274. ChatGPT

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

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Robert: Thank you.

Marc: Thank you.

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

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

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

John: It is.

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

Marc: I do love it.

Rebecca: How about you, Robert?

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

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

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

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

Rebecca: Oh, an old favorite, John.

John: It is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc: Paul Fyfe, Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: …and how it’s being used.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc: Well, thank you both.

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

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

John: I’m sure we’ll be in touch.

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

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


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

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


273. North of Neutral

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

Show Notes

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


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy: I don’t know what that is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy: That’s it. That‘s definitely it.

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

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

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

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

Amy: Of course.

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

Amy: There we go.

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

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

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

Amy: Thank you. This was great.

John: It’s always great talking to you.


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

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


272. Mind Over Monsters

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

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

Show Notes

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


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Welcome back, Sarah.

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

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

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

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

Sarah: That’s a pretty name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah: Yes.

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

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

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

Sarah: Those are great points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah: Mm hmm.

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

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

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

Sarah: I think so. [LAUGHTER]

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

Sarah: Oh, thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: …but also valuable and fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah: Oh, thanks.

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

Sarah: Thank you. Always a pleasure.

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

Sarah: Oh, thanks. Same.


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.


271. Should I Say Yes?

Busy faculty and staff are known to get things done, resulting in additional requests to engage in service activities. In this episode, Kristin Croyle and Kendra Cadogan join us to discuss how and when to say no throughout your career trajectory.  Kristin is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego. Kendra is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Interim Director of the James A. Triandiflou Institute for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Transformative Practice at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Ansburg, P. I., Basham, M. E., & Gurung, R. A. (2022). Thriving in academia: Building a career at a teaching-focused institution. American Psychological Association.
  • Thriving in Adademia. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 252. August 31, 2022.
  • Webinar:  The Art of Saying No, National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.
  • Monday Motivator – “Just Say No”, National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.
  • Five Ways to Say No, Chronicle of Higher Education (August 28, 2014),Transcript.


Rebecca: Busy faculty and staff are known to get things done, resulting in additional requests to engage in service activities. In this episode, we discuss how and when to say no throughout your career trajectory.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guests today are Kristin Croyle and Kendra Cadogan. Kristin is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego. Kendra is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Interim Director of the James A. Triandiflou Institute for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Transformative Practice at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Kendra and welcome back, Kristin.

Kristin: Thank you, John.

Kendra: Thank you so much.

Rebecca: So today’s teas are:… Kendra, are you drinking tea?

Kendra: I’m not. I’m drinking a protein shake [LAUGHTER] if that counts.

Rebecca: I think that might be the first protein shake that we’ve had. [LAUGHTER] So that’s good. Usually we get coffee, diet Coke, etc. How about you, Kristin?

Kristin: I got a tea for Christmas, an early Christmas present. It’s turmeric chamomile, And it’s very tasty.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds tasty.

Kendra: …sounds good.

John: And I’m drinking an Irish Breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: And I have blue sapphire tea again,

Kristin: Oooh. It’s got the best name

John: …that’s getting repetitive.

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER] But I only have like one more pot left. And then I’m gonna switch to something else. Because I’m running out. I think I have one pot left.

John: Maybe you can play a green sapphire or something?

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: So we’ve invited you both here today to discuss the challenges faced by those faculty and staff who made the mistake of being productive in some service role, and then continually get asked to do more. We often hear that expression, “if you’d like to have something done, ask someone who’s a busy person.” And we know both of you have experiences as volunteers to do service work, as well as in your current positions, asking other people to do some work to assist in your roles. Why do we end up with such an uneven division of service requests of faculty and staff?

Kristin: One thing I love about starting with this question, because we’re going to talk about some strategies that people can use to think about service and say no, but you didn’t ask that as the first question. What you asked was about the structure of the institution, and what makes the structure of higher ed create uneven service roles. So, without answering to start with, I’m just gonna say, I love that as an entry question, because it’s easy to talk about the difficulties people have saying no as an individual issue, but it’s an issue that people can develop individual strategies for. But it’s not an individual issue, it’s an institutional issue, it’s an academia issue, it’s a structural issue. So, good question. And I’m gonna start by saying that there is no good institutional tracking of service. I’m sure all of us on this podcast have asked people to serve. But it’s not like we’re looking at a list and saying, “Well, this person is already advising two student orgs and serving on six committees and doing all of these other things.” There’s no master list. So we can’t look and say, “Oh, it would be so much.” And, at the same time, I also realized that’s a total cop out answer, because, even though there’s no institutional lists, we also know, don’t we? Like I could ask this person who is chairing faculty assembly… you know that’s what she’s doing. I could ask this person that I’ve seen at the last 12 committee meetings that I went to, and that’s not at one committee that’s at 12 different ones. [LAUGHTER] So, on the one hand, there is no institutional tracking, but on the other hand, the frequent targets, we know who they are. So, why don’t keep asking the same people? What do you think, Kendra?

Kendra: I think that those are all great points, Kristin, and I totally agree. You mentioned the chair of the Faculty Senate, who happens to be a woman. And I think that segues into another trend that we see really well, which is that we often see women and minoritized faculty being asked to do things more frequently. I think some of that is related to just some antiquated stereotypes that we have about gender and ideas about human being nurturing, and all of those things, and maybe willing to please, or able to serve and roles that we might not traditionally ask male faculty and staff to serve in. But I think that some of it, particularly for women, and I guess for minoritized faculty, too, is about the pressures that women sometimes face in the workplace around their careers and around advancement and wanting to make sure that they’re always going above and beyond to prove themselves. And we never want to say no, because you don’t know how that will reflect on you. And you certainly don’t want to be seen as less capable or not a team player or not willing to take charge or take initiative. So all of those things in ways work against folks and I think make it easier for us to continuously burden certain people with a plethora of requests.

Rebecca: One of the things that you both highlighted a little bit is that the faculty and staff who are regularly involved, regularly volunteering, regularly providing service, become more visible in these spaces. So those are the people that you think of first because they are visible. There’s a lot of faculty and staff who may actually be great folks for particular things but they’re just not as visible as well. I’m not really sure how we raise the visibility of some of those folks too, but I think that is just something that does occur.

Kristin: And part of what you’re mentioning is also that service really is a skill, and that when people do certain things they get better and better at it. So if the Dean is looking for an interim chair from outside of the department, the list of people who has both the skill set and the temperament and proven leadership skills, that’s a shortlist; that’s a very short list. Certainly, as people serve in more challenging roles, they really do develop unique skill sets that make them more easily tapped in the future. But on the other side of it, in asking newer faculty and staff to serve, I don’t know what you do, Kindra, but I actually, in the college, I look at a list, like, here’s the entire list of faculty and staff in the college. And I look down the list to make sure that I’m not just thinking about the people that I have run into and talked to in the last few days, or that have served in a similar role in the past, so that I can think about and tap people who could potentially grow from a service opportunity. So it is both a skill set, but also an opportunity for a lot of different people.

Kendra: That’s a great strategy. Kristin. Typically I try to ask around, I ask for referrals, I ask for deans or the provost or whoever, faculty who maybe live and work in those spaces already to provide recommendations. “Hey, is there someone that you know who’s up and coming or who’s looking for more experience in this particular area that could benefit from me tapping them to do this thing?” [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: One thing we didn’t talk about specifically, is the desire to have diverse voices in many of our service opportunities, and how that is unduly burdensome for some faculty and staff.

Kendra: Yeah, that’s a great point. And I think that’s a big conversation. On one hand, of course, you want representation, representation does matter. Like we say that all the time, and I think that we really, really mean it. But then again, it’s also very easy to fall into the patterns of “these are the diverse faculty that I see or interact with regularly, or who are very active in these spaces, so I’m gonna keep tapping them for the same things.” I think part of the solution to that or a path toward a solution is to make sure that we are centering inclusivity and belonging in our institutional priorities, and really thinking about how we help others develop their DEI skill sets and elevate their DEI practice, so that they can step into those spaces and be impactful and provide leadership and guidance in the way that we heavily sometimes rely upon faculty and staff of color, in particular, a diverse faculty to provide. It’s kind of a long path toward a solution, but I think it’s one way of really beginning to eliminate that problem of constantly overburdening diverse faculty and staff with requests.

John: And part of the issue is the underrepresentation on college faculty and staff of the groups that we have been referring to… and those same faculty and staff, though, often have more demands on them from students, because while our student bodies have become much more diverse, the faculty and staff have not been, and many students will reach out to people from affinity groups that are again, often somewhat limited on many of our campuses, which puts additional burdens on those faculty and staff.

Kendra: Yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: And that service… that’s often invisible, it’s easy to count or say like, “oh, this committee, that committee,” but I think advisement and mentoring that takes a lot of time and energy, and it’s not as well documented. Clearly Kristin already [LAUGHTER] raised the flag that we don’t have a great way of tracking these things anyways, but I think that, in particular, is something hard to quantify, because it doesn’t look the same for everybody.

Kristin: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think that one of the difficulties with this is that the recipient of the service is the student, which makes it highly visible for students, and almost invisible for faculty colleagues. So if you’re advising a student organization that is really active, they may be doing amazing work, and the work that a faculty member is doing as that advisor may be the thing that makes the difference in retaining those students and mentoring them to successful careers, but their colleagues may not see any of it, because it’s happening directly with the students and their colleagues are not going to the student org meetings, because their student org meetings, not faculty organization meetings. So not only is it downplayed sometimes in tenure and promotion materials, their faculty colleagues don’t catch that it’s downplayed. If they were serving in Faculty Assembly or on the Gen Ed Committee, or the Curriculum Committee, their colleagues would say, “Wait, hey, didn’t you do all of this stuff that you didn’t talk about?” But it’s both not given as much credit as sometimes it deserves at some universities, but it also is sometimes literally not recognized because people didn’t see them do it.

Rebecca: So why do we say yes to so many things?

Kristin: Why do we? Rebecca, I feel like you should ans….. No, I’m kidding. You’re actually very good at this.

John: I’m actually asking because I need some advice here. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Kendra, why do you say yes?

Kendra: Oh, man, that’s a loaded question. [LAUGHTER] It’s hard to say because it’s hard to say no. It’s hard to say no sometimes. And when you feel like someone is coming to you, because there’s a need that you can fill, sometimes you can get carried away with this idea that you are the person who has to do the thing, because if you don’t do it, it can’t be done. And then there are some of the other things we’ve talked about: the pressures of our careers, wanting to be taken seriously, wanting to be credible, wanting to be able to advance. You can often feel like your path to advancement is going to be barred at some point. If you keep saying no.

Kristin: The number one reason that I say yes, is one that Kendra mentioned, it’s usually because the ask comes from people I care about in professional terms, colleagues that I respect who are doing good work. And if they say, “Can you help me with this good work?” I want to say yes to them. And they’re often asking about issues that I care about… colleagues that are doing good work on things that I think are really important… I want to say yes to that. But I also say yes, because I am interested in a lot of things. And if people say, “I’m going to work on this thing that you haven’t worked on,” sometimes that’ll be a yes, because I just want to learn about that new thing. And when I learn about new things, that is a type of personal growth for me and I get renewed from that. So saying “yes” sometimes also means that I get that personal growth boost. Or there have been times when the ask has been like “You’re the only one who can do this, can you please step up?” …and I know that faculty have that implied experience too, not always like the explicit, someone literally says, “You are the only one who can do this, can you please do this,” but sometimes it’s just implied. And it can be a strong implication like ‘In your small department, you are the only tenured faculty, how about you become chair?” So I do want to question… just push back a little bit. If you stick around in higher ed for longer than about 15 years, you’re going to start realizing there are ways to get the business done, it is almost impossible that you are truly the only way, almost… not 100%, but like 95%. Now, I don’t want anybody to think that they’re really not irreplaceable, because everybody, at least at SUNY-Oswego, I think, is irreplaceable. But do you really have to do that one thing you really don’t want to do? Isn’t there another way that the institution can find a way to get the work done? And if you think about your colleague who’s really good at saying “no,” you see how that works, that there is a way that if this really is going to push you beyond your limits, there’s a way… there’s a way.

John: So what are some good ways of saying no to those requests that push you a bit beyond your limit?

Rebecca: …or that just provide inequity?

Kendra: Well, I think it depends. One of the things that we didn’t really mention was that the flip side of always saying yes, you know, there the positive reasons that Kristin really just highlighted, but there are also some more practical reasons that aren’t always so positive, like tenure, or time spent as an institution. For newer faculty and staff, it can be really scary, or unclear even, about how much can I say “no” to? What is a directive and what is an option? And if you’re new, if you’re not, I think too a lot of times, maybe at even a public institution where you do have some backing of unions, the employment structures are a little more forgiving. In some cases, it can be really scary to say “no” as a new person, a new faculty member, a new staff member. So I think that there have to be strategies for someone tenured and who have been in a place for a long time can employ that will work really well for them, that might not work so well for someone who’s newer. And it’s important, I think, to maybe flush out what’s a good idea for someone who’s been here for a while and what’s the strategy that a newer person might employ to say no.

John: For new faculty who are struggling with all the other commitments they have to do to be successful and advancing towards tenure, what are some good strategies to say “no?”

Kristin: I think it’s a good question that speaks to learning academic culture. And even if you’ve been around a long time, you’re still learning the academic culture, because your role is always changing. It’s a strategy that an Associate Professor uses or a full professor or someone who has transitioned from faculty to staff, there are all kinds of culture change questions. How do you negotiate this new culture? And the first thing I would say is to be clear what you need to do for your job. And if that’s, “I need to make tenure, so I need to publish this much,” if that’s “I now am in a staff position and staff often have less flexibility in saying yes and no, and these are the outcomes that I need to achieve to keep my job.” So part of it is being absolutely clear. You can say yes to 50 things right now. But if you’re on tenure track, and you don’t get your publications, your master service is not going to pay off. So being very clear on what your job is. And if you don’t know, which is a real possibility sometimes, you develop your kind of committee of mentors. Who do you go to and say, “Hey, I got this really interesting request” or even like “I got a cold outreach from a publisher to write up my course as a textbook. I got a cold outreach from this person I don’t know on campus to fill a university wide-service role.”? You got to have somebody to ask So developing your committee of mentors, not one mentor, but your committee of mentors, because they’re all going to have a different view. And then you combine that with delay, especially like the sidewalk ask, you know what I’m talking about, right? Or like I caught you after this meeting, or I’m just going to do this quick ask. So the first answer is to delay. Say “that sounds like a great opportunity. Let me think about it for a day or two and look at my other commitments,” delay, then you go to your committee of mentors. And if you don’t literally have one, John, you had this great book for a new faculty reading group in the fall Thriving in Academia. And I think you also did a podcast, right?

John: We did, with all of the authors.

Kristin: So in Thriving in Academia, there’s a table, a little flowchart, a flowchart that says, with this service request, what do you think about first? And what do you think of next? So if you can’t go to your committee of mentors, you can go to these three authors, as your committee of mentors and check the flowchart. Does the flowchart say you should do it? Or does the flowchart say, Oh really, think hard about this one. This is a no. What would you add? Kendra?

Kendra: I’m just thinking about myself now. How do I usually say no? And now I’m wondering if I say no often enough? [LAUGHTER] Probably not sometimes. But when I do say no, on the rare occasion, what I try to do is also think about who I can point to, to the person asking me for whatever, to actually fulfill the request. So is there someone who’s better suited to complete this project or do this thing than I am? I think about resources. And I try to make sure that rather than just saying a flat no, and leaving someone hanging, I’m pointing them in the direction of someone who can help, someone who can fill the need and hopefully benefit from it, not just someone that I can shove the work off onto, but someone who can really fill the need, benefit from fulfilling that need, and it can be a mutually beneficial situation. I also think about just being mindful of self in those moments. So re-centering self care, we talk about self care all the time in higher ed, we write about it, we research about it, I think we’re actually really bad at it a lot of the times. You have to really center yourself. When someone is making a request, you have to think about yourself. What am I able to do? It’s like they always say on the plane, you have to put your oxygen mask on first, before you put someone else’s oxygen mask on or else both of you will be out of luck. So I think in those moments, you have to really be mindful about centering yourself and tuning in and knowing where you are: what your bandwidth is, what can you give, and is it something that you can do and still be healthy and still be whole and still be able to do all the other things that you’ve already signed up for, that you’re already responsible for? So I don’t know that those are necessarily strategies, per se, but they’re things to think about when you say no. Sometimes you just have to say no, very clearly and concisely, [LAUGHTER] you can’t do it.

Kristin: Kendra, do you have a script in mind when you say no? Like, do you have the words?

Kendra: That’s actually a really good question. I think when I do say “No,” it’s usually something very pleasant. Like, “I’m sorry, I’m not able to do that.” Sometimes I’ll literally just say, “Unfortunately, I don’t have the bandwidth, but here is someone who might help.” Or “here is another option,” maybe another way of accomplishing this task, another group of people who are already doing this work and can give you some additional assistance. So it’s usually like the nice thing that like the pleasant but clear, “No, I’m not able to do that.” And then the “but here’s how I can help you by sending you in this direction or sending you towards these resources.” That would probably be my script.

Kristin: And part of that is because I think your role is unique. And so when people are asking you, they’re really asking you. [LAUGHTER]

Kendra: Yes.

Kristin: So being able to provide another alternative, or another way that you could contribute, is a really nice option. In other choices. There could be just “That sounds like a great opportunity, but right now, unfortunately, I don’t have the time. I look forward to seeing what the results are. I look forward to seeing the report from that committee.” And no, of course, you don’t always have to provide an explanation. You can just say, “No,” you don’t have to say “I’m too busy.” You can just say no. But perhaps that person is going to be someone you’re asking to serve in the future. So it can be nice to continue to develop the relationship even if you have to say no. Something that frequently serving people sometimes forget that they can do is also think about how much time this commitment is going to take and asking for that time back. So let’s say you’re in a small department and your colleague is injured and is out for half of the semester in the course that only you can double up on. So this is one of those where you’re almost irreplaceable, there really isn’t anybody else who can step in. And you know that if you’re injured in the future, you’d really like your colleague to step up. So there’s a little bit of a social contract where you want to say yes, but that’s a significant time commitment. So what are you going to lose from spending your time on that and how can you get it back in the future? So you could ask, if the area of your rub is really financial, you can ask for extra pay, and you probably should get extra pay either way, because it is extra work. But if your area of rub is research productivity, that you’ve been really trying to write, you can say, “Well, if I’m going to do this, then I need a course release the next semester” and negotiate for the thing that you are having to sacrifice to see if you can get it back in a different way. And that is not an unusual thing. So it wouldn’t be like the weirdest thing that anyone has ever asked for, even if you’ve never thought about it before, someone else has thought of that and asked for it before. So you can always ask, what is your trade off =and how can you trade that back? If you’re a junior faculty and your chair is asking you to do something that you really don’t think you have the time to do, but you’re a little concerned about the chair ask you can say these are the things I’m doing right now, w hat would you suggest I take off my plate? How would you suggest I reorganize this? I’d love to say yes to this, but right now I don’t have the time. How would you suggest that I prioritize so that I am ready for my next tenure review? So there are ways… there are ways. But it is good to have a script in mind because we can all say “no” when we’re actually not being asked to do anything, you could just make one up right now. But if you’re in a higher pressure situation where someone you care about their opinion is making an ask right at that moment, it can be hard to come up with an answer unless you already have one in mind. So “that’s a great opportunity. Let me think about it for a couple of days.” Go ahead, use that one, just go right ahead. Even if it’s me doing the ask, you can say it right back to me, I’ll be okay with that.

Rebecca: One strategy I’ve used too is, in that delaying tactic, is always asking for clarification: what the responsibility will be, what the time commitment will be, what the meeting schedule is, so that you actually have enough information to make an informed decision. Because often the ask doesn’t come with all that information.

Kristin: And you know what happens when you ask those questions, right? The person making the ask is like, “Oh, I don’t have answers to all those. We should have goals and a timeline.” … you know, good stuff.

Rebecca: Sometimes you really want to say yes to something because it just is very appealing for whatever reason. What are some strategies so that you can say yes? We’ve mentioned negotiating for time or other resources. But the other thing that I think about is you look at all the things on your plate, and see what are some things I could roll off of, if I want to roll on to something new? Or if I want to pursue something different? What can I get rid of or step away from? Are there strategies for being able to step away from some of the things that you were committed to before that we could think about in terms of strategies for ultimately saying yes, but saying no to something else? [LAUGHTER]

Kendra: One of the things that we didn’t necessarily mention before in the saying “no,” but that applies here is this idea of acting as a consultant. So if a great opportunity comes up, and you really want to say yes to it, but you have a whole bunch of other things that you’ve already committed to, it might be a great time to reevaluate those other things and determine what are the things that I really need to put the legwork into and be boots on the ground on? And what are the things that I can provide a perspective on or give some guidance on in a more passive way, that then frees me up to maybe actually do the heavy lift for this other opportunity? That’s really great that I really want to be involved in. So I think that’s one way to move yourself closer to a yes [LAUGHTER] and an offload of some of the other things that might be standing in the way of that “yes,” Kristin, if you have any thoughts?

Kristin: Yeah, and again, thinking about I say, a five year plan… some people actually have those. I’ve never had a five year plan. But I admire people who do. But I do have my idea of my career trajectory, what I find really rewarding and what I don’t. And when I’m offered a service opportunity that aligns to the things that I find really rewarding, that it is exciting and I’ll learn something new about, and be able to contribute about things that I value, I want to say yes, even if it’s really time consuming. So yes, I look at the combination of things that I’m doing, think about how they contribute to both the things that I value and what the institution has hired me to do, because I do have a job that I have to do. And there are always ways to rollback your commitment on some. Many service opportunities require only an intermittent time commitment, you got to really hit it hard for a couple days here and then you can back off for several months, and figuring out how to fit that together. And consult, consult, consult, ask other people, I actually used the flowchart myself in the book at one point a couple months ago saying, “Oh, this looks interesting. Should I do that?” My flowchart says no. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: And the flowchart can’t possibly be wrong. [LAUGHTER]

John: Actually, the flowchart most often says no, because of concerns about faculty taking on too many responsibilities.

Kristin: Yes, because the first question in the flowchart is, “Do you have the time?” which leads you to “no” a lot of the time but it was also of low institutional value and not really important to me and not really important to anyone else, and I didn’t have the time and like “flowchart says, “no.” I was like, “well, probably right, [LAUGHTER] those are all good points that I should have been thinking more about.”

Kendra: Well, Kristin, I think to your point, too, about going back to your five-year plan and think about your career trajectory, and how well the things you’re involved in are serving you toward that end, it is absolutely okay to go back to previous commitments, and say “I had a wonderful time, this has been a great opportunity. I’ve learned a lot. but this doesn’t necessarily fit anymore in my larger plan. This might not be as helpful for me in my trajectory as it once was, and so I’m going to maybe end my involvement as of such and such a date.” Sometimes it helps to give folks a timeline on your end, clearing your plate for other things doesn’t mean that you have to immediately walk out the door on whatever else you had going on, right? …It’s probably not advisable, actually. But I can tell you that I’ve reached out to folks to ask them to serve on things or to participate in things that they’ve been participating on. And they’ve had really nice responses that are like “Kendra, I really appreciate this opportunity. I’ve really enjoyed the work that I’ve been doing, but I’ve taken on some new responsibilities that are more in line with some of my other interests or other needs or professional development, and so I won’t be able to participate in this anymore.” And I can’t be upset about it, it’s a lovely response. And I totally understand that folks want to develop, they have other interests, they need to be able to spend their time and spread it around sometimes and they’ve really been helpful to me in the time that they were able to engage in the thing that I needed them for. And I’m more than happy to say, “We’re going to miss you so much, you’ve been amazing, but I wish you the best of luck in this new thing that you’re really interested in. And let me know if I can be helpful to you.” Or let me know if these two different interests have any synergies or if there’s ever any way we can collaborate in the future. So it’s certainly okay to sometimes walk back from previous commitments very tactfully and very appropriately, but it can be done.

Rebecca: I think it’s also possible to say yes to just a part of something…

Kristin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …like, maybe the ask is like this big, like, it’s huge, but what they really want you for, or where you could provide the most value, is during a brainstorm session, or designing how something might be implemented, but not actually work on the implementation. So there’s a way to sometimes contribute without committing as much as the ask was originally.

John: …and defining a scope upfront.

Kristin: Yeah, that’s a great point. With all the searches that we do, I hear a lot from faculty about the incredible amount of time that goes into searches, and different ways that departments organize them that burden some people versus the others, but I think that’s a great example. If you can say, ”I’m gonna take candidates out to dinner,” which is a huge time commitment, but it’s very focused, it only happens during the visits, “I don’t have time to review all of the applicants and to serve on the committee in that sense, but I can take them all out to dinner,” there are trade offs that can work better for life in the way that your time is structured, that you can see that other people can’t see. So nobody’s going to suggest to you, how about you just do part of this, but they may be very open to that response.

Kendra: I would say in 9 times out of 10, someone’s asking you to do something and your response is, “Here’s the piece that I can do, I’m not able to provide assistance in these other areas,” that person is going to be more than happy with what you are able to contribute. So those are great points and great ways to be able to clear room to say yes.

John: What are some of the differences in the constraints of faculty and staff when they’re being asked to engage in service roles?

Kristin: I think the differences there are really baked into the differences in the roles, that faculty are expected to serve institutional priorities, but in some ways, almost work as independent contractors. It’s like ”here’s work to do, figure out how you’re going to get it all done in this amount of time, we’re going to come check on you in a year, see how you’re doing,” whereas staff are expected to stress institutional goals on a day-to-day basis. They work much tighter in teams, and their collaborative skills are usually much more highly valued. And because of that, if a faculty member says no, the expectation is well, that’s because they’re busy doing the other stuff that they’re supposed to do. We don’t even need to ask them what that is right now, because they’re hopefully writing. But if a staff member says no, in some ways, it’s weird. Staff say yes. Because so much of their work is being asked, being asked to lead, being asked to run a program, being asked to show up at 11 o’clock at night to serve a midnight breakfast… being asked, and the expected answer in many cases is yes. So being able to constrain the role and say no is often more fraught for a staff member. Kendra, what has been your experience working with staff and helping coach them to shape their time as much as they can?

Kendra: Yeah, that’s a great way to articulate the differences between faculty and staff, I think. I don’t know if faculty have performance programs.

Kristin: …not like that, not like staff do.

