330. Educational Developers’ Praxis

Teaching centers typically have a core group of faculty that actively engage in professional development while others are rarely seen. In this episode, Constanza Bartholomae and Terri Hasseler join us to discuss strategies they use to expand participation and build faculty community. Constanza is the Associate Director of Teaching Support and Terri is the Director of the Center of Teaching Excellence and Professor of History, Literature and the Arts at Bryant University.

Show Notes

  • Center for Teaching Excellence at Bryant University
  • Smith, M. (1994). Local education: Community, conversation, praxis. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).
  • Jeffs, T., & Smith, M. K. (2021). The education of informal educators. Education Sciences, 11(9), 488.
  • Thackara, J. (2006). In the bubble: Designing in a complex world. MIT press.
  • De Bono, E. (2014). Lateral thinking: An introduction. Random House.
  • De Bono, E. (1990). Lateral thinking: a textbook of creativity. Penguin UK.
  • Nunn, L. M. (2018). 33 simple strategies for faculty: a week-by-week resource for teaching first-year and first-generation students. Rutgers University Press.
  • Norell, Liz (2023). Supporting Neurodiverse Students and Faculty. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 313. November 1. (This episode discusses “podcasts and puzzles”)
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge. Beacon Press.
  • Hochschild, A. R. (2022). The managed heart. In Working in America (pp. 40-48). Routledge.


John: Teaching centers typically have a core group of faculty that actively engage in professional development while others are rarely seen. In this episode, we discuss strategies used at one teaching center to expand participation and build faculty community.


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 Constanza Bartholomae and Terri Hasseler. Constanza is the Associate Director of Teaching Support and Terri is the Director of the Center of Teaching Excellence and Professor of History, Literature and the Arts at Bryant University. Welcome Constanza and Terri.

Terri: Thank you.

John: It’s nice to talk to you again. I met both of you at the POD conference a few months ago, and that’s when we talked about you coming on the podcast. Thank you for joining us. Our teas today are:

Terri: Well, I’ll go first. As Constanza will tell you, I never have less than three beverages with me at any point in time. [LAUGHTER] So, I have a caramel macchiato, a diet Coke, and a chai.

Constanza: And I have a tea. I’m drinking a Mighty Leaf African nectar tea in the mug I have yet to earn. It’s a Tea for Teaching mug that John so generously gifted us at the conference. And so I’m working to earn it today. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Oh, we’re definitely glad that you’re here. I have cardamom cinnamon tea.

John: That’s a new one.

Rebecca: I’m trying to cut down on the caffeination.

John: So no more of that harsh tea?

Rebecca: Oh no, I will definitely drink some of that. [LAUGHTER] I’m not giving it up. I said cut down. [LAUGHTER]

John: And for the first time ever, I am drinking water in a Tea for Teaching mug, because I didn’t have time to get tea between my class and this recording session.

Rebecca: Is it warm water?

John: It is cold water, because if I could have heated up water, I would have put you a tea bag in it.

Rebecca: Well, it’s the start of tea. [LAUGHTER]

Terri: That’s so sad.

John: It is. It’s been one of those days, and so we’ll just leave it at that.

Rebecca: So we invited you here today to discuss your work as educational developers at Bryant University. Can you describe your roles and the role of the center?

Constanza: Sure. So I’ll go first. I’m the Associate Director of Teaching Support. And that means I get to spend a lot of time with our faculty. I work one-on-one with faculty in consults ranging from working on specific activities that they might need some additional support on to talking about overarching course goals or objectives, or perhaps speaking about pedagogy. And also I work with faculty in groups, we might be talking about a common theme or we might have unstructured get togethers and meetings. And that’s the best part about my job is meeting with faculty, and I really love what I do. I’ll pass it over to Terri.

Terri: Thank you. I use she/her pronouns and I am the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Professor in the Department of Literature and History in the Arts. As you noted a moment ago, I started at Bryant University where I am now almost 30 years in the mid 90s and I moved through the ranks of the faculty. I served as a department chair a number of years ago for a department in English Cultural Studies, and most recently served as the Associate Dean for the College of Arts and Sciences. My earliest research actually 30 years ago started in writing centers and pedagogy and I quickly moved into inclusion and social justice frameworks for teaching and learning. And I just moved into the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence about five, six months ago. So I am very excited about this work, and the inclusion of the work that I’ve been doing in the scholarship of teaching and learning, and training and instruction and pedagogy.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the work that your center does?

Terri: Sure., so one of the things that we’re doing in terms of the philosophy of our work and a shout out to our educational technology person, Mary Boehmer and our wonderful faculty fellows. The work we do in the center really focuses on the concept of praxis that Mark Smith talks about, which is that idea of informed committed action. And when we talk about informed, we’re talking about what is it we know? We try to stay research- and evidence-based. We look at the theories and the current information that is out on any subject that we’re working with. And then the commitment, the committed, what we do and why we do it. The ethics… what’s the ethical framework for the work that we do? And then the action is: how do we do that work. And we look at, in the center right now, focusing on issues of creativity, inclusive communities, and the critical notion of kindness. These three concepts bring together student-centered approaches through a teaching-centered lens. We like that kind of inward and outward approach to the work we’re doing. And we are working to build more authentic relationships with teaching rather than performative teaching. And my job in that role is to run a lot of the different programs, work with a number of different partners on campus, and building out our strategic plan and then initiating it.

John: In an earlier conversation, there was some discussion of the Creativity Fellows Program. Could you tell us a little bit about that program, how it works, what its philosophy is and what its purpose is?

Terri: Sure, thank you. We’re very excited to talk about the creativity fellows. This is a program I started a number of years ago it was supported by Robert Shea who was our Director of our Center for Teaching and Learning at the time. Bob is now the Provost at Curry College. The work that we did In that is it was a seminar approach, a one-year seminar devoted to nurturing faculty members and their creative practices. The long-term goal is to fundamentally transform both the teaching practices and the educational philosophies. The program draws from faculty across all the institution, the different schools and programs on the campus. And one of the things that we’re finding is that there are heavy expectations on faculty, they’re expected to be creative… be more creative, and faculty are often at a loss for that. Many feel that they themselves are not creative. They’re trained in critical thinking and content providing, and they often have not been given the skills or the support to pursue what creativity looks like. We’ve also tried to think of creativity in contrast with innovation, innovation tends to be more product oriented, solution oriented: what are the viable solutions? What are the ideas, the methods, the products that one can produce? We’re much more interested in process when we work with faculty. So the premise of the seminar is that we start with the mindset. If faculty do not have an active creative practice, it’s impossible to model and to speak to creativity in authentic ways with students. So the seminar focuses on providing spaces to let faculty fellows develop a creative practice. And we are very literal about this. We talk about creative artistic practices, we do collage, hand papermaking, bookbinding, improv, ceramics, we bring in visiting artists, we have one-on-one creative mentoring, sketching, and we build a community of practice, where we focus on the inefficiency of creativity and learning. John Thackara talks about that in his book In the Bubble, says that creating and learning human beings are highly inefficient. So we make a space where we can be inefficient with each other. And that’s not a space that we create very often in academic settings, because we’re always very product oriented. So again, the emphasis was not on the final products, but the purpose was just to be in the seminar. And we do end with a final installation at the end of the seminar each year, we end with a process of creativity where faculty present their objects that they created throughout the time. And the last thing I will say, too, is what are some of the things that result from this… the work is very risky for faculty, many of them have never made art, or something creative. Many of them probably have not done art since high school or elementary school, or perhaps they have some secret creative practice that they haven’t shared in some time. So this is anxiety provoking, but also very exciting. And we focus on three different things. One, trust the process. We talk about this as purposelessness. Of course, it’s deeply purposeful. The work we’re doing is deeply purposeful, but the focus is on purposelessness, not publication, and in our syllabus we say to them, what if you were given space to play, time to think about it, and a cohort of colleagues to encourage you? What if you were able to participate in activities within which your very presence was the purpose? What if you could play with the distractions to see what they yield rather than immediately aiming for some objective? The second thing we do is we create a room and a space to play and some playmates to play with and do lots of kind of lower-stakes activities with the faculty. One of the first activities we do is we pull them together, and we give them modeling clay. And we say, “create an animal out of this modeling clay that represents your relationship with creativity.” Some might make a cat because they’re curious or a dragon because they hoard creative things, or whatever. And then we talk about why they created what they created. And then we put these animals in a habitat. And we say, “Now you’re all going to be working together with each other, what would be the habitat that would include all these animals?” And they might do something like a garden, or an amusement park, but it gets them immediately getting out of the self consciousness of creating, which we know is also something that is very real for our students. The final part I would talk about is the third tenet that we work with is the fear and its relationship with failure. Risk-taking is a primary part of creative thinking. And the biggest risk is taking these risks in front of colleagues. Our students do this all the time. We don’t. We’re very much experts in our fields. We don’t take beginner learning experiences and demonstrate them in front of our colleagues. And this is one of the things that we do with this activity.

John: As an economist, one of the things that struck me was your comment about inefficiency. Economists focus on ways in which people can use resources more efficiently to get more productive use of their time. So could you explain that inefficiency part of it?

Terri: Yes, no problem. I think that for faculty, a lot of the focus is on production and efficiency and sort of demonstrating to the institution that I published this number of papers, I’ve demonstrated that I know these certain things, I can teach these objects and these content principles. But as an artist myself as well, art is not very efficient, it’s often messy, you have to move between different projects, you have to make lots of mistakes, lots and lots of mistakes, and enjoy the mistakes and see what results from them. And it really takes a while to get faculty comfortable with that idea of being inefficient. There’s a reality to inefficiency too, we’ve got limited time, nobody has time to be inefficient. And so this process allows people to actually be able to put something down as I was a part of this group, and I was given opportunity to be inefficient.

Rebecca: How do you recruit for this program, or who do you tend to attract? Because if folks know that they’re risk taking, but they’re averse to risk taking, [LAUGHTER] then sometimes the people that we might hope really appreciate a process don’t always get included. So how do you nudge people to get involved?

Terri: So we’ve had three iterations. And we hope to have our fourth iteration soon. And we’ve had sort of different models. The first two models, we had small groups of faculty, eight in the first one, 12 in the second one, and then the third model, we did more a series of workshops across campus. And this was supported by two other faculty members who are part of the creativity fellows, Maura Dowling in Finance and Sandra Enos, who has since retired, but was in Sociology. And people are actually very interested in the past. We have had a carrot approach where we do have some perks attached to it that make people interested. But I think also we sell it as a place where you get to play and have some fun with some colleagues.

John: And I think all faculty should experience that process of stretching themselves a little bit, of being uncomfortable, to remind them of what it was like to be a student. So I can see the benefits of that.

Rebecca: I thought I almost saw the word play [LAUGHTER] come out of your mouth, but it didn’t actually come out.

John: I’m an economist.[LAUGHTER] We don’t play, we do serious work. [LAUGHTER] How have faculty reacted to this program?

Terri: So there’s a lot of different reactions… again, that notion of beginner learning experiences, that is really valuable. So people remember what it was like to sit down and do something for the first time. And then I also think it’s important for threshold concepts. When we’ve crossed over the threshold, and we know what is transformative about our discipline, we forget that other people haven’t crossed over that threshold. And this experience reminds them “Oh, yeah, there are things about my discipline that I take for granted that other people who are new to it may not understand.” We spend a lot of time with lateral thinking, Edward de Bono’s work about indirect approaches. So an economist who’s doing ceramics is definitely going to be thinking about this in a very different way. For faculty, they reported greater re-engagement with new learner experiences, a recommitment to a creative practice that they may have had in the past. That was actually a big thing that we noted. They enjoyed a like-minded group of colleagues that they were working with. And also, ironically, even though the focus was on purposelessness, this was probably one of the more traditionally purposeful activities because it produced a significant amount of scholarly research, new courses, new programs, conference work, so a lot came out of that. For the institution, it produced a commencement award in creative expression. Faculty instituted new courses, new programs. And then for students… this was the fun part…. so students also get to see what the faculty produced at a pop-up gallery, pop-up installation that we do, and the students talked about two things that they found were really moving to them about the experience. And they talked about how important it was to see faculty move outside of their comfort zone. One student said, “I found this valuable because it shows that these people who are experts in their fields are willing to take risks. I am sure doing these projects that it felt a little unnatural and it was interesting to see how they dealt with that and created something to be proud of.” And the second thing is that humanizing of faculty, they really saw faculty as human beings. This one is kind of cute. I just love this comment. A student said, “It was interesting to see professors doing the same things we are doing in class, and how proud they were of their work.”

Rebecca: One of the things I love doing is taking classes and learning new things, for some of those exact reasons: feeling vulnerable, remembering what it feels like to be a beginner, etc. You mentioned as you were laying out some of the things that your does, does your role in building community. We know that faculty often work in their own silos and sometimes feel like they’re facing their own unique challenges. But what strategies have you used to break down some of these silos and bring faculty together across campus?

Constanza: Yeah, that’s such an interesting question. And it’s so funny because we don’t often think of teaching as being an isolating practice. But really, if you’re teaching in a classroom, unless you’re co-teaching with someone else, or you’re being observed, you’re the only instructor in the room. So if something goes wrong in the classroom, you only have yourself to consult with in that very moment. And if you’re working through something, the best place that you can go to if your campus has one is a teaching center. Luckily ours does. Thank goodness, [LAUGHTER] because I love having a job. [LAUGHTER] But we find ourselves working with faculty to build these spaces for community because oftentimes, as an instructor myself, I’m not taking the time to build reflection and metacognitive practices into my own routine of teaching. So my teaching routine is “Okay, let me build my lesson plan. Let me do my grading. Let me meet with students for office hours.” But I’m not consciously thinking, “How can I reflect on my teaching?” Or “Where can I meet with other people to discuss this?” That’s our role of the teaching center. And so our job is to help support faculty in forming those connections and to build space for them to share their experiences. Sometimes we might coordinate a lunch to discuss a certain topic or invite one of our faculty to pose a question or discuss a certain problem that they’re facing. Some of the times we draw from our own teaching experiences to give examples of how we might approach a situation or some of the teaching wins that we’ve had or some of the teaching struggles that we’ve faced. Some topics that we’ve more recently covered are first-year teaching techniques, supporting first-generation students, managing student disruptions, course redesign, and Universal Design for Learning. But really, if faculty members come to us and they’re interested in a certain subject area, we’re more than happy to look into it if we’re not familiar with it ourselves, and then come back and design something for them.

John: You mentioned a first-year teaching techniques course to prepare faculty to teach first-year students, and in an earlier conversation, you mentioned that this was something you were hoping to spread throughout the entire faculty. Could you tell us a little bit about what the focus of that class is?

Constanza: Yeah, I got a lot of questions about this at POD actually, because this is something that a lot of universities are hoping to teach about, really. But I was having a conversation with our Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Veronica McComb, and we were casually talking, as one does, with the Dean over coffee. And she was saying it would be really great if we could offer something that would highlight some of today’s students’ challenges and some teaching techniques that would really complement their learning. And I looked at her, and she has a faculty development background, and I said, “Well, do you want me to build a course?” And she said, “Yeah, I’d love it.” And so the idea unfolded, and I began to design our first-year teaching techniques course. It’s a six-week course, which ends up with faculty creating new implementations into their own courses. And although it’s geared towards first-year students, it really applies to all students. So we’ve had two cohorts of faculty go through it already. Our third cohort is about to launch, there are five modules, and they talk about a variety of teaching techniques, some of which faculty may have seen before and may already use but not know that they’re actually evidence based, and some of which are entirely brand new. We use a variety of mediums. So they get to listen to some Tea for Teaching podcast episodes, as well as some other podcast episodes. They get to read some articles. And then we also all read Lisa Nunn’s, 33 simple strategies for faculty: a week-by-week resource for teaching first-year and first-generation students, which is really great, because there are anecdotes within that book from first year and first-gen students themselves with quotes of their thoughts and struggles and comments. And so it’s real and extremely relatable. And it gets our faculty thinking about how they’re delivering content or how they’re approaching students in an entirely different way. And so in the course, we’ve laughed together, we’ve cried together, we’ve met on Zoom, we’ve met in person, and folks get to know other faculty from different disciplines across campus. We’ve had folks who have just started teaching for the first time, we’ve had folks who have been teaching for a number of years at Bryant, folks who are new to Bryant. So it’s a really great way to build community. And I’m glad that you asked about it. But it’s also really helpful and a great way to show those who have been teaching for a really long time, especially, that it’s always really great to reflect upon their teaching practice and to think about how they can reinvigorate that practice and enhance it to fit the needs of today’s students.

Rebecca: One of the other programs that you’ve mentioned is the Course Redesign Institute. Can you talk a little bit about how this program is structured, when in the year it happens, and how many faculty participate?

Terri: Sure, this is something we’re very excited about that we just started this year. It was actually the idea of one of our faculty fellows, and we modeled it on our really wonderful writers’ retreat that we’ve had for a number of years on campus and big shout out to our colleagues in the Krupp library and the Academic Center for Excellence that we work with in planning that. The writers’ retreat is really just: show up, do your writing, we’ll feed you. [LAUGHTER] And we’ll be around to help you if you have questions. And we love that idea, and we love that structure. So what we did is we built into the structure a series of content experts. We brought in people with expertise and accessibility, course design, and open educational resources, and virtual reality and pedagogy, instructional technology, syllabus statements and design. And we brought everyone together in a space in the library. And we essentially just let people do their thing. So we structured it with: buy our meals, we structured it by the times we got together with our meals to be in community. We did not run any sessions in training. We did not have any required events other than strong encouragement to join together during the five meals that we shared together over our time together. And it gave people a chance to sit down and in real time reach out to the people who could help them with questions they were having in the moment. So a group of three or four math faculty, for instance, in our last retreat, were working together. And they would come across something as they were working, they’d say “We have an accessibility question.” They could go right to the person and ask that question. “Oh, we’d like to institute open educational resource in this,” they could go right to that person and ask them. And it was a very productive time, people love being fed. They love being able to just show up and do their work and have immediate response to the questions that they have. Our goal was to do this once a year, but it was so popular, we intend to do it in the fall and the spring, and keep this sort of a very faculty-centered event where they get access to the resources they need right away in real time.

Rebecca: I love the idea of having the meals to bring people together, because inevitably, that probably leads to conversations about the courses they’re all redesigning.

Terri: Absolutely. We’ve had wonderful conversations.

John: I believe you also do some things that bring faculty together a bit more informally. Could you talk about some of the ways that you do that?

Constanza: Well, as Terri has mentioned, we love food. So if there’s a way that we can bring folks together over a hot beverage or a meal, because we’re in New England after all, and as we were joking about earlier, the winters are rough, we’ll do that. So as we’re heading back during the first week of classes, we’ll have a welcome back lunch for faculty. But apart from that, folks will joke, I’ll sit in my office sometimes, but sometimes I’ll also go over to the faculty and staff cafe and I’ll sit over there and faculty will pass through and remember that they have a question for me, or they’ll see me and they’ll sit down and we’ll chat. And so that will be a way to informally catch folks, and remind them to come and visit us or perhaps chat with them about an idea that they have. And if I’m lucky, that’ll turn into a SOTL article or something like that. So I love to catch people in that way. It’s amazing how many questions folks suddenly remember that they have just by seeing my face, and it saves them from sending an email. But also, the more I get to know faculty on campus, the more I understand where their interests lie. And so if there’s a faculty member who has a question, and I know that there’s another faculty member who might have experience with that question and might be able to answer it, I might reach out via email and introduce them. In fact, I’m notorious for doing so. So it’s a way for them to get to know each other as well, because oftentimes, faculty will meet other faculty members in their department, but they may not necessarily know other faculty in other areas. So those are some of the ways that we informally network. Our faculty fellows allow for another space where faculty can get together and meet folks that are not within their discipline. And really any open session that we have in the Center for Teaching Excellence is another way for folks to get to know other faculty who are interested in pedagogy. I love Liz Norrel’s idea that she mentioned on your podcast a few weeks ago about doing podcasts and puzzles. And so shout out to her for that one because I really want to adopt that for our center as well.

Rebecca: Since the pandemic, we’ve dealt with a lot of issues related to student disengagement and increased reports of students dealing with mental health challenges and things like this, and this has really increased the emotional labor of faculty. Sarah Rose Cavanaugh in Mind over Monsters argues for a practice of “compassionate challenge.” How do you address the challenges that faculty are facing in finding a good balance between compassion and challenge?

Terri: So one of the things that we look at… and this is a really important question that everybody is navigating, so thank you for that question… one of the things that we look at is the concept of kindness. It’s one of our three principles. And there is a bit of a problem around kindness as a term, often wrongly defined as doing everything you can to help someone to the point where you start doing the thing that they needed to do in the first place. And this creates learned helplessness, it also can become manipulative. For those of us who are doing this kindness and compassion at work, it can become exhausting and frustrating. As educational developers, we end up doing all the work rather than teaching someone how to do it for themselves. And that can be really hard. So we’ve talked a lot about compassion fatigue, and what happens when working with students who have mental health challenges, as you mentioned, where we start to take on the experiences of the students, and sometimes not appropriately, because there are professionals who should be working in these areas, and we want to support students. So how do we do that effectively, but also make sure our students are getting the best care they can from the professionals who are there to do that work? So we have students who are disengaged, alienated, apathetic, worry about belonging, but we also have faculty who are disengaged, have burnout, have compassion fatigue, wonder about whether they belong to an institution that has changed so dramatically in such a short period of time that it makes sense anymore. The conversation about not being a great resignation, but a great disengagement that faculty are experiencing. And I think that a couple of the issues that we’ve been looking at is that performative care, the way that so much is required of us now as faculty and as educational developers to be caring, that the caring becomes a performance rather than something authentic. And, of course, this is a use of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s work on emotional labor, where you start becoming detached and alienated from that labor, because it’s taken over your identity, that you no longer authentically feel connected to that emotional labor. And when we’re dealing with so much endless change, we have to be careful of that boundary between compassion and challenge.

