructors.

John: In terms of reducing the amount of content in classes, I think a lot of faculty realized that when they switch to remote or online instruction. Is that something you think people will automatically recognize or do you think people are going to try to go back to how things were before and forget the lessons that they’ve learned about this during the pandemic?

Jesse: I think a lot of individual faculty, individual teachers, individual students will take so many of these lessons back to their work this fall and beyond. I think institutions are much harder to shift. And so the problem is, I don’t know that institutional culture will change in the way that it needs to in order to support the efforts of those students and faculty. And so this is really a charge to institutions and administrators to put that breathing room also in the institutional culture and important ways.

Rebecca: And maybe even really, to push it within a department because that might be a place where faculty can start to expand it out. And think about it. When you were talking, I was imagining a time that seems so long ago now. It may have been 10 years ago, and seems like a really long time now.

Jesse: Yeah, it feels like it’s either a week ago, or like 10 years ago, to me,

Rebecca: I had colleagues that we would, if we had classes at the same time, we would actually schedule activities together. We would cross pollinate to have some of that community. We’d have design challenges and investigate and do different things with each other. We’ve lost some of that play, just over time with assessment requirements and this and that. It has fizzled. So I’m hoping that this fall will bring back the play, bring back the fun for that community that to marinate a little bit.

Jesse: And if I can think of some really practical things institutions can do in order to seed that community that you’re describing. If your institution is not paying adjuncts and contingent staff for faculty development, it needs to. Even Walmart and Subway and Starbucks pays their employees for required job training. But then the other benefit is that those are the spaces where community germinates. Another example is there are so many barriers to collaborative teaching at our institutions, “Oh, well, who’s going to get the credit for it? Whose load is it going to count towards?” If that’s your answer to collaborative teaching, you need to stop right there and ask yourself, “What kind of environment are we trying to create?” And if we want a collaborative environment, if we want a community amongst our faculty, then right then and there, decide and commit yourself to figuring out the obstacles to collaborative teaching, which I’ve watched get worse and worse and worse over the last 21 years that I’ve been teaching. And those are just two small things. And the truth is, they’re relatively easy. There are bureaucratic systems that feel like “You can’t possibly… how are we going to deal with that within our institutional database?” Like get over it, figure it out. [LAUGHTER] The truth is that those are things that we all know we want. I’ve never talked to someone who says “no, no, we don’t want people collaborative teaching” then why don’t institutions charge themselves to figure that out?

Rebecca: So many good questions raised in this conversation, Jesse. As always, I wouldn’t expect anything different with a conversation with you. We always wrap up by asking, “What’s next?”

Jesse: Oh, wow, that’s a really, really large question. What’s next? Okay, well, I’m gonna say that, as some folks listening to this may not know, my husband and I and my four-year old daughter just opened a game and toy store which has a classroom and a makerspace in it. And I am really thinking about how helping my husband with this endeavor is going to push me to think about my teaching in new ways. So, it’s a small retail space, 1600 square feet on the main street of Littleton with a retail section and a classroom and a maker space. We’re going to offer classes for kids and adults, so that it isn’t just about selling people toys and games, but teaching them how to design and make and manufacture their own toys and games. And it feels like a respite for me in some ways… one, to have my own project that I’m focusing on, but also to have a space where nobody’s telling me I have to grade. I just get to decide how I approach the work inside this space. So I’m excited to see how helping my husband with this project informs the rest of my practice and thinking about education.

Rebecca: That sounds so fun. Can I come? [LAUGHTER]

Jesse: Yeah. yeah, yeah, ou can. Do you want to be a teacher? We haven’t hired our first teacher. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That sounds really fun. Actually. I’ve taught makerspace things before with kids. That sounds totally fun.

Jesse: And I guess that what’s next is to find joy in this work, because the last 18 months have been so hard. And I think that joy… bell hooks also writes a lot about joy. Joy is also a practice, joy is also struggle… but figuring out how to find the kernel of the work of teaching that has kept me doing this work for 21 years. That’s really something I feel charged to do.

Rebecca: Perhaps a charge we should all have moving into the fall.

Jesse: Yeah, I’m determined to become an irascible optimist again. We’ll see. Check back with me in a year maybe I would have gotten there. [LAUGHTER]

John: And perhaps shifting some of our focus away from grading can help restore some of that joy.

Jesse: Absolutely,

Rebecca: Indeed, indeed. Thanks so much, Jesse.


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.