Kendra: Yes, exactly. Staff have sometimes very prescriptive performance programs that literally layout, area by area, theme by theme, what all of the duties and expectations are going to be. And then of course, there’s the other duties as assigned. So it can be very difficult for a staff member to say no, and it can also be very confusing, I think, in some cases for staff to understand “What are the things that I can potentially say ‘no’ to? What are the things I’m given latitude on to exercise autonomy and say, ‘No, I’m not interested in this,’ versus what are the things that are more imperative.’” When working with staff, what I try to do is be very clear with the folks I work with, with my colleagues, about what are the expectations and the needs versus the options and opportunities. So I tried to be really collaborative with colleagues and say, “Hey, there’s an opportunity that’s coming up,” or “there’s a need that needs to be filled, you have expertise you have, whatever the reason, I see you as a great fit for this.” Now, the conversation can then go one of two ways. One way, which is what I try to always have it be is, “Please let me know what you think. What are your thoughts about this opportunity? Are you interested? Is this something that you would want to do?” And that gives the staff member agency to think about what’s on the table and to make a decision about whether or not they want to be involved. The other option is to say, “This is something that needs to be done. you’re the person strategically for the job, so I really need your help in completing this.” And that’s less of an option, but at least it gives folks and understanding of like, okay, this is not necessarily optional. This is something that I need to do to be a strategic and fully collaborative member of this team. So sometimes it can be a little tricky. But I typically find that if I’m really transparent with my colleagues, and let them know, “Hey, here’s what I’m thinking about. Here’s why this makes sense. And this is either something that I’m offering to you that you have agency to say yes or no about, or this is something that is part of our strategic plan that I really need you to be responsible for. And here’s what you being responsible for it looks like.” Folks seem to deal with that really well. I think it’s much harder for staff when there aren’t clear expectations and when they’re also not given any input in decision making, when you’re just “voluntold.” …not even really voluntoldl, like literally just, “this is what you’re going to be doing.” It’s always better to include folks in the decisions that you’re making, and to provide as many opportunities for options as possible.

Kristin: Absolutely, you can see the differences in other ways too, like if a faculty member is asked to serve, usually no one is asked except the faculty member, the department chair isn’t asked, the dean isn’t asked, unless it’s someone like, “Can you think of anybody?” and then you suggest them, but usually it’s straight to the faculty member and it’s up to them to figure out whether or not they want to say no. Oftentimes, when staff are asked to serve in different roles, their supervisor is asked first, could you release them for this? Would it be okay with you if they do this? And sometimes faculty who move into administrative roles will start to experience that difference in culture in subtle ways and may not understand, like, what is happening around them? How come when I’m in this committee meeting, only the faculty say no to something. the staff say yes, or how come when I approached this person for help, I got a little cranky email from their supervisor. So it’s good to know that there’s a difference and also to respect that the two kind of different cultures, that both have a role and their pros and cons, and to know what you’re stepping into when you’re asking people to do things.

Rebecca: I think this highlights a little bit of what you were mentioning before, Kristin, about knowing what your role is or what your position is. Because sometimes staff would also have the opportunity to ask a clarifying question like, “How does this fit into my performance plan?” or “How does this help us meet the goals or initiatives that my division or my group is meant to be achieving?”

Kristin: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Because if there’s not alignment there, then that’s a pretty easy “no.”

Kristin: Absolutely. Do either of you two have strategies that have worked for you?

John: I have never been very good at these decisions. Rebecca?

John: I say no, sometimes.

Kristin: How do you do it?

Rebecca: I’ve worked really hard to make sure, and it took a long time to do this, but to align my scholarship and research and creative practice with service and my institutional responsibilities. And there’s pretty good alignment with those things at this time. And when something seems like it’s not in alignment, that’s when I have a pretty clear “no.” When it does seem aligned, that’s when I have a harder time saying “no.”

Kristin: And you don’t want to.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Kristin: That’s a great strategy. And the people I have known and worked with that say no the best, they have developed over time clear guidelines, very much like that. I worked with someone who was really good. This is something I could never do. I could never say no to a student who wanted to work with me in research. I don’t think I’ve ever said no to a student who wanted to work with me in research. I have occasionally matched them to someone who’s a better match. That’s different. But he was very good at saying no to students who wanted to work with him in research, which was like my Achilles heel, but he just had very clear guidelines: “I only work with students who are at this point, X, Y and Z,” and they were not unreasonable things. And then he would say yes to those students. And it opened up time for him to really mentor them. And I’ve been lucky to work with people like you and him. You have a way that you approach your career that you have thought about. This is where my limit is, so I can say yes to these students who want to work with me and really work with them. But I can say yes to this giant time commitment, because I know it contributes to my research and to my service,

Rebecca: I think that it can help to also just have colleagues around you who say “no.”

Kristin: Yes.

Rebecca: …and seek out that camaraderie. [LAUGHTER]

Kendra: I think that’s a great point. And it goes back to something Kristin said about when you’re that faculty member, you don’t understand the faculty staff. dynamic and you reach out to a staff member to ask for help and get a cranky letter or cranky email back from their supervisor. That does happen. But the reality is, I think we need to, again, be more supportive, particularly of newer colleagues. I’m thinking of new staff very specifically, and I’m thinking about this from the perspective of a supervisor. I think it’s really important when we’re mentoring new staff, and helping them develop professionally and think about what the next steps are for them, we also need to provide some additional support to them in helping them to say no, helping them to really prioritize and think about what serves them and what doesn’t. And one of the things that I’ve said to folks that I’ve worked with in the past is they’ll come to me and say, “Well, Kendra, someone’s asking me to do this, or this or that, and I’m not really sure that I want to do it, or I just don’t know.” So like, okay, let’s talk about how this fits into your professional trajectory. Does it makes sense for you, does it make sense in the work that you’re doing? And if the conclusion that we come to is really no, this doesn’t serve you, then by all means, feel free, if you don’t feel comfortable saying to this person, for whatever reason, no, if you’re too new to feel comfortable doing that, then by all means, I’ll be happy to reply as your supervisor and say, “This is not going to work, this doesn’t fit into whatever,” I’ll just say no for you. Or you can always feel free to say, I spoke with my supervisor, she doesn’t think it’s a great time for this, I don’t have the bandwidth. Feel free to throw me under the bus. Because I do think that part of what I have to help folks learn is, of course, how to advocate for themselves and how to be full adult professionals, but it’s also to be supportive, and to help them to kind of get their legs under them. And sometimes part of that is helping them say no.

Kristin: Awesome,

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

Rebecca: Please tell us how you’re going to redo higher ed [LAUGHTER] and make this better?

Kristin: That would be awesome. And you know, the funny thing about that question is that it’s always a problem that we don’t keep track of service better. But the other side of me is like, “Oh my gosh, what a pain that would be, a huge amount of work for very little payoff.” Is there a better way to do it? So I don’t have an answer on what’s next for supporting service, except to be more proactive in my request to say this is what the commitment is, let’s talk about your current commitments and how we can shape what you’re doing to support both what you want to get done and what I’d really like to ask you to do, [LAUGHTER] not just the single ask, yeah, not just like, here’s the one thing, but instead to ask in a more comprehensive way.

Kendra: And I also don’t have any solutions for fixing higher ed, unfortunately, at this time. [LAUGHTER] But I do think that we can also make sure to just model the behaviors that we’re talking about, again, just being mindful of our own personal practices and making sure that we’re not just talking about saying no, but that we’re actually doing it for ourselves and so that the folks that we work with and work for can see what this looks like and be mindful for themselves too, about how they need to think and work through this space. I think that’s one small thing we can do.

Rebecca: Well, thank you for joining us.

Kristin: Thank you. It’s always a pleasure.

Kendra: It’s been fabulous. Thank you so much for having me.

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


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

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


270. Fall 2022 Reflection

The time between semesters is a good time to engage in reflective practice. In this episode, we take a look back at our teaching practices and student learning during the Fall 2022 semester as we prepare for the spring 2023 semester.

Show Notes


Rebecca: The time between semesters is a good time to engage in reflective practice. In this episode, we take a look back at our teaching practices and student learning during the Fall 2022 semester as we prepare for the spring 2023 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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: We’re recording this at the end of 2022. We thought we’d reflect back on our experiences during the fall 2022 semester. Our teas today are:

Rebecca: I have blue sapphire tea once again, because it’s my new favorite. And I have discovered that the blue part are blue cornflowers. That’s what’s in it. So it’s black tea with blue cornflowers.

John: And I have a spring cherry green tea, which is a particularly nice thing to be having on this very cold wintry day in late December, in a blue Donna the Buffalo mug, which is one of my favorite bands.

Rebecca: We had a few things that John and I talked about ahead of time that we thought would be helpful to reflect on and one of them is our campus, like many SUNYs, is in the process of transitioning their learning management systems. And we did move to Brightspace for the fall semester. So how’d it go for you, John?

John: For the most part, it went really well. Returning students were really confused for about a week as they learned how to navigate it. But overall, it went really smoothly, it helped, I think, that I had taught a class last summer in Brightspace, so I was already pretty comfortable with it. But, in general, it had a really nice clean look and feel, it brings in intelligent agents where we can send reminders to students of work that’s coming up that’s due, reminding them of work that they’ve missed that they can still do, and just in general, automating a lot of tasks so that it seemed a bit more personalized for students. And that was particularly helpful in a class with 360 students. And also, it has some nice features for personalization, where you can have replacement strings, so you can have announcements that will put their name right up at the top or embedded in the announcement. And that seemed to be really helpful. One other feature in it is it has a checklist feature, which my students, periodically throughout the term and at the end of the term, said they really found helpful because it helped them keep track of what work they had to do each week.

Rebecca: Yeah, I used the checklist feature quite a bit, because I have pretty long term projects that are scaffolded and have a number of parts. And so I was using the checklists to help students track where they were in a project and make sure they were documenting all of the parts that needed to be documented along the way. I think generally students liked the look and feel of this learning management system better. But I also found that I was using some of the more advanced features and a lot of their other faculty were not. And so that difference in skill level of faculty using the interface, I think, impacted how students were experiencing it. And that if their experience was varied, they struggled a bit more, because it was just different from class to class. So I know that students struggled a bit with that. But it was also my first time teaching in that particular platform. From a teaching perspective, I think it went well. I found it, for the most part, easy to use and I like the way it looked. But students and I definitely went back and forth a few times about where to put some things or how it could be more useful to them. And we just negotiated that throughout the semester to improve their experience. So I think that was really helpful.

John: You mentioned some of the more advanced features, what were some of the advanced features that you used?

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, I used the checklist, which not a lot of students had in some of their other classes. I know you used it, but I don’t think a lot of faculty were using those. I had released content, just I know you also use some of these things, too, but a lot of other faculty were just like, “Here’s the content. Here’s your quiz.” …and kind of kept it pretty simple. But I teach a stacked class, so I had some things that were visible to some students and not to other students. Occasionally I’d make a mistake there, so that caused confusion.

John: And by a stacked class, you meant there’s some undergraduates and some graduate students taking the same course but having different requirements?

Rebecca: Yeah, and also different levels. So within both the undergraduate and graduate students, I’ve beginning students and advanced students. So there’s really kind of four levels of students in the same class.

John: It does sound a bit challenging…

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: …especially on your side.

Rebecca: Yeah. So it’s easy to sometimes make mistakes, which can certainly result in confusion. I think students were also just trying to figure out the best way to find stuff like whether or not to look at it from a calendar point of view, or from a module point of view. They were just trying to negotiate what worked best for them. And there were some syncing issues between the app and what they were doing with checklists in particular. So it caused a lot of confusion at the beginning, but we figured out what it was and that helped. So new things, new technical challenges result in some learning curves. But I think, throughout this semester, we worked through those things and students were much more comfortable by the end of the semester.

John: And by next semester it should be quite comfortable for pretty much all students.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: So what went well for you, in this past semester?

Rebecca: I had a couple of really good assignments. Some of them were experimental. [LAUGHTER] I wasn’t really sure how they were gonna go and I was pleasantly surprised. One practice I continued, that continues to go well, is using warm ups at the beginning of my class for design and creativity. And that seems to continue to be very helpful for students. I teach longer class periods than a typical class because it’s a studio. And so transitioning into that space was helpful for students, and also starting to teach them ways to foster creativity when they feel very stressed or have a lot of other things tugging on their minds they also reported was very useful to just learn some strategies. We did things about prioritization, creativity, planning, related to the projects that we were doing. So that continued to be really useful. And then I did a brand new project that I’ve never done before. And the work was fantastic for the most part. I collaborated with our campus Special Collections and Archives. And we made a couple sets of archives available to students that were digitized. And then my students created online exhibitions and focused on that experience, so that it’s not just “Here is five things,” [LAUGHTER] but rather like it’s a curated experience that had kind of exploratory pieces of it. And that went really well, students got really curious about the materials in the archives. These are students who maybe have never really took advantage of these kinds of library resources before and started to learn how to dig into understanding these primary sources better as well. So that was really exciting.

John: What topics were the archives related to?

Rebecca: There were two collections. One of them was a scrapbook from the early 1900s that had a lot of example trade cards, or industry cards, and advertisements. And so in a design class that became interesting materials to look at. And then another collection was digital postcards from the area. So they were looking at the city of Oswego and the campus at different time periods. And they found that to be kind of interesting. And there’s others that we’d like, but we went with ones that were [LAUGHTER] primarily digitized already, to make it a little easier.

John: And what did they do with those?

Rebecca: They had to pick a collection they wanted to use. And then they had to select at least 10 pieces from that collection, come up with a theme or some sort of storyline that they wanted to tell about those objects, and then they had to create this online experience. So they created websites, essentially, that had interactive components. And there were a wide range of topics. One student did something on women’s roles in the early 1900s through media. Another student focused on like then and now. So they took the postcards and then they went and took their own photos of those same places and did some comparisons with some maps and things. Some that were telling the history of the institution, which was kind of interesting. The history of boating in the area. So people picked things that were of interest. Snow was a big topic [LAUGHTER] … there’s a couple students that did things about snow and documentation of snow over time. But they were good, they were really interesting works. And we’re looking to get those up in a shared OER format. We’re getting close on being able to get that and share that out, but we’re hoping to deposit a copy of the projects as a unified whole back to the archives and then have them live online as well.

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: How about you, John? I know you were continuing your podcast project.

John: In my online class, which is smaller, it’s limited to 40 students, it worked really well this time. One thing that was different is that nearly all of my online students were genuinely non-traditional students. They were mostly older, by older I mean in their late 20s, early 30s. And they were just very well motivated and hardworking, and the class in general performed extremely well. They got all their work done on time, they were actively engaged in the discussions, and they really enjoyed creating the podcast in ways that I hadn’t seen as universally in past classes. Several of them mentioned that they were really apprehensive about it at first, but it turned out to be a really fun project. Because it’s an online class, they didn’t generally get to talk to other students, but they worked asynchronously in small groups, typically groups of two or three, on these podcasts and it gave them a chance to connect and talk to other students that they wouldn’t normally have outside of discussion boards in an online class. And they really appreciated that. And they really appreciated hearing the voices of the other students in the class. So that worked especially well.

Rebecca: I know you’ve also had, in some of your classes in the past few years, when there’s more online learning happening that maybe wouldn’t typically be a “distant learner” or someone who would choose to be online. And so this semester, you’re saying that the students who were in this class were actively choosing to be in an online class and that maybe made a difference.

John: They were students who generally were working full time and often, under really challenging circumstances were engaged in childcare, working full time, and taking three or four or five classes, sometimes working a couple of jobs. And yes, in the past, a large proportion of the students in online classes were, even before the pandemic, dorm students who weren’t always as well motivated as the students who were coming back to get a degree at a later stage of their life, who had a career and perhaps wanted to progress in that career. And during the pandemic, so many students were in online classes who really didn’t want to be there, it was a very different experience. So we moved past that now, or at least in my limited experience with a very small sample last semester, the students who were online were students who benefited greatly from being online and actively chose to be online. It’s a much better environment when students are able to take the modality that they most prefer to work in, for both them and for the instructor.

Rebecca: Yeah, then you’re not pulling people along who haven’t had that experience of taking an online class before, as well as trying to get them to do the work. Were there other practices or activities or other things that you employed in your class that worked particularly well this semester?

John: in general, I didn’t make too many major changes in the class because the transition to Brightspace alone was a bit of a challenge on my part, because it did require redoing pretty much all the materials in the class. But on both my large face-to-face class and my online class, I use PlayPosit videos to provide some basic instruction in the online class and to help facilitate a flipped class in my face-to-face class, where I have a series of typically two to five short videos each week in each course module with embedded questions. And students generally appreciated having those because they could go back and review them, they could go back and if they didn’t do too well on the embedded questions, they could go back and listen again or look at other materials, and then try it again. And basically, they had unlimited attempts at those and they appreciated that ability. Those were the things I think that probably went best. It was overall a challenging semester.

Rebecca: What was one of the biggest challenges you think you faced this semester as an instructor, John?

John: The two biggest challenges that I think are very closely related is… the class I was teaching both online and face to face is primarily a freshman level class, an introductory class… the variance in student backgrounds, particularly in math and the use of graphs is higher than I’ve ever seen it before. Some students came in with a very strong background, and some students came in with very limited ability and a great deal of fear about having to do anything involving even very basic algebra or arithmetic even. And it made it much more challenging than in previous semesters. And I think part of the issue is that we’ve seen some fairly dramatic differences in how school districts handled the pandemic. The learning losses were much smaller in well-resourced school districts, then in others that were more poorly resourced school districts in lower income communities. When schools had fewer resources and when the students in the schools had limited access to technology, and so forth, the shift to remote instruction had a much greater impact on those students. And that’s starting to show up at a level that I hadn’t seen in the first year and a half or so of the pandemic; it hit really hard this fall. And the other thing is that a lot of the work that was assigned outside of class simply wasn’t being done. I’ve never seen such high rates of non-completion of even very simple assignments, where students would have five or six multiple choice questions they had to answer after they completed a reading. And between a third and a half of the class just chose not to do it. It was very low stakes, they had unlimited attempts to do these things, but many of them just simply chose not to. And I ended up with many more students withdrawing from the class than I’ve ever seen before.

Rebecca: So I think there’s a couple interesting things maybe to dig into a little bit more. We’ve certainly seen students prior to the pandemic have a fixed mindset about math skills, for example. But when we have a deep fear of things, it’s really hard to learn. How have you helped students work through the fear? And is the fear rooted in just not coming prepared? Or is it a fear of trying something new?

John: It’s a bit of both. Because they already come in with a lot of anxiety, it makes it more challenging for them to try the work outside of class. And that’s part of the reason for the use of a flipped classroom setting in my large face-to-face class, because we go through problems in class. We’ve talked about this before, but much of my class time is spent giving students problems that they work on, first individually, and then they respond using the polling software that we use (iClicker cloud) and then they get a chance to try it again after talking to the people around them. So it’s sort of like a think-pair-share type arrangement where, if they don’t understand something, they get a chance to talk to other people who often will understand it a bit better. And in the second stage of that process, the results are always significantly higher after students have had a chance to talk about it, to work through their problems, and so on. So having that peer support is one of the main ways that I try to use to help students overcome the fear when they see that other students can do this and they can talk to other students who can explain it at a level appropriate for their level of understanding, that can work really well. And then we go through it as a whole class where I’ll call on students asking them to explain their solutions, or I’ll explain part of it if students are stuck on something, and doing some just-in-time teaching. And normally, what that does is it resolves a lot of that anxiety, and it helps people move forward. But that just wasn’t working quite as well this time. And I’m not quite sure why.

Rebecca: I think although I’m not using the same kind of format in my classes, a design studio really does rely a lot on collaborative feedback and [LAUGHTER] interacting with other students and coming to class prepared having done something outside of class, and then we have something to give feedback on and continue moving forward and troubleshoot and things together in class. So we’re using class time also to work through the hard stuff rather than outside of class. So the interesting thing about doing that in class, and really a lot of active learning techniques in class, is that it does depend on students coming prepared and having done something ahead of time. And if they’re not doing that ahead of time, it really changes what can or cannot be done in class. And the other thing that I experienced related to that is, some students just reported a deep fear in sharing things with other students that I’d really not experienced before. In the past, that’s always been a really positive experience. And those who get fully engaged in that continue to say it was a positive experience, but there were some who would actively avoid any of those opportunities to share their work. I don’t know why. I think there’s two things, there are some students that just were not doing things outside of class. So they were embarrassed or didn’t want to have their peers think that they didn’t know what was going on, or they didn’t want to reveal that they were behind. And then there’s another group of students who actually were overly prepared and did all the things, but they have a deep fear of being wrong or not being perfect. And there’s a lot of anxiety around that. And so working through that was a real challenge for some of the students this semester as well. And I’ve always had a few students, they tend to be what you would think of as high-achieving students who sit in this category. But it seems like it’s actually a bigger number of students or like stress and anxiety around this perfectionism seems to be elevated, causing students to become paralyzed, or the inability to move forward.

John: And I would think that the stacked nature of your class would make that a bit more of an issue in terms of the variance between people who have more background in the discipline and those who have less,

Rebecca: Yeah, I have my class structured so that students are doing things in groups with students that are at a similar level in experience. So yeah, I experienced that in the classroom as a whole, but within their smaller groups, not as much.

John: I think one of the issues that may have affected my class is at the start of the class, I was in the early stages of recovery from a broken leg. So I was kind of just leaning against a podium or sitting on a chair near their podium for the first couple of weeks. But one of the things that was different for me this semester is normally when students are working on problems, I’m wandering all through the classroom, and I kept hoping to be able to do that. But it wasn’t really until the end of the semester that I could even stand and move around a little bit through the whole class. But I did miss the ability to interact with students and help them work through their problems in small groups as I wandered through the classroom. I was very lucky to have a teaching assistant who was able to move around, but it would have been better if we both had that mobility. And I’m looking forward to being able to wander through my classes this spring.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that you say that, John, because this was the first semester I was back in person. The last two years, I’ve taught fully online, synchronously but online, and one of the things I missed about the kinds of classes I teach is that during class, we are often working on projects, and I in person can easily wander around and see where students are at and bring students together and do impromptu critiques or technical things a little more easily than I was experiencing online because, although they may be working, I couldn’t see, kind of casually just walking by, I couldn’t intervene when students weren’t where they needed to be, or were struggling and just didn’t want to ask for help, because I didn’t know, because they didn’t tell me. But when it’s in person and I’m wandering the room, I can make those observations and do those interventions. I did notice that in my walking around and doing interventions this year is a bit different than it had been prior to the pandemic in that some students would actively avoid me if I was coming near them… It was like, “Oh, no, I have to go the bathroom” or they would just disappear. And I would miss them in a class period because they were gone when I was heading their way. And those were students who were struggling and struggled throughout the semester. So it was students that didn’t want to admit that they needed help or didn’t want people around them to know they needed help. And what’s interesting, related to that, is that during synchronous online learning, I could help people one on one without other students knowing, because I could easily pull them into a separate breakout room and we could privately talk in a way that, in a studio environment, is not as possible. So it’s an interesting dynamic, finding my way again, because the things that used to work don’t quite work the way they used to, as you were also describing, and then other practices I got very used to in a different platform also just aren’t available in a face-to-face format. So I’m interested to see how I might be able to balance these things, because I’m teaching more of a hybrid format in the spring, and I might be able to get a little bit of the best of both worlds. I’m not sure.

John: Well, there is some research that suggests that a hybrid teaching format works better than either face to face or fully asynchronous. So it’ll be interesting to hear how that goes.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: I used to learn a lot about what students were struggling with just by overhearing their conversations as I walked along or by interacting with students directly. And I did miss that this semester and I’m looking forward to never ever having to deal with that again in the future.

Rebecca: Yeah, that was one of the things that I found most joy in being back in the physical classroom was just being able to wander around and greet students and have more low-key interactions with them, which also helps I think, with helping students move along and move through struggles.

John: One of the things you mentioned was the anxiety of students. And I know in my classes, students have become much more comfortable revealing mental health challenges. I’m not sure how much of it is that students are more comfortable revealing mental health challenges, or they are just experiencing many more mental health challenges than before. It’s good to know the challenges our students are facing. But when you hear dozens and dozens of such stories in a class, it can be a bit of a challenge in dealing with those.

Rebecca: Yeah, I found that I had a number of students who disclosed physical and mental health challenges they were facing this semester. And that did help me understand significant absences by those same individuals. And it also explained a lot of the struggle that they were experiencing in the coursework. Unfortunately, when students have so many things tugging at them, it’s really hard for them to focus on studies or to even prioritize that… they may need to prioritize some other things. And the student work or the students’ success in that population of students wasn’t as strong as some of the other students who were able to be present all the time and could do the outside work or were doing the outside work. I don’t know if it was “can” or “wanted to…” [LAUGHTER] …how that outside of class work was getting done. But those who are staying on top of the coursework as it was designed were more successful than students who had a lot of things that were causing them to be absent or to miss work.

John: And I know in our previous conversations, we’ve both mentioned that we’ve made more referrals to our mental health support staff on campus than we’ve ever had before. And it’s really good that we do have those services. Those services, I think, were a bit overwhelmed this semester and from what I’m hearing that’s happening pretty much everywhere. It’s often a struggle thinking about these issues. I know many times I’ve been awake late at night thinking about some of the challenges that my students are facing,

Rebecca: Students disclose things to us and then you do think about them, because we care about them as humans. Most of them are really nice humans. Some of them aren’t doing the coursework, but that doesn’t stop them from being nice humans that you care about. And it does take mental energy away when we’re thinking about these students and thinking about ways that we might be able to support them. And sometimes the ways to support them is completely outside of the scope of our jobs as instructors. And that’s disheartening sometimes, because there’s not an easy way for us to help other than a referral and you can see them struggling in class and you know why they’re struggling. But there’s not a lot of intervention, from a teaching standpoint, that can really happen sometimes with some of those students. And that’s just emotionally draining. Do you find that to, John? …that’s you’re thinking about them, but then you don’t really have a good solution for helping them often, academically anyway?

John: It’s a bit of a struggle, because you want students to be successful and you know, they’ve got some really serious challenges. One way of addressing this is to provide all students with the opportunity for more flexibility. And I know most of us have been doing this quite a bit during a pandemic. But one of the concerns that I’ve been having is that the additional flexibility often results in more delays in completing basic work that’s required to be successful later in the course, and the students who are struggling the most often are the students who put off doing the work to learn the basics that are needed to be successful. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I saw so many students withdrawing from the class this semester, much larger than I’ve ever seen it.

Rebecca: This is also, though, the first semester of a different policy related to withdrawals on our campus. And so some of that might be that students didn’t need to provide documentation to withdraw, like they would typically during the last few weeks of the semester. They were able to continue to withdraw until the very last day of class.

John: I’m sure that’s part of it, because many of the students who did withdraw had stopped working in the first week of the semester. And despite numerous reminders, both personal reminders and automated reminders using some of the tools built into our learning management system, they just were not responding. So I think some of them had made the decision fairly early to withdraw from the class.

Rebecca: Flexibility is an interesting thing to be thinking about. And I think both of us have advocated for levels of flexibility throughout the pandemic ,and prior to that as well. I don’t really have an extra penalty for students who miss class, their penalty is that they miss class and now it’s a struggle to keep up. And that often is the case. I provide flexibility in the kinds of assignments or what they might do for an assignment, some flexibility in deadlines, but the reality is, a lot of our classes are fairly scaffolded. And so if they don’t get the kind of beginning things, they’re not able to achieve the higher-level thinking or skills that we’re hoping that they can achieve by the end of the semester, because they haven’t completed those often skills-based tasks to help them practice things that they would need to perform higher-level activities.