Constanza: Yes, and this is something that we’ve talked about in terms of layers, because if the students are feeling this way, it’s impacting the faculty. And then if the faculty are feeling this way, it’s impacting us as educational developers. And Terri knows the story, but it really hit me when I was at a conference with Terri last year. I’ve always sort of wondered, as one does, how did I end up in faculty development? What’s my real story if someone were to ask, and one of my mentors in graduate school, unfortunately, ended up taking their own life, because they felt as if they didn’t belong, and really, really suffered. And we’ve seen in the news recently, as well, that that is a topic right now that we’re grappling with in higher education too. So all of this to say that, as educational developers, we are seeing faculty being perhaps more vulnerable than ever coming to us with greater challenges than they perhaps have ever come to us with before. And we’re also feeling the ripple effects of all of this. And in some cases, it is very challenging for faculty to come to us with these issues, for all of those same reasons that we mentioned earlier, faculty thinking, “Oh, I’m probably the only one going through this, perhaps it’s not appropriate for me to come and talk about this,” or the opposite extreme, where they are oversharing all of the things that are happening, and we have to figure out how to help support them, and perhaps do that in a way that is most effective, while protecting ourselves at the same time from that compassion fatigue. So if faculty are to trust us, that means that we have to be willing to be vulnerable to a certain extent, as well. And that’s not to say that we bare our entire souls and say everything that is deeper or personal about what we’ve been through. But it does mean that it’s helpful for us to share some stories of our own teaching woes, or to talk about moments that things just didn’t go right. Or to let faculty know, “You’re the third person to come into my office today letting me know about this, so I just want you to know that you’re not alone,” or to let them know “this is a topic that has come up repeatedly, and just to let you know, we’ve heard about it so much that our director has gone and informed the provost too, so we’re going to start having greater conversations as a campus community about it.” And so those are the types of ways that we show up for faculty, because, again, if they’re going to be comfortable with us, we have to show them that we too, are willing to be vulnerable with them. The other thing that I should mention as well is that part of this process is for us to generate community too. So not only do we meet with each other as a team, but we’re also part of the Rhode Island Teaching and Learning Network. So we have educational developers from the entire state of Rhode Island on that network. And we meet monthly to talk about issues, ideas, and concerns that we’re seeing, and that’s a really great space for us all to get together and quite honestly, it is so supportive, and I’m not quite sure what I would do without that network.

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

Terri: Our next steps are, as we said a few minutes ago, actually, we were talking about how students feel alienated, discontent, apathy, belonging issues, and our faculty are also feeling some of these same things. And surprise, educational developers are also in that mix. And we are feeling that same sense of disengagement and burnout, and compassion fatigue. And our next steps are to take these subjects that we’re working with and really start thinking about how it impacts our work as educational developers and other educational developers. We do a lot of the support work, and much is required of us, and how are we supporting each other? As Constanza mentioned a moment ago, the Rhode Island Teaching and Learning Network has been a place where we’ve been having some of these conversations this year, and we hope to continue to have them there and on our campus.

Constanza: I think Terri said that perfectly.

John: Well, thank you. It’s great talking to you again, and we look forward to future conversations.

Constanza: It’s great to speak with both of you. Rebecca, so nice to meet you. It’s so funny when you hear someone’s voice and then, I’m sure you get this all the time, and then you get to see them and I hope to meet you both in Oswego sometime. We’ll make it happen. And I’ll bring Terri with me.

John: That would be great.

Terri: It was lovely to see you both. Thank you.


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


329. Admission to Highly Selective Colleges

Graduates from a small number of elite private colleges account for a disproportionate share of America’s business and political leaders. In this episode, John Friedman joins us to discuss his recent study with Raj Chetty and David Deming that examines how admissions criteria at these institutions privilege students from high-income families.

John is the Briger Family Distinguished Professor of Economics and International Public Affairs at Brown University, where he is the chair of the Economics Department. He is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and has served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy at the National Economic Council. John is also a member of the U.S. Treasury Council on Racial Equity, a co-Editor of the American Economic Review, and a founding Co-Director of Opportunity Insights.

Show Notes


John K: Graduates from a small number of elite private colleges account for a disproportionate share of America’s business and political leaders. In this episode, we discuss a recent study that looks at how admissions criteria at these institutions privilege students from high-income families.


John K: 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 K:, an economist…

John K: …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 K: Our guest today is John Friedman. John is the Briger Family Distinguished Professor of Economics and International Public Affairs at Brown University, where he is the chair of the Economics Department. He is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and has served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy at the National Economic Council. John is also a member of the U.S. Treasury Council on Racial Equity, a co-Editor of the American Economic Review, and a founding Co-Director of Opportunity Insights. Welcome.

John F: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are: … John, are you drinking any tea with us today?

John F: So, I’m a big tea drinker…

Rebecca: Yay!

John F: …but, I drink tea in the morning. And so I had a delightful Hunan tea this morning, which I will draw on the reserves of that energy throughout this conversation.

Rebecca: Well played. [LAUGHTER]

John K: And I am drinking a ginger peach black tea from the Republic of Tea. Not so fancy, but I enjoy it.

Rebecca: I have an Awake tea because I also need some energy. [LAUGHTER]

John K: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your 2023 working paper with Raj Chetty and David Deming, “Diversifying Societies leaders: The Determinants and Causal Effects of Admission to Highly Selective Private Colleges.” This paper created a big stir in higher ed and other circles as well. You note in this study that less than one half of 1% of college students attend Ivy plus institutions. While most of our listeners will be familiar with Ivy League colleges, what are the other colleges that are included in the Ivy plus designation?

John F: Thanks. And it’s helpful to clarify up front, the colleges that we’re directly studying are the eight Ivy League schools: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Princeton, Penn, and four close peers which are Stanford, MIT, Duke, and Chicago. The important thing to know here, you’re right, that there’s a pretty small share of students, it’s not that something changes discreetly, when you move out of that group of 12 schools, and you go to another outstanding private institution like Northwestern or Johns Hopkins or something like that. We have some data, it seems like there’s some pretty similar things going on across a lot of these very highly selective private institutions. Where you do see things being quite different, where we have some data as well, is at the most elective public institutions, places like UC-Berkeley, University of Michigan, UT-Austin, places like that.

John K: You still have to draw the line somewhere when you have prestigious institutions.

John F: That’s right.

Rebecca: So you noted that these institutions enroll a small share of our students, why are they so important? Why do we need to study them?

John F: That’s right, less than 1% of college students in the country go to one of these schools. And, of course, college students themselves are just a small share of students born in any given cohort. What we found, though, was that students from these institutions are really highly over represented in leadership positions in society. You see that if you look at who’s at the top of the income distribution, or who’s a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. More than 10% of those individuals are from these Ivy plus institutions. But it even gets higher when you look at who’s in the U.S. Senate. About three-quarters of the Supreme Court justices over the past 50 years have come from the schools. And so for sure, the schools themselves are not going to be making broad scale changes in upward mobility in our society. They’re just too small. But in terms of creating both a diverse group of leaders and a broad set of pathways, where children from any background have the chance to be a Senator or Supreme Court Justice, whatever, these schools are incredibly important.

John K: One of the things that your study did is it investigated questions that couldn’t be investigated before because of the data that you were able to assemble. Could you tell us a little bit about the data set that you use?

John F: Sure, our study, like so many others, has been the beneficiary of the big data revolution. It’s affected so many aspects of society, and this is the academic part of it. We’re merging together datasets from three different places. The starting point for this paper and for many of my other research is the universe of U.S. tax and census records, which have been merged together at the US Census Bureau. And what that allows us to do is to identify individuals when they’re kids and then actually follow them through to not just project what we think their outcomes might be, but really actually observe them after they get out of college and they’ve entered the labor force. Those data are incredibly important in terms of measuring upward mobility directly. Then, on top of that, in order to study really in depth what’s going on at these institutions, we have internal admissions data from several Ivy plus colleges as well as a bunch of these most selective public universities and university systems. And we see where children are coming from, or where they grew up in the tax data, we see where they end up in the tax data, the college data are really filling in this in between, how do they go through the college application process. We both learn a lot of other information about them, like where they applied, there’s a lot of detail about the evaluations of their applications, as well as of course, whether they eventually get in and matriculate. The final data that we’re using is a set of standardized test scores from the two main testing companies: College Board that runs the SAT, and then ACT, which runs the eponymous test. And the way we use those data are to start from a baseline of academic achievement at the point when these students are applying to university. And we can talk about how that works, and of course, it’s not a perfect proxy for where students are. But when we think about the role that universities are going to be able to play, we just have to be realistic about the fact that they are starting to interact with students when they’re 17 or 18, and there’s a whole lot of inequality in our country that’s going to affect students long before that. And so we talk, of course, as a policy matter about how to deal with all that inequality. But the reality of the situation, especially at this highly selective level, there are going to be some students that just aren’t academically prepared. So that’s going to shape the set of students that these colleges can recruit or admit.

Rebecca: One of the main questions that you address in the paper is: “Do highly selective colleges amplify the persistence of privilege across generations by taking students from high income families and helping them obtain high-status. high-paying, leadership positions?” What do your results suggest?

John F: So that’s exactly the kind of broad goal of our paper, to answer that question. And I think, unfortunately, the answer is that on average, yes, they do amplify the persistence of privilege. That comes from two different parts. So first of all, the students who attend these colleges, we measure a pretty large causal effect on their outcomes, specifically in these leadership positions as adults. Of course, the students are very highly selected when they come in. And so even if the college’s weren’t doing anything, you’d expect these set of students to be doing some impressive things afterwards. But what we find when we talk about more of the details of how we do this later, there’s a very large causal effect. And so these universities, it’s not just that a large share of senators come from them, they do seem to be a very important pipeline effect, where it’s really propelling students up into these leadership positions. Now, on the admission side, who are the students that are coming into this set of institutions that are benefiting from this really positive effect? The problem here is that even relative to the distribution of test scores for high school graduating seniors, which as we talked about before, exhibit a whole amount of inequality due to differences in education and neighborhoods that different students from different backgrounds have been exposed to before they’re applying to college. Even just looking at students that have the very same test scores, high-income students are substantially more likely to be admitted to and attend these institutions, relative to lower-income students, and especially middle-income students. The gaps are largest when comparing students from very high-income families to students from middle-class, upper-middle class families.

John K: And in your study, you tie some of this selection process to athletic scholarships, to legacy students, as well as attendance at private high schools. Could you talk a little bit about how those factors influenced the decisions?

John F: Sure. So the approach that we take is a decomposition of this pipeline, we see that students are coming in with, let’s just say everybody has the same test score, a group of students at the beginning, we see that the students from high-income families are more likely to end up attending this set of schools at the end of the day, and we’re going to try to decompose where in the pipeline these disparities are emerging. And so the way we first start is actually at a somewhat higher level than you asked the question, which is just to decompose these differences between the application phase, which of the set of students with a given test score applies to these institutions, the admissions phase of those students with that given set of test scores that applied which are admitted, and then the matriculation or the yield phase of those that are admitted whose actually going to choose to come at the end of the day? And what I found interesting coming into this project is that there are many different analyses or ideas about how each of those three phases could be affecting it. There’s concerns about who has the information or the resources to apply. There’s concerns about potential biases in the admissions process from some of the factors that you mentioned, legacy preferences or private schools. And there’s a concern that maybe schools aren’t offering financial aid that’s sufficient in order for students from less affluent families to attend. In our data, we see that about two-thirds of that entire disparity is coming from the admissions part of that alone. So that’s not all of it. But I mean, just to give some numbers, there are about 250 students from the top 1% of the parental income distribution who are in an average starting first-year class, that’s about 1650 students. So right there, about 15% of the class is coming from the top 1% of families. Of those 250, we find that about 160 of them are extra in the sense that if everyone attended at the same rate, when they have the same test score, there would only be about 90 students from the top 1% of families. And so then of that 160, about 100 are coming from the fact that high-income students are more likely to be admitted. There are smaller effects coming from differences in application rates, even smaller effects coming from differences in matriculation rates. But primarily, the differences are coming through the admissions process. And even before we get into specific policies, I think that that decomposition is incredibly important, because the admissions process is the one part of this that schools entirely control themselves. If you want more people to apply to your school, that’s hard, because applications are the students’ decision, you have to go out and convince a bunch of students to apply. If you want to get more students to yield, to matriculate, you have to convince those students, it’s their decision. The choice about who to admit, it’s just the school’s choice. This is the one lever that the schools entirely control. And so the fact that most of the disparities are explained by this set of policies, on the one hand, maybe that’s a good thing that they control, and maybe can directly fix what is the source of the problem. On the other hand, it’s a little bit discouraging that it’s in the choice of these own universities that these disparities are being created, despite what are typically loudly voiced concerns for upward mobility. So it’s really the admissions process that matters. Now, we then go down to the next level. and this gets to the factors that you mentioned. Why is it that a high-income student with a 1400 test score is going to be admitted at a higher rate than a middle-income student or a low-income student with a 1400 test score. And even just to start with, in some sense, the dog that didn’t bark here, you might have thought that students with a 1400 from low-income families, they might even be more impressive that they got to that level despite facing all of these barriers, but we see that admissions rates are in fact much higher for high-income students. And we trace that back to three factors. The first and most important factor up 40% of what’s going on is the preference for legacy students. Those are students who are children of alumni of the institution. Now, legacy students affect the admissions rate of high-income individuals for two reasons. One is pretty obvious, the alumni of these institutions themselves are just much more likely to be high income. That’s kind of the generation before, we’re getting the same positive effect of attendance. But the second reason, I think, was a little bit more surprising to me. It turns out that legacy students from high-income families receive a substantially larger admissions boost, even then, legacies from lower-income families. So there’s kind of a preference for high-income students, even within the legacy pool. And you put those two things together, and that accounts for about 40% of the admissions difference. The second factor is the fact that all of these schools designate about somewhere between 12 and 15% of their class for athletic recruits. Now, there’s nothing inherent in athletics, that means that it has to be students from high-income families. And in fact, if you look at the distribution of athletic recruits at public universities, those students mirror the income distribution of most of the other students at the school, in the sense that there’s not a tilt towards high-income families. But at private institutions, the share of admitted students that are athletic recruits among high-income families is significantly higher… more like 13-14%… than It is among admitted students from low-income families where only 5 or 6% of those students are athletes. Now, why is this the case? I was an athlete in college myself, and I don’t think that it’s just because kids from higher-income families are more athletically talented. I think it has to do first with the resources that are available to these kids. Becoming a college baseball player isn’t just about having good hand-eye coordination, it’s about being able to attend clinics, being part of a travel team, there’s like a lot of stuff that goes along with being able to get to that level. And then I think the second factor is that the set of sports that are offered by many of these institutions go well beyond the canonical football, basketball, baseball, which may be a little bit more broad base, but they also include sports like water polo, or sailing or equestrian. And these are sports where I’m sure that there are examples of athletes from all across the income distribution, but think they tend to skew towards more high-income families. So athletic recruits are the second major chunk. And then the third is what my friend David Leonhardt at the New York Times likes to call private school polish. A lot of what the schools focus on in the admissions process goes beyond just how academically prepared people are, and they really like to see somebody who’s doing interesting things that could be as part of extracurriculars, that could be the way they spend their summer, could be the way that teachers write about the students or the guidance counselors write about the students. And all of this gets channeled through a student’s evaluation on non-academic factors. And what we see there is that not only are students from high-income families much more likely to get very strong non-academic ratings, that seems to flow through through things like recommendation letters that are really centered at the school level. And just more generally, you find if you compare high- and low-income students who are attending the same school, you no longer see this disparity in non academic ratings. And so our sense is that these other broader factors that kind of seep into the admissions process are accounting for the third leg of this tripod that’s giving high-income students an advantage in the admissions process.

John K: And some parents are probably sending their students to more elite private schools in the hope that that will enhance their prospects. And the schools that accept them recognize that one of the reasons students are going there is because they prepare them better for selection in a more prestigious institution.

John F: I think that’s exactly right. I think it’s not just parents and schools, the thought that colleges place a substantial weight on these non-academic factors, which then can be kind of trained for and developed over the years, I think this is really a major force that shapes the way that parents and kids and lots of organizations in society direct their resources. So let me just give you an example here. I was presenting this paper at UC Berkeley in the economics department and a friend of mine who lives in San Francisco, who’s a professor there sent me a picture of an advertisement on the side of the road, like kind of billboard on the side of the road, for a fencing academy. It’s called the Saber School. And it says “a safe, fun sport that will help: what are the things that doing saber will help?” Well, number one, it will enhance performance at work and school. Okay, that sounds plausible. Number two, it will enhance speed, coordination, and decisiveness. Number three, it will help you get accepted at top US colleges, just like right there on the billboard. And so if you want to fence as a kid, that’s totally fine, and some people are gonna really enjoy it. But the fact that colleges value this and so now all sorts of people are spending their time fencing simply because they think it will help their college application, I find that to be a little bit silly.

Rebecca: I don’t think we would have found that billboard in my neighborhood. [LAUGHTER]

John K: Although if you brought a saber to work, [LAUGHTER] you might get more attention.

John F: That raises a host of other issues. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: In your study, you also examined admission rates at highly selective public colleges. Do their admissions also favor students from high-income households over lowincome households when other student characteristics are held constant?

John F: Yeah, so the public most selective institutions, they provide a really interesting contrast to the private schools, and there are really two differences. The first difference is that it’s still true that students from high-income families with the same test score are more likely to be attending these places like UC Berkeley or Michigan than students from lower-income families. But it’s not the super concentration in the top 1%, the top 1% are about 20% more likely to attend, but so are the top 5% And roughly top 10%. It’s more kind of a broad top of the income distribution than kid of the uber rich that are benefiting from this. Then second, when you do the decomposition that we do at the private schools, you find that, in fact, it’s not the admissions process, the chances of admission for students with a given test score are almost identical across the income distribution, if anything slightly higher for lower-income students. The big differences come in the fraction of students who apply to these schools. You see almost all of the over attendance is explained by higher application rates of high-income students. And so that really points to a very different part of pipeline. And I think there’s a whole other set of issues that in kind of policy concerns that that brings up, just to cite some fantastic work in this space by my colleague at Harvard, Sue Dynarski, she and a number of co-authors have worked with the University of Michigan over the past 10 years, on something called the Hail scholarship. And this program is really focused on this application phase where they reach out to students who are doing very well in Michigan Public Schools, and who are not from high-income families. And they not just inform the students about the University of Michigan, but they provide a simplified form of financial aid, that’s a tiny bit more generous, but just mostly clearer, that’s basically guaranteed zero for four years. And that seems to have really large effects, big increases in the share of students who are applying who receive these types of fliers, that then carries through to those that are admitted and those that end up matriculating. And so, first of all, it’s really interesting that there are sometimes different problems at these different schools. But also, I think it’s a nice lesson that even among two different schools, which are objectively at the very top of the U.S. higher educational sector, there are really important differences in terms of how these different institutions operate, and what types of policies are going to be most appropriate for increasing diversity of students and social mobility at those places.

John K: Is the rate of return to education significantly different between the Ivy plus institutions and elite public institutions?

John F: The answer is yes. But it’s different in a very particular way. So in our data, what we find, using a bunch of different empirical approaches, is that students that attend these Ivy plus institutions are significantly more likely to be at the very top of the income distribution to attend an elite graduate school, to hold a very prestigious job. They’re much more likely to do that than students who attend the very most selective of the public institutions. Those public institutions, in turn, are significantly better at propelling students to these leadership positions than lower rated less selective public institutions. And so it is both true that those public institutions are very good, and also true that these Ivy plus schools are really quite a bit better. That’s focusing on these top end leadership positions. If you look instead at something like what’s the chance that you’ll be in the top 20% of the income distribution, so for kids in their early 30s, that’s earning more than about $60,000. So that’s a good solid, professional job, you don’t have to be a hedge fund manager, there, attending these Ivy plus schools is not really going to make that much of a difference. And the reason is that at that point in the income distribution, that’s just not what the schools are designed for. You’re quite likely to get a job that’s going to pay more than that from an Ivy League school, you’re also quite likely to get a job that pays more from that at one of these elite public institutions. There are differences in average income, but it’s really driven by this kind of a lottery ticket that you’re getting on maybe you’re going to be really just an extreme leader, again, either very top of the income distribution, very prestigious firm. So the answer is yes, these schools differ, but they primarily differ in this particular way, which is why we’ve placed the emphasis on leadership rather than just kind of broad economic security. It’s not clear that students from Ivy plus schools are just broadly more economically secure in that middle of the income distribution than those from public schools.

John K: You also examine in this paper what would be the effects if the admission process at the more elite institutions were similar to that at highly selective public institutions? What do you find there in terms of the income diversity of students in the Ivy plus institutions if those preferences were eliminated?

John F: Yeah. So we’re able to simulate, exactly as you say, what would these classes look like at least probabilistically, if the admissions office were to place less weight on some of these factors, and it makes a meaningful difference. So just to give you one statistic, currently, on average, there are a bit less than 60% of students at these schools that come from the bottom 95% of the income distribution. Those are families making less than call it $250,000 A year. If you were to get rid of all these three preferences that I’ve talked about, if you were to remove preferences for legacy students, just to be clear on what that means, we’re just going to admit them based on all the other characteristics, oftentimes they’re great students, but we’re just not going to give them an extra boost for being a legacy student. If we were to remove this seeming bias that arises in the process where higher-income students are getting stronger non-academic ratings, and if you were to not necessarily remove athletics, but just make the athletes look like all the other students, so there’s not this tilt towards high-income students among athletes, you would increase the share of students from the bottom 95%, from a bit less than 60 up to about 70%, a bit less than 70. And so what does that mean in practice, again, there are about 1600, 1650 students in the average entering first-year class, we’re talking about another 150 to 160 students from more modest backgrounds. And, of course, this is not an enormous change. But it’s on the same order, as people are talking about when we think about what’s the difference in student bodies that might come from changes in racial preferences in admissions flowing from the Supreme Court decision. It’s on a similar magnitude. We’re gonna have 100, maybe 150, fewer students of color on campus. And I think it not only affects the diversity on campus, I think it also meaningfully affects the role that these schools are playing in upward mobility, particularly to these leadership positions. You make some admittedly heroic assumptions and kind of flow things through, this type of change is going to make another two or three US senators from the middle class instead of from very high-income backgrounds. And let’s not overstate this, like it’s only two or three senators, but for a set of decisions that literally 12 People can decide to make if they want to. I think that’s pretty impressive. And that doesn’t even think about well, what if the Northwesterns and the NYUs of the world decided to make some of these changes as well. So my sense is that we’re not going to remake society by doing this, but it’s a pretty low-hanging fruit. And the thing to say is it just from a policy perspective, you can achieve the same differences in the admissions pool, either by getting rid of the preferences that are afforded to high-income students, or by introducing new preferences that benefit students from low- and middle-income families that are particularly academically strong. And what we show in the paper, we kind of calibrated, we say like, if you were to introduce a new preference, specifically designed to get exactly the same mix of students that you would get from eliminating these preferences, what you would need is a preference for low- and middle-income students that’s is weaker than the preference even that current admissions offices put in place for legacy students. So legacy students, on average, are about three or four times more likely to be admitted, you’d need really strong academic students from low- and middle-income backgrounds to be, on average, about twice as likely to be admitted. And that would be a big change. But it’s not like these are changes that go well beyond the type of preferences that are already in place in the admissions process,

Rebecca: …and seemingly pretty actionable. [LAUGHTER]

John F: Yeah, and look, I think that this is a particular moment of fluidity in higher education admissions. Because of the Supreme Court decision, people are not just reconsidering how to think about diversity. That’s kind of the direct effect. But once you open up the gearbox, I think it then becomes natural to rethink a lot of different things when it comes to admissions, both because once there’s a process, it’s easier to think about other stuff. And also because I think that having a preference for students from overwhelmingly high-income families becomes increasingly awkward when you’re no longer allowed to give preferences for students who are clearly experiencing very large disparities in the run up to college. So I think almost all colleges are really strongly considering a bunch of this stuff. Some of them are doing so in publicly announced committees. Here at Brown University, I serve on a committee, including both faculty and trustees that are thinking about a bunch of these issues. Other universities are doing it more internally, only trustees, maybe it includes students. All the universities are doing this in a different set of ways. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more change in the way college admissions works over the next year or two than we’ve seen in a long time. And so yeah, hard to know what will happen, but these are an incredibly important set of issues to consider and I hope we’ve been able to contribute to that debate. As an academic, all you can ask for is that people will listen, policies, it’s up to them. There’s a lot of factors that go into that go beyond the research. But we’ve been really, both in public and had a lot of conversations with university leaders about how to think about these issues. So whatever the decision is, I’m confident it will be made on the basis of what I hope is a better set of analyses and understanding for what’s going on than we had before.

John K: Before, I think everyone expected that these types of results were occurring, but I don’t think it was really clear how large the magnitude was. And your study certainly contributes to that knowledge. Having data like this, and these results, I think, will put more pressure on institutions to change than just the general suspicion that they were privileging a very elite group of students. One of the things you note in the study is that making these changes will lead to a more diverse leadership pool, but it may not have as much of an effect on intergenerational income mobility. Could you talk a little bit about that?

John F: That’s exactly right. And I think that stems from some of the themes we’ve been talking about, where the role that these schools play in intergenerational mobility to leadership positions, that’s potentially very large. But they’re just too small to play a role in addressing some of the very broad differences in equality of opportunity that we see in this country, other than through kind of the indirect channel, which is that I think when you have individuals in these leadership positions that come from a broader range of backgrounds, you’re more likely to get policy that’s made in a way that takes into account some of these effects. And so that actually leads to some of the research that we’re really now focusing on, which is that, when you think about intergenerational mobility and higher education, an initial paper that I wrote on this, decomposed the problem into what we called access, that’s who’s attending and the success, what happens to the students that attend, you need both of them to be working together to have intergenerational mobility. If either of them is absent, then you have less mobility. And what we found was that different types of institutions seem to have problems in different areas. So institutions that were highly selective, not only the Ivy plus institutions, but honestly also some of the public institutions in the country, their lack of effect on mobility, in large part, was coming from the relatively un-diverse set of students on an income dimension that were attending their school. Many of these schools, again, both public and private, the share of students come from the bottom 20% of the income distribution is really just 3 or 4%. Really not large at all. So we really wanted to separate the question for these institutions of how do you improve mobility through increasing access with the situation for what is a very different set of institutions, not just the elite public institutions, but some of the open-access institutions, the community colleges where there, not that access can’t be improved, but I think much more the problem is that, in many cases, students are attending these institutions and not being propelled upwards in the income distribution in the way that we would hope. And so that’s really now what we’re focusing on: How can we first measure, in a very broad way, what these different institutions and programs are doing in order to propel students up the income ladder, to really give them the skills, the human capital, the social capital, in order to get good paying jobs and move upwards after that in their career? And then what are the policy levers that you would pull in order to improve that? The way I like to think about this is suppose that you gave the governor of California $10 billion to improve upward mobility in education in his state. Would you want to get more people going to Cal State instead of the California Community Colleges? Is it important that you not only go to all Cal State, is it important that you go to a particular Cal State? Is it important that you have a particular program? Are some programs much more effective than others? Should we be encouraging more people to go to community colleges, even if that costs and has fewer people going to Cal State? Do we want more people to start at community colleges and transfer up to Cal State? Do we want more people to not start at community colleges, because it’s better if you start directly at Cal State? There’s all these different questions. And there’s been some great research on different aspects of it, but I think with the data that we have, we’re hoping to provide a more unifying framework to think about what are the particular places where there’s more or less success for students, again, defined as like the causal effect of attending these places. And how can we expose more students to high success environments, either by moving them around or by changing what the programs are?

John K: In your intro, we mentioned that you were a member of the U.S. Treasury Council on Racial Equity, and the Co-Director of Opportunity Insights. Could you talk a little bit about what these organizations do?

John F: So Opportunity Insights is a research and policy organization that I run jointly with my co-authors Nathan Hendren and Raj Chetty. And what we’re doing there is trying to put together a research agenda to understand upward mobility, both from an academic and a policy perspective. Research that involves this kind of big data has evolved over the last decades to almost look more like a science lab where it’s very team oriented. It’s not a professor and her keyboard or chalkboard just kind of plugging away in isolation anymore. And Opportunity Insights is a way for us to organize all of that team in terms of there are other faculty that we collaborate with, there are graduate students we collaborate with, there are research assistants we collaborate with, there are visitors at all different levels that we collaborate with. And so Opportunity Insights is really the organization through which we just do a lot of this research and try to translate it to help policymakers and whatever that means, depending on the research. The Treasury Advisory Council on Racial Equity is very, very different. Treasury is one of the largest agencies in the federal government. And it has many different policies that directly or indirectly affect racial equity in ways that are obvious or not obvious. And the purpose of this Advisory Council is to bring together people from many different aspects of society that are relevant to Treasury’s financial policymaking. So there are a couple of academics on the committee like me, but there are also people who run financial institutions, there are people who run nonprofits that deal with financial institutions, people who run non-financial institutions, more businesses. And the idea is to be a group that can both proactively offer suggestions to Treasury in terms of how they can change things either out of blue sky or on particular policies that are undergoing after policymaking, as well as a resource for them to turn to when they say look like we’re trying to figure out… an example is a lot of the focus of Treasury over the last two years has been the implementation of the IRA bill, which includes a lot of tax incentives for green investment. How can they implement all of those tax credits? How can they write all those regulations in a way that really does so to support racial equity, and to make sure that black and Hispanic and native individuals are not left behind in a way that, unfortunately, has been too often the case in our nation’s history. So that’s far from a full-time role. We meet once a quarter in public meetings and try to offer our suggestions. And even again, this suggestions span how Treasury should implement different regulations from even how Treasury can make research on racial equity more accessible, or make data more accessible to support more research so that there’s more broad knowledge when it comes time for policymaking.

Rebecca: You’re doing some really exciting and interesting things.

John F: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thanks so much for your work and sharing it with us today. But we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

John F: So I talked about some of the work in the college space. But I’m trying to think about other parts of upward mobility as well, to understand how environments or policies contribute to these disparities or what policies can help alleviate them. And a big theme in some of my recent work is to try to broaden our measure of mobility to go beyond these purely economic measures. It’s a natural place to start, both because having a higher income is something that is kind of meaningfully related to the quality of one’s life and also because it’s pretty consistent data to measure income. But I think even economists will admit to you that income is not the end of it. And we’re trying to think about other ways, not only to measure people’s wellbeing thinking about health, thinking about social capital, for instance, but also to measure or folks influence on broader society. So there are positions like entrepreneurs or scientists, inventors, that if we generate more innovation in society, that’s not something that just benefits the individual inventor, it’s something that benefits society much more broadly. And so I think that’s not only very important as kind of an alternative economic outcome, but it’s important to thinking about why something like social mobility goes beyond merely thinking about well, each individual should have their fair chance of success. These are ways in which just society as a whole is better, more innovative, more engaged, when there’s more upward mobility. And in that way, I think it’s really a rising tide that can lift all boats. So that’s a little bit of what I’ve been thinking about recently.

John K: Well, thank you for taking the time to join us. We really enjoyed this conversation. And we really, as Rebecca said, appreciate all the work that you’ve been doing.

John F: Thank you so much. It’s really been a pleasure to talk with you about all this work over the last hour and I appreciate that.


John K: 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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


328. MicroSkills

Formal education does not always prepare us well for the unwritten rules of the workplace. In this episode, Adaira Landry and Resa Lewiss join us to discuss MicroSkills: Small Actions: Big Impact, their new book, designed to support us in efficiently navigating professional environments.

Adaira is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. She is an entrepreneur, keynote speaker, and award winning mentor. She co-founded Writing in Color, a nonprofit that teaches the craft of writing. Resa is a professor of emergency medicine, TEDMED speaker, TimesUp Healthcare founder, designer, entrepreneur, and award-winning educator, mentor, and point-of-care ultrasound specialist. She hosts the Visible Voices Podcast, amplifying content in the healthcare, equity, and current trends spaces.  Adaira and Resa have written many articles together in CNBC, Fast Company, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Nature, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Science, Slate, STAT News, Teen Vogue, VOGUE, and USA Today. They have been quoted and featured in the Guardian, the HuffPost, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. MicroSkills: Small Actions: Big Impact, is scheduled for release in April 2024 by Harper Collins.

Show Notes


John: Formal education does not always prepare us well for the unwritten rules of the workplace. In this episode, we discuss a new resource to support us in efficiently navigating professional environments.


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 Adaira Landry and Resa Lewiss. Adaira is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. She is an entrepreneur, keynote speaker, and award winning mentor. She co-founded Writing in Color, a nonprofit that teaches the craft of writing. Resa is a professor of emergency medicine, TEDMED speaker, TimesUp Healthcare founder, designer, entrepreneur, and award-winning educator, mentor, and point-of-care ultrasound specialist. She hosts the Visible Voices Podcast, amplifying content in the healthcare, equity, and current trends spaces. Adaira and Resa have written many articles together in CNBC, Fast Company, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Nature, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Science, Slate, STAT News, Teen Vogue, VOGUE, and USA Today. They have been quoted and featured in the Guardian, the HuffPost, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. They are the co-authors of MicroSkills: Small Actions: Big Impact, which is scheduled for release in April 2024 by Harper Collins. Welcome back, Adaira and Resa.

Adaira: Thank you so much for having us. I’m excited to be here.

Resa: Delighted, delighted, delighted.

John: We’re glad to talk to you again. Today’s teas are:… Resa, are you drinking tea?

Resa: I am absolutely drinking tea. I am drinking Celestial Seasonings True Blueberry. And I like not only the smell. I like the taste. I like the name. I like the feeling.

John: And Adaira?

Adaira: I am drinking chamomile. I love chamomile, and I’m trying to actually get more into green tea, which I hear is the healthiest type of tea out there. But I’m starting with just chamomile today.

John: …all those antioxidants.

Adaira: Right. That’s exactly right. It’s purely for health benefits. I’m trying to transition to exclusively green tea.

Rebecca: Both of them sound nice and calming. For sure. I have Harsha, which sounds like the exact opposite of that. [LAUGHTER]

John: Which is a black tea, a very harsh black tea, apparently.,

Rebecca: it is not a harsh black tea.

Adaira: I can’t do black tea. It is really harsh. It is.

Rebecca: …so tasty.

John: And I have a Republic of Tea wild blueberry tea today, which is a black tea.

Adaira: I like that brand.

Rebecca: …popular flavor this afternoon. So we invited you here today to discuss Micro Skills. Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of your book project.

Adaira: I’m happy to start. So Resa and I have been writing together for about three and a half years. We started with articles writing about our everyday struggles in the workplace. And we recognize that the things that we were facing in academia in medicine were widely applicable to a larger audience. Things like how to communicate, how to write a letter of recommendation for yourself, how to deal with workplace toxicity. And so those topics, even though we were encountering them in the healthcare setting, people were encountering them in education and finance, and tech. And so we thought, what would be the next big thing? Like, where do we go from here? And I’ve always wanted to write a book, and I love writing with Resa. So it just seemed like an organic next step to pitch the idea to her, “How about writing a larger project, a book, together that is really focused on the workplace?” And we still have the same philosophy of teaching the strategic how to, and using a voice that really is approachable and full of easy-to-implement tips.

Resa: And what we found, as Adaira said, is that what we experienced and what we see in medicine is actually exactly what our friends are seeing in other industries. And we found that we were able to write about the workplace in ways that spoke to many audiences, many industries. And we’re both ambitious. And when she came to me with the offer and the idea, I said, “I’m in.”

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the intended audience? …you’ve kind of hinted at your connection to the medical field, but also these wider audiences….

Resa: I’m going to make a sports reference, and we’re going to talk about the playbook. And for different reasons, and sometimes overlapping reasons. Adaira and I have felt like, we didn’t get a copy of the playbook. And we certainly have been able to navigate this thing called academic emergency medicine, and we have a lot of accomplishments. But gosh, it definitely could have been easier if we had been told certain things, if we somehow got the inside scoop. And so the motivation was to provide that for everybody: to get there easier, get there sooner, get there in a way that everything…. goals, tasks, habits, navigating the workplace… just doesn’t seem as hard.

Adaira: I was going to add because a lot of people have asked if there is a specific audience we had in mind when we wrote the book, and Resa and I discussed upfront, “So we want to write a book for just women or just physicians?” And we’ve found ourselves wanting to really capture that wider audience. And, yes, we think this book is going to appeal greatly for those who are early in their careers who really know very little about the workplace because they have limited experience. And also, we have found that people who are more senior have benefited from a refresher, reminding themselves of what others expect of them. And we’ve even heard some feedback that people are going to use this as a guide in how they mentor others.

John: And even some of those who are later in careers, I think, can benefit from it. When Rebecca and I were working together in the teaching center, she saw some of the emails I sent out, and her response was, “I don’t know why people even talk to you, sometimes.” [LAUGHTER] I don’t know if you remember that conversation, Rebecca,

Rebecca: I think that’s a direct quote. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think it was a direct quote. It was a few years ago, but having this type of book could be really useful for people in pretty much any career. In the introduction, you note that the characteristics of successful people are often wrongly considered innate traits, rather than larger skills that can be dissected and learned in small pieces. Could you describe the range of topics that you address in this book.

Resa: So we have 10 chapters. And we actually did a lot of beta testing, beta reading, brainstorming sessions, the two of us, and then we opened it up to some people from all different ages, stages industries to see what resonated, and I’ll just name those 10 chapters. And that sort of will speak to the audience, in that they’ll understand really how comprehensive of a book this is. So we have micro skills for self care, micro skills to manage a task list, micro skills for polished communication, micro skills to build and maintain your reputation, micro skills for becoming a subject matter expert, micro skills to learn your workplace culture, micro skills to be a team player, micro skills to grow your network, micro skills for navigating conflict, and finally, micro skills to actively find new opportunities.

Rebecca: …such a great list of categories of micro skills. Can you give an example of what some of those specific micro skills might be?

Adaira: Yeah, I want to open with chapter one, micro skills for self care. And we purposefully put that at the front of the book, because we think, for anyone who wants to be better at work, they have to do this check in or audit as far as who they are, how they take care of themselves, how much compassion they give to themselves, and just making sure that they feel like they’re in a good spot, as a person, as an individual, before they start moving into work, and the team, and all of those things. And so we really love that this chapter is at the beginning, and we open with nine micro skills for self care. The first is to nourish relationships with people you trust, to really invest in those people to recognize the value of gratitude and demonstrate appreciation of others. The third is to make yourself an award-winning sleeper. As physicians, we of course, have a high emphasis on sleep and rest. Protect your ability to deliberately rest, and we talk about what deliberate rest means. Manage your personal finances. And we have a lot to say about that. Monitor your personal hygiene and physical health. And that was actually quite an interesting one to put in there, because there’s a lot about how someone appears that is very personal and sensitive, and it’s a very controversial topic. So that was a really interesting one to dive into. Number seven is offload routine tasks that bring you no joy or purpose. Number eight is place and organize everything on a calendar. And then number nine is to set limits on time spent in meetings.

Rebecca: I’d like to emphasize and underscore that one.

Adaira: Almost all of these were born out of our own personal struggles, or what has been told to us by other people directly, or our observations of how we have seen other people thrive or struggle within the workplace. But it’s not like any of it’s just coming out of thin air. Like what if this were a problem, it’s all grounded in some form of reality that we have witnessed.

Resa: And our approach is unique because there are many business self-help books out there. And when submitting a proposal and working with an editor, we had to give what we call comp titles. So there are plenty of books out there that talk about these things. What we know is different about this book is we break it down into these small steps, micro skills, and we tell people how. And I’ll just take the example of developing subject matter expertise, that seems like huge and people are like, “I don’t even know how to do that. How do you do that?” And we break it down. And one example about which we wrote recently is collaboration, and how collaborating with others can be a piece of building your own subject matter expertise. So we go into examples, and we break each one down with providing critical actions that are actionable, they’re discrete, they’re specific, and they build upon each other.

Rebecca: The other thing that’s really important to underscore is that these are all presented as skills, things that are learnable. And not just somehow, something we’re more or just supposed to somehow know. But it’s something we can take steps to get better at, and not just snap here today, we have this particular skill.

Adaira: That’s exactly right.

John: And early in your book, in terms of differentiating your book from other self-help, or self-care books, you note that a lot of other books come from a perspective of privilege, and may not work with a broader audience. Could you give us some examples of how you’ve tried to make your book relevant to a broad range of readers?

Resa: John, I love that question. And no one has asked us that question yet. They’ve noted what you just noted. But they didn’t ask how or maybe why. And so I think this comes from a place, and I’ll speak personally, of having had the experience of not feeling like I belong, feeling like I’m the only, and I’m not denying the plenty of privilege that I bring to the table. But being super aware that all of these environments are not built for inclusivity and belonging and for everybody. And so one assumption that is made often in these books is that people have access to resources, and the specific resource I’m speaking about is money and wealth. And it’s not said, but it’s definitely assumed by the way these books are written, or the way they talk about, “well just go do this.” It assumes that you have access to a savings and checking account, that you have access to caretakers like parents who can give you money, or who can support you, or that you’ve somehow inherited financial knowledge that maybe you didn’t inherit, and you didn’t have that kind of opportunity in the household in which you grew up. So financial is one assumption that we tried not to make. And that goes back to the why we told people how, because a lot of the books just assume, we’ll just go out and get a financial advisor. Many people don’t even know where to start. And the assumption is, that must cost a lot of money. And the reality is, it does not necessarily need to cost a lot of money, it may not cost any money. But again, we tried to really come from our own experience, or the experience of people that we love that are in our life, or quite honestly, we’re in the emergency department, we see the full breadth of society, and people come at the worst days of their life. People sometimes come with like, literally minor paper cuts, the range. And so I think it keeps, I certainly know it keeps me sober. And I say that a lot. And people are like, “oh,” and it’s a figurative aspect to staying sober about not everybody comes from the same place or has the same access.

Adaira: And the other thing that we wanted to do was really reveal our vulnerability and our own lessons learned. We don’t write from a place of “we know everything, because we have never made a mistake.” Well, that would be very untrue. I’m speaking personally for myself. I have made plenty of mistakes. And I would say that the book is really born out of the examples of how we have learned to be better communicators. And some of that is because we’ve made a mistake in the past. And we’re like, we should never make that mistake again. And we should also teach other people not to do the same thing. And so I think that level of vulnerability, that level of humility, is woven throughout the book because I tell a story about how I gave a patient the wrong medication dose. And so that’s like revealing a part of me that maybe someone else might want to hide. But I think showing that allows the reader to really understand that “Yes, here are these two physicians trained at Harvard who are successful.” Resa has a very successful podcast, I have a nonprofit. We have succeeded in various ways. And we have done that through making mistakes and learning lessons from it.

Rebecca: I really love the transparency component in underscoring that piece of it, and that making sure that you’re not making some of those assumptions, incredibly valuable and can’t be underscored enough. You’ve hinted a little bit at some of the content of individual structures, but they all follow a common structure. Do you want to share a little bit about how each chapter is structured? Kind of on this thread of transparency.

Resa: Love to. So as Adaira spoke, we put ourselves into this book. So every micro-skill and every chapter starts with a story, a vignette. And we switch back and forth who’s speaking, whose story, and its a real story. Some identifying features are changed, but they’re based on real circumstances and we wrote them so you can tell it’s our authentic voice. The goal of the story is to illustrate the micro-skill. And after the vignette, there’s an aspect where we talk about why is this skill important? …and some may be self evident. But sometimes these things are not evident. And that’s why people need to read this book. So we talk about why it’s important, how it can help you at work. This goes back to the humility and the transparency. We say, “Hey, listen, we get it. This is hard. And this is why it’s hard and why you may not want to do this, been able to do this, all the above.” And then we break it down into critical action steps, concrete steps, that the reader can take.

John: Can you give us some additional examples of some of the micro skills that you talked about in your book?

Adaira: Yeah, I will start with one that I think is relevant to me in my most recent days. And that is “learn what your supervisors expect of you.” And actually, in the book, I tell a story about how I went to a lecture many years ago, where it was a male speaker, and he was telling a story about how he was tasked to organize social, like mixers or journal club-type things during the day. And his co-fellow, a woman, was also tasked to do the same thing. And he spent like two minutes on this assignment, like he just sent out a quick email, and it was done, he didn’t really even order food. And she made a beautiful invitation and got this like artisanal food and had music and everyone was personally invited. And in the end, he ultimately got hired, he sort of summarizes this story, because they’re both fellows, but he was the one of the two who was hired because he didn’t really spend time doing the tasks his supervisor didn’t care about, instead of doing all the organizational stuff, what we call non-promotable tasks in the book, he spent time doing the research, giving the talks, networking with people doing other things that his supervisor valued. And so I think that’s something that’s like a favorite of mine right now. Because as an advisor for our medical school, I’m sort of teaching students to understand what is expected of you. And it becomes quite relevant. If you are someone who doesn’t really understand that there’s a difference between the work that is tasked to you and what you personally find valuable. And we talk about this other concept of non-promotable tasks. And there’s a huge gendered component to that, where perhaps the woman in that scenario was told or assumed that she needed to put this energy into something else that she shouldn’t have been doing. So that to me is a really interesting concept.