John: I do have regular deadlines for some material in class. But what I do is I allow them multiple attempts at any graded activities where only the highest grade is kept. So they can try something, make mistakes and try it again, and, in many cases, do that repeatedly until they master the material. But there are some deadlines there along the way where they have to complete it. Because if they don’t, they won’t stand a chance of being able to move to the next stage of the course. To address issues where students do have problems that really prevent them from doing that, I end up dropping at least one grade in each of the grade categories. So that way, if students do face some challenges that prevent them from timely completing work by those deadlines, it won’t affect their grades. But I still encourage them to complete those assignments even if they’re not going to get a grade on it because they need to do that to be successful.

Rebecca: Yeah, deadlines can be really helpful for students who have trouble prioritizing or figuring out when to do things on their own. So deadlines are actually really important. Our scaffolding as instructors can be really important for students that need and want structure. And most students benefit from having structure in place and deadlines are part of that structure to help people move forward. But there can be flexibility within that. But if we provide too much flexibility, it becomes a challenge not only for students in terms of being able to level up in whatever they’re studying, but also in terms of faculty and workload and having to switch gears in terms of what you’re evaluating or giving feedback on. If we have to keep task switching, it’s a lot more straining than focusing on one set of assignments at a time.

John: One assignment where I did provide lots of flexibility was the podcast assignment, where I let students submit revisions at any time on that or submit late work because there were some challenges in finding times, and so forth. And I had a lot of work come in a month or more after it was originally due. And it did result in a lot of time spent during the final exam week and during the grading period after that, where I was spending a lot of time grading work that would have been nice to receive by the deadline, say 2, 3, 4 or 5 weeks earlier. But it did provide them with the flexibility that was needed, given the nature of the assignment, and one where they didn’t lose something in terms of their progress in the course, by submitting it late.

Rebecca: Yeah, projects are one of those things that I always encourage some continuous improvement on because often they’re so close. And if you just give them a little extra nudge or a little extra time, they can complete something at a higher level, especially when it’s something like a podcast or like my exhibit assignment that has a very public nature to it. We want students to feel like they’ve achieved something that they’re willing to share. And sometimes that means giving them a little extra time so that they can polish it. So it feels like it’s something that they can share and be really proud of. I guess that’s another argument for time and flexibility around non-disposable assignments. Right?

John: One of the other bright spots of the last several months was a return to more in-person conferences, where we got to see people that we haven’t connected with in person other than on Zoom or other tools for the last few years. And while we’ve attended many conferences over Zoom, one of the main benefits of in-person conferences are those little side conversations right after a session ends, or when you get to talk to the presenter after their session, or those conversations in the hallway over coffee. And it was really nice to return to those again, because that’s where a lot of the value of these conferences come from.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s interesting how much maybe I started longing for some of that again. I was finally starting to experience that on campus, again, as more people have been more physically present on campus, which has been nice. Those casual conversations often lead to interesting projects together or new ideas or initiatives, they improve my teaching, and they just improve relationships over time. And I think I was feeling a pretty strong loss around that. And it was nice to have that reinvigorated.

John: And it was especially nice to be at these conferences where there are a lot of other people who are really concerned about teaching and learning. And it helps rebuild that community that changed its nature during the pandemic, when people were very actively connecting but it was over social media, back when we had Twitter [LAUGHTER] as a functioning social network platform, and through online interactions, but it’s nice to have those in person connections again.

Rebecca: Yeah, I definitely agree. I had started to feel, not totally burnt out, but I was headed in that direction and reconnecting with people in person has gotten me excited about possibilities in higher education again. I lost interest. I wasn’t even following news for a bit. I had really pulled back a little bit because I just felt overwhelmed by everything around me and it was hard to stay on top of what was happening. And I think some of these in-person conferences reconnected me to some of what was going on and some of the people who are doing that work. But it definitely got me re-interested in a way that I was just starting to become a little uninterested.

John: It’s a reinvigorating experience.

Rebecca: So should we wrap up, John, by thinking about what’s next?

John: Yes, what’s next for you, Rebecca?

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Nice toss there, John. [LAUGHTER] Next semester is likely to look different for me. I’m only teaching one class in the spring as I focus some more attention to some interesting initiatives in Grad Studies on our campus. And that one class is going to be hybrid and relatively small. So it’s a really different kind of teaching experience than I’ve had before. So I’m looking forward to that new adventure, or both of those new adventures. How about you, John?

John: I’m teaching the same classes I’ve been teaching for several years, but I’m looking forward to them, it’s going to be nice to work with upper-level students again. My spring classes are primarily juniors and seniors, mostly seniors. And it’s a nice time to reconnect with those students that I had often last seen in class when they were freshmen. And it’s really rewarding to see the growth that students have achieved during their time on campus, and to see the increase in their maturity and their confidence. And I’m very much looking forward to whatever project they’re going to be doing in the capstone course. Because for the last four years, they’ve done book projects, I’m not sure what we’re going to be doing. And I enjoy that uncertainty at this stage, which I have to say the first time I did, it was a little bit more stressful. But now it’s something I look forward to, letting them choose what they want them to have as a main focus of their course. So I don’t know exactly what’s next, but I’m looking forward to it.

Rebecca: That’s wonderful. I’m thinking that my spring classes are all advanced students, which doesn’t typically happen, and so I’m really looking forward to the opportunity of taking a break from a stacked class and actually just teaching a smaller group of advanced students and allowing them to take me on an adventure, which I know it will be. And I look forward to more of that mentor kind of role in that course.

John: And I’m looking forward to more episodes of the podcast. We continue to have some really good guests coming up and these discussions are something I always look forward to.

Rebecca: And definitely something that has kept both of us, I think, afloat during this pretty challenging time over the last few years.

John: Definitely.


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.


269. Faculty Book Clubs

College teaching is often a very solitary endeavor and can result in feelings of isolation, especially in turbulent times, such as those we’ve experienced recently. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus joins us to discuss the role that a faculty book club can play in building a learning community in which the participants share their successes, concerns, and strategies.

Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence and the editor of Teaching History: a Journal of Methods. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is also the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning, which was released by West Virginia University Press.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. West Virginia University Press.
  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn (2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Jessamyn Neuhaus (2019). Geeky Pedagogy. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 82. May 22.
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-Rich Education: How human connections drive success in college. JHU Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Hachette UK.
  • Addy, T. M., Dube, D., Mitchell, K. A., & SoRelle, M. (2021). What inclusive instructors do: Principles and practices for excellence in college teaching. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Miller, M. D. (2022). Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World. West Virginia University Press.
  • Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West Virginia University Press.
  • 268. Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout. Tea for Teaching podcast. December 21, 2022.
  • Resources developed by Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan for reading groups for Inclusive Teaching


John: College teaching is often a very solitary endeavor and can result in feelings of isolation, especially in turbulent times, such as those we’ve experienced recently. In this episode, we discuss the role that a faculty book club can play in building a learning community in which the participants share their successes, concerns, and strategies.


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 Jessamyn Neuhaus. Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence and the editor of Teaching History: a Journal of Methods. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is also the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning, which was released by West Virginia University Press. Welcome back, Jessamyn.

Jessamyn: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

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

Jessamyn: I’m not, I’m drinking sparkling flavored water. The people here at Plattsburgh know that the Center for Teaching Excellence fridge is always fully stocked with flavored seltzer water and today I’m drinking Bubly grapefruit flavor.

Rebecca: Oh, I like that one.

John: And I’m drinking English breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: I have blue sapphire tea.

Jessamyn: Yum.

Rebecca: Very tasty.

John: Is it blue?

Rebecca: It has these little dried flowers in them that are a sapphire color. [LAUGHTER] I don’t know what kind of flowers they are, but they’re tasty.

Jessamyn: It sounds like a power blue. Like a powerful blue.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s like a really intense, bright, wonderful blue.

John: So, are you feeling blue today?

Rebecca: I am feeling like the blue that I want to be feeling. I want that intense blue. So I’m channeling the blue.

John: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss the use of book clubs for professional development. We’ve been jointly running some between our two institutions at SUNY Plattsburgh and SUNY Oswego every spring and fall since fall 2020. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about how the collaboration began?

Jessamyn: Sure. Well, I met you both in 2019 when I came on Tea for Teaching to talk about Geeky Pedagogy. It was actually the first interview I did and I was super nervous and I prepared like 25 pages of notes. [LAUGHTER] And you were so great. It was so much fun. And we just stayed in touch after that. I was working as the interim, really part-time, Director for the teaching center going into the fall of 2020 after, as everybody knows, the semester that changed everything in the spring of 2020. We don’t have a staff here, this is a center of one. So resources and budget concerns were always an issue in trying to develop programming that would work with just this one person in the part-time role, and that faculty would be able to take advantage of during these unprecedented upheavals and challenges. The book club was something that my predecessor, Dr. Becky Kasper had been running that had pretty good attendance. And that semester, since we were all getting used to Zoom for the first time, it occurred to me that maybe we could do the book club via Zoom, which opened up the possibility of collaborating with another teaching center. And that was you. [LAUGHTER]

John: And we had been running book clubs for quite a few years. Our very first one was Michelle Miller’s Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology the semester after that came out. Our’s started in a less planned structure. We had Michelle on campus for a talk. And everyone was so enthused about her talk that they said, maybe we could start a reading group to discuss this. So that’s how our’s got started. And we had been doing it every semester since then. And it had worked really well. But, it’s worked much more effectively with the collaboration between the two institutions. What were some of the things that you saw as being the benefits of doing a book club?

Jessamyn: Well, one of the first things that strikes me about doing a faculty book club, and this is coming from my perspective as somebody who writes and talks about the geekiness and nerdiness of us in academia, is that a book club really builds on something we as academics do very, very well and are very, very, very comfortable with: reading, absorbing content, and then talking about it. Even the introverts among us tend to be pretty comfortable discussing ideas and tossing around concepts and getting a starting place like a book is something, even across various disciplines, people are very skilled at and comfortable at. So I think, in that sense, it’s not a big lift when it comes to faculty development. It’s working with skills and abilities that most people teaching in higher ed are already pretty comfortable with. So I think that’s one advantage, or one benefit.

John: One of the reasons why we started this and why we’ve been continuing it is that we had given a lot of one-off workshops where people would come in for a session, maybe half an hour, maybe an hour and a half, maybe three hours, perhaps even all day, and then often very little happened following that up. And one of the nice things about doing a book club is that you’re working with a group of faculty for an extended period, discussing the same topics and reflecting on those topics in a way that doesn’t generally happen with short one-day sessions. And that’s been really effective. On a related note, you mentioned bringing together people from different disciplines, we often had trouble bringing in people from other disciplines when someone was presenting on one topic, but when people are discussing any of these books, they find that everyone they’re talking to in this group has been having exactly the same problems and have been struggling with the same issues in ways that they might not have recognized otherwise. So the opportunity to bring people together and discuss it is a great way to remind everyone that we’re all facing the same challenges. And sharing solutions can be really effective.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting to think about how the one offs are just one offs. But a reading group builds a routine, and a schedule, and regular practice and reflection around these topics. And so having a regularly scheduled time, and we’ve certainly made sure in our collaboration, but also prior to that at our institution, having multiple times for reading groups to meet, you don’t have to come to the same one every time. But earmarking that time during the week for this practice, I think is really helpful. It’s really easy to put it into our schedule.

Jessamyn: Yes, that’s right, it’s hard to make time for our own pedagogical development, it’s hard to always and I’d say it’s probably even harder now, as the world continues to burn… but the group setting, and I never thought of it this way till just now as we’re discussing it, but both those components that you were talking about: the routine of it, and the by default, the multidisciplinary setting, it’s almost like it reduces any disciplinary defensiveness people might have, or sense of resistance, maybe, because we’re there to talk about a book together, we’re not there to lay down the law, this is what you must do to teach effectively, XYZ.

Rebecca: So I think also, the idea of bringing everyone together has that accountability factor. And you see some of the same faces and the same people regularly and you start treating it almost as this little accountability club to make sure that you’re doing your homework and staying engaged with the subject matter. And the other thing that I was hearing in what you were saying, Jessamyn, that I think is useful to think about is that it’s a shared experience… reading the book, it’s a shared thing. So we have a common place to start a conversation, which is what you’re getting at with the academic defensiveness or disciplinary defensiveness that might come out. Just kind of interesting to think about. I had never really thought about that before.

Jessamyn: Well, and here at Plattsburgh, we are still very much in the early stages of building a campus culture of educational development. For us here at Plattsburgh collaborating with Oswego was pretty mind blowing, I’d say, for a lot of people besides just the factor of it’s not the same old faces that you see at every workshop. But even beyond that, I think it’s really expanded a lot of people’s, I will say, maybe view of what educational development is, it’s not just Jessamyn saying, “Hey, try this in your classroom,” that actually it’s out there in the world and lots of people are doing it, and it’s a professional endeavor, maybe chipping away at the sense of isolation that we can feel. Certainly I think it’s true lots of places, but Plattsburgh is geographically very isolated. And there really is a sense sometimes that we’re just out here all alone in the cold North Country. And the Zoom setting just really blew that apart. I think it is helpful that our campuses and our student populations are quite similar… at least there’s a lot of overlap. So when people in the book club share their experiences and their perspectives, there’s a lot of nodding and recognition. Many of our teaching contexts are similar.

Rebecca: And I think what I’m hearing both of you nodding towards is a sense of belonging, like it’s a shared experience where people feel like they belong, in part because they’re sharing experiences that are similar. And in reality, we know there’s a lot of small departments where you might be the only one teaching a particular thing or teaching in a particular way…

John: …or the only one considering teaching in a different way.

Rebecca: And being a part of a community where there’s other people doing some similar things, or experimenting in the same way, can really be helpful in just feeling a sense of community, and ways that you can bounce things off of one another. I know from my own experience, as a designer teaching studio classes, I’ve done a lot of exchange with folks that are teaching lab-based things or a lot of hands-on-learning, whatever that is, in whatever discipline, there’s a lot in common about doing hands-on-learning. Or you could talk about how that might apply. And you can learn a lot from something that’s happening in a different discipline and I’ve always really loved that about our book clubs.

John: Going back to a point Rebecca had mentioned earlier about the commitment of time to this, many people will see a speaker who they think is interesting, and will decide to pick up a copy of the book, they’ll buy that book and put it on a shelf, and it will stay there with the expectation that someday they’ll look at it. But having the meetings every other week, or however they’re scheduled, does serve as a commitment device that people, if they haven’t done the reading, will apologize often at the start of the meeting, and say “I wasn’t able to get this finished.” But just the implicit pressure of having these meetings, encourages people to do more reading on the topics than they would have done otherwise. And that’s as true for me as it is for all the participants in the group.

Jessamyn: I will say that I try not to inflict guilt on people, I took a page from my colleague Jessica Tinklenberg, who’s the Director of the teaching center out at the University of the Pacific, she ran a no-guilt book club. So that’s what she called it, No-Guilt Book Club. And I definitely emphasize that to people as well, encouraging people to Zoom in, even if you haven’t done the reading that week, or whenever you can, to just emphasize that. But you’re right, people will still say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get to it.” Although as academics, they always still have a lot to say.

John: Yes, that’s never stopped anyone from participating. [LAUGHTER] We also have encouraged people to attend, even if they weren’t able to complete the readings, because they’re going to get something useful out of the conversation and often will contribute something useful as the topics are discussed.

Jessamyn: In fact, that was something I did want to touch on, that I’ve been really surprised by, I guess, as the club has continued, is how the book is definitely the starting point, but it’s these conversations, which I don’t know why it surprised me, because the same was true at every teaching conference I’ve ever gone to. The workshops are great, the speakers are great. But then, often, the thing that I do when I get home is the thing I talked about with somebody at lunch, or while I was talking to them before the session or there was an example on the slide and I was talking to so and so about it. That’s, in the long run, what ends up actually changing my teaching. And I see that happening with the book club at times, that the content is this great springboard, and it’s definitely a key part, but sometimes it’s the talking that really seems to make an impact.

John: And we’ll talk about this more in just a few minutes. But one of the things we’ve been doing is we’ve been having multiple sessions for each chapter or set of chapters that we discuss, and both Jessamyn and I have been attending all of those sessions, or nearly all of them and Rebecca had attended most of those when she was a co-director of the teaching center here. But what happens is every day’s meeting, the discussions are very, very different and they’ve all been really valuable. And I’ve enjoyed the diversity of discussions. So it’s just not repeating the same things every day, that would get kind of tedious. [LAUGHTER] And we’ve encouraged participants to consider coming back for other group meetings if they wanted to. We haven’t had a lot of people take us up on that, but the variety of topics and the richness of those discussions has been really an important part of the benefit of this, for those of us who do attend multiple sessions.

Jessamyn: Yeah, it is. It really is.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s been interesting is a lot of the books that have been chosen work well if you can’t read the whole thing, because many of them have nice little summaries at the end, too, to give people a little bit of a chance or some insight into what was in the chapter. And maybe that’s some good book selection on both your parts.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I was thinking as you were talking, John, that maybe we can pat ourselves on the back a little bit here about the book choices we’ve made. Although, then again, there are so many great books about teaching. It’s not too hard to reach your hand out and find an incredible book to talk about. But I totally agree that every meeting, even when it raises very different points, has a valuable take away. But I do think that part of that is the book selection that we’ve made.

John: Yeah, we’ve had some really superb books, maybe we can talk a little bit about some of the benefits of the collaboration. One of those is that if we tried to do three group meetings at my institution alone, we’d probably only have two or three people at some of those sessions, and the sessions wouldn’t be as rich. By doing the collaboration, it allows us to get a full group of people there on more days, which opens up more opportunities for people to attend at times that’s convenient for them. And that I think, has been really beneficial.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I’ll add that, in a very practical way, it lessens the workload for us as facilitators, it’s like co-teaching… that knowing “Okay, so it’s the Wednesday book group, I woke up with a headache. I don’t really feel like talking too much, but John’s facilitating it today.” But even more than that, is the sense of… Rebecca, you said belonging for our faculty. But for us, as teaching center directors, small, small, small centers with not an overabundance of resources, it’s easy to feel alone. And certainly when we began, it was especially isolating, really overwhelming, with having coped with the emergency pivot and faculty’s needs at that time and our own classes as well. It’s very easy for educational developers to start feeling isolated while often we’re in this sort of weird in between place where we advocate for students, but we advocate for faculty, but we advocate for the administrators too and we’re supposed to be everything to everyone. So making this kind of collaborative connection has been sustaining to me in my teaching practice, for sure, but also just as the teaching center director as well.

John: And it really helps having multiple perspectives approaching these books, because we’re from different disciplines, and we bring different perspectives. And that’s been an important part of it, I think, too.

Rebecca: I’m wondering if folks are interested in starting book clubs, if both of you can talk about some of the logistics behind how running the book club and each individual session might work?

Jessamyn: Well, it’s been an evolution in how we’ve run it. And when we started, I think I should take credit for being like overly anally retentively prepared, [LAUGHTER], and I think maybe especially like, right at the beginning, when we were still really like in the grips of the worst pandemic era changes and upheavals, that maybe it was helpful to have some very specific discussion questions ahead of time. And as we were getting used to Zooming, but now, at least in the past book, and we’ll see what the spring brings as well, it seems like it’s worked a little bit better to be a little more hands-off and let whoever happens to come in that day, those faculty, lead the discussion, maybe have a few questions in your back pocket, in case there’s quiet, but I don’t know, John, what do you think?

John: I agree. When I put slides together, they were pretty plain. They didn’t look as nice as your slides did. Mine were kind of ugly but when Rebecca did them, they looked nice, [LAUGHTER] given her background in graphic design. But I think it was important to have a little bit more structure, because the very first book that we used was Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and Jim Lang. And everyone was kind of panicking at that time. And having that focus, I think, was probably really helpful. But we’ve moved away from that, in general, with all the sessions we’ve been doing. And partly though, I think it’s because we’ve got a lot of repeat participants. Many of the people we have come back term after term. And they’re very comfortable at leading much of the discussion, and I think that’s been really valuable.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that maybe there was a need for some trust building early on, in understanding that everyone was equally panicking. I remember using a lot of Jamboard and stuff in some of those very early sessions just to get some shared ideas in a base. But I think that also helped people feel connected, because they realized they had some of the same ideas, and then felt more willing to talk later on. And then I think John’s right, some of the same people help with that nice welcoming atmosphere.

Jessamyn: Sometimes things take on a momentum or life of their own. And I don’t think community is too strong a word. I think that is what’s being built in this collaboration. And it’s funny, I haven’t reflected on it until just right this moment, but that’s something that really came out of a panic, like flat out and out pants-dropping panic, [LAUGHTER] has led to something so productive. And it’s only because of Zoom. I mean, it’s only enabled because of the comfort level of Zoom and the convenience it offers people, enabling people to participate and enabling them to collaborate, like we are across a pretty major distance.

Rebecca: I think it’s important to remember that in either of our institutions, we already had issues getting people in the same space at the same time. And obviously, to collaborate between institutions, we would need some way of doing that. But I think it’s afforded people the opportunity to join the call from home after they get their kids off the bus or whatever thing is happening in their lives that might cause them to have to participate remotely, anyways, whether or not we were all at the same institution.

Jessamyn: Yeah, it kind of acknowledges and recognizes the fact that people are burdened, that they have a lot to do in their own personal lives, at work, teaching. So the Zoom format, it really kind of sets a tone for the book group. We know that you have many, many demands on your time, like, it seems like it’s a very concrete way of respecting people’s time. We are offering the three different meeting times and having them via zoom. I’m not sure that I would even go back to just in-person book clubs after this experience.

John: Well, we had actually been offering things with video conference ability, going back to 2008.

Jessamyn: You are an early adopter, John, let’s clarify this.

John: I was…

Rebecca: He’s a very early adopter.

John: …but most of our faculty were not.

Jessamyn: That’s right. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, there would be a screen up with potential participants. But it was rare that we’d have more than one person coming in online. [LAUGHTER] But, the pandemic certainly made people much more comfortable with Zoom and gave them access to web cameras, or at least let them know that they had a web camera that they could use for this type of thing. So that it became really comfortable in ways that we had the ability to do that before, but it was very rarely used by most faculty.

Rebecca: Even if we’re thinking about faculty computer replacements and things institutionally, the institution is moving towards using laptops to make sure that people do have these tools. And so I think that’s really helpful because it does help with collaboration, not only within our own institution, but across institutions.

John: One of the things we’ve been very fortunate is that our administration has been very supportive of this and has been buying the books for faculty. And when faculty get a book delivered to them, they’re much more likely to actually participate because they feel guilty if they didn’t read it and if they didn’t show up, I think that’s really been helpful in doing it.

Rebecca: Does that also come with a commitment device of some sort?

John: In a sense, yeah, [LAUGHTER] there’s a little bit of guilt associated with not showing up. But the other thing that we had often done, it hasn’t worked this way for the last several book groups… we have an academic affairs retreat before the fall semester and we had often had the reading group focus on a book written by the keynote speaker at that event. And one of the things that happened when we’ve done that is that we keep the signups open through that academic affairs retreat and the number of participants normally almost exactly doubled every time when we had that keynote speaker because they tended to inspire people. We had some issues where we were hoping to have keynote speakers, but their books were delayed because there was this pandemic going on.

Jessamyn: Yeah [LAUGHTER].

John: … or other things come up that interfered with it. But that was something that, when we could make that connection, it was really effective in getting more people joining in, because we’d normally have a couple hundred people at the academic affairs retreat. And it was a nice way of marketing that.

Jessamyn: Yeah, and if I’m remembering correctly, you gave Plattsburgh Zoom access to one of those for when we read Relationship-Rich Education, Peter Felton came and spoke, and I noticed something very similar with this faculty group as well, as attracting a wider range of people.

John: I’m hoping we can get back to that at some point. But again, things have been a little bit more hectic. [LAUGHTER] And it’s been harder to plan for the contingencies of what is most appropriate next year in the environment we’ve had for the last two and a half to three years.

Jessamyn: And that also raises the point that selecting the book, we have had to think really carefully like, who will this appeal to most? What do people really need and want right now? And we try to vary it a little bit thinking about well, this book will be really appealing to XYZ, so then the next semester looking for something that might be a little bit different and mostly, I think, we’ve guessed very well.

John: I think so. Maybe we should mention some of the books that we’ve used.

Jessamyn: In fall 2020 in direct response to what was happening, we did Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and Jim Lang. And then in the spring of 2021, we read Distracted by James Lang. In fall 2021, we read What Inclusive Instructors Do, by Tracie Addy and co-authors. Last spring, 2022, we did Relationship-Rich Education by Peter Felton and Leo Lambert. This semester, fall 2022, we read Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology by Michelle Miller. And we are excited to be reading next semester Inclusive Teaching by Kelly Hogan, and Viji Sathy..

John: And even if you are not able to arrange for the authors to visit on campus, many authors have been willing to come in over Zoom to give a talk to the reading group, either at the beginning of the session, or at the end. And I think that’s also been really helpful.

Jessamyn: Yeah, yeah, many people are willing to do, at no cost, an informal question and answer session with book clubs. Many scholars of teaching and learning are willing and able to do that.

Rebecca: So it’s probably not fair to have a conversation about logistics without asking about some challenges you might have faced during this time, or during the collaboration, or just in running reading groups generally.

Jessamyn: This is not a challenge that we had, but maybe people should be aware that, as human beings, [LAUGHTER] some people don’t like other people, and collaborating with someone that you haven’t worked with before is an unknown in terms of your strengths and weaknesses together. Are you going to complement each other? As luck would have it, John and Rebecca and I worked very well together and our strengths complement each other, John mentioned too, all three of us come from very different backgrounds and training. But that’s seen as a benefit, I do think scholars of teaching and learning, generally, are more open to collaboration than some academics might be. So it may be less of an issue than other kinds of intellectual projects, but that’s maybe something to keep in mind.

John: One practical problem is that pretty much all colleges have classes that meet at different times. And trying to find times that work for both institutions can be a challenge. If we want to get faculty involved, we have to find times that don’t overlap with too many class schedules. So we’ve been fortunate to be able to do that. And once we found times, we’ve been keeping them at the same times each semester, because there’s enough of an overlap there that each session will overlap at most one class time period at each institution, making it possible for more people to attend.

Jessamyn: John, you mentioned it as a benefit, but it can also be a challenge that we have returning members participating, because we also have new people every book as well, every session as well. And it’s sometimes can be challenging when someone’s like, “Oh, we read all about that two books ago, I totally get it.” Okay, but the person Zooming in next to you has never read a book on this before. But that’s part of community generally, the issue for developing any kind of community is trying to balance the needs of the ongoing longer term members with the needs of the new members. How do you make it meaningful to everyone? It really reminds me of a class in a lot of ways, where you have one student sitting in the last row who’s never gonna get anything out of the class, they’ve decided you are stupid, and they hate the whole class, and they’re never gonna be there. Then right next to them is a student who’s ready to have their whole life transformed and they’re about to declare a major, they love it so much. You’ve got such a range in any group of students. And similarly, you’ve got a wide range with faculty, especially everybody’s context changes all the time. And some people Zoom in for our book club. And they’re in the midst of a semester from hell… everything going wrong, their department is toxic, and they are just burned out, next to someone who’s on top of the world and the book is speaking to their heart because everything’s falling into place. And they’re in the same Zoom call, talking about the same book.