Resa: My favorite skills, favorite stories, change day-to-day and conversation-to-conversation. One that I’ll highlight is under the micro skills for self-care chapter, and this is specifically: recognize the value of gratitude and demonstrate appreciation of others. And in this micro-skill, I start by telling a story of working in the emergency department with an attending and I was a resident doctor, and this woman came in and she was clearly dying of metastatic cancer. And it was very recognizable to us how terminal she was, how sick she was. And the family that came in with her definitely did not recognize how end stage and far along she was. And no one had had a conversation with her, with them. There was no consensus decision about what to do and what measures to take in terms of her wishes as she was dying. So we went into the family room and had a conversation with the family, this attending and I, and I watched him very skillfully hold this conversation and, with the family, bring them to a decision where I visibly saw them feel better and feel relief, I should say. And it was remarkable. I’d never seen this type of conversation. So fast forward. I was finished with my training, and I was the faculty member working in the community. No resident doctors, just me, a patient came in, had metastatic cancer, but wasn’t that sick, and he and his partner, very friendly, very nice, very appreciative. He did get admitted to the hospital. And that was it. Three weeks later, he came to the emergency department again, I didn’t recognize him. His cancer had progressed. His partner was like, “Hi, do you remember us?” She recognized me and I had to do a double take. There’s a lot that we keep inside, we don’t say outside, and keep this sort of demeanor. But it was very clear this time, he was very sick. And so the same situation of the partner didn’t really have that recognition and insight. She’s like, “Well, I’m gonna go, do you think he’s going to be admitted?” And I realized I had to have that similar conversation. So I took her into a room, sat down, explained to her how serious it was and gave her specific directives and what to do to sort of prepare and that he was definitely going to be admitted, etc. I was not working the next day, however, she came down to the emergency department to look for me and she passed on a thank you through the nursing staff and they told me. I wrote a note to that attending who had taught me how to have that skillful conversation from back in my training. And he’s told me that he’s kept that note, and he pulls it out every once in a while to read it. And this concept of gratitude and thanking… yeah, it can be a thank you note. And I joke that growing up, I was always told I was supposed to send a thank you note. And I was like, eyeroll, thank you note. But now, there’s real value in authentic note writing, but just acknowledging, thanking, and realizing that none of us are doing this alone, everything we do is team. And acknowledging that those assists, and that those people that helped you along the way, is really important.

Rebecca: And those notes don’t take a long time to write often, but are incredibly meaningful and impactful.

John: And they’re also really effective for the mental health of the people who write those notes. There’s a lot of research suggesting that expressions of gratitude help improve the quality of life for the people who engaged in that.

Resa: That’s exactly why it’s in the self-care chapter. Bingo..

John: In self care, you mentioned earlier, though, a couple of things that I might have some challenges with, for example, you mentioned to give up those things that don’t bring you joy, that sounds like a good deal of my day today. [LAUGHTER] For those people who are in a position where their job requires them to do tasks that may not always bring them joy, do you have any suggestions on how they can find more joy in the work that they’re doing?

Rebecca: This isn’t a request for any personal advice or anything, is it, John? [LAUGHTER]

Adaira: There’s a part of work that we all have to do that is menial, and feels less enthusiastic or inspired by and I think, in the book, we make a caveat, like you can’t give up everything, because you have to again, go back to what your supervisor expects of you. What we really are talking about is when there’s room for optional stepping down, or stepping up, and there’s room for you to sort of voice your opinion or your objection. So if someone comes to me and like I have collaborators and peers who come to me and say, “Hey, would you like to join in on this project,” and I don’t find myself having joy in that type of work, I feel empowered to say no, and focus on the things that really do bring me joy. But if my supervisor were to tell me, “Hey, I need you to be at work tomorrow at 9 am,” I really couldn’t look at that person and say, “No, I don’t want to do that,” because then I might lose my job. But it is a good question to ask yourself, because that might mean to you that this job really isn’t where you should be. If the most basic expectation of you you don’t want to do it’s a nice thing to sort of stop and pause.

Resa: I do think that we have more agency and control at work than sometimes we think we do. And part of that is the self care. If you’re rested, if you have the Board of Directors, I love having my own Board of Directors, your go-to people that you can say, “Listen, I need to bounce this scenario by you. Are there any ways that you see that I can offload some of this?” And people you trust, people that understand your situation, sometimes they come up with stuff you’re like, “Amazing. That’s a great idea.” So I think realizing that, like I said, when we don’t feel we have agency, when we feel out of control, there’s actually usually more in our, I guess they call it the sphere of influence. And actually, a skill in the micro skills for self-help chapter is about setting limits on time spent in meetings, and time expands to fill that allotted. And so we definitely think that 60-minute meetings can often be 30-minute meetings, 30-minute meetings can often be 15- to 20-minute meetings, 15- to 20-minute meetings can often be an email or a phone call. And so there is a lot of play, and none of us can really, at the end of the day, we know and acknowledge, ignore our roles and responsibilities.

Rebecca: So your book is super comprehensive. There’s many micro skills in there. And for some, sitting down and reading from cover to cover might be a good strategy, [LAUGHTER] but it might also be really overwhelming having so many micro skills. Do you have some advice for how to engage with your book?

Resa: This is a fantastic question. And it’s almost as if you queued up… I’ll start. I have one of my besties from college. She’s also in academic medicine. She’s a dermatologist and she recently stepped into a leadership position and she has been one of the beta readers. She was bowled over… she’s kind of mid- to late-career… with its applicability and accessibility. And she said, and Adair and I specifically designed the table of contents, so, sure, you can read it cover to cover, but you can dip in and go to a chapter or a skill. My friend had to run a meeting, so she went directly to the micro skills on how to run a meeting. And she actually, as a part of this new leadership position, has had to have some quote difficult conversations. We talk about difficult conversations and conflicts. So my N of one is that you can actually piecemeal and go directly to topics that are relevant to your needs. We call it just-in-time learning.

John: So, it doesn’t have to be read from beginning to end in a continuous linear fashion…

Rebecca: …but it should be at an arm’s length away. I think one thing that stood out to me that I know a lot of our graduate students are constantly struggling with is growing your network and how to do that. I think it’s always very mysterious to people it seems daunting, it seems scary. It might be a skill set that feels like, if you’re not outgoing, somehow, you can’t build a network. So I think that component is something that I know that my graduate students would really benefit from dipping into.

Resa:In that micro-skill, when we talk about growing your network, we start from this premise that everybody has a network, everybody has a network, and people may think they don’t, but they do, whether it’s friends from elementary school, kids you attended clubs with when you’re growing up in high school, your high school friends, your college friends, in our case, our med school friends, our residency friends, our fellowship friends, our faculty friends, and then if there’s been any national experience or international experience, it just goes on and on and on and on. And one approach for people that still don’t buy it, that they have a network, is you can do something simple, like setting up one meeting a week, one outreach, and one meeting a week with the goal of building upon that. And eventually, over time you grow your network. And when you connect with someone organically and nicely and well, or it can even be a mentor, you can ask them, “Is there anybody that you think I should meet? Can you introduce me? Or can I reach out cc: you?” or say that you told me. So once you do it or know how to do it, it’s like not a big deal. And also I have 100% been there where I’m like, “I don’t have a network, I don’t know anybody.” And then I was like, wait a minute, oh my gosh, okay. And this goes back to the sort of thinking back and reflecting and actually feeling rested enough to have that reflection time.

Adaira: And I’ll just quickly add that for many people, myself included, I assumed my network would be built by people coming to me and like offering to just coach me or to be my mentor. And so for many years, I didn’t have a network. I would say from like, 21 to like 25, for sure. So really early in my career when I was in medical school, early residency, I didn’t really have like a network or a team of people who I could turn to. And it wasn’t until really someone showed me how they network and how they reach out to other people and normalized for me that like I’m in charge, and I really need to build this myself.

Rebecca: I think there were a couple others that stood out to me in particular, as well, like designing meetings to have a clear purpose. That’s a skill I’d like to share with others [LAUGHTER] as well as myself.

Adaira: There are some things in this book that I think we all struggle to tell other people directly. And so someone when I told them about the self-care chapter that has something about literally body odor, someone said that they felt like really relieved that we gave them guidance on how to check in with other people who might be struggling in this realm. We include uncomfortable truths that can hopefully be helpful for the reader like “this is how I can deal with this for someone else, for myself.” And yes, that meeting the agenda part is one too, like, if you’re in meetings all the time that have no agenda, just like how to ask someone, “Hey, do you mind sending out an agenda so we can understand what the goals will be for this meeting.”

John: One other thing that I remember, and this also relates back to our earlier conversation on an article you had posted, was using email efficiently and encouraging other people to use email more efficiently so that you’re not spending all of your time on email. Could you talk a little bit about some of your suggestions for using email for communication.

Resa: This is one we get asked a lot. To your point, we’ve written two articles about email. One is fuel-efficient mentoring, and another on compassionate email culture. And in the book, we talk about the role of the cc: line and the bcc: line, and 100% email and email inbox can get out of control. And so we try to teach how people can feel in control of their email inbox and how to email in a way that is effective, communicative, and generous not just to themselves, but to other people who are on the receiving end. So if we speak specifically about the bcc:, the blind carbon copy, most people think of it as a punitive measure, and it’s used against people or it’s used to create a paper trail. We flip that and we think actually, it can be a very generous tool to use and we think if used in that way, it can be very effective, and people will embrace it. So I’ll use an example. Recently, one of my friends wanted me to meet and mentor one of her younger faculty. And so she introduced us, meaning by email, she electronically introduced us. And I wrote back and I said, “Dear so and so let’s meet next week, here are some of my specific days and times, looking forward to it, Resa.” And then right underneath my name, I wrote my friend’s name in ncc:. And what that meant was, he knew she’s seen this, even though I can’t see her, she sees that I’m closing the loop and I’m responding to your young faculty. And her inbox does not get loaded with more emails when he responds to me. And again, closed loop communication.

John: Yeah, that reply all can get really messy. And bcc: can really reduce that to a much more manageable level.

Rebecca: There’s so many things we could talk about, because there’s so many good things in the book. I was looking at a lot of them in the micro skills to build and maintain your reputation. You might have some initial thoughts about what might be in that chapter, but there’s some really great micro skills around complaining carefully and sharing your failures to normalize humanness. So there’s such a good spectrum of things. And I wish we could talk about all of them, because I really would love to talk about them all. [LAUGHTER] But we always wrap up by asking: “what’s next?”

Adaira: Well, I think for us, next is like tomorrow and the next day, we’re like on a day-to-day level right now, because we are trying to spread the good message of the book and get people’s feedback and see how we can continue to amplify the book through lecturing, workshops, writing articles, and those sorts of things.

Resa: Yeah, we’re in a really exciting period. For listeners, we’re recording before the release of the book. And so we’re in full on marketing and publicity mode. We are doing exactly what Adaira just shared. And we’re just really hopeful that the content resonates with audiences and readers so that, yeah, they buy the book, but also they want to buy the book to get the book and sort of there’s that self-perpetuating aspect to its content being timeless and resonating with many, many, many people.

John: I think you’ve been quite successful in writing a book that should resonate with pretty much everybody. We really enjoyed it.

Adaira: We’re happy to hear that. Thank you.

Rebecca: Definitely something for everybody, no matter their stage of their career, or really what field they’re in. So, thank you for your work in putting this together. It’s important work.

Resa: Thank you.

John: It’s amazing that you do this along with all the other things that you’re doing, [LAUGHTER] which suggests perhaps that some of those tips can lead to more efficiency in terms of how you’re using your time.

Adaira: That’s correct. And that’s the goal. Well, thank you so much for having us.

John: Thank you. It’s great talking to you, and we’re looking forward to your future work.


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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


327. Attacks on Education

In the last few years, a growing number of state and local governments have attempted to limit diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and to place restrictions on what students are allowed to learn. In this episode, Kevin Gannon and Cyndi Kernahan join us to discuss strategies that can be used to resist these attacks on education.

Kevin is a history professor and the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Kevin also appeared in 13th, the Netflix documentary on the 13th amendment. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor.

Show Notes


John: In the last few years, a growing number of state and local governments have attempted to limit diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and to place restrictions on what students are allowed to learn. In this episode, we discuss strategies that can be used to resist these attacks on education.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …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 Kevin Gannon and Cyndi Kernahan. Kevin is a history professor and the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Kevin also appeared in 13th, the Netflix documentary on the 13th amendment. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor. Welcome back, Kevin and Cindy.

Cyndi: Thank you.

Kevin: Thanks. Great to be here.

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

Kevin: I am not drinking tea, I have moved on to cold carbonated bubbles. And I’ve got a big vat of Diet Pepsi. [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: I love the word vat. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and Cyndi?

Cyndi: British Breakfast.

Rebecca: Perfect. I have blue sapphire today.

John: And I have some Christmas tea, left over from a reception we had in the teaching center here about a week or so ago.

Kevin: Isn’t it cold by now? [LAUGHTER]

John: It is freshly made today, but we had a lot of leftover tea from there… with a cinnamon stick sitting in it.

Kevin: Ah, very festive.

Cyndi: Fancy, yeah.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the restrictions that some state legislatures have been imposing, or attempting to impose, recently on what can be discussed in college campuses. Many of these restrictions seem to be focused on imposing alternative versions of history and on banning discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. Before we discuss these, though, is this something that’s entirely new, or have we seen this at some points in the past as well, with state intervention in academic freedom and issues of what students should be allowed to learn?

Kevin: I think this has some resonances with what we’ve seen in the past. And in particular, I’m thinking of the sort of anti-PC hysteria that emerged from so-called conservative thought circles in the 1990s. And so there’s the big curriculum debate over the National History standards that occurs in the early 90s. But what we’re seeing now with the mobilization of actual state power, I think, is an important difference of degree even if it does resemble some of the same sorts of rhetorical devices and button pushing that we might have seen in the past.

Cyndi: Yeah, the 1990s are what also popped into my mind, and it seems like attacks on higher education and on education generally, they come around in different ways, and for different reasons, it’s always an institution that is under attack.

Rebecca: So critical race theory has been the focus of many attempts to limit academic discussions of this topic. Can we start first by maybe defining what that is?

Kevin: What it is or what it has been made out to be?

Rebecca: How ‘bout both?

Kevin: I’ll actually take the second part of that first. What it’s been made out to be, is the sort of malleable boogeyman concept in the hands of pretty cynical right-wing actors, like Chris Ruffo, from the Manhattan Institute, for example, is probably the most prominent of these, who have basically admitted that this has become a stand-in for all of the things that are, quote unquote, wrong with higher education. It’s a concept that in its true sort of accurate provenance comes out of the critical legal studies movement. Critical race theory starts in law schools, and moves into areas like education, and then other areas of the humanities and social sciences to talk about how what we see as racism and, in particular, racist outcomes are not the product of individual bad actors so much as they are systemic features. It’s a counterpoint to the sort of feel-good narrative of civil rights, where people might say, “Oh, things were bad, and then Martin Luther King came along and segregation ended and then now everything’s great” and critical race theory says: “Not so fast, my friends, we need to talk about structures and systems.” And because it comes out of a discipline, Legal Studies, and is a largely academic conversation in many ways, it becomes easy to paint it with this brush of critical race theory is communism, critical race theory is reverse racism, critical race theory is anti white, because it’s such an unfamiliar concept to the general reading public that it becomes a blank slate for bad actors like Ruffo and others to inscribe whatever they wish on it.

Cyndi: I think, too, it’s important to keep in mind that that word system is a word that I think about a lot because I do think that there is a divide and a difference there around the folks who really don’t want to accept the idea that racism, along with other isms, is a systemic problem. And so I do think that, in that way, it’s really interesting to watch. One of the things that really caught my attention… I’m sure you all probably are familiar with the AP African-American Studies controversy in Florida, whether or not Floridian students would be allowed to take AP African-American Studies. As I was sort of watching, and it’s continuing with the evolution of that course, as the AP sort of responded to criticism, one of the things they did… I think they’ve since reversed this… is they took the word systemic out of the course, there was a report in The Washington Post about that and I thought, that’s really interesting, because that really is a divide where you see on the right folks saying, “we don’t want to think about this or talk about this, this is not a systemic problem;” whereas that’s not the scholarly understanding. And so that, to me, has become a really telling default line. I saw it echoed across the executive order in Oklahoma that was just handed down, I think, last week or a couple of days ago. And it was very interesting, the language around, “we want to guarantee access, but not equal outcomes” is an interesting phrasing that, to me, again, signified there’s an unwillingness to think about it as a systemic thing, which is where a lot of the fight of this becomes, and Kevin’s absolutely correct, that it does become this huge catch all. And even Ruffo himself says that in the interviews I’ve read, when they think of anything sort of bad in higher ed or education, it’s going to be critical race theory.

John: One thing that’s really struck me about this is how extensive it is, reaching from the federal level to stage to even local K through 12 school districts. We even saw some board candidates locally, who were part of one of these groups trying to restrict what students are allowed to learn. How extensive is this problem?

Kevin: Very. The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, has a DEI legislation tracker that I urge anybody listening to this to consult regularly, because it is a fairly quick moving landscape. And I think one of the dangers for those of us in higher ed is, if you live in a state, so called blue states, you can say, “Oh, well, this is a Florida problem or a Texas problem or a North Carolina problem. But it’s not. It’s a national problem. There are states that are further down that path. But this is not something that’s just going to stay over there. And because it is a movement that is national in scope, it’s funded nationally, it is heavily bankrolled, they’re using the same sort of legislative and PR templates. Those measures have been successful quicker in some places. But wherever they’re being used, they have been successful to a degree. And so I think that’s the thing to keep in mind here is that this isn’t just some sort of localized phenomenon. It is a truly nationally oriented thing that we’re wrestling with. And I think that not seeing that is to really put yourself in danger iIf you care about the fundamental values of what we’re supposed to be doing in higher ed.

Cyndi: I want to add another resource too to the Chronicle one that I like, I think, even better. It’s the CRT Forward Project from UCLA. They have a map. I like their map a lot, because you can filter between higher ed and K -12, local versus state level. My read of that most recently is that there are 10 states that have passed legislation and at the higher ed level that is restrictive around what we teach and what we can do. And then there are lots of other states that have things in the works. So it just gives you a sense of what Kevin’s saying of just how extensive this is. And I would argue further, I would add, I think another way I’ve started to really think about this, just based on what I’m reading, what I’m seeing in my own experience, is that this is so connected to the politics of austerity. And I think we don’t think about, that we don’t connect it. But a lot of the reason why these problems are cropping up, it’s also tied to the lack of funding for higher education, which makes it more difficult in multiple ways. But it weakens us politically, it weakens what we can do in the classroom. I won’t go into but there’s a whole bunch of analyses that really connect the adjunctification of our campuses to these attacks on DEI, to the cutting of DEI positions. There really are a lot of connections there that I think you’ll recognize. And that way, it makes it even more extensive, because I would argue it’s not just the laws, it’s also that cutting our funding and not allowing us to do the work that we need to do. I think it’s connected to all of this as well. It feels like a very bought this attack on higher education and education generally.

Kevin: Yerah, yhat’s a crucial point. Look at what’s happened recently in Wisconsin, where the state boards… I don’t need to tell Cyndi about any of this, because that’s her system… but, there’s a surrender in advance to the Republican-controlled state legislature sort of diktats against DEI work. You don’t need to pass laws that abolish DEI if you make funding contingent on presidents and individual institutions doing that for you. And those things work because austerity and the sort of neoliberal approach to higher ed has created an extremely resource scarce environment where those who shepherd institutions are predisposed to sort of comply in advance, as scholars of fascism warned us not to do. And if you look at the history of the austerity movement in higher education, one of the real touch points of this process is when Reagan becomes governor of California, and Reagan and the California Republicans stick it to the University of California system as a sort of revenge for the upheavals, in particular Berkeley in the 1960s. And so a state that offered free tuition for California residents, to this sort of crown jewel university system, Reagan gets rid of it, the Republicans in California get rid of that. And that becomes a blueprint for this process that Cindy’s just talked about. We’ve seen that go national, and it’s only taken a few short decades to accomplish.

Cyndi: Yeah, one last point on that, too, that your comments made me think of, Kevin, there was a paper in economics several years ago that showed that the states that have diversified the most, if they have Republican controlled legislatures, the funding in those states goes down, and it’s connected to the diversity of the institutions. So, that’s another way in which we see this connection between austerity and diversity and politics. That’s really troubling and challenging to work with. I feel like we don’t connect these things enough, but we really do need to.

Kevin: Yeah, it is no coincidence that as the proportion of faculty and students of color have increased in higher education, that funding has decreased in almost direct variation, and that is absolutely intentional.

Rebecca: So, you both talked about many contributing factors to the growth. Can you talk a little bit about why it’s happened so quickly? And maybe, [LAUGHTER] how do we make it slow down? [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Well, higher ed doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And we’re in the middle of an authoritarian turn, to say the least, in both international and national politics. So you have a globally connected right-wing movement. And if you look at the way that fascist and authoritarian movements have developed with the late 19th, and early 20th century, higher education and the sort of intellectual landscape are fields of play for these movements to establish power. Practitioners and students in higher education have made convenient boogie men for those who aspire to building support for authoritarianism and fascism. And so what we’re seeing, I think, is this process has accelerated so much so intensely in recent years, because we have a fascist movement in this country, and it has accelerated so much and so intently in the past few years.

Cyndi: I think there are phases where we can see effective ways to push back against this. I really do. There’s not enough of them. But there are ways to get to the second part of Rebecca’s question around like, “What do we do?” I think we have no choice but to act collectively and to work to push back together. I mean, that’s why Kevin’s point about this isn’t a Florida and Texas thing. It’s not. like I said, 10 states from my count, when I was at that CRT tracking math, and it’s on a lot of other places, and through lots of actions. So the collective action that’s inspiring to me… I think a lot about the state of Ohio… they had a bill that was quite restrictive, it would have restricted what could be discussed in general education, very similar to Florida. It had a lot of restrictions around what can be taught. And there was a strong movement against it. And what was crucial, in my reading of that, was not that it was just faculty and students pushing back, which they did, there were protests. But, more importantly, there was no compliance in advance, as Kevin mentioned a minute ago. So the regents or the board, I forget what they call it in Ohio, but those presidents of those institutions, they banded together, and they sent a letter pushing back against that. And it was the university leadership, faculty, and staff and students all pushing together against that. And that bill’s effectively dead now. It did pass the Senate, but it did not pass their assembly or else it did not become law. And this year, it has not been taken back up. There was just a word on that recently. That to me is very inspiring. That tells me that you don’t have to do this, we can push back in states that have systems. Those Chancellors, those Presidents can stand together against this. They do not have to comply in advance. They don’t have to argue with folks who don’t believe in what we do. I think that we can do that by getting everybody on board with that challenge.