John: And we actually did have someone on our campus who gave that sort of feedback, that there was nothing new that they hadn’t learned from previous books that we’ve read. And that kind of shocked me because there was a lot in this book that I had not read before, and I was part of all those other groups, but that can happen. And I think we’ve been able to choose books that no matter what you had read before, will bring something new to everyone. Because each of the books has brought in a lot of new research findings and some new things that we hadn’t covered, even though some of the basic principles are the same. I only remember hearing that from one person, maybe other people felt that, but I didn’t feel that way unless maybe I just forgot all the other things we had read before.

Jessamyn: I don’t think that people participating in the book club are as necessarily as hyper aware as we are of the benefits of just having the conversation. And of course, they can’t see like, over the semesters, the bird’s eye view. They might have a general sense that… and this is actually now that I’m talking like maybe we should have done more rigorous assessments [LAUGHTER] now that I’m talking and getting feedback. But my feeling is that, often, they are enjoying the benefits of having the conversations about teaching with not necessarily that facilitator view of “Oh, I see where we are talking about the book, but now people… they’re moving into more of these strategies or ideas or just moral support, like at certain times, in certain meetings, just Zooming in with other people who care about teaching, and are thinking about teaching” like you can tell that this is uplifting and encouraging. And that has less to do with the book content than being there in that call together.

John: And I think some of the people you mentioned, who were having just this horrible semester, and lots of people have been feeling that recently, especially the last few semesters, often get the most benefit out of those discussions and that sense of community, as you said, is really valuable.

Rebecca: Well, there’s a lot of shared brainstorming and troubleshooting. When someone has identified a need, or has just expressed some anxiety or stress around what they’re experiencing, people are there to say “it’s not just you,” or “I’ve tried this and it’s been successful,” or “I tried that that you’re thinking about and these are the barriers that I faced” … that just makes all of us more aware of what to be thinking about as we implement new things.

Jessamyn: Yeah, the last book we read. Michelle Miller’s book about Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology, it’s only a small part of her book when she’s talking about specific classroom phone policies, but we had extended conversations about classroom phone policies, and for good reason, it’s on a lot of people’s minds and there’s a lot of experiences and issues to unpack with that. So I think that’s a good example of how it wasn’t a huge part of her book, she does address it and address it very well but it was less about going through point by point her argument and her evidence, and more about: “So, she’s saying this, alright, so what happened in class last week with the phones, with the devices? So then this happened, then this happened…” and people were just sharing that: “What went on? And what did you do and what worked, what didn’t work?” And in fact, it gave me the idea. I’m creating a new workshop starting next semester, it’s just called “Classroom phone policies.” And it’s basically going to be, let’s talk about your classroom phone policies. What do you think?

Rebecca: I think one thing that we might want to talk about as we’re thinking about challenges is not one that we faced, but one that collaborators could face if they’re not similar kinds of institutions. I want to just underscore that, again, that that’s, I think in part, why the collaboration has been so successful.

Jessamyn: I think so too. I think it would maybe raise people’s hackles if the teaching context was really different, the student populations were really different. Well, you can’t really understand if it could work, but you’d have to be aware.

John: It might be harder to find common ground between a university center where faculty’s focus is often on research and a community college where the focus is primarily on teaching and lots of classes and lots of students. It would be really hard to get topics that would work well in both contexts, I would think. But again, as you both said, we’re very similar institutions,

Jessamyn: Yeah, it’s sort of the basis for the trust you were mentioning, Rebecca, because there have been big differences. John, you teach very large classes, larger than even the largest classes here at Plattsburgh. So there are big differences that have come up. But there’s this starting place of trust, this is another SUNY institution, similar student population, some general similar challenges with teaching centers that have some similar approaches. That starting ground of trust for faculty to talk honestly about this.

Rebecca: Sometimes in the books too, there’s examples that don’t feel relevant to our institutions, like a med school example, for example, but then we can take that and as a conversation point to say, “I didn’t find this relevant,” but then someone else might chime in. “Oh, but I’ve done something similar in this other context,” and that can be incredibly helpful in helping people think through how different concepts or strategies might apply in their own context.

Jessamyn: That makes me think, though, that another challenge to keep in mind, for other people looking to start faculty reading groups, is that it might be hard to measure or assess the long-term impact of some of this community building and the connections that I’m seeing happen. It would be hard to pin it down and show a direct systemic correlation between this and improved teaching. I think we might be able to, if we were to find the perfect moment, get people to say it or write it down: “We did this in the reading group, and I applied it this way in my classroom,” but I’m not sure how you would measure just like… I know, for myself, this past semester, just knowing I was going to Zoom in with people, like looking forward to a Zoom call, like how do you assess that? But that is… I mean, what? …that never happens. So I know it’s good, but I’m not quite sure how I’m going to document it for my annual activities report.

John: Yeah, we haven’t been able to do randomized controlled experiments [LAUGHTER] where we assign some people to reading groups and other people not to participate. We don’t have so many applicants to participate that we’re able to do a lottery and then evaluate the impact on student learning. It might be nice if we were in that position, but the people who participate tend to be some of the best teachers on campus, or the people who are most concerned about their teaching, and I’ve seen that the people who attend are also much more likely to attend other workshops and get involved in other professional development. So it does lead to a little bit of a contagion effect, in that it spreads to other aspects, when they see that this is something they find valuable, they’re much more likely to engage in other professional development.

Jessamyn: I wonder too, if there’s something to be said for… sorry to use the “u”word… but it’s unprecedented, the times we live in. Our unprecedented challenges in higher education are really things we’ve never faced before. And a collaborative Zoom-based faculty reading group, I mean, it’s new. We’re like, “oh, it’s old hat.” We’ve only been doing it like two years or something. But we’re like, “oh, yeah, our book club” and people around like, “Oh, of course, that’s just how it is,” but it’s a radical major change. It’s an innovation. And we’re kind of still in the midst of it, we’re still figuring out what it might be able to do or how this might work. I’m still framing Zoom, not as an emergency measure, but something that could actually add support and encouragement to our teaching life.

Rebecca: I’m hopeful for the opportunity in the future, maybe, to continue connecting faculty across institutions, maybe with similar disciplines or ways where they may not feel connected at their own institution, but have ways to connect with others at another institution where they might feel some alignment and feel a sense of belonging. I think there’s opportunity to continue scaling up, which is kind of interesting.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I think as the question of how do we mitigate teaching burnout, not only is that not going away, but that’s probably going to really slam into us big time in the next few years. And that seems to be more and more that’s what I hear. What could we possibly do? I just came back from the POD Network Conference. And there was a lot about what can we do? How can we chunk out faculty development? How can we support and encourage faculty? And collaborations like this, these kinds of connections, they’ve gotta be away, I think.

John: We’d both came back from the OLC conference where we ran a session on this, which was in the episode that we just released last week. Yeah, that was a concept we heard a lot about at other sessions, too, that everyone is feeling burned out. And it’s going to be a challenge, as we deal with issues of student motivation, student engagement, in a world in which there are so many problems that make it a little bit harder for students and for us to focus on developing a more productive learning environment.

Jessamyn: Yeah, our next book on inclusive teaching, I think, is a good example of that. It’s something so many people care about so much, but it can start to feel overwhelming. It’s something you’re always having to keep revisiting and learning about. That’s by its nature. That’s what inclusive pedagogical practices require, that you continue to build your pedagogical skills over and over and over and without a place like a book club that kind of just is there to reinforce and support your growth mindset about teaching. Yes, everybody’s really tired this semester. It’s not easy to do, but we’re here together.

Rebecca: And it’s scheduled reflective practice.

Jessamyn: That’s right, exactly.

Rebecca: It’s already on the calendar.

Jessamyn: And it is a big benefit, John, like you said that we’ve been able to do it at the same times, the same three times three days a week is like sometimes I say my superpower is consistency. This is a good example.

John: And at Oswego, most faculty either teach Tuesday/Thursday or Monday/Wednesday/Friday, so by scheduling our meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, it makes it pretty easy for people to find a time to participate. They don’t always participate at the same time every week. And again, they get the benefit of meeting and working with a different group of people if they show up at different times.

Rebecca: And minimally, even if they can’t come to a meeting, there’s a schedule for how to read the book.

Jessamyn: And now that I’m thinking about it, we do have quite a few people who Zoom from home or other places working around their childcare. So it definitely increases people’s ability to attend.

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

John: Well, what’s next, I think is our next reading group, which will be starting up in February 2023.

Jessamyn: We are very, very excited to be reading Inclusive Teaching. It’s one of the latest books out from the West Virginia University Press Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series. We’re super excited that the authors, Dr. Viji Sathy and Dr. Kelly Hogan, are going to be Zooming in for a Q&A with our book club when we’re done. They provide everyone a book club guide, some discussion questions, through their website. So we’re really really looking forward to that discussion.

John: If you’d like to consider a reading group on your campus and if you’d have any questions about how this operates, feel free to contact any of us. We’ll put our email addresses in the show notes.

Rebecca: Thanks for joining us, Jessamyn. It’s always great to talk to you.

Jessamyn: Thanks for having me.


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.


268. Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout

This episode is a live recording of a panel session at the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate Conference in Orlando on November 17, 2022. The panelists were Michelle Miller, Liz Norell, and Kelvin Thompson.

Michelle is a professor of psychological sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and also more recently, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching and Learning and the Science of Memory in a Wired World, which was recently released by West Virginia University Press. Liz is a political scientist, and an associate professor at Chattanooga State Community College. She is also an experienced registered yoga teacher with over 500 hours of training completed. She is currently working on a book on Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. Kelvin is the Executive Director of the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning, and graduate faculty scholar in UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. He developed the open courseware BlendKit course that many of us have taken, and cohosts TOPcast, the Teaching Online Podcast.

Show Notes

  • Panelists:
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Miller, M. D. (2022). Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World.
  • Norell, Liz (forthcoming). Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. West Virginia University Press.
  • BlendKit
  • TOPcast
  • Brandon Bayne’s twitter post on the adjusted syllabus.
  • Nick Sousanis’ syllabi
  • Behling, K. T., & Tobin, T. J. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. West Virginia University Press.
  • Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository (TOPR)
  • Joosten, T., Harness, L., Poulin, R., Davis, V., & Baker, M. (2021). Research Review: Educational Technologies and Their Impact on Student Success for Racial and Ethnic Groups of Interest. WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET).
  • Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press.
  • Eaton, Robert; Steven V. Hunsaker, and Bonnie Moon (forthcoming, 2023) Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.
  • Enneagram test


John: This is a recording of a live panel session that took place during the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate Conference in Orlando on November 17, 2022. We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did.


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: Welcome to “Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout.” I’m John Kane, an economist and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Rebecca: I’m Rebecca Mushtare, a designer and an Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at SUNY Oswego. We’re the hosts of the Tea for Teaching podcast and the moderators for today’s session. We’d like to let everyone know that we’re recording this session in order to release it in an upcoming episode of Tea for Teaching. And today’s session will include 30 minutes of moderated discussion, followed by 10 minutes of questions from all of you, and I’ll turn it over to John to introduce our panel.

John: Our panelists are Michelle Miller. Michelle is a professor of psychological sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Michelle is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and also more recently, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching and Learning and the Science of Memory, which was recently released by West Virginia University Press. We also have Liz Norell. Liz is a political scientist, and an associate professor at Chattanooga State Community College. She is also an experienced registered yoga teacher with over 500 hours of training completed. She is currently working on a book on Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. We also have Kelvin Thompson. Kelvin is the Executive Director of the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning, and graduate faculty scholar in UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. He developed the open courseware BlendKit course that many of us have taken, and cohosts TOPcast, the teaching online podcast.

Rebecca: This wouldn’t be a complete episode of tea for teaching if we didn’t ask about tea. So Kelvin, our coffee drinker, are you drinking tea today?

Kelvin: I am drinking tea today, Rebecca, this is a mint tea from Tazo. I have to admit, I went looking for my favorite conference tea, which is that orange Tazo tea that I looked everywhere and they didn’t have any.

Rebecca: Ah, a little bummer. Michelle?

Michelle: Well, true to form, I’m drinking coffee and I’m going to admit that I also mixed it with Swiss Miss hot chocolate, [LAUGHTER] a very guilty pleasure on many levels.

Liz: I don’t drink anything hot. So I’m drinking diet coke.

Rebecca: Woo!

Liz: Thank you.

Rebecca: As many guests before you have as well.

Liz: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: John?

John: And I am drinking an English breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: And I have some very strong Awake tea, so that we’re really awake for this episode.

John: The pandemic spurred a rapid transition of instructional methods and an increased focus on inclusive teaching, and we want to talk a bit about that in today’s session. We’d like to ask the panelists: What were some of the improvements in inclusivity and building a sense of belonging, that you’ve observed during the pandemic? …with particular emphasis on remote and asynchronous courses. And Liz is going to start.

Liz: What I found, particularly in asynchronous online courses, is that I have noticed this has much broadened the ability of neurodivergent students and students who have some kind of disability, especially an invisible disability. And the way that it’s done that is by really forcing us to accept multiple kinds of student engagement. So what I noticed in March of 2020, is that students who had been almost invisible in my face-to-face class, when we came back to Zoom after spring break, I didn’t see their faces, but I heard their voices, if not vocally than in the chat. And I have so thoroughly appreciated that. I also learned from my students that you can change the way you show up in Zoom by getting one of those little lens things over your camera and changing your virtual background. So oftentimes, they would come into a Zoom room, and this would be in a synchronous class, and they would have a different cartoon character of the day. And this is a wonderful way to get to know more about them and their personalities. What I’ve also found is that when we are meeting synchronously, recording the classes is really helpful for a lot of learners. And so, since I’ve gone back to face-to-face teaching, I always open a Zoom room and record it and sometimes students will join by Zoom because they can’t come to campus that day. My partner who teaches math has also started doing this because they found that it’s really helpful for the students to be able to review what they did in class when they’re trying to apply it in their homework or preparing for an exam. The last thing I want to mention is that I teach political science, we always do a unit on civil liberties. And one of the things that I did in person was bring in a prop box and have them do skits where they acted out the precipitating events to major Supreme Court civil liberties cases, and I thought there’s no way we can do this over zoom, right? Yes. And it’s just getting really creative with Zoom backgrounds, with props that they have in their houses. It makes it so much more campy that it’s much more fun, because in person they always like “Oooh, I’m nervous.” In Zoom, it’s going to be a train wreck, okay, we’re just gonna embrace that, and that really creates a really fun dynamic in the classroom.

Kelvin: I would agree with the broad brushstrokes of what Liz said, I would like to broaden it further though, and say that throughout the last couple of years, what I’ve seen in a way that I’ve never seen before is an emphasis on empathy, and what we might call a human first orientation. I was really heartened to see that in a lot of ways in the early days of the lockdown era of remote instruction, and I still see ripples of it now. Two things that come to mind from the early days that are worth a review, if you haven’t looked at him in a while. One that got kind of viral, the so-called adjusted syllabus of Brandon Bayne from UNC, where he got really kind of real and transparent with students and released it out all over for adaptation. And then Nick Sousanis from San Francisco State University more recently had what he called notes on now as a syllabus section that just kind of, in a more encapsulated way, he sort of said that he wants to keep anchoring down to that human-first element, and just keep that a present part of every course’s syllabus.

Rebecca: Thank you, both Liz and Kelvin for giving us some insights into what we’ve already been experiencing and reminding us about some of the strong improvements that we’ve had. Many campuses are moving back to onsite instruction, while also considering how much of their portfolio should be including online options. And while each campus continues to adapt and adjust, how can we maintain the momentum around inclusive practices and avoid slipping back into our old habits? Michelle, will you start us off?

Michelle: And I love the framing here as momentum, because I think that many campuses have generated a lot of great energy around the why of inclusion, the why of equity, the why of justice, and why this is so important. The trick is going to be to follow that energy on with more on the what and how… how do we put that into practice. And I really struggle when I think about it, because our students, they need practice when there’s a new skill, a new way of responding. They need practice in lots of new contexts. And I talk a lot about transfer. And we may remember a skill or develop a skill in one context and we just don’t remember to activate it and carry it through in a new context. And we’re going to need that. We’re going to need to have certain techniques and teaching moves that do become second nature to us and be able to recognize, hey, this is one of those opportunities to put those into practice. So I was just doing a session this morning by a group from the University of Wisconsin. And they talked about, for example, the need to provide lots of concrete examples to faculty like what does this look like? Maybe even in your discipline? So, for example, increased course structure, we know this is proven to be an inclusive teaching practice. So I need to say, “Oh, yeah, this is the place to do this.” The frequent low-stakes assessments, we know that that reduces disparities in opportunity and disparities in achievement across many student groups. And so offering those concrete paths, making sure we know how to set them up, and then showing faculty that we see it when they’re making the effort and rewarding that. We don’t always need that little extrinsic reward, but institutions have to really keep that up if they’re going to see that this carries through, because that’s going to be the difference between institutions that really have that momentum moving forward and the ones that fall behind.

Liz: I agree… [LAUGHTER] with what she said. I come at this from a little bit of a different perspective, because I am in the classroom, or at least in a virtual classroom. But I think the word that comes to mind for me when I think about momentum is intentionality. And I think if we can remember to teach through our values, especially those values that became so crystallized during COVID, that’s a really good first step. And I’m fond of saying that what’s good for students is good for us. So I want us to think about the ways that we prioritized care, humanity, grace with our students, and also make sure we’re doing that for one another and for ourselves. And I mentioned this before, but COVID really revealed a lot of inequities that had been there for a long time. And now that we know that they’re there, we have to be very intentional about ensuring that they don’t just kind of go back to being invisible again now that we’re not all on Zoom together. So those are the things that I’m thinking about. It’s really leaning into our values, not forgetting what we learned, being intentional and doing for ourselves what we have seen we need to do for our students.

Rebecca: That’s a great reminder to think about not just the students, but the whole community, faculty, staff, etc.

John: During the early stages of the pandemic, we saw a lot of experimentation. And we saw the rapid growth of remote synchronous instruction and HyFlex instruction. And one of the things I think many of us are wondering is what roles they will play as we move forward into the future. Helvin?

Kelvin: Well, my crystal ball never was working. [LAUGHTER] It’s not even broken. But here’s kind of what I think is happening and what may continue to happen. I think synchronous online options will continue to be a factor in our digital teaching and learning in a way that it was not before the pandemic. And it is certainly possible that what I refer to as true HyFlex may still have a place as well. It’s just, gosh, it’s hard to pull real true HyFlex off, right? It’s such a design-intensive approach. What I contrastingly refer to as pseudo HyFlex… dual mode, simulcasting, webcasting of classroom experience… that has challenges. It has a place, perhaps, in individual instructor preference. But I’m going to tell you, firsthand from faculty colleagues I talked to as well as data I’ve seen, it’s exhausting. And it’s challenging for students, the what is sometimes touted as student flexibility ends up just becoming sort of a lowering of expectations and come and go as you wish and the intentionality and momentum seems to dissipate. I’m a big fan of intentional design and modalities of choice, and so forth,,,that way, instead. So, I think synchronous is around and I think our mutated modalities are around. And true. HyFlex has a place. But I’d love to see a diminishing of pseudo HyFlex.

Michelle: This is sparking so many of my own thoughts that I’m really feeling in a way validated here. And I’ll echo a lot of this as well. I think that again, in true HyFlex, where I am fully engaging the folks who are all spread out, I’m fully engaging whoever’s in my classroom, and we’re achieving all of our objectives. That really is a lot. And it’s not the technology. It’s the cognitive capacity. And as a cognitive psychologist, I say, “Well, when you practice remembering to read the chat and read the room at the same time, those demands get a little bit less, but they don’t go away. It’s just too complex.” So I think that we are going to have, yeah, the true bonafide HyFlex courses going forward, they need to be designated, they need to be supported in a particular way. So they may not be unicorns exactly, but I kind of see that coming forward. What I feel like I’ve kind of settled into a more HyFlex light, HyFlex infused is, for example, if you’re home and you’re remote, you need to be remote today, I don’t have an elaborate Google doc with a structured discussion maybe for you. But you can follow along, you can send in a participation card, I do give a lot of credit for participation, and so we’re kind of moving to that. I do think that we still have a sense of possibility. I mean, we have definitely gotten those skills, and we will find new ways to use them. But even just the basics, like “Hey, you can record your class meetings.” And I offer that too as an option for catching up sometimes where needed. I really thought that was going to be a disaster for a lot of different reasons going on. I said that’s not going to work. And I will eat those words now. So we have a few of these tools in our toolkit that we can use in this lower key way, I think.

Rebecca: So Kelvin, you mentioned the ability of changing modalities and offering some flexibility here. And the ability for students to choose the modality that they take the course in is just one of the ways that we’ve seen increased flexibility. But we’ve also seen increased flexibility around attendance, assessments, and many other aspects of teaching. How can we continue to support increased flexibility for students without overburdening faculty. I’m really hoping you all have some magic that you can help with.

Michelle: Yeah, so increased flexibility without the overburdening of faculty… When I reflect on this, I think we can borrow from the plus one strategy that you might be familiar with from Universal Design for Learning. Tom Tobin and his colleagues who write about this… the idea being that, yeah, we’re working towards perhaps a very rich environment with many different ways to demonstrate what you know, to take a test, to participate in in a learning activity, but you don’t do it all at once. And I also think, too, that I know that I’ve gotten, I think, pretty adept at finding those opportunities for flexibility that don’t necessarily add more for me to do and I think an example of this would be the way I give exams these days. So during the pandemic, I said, there’s always going to be an option instead of sitting for a traditional test. So I have an option that’s an essay paper with length and scope parameters and so on. But students can structure this. I suggest they often structure it as an email home to your family about what you’ve learned during this portion of the course. I’ve had a few students who have run with it as a science fiction writing exercise, which works great in psychology. So people will report home to their alien commander or home base about what they’ve learned about humans on Planet Terra. And those are, if anything, just a change of pace for me to read. I’m reading the exams anyway. So I’m always about the efficiency and so that’s something that I’ve tried to capture as well. But here too, we have to remember there are risks when we offer these and faculty who do go out on that limb and try it the first semester or two… maybe it doesn’t work perfectly… they’ve got to be affirmed, and they’ve got to be protected especially untenured. Folks,

Kelvin: I feel like I want to report to my alien commander now. [LAUGHTER] “Mork calling Orson, Mork calling Orson,” that’s a deep cut call back, you have to be of a certain age to appreciate that. I agree with a lot of that. I don’t think I disagree with any of that. But I will broaden out a little bit and maybe anchor back, Rebecca, to your prompt a little bit. I personally think we should lean into intentional course design in intentionally designed and created modalities for which student flexibility is the intent. Asynchronous online is probably the most flexible thing we offer outside of maybe true adaptive learning, which is… don’t get me started… that’s another whole tough banana to peel. I need a better metaphor… bananas aren’t that tough to peel… [LAUGHTER] a tough onion to peel, there’s lots of tears. I don’t know… something. And then I think we need to reiterate to ourselves and to our faculty colleagues that there are codified effective practices in each of these course modality domains, like… a shameless plug… at UCF, we host the teaching online pedagogical repository (TOPR), an online compendium of online and blended teaching and design practices. So there’s stuff that we know that are research based, time honored, that work well and benefit students, things like the broad category of learner choice, which I think just echoes a little bit of what Michelle was saying. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel if we lean into those things. And there’s real student benefit for doing that.

John: The disruptions we experienced in education during the pandemic when people were learning remotely affected all students, but disproportionately affected students who are first-gen, students from low income households and minoritized students. How does higher education need to adjust to meet the diverse needs of all of our students, some of which were not as affected by the pandemic if they were in well-resourced school districts and others that were left behind a bit when they didn’t have access to the technology or the resources that better funded school districts had?

Kelvin: Yeah, we could do better. Even here at the conference in which we’re participating here as we record this, we saw even today, student voice represented on stage and I think we can do better with that. There’s knowing who our students are, there are data that we are collecting and could collect that tell us something. But there’s also just attending to students’ personal stories, keeping a human face on the student experience, being grounded in our work there. But broadening further, again, I’m a big advocate of research-based and time-honored teaching practices. And in our digital teaching and learning domain, many of those have been shown to benefit minoritized and disadvantaged student sub-populations. I would do a shout out here to Tonya Joosten’s research review that has its long title. It’s got educational technologies and student success and racial and ethnic groups of interest all in the title. It can be Googled, it’s free, it’s available, but she does a nice job of reviewing and synthesizing the extant literature and making some recommendations from that. And so there are ways in which our online and blended in particular design and teaching practices benefit everybody but in particular, benefit first-gen, minoritized students, and so forth. And here’s a little free factoid… in a little fascinating recommendation. She says, you know, there’s some evidence to suggest that reduced seat time blended courses at the lower-division level particularly benefit disadvantaged students subpopulations and then going into online courses at the upper division in the major kind of courses. Those two things together. You know, it’s stunning, that’s not whiz bang, whirly gig shiny, right? …but it’s just doing the work but as we align that it really has benefits that evidence would bear out.

Liz: I just want to start by echoing something that Kelvin mentioned, which is that if we’re going to serve the students we have and the students that we will have, we have to know who they are. And there are studies of generations and qualities, but I don’t think anything replaces asking the people in your classroom about themselves in a way that is safe and non-threatening, but comes from an authentic place of curiosity. So I do this with my students. At the start of every semester, I ask them questions, none of them are required, but I ask them questions about things like, what kinds of technology do you have? And how many hours a week are you working? And which of this very long list of challenges do you think you might face during the semester? What kinds of things can I do to help you? …just so that I have a sense of who’s in the room, and what might be going on with them. So just yesterday, I was teaching my Zoom class from upstairs in my hotel room, which I was very grateful for, because I’m an introvert, and this conference is overwhelming. So I was happy to have an excuse to get away for three hours to teach. But we spent 20 minutes just asking, “How are you? No, no, how are you?” Not, I’m fine. I’m okay, but what’s going on? And one of my students said, I’ve always struggled with depression, and I thought I had it under control. But the last week has taught me that I don’t. And it’s only because we’re in week six of a seven week class that that student felt like he could say that, and the whole class could say, “Me too.” And those moments, I think that is so critical. And it’s just the humanization that we’ve already talked about, and meeting people where they are, I want to put in a plug for Zaretta Hammond’s book about, I don’t remember the full title, but it’s the brain and culturally relevant responsive teaching. It’s got a lot of really good buzzwords in it. But it talks about how, when the brain is in a state of trauma, or stress, you can’t learn. And so we can talk about all of these things that we can do. But if our students are not in a place to hear it, nothing that we do is going to make a difference. And I think if we’re talking about how to teach the students we have, we have to be aware of that before we can move forward.

Rebecca: So you’ve nicely connected to our next topic. [LAUGHTER]

Liz: …almost like I meant to.

Rebecca: lI know, it’s almost like you knew it was coming. Campuses are seeing a rise in mental health needs in their student bodies, both prior to the pandemic and it obviously continues to increase. And shifting to more inclusive practices is shifting the relationship that students are having with the faculty, just like you mentioned, being able to be more open about some of these things. In my own experience, I’ve seen an increase in disclosure of mental health challenges and distress and the need to refer and actively engage in suicide prevention. These are things that I didn’t need to do five years ago, [LAUGHTER] or maybe I didn’t need to do but didn’t see, but definitely see now. So how can faculty and institutions more effectively respond to mental health challenges facing our learning communities? And obviously, Liz, you kind of started us off on some ideas here. Michelle?

Michelle: Yeah, I’d like to put another book on the radar actually, as well. And full disclosure, I was an editor on this book, but I really believe in it. It’s coming out next year, actually, it’s called Learning and Student Mental Health in the College Classroom, lead authors, Robert Eaton. And it is in this space of friendly, actionable strategies when we do have increased disclosure. I mean, I found too, that Zoom itself is a sort of a dis-inhibiting space, like many online spaces are and going in I should have known that. it’s like on paper, I’ve read it, but then it became very, very real. So what do we do with that? Because the thing for faculty is, we mean this well, but our minds immediately go to: “How do I fix it? Oh, my gosh, do I have to kind of do amateur therapy that I’m not qualified to do?” And no, that is absolutely not what we need to do next. It’s a good thing to be concerned about not crossing boundaries at that same time as we are responding to what students are disclosing for us. So the strategies that I like are those that say, well, let’s start by not accentuating the crises and the stresses that are there. And a few other kind of concrete things… For me, not asking for doctor’s notes. Boy, when I started teaching a long time ago, I was all about the documentation and “show me exactly what happened at the emergency room,” and that type of thing. So now I offer flexibility and many paths to catch up that much like universal design for learning are built in for everyone from day one of the course. So if there’s something that prevented you from coming to class or making that deadline, okay, we can talk about it if you want, but we don’t have to. And you can simply take those paths that I’ve already laid out for you. I think taking the time to empathize, many of us did practice those skills and we can continue to do so. When I get to talk to people who are just starting out as teachers, I say, “You have this big loud microphone, this megaphone to a student’s ear. Your words land very, very powerfully. So you really need to think about those.” I find that my students seem to come to me expecting very harsh treatment and very harsh reactions, when they tell me about what they’re going through. And so I remind myself to simply start with warmth and compassion and human empathy, and a way forward. So that’s something that we can do. And when all else may fail, I say “How would I want my own child, in the same situation, a crisis, which is hopefully temporary and passing… how would I want them to be spoken to? How would I want that email to be phrased? What kind of pass forward would I want for them?” So that’s how I take it.

John: We’re a little behind schedule. So we’re going to ask anyone in the audience to come up to the microphone. One of the issues we haven’t quite gotten to is the issue of preventing burnout. Maybe if Liz could address that briefly while people come up.

Liz: So I want to talk about burnout in a very particular way. Because I think we often think of burnout as a me problem. And I think of burnout as an every one problem. It is a system that is creating it. And so I want to tell every one of you listening, that you are not the problem, and you haven’t done anything wrong. But in order to mitigate burnout, we have to be aware of what our boundaries are. And that often requires getting really quiet, and listening to ourselves. Because we’ve been steeped in this culture that tells us that hustling and productivity is the only way you’re valuable. And that is not true. But you’re not going to be able to figure out what your boundaries are if you’re listening to those voices. So you got to step out of that for a minute, and figure out what really matters to you. And here’s a good way to do it. Think about yourself 20 years from now. What are the things that are going to have mattered about what you’re doing right now? And what are the things that you won’t really care about? Choose to spend your time on the things that will matter to you 20 years from now, and all of these other kind of petty political debates in your institution… because we all have them… that’s not what you’re going to be remembering when you look back on your career. Focus your energy and your care on the things that you’re going to care about over a career and make choices accordingly. I think that’s the advice I would give.

JELISA: My name is Jelisa Dallas, I’m representing the University of Phoenix. My role is as a recognized student organization manager, a program manager. And so my question was, “How do we effectively work with students in a way that’s going to help streamline their purpose as it pertains to connecting with them in the classroom? So a lot of students have a lot of things going on, and how do we streamline that to get them to stay focused and prioritize when so much is going on and around?”

Liz: Thank you for the question. I mean, I think it’s making sure that what we are doing, we’re transparent about why it matters to them. And it’s creating relevance to whatever their goals are. And of course, you can’t do that if you don’t know what they are. So again, you need to know your students, but designing the work for your class, so that it feels intrinsically valuable, I think, is the best advice I can give.

ALI: Hi, I’m Ali Kirwen, I am a course operations specialist with the University of Michigan, we are an all online program, or I work for an online master’s program. It’s asynchronous, we have students everywhere in all different time zones. And we have faculty that care a whole, whole lot about our students. So I’m wondering, as a designer, how can I help encourage my faculty to set boundaries with their students in a way that honors their joy of teaching and interacting with their students, but is working towards preserving them and not burning them out as well? [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: Well, I think that even subtle things like wording choice. So are there things that say over and above, do we give awards for the person who did the most? Or do we give awards for people who did the best? So I think that faculty, especially when they’re new, are really looking for those cues. And so those can be powerful.

Kelvin: What Michelle said… [LAUGHTER] No, what Michelle said but just maybe that underscore and amplify that for a second, I’ve thought about doing this myself, and I just haven’t. But I love the colleagues and maybe some of you are them who have those little statements in the bottom of your email, right? Like, “if you’re getting this email, when you’re not working, don’t feel some sort of obligation to respond right now. I sent it at a time that I was working, that might not be the time that you’re working. And, in a collegial sort of way, we can have that same kind of a vibe, I think, in our course interactions between faculty and students. And then again, wording… I got a note just last night on a book project I’m working on from a colleague who’s gonna peer review. And he said, “I show my respect by being direct and blatantly honest.” And so I think framing is everything. Word choice is everything. And making explicit where you’re coming from without just sort of caving to the implicit pressures and cultural expectations. That’s hard. But it’s important.

Liz: Yes. And women in the academy, we do a lot of emotional labor. And that comes very naturally to me, if you know anything about the Enneagram, I’m a 2, like, I want to fix all your problems, okay. But the way that I do this, because students tell me everything. I think they tell me everything, because they know that I will listen. But what I have learned for myself, and this has been the difference between moving towards burnout and not, is that I am here to listen to you deeply. I am not here to fix your problems. And I will refer you to people who can help you. But if you just need to be heard, I will listen. And sometimes that does get heavy. But I also recognize that if I fix all the problems for all the students, I’m going to be exhausted. And that doesn’t really serve them in the long run. Because they don’t need someone to fix their problems. They just need someone to tell them that they’re okay and that I believe in you, and I care about you. And so I would say that, but deep listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone else. And that’s just listening to understand what they’re saying, not to respond. So that’s what I would say. And please never send pictures from the ER, never. [LAUGHTER] You know, students tell them, no ER photos,

John: We always end by asking: “What’s next?” …and we’ll start with Kelvin.

Kelvin: Crystal ball, still not working. [LAUGHTER] But here’s, I guess, my read on the situation, there are more options for people to learn and work than there ever have been before. So I think that we can either meet the needs of our colleagues and our learners, or someone else will when they go elsewhere.

Michelle: What’s next for me, I want to keep doing the absolute best I can teaching my actual classes. I’m just reconnecting so much with that. And I think that’s a good thing for now. And I’m eagerly looking at, hopefully, deeper changes in the academy, also looking for rebuilding online presence. Twitter used to be a big part of my online life and I quit that in May, and saying what kind of connections was this yielding with other faculty, even with students and the big ideas in my field. And maybe I can take more charge and have more agency in that going forward?

Liz: I’m working on a book. So you should all buy it when it comes out. Michelle is the editor, so it’s going to be really good. [LAUGHTER] It’s tentatively called The Present Professor. And we mentioned it in the introduction. But really, I’m just looking for ways where we can create more student centered,e students supportive and faculty well being centered places of learning. That is my passion. And I’d love to talk to any of you who are interested in that.

John: Thank you all for coming. And on your tables, there’s little packets that Rebecca designed with some tea in them, so please take them with you so she doesn’t have to bring them back to Oswego.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you all for joining us. And thanks for those that asked questions. And thank you to all of our panelists and we finished on time. [APPLAUSE]

Liz: It is exactly 12:30.


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.


267. Fumble Forward

Preconceptions and biases often interfere with productive discussions and interpersonal interactions. In this episode, Donna Mejia joins us to discuss strategies that she has developed to address these preconceptions and to humanize classroom interactions. Donna is the Chancellor’s Scholar in Residence at the Renee Crown Wellness Institute and an Associate Professor of Theatre and Dance at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes


John: Preconceptions and biases often interfere with productive discussions and interpersonal interactions. In this episode, we discuss strategies that one professor has developed to address these preconceptions and to humanize classroom interactions in her 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.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Donna Mejia. Donna is the Chancellor’s Scholar in Residence at the Renee Crown Wellness Institute and an Associate Professor of Theatre and Dance at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Donna.

Donna: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me. It’s nice to be here.

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

Donna: I am drinking tea. It’s quite lovely. I have a rose tea with some vanilla in it.

Rebecca: That sounds quite nice.

Donna: Yeah. What are you drinking?

Rebecca: I have… double checked the name on it this time, John, because I failed recently. This is an All India black tea blend. That’s what it’s called, it’s the official name.

Donna: That’s hardcore.

Rebecca:[LAUGHTER ] But, it’s good.

John: All India, okay…

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] All of India, I don’t know [LAUGHTER]…

John:…[LAUGHTER] which makes it a more inclusive tea, I suppose.

Rebecca: That’s one way of looking at it, from a brand of tea that has very imperial names as well. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, I’m speaking of imperialism, I have an Irish Breakfast tea, which may very well have come from India.

Donna: Well, there you go.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor. The title of your Chapter is “The Superpowers of Visual Ambiguity: Transfiguring my Experience of Colorism and Multiheritage Identity for Educational Good.” Could you tell us a little bit about the chapter to introduce everyone to it?

Donna: Thank you, I’ll be happy to. The chapter is really about my lifelong experience as someone who is visually ambiguous to most when it comes to trying to categorize my ethnicity, and a Creole Choctaw woman with at least six bloodlines running through my veins. And I noticed that in addition to being a woman in education… in higher education, students frequently challenge the authority of women in the classroom and they test us in ways that they do not test their male professors… but I have the intersectional complexity of also being challenged as unsettling for people who didn’t know how to categorize me. They weren’t sure if I exhibit loyalty to black heritage, to white heritage, to any other part of my heritage, if they could even guess what it was. And because of that, I realized that many people had a very difficult time proceeding in personal interactions with me in the classroom, because they weren’t sure what camp I fell into. So rather than seeing me as just an educator, the cultural programming of needing to know who I was prevented them from feeling safe in my classrooms. And it was biases that they were unaware of. And so I really started working with my students to, at the outset of the course, create some pedagogical tools that would allow us all to humanize each other, and not rely on categories, and assumptions of those categories, to determine what our interactions will look like. So, I am working at a predominately white institution. And so even sometimes, the one African-American student in the classroom wouldn’t know how to position themselves to me, because they weren’t sure how black I was in my identity. And so they were afraid to sometimes bring their own lived experiences forward in our conversations. And I just felt that the ambiguity of my parents which left everybody questioning: “Who is she? What is she going to say if I really, really am honest here? Am I gonna offend her, I can’t tell.” And so I decided to have some fun with it, and try and get rid of the fear factor and make it possible for us to all humanize each other. So the chapter is the summary of about three pedagogical tools. I have many, but those were the three that I came back to over and over again, and they’re lovely in their impact, and far reaching beyond just my classrooms.

John: In the chapter, you talk about a few situations where your racial identity was challenged by others, either by black individuals or by white individuals. Could you just tell us a little bit about some of those examples of the challenges that you were faced with there.

Donna: Great question. Interestingly, I remember my first job out of college was an administrative post for a university and I was sent as a representative to recruit in African-American communities, and a parent in the audience contacted the university angry that they would send a white woman to speak to the black community, not knowing that I grew up identifying as black. I’m also Choctaw, indigenous, as a woman. And many times, the departments on the campus that I work with, just didn’t know to loop me in on announcements or events that were happening, because they had no idea that I was also an indigenous bloodline. Probably the most dramatic thing that happened was in South Africa, when a little boy who could not have been more than, say, eight years old, ran up to a car window, and started to scream at me and tell me I was a devil, and that I had no right to live and that I was the enemy of all black people and just screaming at me at a red light while sitting there waiting for the traffic light to change. And then another dramatic incident… last one… I was in Taiwan, in one of the outdoor markets and a group of Chinese women started forming a group behind me yelling at me in Chinese. And at the time, I was not fluent enough to understand what was being said, I was with a host. And I asked the host, “What’s going on?” …and she kept trying to urge me for ward: “Come on, just keep walking, just keep walking.” And I said “I think they’re yelling at me,” and so I said, “Please tell me, what are they upset about? What have I done?” She said, “They want you to remove your wig. They don’t like your fake hair.” And I said “My hair is not fake, I grew this.[LAUGHTER] This is my hair.” And when I turned to face them, and to smile and say, “Oh friends, this is my hair,” they ran up to me and began to try and pull what they thought was a wig off. And so my scalp was getting clawed at and my hair pulled, and security had to run over and escort me out of the market for my safety. So I just feel that it’s less dramatic than it used to be. I would say in recent years, it’s calmed down quite a bit as Inter-ethnic and multi-heritage unions increased around the planet and there are more folks that look like me. I’m far from the only one. I just, I think, have a bit of a neon sign because I wear my hair in its own natural texture, I don’t chemically alter it, I don’t change the color. I have blue eyes, I have honey blonde hair, and I wear it in natural dreadlocks down my back. And so many people just don’t know what to do with that. There’s just too many cultural symbols in a mashup and colliding in their consciousness that they don’t know how to configure in an understanding.

Rebecca: At the start of our conversation, you mentioned having a little fun with this idea in terms of developing pedagogical tools, and one that you’ve talked about as the assumption index. Can you talk a little bit about what this tool is and how you use it in your classes to address implicit bias?

Donna: Thank you. The assumption index is a tool that aims to get at the heart of what we presume to be true about a topic before we have even cracked the book open. So how does it interfere with our learning, we’re trying to get to the heart of that. And I developed this approach at the beginning of the class after being in the classroom and discussing African dance traditions with students. And having many of them describe Africa as a country as opposed to a continent. And realizing that there were distortions in our understandings., I had to rewind frequently, and say, “oh, let’s get back to that assumption. It’s not a country, let’s go from there.” So it really is a set of questions, it can range from 8 questions to 20. I can customize it every time I go into a different topic or a different classroom, and try to get to the heart of what we presume to be true. And so for example, in a dance class, I would say, “Who taught you that dance? How were you introduced to this particular tradition? Where’s this tradition done? Are there movements that are allowed on female bodies that may differ for male bodies? Is there a gender assignment in how the dance was performed? Where is this dance not done? What is the role of observers? Are they involved or not involved? What kinds of dance have you been told not to do?” And so people get a little closer to understanding the value system that they’re coming in with and the reference point they have for normalcy in these traditions. And so, as we start to discuss the results of their assumption index, we get to those beautiful, honest differences of how we’ve all been indoctrinated, and then that gives us a better starting point for analysis. And I feel that in all of the human sciences, a positionality statement is a requirement, is considered good methodology. In some of the hard or other natural sciences, for example, a biologist does not have to give a positionality statement before they write up the results from their laboratory. They don’t have to say, “Hi, my name is so and so. I have this many kids, I was raised in the Midwest. And here are my religious influences and my economic background.” In the human sciences, we know that we are not blank slates, all of us come in with social programming, and most of it absorbed in very subconscious and subtle ways. And so the ability to render that visible before we assume to give ourselves agency in analyzing a topic for me has become critical, very important.

John: And how does this work in terms of student reactions, has it made them more open and helped reduce some of their biases?

Donna: It has, because it has helped negate guilt. They’re able to discuss their differences with curiosity, with some humor. There’s a lot of head shaking and nodding and smiling, and sometimes people getting up and even hugging each other, saying “Oh, that happened to me too. That’s what my dad did, or that’s what my mom did.” And so there’s a little bit of commiserating, but also identifying that no one is wrong, no one is being dishonest. No one is being harmful in their intentions, that we’ve all planted our pins in different places, and then turn to look at the same issue. And so we try to take those different vantage points as a superpower. Like, “What does this look like from your vantage point and your identity and your background? How is this subject situated to your lived experience?” …and each person is allowed to give that perspective with others reserving judgment. And then we can then neutralize those assumptions and talk about it from the tradition’s own perspective. We change the agency and move it to the subject matter. And like “What’s the phenomenology of the participants in this tradition? What are they experiencing as opposed to what we are reading and projecting onto their experiences?”

John: And you mentioned how this works in the human sciences. But you also suggest in your chapter that this could be applied just as easily in a physics class, for example. Could you talk a little bit about how this might be adapted in other disciplines?

Donna: Absolutely. I think an assumption index helps us to understand the biases that exist in even the questions that occurred to us in our studies, the things that we’re willing to investigate. For example, if a physicist is part of a design team, studying an exoplanet, and looking for life on another planet, if they have a worldview, that permit intelligence in other life forms, the kind of approach they’ll have to discovering another life form may differ than if they feel that we’re just a random soup of chemical reactions that happen to be intelligent. And so neither one nor the other may be good or bad in this conversation, but for purposes of an example, it does change the kinds of considerations, thought parameters, and questions that occur to us. And so I feel that at all levels, some type of an assumption index, or some type of positionality statement would serve all knowledge generation and all shared relational analysis. I think it would just serve us to bring a more honest framework. I was just visiting yesterday with a group of climate scientists and researchers. And we were talking about the concept of positionality. It was something that was never covered in their own methodologies. And they were fascinated and hungry and excited about it, because it helped them to understand that we are not completely objective. And it takes pressure off from them, to feel as if they have to walk into a community and be all knowing when they’re conducting a study. And it’s okay to employ some intellectual humility, to build relationships, to start to welcome some participatory research so that we are informed and our assumptions of what we come in with, for example, a scientific study on climate can be much more marginal and in relationship with the communities in which the scientific study is being done. We are no longer treating people as subjects or communities or identities as subjects and instead, we are inviting them into the intellectual generation process for academia. I think that’s a problem that happened in the past that was kind of enshrined by anthropology… that people would run out to a community that they considered exotic and unfamiliar, do some films, make some observations, and then run back to academia, create these studies, show films to each other, and discuss it amongst the intellectual elite. And nowhere in there did you have the voice of the actual participants from the study. And I’ve seen so many examples of it as I research dance traditions from around the world. The documentation was done exclusively in U.S. and Eurocentric communities. And so it really helps us to relocate wonder and awe. Then they can let cultural differences be a point of fascination inform our methodologies and our analyses, rather than feeling as if we have to come in understanding and knowing everything. It’s just an outdated mode of education that is worthy of retirement.

Rebecca: I really love this strategy, because it’s not that complicated [LAUGHTER] to really put into action. And it really sets the stage for interesting conversations and in a way to enter into a topic area. So for people that are interested in trying something like this on their own… So you create an index. Do you have students complete it for homework and then you talk about it? do you do it in class? Can you talk a little bit about what the actual kind of practical nature of implementing it looks like in your class?

Donna: We do it upfront, first day in class. And then we use it as a get-to-know-you conversation afterwards. But I also teach the second tool in the kit that’s offered in Picture a Professor, and that’s called “fumble forward.” So we set some ground rules for the conversation. F umble forward is one of those tools. And it’s a social contract. When someone is about to ask a question in which they may not have the right terminology or the most up-to-date terminologies, if they haven’t located their firm opinions on something yet, or they just think that what they’re going to say has the potential to be harmful or offensive, they can preface their question or their comment by saying, “Hey, y’all, I’m about to fumble with my words.” And that’s short code for the entire community to answer back “fumble forward.” And that’s a contract that we’ve all agreed to, we know what it means. It means that for the next five minutes, we are going to reserve judgment, we are going to allow confusion, we’re going to lean in together. And that means maybe a little bit of verbal surgery and mutual exploration. And it means that we’re not going to leave the class and talk trash about that person, because they had conceded “I’m not sure how I want to say this, but I have a question. I’m trying to locate it.” And I really want students to feel that there’s a safe arena for them to experiment with not knowing. Faculty as well. I use fumble forward questions with questions raised all the time. But before we discuss the assumption index, we practice fumble forward so that as our differences start to come up in that first get-to-know-you speed dating conversation on the first day, if someone says, “Oh, I’m different from how you were raised, fumble forward,” and everyone will say, “Yes, fumble forward,” and they’ll say something like, “Yeah, I was not allowed to do that, it was against my religion.” And then we get into some really interesting exchanges. Your curiosity leads the way. And kindness has been instituted as running the space as opposed to finger pointing weirdness and eye rolling. So I really wanted to bring the curiosity back. Fumble forward allows us to do that.

Rebecca: We’ve got some tools here. We’ve got our assumption index, we’ve got fumble forward, and I believe modeling mutuality is also on the list of things. [LAUGHTER] Can you talk a little bit about that tool as well?

Donna: Yes, I have a pledge that I put on my syllabus so that students have in writing that everything I’m asking them, then I asked myself as well. I think the power differentials in the classroom need to be addressed and called out, because there’s nothing wrong with expectations that really invite improvement and strength and experimentation out of students. But I think many educators forget how intimidating those things can be if they are not articulated or elucidated clearly. They just feel like an unspoken social contract that is held over a student’s head and I wanted to get past that. So I have a syllabus pledge that basically says things such as “Your dignity is important to me, and in return, I need your courage and your open thinking and your active involvement, do we have a deal?” Or I will concede what I have learned openly and tell you what I have not yet learned. And I will give you citations and sources for everything that I do know. Because I believe that the intellectual humility has to be modeled. We don’t need more arrogant go-getters in society. We know where that has gotten this in our current state. It is much better for us to help people to understand how to build relationships, how to understand our interdependence, how to truly embrace, I think, the excitement of building one’s cultural competency in those interactions. And without that kind of practice, they’ll get out there into the world and just create the same harms and perpetuate the same weirdnesses that have us in our very polarized society. And so my effort as an educator is to say, “Choose your topic, we can talk about physics, we can talk about dance, we can talk about biology, we can talk about history, but before we talk about anything, let’s look at what we presume to be true and let’s create mutual respect in how we’re going to unfold this exchange. Those simple things have completely changed my co-working environments, my classrooms, and my family interactions. And I have had the delight of having students return from school breaks in time to say that they used fumble forward at the Thanksgiving table. That it’s that rippling, out and about, because it’s easily accessible, it makes sense and provides us an edge whenever we’re about to collapse into weirdness, like “This is about to get painful. This is about to get weird.” …and instead of panicking, backing off and shutting the room down, people are able to lean in and say, “Ah, I have tools for staying at this edge. I have tools for keeping negotiations going. I have a tool that allows me to listen well.”

Rebecca: That sounds like the toolbox that should be in every first-year seminar.[LAUGHTER]

Donna:[LAUGHTER] I hope it goes far and wide, to be honest with you.

John: Well, one thing we can say is that Jessamyn Neuhaus, the editor of the book, has picked up on this and we’ve been doing I think four maybe five reading groups with her and some of her colleagues from SUNY-Plattsburgh. And on several occasions, she has used fumble forward as a way of addressing difficult issues when people weren’t quite sure how to state something or how to raise something. And so it is spreading and it is having an impact.

Donna: I am beyond thrilled to hear that. And I get reports back all the time, surprising areas. Someone from social psychology contacted me and said, a student in my class said I’d like to share a tool I learned from a woman named Donna Mejia called fumble forward and the instructor knows me and has been well aware of the tool. And she said her heart just warmed and melted and that the whole room felt celebratory for her. So if it’s the one big idea that I was able to give the planet. Hell yeah, I think that’s worth celebrating, that we learned how to talk to each other, with more ease, a little more kindness, and with less fear. I may not be remembered as a choreographer, I may not be remembered as a writer, but if someone 300 years from now says “fumble forward,” and everyone in the room knows what it means. I have made a lasting contribution to humanity that gives me honor and pride and I can take my last breath smiling.

Rebecca: And it’s definitely worth smiling for. I really love how it’s not really simple, because none of these things are actually simple.[LAUGHTER] But it’s such an easy tool to learn. And then one of those things that clearly takes time to perfect.

Donna: It takes practice…


Donna: …But it provides, perhaps, the foundation to be courageous in their practice. And at the heart of it, I’ve expanded fumble forward into everything from a semester-long course, to a three-day immersion workshop for industry, to K-12 educators finding out what it looks like in K-12 classrooms. It’s being expanded. So the tool leads me, I may have originated the phrase, but the tool itself is taking on a life of its own. And I’d love to see it in many communities.

John: Fumble forward is a wonderful approach when you have a group of cooperative people in the classroom who are all very open and you’ve got a nice sense of belonging. But I can imagine there would be circumstances where that may break down, where someone may come in and regularly engage in microaggressions, or explicit forms of racist behavior, for example. What happens then?

Donna: There is an issue with fumble forward that I have to emphasize in that it’s not intended to be an escape route and it’s not a foolproof tool. As you talked about things being very complex, fumble forward offers the possibility of continuing when an interaction is starting to get strange or become harmful; it finds a reset point. But I have also observed that when people feel they may be outmatched in communication skills or in an environment where they feel they are outnumbered, the folks simply don’t want to address an issue, they will avoid it, their chosen strategy is to completely avoid engagement. So fumble forward is sometimes about trying and then acknowledging that the space to continue doesn’t exist, and choosing a different part of the toolkit. So I would like to say I think communication is always about trying, about leaving the door open and ajar to a possibility. But I’ve also done quite a bit of study around harmful individuals that quite honestly may have pathological levels of communication dysfunction, or may thrive or enjoy inflicting pain, and being tormenting in the kind of words they slang around. So I think we’ve all encountered those high-conflict individuals. And so fumble forward again, is about giving them the possibility to choose differently. But if at times` they’re not willing to make that choice then a boundary is needed. And safety is more important than everything. With individuals that have significantly unseen distortions in their perceptions, or are under the undue influence of harmful ideologies, and oppressive ideologies. My experience is, as a teacher, number one to interrupt harm when it is occuring in the classroom, to hit a pause button and say, “Excuse me, I’m going to interrupt and I need for everyone to take a moment. What was just said has the potential to be incredibly harmful, if not very harmful. I’d like for everyone to take a piece of paper out and take five minutes and capture your thoughts. And then I’m going to ask if you’re willing to share that paper with me and hand it to me as you leave the classroom today. I’d like to make sure I take in everyone’s responses. And then I will address what has unfolded and we will share in our space today so we can have a strategy for figuring out how to situate it in our understanding and share with each other. And so, for example, that’s one tool that I would employ, but to not let people quite honestly enact harm on others in my presence, not on my watch. That’s different from someone saying, “I don’t understand,” or “I disagree.” To me, that is part of classroom dialogue, and has to be protected. So if someone is devaluing another, or if someone is routinely aggressive and tries to basically devalue or dismiss the lived experience or the insights of another, that’s where I would say, “Okay, tell you what, everybody, we’re going to Google this, let’s get some facts first, and then we’ll proceed. And then I want you to capture your thoughts.” I just try not to let it become a slinging mudfest, that we have tools to help people organize their thinking, sequence their thinking, prioritize their talking points, and then even move around the classroom. I think it’s helpful to resituate people from their physical locations to say, “Okay, and folks that would like to discuss this from a ‘yes’ perspective, you’re welcome to come sit over here. Let’s talk to each other for a little bit and get your talking points together. For those of you that disagree with this point, I invite you to come over here by me, and let’s go ahead and rate some talking points, and then start to facilitate exchange, as opposed to individuals feeling like they are vulnerable and on their own in those spaces, trying to navigate hatred.