Kevin: And Cyndi’s point here is essential, that institutional leadership has a really crucial role to play here. And this is where we’re seeing what I would term as a failure in so much of the leadership across higher education. You know, we’ve been told for decades that the increasing salaries of upper level administrators are because we’re bringing in bold, innovative leaders who aren’t afraid to make tough choices and hard decisions. And yet we’re seeing a vast silence from most of them as this last several years has unfolded. It’s not like the leaders of Ohio State institutions are like a Marxist collective. These are university presidents. [LAUGHTER] These are not wild-eyed radicals, but they led and the results were tangible. So if you look at things like Florida or Texas, one legal test case, pushing back against these curricular mandates as a violation of speech rights, for example. What would be the result of that? What message would that said to one’s own faculty, staff, and students? But we haven’t seen that we saw the community colleges in Florida, the presidents of those institutions issue a sort of collective statement, at least most of them, where they basically said, “Okay, fine, we’ll do all these things…” again, get this sort of comply in advance, and what message does that send to the people at your institution, because clearly, what you’ve done is you’ve abandoned your mission. That mission statement on your website needs absolutely nothing if you’re not willing to defend it against strong political headwinds. And so the main obstacle to this collective action is a leadership vacuum brought about by either moral cowardice or by leaders who actually agree with what’s happening and are willing to let these things happen to their institution because they personally sympathize with them. I don’t know which one of those is worse.

Cyndi: I think, too, there’s a little bit of an assumption that while it won’t be that bad, it can’t be that bad. They won’t really do that. And we’ve seen that a lot, too, I think. And that also is a fundamental mystery.

Kevin: It will be that bad. I’m a historian, and I can give you a reasonably expert opinion that it will indeed, if you let it get that bad.

John: Could some of this be caused by perhaps the fact that we tend to see people who have more education tend to be more liberal and perhaps might be less likely to vote for Republican candidates?

Kevin: I think there is that partisan element to it. I think that’s at the root somewhat of why this trope as universities of hotbeds of leftist radicalism is so effective, which again, takes one small slice of the intellectual and political climate at a particular institution of higher education and reads it across the entire sector, as if engineering and economics departments and business schools don’t exist. But I think that partisan element, this perception that well, here are the places where all the people who vote for Democrats live and work, is an effective one. But it’s also again, if you look at who’s wielding power and making decisions at universities, these are not hotbeds of leftism, by any means. And it’s just remarkable how successful that trope has become. It’s also, I think, an effective trope because we, and higher education, ourselves… back to Cyndi’s point about the necessity of solidarity and collective action… we have not been able to tell our story as effectively as we might. I’m not intending to get into blame the victim discourse here, but I do think that there are ways that we can advocate for ourselves and what we’re doing that have been more effective than what has usually been the case.

Cyndi: Yeah, I would agree. I think related to that point, it reminds me actually, of something you talked about in Radical Hope, Kevin, around the idea of sort of accepting this framing of what we do is we’re just only about workforce development, and we’re only about developing these sort of skills. And that’s not all of what we do. And we need to be able to talk more broadly about what we do and why it matters, and why it matters for everyone.

Kevin: Yeah, one example of this disconnect, if you look at all the surveys of prospective employers, and they say, “What are the skills that you’re looking for, for college graduates that you would want to hire into your company or your firm?” They all talk about things like critical thinking, ability to work in diverse teams, understanding people with viewpoints and backgrounds who are different than your own. This is the business community basically saying here are the things that are important. While you have right-wing politicians on the other side of the coin, saying these are the very things that we want to outlaw [LAUGHTER] in higher ed. And so I think it testifies to the power of this narrative that higher education is a hotbed of sedition, when, in actuality, most of what is in the crosshairs of these legislative and political efforts are actually things that are, on the broad face of it, not controversial, and generally agreed upon by almost all of society as good things to have.

Rebecca: I think to make collective action work effectively, folks need to be somewhat on the same page. And so if people are supporters of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but aren’t aware of counter arguments against that, it might be hard to take action. Can you talk a little bit about why folks are so opposed to these efforts?

Cyndi: My read of part of it goes back to that idea of racism as a systematic problem. There’s a lot of research on K-12 education around race that shows that, particularly for white Americans, but really across races as well, you see it as sort of a fundamental misunderstanding of what racism is, how it operates, how systemic it actually is. Part of that is because we’re in the United States, which is a very individualistic place and so we tend to think in terms of those problems, even the way often that DEI is framed, it’s very individualistic. And so we don’t think of it as a broader systemic thing. And that keeps us from acting collectively as well, because we’re not really thinking about it in that terms. I see that a lot. That is my main teaching and learning goal, when I teach about racism or other systems of oppression, is just to make that shift, sort of the individual acts of meanness over to this more systemic understanding, and understanding that really the most important things like, I constantly get the question from a lot of my students: “Well, okay, so what do I do about these problems? What should I learn more about?” and then like, “If you can learn more, that’s great. Like, I want you individually to learn as much as you want. But if you really care about this, you have to think about policies and voting, and what broader policies are being enacted.” And I try to give them examples just to help them start to think more broadly about these things. And I think that disconnect is part of it. Because if you believe that it’s just individualistic, it’s just about being a good, colorblind person, which is also often tied into one’s morality, like “I’m a good person, so that’s all I need to do. I don’t necessarily need to think beyond that.” And so then it makes sense if you are told over and over again, that there are these DEIi administrators trying to force you to have particular thoughts. It kind of makes sense from that perspective that you would want those thoughts, and that you would think they were going too far on the college campuses. But if you understand instead, that it’s not about color blindness, and it is this broader systemic thing and there are broader problems of not just access but opportunity and outcome, then that changes. But until people start to understand those broader things, I think it’s always going to be a struggle.

Kevin: Yeah, I think Cyndi’s point about us living in this overwhelmingly individualist sort of society and culture is a key foundation, a key part of the answer here, because one of the things that surprises me a little bit is that arguments like the one that Heather McGee makes in her book, The Sum of Us, that those haven’t gotten more traction, where she talks about the famous anecdote she uses is during desegregation, states in the South would close their swimming pools rather than integrate them. And what happens is, all these communities now don’t have a swimming pool at all. And so part of that is to the white folks of that community, rather than the swimming pool complexes racially integrated they went without. Is that really a good outcome? Taking the moral element out of it, it’s like, here’s a public good that is no longer available for the public. And so what racism does, McGee argues, is it hurts everybody to varying degrees and in different ways, but it’s actually something that is poisonous to the very roots of any sort of people that would claim to live in community or society with one another. And I remain discouraged that that argument has not gotten more traction, because I think we need to appeal beyond this sort of sense of individualism. Like Cyndi said, like, “Well, I’m a good person, so racism doesn’t exist. These other racists are bad, but we can quote unquote, educate our way out of it, or a magical black person like Martin Luther King, Jr. will come and absolve everyone from their sins,” right? And of course, that’s not how it works. But this tide of individualism, this conditioning that we have, is so powerful that it makes systemic critiques into a sort of existential threat for folks who are not ready to make that journey, because it becomes a threat to an individual to say, if you live in a system that is fundamentally racist and inequitable, for example, if you subscribe to this sort of inherent individualism as the core of your identity, that a systemic critique says, “You live in this system, and it’s your fault, at least partially that the system is like this.” And if you can’t separate those two out, and if you can’t make those distinctions, you’re not going to have a very useful conversation about what we would term as DEI. And instead, what you get is you get anecdotes of, let’s say, unskillful students making an argument in some inelegant way that is an easy thing to lift out of context and present as here’s what DEI is, these lefty kids running amok protesting food in the dining hall at Oberlin, for example, and turning it into a kind of theater of the absurd. And so we’re swimming against such a powerful cultural tide when we try to do this work because it is asking people at least to set aside this fundamentally individual centered ethos. And that is a really heavy lift for all of us, I think.

Cyndi: Although I have some good news, if you guys want to hear it.

Rebecca: I’ll take it, I’ll take it. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: I would love to hear good news.

Cyndi: This just comes from my own individual teaching experience, because what Kevin’s talking about is a powerful argument, the sort of Heather McGee’s and there are others too. And what I’ve started doing, and I’ve found that post-2020 It’s become a little bit easier for this to get purchase in terms of teaching. I really do think that there is a lot of hope in our teaching. One of the ways that I’ve started to help my students cross that bridge, that divide from the individualistic to systemic is to have think in terms of their own lives. And one of the most clear examples to go all the way back to like sort of where we started, it’s like they pay more for college tuition as a result, I would argue, of racism, and sometimes some forms classism, too. And there are several ways to get at this. Heather McGee, in that great book, The Sum of Us, that Kevin mentioned a minute ago, she has a whole chapter on college funding and how it’s gone down. I mentioned the economics research that shows that. So these austerity policies that are related to diversity and racism and fear, frankly, cost a lot of white students, particularly students that I work with, tend to be first generation, a little bit lower income, and I know you all do too, as well, at your institutions. Public regional institutions, and not private, we serve a lot of students who are directly affected by these austerity policies, they’re directly connected to race. So again, I mentioned Heatherr McGee. I also have another great resource that I’ve been reading, it was written by a couple of sociologists about the racial consequences of underfunding public universities, they look at two schools in the California system. You don’t have to give all of these to students. But it turns out that it’s very easy when you work with students to sort of talk about, let’s think about what systemic racism means. Here’s a way it impacts you directly. My classes are overwhelmingly white, but speaking with white students about that, and helping them connect those dots, they can do it. And part of what I think has helped us, that’s a strange way to say it, but post-2020, is that after 2020, people started using the word systemic racism a lot more like in social media. So I have more students that will come into my courses, saying that word, I don’t think they fully appreciate what it means. But it’s more of an opening. And so then we can start to think about all those ways in which it is harmful to everyone. Racism is harmful to everyone, it costs all of us more than it should in lots of ways. And not just in terms of like sort of the moralistic framing that we often use, but real material differences. So that’s one way that I found hope, I guess, it’s to go back and to think about how to teach about these issues in a way that feels good. And I think there’s a lot of things instructors can do, no matter what they teach, to sort of start to get out these issues and help students to think about it.

John: I’ve seen some similar things. And one thing I’ve noticed is that as our classrooms become more diversified, as we have more first-gen students, as we have more students from historically minoritized groups, we’re seeing people in general becoming much more aware of some of these issues. But one of the challenges, as you both have mentioned, is the issue of austerity that colleges have moved to a more contingent labor force, there’s a larger proportion of adjuncts. And while it’s important to be able to push back, many of the people doing the labor of classroom instruction are in a position where their jobs are very much at risk. And if their administration is not going to be supportive of DEI efforts, they face losing their very limited incomes that they’re receiving from these positions. Is there anything we can do to address that challenge?

Kevin: Again, I think part of the answer to this goes back to the idea of leadership of institutions. What is the mission of your university or college? What are you saying that you’re going to be doing? Why are you there? Our mission statements as institutions are promises that we make to all of the stakeholders of that community, whether they currently are part of the community or external groups in the town in which we’re situated in the area, for example, potential students and their families, we don’t put Terms and Conditions on our mission statements, we say that X University will provide a powerful educational transformative experience to all of our students. We don’t say all of our students who meet a certain income level or all of our students who come from certain demographic groups. We mean all of our students. And so if we’re going to do this mission driven work, and we’ve got study after study after study that talks about having a diverse student body and a diverse faculty and staff, not just racially and ethnically, but diversity and all of the ways that matter lead to better learning outcomes. In other words, we do this education thing better when we do it in diverse places with diverse people. And if that’s what you want, which I would argue we do, then that’s what we need to lean into. And so if you’ve got folks who are doing that work, who are not supportive, who are contingent and precarious faculty and feel that they cannot do what is, I would argue, inherently mission aligned work, that as an institution, that is a problem. And you need to do something about that. And so if you’re a department chair, how are you supporting your part-time colleagues? If you’re a professor with tenure, how are you supporting your part-time colleagues or your junior colleagues who aren’t tenured yet? How are you providing cover? How are you modeling things as a secure person in a secure position? How are you advocating in governance? How are you advocating in Provost’s Council or a senior leadership’s cabinet? How are you looking at getting rid of just semester-based contracts and moving towards annual- or several-year contracts? You can’t wipe out precarity at a single swoop. But what you can do is fix some of the sharpest edges of it, to blunt those. That’s the work in front of us in the short term. And if you’re not supporting your colleagues doing that, that none of this works… Again back to Cyndi’s central point, we either do this collectively or we don’t do it at all.

Cyndi: Yeah, I think anybody with any power in any sort of safety, and I use safety in quotes, but like anybody who can has to push back, and this pops up in really small places that you might not recognize. I was reading too about the southern accreditor, I forget what their official thing is. But you know, they’re talking about changing the accreditation, that is absolutely compliance in advance. That is the wrong way to go. Our accreditors, that’s part of what worked in Ohio, where the arguments about it were going to be out of compliance with accreditation. If the accreditors are complying in advance, and watering all this stuff down and not sticking to the mission, that’s a problem. So there are a lot of people who have a lot of power and the ability to push against this, but you have to push against it. All of us do, in all those spaces that Kevin just mentioned, because reducing the harm and softening those edges as much as we can, it’s our responsibility to do that, particularly for people who are adjuncts and semester-to-semester contracts, because that precarity is real, and it is a problem. And I’m sure you’ve all seen it, I have seen it too. And we can work with our students, because our students will work with us. They believe in these things. The ideas we have about students are so often wrong in terms of that. So working with our students and not believing in caricatures about students.

Kevin: Yeah, that’s an essential point, Cyndi, and thank you for raising that, because I think one of the things that we haven’t touched on here, but is a vital thing to bear in mind, is that these legislative efforts are profoundly anti-student. They’re not just anti-higher education, they are profoundly anti-student, anti-young person. They make the assumption that learning only happens through indoctrination. They are based on the premise that students will learn only what is sort of rammed down their throat, basically, pedagogically. They make the assumption that students cannot handle certain truths. They make the assumption that some things just aren’t worth knowing, and they take that decision process out of the students’ hands. They are profoundly anti-student. Among all of the other things they are, this is the essential truth at its core, that these laws, this legislative effort, this broader cultural political campaign is based on a profound contempt for students, for young people, and by extension their families. And so we need to understand that our students want the same thing for them that we want for our institutions. And if we’re able to see our students as allies in this and get our students to see themselves as allies in this, nobody wants a crap education. Nobody wants an indoctrination, force-fed prefabricated chunks of content. We know that doesn’t work. And so to engage the student voice in this in a systematic and supportive way, I think, is a really important part of the equation and a great untapped opportunity across our institutions. But that needs to be, I think, one of the ways in which we push back against these efforts is to really call the fact out that y’all just hate kids. Y’all hate learners, you don’t just hate schools and instructors, you hate the people that these institutions are ostensibly trying to serve. You may say that these are pro-children and pro-family, but they’re not. They hold children and students in profound contempt. And we need to hammer and hammer and hammer on that point, because that’s the reality.

Rebecca: Change is only likely to happen when the whole community’s engaged. So you’ve outlined today: administrators, faculty, staff, students, the whole community working together,

Cyndi: We have a lot more power than we do.

Kevin: Yeah. Scholars of fascism and authoritarianism will point out the fact that the one thing that successful movements of this stripe do is they get you to give up your agency and oftentimes without a fight. So that’s why complying in advance, the phrase that we’ve used several times, it’s so dangerous, because we give up our agency, we forget that we have it, and then it becomes much easier for these movements, which are not representative of the majority, not representative of our community or it’s aspirational values, but it allows them to be successful because the great majority of folks have given up agency. And so as long as we not just recognize the agency we have, but deploy it effectively, then, and only then, can we push back successfully.

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

Cyndi: What’s next is I have a final tomorrow. So that’s probably like what’s most salient in my mind. So, you know, wrapping up this semester, but definitely more seriously, I want to think more about these questions and how to get people collectively to think about these larger points, about just what Kevin was saying about the real paternalism and contempt for students that is evident in the laws, helping students to understand what this is and why it matters for them, figuring out how to write and speak and work with people more to get people to see the power that they have. We don’t have to do this. We don’t. We can keep our education systems and classes free from this interference, and we should.

Kevin: And I think, for me, as someone who works in Educational Development at a private institution. I think that those of us who have a little more latitude, we’re not immune from any of this, but we do have some affordances that public institutions don’t. And so it’s part of my job to help my colleagues and to build a model of what this looks like to do well. What does it look like to do this work in solidarity and community? What does it look like to do meaningful, as opposed to just performative, work along equity and justice oriented teaching and learning, because it’s so much easier to advocate for these things if we could point to concrete examples of what they look like, how they can sustain themselves, and what the benefits are. And so I think as an educational developer, that’s kind of my responsibility, what I feel bound to continue. And I’m fortunate to be in an institution that values those things. And so I need to take advantage of the climate I’m in to advance that work.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and giving us plenty to think about and ways that we can perhaps act by modeling and coaching and working to have collective action.

John: It’s always great talking to you. Thank you again for joining us, and we’re looking forward to more conversations in the future.

Kevin: Thank you for having us.

Cyndi: Yeah, thank you.


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

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


326. UDL in Action

Universal design for learning, or UDL, is a framework to help us design more equitable learning experiences. In this episode, Lillian Nave joins us to discuss how she has implemented a UDL approach in her first-year seminar course. Lillian is the Coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning for Student Success at the Appalachian State University Hickory Campus and a senior lecturer in a first-year seminar course at Appalachian State University. She is also the host of the ThinkUDL podcast. She is the recipient of several teaching awards and often serves as an invited speaker on UDL issues.

Show Notes


John: Universal design for learning, or UDL, is a framework to help us design more equitable learning experiences. In this episode, we discuss how one faculty member has implemented a UDL approach in a first-year course.


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 Lilian Nave. Lillian is the Coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning for Student Success at the Appalachian State University Hickory Campus and a senior lecturer in a first-year seminar course at Appalachian State University. She is also the host of the ThinkUDL podcast. She is the recipient of several teaching awards and often serves as an invited speaker on UDL issues. Welcome, Lillian.

Lillian: Thank you very much. And I applaud you on all of the monikers that I currently have attached to my name that often don’t make sense. So, very good. And of course you said Appalachian in the way we say it down here in North Carolina and I don’t have to throw an apple at you. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, I’ve heard it so many times on your podcast that I wanted to be sure we got that down.

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

Lillian: I am and I brewed it specially for our interview today, it is Bengal spice, which is a Celestial Seasoning herbal tea that is caffeine free. I went caffeine free a while ago, and it’s fantastic and I don’t have to put sugar or honey or anything in it. It has cinnamon sticks and it’s delicious and my best friend in the world got me hooked on it. And it always just makes me feel warm inside and makes me think of the lovely conversations I have with the people who I’ve drank tea with in the past. And I also have iced tea because I continuously drink iced tea and this one happens to be actually just a Crystal Light [LAUGHTER] iced tea as well.

Rebecca: And I did notice, of course, and must state that there was a Tea for Teaching mug involved.

Lillian: Yes, exactly, and I appreciate that. John saw me at a conference and I was so happy to get my Tea for teaching mug that I made sure I was drinking from it today.

John: And I am drinking a peppermint spearmint blend today… also caffeine free today.

Rebecca: I am drinking a highly caffeinated afternoon tea [LAUGHTER] to make up for everybody’s caffeine deficits.

Lillian: Well, I have plenty of chocolate throughout the day that is not caffeine free.

John: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your work on Universal Design for Learning. We probably don’t have many listeners who aren’t familiar with UDL, but for those who are not as familiar, could you provide an overview of Universal Design for Learning.

Lillian: Of course, and I’d be glad to. Universal Design for Learning is a way of thinking, I would say, about teaching and learning that relies on three main concepts that include: engaging your students, providing accessible materials for your students, and varying the ways that your students can explain to you that they’ve learned something. And it is all based on neuroscience and also a lot of research that tells us that all of our students are different. Variability is the norm. And so we have students in higher ed that come from all different backgrounds, different cultures, different preparedness levels, different abilities and disabilities. And in order to reach all of our students, it’s important to think about that variability and universal design for learning gives us some really specific things to look out for. And three areas or categories: the engagement, the representation, and providing multiple means for those and multiple means of the student to express their knowledge. And so that’s like the general overview, but there are like so many weeds, that I can have a podcast [LAUGHTER] and talk to people about all of the different intricacies of UDL. But in general, that’s it in a nutshell.

Rebecca: I know we’ve talked about it a bit on our podcast before in terms of the difference between UDL and accessibility. But for those who haven’t heard those previous episodes, can you talk a little bit about the difference between those two ideas?

Lillian: Yes. So, accessibility is a part of Universal Design for Learning. You cannot have universal design for learning without attention to accessibility. But accessibility alone is not universal design for learning, it’s a part of it. And I like to think of UDL as like a three-legged stool. If you take out one of those legs, the stool doesn’t function anymore, it will fall over. And one of those legs is multiple means of representation. It’s typically the center column that’s purple if you look at the UDL guidelines at UDLguidelines.org. CAST puts those out. And that middle column about representation is about providing multiple forms of representation, so different texts or audio files, or making sure your font is readable too, especially for dyslexic students. So accessibility is about making sure that all students can access materials, that they have the ability to make sure they can actually get at that information. And this is less common now, but there used to be like those PDFs that a professor copied out of their book when they were a student and it has all their like markings and stuff in it. And then they would just like make a read really bad copy of it, and hand it out when everybody still used paper all the time, or maybe it’s on a screen. And those oftentimes were not accessible. And that means if a student needed a screen reader to read it, or even if they just needed to make the font bigger, they couldn’t because it wasn’t an accessible document, a screen reader couldn’t read it, meaning if a student was dyslexic or even blind, they had really no way to get at that information. So when you make your documents accessible, and you make your class accessible, you are making sure that everybody really just is on an even playing field, and they can get at that information. But in addition to accessibility, you want to make sure you’re also giving lots of opportunities for students to express what they know in different ways. And you’re also engaging with the students. And those two other things are not included in accessibility. That’s what makes up UDL.

John: How did you become interested in UDL?

Lillian: Well, I started working with our Center for Teaching and Learning in 2016 as a faculty fellow and I started doing faculty development as a one-course release for quite a while. And in doing that, we became part of a grant that was in three North Carolina institutions that was called College STAR. And STAR stands for supporting transition, access, and retention. And it was a two-pronged approach where there was a lot of student development, so tutoring centers and things like that. And then there was this other side, and that’s the part I got interested in and got pulled along with and that was supporting faculty. And to do that we used Universal Design for Learning. And I was just part of that grant. And that ended up me being the Universal Design for Learning Coordinator at Appalachian State. And I started going to different departments and introducing that at workshops and that sort of thing. So I became kind of the UDL girl or UDL lady for App state, which I think is about 2016 when that started, and then I saw it, like I’d never heard of it before, and I’d been teaching since 1997. And then I thought, oh, boy, this is really good, this makes a lot of sense. And so I started implementing it as well in all my classes.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a little bit about UDL principles broadly. So can we dig into maybe a specific example, like your first-year seminar course? That sounds pretty interesting.