Rebecca: I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to underscore boundaries for us because [LAUGHTER] it’s so important. We can say we want to be inclusive and welcoming. But there’s boundaries to that because allowing people to say whatever they want is not actually inclusive. Despite that [LAUGHTER] sometimes that comes up in conversation. But that’s how we make it inclusive, it’s often not. So I really appreciate you talking about the boundaries, but also just walking us through some structures that we can put in place to facilitate something productive because sometimes we don’t always have those structures in our back pocket ready to go and it’s important that we remember to have those and remember what our toolkit is. And you’ve brought us a lot of great tools today.

John: And I really like also the way that you call attention to the problem right at the time, but then give everyone a chance to reflect and think about it and then come back in later, because often things like that can escalate very quickly. And it’s very easy to come up with responses that may not help build a community and may not address the problem, but it may lead to more division in the future. So, it sounds like a wonderful approach.

Donna: Thank you. It’s also hard sometimes locate articulate questions when you are triggered, if something hateful has been shared in a room on your watch, sometimes, trying to come up with a very insightful and progressively welcoming question [LAUGHTER] isn’t accessible. And so giving everyone a moment to think, to land to ground for me is important. But I also do try and say, “What questions will be asked at that situation?” So with someone who shows unbelievable biases and harmful biases in their statement, I would ask the question, “What do you presume to be true about this tradition that you’re commenting? What are your assumptions about it?” And then really take it back to what have they been taught? What are their values? What’s important to them? …and try not to have them feel like they’re under a microscope, but also to say “You put some stuff out there that will require you to be accountable for the harm that it created. So if you’re willing to take responsibility and radical ownership of your words, I also want to give you the opportunity to explain how you came to see anything you did.” And I try to facilitate that process.

Rebecca: I wish I had your class when I was a student. [LAUGHTER] Just thinking about all things that went bad as a student in different situations and how it could have been handled much better.

Donna: Me too, my classroom experiences growing up were frightening at times, unnerving, never comfortable. I can only think of maybe two teachers throughout my K-12 education that I felt I could be myself with. And one teacher in particular, I admired tremendously. And he pulled me aside one day, he called me into his office and said, “How do you do it?” I looked at him, I had no idea what he was talking about. I just said “What?” And he said, “How’d you write that paper?” And apparently, the paper that I turned in for him, he thought was way too psychologically advanced for my age. And he just presumed that I had cheated on a paper. And I had looked up to him so much. And to have him presume that I didn’t have the capacity, the cognitive capacity, to analyze like that made me realize that he’s dealing with his racism in his assumptions. And I patiently managed up and explained bullet point by bullet point, how I wrote the paper and how I proceeded in my analysis and why. And he left me alone for the rest of the class. But when I tried to get into the honors level of his subject matter, he declined to let me get into honors. And again, it was the kind of thing where I was the only black girl in the class. And those are the kinds of experiences where women or folks of color are constantly told you won’t need this information. Women don’t go into this field…or you won’t…or you’re a dancer, you won’t be writing papers the rest of your life. Those presumptions get in the way. And so I have learned to hunt them down first, so that it saves me a little bit more of my life force for other things than having to navigate them.

Rebecca: Well, I appreciate that you’re on the task of remaking our [LAUGHTER] education system…

Donna: There’s so much that’s very antiquated, and yet so much beauty that still exists. But we’re seeing that there is arguably some kind of a failure in our education system that is producing citizens who eschew critical thinking and who are susceptible to undue influence. And so I think, at the same time, we are just starting to get precision of language to be able to unpack some of the inequities in our nation, which is why critical race theory is under attack. It’s because we finally have precision tools to start to understand the legacy of colonialism that we’re living in and through and over, under, and on top of all those things. And I think our ability to exchange has to be protected. And at the same time, our sensitivity around difference has to be upgraded. And so my tools are intended to try and do both at the same time, so that they are not seen as mutually exclusive in the classroom. We don’t have to play it so safe that we can’t unpack things. And yet, we have to allow confusion and creativity to still be a part of our educational process. That’s an investment and it takes time. So I understand that these tools like, for example, taking an entire day on an assumption index out of the classroom, may seem unrealistic, but I promise that it’s an investment that saves you some knuckle headedness through the rest of the course.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking this really big question which feels extra big given the conversation we’ve been having, “What’s next?” [LAUGHTER]

Donna: What’s next, the fumble forward tool is being shared nationally, internationally, with lots of speaking engagements and that’s been a joy. I am on assignment as a faculty fellow at a healing Institute, a health and wellness Institute. So I have been enjoying looking at the interdisciplinary-ness of how to bring these tools into different industries and fields of study. So what’s next for me, I’m involved with a medical study, bringing cultural dimensionality to assessment tools in interoception, which I hope will impact people who are dealing with chronic pain management, and, and cancer and a variety of things. So I’m dealing with the medical school and collaborating with Dr. Yoni Ashar, on giving cultural dimensionalization to assessment tools there. And I feel like I can look at just about anything and say, “Oh, here’s where we have some biases in this tool. And here’s where we have some possibilities to transform the tool.” And so I’m enjoying watching it expand beyond just my initial field of study. I’ve met with physicist, I’ve met with climate scientists, with law professors, I have met with the National Conference of Victim Assistance Workers and law enforcement, it goes on and on and on. And so at the moment, I’m just enjoying the growth of these conversations in the way that I always, at a soul level, hoped they would go. And beyond that, I love to see these healing initiatives root in communities. I love to see people with their identities feeling welcomed. So their whole personhood into all environments that they inhabit, and creating affirming communities for them. And I myself am playing around with integrating tools and mindfulness, I find that if I can start a classroom with a three-minute grounding practice or some mindfulness that does an awful lot for the room as well. So I’m just thinking about how to have educational arenas be humanized, and have more diplomacy. Of course, I’ve got my own fascinations and research and all that. But honestly, all of my energy is going into watching these tools grow and learning from them in watching people interacting with them. There have been some stunning remixes of the tool right back to me. For example, I had a student named Laura, instead of saying fumble forward one day, she raised her hand and before speaking on a particular question in the room, her face went flush and she paused. And the whole room was like uh oh, what’s about to happen? And instead of saying fumble forward, she said, with a very shaky voice, “I think what I’m about to say may be broken, and I’m hoping you can help me fix it.” And it just felt everyone’s heart melt across the room, because she was saying, “Oh, I know, this is messed up. I know, I’m off. But I’m lost and I need some help.” And that’s the kind of learning that shifts our entire life trajectory, not just the classroom for that day, but how we inhabit our lives, how we interact with our children, how we act with our elders, how we discuss politics, and want to see a change.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for sharing all of these with us. We really appreciate having the opportunity to talk to you and share all these tools with everyone.

Donna: Thank you so very much, and wishing you lots of juicy learning in your own life.

John: Thank you and we wish the same to you.


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

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


266. The Secret Syllabus

Students transitioning from high school to college, especially first-generation college students, are thrust into a new environment for which they are often under-prepared. In this episode, Jay Phelan and Terry Burnham join us to discuss strategies that students can use to successfully navigate the hidden curriculum of college.

Jay is a biologist at UCLA and the author of What is Life? A Guide to Biology. Terry is a finance professor at Chapman University and the author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains. They are the co-authors of the international bestseller Mean Genes. They have also recently published: The Secret Syllabus: A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of College Success.

Show Notes

  • Hertweck, K. L. (2014). Mean genes: From sex to money to food: Taming our primal instincts, by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan.
  • Phelan, J., & Burnham, T. (2022). The Secret Syllabus. In The Secret Syllabus. Princeton University Press.
  • Charles Plott
  • Vernon Smith
  • Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 36(8), 917.


John: Students transitioning from high school to college, especially first-generation college students, are thrust into a new environment for which they are often under-prepared. In this episode, we discuss strategies that students can use to successfully navigate the hidden curriculum of college.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Jay Phelan and Terry Burnham. Jay is a biologist at UCLA and the author of What is Life? A Guide to Biology. Terry is a finance professor at Chapman University and the author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains. They are the co-authors of the international bestseller Mean Genes. They have also recently published: The Secret Syllabus: A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of College Success. Welcome, Jay and Terry.

Terry: Hello.

Jay: Thank you. Good to be here.

John: Today’s teas are:… are either of you drinking tea?

Jay: I’ve never had tea in my life, I’m sad to say… or coffee. But in the spirit of caffeine, I’m having a Diet Coke.

Rebecca: A very popular choice on this podcast for sure. How about you, Terry?

Terry: British mother, a lot of tea in the house at times, but very little in my body.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] We’ve got tea deniers around here, John.


John: As usual.

Rebecca: I have a black tea blend today. It’s just called All India Tea.

John: That’s a new one. And I am drinking ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to talk about The Secret Syllabus. Can you tell us a little bit about how the book project came about?

Jay: Sure, I’ll start. I was thinking about this because earlier today I was looking at what I think of as maybe the origin document, and it’s from about 25 years ago, it was maybe 1997. It’s a document, it’s 136 pages long. And it’s this collection of emails and other student interactions that Terry and I had had over the years where students are sincerely trying to get stuff that they want. And they, more often than not, go about it in completely the wrong way. It’s either unprofessional, or maybe it’s rude, or maybe it’s just bizarre, or for whatever reason it’s not likely to get them the outcome that they want. And at first we’d laugh at them. But after a while you start thinking, “no, this is kind of tough for them.” It caused me to look back to the 1980s, where I had been a student. And I had been a very promising student coming in from high school. I had done well, and then I got to college, and I just was a terrible, terrible student. And I got bad outcomes. And it was all a big surprise to me, because it just was a different world than I had expected, and I was not equipped for it, sort of those two things together. Terry and I’ve talked about this and laughed about this a lot, but finally it came to a point where we said, “well, we should be doing something about this, we should at least try to help them.” And that was maybe how the ball started rolling, but it had a long, long gestation time.

Terry: Right, I would add to that… idea is to help students be more effective, when in this sort of promotional view… work half as much get better outcomes, and outcomes are not just grades, but grades are important. And as Jay noted, both of us came from great undergraduate schools and we both stumbled. We ended up getting masters from MIT and Yale respectively, then our PhDs from Harvard. And you might think that we had no troubles as undergraduates, and we did. So almost everybody has a problem adjusting to college, even if they end up doing fine. For me, I’m going to admit that I vandalized a lot of classrooms at the University of Michigan. So I sat in these classes with up to 400 people, I usually sat in the back. It looked to me like the professor was like a little puppet down there on stage, and I felt completely disconnected. And these old wooden desks that you would bring the arm down on, and I wrote on those in my days of discontent, “Frodo lives,” “Frodo lives.” I scratched it into the wood. I went back and taught there many years later, and there were still some of the desks [LAUGHTER] that said “Frodo lives” in there. And I took a semester off from school, and anyway, so almost nobody has a dip when they get to college, and it’s not for the fact they’re not smart enough. It’s because they don’t understand the world of college. And having noted, literally now thousands of students who have had the same problems that we had, and sometimes worse, thought we would write a book to help students.

John: So you came in with a lot of advantages and experienced trouble, but many of our students come in and don’t make it through. And that’s especially true for students from low-income school districts where they’ve had few resources and very little college prep in terms of the coursework they had or guidance in terms of how to be successful in college, and many of them are first-generation students. So we’ve got all these students who come in, they borrow a lot of money, and then they end up without a college degree and a huge burden of debt. Would a book such as yours help these students in learning to adjust to the new culture that they’re suddenly being thrust into?

Jay: Well, that is certainly the hope, I’ll tell you. I’m a first-generation student, and my parents are both very smart, and I think could have done college, but they didn’t. And when I grew up, we were extremely poor. I had never been out of Northern California. I’d never been on a plane when I applied to college, I had to apply just sight unseen, and all of that. And I think that was a factor maybe in why I struggled so much when I first got there was that I didn’t have a world of people around me that that was just part of their life, “Here’s what you do, oh,” or “here’s how you struggle,” or “oh, here’s the story about how I figured out how to take notes or I figured out what my major was going to be,” …any of those things. I had no idea that those obstacles even were laying ahead of me. I had succeeded in high school, but I had done that, I think, just through brute force method. I put in the hours studying, I didn’t know how to study, but I put them in, and I did well. I had very lame interpersonal skills with the teachers, but they were a little bit less lame than the other students at my school. Together that allowed me to get through and even to get the message, “Hey, you’re okay, you’ve got it figured out. College might be harder, but just use more of the same.” And I at least now I think coming from that perspective, it makes it a little bit easier for me to get inside my students’ heads and realize the struggles that they’re maybe going to have. Terry talks about sitting in the back of the classroom and vandalizing the desks. For me, I wish that I had gotten inside the classroom. But the idea that I was somewhere that nobody was checking up on me, I would walk to where the class was, and then I’d hang out outside, I talked to friends or I’d just sit out there, and it was this very empowering act that I was in charge. And that for me led to most of the problems that I wasn’t even in the classroom. And I had this idea then that the teacher was just going to smash me down to show me that they were in charge or something like that. It was all misguided, but I think a lot of that came from, as you say, John, that I had no background, this was completely foreign to me. And because of that, it’s hard enough certain obstacles to overcome them when you see them ahead. But when you don’t even know that they are in front of you, it gets really difficult.

Terry: The Secret Syllabus is a Princeton University Press book. So it went out for academic review. And there were a number of comments: “This book should be directed only at first-gen students, because that’s really where the problem is.” And our response was, “It’s probably more important for first-gen students if they’re able to understand it and we’ve written it in a way that they can use it.” So I have three daughters, one is a freshman in college, and the other two are, one’s in high school, one’s in middle school, and they get the knowledge from The Secret Syllabus directly from me. Now they don’t listen very often to that, but they at least have around them all the time both explicitly, like “how would you interact with your teacher on this topic?” And then in the air, in the gestalt of “how do I interact with the pediatrician?” and so forth. And so if you’re not in a household like that who knows how to navigate this world, where are you going to get the information? Well, one answer we hope, if we’ve done our job, is The Secret Syllabus. So even though it’s not explicitly targeted only for first-gen students, I think it actually has more use to a first gen student who doesn’t have access to a family member or a friend who knows the secret rules.

Jay: If I could add one thing, also the students, yes, who are not the first-gen students, or who have a world of experience college graduates around them, sometimes that sort of turns out to be a negative, because they might imagine that they’ve gotten the message “Oh, I don’t need this.” And in a lot of cases, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, Secret Syllabus. Yeah, something like that would be great for the remedial students.” And I think “what do you mean, the remedial students? You took when you were in high school, or even your first year of college, you took chemistry or history or English, or whatever, but who taught you how to study? Who taught you how to make a to-do list? Who taught you how to develop long-term career goals? Who taught you how to just plan your time?” all these different things, how to develop professional relationships, and a lot of these students who maybe have tons of advantages that causes them not even to realize that there is this whole secret syllabus of other stuff that they have no training in whatsoever. So they needed just as much.

Rebecca: I would actually recommend it as reading for faculty and administrators. Because when I was reading it, like yes, I actually knew these things. But like, I don’t typically explicitly state all the things because it’s the hidden syllabus [LAUGHTER] …these are all things that if we’re a part of the Academy, we have learned over time, but we don’t actually typically articulate necessarily or make explicit to others. And so reading this was like, “right, yes, of course, that is a rule that nobody knows about.” And so I could see a real advantage to having a faculty reading group, for example, around this book just to get insight into the missteps that students make simply because they’re not aware, and again around for administrators who may be in similar situations, like, thinking about policy, or easily blaming students, or easily blaming faculty for something, and just becoming more aware of all the unwritten rules around the academy seems really beneficial.

Terry: Amen.

Jay: That reminds me of a term that my wife, Julia, she’s an educational researcher, she knows all the official terms for everything, but expert blind spot; that you get so good at something that you don’t even realize that you know it or that you’re doing it. And it helps if you’re talking with other people, you can see it in them and at least call it out. So you’re right, you have a reading group, and you’re like, “oh, yeah, we do know that.” Or “we do have that whatever practice that we haven’t told people about.”

John: One of the things you describe early in the book is sitting in the back of the classroom, feeling completely disconnected from the experiences that the professor was describing. And you also talk a lot about how students come in for office hours and ask questions that faculty find really annoying when the students are really just trying to get some help and they don’t know how to phrase it. They’ll come in and ask questions like, “I really don’t understand the material we’ve been talking about for the last two weeks. Could you explain it to me?” [LAUGHTER]

John: And it’s really frustrating for us, but clearly the students are reaching out. And reading your book reminded me a little bit about how they must feel in these types of circumstances where they’re feeling a little bit awkward asking these questions. They really would like some help, but they don’t quite know how to phrase it. And I think part of our responsibility is to help bridge that gap a bit. And reading your book, I think, as Rebecca said, would be really helpful for that.

Jay: That’s funny, I always laugh when someone will say that, “Oh, I miss class. Can you just quickly tell me what happened?” I’m like, “If there was a quick way to do it, class would have been quick, then we would have been done.” [LAUGHTER] But you’re right, though, you have to immediately stop yourself from mocking them or looking down and think, “this person actually just came to me, they want some help.” So office hours is an unusual thing. And full disclosure, I only have experience with it as a faculty member, because the total number of times I went as a student: zero, and I regret that very much. But as I was going through college and struggling, so many people would even say, “well, you got to go to office hours,” I would think to myself, “okay, I hear you. I’ve heard lots of people say that.” But in my mind, I thought, “well, it’s okay. I know I have the textbook. I can read it or someone’s notes. So I’m okay.” Because I was making this assumption that office hours was for me to say, “could you re-explain everything about photosynthesis again?” Or “could you solve this problem?” Terry always makes me laugh about the student who comes into the office and says, “I need help with problem number three, and number seven, and 11 and 14 and 21 and 22. Can you redo those?” And they sit there and I think, “okay, yes, we do know the answer to those. And that is something that can be done in office hours.” But the insight… that it took me about 20 years to have… is that office hours is the first time, maybe the only time, where you as the student control the agenda. You are able to talk about anything that you think is relevant. And for that reason, yes, you can have them re-explain a concept, except that there’s Khan Academy, and there’s videos and there are textbooks, and there are other people and there might be a teaching assistant for the class, that might not be the best use of the time, because you have alternative ways. On the other hand, you’ve got this instructor here who has some insights that could really help you. And we try to give very concrete examples of things you as a student could ask. You could say some questions designed to help you be a better student… ask something like, “hey, if you were a student in this class, how would you spend your study time?” Or “you’ve had a lot of students, if you could change students in one way, what would it be?” Or if it gets close to the exam time, you could say, “to you, what are the elements of an ideal exam question?” Or “how do you create a lecture?” Or did you struggle ever? Did you always know that you wanted to be a biologist” or an economist or whatever, and you ask these questions, and in my office hours, which is usually a group of people, they be around and most students are like, “wow, this is really good and unexpected… the conversation we have helping them with professional development” or whatever. There are always a couple students who let out these heavy sighs, like, “ugh” because they have their list of 26 questions they want you to restate. And I have to usually directly address them and say, “I can do those. But this is actually some useful information that you’re not going to be able to get anywhere else, and might help you out, so think about that.” And I’ve even started now, in class, I’ll say, “hey, in my five years as an undergrad, I went to office hours zero times, you should just go even if you have nothing to say, just listen, just come and say hi, and you can leave” that I think has lowered the threshold a little and I get a bunch of students they come they say “hi,” they stay for a few minutes, and they realize, “oh yeah, this isn’t just a cram session” or something like that.

John: And once they come that first time, they’re much more likely to come up to you other times and ask questions in the hallway or just stop by for brief visits. And it makes it a much more pleasant interaction, I think, for everybody.

Jay: Yeah, they realize that you’re human, you’re a regular person, that you like to laugh, you have outside of class things that you can talk about. And that really does, I think, demystify who you are, and maybe what motivates you and other things that are relevant.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s really interesting, I think about this particular book is that we often deal out advice to students all the time that’s kind of generic and probably not that helpful. But when you really think, it’s like, “you need to manage your time better, you need to study more, you need to whatever the thing is,” without much explanation. Can you talk about some of the examples of maybe bad advice that students receive and how maybe you’ve addressed and provided a different kind of advice in this book?

Terry: Well, the office hours one is an obvious example. But we already talked about that. So it’s probably not the best example to continue on. I might say, I don’t know if it directly addresses what you said, but if the student and faculty member, or instructor, can have a relationship, professional relationship, as opposed to a transactional view, that’s a better solution. So I’ll give one cautionary story, which will make me sound really mean. And then I’ll tell you another story. So the mean story is I have a student come and he says, “I’ll talk about my grade on my presentation.” I’m like, “well, do you want to learn how to do a better presentation or do you want a better grade?” “Uh, kind of both.” So he just wants a better grade, but he’s kind of mealy mouthed about it. So he sits there for 11 minutes and goes through it. And then as he’s leaving, he asks, “oh, and is there any chance to get a job?” and I’ve gotten hundreds of people jobs, life-changing jobs, and I said “just took 11 minutes of my time, I could have gotten your job in those 11 minutes.” But he goes, “what about now?” I said, “no, you had your time. Get out.” So conversely, I had another student who used to just come by and chat with me. And we would talk about anything but the class. And I remember he bought me, this was years ago, an Austin Powers lifesize mannequin to put in my office with a frilly cravat. And then towards the end of the semester, another faculty called me and said, “Oh, you know, this person is in trouble in this stats class, what do you think?” and I said, “I think they’re an excellent person, that they are really trying hard. And I would give them the benefit of the doubt.” And so I don’t think explicitly, the student was doing anything to try to manipulate me, but because he came by and talked to me, and I got to know him a little bit. Interestingly, he’s running for Senate… in an important race. I won’t say his name, but he’s running for Senate next week, the same person, so his effective techniques for interacting with people…. So I don’t think bad advice people give you, it is just not advice that you get. And when you treat the person transactionally, then they treat you transactionally. And so if the faculty member is a fair and honest person, you’re going to get whatever you deserve as a student from them, they’re going to look at your grade, I’m going to talk to my student about his 8 out of 10 on the presentation, but you’re not going to get the next level relationship benefits, which can extend to the career and so forth if you go down that path.

Jay: Something that I’d like to add to that… when Terry and I first wrote our book, Mean Genes, people would read it, and they’d be all excited about it. And they’d come to us, and they’d say, “you guys should be on Oprah.” And that was their advice to us about “here’s what you should do. Because I know you’re trying to sell books, you should be on Oprah.” We’re like, “Oh, let me write that down.” And you see advice like that in books, oftentimes, where it’s well intentioned, and it’s actually accurate… we should have been on Oprah. But it wasn’t helpful, because it’s like someone saying you should go to office hours, they’ve already heard that. You have to tell them why should they go to office hours. What are the questions they should ask? Or someone says, “you should get a faculty mentor.” Okay, they know that, but how should they do that? And I think that oftentimes, you’ll also see in these books where they start doling out advice, that it’s just patently offensive, because it’s so obvious. Get to class early, be prepared, read the assigned material, try not to cram for tests, avoid procrastination. You might think then that alright, whatever, that’s harmless… that advice, but I feel like advice like that actually does extract a cost because you’ve only got so many words in a book and you’re either going to convince someone, maybe someone who’s reading Strunk and White, how to be a better writer, and it’s this very concise, precise book, so you get the message. But if the message is buried within stuff that the person thinks is obvious, they’re likely to put it down, or they’re likely not to trust you as much as the author because clearly, you don’t understand the reader if you think that they need to be told “avoid procrastination.” We all know that. That was a big part of our goal in writing the book. We didn’t want it to be a giant book filled with either obvious stuff or not helpful stuff. We wanted it to be a high density of material.

John: One of the things you talk about along these lines in terms of providing tips that may be different from the advice a student’s had is in terms of planning your pathway through college, because you note a lot of students are told they should pick a major early, focus on that, and work very quickly towards that goal as efficiently as possible and get their Gen Ed out of the way, and so forth. Your advice is a bit different. Could you talk a little bit about some of the advice that you recommend concerning what types of classes students should take and how they should plan their career in college?

Jay: As students are making their way from high school to college, we’ve seen this common pattern where someone will have, I don’t know, maybe when they were in fifth grade, thought, “Oh, what are my options when I grew up? I could be an astronaut or I could be a racecar driver or a pop star or professional athlete or a doctor. And if you happen to hit on Doctor, which is maybe the only realistic hope among those for most kids, your family responds better, like, “Oh, yes, very good.” And as the kid who it’s nice to have, it seemed like your family now loves you slightly more than they used to, that seems great. And then you start to stick with it, “Oh, yeah.” And then I get these students, they’re at college, and there may be a first year and they’ll say to me, “I’ve wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon since I was 10.” They want that to convey their commitment to it and their maturity and all that. But all I can think of is “do you really want to let a 10- year old make this most important decision of your professional life?” I think that maybe you should come to college with a more open mind, because when you were 10, you didn’t know all the options. If you look at these lists, and anytime there are published lists of job satisfaction, I love going through them because all the top things on job satisfaction, you’ve never even heard of as a 10-year old, or even as a college freshman, whether it’s software quality assurance engineer, or physical therapy director, or risk manager or security director, whatever. So from that, it’s caused us to realize that it shouldn’t be a race… who can identify their career goal first? …and then have them make other students feel bad because they’ve gotten to college and they can’t articulate it. It’s like, “oh, what do you want to do?” And the other person just talked about all these great things they want to do. And you’re like, “I don’t know, it sounds like you’re behind. It sounds like you’re worse off,” except that when you get to college, you don’t know what linguistics is, or applied math, or anthropology, or in many cases, psychology, or these majors that are huge, rich worlds that might interest you. So we want to encourage students to resist that temptation to have a plan. Because it seems so good, because everyone is so relieved and happy. But instead, you can’t just be passive, you have to explore the options that are open to you. That’s part of what you should be doing there. You have to learn about possible career paths, you have to investigate fields that might be of interest to you, you have to reflect on what is it that makes you happy? And what is it that stresses you out, maybe not in as good a way? …and that should be your plan because if you can’t explore things in college, then when do you get to explore? You stick to your 10-year old dream, and then you have the midlife crisis at 35 when it’s much harder to change your plan. And I think that message has not gotten out as much. Often students will even say to me when I say don’t worry about articulating a plan, but be active in exploring it. And I say, “you might have been experiencing parental pressure for a long time.” And they’re like, “oh, no, no, I haven’t at all. My parents are actually really chill about what I do.” I have to respond, “your parents are chill about what you do, because you’re still a biology major and that’s what you were when you came in. And you’ve articulated the same plan. The only way you’ll know if they’re chill is I want you to send them an email or call them today and say, “Hey, I’m changing my major to English,” then see if they are, because you may have been responding to subconscious signals about how much they love you when you have a plan versus not having a plan. And if we could get that message out that this is the time to learn about what you like and who you are, and that you might be becoming a different person than you were when you were younger.” That has a lot of value, I think.

Terry: So I invite my alumni to come back. I teach at Chapman now, and I have all these students who have graduated and have good jobs. And one semester, one of my students said, “I’m going to come back and I will talk to you students and I want to go to lunch with them. I want to interview them and I want to hire some of them.” So I tell my students “here it is, this great opportunity. The firm is local, if you want to live in Southern California. They pay well. The person who’s coming graduated four years ago. You want a connection with somebody who’s not remote from you? What could be better?” I said it’s only going to be room at the lunch for six people. So sign up and I’ll randomize publicly who gets the sixth slot.” So the person comes, Alan, and I go to do the randomization in front of all the students. There’s 70 students in the class. I look at the list, the sign up list, there are three people on the list. So all three of them go to lunch. And one of the kids, Mitchell, I just invited him back. I gave a talk to all the new Chapman students, all 2000 of them. And I invited him as the guest speaker to talk about this story. He comes. And I said, “why are you here?” And he goes, “I’m not even interested in real estate finance, but I just thought it was a great opportunity to learn something and come to lunch and talk to somebody.” He now works for that firm since that lunch. He got an interview, he got an internship, he loved it. And now he loves his job there. And it’s just hilarious that people miss this opportunity. And then again, showing my mean side, [LAUGHTER] a year later another kid writes me and he said, “I was in that same class. And now I want a job with that company. I’m interviewing with them. Can you connect me?” And I’m like, “no, you had your chance to connect.” I mean, of course, I didn’t say no, but the reality was, it’s much less effective to connect when you want something than when you’re just going to go learn something. So you have to look for those opportunities. In my own case, I was riding my bike through Harvard yard when I was in grad school on my way to a microeconomics review session. And I saw a poster for a talk by Caltech professor Charlie Plott. And I thought it looked really interesting. It was about experimental economics. I’d never heard of the field before. I’m like, “Okay, I don’t know what this is. I’m probably going to get a worse grade on my micro test, but I’m going to go to this talk by Charlie Plott.” And I went and was like, “Wow, I didn’t know any of this stuff.” And then I ended up doing my PhD with another experimental economist, Vernon Smith, and how I ended up at Chapman and I did get a worse grade on the test too.

Rebecca: You want all the things [LAUGHTER].

Jay: Can I add one other story that Terry has told me about one of his students who came in wanting to be a doctor, and was all excited that he was able to get this internship shadowing a doctor. And he goes, it was an orthopedic surgeon, and he gets to go, follow her around, even go into the surgery, theater, and all that. And what he discovered was, even though she loved her job, she was great at it, he was bored to tears. He thought, “Oh, my God, this would not be good at all.” And in some ways that felt like a failure, like, “oh, no, I don’t like what I’ve picked.” But in other ways, think about the cost of realizing that now when you’re in college and the cost of realizing that when you are in your fourth year of medical school or you are 10 years into your career. So the idea of exploring also carries with it that you’re not just trying to get the things to add onto your resume. You’re exploring because you’re going to find some things you don’t like, and it’s low cost to get to rule them out at the earlier age. So people don’t always realize that, that trying something out might give you information about what you don’t want to do. And that that has maybe as much value as finding out what you do want to do.

Terry: Right. So here’s something else that’s interesting. These people that we’re talking about are not made up things, this is a real story. So that person who Jay just talked about who was my student, who wanted to be a surgeon, here’s his most recent posts from LinkedIn, he now works as a product manager in London. He literally just posted this “when I was 10, I thought that my goal in life was to shoot for the stars. But today I understand my destiny is to come into the office today, every day for the rest of my life. Why do I say that? Because I came into the office this morning, and it was the best feeling in the world.”

Jay: That’s so great.

Terry: Isn’t it? I just looked them up while you were talking, Jay. And yeah, they’re all real people. And these are real stories. And we have hundreds of them that we draw from to synthesize the themes there. And that theme is very clear, which is, for most people, picking your job when you’re young and sticking to it is a bad decision. And if you’re talented, there’s so many different things you can do in the world. I had another friend, which was funny, he was a very talented guy too. And he said he realized when he was about 25, he didn’t want to be anyone’s boss. He didn’t want to have a boss. So he end up becoming a journalist, one you’ve seen on TV many times, but he was like, you don’t know those things when you’re 10. He didn’t know that at 10, he figured out when he was 25. Like, “this is gross. I hate giving performance reviews. This is terrible, even worse to give them than it is to get them.”

Rebecca: Another thing I really like about your book is these stories that you include, and that they are based in reality. And it’s a nice way to bring students into the conversation. And a lot of the stories have this thread of needing relationships [LAUGHTER] or a chapter on seeking out good teachers when you’re choosing your classes. And a lot of times those good teachers lead to good mentors in other things. And as you’re telling these stories, I’m thinking about the internship that I went on that I discovered what I didn’t want to do, or the mentor who told me I should take advantage of some of those opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have done had I been left to my own devices without a little bit of nudging.

Terry: So what was it that you didn’t want to do?

Rebecca: Well, interestingly enough, I didn’t want to be a graphic designer in the traditional sense. I do teach in a graphic design program. But what I discovered is I wanted to do more experience design and interaction design, which I hadn’t really been exposed to. I didn’t want to do marketing and branding, which is what the internship was. I hated it. I hated every second of it.

Terry: And when you changed your mind, was it difficult internally or externally to change what you want to do and have to tell everyone a different story?

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, I think the first thing afterwards, it was like, “I’m quitting this major.” I actually ended up finishing it. But I ended up curating some of the other experiences around it in a different way. Because at first I thought I was gonna have a graphic design major, and I was gonna have a business minor. This is what many students have this combination of things. And I quickly discovered that wasn’t going to work for me and I needed to explore some other things. And I went more on an exploratory path for a while to figure out some other things, really in a field that was just starting to come into being.

Terry: Yeah, and did it feel bad, though? Now it sounds cool. Like, I went exploratory and it felt okay then?

Rebecca: No, it was really nerve racking and I was really stressed out and I tried to go to the counseling center and I talked to every mentor I had about how it was having a crisis. I mean, it felt really bad initially. [LAUGHTER]

Terry: We also tell three stories in The Secret Syllabus of people who found their passion early and stuck to it and then were very successful in an area, Steven Jobs among them. And the myth that they project is that you’re a loser if you don’t know what to do when you’re young. And they have this idealistic: “there’s one job for you, there’s one passion for you.” And that is not true for most people. And it’s a destructive myth out there. Most people are more like your experience, Rebecca, or my student, where you’re not sure. And if you’re introspective, you learn and you find something different.

Jay: I think, as an instructor, and as a parent, and just as a grown up in the world it’s very hard to internalize the message that Terry just said, which is that something inside of us when we meet a kid who says, “Oh, I’m applying for college,” or “I just started college,” we ask questions like, “Oh, what do you want to study?” These are questions that I think can subconsciously convey the message that if you have a plan, it’s slightly better than if you didn’t have a plan. So you have to really undo that and ask more about what kinds of things interest you or as you were saying, Rebecca, [LAUGHTER] when you describe something that was a bad experience, I find that if I ask people: “Tell me about your worst job experience,” or ask students “tell me about your worst classroom experience,” that can be more educational than hearing 100 stories about someone who saw the path illuminated and followed it and now enjoys success. If we can shape discussions in that direction more, it can really help a lot of students who I think don’t want to acknowledge that they’re not sure or they don’t have a plan.

Rebecca: I recently had a conversation with a colleague about a conversation she had with a student that she was mentoring. And the conversation went something like this, “I can’t wait to meet your parents at graduation.” And the student says, “my parents definitely are not going to be excited to meet you.” We were talking about this and how that really reveals how there’s a disconnect about the pressures that might be happening at home or from other sources that are happening to a student that aren’t always visible to us as faculty or mentors. There’s so many other things going on. So although you may have convinced the student of a particular thing or suggested they do this activity, or maybe you’ve helped them discover a new major or something that might suit their passions, they’re also having this internal dialogue with themselves about how am I going to break this to my parents or whatever needs to happen. But I just thought that conversation we had this week was so enlightening.

Jay: I love that because I was finishing my PhD, and after having struggled for years and years, and really things were touch and go all the way till the end, I’m getting my PhD at Harvard, and my parents come, and neither of them had been on a plane before I went to college. And they come now to Harvard. And I’m feeling all great about this. And just as I’ve gotten the diploma, my mom says to me, “Do you think you could get into medical school now?” …and she was still clinging to this idea of when I was maybe in grade school that I could be a doctor because then that would have some job security and respect or whatever. And so if I’m not a doctor, it must be because I couldn’t get in and maybe the Harvard PhD will help. And I had to tell her like, “I don’t want to be a doctor.”

Terry: And Jay, did you know that I got into medical school?

Jay: I did know that. I can only imagine the pressure because I know your dad. Yes. That’s just brutal. If my parents heard that I had gotten into medical school and didn’t go, the disappointment would have been overwhelming.

Terry: I had an excellent job as a busboy in one of the finest restaurants in La Jolla that I went to instead of going to medical school.

John: For many years, I taught in a program for gifted high school students at Duke University in the summers. And at the end of the term, we met with parents and many of the parents had very definite career plans for their 15- or 16-year old children. And they typically asked, “do you think our son or daughter has a future in,” I was teaching economics classes, “in economics?” And I’d say “clearly, they’re doing very well at this and it’s one of many things that I’m sure they could be very good at.” What I normally would say is, “over half of the students who enter college change their major within the first couple of years.” And what I’d recommend is that they explore as many different courses as they could now and when they go into college, and parents who didn’t generally like that advice very much. As you’re talking, I was thinking of two of my former students who I’ve known, now twenty-some years later, one of them actually was one of the best students I ever had in an economics class. Then he ended up at Stanford, he changed his major to religious studies and as he put it, “path of least resistance,” and he became a musician, and he’s a very, very successful musician today. Another student, his parents had plans for him for medical school, and he was on a Freakonomics podcast because he’s now an economist who’s become an expert in some interesting areas in economics. And they didn’t intend for him to go on in economics, he was clearly ending up in medical school.

Rebecca: I’m wondering if a good audience for your book is parents. [LAUGHTER]

Jay: Possibly not, I have sometimes thought about that. I might, if they saw me in class, wearing a nice shirt and tie and I looked very formal about the whole thing. I might be the most dangerous, subversive element in their life, because I’m the one telling their kid your parents already had the chance to live their life, you get to decide now. If they truly believe that you are wise and mature and smart, as they say they do, they should trust you to make good decisions. But it does feel like yeah, the parents… in the long run, they might… but in the short run, they might fear this kind of thing because parents want the best. And sometimes that means a little bit of risk aversion.

Terry: I would say I am a terrible parent. [LAUGHTER] So I have three daughters. Two of them are sort of introverted, and one is super extroverted. And I’m always nervous about the extroverted one, even though she’d probably be very good at navigating the world. But I asked her today, I was driving her to school today, and I asked her, “do you ever read your history textbook?” She said, “Absolutely not. It’s so boring.” I’m like, “yeah, it is boring. The content is good, but presentation is terrible.” Yes, so once you study hard, and don’t go out very much. I’m like, Yes, things are gonna work out okay for them. And then my middle daughter who’s doing well and super outgoing and loves to talk to people. I’m just nervous about the downside for her. So I see the attraction of neurology or being a was it, Jay, a…?

Jay: [LAUGHTER] A cardiothoracic surgeon? Yes, they don’t even know what that is. [LAUGHTER] I should validate. Yes, Terry is a terrible parent.

Terry: Yes.

Jay: And yes, his daughter is starting at Stanford this year. So that kind of terribleness.

Terry: One of the introverts?

Jay: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

Terry: The extrovert’s not going there, except to visit. [LAUGHTER]

John: You mentioned boring history books, one of the things that I really enjoyed about your book was how powerful the narratives are in it. And I think that’s something that perhaps we could all use when we’re writing books about our disciplines, or when we’re teaching these subjects, because storytelling seems to be really an important way of communicating information, and we don’t always use that in our classes.

Terry: It’s a failure of our ability to understand other people. So one of things I laugh about is, when I have my students comment on other students’ presentations, they are very good at finding the problems. And the problems are always exactly what you said, not enough storytelling, no eye contact, not engaging, not straightforward, not humorous. And so it’s easy for us to critique somebody else. But then when you’re doing the presentation, it’s hard. And if you do it for a long time, you get better at it. But your first instinct is not to tell stories, it’s to get the facts and get all the data. So I’ll tell you another story. So I had a student come back, Chad, he was the first Chapman student of mine to work at Goldman Sachs. And he came back to talk to my students. So I coached him before. And I said, “Chad, this is what you want to do. You want to tell a story. And then you want to tell a message.” And it came up and he was shy, even though he was now working at Goldman. And he told some stories, but he didn’t really do it in the way that I thought he should do it. So he told the story, which was funny, he said “at Goldman, everybody uses Excel all the time. But you’re not allowed to use the mouse because the mouse is slower than the keystrokes. And because you’re in this financial factory, it’s important to work as fast as possible,” and his boss would sit behind it and yell at him. “Don’t touch that mouse. Don’t touch it.” Overall I said, “Thank you for coming. I think you could still work, do a better job on your presentation skills.” The end of the year, I’ve given 36 brilliant lectures, [LAUGHTER] and I asked the students in the formal reviews, what was the best part of the class? Half of them said Chad’s presentation… [LAUGHTER] which was entirely story based, and God, I’m just the dumbest person in the world. People love stories.

Jay: I completely agree. And I think that’s what Terry and I bonded over in our very first first teaching experiences. I got asked to apply for some award at UCLA, but part of it was I had to write a teaching philosophy. So I thought, “alright, I’ve been here for a little while, I’m gonna write it down.” And I started listing all this stuff. And later on, I thought, and someone said, “you should try and publish this just in a teaching journal, all these ideas about teaching.” So I do, and I find the references for everything. So everything I do, if it’s about take-home messages, here’s the research that shows this is good. If I do this, here’s the research for this. And I had 10 of these things that were going to help people be better teachers. And the last one, I’m like, “I don’t have any evidence for this, but I just know that it’s good.” And it was “you got to tell stories, you have to reveal stuff about your own personal life, you have to somehow bind the material, the ideas, to your students’ lives.” And just as I was about to submit it, someone says, “I just heard the phrase ‘self disclosure’.” And I just hadn’t looked for that literature, because I’m not an education researcher. And I look and there’s a whole world and thank God all the evidence says that the extent to which you’re telling stories about your own life in ways that are meted out in the proper magnitude and that they are relevant to the stuff you’re talking about. It’s hugely successful. That is what the students remember. And so as long as you can do that, I think, yeah, Chad’s story, “use the keystrokes.” Every time, you can come up with an idea from your own life, if you can make it clear, so the student is going to be able to construct the knowledge later on in their own head, why they were saying that, that’s a huge win for the teacher.

Terry: So I tried this, I try to copy Jay’s stories. [LAUGHTER] So one of my early teaching experiences was Jay was the head teaching fellow for this biology course known as “Sex at Harvard.” And he would give his class, his section on Wednesdays, and I gave them mine on Thursdays. So it was the first time teaching it, and he had done it for many years and was great at it. And so I went to his section on Wednesdays, I took notes, and I would try to replicate. So he would tell these anecdotes, which every time would backfire for me. So I’ll tell the one, the one he is talking about stabilizing selection, why babies can’t be too small or too big, too small, because they’re not viable or too big, because pre-Caesarian you can’t get out of a mother. So he tells the story. “Oh, my brother Patrick, he weighed 13 pounds at birth. But now he weighs 600 pounds. No, he’s perfectly normal size.” So I try that anecdote the next day. Now, it’s saying it’s my brother, Patrick. And a very large person says I was kind of a big baby too. [LAUGHTER] And I’m like, “okay, be careful on the self disclosure.” So, it didn’t go well, anyway, stories, yes, they’re the best. You can’t forget them, right? You’ll never forget that Jay’s brother weighs 13 pounds.

Jay: [LAUGHTER] It is true, and he is normal size now.

Rebecca: We usually wrap up with the question: “What’s next?”

Jay: I’ll say what’s next for me. When I first got into teaching, I thought, “Oh, I get bored of things fast. I’ll do it for a couple of years, and then I’ll move on.” But it turns out that I’m endlessly fascinated by it. Because in order to improve, there is an almost infinite number of things that you can do. So for me, right now, I’m thinking a lot about the pandemic, in many ways, was just this horrible thing if you were a teacher, but we had these constraints that in a few cases, caused people, including me, to discover, “Oh, this is actually useful.” So for instance, the discussion window, and I would have these students who never in a million years would have raised their hands or spoke in class, and they’re typing stuff in the discussion. And other people are responding and they’re engaging. And I thought, “Wow, this is good. That’s what I would have done.” So I’m trying to figure out how to take the various things I learned from teaching in the pandemic. So how can I incorporate a chat window in class so that I get the same effect or things like these just richer learning activities, I had a lot of assignments where they had to go out with a camera and take a picture, just of something and talk about how it was relevant to whatever the lesson was, or these discussion boards were, instead of turning in a paper, they had to post it, and then everyone else got to comment on it. So suddenly, we had this community. So I feel like right now I’m trying not to return to some bad habits from teaching, but instead to say, “Wait, I have ways that I could be better.” So that’s sort of my hope, is that I’m very slow at incorporating new innovations, but I’m a steamroller. So if I could just figure out a few ways to get better now based on those experiences, I’d be happy.

Terry: And for me, Jay and I, our first project together was the book called Mean Genes, which we call a Darwinian self-improvement book. So how to be a better, more effective, happier person by understanding natural selection, biology, etc. And I still think about that all the time. So you probably know this famous 1973 study, to survey people’s self-reported happiness who win lotteries and other people who become permanently physically disabled because of accidents. And you survey their self-reported happiness and after about six months, they get very close back to where they were before the incident. Now, you don’t have the same people, There are methodological issues. But that notion makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, it’s probably the most important chapter in Mean Genes. And it’s to me the most important notion for your own life, which is that the setbacks aren’t permanent. Jay’s a steamroller. And things that seem like they’re terrible, they may very well be terrible, but your ability to recover from them is probably greater than you think at the time. And so for myself, as I said, I’m a terrible parent, I’m always initially disappointed if my kids aren’t brave, and they don’t do the hardest thing first. And I try to do the hardest thing first, every day, because it’s surprising. And the other day, I thought, we had rats in our garage, because we had rat poo in our garage. And so it depressed me, like this is just a horrible thing. So I got up early, I took every single thing out of the garage, I had the exterminator come, and six hours later, I find out there are no rats in the garage, he could tell immediately, it was at a minimum of 12-months old, and my garage was completely reorganized. So literally, from the time that I was the most depressed about my house that I had been in years to the time when I was happiest about my house was about six hours. And it came from not hiding from the rat poo, from addressing it. So what’s next for me is to continue investigation of human nature, how to do things along the lines that we talked about in The Secret Syllabus and in Mean Genes, which is how to make realistic changes in your life, to be a better person for yourself and for the people that you care about.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. I really hope that a lot of first-year seminars and other kinds of opportunities to get this book into students’ hands will happen.

Terry: Well, thank you. Thank you for having this podcast and for having us on.

Jay: Yes, I concur. Thank you very much. It’s been a lot of fun.

John: Thank you. It’s a great book.


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.


265. The New College Classroom

Despite all that we have learned from cognitive science about how people learn, the most common form of classroom instruction still involves students passively listening to a lecturer standing at a podium at the front of the room. In this episode, Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis join us to discuss alternative approaches that treat student diversity as an asset and allow all students to be actively engaged in their own learning.

Cathy is a Distinguished Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, the author of more than twenty books, and a regular contributor to the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She has served on the National Council of Humanities and delivered a keynote address at the Nobel Forum on the Future of Education. Christina is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Transformative Learning in the Humanities Initiative at CUNY and has authored over a dozen articles on innovative pedagogy, innovative pedagogy, environmental studies, and Early American Literature.  She has received the Dewey Digital Teaching Award and the Diana Colbert Initiative Teaching Prize.

Show Notes


John: Despite all that we have learned from cognitive science about how people learn, the most common form of classroom instruction still involves students passively listening to a lecturer standing at a podium at the front of the room. In this episode, we explore alternative approaches that treat student diversity as an asset and allow all students to be actively engaged in their own 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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis. Cathy is a Distinguished Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, the author of more than twenty books, and a regular contributor to the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She has served on the National Council of Humanities and delivered a keynote address at the Nobel Forum on the Future of Education. Christina is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Transformative Learning in the Humanities Initiative at CUNY and has authored over a dozen articles on innovative pedagogy, innovative pedagogy, environmental studies, and Early American Literature. She has received the Dewey Digital Teaching Award and the Diana Colbert Initiative Teaching Prize. Welcome, Cathy and Christina.

Cathy: Great to be here. Thank you for having us.

Christina: Thank you so much.

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

Cathy: I am drinking English breakfast tea.

Rebecca: Yes. [LAUGHTER] And Christina?

Christina: I am drinking English breakfast tea.

John: And I am drinking wild blueberry black tea.

Rebecca: I forgot what kind of tea I made this morning. [LAUGHTER] I have no idea. I made nice loose leaf tea this morning, and it’s tasty, but I don’t remember what it is.

John: So you’re drinking a tasty tea.

Rebecca: I’m drinking a tasty tea this morning.

Cathy: Will I be kicked off the show if I say I’m drinking coffee?

John: About a third of our guests do. Yeah, and sometimes water.

Christina: I also have a Diet Coke. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Sneaky, very sneaky.

John: And I had that right before I came over here.

Christina: We’re drinking all of the things.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss The New College Classroom. Could you tell us a little bit about how this book project came about?

Cathy: I can begin. This is actually the third in a series I called the “how we know” trilogy, which I began in 2011 after I stepped down as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, my previous employer, and was really interested in the science of attention and the neuroscience of learning. So that book really is about the neuroscience of learning. Then I wrote a second book called The New Education which came out in 2017, and was re-issued in a post pandemic version just this past spring. And it’s called The New Education. It’s really the history of higher education and why we inherited the forms we have now and how much higher education was re-created for and rebuilt, redesigned explicitly for the industrial age. And then I wanted to do a kind of installation guide that actually showed people how we do these things, how you take our knowledge of how the brain works, take our knowledge of learning, and how you take our knowledge of history and why we’ve inherited this very cumbersome history and actually do something new. And I thought it would be ridiculous for someone at the end of a long career to be telling other people how to teach. And I had the great fortune to be working with this… Christina will close her ears right now, she gets very embarrassed when I say this… but this utterly brilliant scholar, an Americanist environmental scholar, sound studies scholar who also had written several essays on pedagogy and had won all the teaching awards. And I asked her if she’d be interested in co-writing a book with me. And we started writing it when I was a senior fellow to the Mellon Foundation in my beautiful office overlooking the courtyard of the Mellon Foundation. And then the pandemic hit. We made a pledge to one another that we’d meet every Tuesday and Thursday and write together and we literally wrote, rewrote, re-re-re-wrote, and then re-re-re-re-re-wrote [LAUGHTER] every word together during the pandemic. So when people say, “Can you have a real relationship? Can you have a real project during the pandemic?,” we would say “Absolutely.” And that’s actually kind of key to the book, ‘cause we talked about learning in all its facets online and face-to-face. But that’s the very long version of how I’m the luckiest author in the world to have been able to work with Christina.

Christina: I’m the luckiest. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It must have been very nice to have the stability of consistent writing times with each other during a time that was so unstable.

Christina: Yeah, it was a lifeline. I live in Brooklyn, near the Barclays Center where a lot of the Black Lives Matter protesting was happening here. And kids will be playing in the street. They had to close the streets on the weekends and weekdays so that kids could get time outside and neighbors could gather together outside where it would be safe. And kids playing on the street, drawing all these beautiful things in sidewalk chalk, and then you’d see police completely decked out, batons out, pepper spray, all kinds of things, getting ready for the protest that was just completely peaceful protesting and a police force that was just prepared for something wildly different. And it was a really dark time in trying to protest and think of a better way, a more equitable institution, an institution that could prepare students for the world, to be citizens of the world and also to fight for social justice and racial justice, and getting together and writing this book. It felt we have even more purpose more so than ever, in writing this and leaning into the active learning methods that really prepare students to participate and engage with the world.

John: You begin the book with something which actually serves as a very nice introduction to much of the rest of the book, which is a story about a 50-person department meeting in which no one was responding to the department chair. Could you just share a little bit about this anecdote?

Christina: Sure. So I was in that department meeting, it was a meeting in which we were given a really big task of imagining the goals for the department for the next 10 years. This is a review that happens every 10 years. And the department chair was standing at the front of the room behind the podium and was like, “Alright, so what are our goals for the next 10 years?” [LAUGHTER] …and everyone was quiet. Because as you can imagine, everyone has things that they want to change, things that they think could be better, and no one wanted to be the first to speak. And it really just felt like one of those situations where there’s a bunch of dry straw, and someone could just light a match. And so I was like, “Okay,” I knew everyone there, and I was familiar with the chair. The chair was very supportive of students, and I knew he was willing to listen. And then I said, “Hey, can we just talk to someone next to us and come up with a few ideas first, before we speak with the whole group?” He’s like, “Sure.” And this is what’s called think-pair-share where everyone thinks about a question and then they pair up with someone next to them or a small group of people. And then when we’re all done, we come back and share what we came up with. And five minutes go by and he is trying to get the attention of everyone in the room, the room has exploded in all this conversation, but everyone is smiling and enjoying talking to the person next to them. They’re thinking more hopeful thoughts with their generous colleagues and students and faculty all together. And when the chair was finally able to call everyone back to order… I’ve done this in 8 ams… the poor people who teach next to me have said that my classes are too loud at 8 am. [LAUGHTER] And Cathy has done this with a lot of people every time she gives a talk, and it takes a long time to get everyone to come back to order. And then people were so eager to share what they had talked about in their groups. And there was a little bit of anonymity, because it was like, “Okay, everyone in my group said this, not just me,” [LAUGHTER] and everyone was willing to share and we started to envision some really beautiful goals for the next 10 years that were really hopeful, that were imaginative, and creative, and beautiful, rather than starting with critique. Or sometimes what happens is, if one person says something, then everyone else kind of jumps on that train, and this way, diverse number of ideas coming out of these different separate conversations. So that’s why we do it.