Lillian: Absolutely. So my course right now, I teach one called intercultural dialogues, and I get first-year students, and so I love it that they’re small, under 24 students. This past year, I was at our new campus in Hickory, and I only had 18 students there. And we get to work on intercultural competence, which is one of those major things that colleges want our students to know. It’s a 21st-century skill, and it is about understanding our own cultures, and then understanding that other people have different cultures. And then how can you mindfully act and interact with somebody from a different culture. And I have heard some students, at the end of the term, say “this is something everybody should know, like, this is really, really important.” They’ve seen how important it is. But at the beginning of the class, like nobody wants to be there. Nobody wants to take a first-year seminar course. They’re usually there because it’s Tuesday morning and they have an open slot. I’m in that unenviable position of teaching first-year seminar, and it’s that Gen Ed requirement that nobody wants to take. So I want to make it interesting, and I want to make it worthwhile for them, and so we learn about our own culture and then I also match students up with students abroad. We’ve worked with students in Doha, Qatar, in China, in Morocco, in Germany, Thailand, and Japan in the past year, and they work on intercultural competency skills and talk about things like power distance in the classroom, or some of the UN Sustainability Development Goals, like gender equality by 2030. And so they’ve done some things with students in China about that. So the class itself is about intercultural competence. And I have infused a bunch of UDL into this class over the years. And so it wasn’t all at once, but it took a while. And so that means I have multiple ways for the students to get at that information. So there is never just one way to do the reading. It’s either accessible or I’ve recorded a voice audio file for students. So we have a lot of commuter students at this campus, and so actually, we have zero students who live on campus in our new campus in Hickory. It is a new campus, it just started and so there are no dorms, there’s only one building and we’re all in that one building. And so students come in, they have jobs, and so UDL is very helpful for me to think about those students who have various commitments of their time. So they could listen to the audio file rather than read the book, because they’ve got a 40-minute commute to come into campus or something like that. So they’ll have an audio or video. I’ve used H5P, which is on our learning management system, which is like an interactive video, there’s VoiceThread, which is another way to be kind of interactive for students to participate. And so there’s always multiple ways for them to get at that information. And then there’s multiple ways that I ask them to tell me what they know. And they’ve done concept maps, so we have very little like, “write me a paper,” there’s very little of that my class. And that’s also a culturally competent type of teaching thing, because we often in an individuated, Western academic model, we prioritize reading and writing, reading and writing, reading and writing. That’s always what it is. And yes, we need to have very good readers and writers. But there are lots of other ways to learn and express your learning that might be more prevalent in other countries and in other cultures. And so they’ve had to draw some of their answers, they’ve had to give me a visual representation, they’ve written a poem, drawn a cartoon, and tell a story. One of their first assignments is to bring in something that expresses who they are, a cultural artifact. And then the last class that we just had recently, I asked everyone to name everybody else’s cultural artifact, so they learned about each other that way. And it was things like a keychain or one student brought in the T-top of his T-top convertible car. [LAUGHTER] Because the car was really important to get him around and all that stuff. And engagement is the last part. But it’s really the first part that gets students interested in the activities and in the learning and why they should learn. So I start off with a liquid syllabus, which is a syllabus that students can access outside of our learning management system, and they can see what we’re doing, and they get a video of me talking to them. And that’s supposed to be engaging. And then they have a lot of authentic assignments working with students overseas. And this year, because I was finally back in an actual classroom and not doing remote teaching, as I have been since 2020, I took students up to New York City. And Appalachian has this amazing loft that actually anybody can go stay at so all of your listeners could go and stay at Appalachian’s loft, and it’s very inexpensive. It’s like $70 a night per bed, and it’s these two rooms of 10 beds each. And we took students up there to actually learn a lot about culture. We went to the Tenement Museum, they looked around, and it was very cool. So experiential type of education as well. So that took like years before I got to that rendition of how I teach that course. But those are all UDL principles that guided me.

John: You mentioned collaboration with students in other countries, what types of collaborative work did those students do in your classes?

Lillian: They had specific zoom meetings that they had to do personally one on one. So one of them is that students got matched one on one with fellow students in Morocco. And they were supposed to talk about the difference in power distance in an educational setting. So power distance is the amount of power that people in a group expect and believe should be shared or held by the people in that group. So in an educational setting, if you’ve got a first-year student who comes into a large lecture hall on a college campus, there is a larger power distance for that instructor who will pretty much lecture to those students, students don’t raise their hand all that often, there’s not a lot of back and forth, there’s not a lot of flexibility, they probably don’t even know the students’ names. And so that would be an example of a larger power distance. A smaller power distance might be in a classroom, like in my classroom, I say, “You can call me by my first name, you can address me in this very informal way. We’re not going to have a lecture, we’re going to be in small groups, and then we’re going to share our ideas.” And that way, there’s a lot more voices, there’s a lot more talking. And that can happen in various times throughout the semester. I may do a lecture, I may not. And so my students were talking with students in Morocco to find out about their understanding of what power distance was. And do you call your professor Dr. Smith? Or what do you address them by? Are there rules about when you can address your professor and those sorts of things. So that was one of them. And then we worked with students in China, and this one was a series of three Zoom conversations. And all of our students had to set all these up. They were all in English because our partner students wanted to do this in English, and most of them had never spoken to a native English speaker. So this was a really good goal for them. And in China, they can’t have Zoom, not allowed. And so the students had to receive our invite from our students, and their first session was kind of an introduction: who they are, what they’re doing, for about an hour. The second was a second list of questions, which was about: Who takes care of children? Who goes to work? Who do you live with? Do you live with an extended family? Do you live with a nuclear family? And it was really about gender roles. And one of those things that’s a national cultural dimension is something called achievement versus nurturance. And that continuum has also been called in the past: masculinity versus femininity. And it’s how much a culture believes that men and women should adhere to somewhat stereotypical gender roles. So are there women CEOs, and stay-at-home dads? In some countries, that happens in some cities. That happens a lot more than in other countries. Do you put more emphasis on earning a higher wage? Or on having the flexibility to work from home? Like, where are you on that? And so the students talked about that. And then in the last session, they talked about: if you could change anything, what would you see that might improve your country from where it is now and that sort of thing. So they got to do some really authentic conversations with people around the world, and the students in China were 12 hours ahead. So my students were meeting sometimes at two in the morning, but they were up, [LAUGHTER] it didn’t matter.

Rebecca: So it sounds like there was a lot of coordination with counterparts around the world to make sure that you designed experiences for both sets of students that met, maybe not the same learning objectives, but learning objectives that were relevant for each population.

Lillian: That is exactly it. And it was my colleague in China, who said she wanted to do something about the sustainable development goals from the UN. I said, “Okay, well, let’s try and look at that.” And it worked for each one. And it is a lot of coordination for the faculty. And so I would meet with my fellow faculty member several times throughout the semester. And so we got the dates right for when we’d have Thanksgiving, nobody else had Thanksgiving break, and we have holidays, and they started a month early or a month late, and so there was a lot of coordination. And then they had to give me the list of all the students and I needed gender, too, because some students wanted to stay within their own gender, women, especially, in Morocco where some were less likely to speak to male students, who wanted to stay with female students. So we wanted to be culturally sensitive to those types of things. So there was a lot of beginning coordination to set those things up.

Rebecca: I wanted to circle back to one other thing you said too, in that you mentioned your classes developed with all these UDL principles over a significant period of time.


Rebecca: I want to know how you got started, what was the first thing you implemented? And how did that set a trajectory for the others?

Lillian: The first thing, way back when, probably 2016, 2017, like the big aha moment for me, was not doing the same thing all the time, and not having to grade everything, meaning maybe we were just going to do some honestly experimental assessments in class that were kind of fun and authentic. And I didn’t have to grade everything. And when I kind of let go of that, it opened me up to some more ideas. And then I thought, well, I don’t need them to write a paper, because I really have a specific goal in mind. And the goal doesn’t necessarily need to be a paper that then I’d have to read, [LAUGHTER] it made my life easier too. Maybe they just needed to demonstrate their understanding of these concepts. And so like one of the first things we do is draw an iceberg, and talk about how the culture that we see here, taste, feel, smell, all those five senses, that’s about 10% of what makes a culture. And when we think about culture, it’s usually just those things, it’s like, “Oh, you eat this special meal on Lunar New Year, and you have these special foods, and the kitchen always smells this way, or we dress up in cultural clothing, or whatever.” But that’s really only 10%, the tip of the iceberg. And then we have to get really deep into what our values and beliefs and assumptions we make. And that’s typically the hard part of the class. And so I just had students either draw an onion or an iceberg. And then they had to kind of point to where this was, what are your deeply held beliefs and assumptions, and that culture is so much more. And it’s a lot easier, I think, to conceptualize it as a drawing than it is to write me a paper about what your deeply held beliefs are, [LAUGHTER] and where they align with the things that I can see on the outside.

John: You mentioned that the first thing you had done was reducing grading and doing more formative assessments, which is beneficial for students too because it takes some of the pressure off and gives them the opportunity to try something, make mistakes, and learn from that without any penalty. Is that something that you’d recommend for someone who’s interested in exploring UDL, as a first step, if they’re not already doing that?

Lillian: Absolutely, I think it frees up both the student and the faculty member to kind of see what works. And so much of Universal Design for Learning is about feedback, feedback from the students. And that is a major portion of UDL. And I should have said that at the very beginning, that you really want to be figuring out what works for the students and what works for you. So I do think that’s a great way to think about it. And also, the flip side of that coin, to me as well, was whoever is doing the work is doing the learning. So if you are always lecturing to your students, it’s hard, like, you got to put together this great lecture, I always felt like I had a top hat and a cane, you know, walking into my lecture, and yadda-dat-dah, I’m gonna, like dazzle you with my art historical knowledge, and make it interesting. And I was doing a lot of work to do that. And I have slowly moved into kind of the other end of this continuum, from lecturer into facilitator. And if I can facilitate the students working together, or a lot of feedback back and forth with me or with each other, then they’re actually risking some things like “talk to your neighbor about this,” and they don’t have to raise their hand in front of the large class, they’re actually trying and risking and doing these smaller things. And that’s where I see the learning happening. If they’re just listening, that’s fine, that’s great too, but the more they can participate in their own learning, the better it is, that I’ve seen, certainly in my classes, the more they can do, the more they’re learning. But it doesn’t mean I have to evaluate every single thing that they hand in, or that they produce. And I can certainly, on the spot, kind of tweak things and say, “Okay, let’s turn it into this direction,” or something like that. But it was the: “I don’t have to grade everything they do” and “The person who’s doing the work is doing the learning.” And it was like freedom for me to try all of these things that were totally not what I had done as a student, or had valued as a student or an instructor because I was very much in that: “Alright, you’ve got a 15-page research paper, a midterm, and a final, and that’s the art history course.” And I don’t do that anymore.

Rebecca: Well, it sounds like not only is there a benefit to the faculty, in terms of workload, joy, [LAUGHTER] etc, but also an emphasis on self efficacy for students and building confidence.

Lillian: Oh, yeah. Exactly. And they’re trying things out, and they’re seeing what works. And that feedback is really important, a big part of UDL.

John: And you mentioned that it took you time to build to where your courses currently are. Is that an approach you’d also recommend to faculty who are beginning to introduce UDL principles, because it can be a lot of work completely redesigning or transforming your teaching?

Lillian: Absolutely. I don’t know if I could have done this stuff early on in my career, because I was worried about how I looked and was perceived. I was very young, and so I think I needed to feel like I was in charge. And that power sharing was too difficult for me as a young instructor. So I understand that. And now I feel much more comfortable in the classroom. And I feel that being a facilitator is really helpful for the students. And sometimes they just want to sit and listen, but that happens too. But it took a long time to get there. And the course has evolved over a long time. And you try new things. Tom Tobin and Kristen Behling talk about the plus one mentality, just trying one new thing. And that’s what happened, is when I started this course, we weren’t speaking with students in other countries. That just sort of happened when I went to a conference and made some friends in other countries and said, “Oh, I bet this would make a lot of sense to add this in.” It’d be really authentic, which is one of the engagement principles is having really authentic learning experiences. And I used to be like, “Oh, you’ve got to plan everything out, and it has to be perfect.” And now I see that I fumble through a lot of things. And every once in a while something sticks, and it’s good. It’s a practice. They say being a doctor is more of a practice. I think being a teacher is very much a practice to see what works and what worked in my class five years ago, doesn’t necessarily work now. Things that were really fun and hot at some point, you know, like making memes is pretty fun right now, but we didn’t do that 10 years ago, and we probably won’t do it in another five years, like, what did you learn? Let’s make a meme out of it. It’s evolving.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that we’re talking about a course about culture. And you’re describing how the culture of higher ed or institutions or our classrooms also evolve. And that evolution requires risk both on the part of the instructor as well as on the part of the students, and that the UDL principles are really allowing that risk to happen on both ends.

Lillian: Yes, and sometimes there are forces outside of our control that make that more difficult, and it’s not an enviable position. So things like I wish I didn’t have to grade, but we still have to have grades in the end. And so how does that fit into your course. And so I know a lot of folks are using ungrading. I know you’ve talked with Susan Blum and Josh Eyler about various different kinds of grading, which I think is like a later on kind of thing for UDL. Start with accessibility, make sure your stuff is readable and devourable by all of your students, and then start kind of playing around with it. And then maybe I think that ungrading or different kinds of grading structures might be the last step on that process. But to each their own.

John: One of the issues involving student variability is that some students might be resistant to some of the approaches that you’re using, because there have been a number of studies that show that students often prefer to be lectured at. And it seems like they’re learning more that way, despite the evidence that that’s less effective. How do you persuade students to be open to trying new approaches to learning?

Lillian: Great question, I know exactly what you’re talking about, like students, they’re like, “this is how we learn best,” and then you actually poll their knowledge. And students in an active learning situation who kind of hated it are much more knowledgeable than the students that were just in a lecture where they really liked it, because that was kind of safe. And in the last year or so I’ve heard myself saying this a lot when I do speaking, and when I’m talking to folks, is I think everybody needs to be uncomfortable in the classroom, some of the time. We don’t want the same students to be uncomfortable all of the time. So that means varying those different ways that we assess students, so it’s not the “alright, every week, you’re writing a paper,” oh, that also gets boring. But for your great writers, it’s fantastic. But are we really finding out what that student knows? Are we finding out that they’re a good writer. And so maybe that’s a poem, or maybe it’s a concept map, or there are other ways to assess that info. And so I tell my students, like, I’m really conscious about that, like, you probably aren’t going to like some of these things, but your neighbor isn’t going to like the next thing. And so having those opportunities that you have to step out of your comfort zone, to get into the learning zone, but not all the way out to that outer edge of the target, which is the panic zone. And that’s actually an intercultural competence idea that I learned in that field. When you study abroad, the only way you’re really learning is if you’re in that learning mode, like if you go to Germany, but you’re living with a bunch of Americans, and you never speak German, and you go to McDonald’s, and you’re at an English speaking school, then have you really learned much about German culture? So you should go outside of that comfort zone. Maybe you’re living with a local family, and you have to speak German, but you don’t want to go and you are in like a chaotic household and they don’t speak English, and they haven’t made sure that you have any food, and you don’t feel safe, and all the classes you are way ahead of you in your German speaking. And so you’re not learning much either, you’re kind of panicking. So it’s that learning zone we have to be in and so I think in our classrooms, we need to do that too, have multiple different ways for students to express what they know, which is one of our UDL guidelines. And I am very overt when I tell students that. And I found that with student evaluations, like I would get student evaluations where they asked like, “Did you practice critical thinking skills?” And they’d be like, “No, like, I totally didn’t at all.” [LAUGHTER] And then the next year… and I think I learned this at like an academic conference… the next year, throughout the course, I’d be like, Okay, we’re gonna do this critical thinking exercise, this thing that we’re doing right now, this is about critical thinking, you’re going to use your critical thinking skills because this thing that we’ve done, that’s a critical thinking skill. Guess what? The evaluations… way up. [LAUGHTER] Exactly like you’re pulling back the curtain and you’re saying, like, here’s actually why we’re doing it, and this is what you’re doing. And so I think explaining that is really helpful. And then the students know why they need to do something like what I’ve asked them to do, why am I writing a poem or why am I drawing an iceberg? And I think we do need to tell students that and not just have them guessing, because then they’re going to be in the panic zone and not learn so much.

Rebecca: That’s a really good point to remind students that being uncomfortable and taking risks is actually part of the learning process. Can’t remind them too much.

Lillian: Yeah, exactly. It’s necessary. And they do want to just sit and doodle. And not that doodling is bad. But they just want to sit and listen and have us do all of the work. But it’s like, I know this stuff, so why do I need to explain it? You could just watch a video of me talking. We need to get you into grappling with this and doing the stuff that I know you don’t want to do and you don’t want to be here because it’s a first-year seminar and you’re a first-year student. So my heart is with all of those folks that teach Gen Ed [LAUGHTER] to the students who don’t really want to be there.

Rebecca: Switching gears a bit now, can you talk a little bit about how you started the ThinkUDL podcast?

Lillian: Yes, it’s going back to that College STAR grant. We were getting into doing like workshops, and so I was working with other universities in North Carolina. And we had a PI, the head of it was at our East Carolina school. And I said, “Do we have any multiple ways to do this. They were doing research and then some workshops. And it just made sense to me like, we need a podcast, like this would be so off brand for UDL not to have multiple means for us to get this information out. And a podcast has the added bonus of being asynchronous, so people can listen to it whenever they want. I’ve always had transcripts, too. So if you don’t want to listen to my voice, which is totally fine, you could read the transcript and you can get that information, you can see the resources. So there are multiple ways to get it. But there was money from that original grant that sent me and my shout out to Tanner, who was my first sound engineer, and we went to a podcast convention in 2018 in the summer in Philadelphia. And seriously, I didn’t know a thing at all. I didn’t even listen to podcasts then. The only one I’d heard of was the Teaching in Higher Ed with Bonni Stachowiak, and then like, “Okay, we’re gonna try it.” And the very early episodes are, I think, awful. But luckily, Tanner kind of cleaned them up. But there was a Chris Farley on Saturday, live long, long time ago, so I’m showing my age here. But he would interview, in these sketches. He’d interview people that were amazing, like Paul McCartney from The Beatles, right? And he would just fumble the whole time. Like, “Wow, so you were in the Beatles? Wow. Yeah. That’s great. So can you tell me like, what’s it like being a Beatle?” And that’s what I felt like the whole time, [LAUGHTER] like “Wow. Okay. All right.” So it took a while. But the grant helped it and for about three or four years it was grant funded. And now I’ve turned it into its own nonprofit. And Texthelp is now a sponsor. And so they do the editing for me because the grant ended. And Tanner, he was part of that grant. So i had to kind of move on. That’s how it started.

John: So you’ve been doing this for a while now with the podcast, and we’ve been listeners since the very beginning. What do you enjoy most about podcasting?

Lillian: Well, ours came out around the same time. So the nice Tea for Teaching, right? It’s like 2018. And so I enjoy talking to people. If you’re still doing it, you have to enjoy talking to people. But that’s the best thing. I talk to people just all around the world because I do want it to have a worldwide focus. And so I have listeners, the top five are in the US, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and the UK, and so English speaking countries, yay. But you can see like, all over the world on six continents that people are listening, and I had a listener in Australia say, you know, I was walking on the beach, near my home, on the coast of Australia. And that just blows my mind that people are actually listening. But mostly it’s like, I get to just learn about new ideas all the time. And you would think UDL like it’s so focused on UDL, like, there would not be enough, like I should be done with this, but there’s so much.There are 31 of these checkpoints in Universal Design for Learning, and as you mentioned, it’s really overwhelming. Like if you were to go and just look at the guidelines, it’s like a whole bunch. And it’s like, how am I going to do that? You can’t, you can’t do it all. You can’t just redesign your course right away. And so there’s just all these little conversations I can have to help people understand what you can do. And then I get to talk to really interesting, witty, awesome, brilliant people all over the world. And that’s the best part. If I could just do that, like that was just my job, I would love that.

Rebecca: Definitely something that John and I enjoy too. It’s kind of an introvert’s dream to talk to [LAUGHTER] a lot of individuals one on one rather than having to network through a conference or something like that. It’s a good opportunity to have really in-depth conversations with folks that might not have the opportunity to have otherwise.

Lillian: Yeah, my brain is always seeking out the new. And so I love like, “Oh, that’s a neat idea.” And then I’ll send them an email, and sometimes they write back, and “oh, I really love to talk about this, it’s cool.” And so I’ll read their article or their book or whatever. And then there’s something else shiny that I get to go talk to other people about. And it’s just been helpful for folks. And honestly, I just didn’t expect there’d be listeners, and there are listeners. And so that’s just really fantastic.

John: We started out as primarily to meet our campus audience needs for commuting faculty, and so forth. And then we were amazed at how it caught on and spread. And it’s given us that opportunity that you both mentioned, to talk to some really interesting people doing some really interesting work. Before that in the teaching center, we talked to people at a workshop, and we might hear from one faculty member for three or four minutes, maybe 10 or maybe they’d come in for a consultation. But usually that was about a problem or an issue they were facing, but it just provides a wonderful chance to connect to people that we normally wouldn’t be able to talk to. And we see an interesting article, and then reading through it and getting to talk to the people doing the research in depth, it’s really a valuable experience.

Lillian: Yeah, everybody should be a podcaster just to have these conversations. You don’t even have to record them. It’s just really neat. And so it’s given me that like, “Hey, I have a podcast,” like a reason for me to be intrusive in somebody’s email. Like, I really want to talk to you about this. This is really cool. Would you talk to little old me? If so I have a podcast. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I’m amazed at the number of people who say yes.

Lillian: Absolutely, me too, like, “Wow, you’re actually going to talk to me. That’s so fantastic. I appreciate that.”

Rebecca: We’re definitely a part of a really wonderful community of practitioners.

Lillian: Yeah, it makes a very thankful and it’s so cool, because I have listened to Tea for Teaching for a long time. That’s actually my most listened to podcast for teaching and learning. I enjoy the fact that there’s two of you, and you kind of go back and forth and just interesting topics. So I’ve enjoyed yours, ever since the birth of our podcasts in 2018. They’re siblings. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: They are.

John: So we always end with the question. What’s next?