Cathy: If you want an education-ese term this is called an inventory method. It’s the opposite of the standard seminar where you ask a question and those same three students raise their hand dutifully and answer the question. And sociologists of education have studied who those students are who raise their hand. And they tend to be a good match for the professor in class and race and gender and family background, family income… the people who are most into the class, most likely to get an A plus, most likely to go on to graduate school, most likely to be professors, replicate their professor. And that’s one reason why only 1% of Americans have a PhD and 25% of the professoriate has a parent that has a PhD. We have a system that’s a closed system. When you do an inventory method, like the one that Christina uses, think-pair-share, everybody in the classroom contributes. In that case, it was a meeting. But that’s true in a classroom too. Sociologists of education also tell us that 20% of students graduate from college without ever having spoken in a class unless they were required to speak by a professor. But if we really believe that higher education is about empowering students, not just giving them content, but giving them the tools to be experts themselves, then they have to learn how to articulate those ideas. And of course, some people are shy and then having them write on an index card means they’re still participating , even if they’re too shy to actually say something in class. An incredible method that I learned from a second grade teacher and I’ve done in many situations. Christina was alluding to the famous one I tell all the time about trying think-pair-share with 6000 International Baccalaureate teachers in the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers auditorium. So they’re all thinking and pairing and sharing on these jumbotrons in the auditorium.[LAUGHTER] It was great. And I’ve also done it with the top 100 performing CEOs of the Cisco foundation. I did this with the Board of Trustees at Duke and John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco was on, he said, “I need you to talk to my executives, because there’s nobody more likely to be reticent about giving comments than one of my CEOs who’s talking to me. Power does that. There’s a kind of silence that happens in the face of power, whether it’s with second graders or a department meeting like Christina was in or students every day in our classes.

Rebecca: I think what’s really interesting about both of the stories that you’re sharing is that we’ve been in those situations where the silence is overwhelming, we’ve maybe have been the person running the meeting or the classroom or also been the person in the audience.

Cathy: And it feels awful, it feels terrible. My students call it’s playing silence chicken. [LAUGHTER] That’s a great term.

Rebecca: It’s a perfect descriptor for sure. So given that we’ve all had these experiences, and also have experienced the opposite. I think probably all of us, or at least most of us have experienced those engaging opportunities. Why do we always default to the one that doesn’t work? [LAUGHTER]

Cathy: Every structure we have in academe tells us our job is to learn from the master. And I use that word in quotation marks, but pointedly, and then repeat back what you learn on a final exam and that’s how you get As. And the students in our classrooms, they’re the winners, not the losers. They got to college because they learned that lesson, Freire calls it the “banking model,” where it’s my head dumping and depositing stuff into your head. We also have studies that go back to the 1880s, not 1980s, 1880s, the Ebbinghaus experiments with memory that tell us we forget 75% of what we’ve learned for that exam within weeks after the exam is over. So it’s not an effective way to learn, but it’s the way we learn. So we’re being reinforcing in a way of learning we only use in higher education and formal education, we don’t learn new skills that way, when it’s not commonsensical to learn from a lecture. I don’t learn how to play tennis from a video. I might look at a video, but that’s not how I get better. I practice and I improve and someone corrects me, and then I change what I’m doing. We all know that. But, for education, we’re told, learn from the sage on the stage. That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s how you excel and our students have learned how to excel. It makes complete sense that they would think they learned more from a lecture than when they contribute. They’re deferring to the authority in the room.

Christina: And I think that this has been ingrained in them for a long time. We’ve been ranked and rated since birth, literally the first minute of birth ranked against others. And this one wonderful researcher, Susan Engel. She’s at Williams College, developmental psychologist, and she cites a study where kids on average before they go to school, when they’re at home asked about 27 questions per hour. And anyone who has a toddler, sometimes it is well more than 27 questions per hour. [LAUGHTER] My toddler just started asking why about literally absolutely everything. He’s about three. So right on target for asking lots of questions, for being naturally curious about the world. She talks about this. It’s called epistemic curiosity. And Dr. Engel says that once kids go to school, they ask on average three questions per hour, which is just a precipitous drop in getting to ask your questions, getting to know the world around you through engaging with it. And so by the time they get to college, they expect to learn more from a lecture, that they are not experts in the room, and that the person at the front of the room has all of the answers. And they have been trained through standardized testing to believe that there is a right answer, and they just need to be able to get to that right answer. That doesn’t train them to take on the world’s toughest problems and be problem solvers, to find alternative solutions, to think outside the box. And maybe those problems in the world are caused by believing there is a right answer and not thinking that maybe it’s me sitting in the room with all of these other people sitting in the room who could find a better solution or a better answer than the one that that one person has. And that’s how we change society. That’s how we transform our institutions. And I think they’ve just been ingrained in this system for so long, that by flipping it around and saying no, there are 50 different ways to answer this one question or 50 different ways to solve this one mathematical equation, then it’s more up to them. It’s giving them a little more responsibility and autonomy so that they can practice using it when they get out into the world rather than thinking, “Oh, there’s someone smarter than me who clearly has that figured out and they’ll take care of that problem.” That doesn’t really give them the kind of responsibility and accountability that I think that we all need in the world.

Rebecca: What you were talking Christina, I was thinking about a conversation I had with my kindergartner over the weekend, who does still ask many, many questions, some of which I do not know the answer to and so I don’t remember what she was asking me but whatever it was, I did not know the answer. And I said, “I don’t know, we’ll have to look that up” and she’s like, “I’ll ask my teacher, she knows the answer.” She’s in kindergarten, she’s only been in kindergarten for two months.

Cathy: I interviewed kindergarten teachers and first-grade teachers about learning. And almost every kindergarten teacher said, “when kids come to them, they think they can do all these things like ‘I love math, I love music, I love art, I’m an artist,’ by first grade, within six months into the first grade, they know, ‘I’m not good at art, I’m not good at math, I’m okay at language, but I’m very poor at…’ and already have absorbed those kinds of lessons about themselves.” And what you said is great, because it’s like the authority of the teacher is already happening. And then what happens when you absorb those lessons into a self definition. And that’s what we’re working against with active learning, is not just definition of the teacher, but definition of yourself in your role as a person.

John: And that’s hard to correct at the college level, because students have been indoctrinated in this from their very first exposure to educational systems. And when faculty do try using active learning, they often get a lot of pushback from the students. And that’s a challenge for new faculty where their teaching evaluations may have some impact on their continued employment. So it’s a difficult cycle to break.

Cathy: Yes, and it’s one reason why we include the research, serious research with any thing we offer to faculty members about what they can do in their class. And we also talk about the 2014 meta study in the publication of the National Academy of Science that looked at every possible way of evaluating learning and said if this had been a pharmaceutical follow-up study that Eric Mazur, who’s one of the inventors of the flipped classroom, did at MIT because his brilliant MIT students, were all sure they were being shortchanged by active learning. So he had them read serious scientific studies of active learning and then they all thought they were doing great by having active learning, and they thought they were better. So it’s about using the methods that speak to people in order to change the methods because unless you address the actual present situation of the audience, of the students, of the people you’re addressing, you can’t change things, you have to honor that present situation before you can move to something else and make a structural change beyond that.

Rebecca: A lot of the current system of higher education, as you mentioned, is based on a really different era, a really different audience of students and our student populations have changed, become more diverse, there’s more people going to college now than before. So how do we help students who have been through this system that has not really invited them to the table to really get involved. We share some of the research, and what are some other ways we can support them on this endeavor, and to continue helping us change the system.

Christina: Some really great pedagogy out there. One I’m thinking is an assignment that Erin Glass does with her students where they read terms and conditions for all of the technology that they’re using on their campuses. And they have to closely read them and critique them to help them become more aware of capitalist surveillance and what they are required to sign up for. And then they write a critique of that, of the university and of the system that they’re being signed up for, so they’re not only learning more, they’re learning digital literacy. They’re also learning more about the institution that is guiding these things that they’re signing up for. And they’re becoming better critical readers in general. And they’re also talking back to that institution and saying you could be doing better. And so there are ways in which we can give our students real-world problems that are immediately close to them and to their experiences of education, and task them with coming up with something better. And it’s really wonderful that students who come from all different kinds of educational systems to get together and think of what could be done better. Or Cathy also does this where at the end of the semester, a final project could be like, come up with a better syllabus. I don’t know if you want to speak to that Cathy, but I love this assignment.

Cathy: Yeah, I love to end the class where I be in the next class, like I say, “Okay, we’ve had about 12 weeks or 16, depending on the institution that I’m at, together and we’ve done this as a syllabus, and you’ve contributed to the syllabus, the last assignment, and sometimes we make this even as a final exam, is to make a syllabus the next people who take this class will inherit. Put your stamp on it. What did you like? What didn’t you like? That’s an incredible activity and it means it’s but again, using an education-ese term, it’s metacognition, too, because it means students are looking back over everything they’ve learned, which is the best way to beat the Ebbinghaus 75% forgetting because you’re actually processing it, analyzing it, and then trying to come up with some new version that you’re bequeathing to somebody else. It’s a legacy that you’re bequeathing to somebody else. It’s a marvelous exercise and you can do it in any kind of class. It’s quite fascinating to see the different ways people can come up with things. So often people say, “Well, you’re an English teacher, so of course, you’re flexible.” But what about… there’s somebody named Howie Hua, who’s a professor at Cal State Fresno, who on Twitter almost every day he comes up with what he calls mental math problems. And he’ll ask something seemingly simple that you think there’s no other way to solve that, like, “Add in your head 24 plus 36? How did you do it?” And dozens of people respond with different ways to add whatever those two numbers are that I just said, in their head. And it’s fascinating, because the point he’s making is it’s not about the right answer. It’s about, not only understanding the processes, but understanding all the different tools that we can have in order to be better mathematicians, more passionate about science or more passionate about all kinds of learning. So I think any assignment that gives students the tools and allows them, and even better is when they can pass on those tools to somebody else. When Erin Glass does that assignment, they not only critique, but they come up with their own terms of service. What are the terms of service for our class? What’s the community constitution for our class? What are the community rules we’re going to form in this class? …and so they’re already invested in a new kind of structure even before you start populating what that structure is going to look like.

Christina: And I think from the first day, you can really set students up for something different. One thing that Bettina Love does in her classes is she has everything set up and she goes, “Okay, now you tell me when the deadlines are going to be for this.” And so students look at their calendars, look at their schedules, and determine when things are going to be due so that they’re not all due in the same week as midterms or as in the same week as finals. That’s a very student-centered approach, asking students to come up with the learning outcomes of a class. And even in the most restrictive situations, you can add learning goals and learning outcomes, even if yours are set by the department. So I think also asking students what needs to change to better serve them and centering them in that conversation, you can start with your class and then start to think more broadly about a department or a whole institution.

Cathy: What I love about all of these different things, and we’ve borrowed them from other people, one of the things we did was we interviewed so many people, academic twitter was very helpful for that, to find out what they were doing and profile people and amplify people who are doing amazing things. What works best is when something specific, if you say how should we change this class, you get silence chicken. If you say here are the 10 learning outcomes that our department requires us to write, do you have anything else you’d like to add? Maybe work with a partner and come up with your own additions to these required learning outcomes? Students come up with beautiful, soaring, inspirational things that just make you aware that if they’re allowed not to be cynical, students want to have agency and want to have something that will help them in the rest of their life, it’s pretty scary to think about the world out there. And they want and need these things and want to be participants in the shaping of their own life and in their own agency.

Christina: And you’re reminding me too, that there’s this widespread movement right now to rename office hours, to call them student hours, because students are so used to going to the office being a punitive experience. And student hours really welcomes them to come with maybe more than just “I’m having difficulty with this problem set.” “But I want to talk about my career, what can I do with this degree? Or I’m having difficulty with x? Can you help me with y?” I think it really better serves them as well to rename it student hours to show that we actually really want you to come and we really want to talk to you. I don’t want to just sit alone in my office. [LAUGHTER] I want you to be here.

John: What are some other activities or ways in which we could give students a bit more agency? You mentioned the reflection on the syllabus and rewriting a new syllabus at the end. And you also hinted at having students be engaged in the syllabus itself. What are some other ways we can do this during the course of the class?

Cathy: I often quote our friend Jonathan Sterne, who teaches at McGill University because this is the most counterintuitive one. Jonathan teaches various versions of mediasStudies, media information, technology, and disability studies. He himself had throat cancer, and he talks through a voice box that he himself helped to design… a remarkable human being. He teaches classes of 400 to 600 students, and people say there’s no way… how in the world could that be active learning? He hands out index cards and at the end of every class students write down an answer to something he asks. He might ask “What did we talk about in class today that you’re still going to be thinking about before you go to sleep at night? And if there was nothing, what should we have been talking about?” Today’s media if you don’t have anything to say about media in the modern world, something’s misfiring. He has a blog about his learning, and he’s charted how well students have done since you’ve done these simple exercises of having students report back after every class. He also works with TAs who have special sections, and they take the 15 cards from their section, so they know what questions the students have before they go into the session. And then he uses some of those to spur his next assignment. He does this kind of cool thing where he spreads it all the cards and says, “Well, John said so and so. And Deborah said so and so. And Rebecca said, so and so. And Christina said so and so.” So he makes it interactive. He also does an incredible thing. He says, “With this many students, I have to use multiple choice testing, and I know how impoverished multiple choice testing is.” So he sets his students a creative assignment each time, sometimes it’ll be a piece of notebook paper, sometimes it’ll be an index card, and he’ll say, “You can write any crib sheet you want, go back, and you can do anything you want from the semester to help you do well on the multiple choice exam.” And what he knows is what they write on that crib sheet is the learning, right? It’s not filling in the ABCDEs, it’s the learning he also leaves some portion, it might be 5%, might be five points, it might be10 points, depending on the system he’s using. He’s Canadian university, so it’s a slightly different system than in the US. But he leaves some amount free, and students hand in both their multiple choice exam and their crib sheet. And he gives extra points for the crib sheets. He’s even done art installations with some of the crib sheets that students have done. But the point is the way you review a class and organize the knowledge onto some very prescriptive sheet, and he says the prescription is extremely important… he’s a composer as well. So he knows how it’s important is to have rules and to play with those rules. And it’s almost like a game. That’s where the learning is happening. So even in the most restrictive situation, you can still do active learning and learning that’s meaningful to how your students learn and how they retain and how they can apply that learning later.

Christina: A colleague of mine, Siqi Tu, also has her sociology students come up with some of the questions that will be included on the final exam. And you can do this with a multiple choice or a long answer type of exam, and the students develop a question. And then when they submit their questions to the professor to review, they also need to include what skills are we assessing with this question? And is this the right answer? What are the various ways you could get to the right answer? And if the right answer is D, then why are you offering A, B, and C as other but wrong answers? Why are they not the right answer? …things like that, to get students to have this kind of command over what they’re learning, why it’s important, what is worthy of being assessed, and how to go about assessing it and testing that knowledge. They have a lot more agency then in how they are being evaluated. And so their expertise is also being solicited there. And the majority of the learning is happening in creating the question and explaining all of the pieces of how that question has been crafted and what the right answer is and why. And then, at the end, she includes at least a portion of the student-generated questions on the final exam. And so it not only gives them great exam prep, but then they also know better what to expect. And they have more agency and control over how they’re being evaluated.

Rebecca: I really enjoyed some of the titles of the chapters in your book, for example, “group work without the groans.” [LAUGHTER] And I thought, yes, group work without the growns. So they resonate.

Cathy: I used to consult quite a lot with business. And just because of that I helped create the Duke Corporate Education Program, which was for returning executives, when I taught at my previous institution. And the number one expense of management experts who are brought into corporations to help manage more effectively is to help them with group work. And in classrooms, sometimes even in sixth grade, we say “Work in your groups and then do something amazing.” Well, no, we know what’s going to happen. That one person who raises their hand, they were one of the three who raises their hand, and in the group, they’re the one that does all the work, then there’s somebody else who kind of goofs off, and then there’s somebody else who does nothing at all. And we know those patterns, and it’s horrible for all three, it’s horrible for the person who always steps up, they’re not being pushed, and it’s horrible for the person who does nothing or the person who goofs off. So when I do group work, I have students write job descriptions. They write out job descriptions for who is going to do what in the group and I also love to have them do an exercise that I call superpowers. What’s your hidden superpower? What’s your three things you do that you think have no relevance at all to this group but that you know you do really well? It might be playing video games. I’ve had people say they were a clown. I found out that my executive director of the program I run was a professional clown. I didn’t know that. She’s a gorgeous young woman and she was a clown. She’s the last person I would have thought of who would be a professional clown. People have these skills, and what they find out in a group is those skills are not irrelevant, because you’re talking in group work not only about coming up with a product, but about interrelationships. And how you can make all the different parts of your personalities work together coherently to create a final product. Also, I have students put that on their resume. I have them look online at what employers most prize. And it turns out collaboration… duh…because that’s what they spend their money improving. Somebody who can be a great collaborator is somebody you want to hire in a job. So my students can not only put that on their resume, but have a wonderful example. You don’t have to say it’s in a classroom. I worked on a project with four others, and we took that project in from idea to implementation, and my role was the firestarter. That’s a term from computer scientists. I’m especially good at coming up with new ideas and presenting those ideas to a group. Fantastic. And then they don’t grown, they realize they’re learning a skill, not being put back into a pattern that they themselves hate and are embarrassed by or resentful of.

Christina: And I think in addition to telling them why group work is important, that they’re going to end up working in groups for the rest of their lives. Everything I’ve done in any job has been collaborative to some degree, and mostly a lot, like really collaborative. And so I just kind of tell them, “This is not busy work, this is actually good practice for the rest of your life, because at the end of the semester, you’re not going to work with these people anymore. But if you’re in a job, the only way to leave that group is to leave that job and the stakes are so much higher. So first of all, this is good practice.” But I think also, we sometimes neglect to offer students the structures that they need to feel confident in their grade for group work, and to feel confident going into group work. So from the get go, giving students structure for the group work, like a checklist of jobs or asking them to come up with a checklist of tasks that they need to complete, assigning roles, like putting a name next to each item on that checklist, so that it’s clear who is doing what. Teaching them a skill like that is teaching them how to delegate authority, how to be a good entrepreneur, a leader, and pointing that out to them that by creating this checklist and putting everyone’s name next to everything, you’re delegating authority, you’re learning these leadership skills that you need in the workforce, and helping them to understand that it is absolutely okay and totally normal to feel social anxiety before going into a group, particularly after a pandemic, when we really lost the ability to make small talk.

Cathy: It’s exhausting. [LAUGHTER]

Christina: It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting. It is we lost that skill. Oh my goodness,

Cathy: Today happens to be a Monday and I had brunches on Saturday and Sunday and took a nap after each one. I can’t remember how to do brunch anymore. [LAUGHTER] And we’re all in that situation.

Christina: It’s true. I just wanted to add one more thing, which is that it’s not just social anxiety, but it’s also anxiety about grades and grading. And we have a whole chapter about grades. Because no one likes grading. No one likes grading. And I think it’s important too for students to know that they’re being graded and assessed fairly on group work. I’m so having that checklist of roles and turning that in at the end to show who did what is really important. And inevitably, it’s funny because we also put faculty into groups …that transformative learning the humanities… where I work, and this inevitably happens with faculty too, that they get really anxious about working when the ideas aren’t gelling together. And I think it’s really important for students to know how they’re being graded. And if someone’s ghosting or someone’s not pulling their weight or not showing up, give everyone else extra credit for helping to make that work, helping to reach out to that person who’s not showing up or ghosting: “Are you okay?” And a lot of times that person is not okay. And they needed someone to reach out and ask if they’re okay, they need that support. So offering the students who unclog a problem, you can give them a plunger award, literally, that happens in a lot of groups, or do something to recognize someone who goes above and beyond to help resolve those kinds of conflicts and issues, rather than it feeling like “Oh, but my grade is being hurt by someone else.” I think it really helps to foster collaborative community and a learning community where everyone is important. Everyone is valued and everyone needs to be okay for the group work to be successful. How can we help our colleagues, our peers.

Cathy: Around 2005 to 2010 years for my organization HASTAC which I co-founded in 2002… NSF now called it the world’s first and oldest academic social network… we created a wiki and we went to this guy in a garage and asked him if he would help us create a wiki and then the next year he launched Wikipedia… that was Jimmy Wales. [LAUGHTER] So that’s how old, that’s how ancient this is. But with that world, we were dealing a lot with open-source computer programmers. When they would do a job, when a job would be posted on Stack Exchange or another open source site, they would have to find a partner that they’d never worked with before and know if that person was reliable, somebody who could complement their skills, and so they do a badging system. And I worked with the Mozilla Foundation on creating badging systems, where you would write down all the criteria that you need to accomplish a job and you never gave a negative, you never give a negative, you just give somebody a badge if they did something great in doing that, and then somebody else who comes by and wants to look to see if they want to work with that person sees where they’ve been given the right badges and says, “ooh, yeah, those are the things I do poorly and those are things what you do well.” Again, HASTAC calls that collaboration by difference. Not everybody has to do everything perfectly, but you have to know, you have to have an inventory of what people contribute. So in my classes, also, when I’m doing group work, I’ll have students not only write their own job descriptions, but write a list of the qualities they think are most important for the success of the group as a whole. And after every week, when they come together, I’ll have them give badges to the people. I don’t even say how many, what percentage, just give a badge to someone who you think really showed up this week, and give a badge in a different category. You don’t have to tell the person who never gets a badge from any of their peers that they’re not pulling their weight. And then that can be a first step, as Christina said, to doing something like reaching out and saying, “You must feel terrible that nobody’s given you a badge in anything. What’s going on? Is it indifference? Is something going on your life? What’s happening?” Yeah, and it doesn’t have to be punitive. But when you see that none of your peers are rewarding you, sometimes it’s like, “Darn them. I’m doing all the work. But I’m a shy person. So I just make the corrections.” That often happens among computer programmers who often are not the most voluble, personable, people. They used to wording, we’re doing code? And someone will say, :”No, no, no, I was fixing all the code you didn’t see, you just didn’t look and see that I was fixing all the code.” And then you can make an adjustment to and it’s an incredibly important adjustment. I’m working with somebody now who was Phi Beta Kappa, three majors, straight As, et cetera, et cetera, and never spok in college. And when she hears these methods, she says, “This would have changed my whole way of being in college.” Instead of feeling shame of all the people who should not feel shame, she felt ashamed that she wasn’t contributing. And because she was never offered an opportunity to until she wrote this brilliant final exam or brilliant final research paper when her teachers knew but in class, she felt like she was failing. That’s horrible. That somebody that brilliant would ever feel like they weren’t doing a great job.

Christina: I think it also asked how to get students excited. And thinking about what Cathy just said, I like to frame group work as an opportunity to practice being a step-up or a step-back person. So if you’re normally a step-up person, like everyone loves that you’re the first to volunteer to help. It’s great to be a step-up person, but sometimes that doesn’t leave room for stepping back and taking into account all of the things that have been said, and reflecting on the larger picture and finding the forest through the trees. And so I invite students to try to practice if you’re generally a step-up person, try being a step-back person. And if you’re generally a step-back person, try being a step-up person and see how it goes. And I also put all of the really loud step-up people in a group together, and I put all of the really quiet step-back people in a group together, because at some point, they’re going to have to talk and the step-up people need a way to regulate who is talking. And so I think a lot of us try to distribute those people through groups, and that can really change group dynamics. So I like having them all together in various ways to feel comfortable being among peers and navigating those roles and being more aware, calling to mind those roles before group work, so they could get excited about trying something new, and recognize that this is always just practice.

John: Will these methods help to create a more inclusive classroom environment?

Christina: These methods are inclusive because they solicit participation from every single person in the room. Inventory methods achieve total participation, that’s a term from the American Psychological Association, 100% participation, not just the hand-raising few. So these methods are inclusive.

John: There has been a lot of criticism recently concerning the way in which traditional grading systems cause students to focus on trying to achieve the highest grades rather than on learning. Do you have any suggestions on how we can focus student effort on learning rather than achieving higher grades?

Christina: Shifting the focus from grades to learning? A very quick answer would be thinking along the lines of Carol Dweck and using a growth mindset… that we are all learning… that you can do more assignments that are completion-based or labor-based to a satisfactory degree rather than A, B, C, D, F. And I think that one really great model is from Debbie Gail Mitchell, who teaches chemistry in Denver. She decided that an 80 is achieving proficiency. And the goal is to achieve proficiency. And so if you get an 80 on an exam or an assignment, then you receive the total number of points for that exam or assignment. And there’s a total number of points to achieve for the whole class. And so assignment or exam adds up to that. And so students stop grade grubbing or worrying if they’re getting an 83 or an 84. And they focus more on learning.

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

Cathy: At one of those brunches This weekend, I had the privilege to meet someone named Matt Salesses, S-A-L-E-S-S-E-S, who is a novelist who just took a job in the MFA program at Columbia, who’s also written a book called Craft. And the book looks at how we teach writing in writing workshops by looking at novels and noticing how often white-authored novels don’t tell you the race of the white characters, but do tell you the race of the non-white characters, and how much craft through all fields as well as in writing workshops often assumes a putative expert in a putative subject as being white. And then everybody else gets defined. So even when we do the terms like diversity and inclusion, there’s an implicit grounding that the person who has craft and earns that craft is going to be from the dominant race. And it’s a really interesting book that looks at the Iowa Writers Workshop and the principles by which it was written up. You could have done craft as a way that higher education was set up. So many of the people who started and set up the metrics for higher education in the late 19th century were in fact, eugenicists, they really believed there was a biological reason for racial superiority and created a system that reified that prejudice that they had. So that’s just a parting. I just happened to be at a brunch at one of those exotic face-to-face human real experiences this weekend where I met an astonishing person with an astonishing book that I’m thinking about more and more. So that’s a what next for me as of yesterday, but that’s the wonderful thing about active learning is yesterday always has something interesting you can learn from.

Christina: My what next is I’m working on an article right now with a colleague, Josefine Ziebell. We’re both sound studies scholars, and also interested in pedagogy. And we’re looking at the school-to-prison pipeline, and the ways in which school soundscape mirrors the carceral soundscape, and how to give students more sonic agency. And so thinking about silence in the room, thinking about voice, and in what ways speaking up can challenge authority and how that can cost you your life in the worst scenarios. And also just like bells ringing, the time ticking ways in which school soundscape can contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline by regimenting everything about a person’s body and depriving them of their sonic agency, where making noise is considered inappropriate when that is exactly what we need to do to transform these institutions. And so I guess that just studying that I find really interesting right now with Josefine.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for such fascinating conversation today and things to think about and wonderful teasers for your book.

Cathy: Thank you very much.

Christina: Thank you so much.


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