Lillian: I am so excited about what Appalachian State is doing. About two years ago, they bought a building in a town called Hickory, North Carolina. And our main campus is in Boone. And it’s a beautiful campus up in the mountains. And I happen to live halfway between these two cities. And so I was going up to Boone to teach and it is about 42 minutes to get up. And you have to go over the eastern Continental Divide, over the Appalachian Trail, over the Blue Ridge Parkway in order to get from my house into Boone to teach. And that’s great. And it’s the most beautiful commute I think in the world. But it also gets foggy and icy and weather and I was enjoying it, and it was where I would listen to podcasts. But Appalachian State is now the first university in the North Carolina system that now has two campuses. And so we’ve opened this campus in Hickory, it is a commuter campus, and some brave students, we have about 250 to 300 that have started this past fall of 2023. It has birthed this campus. And so I get to teach there, and I get to do some faculty development. And it’s really exciting to be on the ground floor of a new campus. And it’s the only one in the North Carolina system. We’ll have other campuses, but there’s no multi-campus university for us. It’s like being in a startup, except I don’t think I get stock options. That’s the only bad thing. [LAUGHTER] And so meeting new faculty, some faculty are teaching for the very first time. And so there’s no like institutional culture that they’re jumping into at this new campus, although we are very much a part of the Boone campus. It’s new. And there’s only a very small number of faculty there. So it’s like being at a small liberal arts college in a state system. And it’s just really cool. And I’m loving meeting the faculty there and helping with teaching and learning and UDL and all that stuff. So that’s like the next big thing is Appstate Hickory, and it’s really exciting.

Rebecca: Well, I hope you have a wonderful adventure. [LAUGHTER] It sounds like a really fun opportunity.

Lillian: Yeah, in fact, I’m in a group of faculty, we have like a community of practice, a peer mentoring circle we call it, and we’re calling ourselves the Hickory Adventurers, because like, we don’t know what’s going on, [LAUGHTER] and we’re trying to figure it out together.

John: You get to help shape what’s going on, which is a really nice place to be.

Lillian: Yeah, it’s fantastic. I’m excited. And I think I’m just that kind of person. It’s new and shiny. And I’m there.

John: I think we’re both that way a bit. And that is one of the risks of having a podcast, you get to hear about all these great things that people are doing, and there’s always a tendency to try to do many of them. And that can be a bit overwhelming, not just for us, but also for our students.

Lillian: Yes I know I have to peel it back [LAUGHTER] just a bit, don’t go overboard.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us, Lillian. I know we’ve wanted to talk to you for a while.

Lillian: Absolutely. I’m so glad and when you contacted me, I was super excited. So thank you so much for having me on Tea for Teaching. I’m gonna show my mug that nobody can see ‘cause it’s a podcast, but I love my Tea for Teaching mug, and thank you for having me.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. It was great talking to you and we’ll look forward to more conversations in the future.

Lillian: Great.


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.


325. Looking Forward to 2024

As we enter this spring semester, we take a break from our usual format to discuss what we are looking forward to in 2024.

Show Notes


Rebecca: As we enter this spring semester, we thought we’d take a break from our usual format to discuss what we’re looking forward to in 2024.


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: So what tea are you drinking now, Rebecca?

Rebecca: I’m drinking Ceylon tea.

John: And I have ginger peach black tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: So it’s a new year, John, and we’re gonna have a nice positive episode. So what are you grateful for?

John: I’m grateful that we survived another year. I’m grateful for the continued return to face-to-face instruction and a continuing return to a more normal classroom environment and college environment after all the disruptions from COVID that lasted for a while. And I’m also grateful for the initiatives that we’re using on our campus, and most campuses, to provide more focus on equity and trying to reduce some of the equity gaps that we’ve been seeing. And I’m seeing a general interest in that across a wide range of faculty and the administration. And we’re just in the process of running some workshops, and we’re getting some really good attendance at workshops that focus on techniques that faculty can use to improve equity and reduce some of those gaps. And I’m looking forward to seeing continued expansion of more equitable practices. And also, we’ve had quite a few people trying to implement the TILT approach that Mary-Ann Winklemes has talked about on a past podcast episode, and we’re hoping that that, combined with the increased structure that many people are trying to use in their classes, will help provide all students with more equitable outcomes.

Rebecca: I’m really glad that you have brought up equity, John, because I was just reflecting on a couple meetings that I was in just this week, and thinking about how equity oriented many of our colleagues are. And it’s really exciting to see them really advocating for policies, instructional practices, and many other things that are really equity oriented, and thinking about inclusion, and access, and all the things that you and I have talked about for a long time and have cared about and tried to implement in our classes. I’m also really grateful for, and I know you are too, for the many guests that we’ve had who’ve shared their expertise with us and with our audience. When we do these weekly episodes, it’s so great to have the opportunity to talk to such experts, to learn from them, to stay fresh with what’s going on, and to be able to share it with everyone else. It’s an experience that I didn’t know that I wanted, and I’m glad that we get to continue doing it.

John: And one other thing I’m grateful for from last fall is I attended my first POD conference, and I got to meet dozens of guests that we’ve talked to before. And we’ve talked to them, we’ve seen them on camera, but it was so nice to meet them and talk to them in more detail and in more depth in person.

Rebecca: I felt that way when I went to EDUCAUSE for the first time this year and connected with a number of colleagues focused on accessibility and growing that network and really connecting beyond just names and emails and other ways that we’ve communicated.

John: What are some of the major things you’re watching in the higher ed landscape? We’ve seen a lot of changes going on in the last few years, what are things that you’re going to be focusing more of your attention on in the next year?

Rebecca: I know that some of the things that we’re working on in grad studies and that I’m personally really involved in are kind of some increased accessibility resources for our colleagues at Oswego as well as SUNY. I’m looking forward to building out some of those resources, sharing those resources, and wrapping up a couple of research projects related to accessibility and getting to share those out. And I’m really excited that the higher ed landscape generally is having a lot more focus in this space because students with disabilities have been often overlooked in our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. And there definitely is a push to be a little more inclusive, and to have that population represented in these efforts and initiatives. We’re also really focused on ideas of belonging for a wide range of students, thinking about how do we get our online students connected to each other and to the larger population of students and to see them as members of our community, extending some of those features and opportunities for international students and really thinking about what some of their needs are to be successful at our institution, especially with our kind of rural location, and what can make things really excited. So I’m really looking forward to finding ways to support our students not just in the courses that I’m teaching or in my instructional role, but also in policies and procedures that we’re implementing at the institution,in grad studies, but more broadly as well. How about you?

John: One of the things that I’m really following closely is the development of AI. This came about a little over a year ago and it’s been a really disruptive influence. It offers a lot of tremendous possibilities, but it also provides some challenges to traditional assessment, particularly in asynchronous online courses. So I’m looking forward to continued development, it seems like there’s new tools coming out almost every week. And it offers some really nice capabilities to narrow some of the equity gaps that we have by providing low-cost assistance for students who may not have come into our institutions quite as well prepared. It offers a possibility of students doing a little bit more retrieval practice for those classes where instructors are not providing those opportunities. It offers students who, again have a somewhat weaker background, to take more complex readings that they may have been assigned and simplifying it and creating a more accessible format to help students get up to the level they need in their classes. And so it provides tools that can help students improve their writing, and so forth. The challenge, of course, is that it can also be used as a substitute for learning in some classes unless assignments are designed in a way, and assessment techniques are designed in a way, that reduces the likelihood of that and that’s one of the things we’ll be working on a lot this year, ways of coming up with more authentic assessment and ways of providing more intrinsic motivation for the work that students are doing, so that students can see the value of the learning rather than focusing entirely on grades. And one of the things we’re doing is we have a reading group coming up early this semester on Grading for Growth by Robert Talbert and David Clark. And we’re, in general, encouraging faculty to at least consider the adoption of alternative grading systems, which shift the focus away from students trying to maximize grades to maximizing their learning. And there’s a wide variety of tools that could be used for that, ranging from mastery learning quizzing systems, which many faculty have already been doing through specifications grading, contract grading, labor-based grading, and also ungrading.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s really exciting that we’re going to focus on that semester, something that I’ve been interested in for a long time and have been using in my classes as well. I’m glad you mentioned AI, there’s certainly a lot of promise, and I’ve been really excited by how many faculty, staff, administrators who’ve actually really been engaged in the conversation around AI. I think sometimes there are new innovations and things and people kind of brush it aside and don’t always think it applies to them or isn’t relevant to them. But I think this is something that’s relevant to everybody. And most people are seeing that and engaging in the conversation, struggling in the conversation, but at least we’re doing that in community. And I think there’s some power in that as we think through policy, in assignments and all the things that we need to think about to provide an enriching experience for our students, but also engage and use the tools and the power that they offer.

John: One other thing I’m following is the development of a wide variety of new edtech tools. We saw an explosive growth in the development of tools and expansion of their capabilities in response to the COVID pandemic, but that growth and expansion hasn’t dropped. And we’re seeing more and more tools that have often been designed based on research about how students learn. And I think we’re going to see expanded use of many of these tools in the coming year.

Rebecca: And I think a lot of faculty got used to experimenting with these tools during remote education and are continuing to use them in physical and virtual classrooms, which I think is really exciting, maybe even more exciting to me was attending big conferences like Middle States and actually having a presenter use some of these edtech tools as part of a plenary. So rather than having more of a lecture style session, it was more of an interactive session, which doesn’t always happen at conferences of such scale, or these more leadership conferences. So it’s exciting to see that we’re modeling some of these practices at the highest level so that the wide variety of individuals involved in higher ed are experiencing learning and engaging with these kinds of tools. Along the same lines, I’m also excited that many of these tools are starting to actually attend to accessibility, in part because higher ed institutions are really pushing back to third-party providers and requesting them provide information about accessibility, and even refusing to adopt tools if they aren’t meeting basic accessibility principles, which I think is really excited and really important.

John: And I saw something very similar both at the POD conference where you might expect to see people creating more interactive workshops, but I’ve also been seeing it in the workshops that we’ve had in the last couple of weeks here. We have a record number of faculty presenting in workshops, they’re using polling, they’re using tools like Mentimeter and they’re doing many more interactive activities than in past years. If we go back a few years, many of the sessions that were presented were essentially straight walkthroughs through PowerPoint slideshows with not a lot of interaction with the participants. And our workshops here have been both in person and remote over zoom. And people have been working really effectively to bring all the participants into the discussion and into the activities, regardless of whether they are in person in the room or remote. And it’s been nice to see that. Much of that I think did grow out of the experiences of COVID, and people just getting more comfortable trying new tools.

Rebecca: Come to find out, practice helps us learn things.

John: Also, our campus enabled the AI Companion in Zoom, which will provide meeting summaries for people who arrive late or people who come in at the end of a discussion. And I think that’s going to offer some nice opportunities for people who may have missed part of the discussion early on in a session, or in a workshop, or in a meeting, because so many of our meetings now take place over Zoom.

Rebecca: And there’s lots to be watching that are also highly concerning, but John and I resolved that we weren’t going to focus on those today.

John: So this will be a relatively short episode. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So continuing on this theme of gratefulness and positivity, John, what are you looking forward to trying this year, or focusing on in your own work this year, or committing to this year?

John: One thing, and this partly follows up a couple of podcasts we’ve had in the last year or so. In our campus, many departments are working to build in some of the NACE competencies into their classroom. And there’s some really significant advantages for that. If it’s done well, it will help students recognize the intrinsic value of the things they’re learning in class and recognize that these are skills that they’re going to need later, which again, helps provide much more motivation for students to learn than if they just see a series of activities that instructors ask them to do, and they don’t see the value of that. So by making the connections between what we’re doing in the classroom in terms of the development of critical thinking skills, teamwork, and all those other NACE competencies, it offers some really serious benefits for students and for faculty. Because if students are more engaged in the activities and understand the purpose of them, I think they’re going to be much more likely to focus on the learning rather than again, trying just to get the highest grade. And that’s also very consistent with the TILT approach that we mentioned earlier. If students understand why you’re doing things, they’re going to receive the techniques and engage in them more productively than if they didn’t see the value of those tasks.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m glad that you mentioned TILT as well. We mentioned it earlier, but I was just remembering that one of the things I wanted to mention while we were talking today is a commitment to thinking about TILT, not just in a classroom context, but all the other places that touch a student experience. So thinking about policies and procedures and ways that we can use a TILT approach to really improve transparency and clarity for our students and provide some equity and access by doing so. The other thing that I’m committed to trying to do is get back to more play, we’ve had some episodes on Tea for Teaching focused on play. And they always get me really excited about some of the things that I’ve done in the past in some of my classes and that I’ve done with some of my colleagues… and that the burden of transitioning during COVID to remote learning, some of these things have taken time and maybe attention away from play. And I’m hoping to take some time in 2024 to put some more attention back on being a little more playful.

John: So, you think education could be fun?

Rebecca: Maybe.

John: Okay. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’ve moved to doing some exercises and activities again a little more recently that get to some of these more playful ways of creating and making and thinking through complex problems. And every time I do that the students appreciate it. I have more fun, they have more fun, and I think a lot more learning gets done.

John: Since we want to focus on the positive, we’ll leave challenges for future episodes.

Rebecca: We’ve got all of 2024 to do that, John.

John: And we really appreciate, as Rebecca said, all of the wonderful guests that we’ve had since the beginning of this podcast, and we appreciate our audience too. So thank you for hanging in there with us.

Rebecca: Have a great 2024.


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.


324. Unmaking the Grade

A growing number of faculty have been experimenting with ungrading. In this episode, Emily Pitts Donahoe joins us to discuss her ungrading approach and the documentation of this process on her blog. Emily is the Associate Director of Instructional Support at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi.

Show Notes


John: A growing number of faculty have been experimenting with ungrading. In this episode, we discuss one instructor’s ungrading approach and her documentation of the process.


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 Emily Pitts Donahoe. Emily is the Associate Director of Instructional Support at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. She experimented with ungrading and chronicled her experiences in her Unmaking the Grade blog. Welcome, Emily.

Emily: Thanks. I’m really excited to be here.

John: We’re very pleased to be talking to you. We talked recently at the POD conference, and I’m looking forward to this additional conversation.

Emily: Yes, where I got this lovely tea for teaching mug from John, which I’m so excited about and drinking from right now.

John: And since this is only audio, Emily was holding the mug [LAUGHTER]…

Emily: I’m showing it off.

John: So our teas today are:… Emily, are you drinking tea in that mug?

Emily: I am. [LAUGHTER] I am drinking tea out of my tea for teaching mug. I’m a big tea drinker. And so today I’m drinking my favorite tea, which is a strong black tea called Scottish morn. And I got this tea from a tea shop called Apothica in Niles, Michigan, which I used to go to when I lived in South Bend, so highly recommended if you’re in that area.

Rebecca: Sounds wonderful. I was ready for you to say that you had coffee or something in the tea for teaching mug so it’d be completely blasphemous… [LAUGHTER]

Emily: Never.

Rebecca: …because coffee is one of the most frequent flavors. [LAUGHTER] Emily, you’re doing it right. [LAUGHTER] I have blue sapphire tea today.

John: And I have Irish Breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: So, we invited you here today, Emily, to discuss your experiences with ungrading. Your blog is based on your spring 2023 course experiences but your ungrading experience predates this course. Can you tell us a little bit about your initial experience with ungrading?

Emily: Sure. So I have a background in Writing and Rhetoric and English literature, and so a lot of what we do in Writing and Rhetoric, I think, is already pretty aligned with some ungrading goals and practices. So in my courses, students have always had the opportunity to revise their work based on feedback, and include it in a final portfolio, and most of their grade is based on their revised work. So it’s not just that they get graded and then that’s the end of it, they always have a chance to improve based on feedback. The first time that I stopped putting letter grades and percentages on student work was in spring of 2022, when I was teaching a general education literature course at Notre Dame, and so the course was on pre-modern and early modern literature, but with a focus on how the texts that we were studying might help us examine or wrangle with some of the questions that we’re preoccupied with as a culture and society today, and thinking about how those texts might relate to student lives. So it was a course for kind of all levels and all majors, which I think made it a good course to experiment with. So I had first-year students all the way up through senior-level students from engineering and business and English and psychology and all kinds of different majors. So like all teaching experiments, I think there were definitely some kinks to work out after that first course; they never go exactly right the first time. [LAUGHTER] But I would say that, overall, it was a huge success. And that’s not because I did it perfectly, or even because I did it particularly well, but because I think ungrading really helped some of my students move beyond this idea of the school as a points game, to help find their interest and their motivations to study the material that we were studying for their own purposes, and to focus on developing the skills and knowledge that they wanted to develop rather than on attaining a specific grade.

John: And the second time you did this, you created a blog describing the process. What prompted you to create the blog?

Emily: So, I was inspired by a post written by Robert Talbert, who’s the co-author of a recent book, Grading for Growth, which I really highly recommend on alternative grading, and he and David Clark, his co author, also had a blog and substack newsletter on Grading for Growth. And so in December of 2022, Robert posted a stop, start, continue for the ungrading community. And if you’re not familiar with stop, start, continue, it’s an evaluation exercise used for mid-semester reflection, very often in classrooms where the instructor or another facilitator will ask students: “What kinds of teaching practices or classroom practices would you like to stop, start, or continue in the class?” And so Robert’s post was a stop, start, continue for the ungrading community. And one of the things that he recommended that the ungrading community start doing was getting into the weeds and writing in detail about the daily experiences and specifics of upgrading, so: what we’re doing, what kind of successes we’re having, what challenges we’re encountering, how we’re adjusting in real time, and he recommended keeping this as the kind of blog or like a captain’s log of weekly reflections. So when I read his post, I thought, “Well, I could do that. It didn’t sound that hard, and it sounded like a lot of fun.” So that was what prompted me to start writing weekly reflections to share some of the methods that I was using, successes and challenges that I had, and even some of my doubts or misgivings about some of the things that I was doing in the class.

John: And just as an aside, we were so impressed by Grading for Growth, that we’ll be using it in the spring reading group here, both at SUNY Oswego and at Plattsburgh with Jessmyn Neuhaus. So we’re very much looking forward to that. And Robert and David will be giving a keynote address at the start of our workshop series in just a few weeks in early January. So we’re very interested in doing more of this on our campus as well.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about your decision to delay posting the blog until after the semester ended?

Emily: Sure. So the selfish reason is that it’s supposed to be an unfiltered look at the ungraded classroom. And part of me thought, what if I messed this up so badly that I’ll be embarrassed to talk about it. So it was partly that, but I would say the more important reason is that I thought it might be weird for students if I was talking in public about what was happening in the classroom in real time. And I was concerned that it would damage the relationship of trust that I wanted to build with my students if they knew that I was reporting on our conversations to a larger audience about the class. So I offered to hold things for that reason. But the other thing that I wanted to do was make it clear to students that I was writing these reflections that might later be published, and then to get their input on them. So some of what I shared on the blog, I didn’t really want to share without getting students consent to do that. But I also wanted to get their input on some of the things that I was talking about. So I believe really strongly in taking a students as partners approach to higher education and learning experiences. And I try to employ that in my educational development work in the classroom. So that means bringing students into conversations about teaching and learning and asking for their experiences and their expertise as students really and then using that to inform our practice. So delaying the posting allowed me also to get some input from students and to be able to share some of their thoughts and opinions on the blog whenever I could.

John: In reading through your blog, your spring 2023 class seemed really interesting. Could you describe that for our listeners?

Emily: Yeah. So this is the second course in our sequence of first-year writing courses here at the University of Mississippi, but it’s a little bit different. So for the second course in the sequence, students have the opportunity to take either Writing 102 or Liberal Arts 102, and I was teaching Liberal Arts 102. And so the goals of each course are really the same. But Liberal 102, as we call it, is conducted within the context of a research area in a specific discipline. So that means that it can have a very specific theme. So some of my really excellent colleagues in the department and in other departments have taught courses like writing about true crime, or the rhetoric of sports, or I believe there’s a course on fashion. So because one of my areas of expertise is teaching and learning, the course that I taught was called Examining Higher Ed Teaching and Learning in a College Classroom. And so I think this is a great course for first-year students as they’re entering this next phase of their education to reflect on where they’ve been and where they want to go. And so what we did was looked at questions like: What’s the purpose of a college education? Why are we all here? What kind of benefits does it provide to individuals or to society? What kind of collective benefits does it provide? And then how are those benefits enacted or engendered in the classroom. And so we explored a lot of debates around higher ed in the US and students have an opportunity to reflect on and draw on their own experiences as students and their expertise as students, and then integrate that with larger areas of research on education or current events in education. And then they communicated their ideas about education to audiences outside of our classroom. And so it was really, I think, an ideal course for ungrading because we could talk about grades, not only as a matter of course policy, but also as a core subject matter. So in the beginning of the semester, we read Alfie Kohn’s piece “The Case Against Grades” and talked about it both as a way to introduce the course grading system and as a kind of larger prompt for reflection about grades as an issue of concern in higher education right now.

John: And it sounds like a great opportunity to have students reflect on what you’re doing as you’re doing it. How did students respond to this?

Emily: So I think every time I’ve ungraded a class now, and I’m currently on my third ungraded class, students have responded a little bit differently every time and of course, every individual student is also different. I think there are three broad categories of response that I see. One is just enthusiasm; some students are really excited about ungrading, and usually that’s students who feel that, for one reason or another, their grades in the past haven’t been representative of their learning or who feel that some of their creativity or their risk taking has been stifled by their desire to get a good grade. So I wouldn’t say this is a lot of students, this is probably a smaller group of students, but some students are really excited about it. I would say another group of students are really hesitant because ungrading is a big unknown for them, especially for students who are dead set on getting that “A” grade. It can be really nerve racking not to know kind of where you’re at in the middle of the semester. When I get negative feedback on ungrading, it’s almost always students who say,”This is really interesting, but I never know where I’m at.” And so they’re really concerned about how they’re going to measure their progress. But they’re not thinking about their progress in learning, they’re thinking about their progress toward a specific grade, which is really understandable because grades are important. And so that’s also a smaller group of students. But I would say, by far, the biggest reaction I get from students is something like cautious optimism. So I always start ungraded courses with a conversation about grades and learning, and I ask students to share with me their experiences of grades and share with each other. And very often, they have a lot of negative experiences to share, and sometimes positive experiences as well. But we talk about the relationship between grades and motivation and grades and learning and they have a chance to reflect on that. And so I use these conversations as a jumping off point to explain why I use the system that I do and how I think it will benefit them as learners. And I think students find it really helpful to be able to talk about their experiences with grading openly and to be heard by a teacher. And I think that that alone makes them more willing to buy into the system. So once it’s explained fully, and once students start to see the potential benefits, I would say that most of them are cautiously optimistic.

Rebecca: I think that largely aligns with my experiences and explorations when ungrading as well. In your class, you included five different assessments and opportunities for revision. Can you talk about and describe these assessments?

Emily: Sure. So the first thing that students had the opportunity to do were weekly writing practice assignments. So these are what you might think of as formative assessments, they’re preparation for class discussion and major assignments that mostly involve reading or short writing prompts. And these students weren’t able to revise, they either kind of did it or they didn’t. But then students had an opportunity to do more longer major assignments, which are more typical assessments for the writing class, a series of papers and a multimodal kind of project or two, with an imagined audience kind of outside our classroom. And so these students could revise up to three times if they wanted to do that. And so I had to, for this class, adjust a little bit and do slightly fewer assignments than I might have done in a traditionally graded class, because the expectation is that students would be doing more intense work on each assignment in their revision. I also asked students to do self assessments periodically throughout the semester. So students would answer a series of questions about their progress toward the learning goals, about their goals for the remainder of the semester. And they would also propose a current grade for themselves based on evidence that they provided. And this is a similar activity to what we did at the end of the semester to determine their course grades. They were also assessed on their final portfolio, which had revised versions of their major assignments. So their work… basically as good as they could make it… their best version of their major assignments, plus another final self assessment of their work in the class. And then they were also assessed on class engagement, so their class attendance, their preparation for and participation in class discussion, the timeliness of their work, their support for the learning community and fellow students and things like that.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you provided your feedback on those assessments?

Emily: Sure. So for the writing practice assignments, usually I just wrote a sentence or two in response to students work to let them know if they were on the right track, or they may be needed to adjust slightly as they prepare for their major assignments. For the major assignments, I did do a lot of longer written feedback, and a lot of this looked like feedback that I would give in a traditionally graded class. But I think it was a little bit more oriented toward future growth, rather than reflecting on past work. It was giving them a lot of direction on how they might want to revise to make their work better in the future, not just for future papers, but for this particular paper. And with that feedback, I also gave them a rubric, where I marked kind of where I thought they were at along the specific assessment categories and criteria that we were using for that assignment. So for example, we might have a category for audience and purpose. Students could see whether I think their work on that category was still developing, whether it was at the level of proficient or whether it reached the level of excellent, so I had these different categories and these different kind of progress metrics, where I would indicate this is a skill that I think you’re still working on, or this is a skill that you’re doing really well in. And I also provided feedback to students through our individual conferences. So we met once at midterm, I met with each individual student, and then once at the end of the semester, to have a face-to-face conversation about how students were doing and if they needed to make any adjustments to reach their goals for the rest of the semester. And I didn’t give any feedback through letter grades or points. Those are not really great forms of feedback. They don’t actually give us a lot of information about our progress. So most of the feedback that I provided was kind of qualitative feedback.

Rebecca: You just talked a little bit about rubrics as part of a feedback that we were providing students, can you talk a little bit about how those rubrics were developed?

Emily: Yeah, so I’ve tried several different methods of creating rubrics. And one of the things that I like to do is co-create them with students or get students input on rubrics. And I attempted to co-create rubrics with students in two different classes and have done it a few times. And sometimes it’s a huge success, and sometimes it really does not work very well at all. And in my spring class, it didn’t work very well at all. [LAUGHTER] So basically, what I’ve done previously is ask students what they think makes a good argument or a good piece of public writing, or whatever it is that we’re working on. Or I ask them what kinds of things they believe their writing should be assessed on, and how we would determine whether or not their writing is successful. And then we have a conversation about that. I make notes on the board as we’re talking. And then I go away and distill those notes down into a rubric with about five categories in which student work is assessed. And then there’s the three metrics, so developing, proficient, and excellent. And sometimes this works really well. But in my spring class, I think the students were really at a loss when I asked them about assessment, and even when I asked them what good writing looks like. And I think that’s because that no one has ever asked them to think about that before. They’re used to being told what their work should look like by someone else, and then trying to conform their work to those expectations, or to someone else’s standards. And obviously, we need to have standards and expectations for student work. But one of the things that that does is get the students only thinking about what the teacher wants and not what they want. They’re not thinking about what they want their work to look like, or what their standards are or what they’re trying to accomplish. And so I think, ultimately, if we’re preparing students for the real world, whatever that is, this is what we want them to be able to do, not just to blindly follow somebody else’s standards, but to create and work independently in a self motivated way, and then assess their work independently. So I think we have to kind of start with baby steps in that process. So in the spring course, the rubric activity really turned into a conversation about how students have been assessed in the past and why they’ve been assessed that way. So when I ask them about their experiences, how their writing had been assessed, they would say things like, we were graded on the word count, or we were graded on whether or not we included two sources in every paragraph. And then we use that as a jumping off point to talk about the principle behind those what they viewed as arbitrary rules. And so if your teacher is concerned about word count, it’s because they want you to make a substantive argument. And what does a substantive argument look like? If your teacher is concerned about including sources, it’s because they want you to make an argument based on strong evidence. And so what would strong evidence look like? And so we use that conversation to think about the assessment criteria for their college level work, and how that might be similar or different from what they experienced in the past. So in that way, I do think that conversation was helpful. And I do think based on my few experiences, that it helps to have students extrapolate criteria from some examples, rather than from thin air, kind of as I was asking them to do, but either way, having a transparent conversation about what students are being assessed on and why and a purpose behind the criteria is key to their success.

John: In one of your blog posts, you describe some of the writing assignments that you used in your class, and they seem quite interesting. Could you describe some of the writing prompts that you gave to students?

Emily: Yes, I was really excited about some of the assignments that I developed for this class. And I think I’m going to keep using them or versions of them in future classes. So for this class, I had a menu of assignment options. So the students could, for each major assignment, choose the kinds of projects that they found most compelling, or they would really draw on your strengths. And I thought this was important, partially because we were working some with generative AI in the class. And I’m sure everyone is aware by now some very serious data privacy concerns, ethical concerns around the use of generative AI. So I didn’t want to mandate that students work with AI if they didn’t want to, and some really didn’t want to. So I tried to offer them several options. And I was really happy about some of the options that I came up with. So obviously, one of the things that I was thinking about going into this semester was how to deal with generative AI and I have a lot of thoughts about that. But one big way to think about how to discourage inappropriate use of AI or encourage appropriate use of it is to think really carefully about assignment design. So one of the things that I did to help students navigate AI was lean into some multimodal work, think about argumentation in media other than writing or that kind of worked alongside writing. So we didn’t abandon writing entirely, but I did include a photo essay as one possible assignment in a menu of options. And for this course, I asked students to take a look at a book of photographs by Cassandra Horii and Martin Springborg that’s called What Teaching Looks Like. It’s a really, really cool book with candid photos of college teaching. And so we use this book to talk about visual rhetoric and also to use the photos as a launchpad for this discussion about college teaching practices and students’ experiences in the classroom. And so the assignment that students did based on their work with this book was to create their own photo essay called “What Learning Looks Like.” So instead of what teaching looks like, what learning looks like, with a specific audience and purpose in mind. So that was one of the assignments that I liked. Another one that I thought was really promising was something called “share your story,” which asks students to tell a personal narrative about their educational experience, and then connect that to a larger issue of concern or a body of research in higher education. So of course, this is not totally AI proof. ChatGPT can make up a story, but it can’t tell my students’ own stories. And I think most of us really like to tell our stories to other people. So I think that provided a little more motivation for students to do their own work. And then the last assignment that I really liked was an assignment that actually asked students to work with ChatGPT. So they created a prompt based on a template that I provided for an argumentative piece that they then fed to ChatGPT, so they gave ChatGBT the prompt. And then they took the ChatGPT output and critiqued it. So they annotated it, noting what pieces they thought were strong, whether or not the piece had weaknesses, and what those weaknesses were, where it might need revision or overhaul. And then they had to totally rewrite the piece that ChatGPT produced and make it their own. So they had to do a substantial revision. And then they had to annotate their own work and tell me why they made the revision decisions that they did. And so I want to clarify that I do think it’s important that students learn to generate first drafts on their own, because drafting is an essential part of the writing process, and it’s where a lot of the thinking happens. But I like this assignment as just one assignment in the sequence, because it does help students learn about generative AI and develop some AI literacy. And it also helps students get over that terror of the blank page. So a lot of students procrastinate because they don’t know how to get started. They’ll open their laptop to begin a paper and stare at the blank screen. And I find it really difficult to get over that first hump of starting work, and just close their laptop and go away and try it again later, usually the night before it’s due. So I think starting in this way, with a ChatGPT prompt and an essay gives them a jumping off point, and it’s an easy way to help them start building the confidence they need to do their own first draft.

John: We should mention that we did talk to the authors of What Teaching Looks Like, and we’ll include a link to that discussion in the show notes. One of the things you described in your blog is that having this ungraded environment encourages students to be perhaps a little more open and honest with their instructors, but that could lead to some challenges in terms of additional emotional labor. Could you describe the challenges that you faced in this class with that?

Emily: I think one of the big themes in the spring class in particular was that I asked students to share with the class and for audiences beyond the class about their previous experiences in school, or their current experiences, and I think this also happens in a lot of ungraded classes. One common method of introducing an unfamiliar grading system is getting students to think about their previous experiences with grades. And so one thing that happened in this particular class is that students’ related a lot of past educational trauma to me, and usually that involves bad experiences with previous teachers. And I’m really glad that they were able to speak honestly about that sort of thing. And I think it helped them to have a teacher take them seriously when they related those stories. At the same time, it was pretty difficult to navigate those conversations, because I was managing their emotions, my emotions, and also doing that when sometimes I only knew one side of the story. And so that was a little bit difficult. Another thing is that students in this class didn’t seem to feel that their grade depended on telling me what I wanted to hear. So I think they were a lot more honest about their views than in other courses that I’ve taught. So in my traditionally graded classes, or I think, in any class where students are discussing hot button issues, they tend to think that they’ll be graded more harshly if they express views that the instructor disagrees with. So very often, I think, they try to say what they think you want to hear rather than what they really think. And that didn’t seem to happen as much in my spring course. I had several students endorse viewpoints that I definitely disagreed with whether they knew that or not. And I think that’s good, because students have to sort through their own views and values. But it also required me to do a lot of thinking about how I would approach and address students not just whose views I disagreed with, but whose expression of those views might be damaging to others or to themselves. And so, we need to do some work around community building and relationship building in the class. And then of course, when you build relationships with trust with students, they’re more likely to tell you about the personal problems that they’re facing, whether that’s their mental or physical health or their personal relationships or family emergencies or grieving. And it’s really just a lot. And I do sometimes lay awake at night worried about my students. And there’s a lot of care work happens, I think, in all classes and also especially ungraded classes. And so there’s a lot of work in referring students to other resources and helping them navigate campus resources, and also just a lot of kind of management of your own emotional state [LAUGHTER] that has to happen. So I did want to be honest on the blog about some of the emotional toll of the work of teaching in general and of ungrading too.

Rebecca: You’ve described the care work, you’ve described individual conferences with students, you’ve described students’ anxiety over not knowing where they are sometimes and allowing substantial revision. Can you talk a little bit about how all of those things play into workload and how you’ve managed things?

Emily: Yes, this is a good question. And I feel like I have a very complicated answer to whether or not ungrading has increased my workload, because I get asked this question a lot. In my traditionally graded classes, giving all that feedback felt like a waste of time for a few reasons. First, because I had the sense that students weren’t really reading the feedback. So we know from research that when students receive a letter grade and also feedback on their work, they tend to see the grade and then ignore the feedback, or at least receive the feedback as a justification for a grade, rather than something that’s going to help them improve their work in the future. So I also spend a lot of time in traditionally graded classes worrying about how students would receive my feedback if they got a low grade on their paper. So how could I write feedback that would be appropriately honest, but also appropriately encouraging, so that students didn’t just see a C-minus or a D on their paper, and then give up and throw it in the trash. So I don’t really worry about those things since I’ve adopted ungrading. I provide feedback honestly, and with the mindset of a coach rather than a judge. And I provide it with at least some confidence that students will read it and use it. So they have plenty of opportunity to revise. And in fact, their ultimate achievement of the course is measured by their growth in specific areas and their demonstration of learning that arises from taking a piece of writing from not so good to much better. And so the expectation is that what they turn in the first time is not their best work and they’ll only get to their best work after they incorporate feedback. So I do spend a lot of time responding to student work now that I’m ungrading. But the process is more efficient because it accomplishes my goals rather than wasting my time. And it’s more enjoyable, because it causes me less angst. So I guess it is more work to provide feedback, but it’s also more efficient and enjoyable work. I think I feel kind of the same way about individual conferences with students, that it does take quite a bit of time to do those and it would be, I want to acknowledge, so much more difficult, it may be impossible to do if I was teaching more classes and more students. I’m very lucky that I teach small class sizes. And because I work in educational developments and work in a teaching center for most of the time, I only teach one course at a time. So I think there are ways to do this with larger courses, but I’m very fortunate in my course to be able to conference individually with each student twice in the semester. And those conferences are incredibly time consuming, and they can be really draining, but they are also really joyful. And I think it’s really important that students are able to have those one-on-one conversations with me. And they are much more, I think, effective in accomplishing a lot of the goals that I have for student learning than just simply doing written feedback or peer review or things like that. Having that face-to-face time to give students some individual attention is a really both enjoyable and effective part of the learning process.

John: A question that often comes up from people who have not tried ungrading is how well do students’ perceptions of their learning align with your perceptions of the learning when you do have to assign those midterm or final grades in the class?

Emily: Yeah, this is a really good question. And I would say I’ve had to do a little bit of work on my process to make sure that our expectations are aligning well. Sometimes, there are cases where students don’t automatically start off knowing what I expect from their work and what good work looks like, even when I thought that I was clear about that. So that is an issue that I’m working on. I would say for the majority of students, they do understand what good work looks like. And when they’re asked to provide evidence for their course grade, most of the time they know what good evidence looks like and are able to demonstrate to me in really, sometimes ways that I hadn’t anticipated, that they really had learned in the class and progressed and improved their work. For those students who struggle, and I think it’s more frequent for first-year students to struggle with this than more advanced students, for students who do struggle, I think it is important to be able to show them models of student work early in the semester so that they can get a sense of what a successful assignment looks like or what’s kind of level of expectations we have for what student work counts as really excellent work. So that’s been really helpful. And I’ve also made some changes to my class this semester to help clarify for students a little bit what kind of evidence might be good evidence for specific grade proposals in the course. So if they are really shooting for an A or B in the course, what kinds of actions or behaviors or demonstrations of quality work do they need to be able to show in order to attain that grade?

Rebecca: I know one of the things that I struggled with in some of the classes where I’ve done ungrading is that sometimes the midterm conference feels like it comes too late. So I experimented, I think once with like a one-third, two-thirds, three thirds approach, but then that was so much more conferencing.

Emily: Yeah.

Rebecca: So I’m curious about your timing and how the midterm time works in the classes that you’ve been teaching.

Emily: Yeah, I think that’s where the self-assessment assignments come in. So I do think midterm is quite late for students to be getting the first level of feedback. And so I have students do a self-assessment form, I guess, a quarter way into the semester. So we start that process really early of having them look back at the work that they’ve done, and propose a grade for themselves based on that work. And when they do those self assessments, I don’t conference with students every time they do a self assessment, but I do look at where their grade proposals are. And I’m able to say if our expectations are very, very different, or assessments of that students work is very, very different, I’m able to reach out and say, “Hey, I don’t think we’re aligned here, and here’s why.” And being able to intervene early on that I think is really important.

John: We’re recording this near the end of the fall semester of 2023. And you’re currently teaching another ungraded class, could you tell us a little bit about what types of changes you made from the spring class to the fall class?

Emily: Sure, there are a few changes that I’ve made, because there were some things that I think did not go very well in the spring and I wanted to try to improve that. So what didn’t go well was that I had a real problem with attendance, there were quite a few students who struggled with their attendance, especially in the latter half of the semester, and quite a few students who struggled to submit their work on time kind of throughout the semester. And that made it difficult for me, but I think more importantly, it made it really difficult for the students who once they missed an assignment, they found it really difficult to get back on track. So my challenge is really to figure out how to motivate students to attend class regularly and submit work on time without penalizing them for absences or late work or without a kind of point system to encourage them to show up to class and to submit their work on time. So that was one thing I wanted to address. And then the other thing is that students’ anxiety about not knowing where they stand in the midst of the semester at any given point. So what I developed to address all of those challenges was a course progress tracker. And so this is a document, a pretty comprehensive document, inspired by David Clark’s Grading for Growth post about grade trackers that I read during the summer while I was designing this course. And so the document is really a series of tracking worksheets in three different categories. So the first category is readings and assignments, students can see each week at a glance what work they have to complete, and then they can check off boxes as they complete that work, and then note, if there are assignments they’re submitting late, they can record those late submissions. There’s a category for attendance and engagement where students can check off the classes that they attend, and then make notes about their in or out of class engagement during each week of the semester. And then there’s a section… the most important section… for learning and growth where students can remind themselves of what the course goals are, and then track their progress along those goals, so they can see and make notes about where they’re still developing, where they’re doing excellent work, and how they’re improving their writing as the semester goes along. So, so far, it’s been going really well. And I’ve had fewer challenges with attendance and late work this semester than last semester, though, I can’t say to what extent that’s just a result of a different population of students or the fact that it’s fall instead of spring. So I will add that caveat, but I have surveyed students about their use of the progress tracker last week, and I’m really looking forward to diving into that next week. So the last thing that I think the progress tracker does, which I didn’t totally intend, but which has been really excellent, is that I think it helps students a lot with their self-assessment work, which they also struggled with, to some extent last semester, or I should say, maybe I struggled to teach really well. So I had a realization at the end of last semester, that when I sat down to think about a student’s work over the course of this semester, I was really thinking about three things. And so the first thing is quantity. How much work did students do? How much labor did they put in? How many assignments did they submit at a satisfactory level? How many class days did they attend? How much time did they spend on their major assignments? So that was one category. The second was quality. So how good was the work that they were doing according to the standards that we laid out? Was it still kind of developing work? Or was it excellent work? And then the third thing was growth. So how and how much did student work improve over the course of this semester? And can they demonstrate that they’ve gained knowledge and skills that they didn’t have before? Or can they demonstrate that they’re better off from having taken the course. And so while we’ve had conversations about those things in the spring, I never articulated to myself or to my students, that particular model; I never kind of said it in quite this way. So the last section of the progress tracker includes a guide to determining final letter grades for students. And it gives them space to think about quantity, quality and growth, and how that might contribute to the grade that they propose for themselves, if they’re interested in the specific letter grade. And it gives them a sense of what kinds of evidence they could provide if they want to show good evidence for a specific letter grade. So you can provide good evidence for an A if your work rises to the level of excellent on multiple assessment categories. Or if you attended class every time that you were able and submitted the vast majority of your writing practice assignments. So all of these things are good pieces of evidence if you want to propose an A grade for yourself. So there’s some flexibility there, I don’t prescribe exactly what students have to do for a specific grade, but I do make suggestions and say, here’s a guideline for you. If you’re confused about what kinds of work you need to be doing, or what you need to do to demonstrate that you’ve attained a certain letter grade, you can take a look at this guide, and learn a little bit more about what the expectations are. Currently, it’s just something for the students to use for themselves. I have provided time in class for students to fill out sections of it, because I think that if I did not ask them to do it in class, they might struggle to keep up with it outside of class. But I think maybe in the future, I will consider asking them to keep up with it. And then periodically checking in on those progress trackers throughout the semester so that I can intervene early, if there are any issues and maybe leave comments on the documents to let students know if I think they’re struggling in a specific area, or if they’re doing really well in a specific area. I am playing around with that idea for my next version of the class.

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

Emily: So this spring, I won’t be teaching an undergraduate course, but I will be working with graduate students who are preparing to teach their own Writing and Rhetoric courses. And I’m really looking forward to talking with them about teaching. And I’ll also be continuing to write about ungrading on the blog. So specifically, I’m hoping to share a bit more about what I learned from my experiences this semester. And I’ve been collecting data from my current students about their use of the progress tracker, about their use of AI in their writing this semester, and about their feelings and impressions of ungrading. And what I’m planning to do throughout the spring is share some of those student thoughts with the readers of the blog, and I’m really excited to be able to share students’ ideas about ungrading and other topics as well.

Rebecca: Sounds great. We’ll look forward to reading that for sure.

John: Thank you, Emily. It’s great talking to you and we look forward to future conversations.

Emily: Thanks, this has been fantastic.


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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


323. Explore First Study Abroad Program

Compared to continuing-generation students, first-gen students experience a higher risk of not completing a college degree. In this episode, Sue Roberts, Marianne Young, and Beth Hanneman join us discuss a study-abroad program for first-gen students that is designed to build their confidence, sense of belonging, and help them understand the connection between their education and their career goals. Sue is the Associate Provost for Internationalization at the University of Kentucky. Marianne is the Assistant Vice President for Smart Campus Initiatives at the University of Kentucky. And Beth Hanneman is the Associate Director of Career Advising and Career Education, also at the University of Kentucky.

Show Notes


John: Compared to continuing-generation students, first-gen students experience a higher risk of not completing a college degree. In this episode, we discuss a study abroad program for first-gen students that is designed to build their confidence, sense of belonging, and help them understand the connection between their education and their career goals.


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 Sue Roberts, Marianne Young, and Beth Hanneman. Sue is the Associate Provost for Internationalization at the University of Kentucky. Marianne is the Assistant Vice President for Smart Campus Initiatives at the University of Kentucky. And Beth Hanneman is the Associate Director of Career Advising and Career Education, also at the University of Kentucky. Welcome, Sue, Marianne, and Beth.

Sue: Thank you, we’re glad to be here.

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

Sue: I am not drinking tea right now. But if I were in my normal space, I would be drinking tea. Yes.

Rebecca: Do you have a favorite kind?

Sue: I do. It’s a rooibos tea, a red bush tea.

Rebecca: Wonderful. Marianme, how about you?

Marianne: I’m not currently drinking too, but I have one on the ready. It is a lovely wild sweet orange.

Rebecca: Nice. What about you Beth?

Beth: So I went to Montana this past summer for a yoga retreat and fell in love with Huckleberry. So I now drink a wild Huckleberry tea at least once a week. And that’s what I’m having this morning.

Rebecca: I have never had that. I think it’s a first on the podcast.

John: It is. I am drinking an Irish Breakfast tea.

Rebecca: And I have a Jasmine Dragon Pearl this morning.

John: Dragon pearls?

Rebecca: Dragon pearls. [LAUGHTER]

John: Ok, so we have a mythical tea. [LAUGHTER] We read about the Explore First Study Abroad program in an article in the Chronicle recently. And so we invited you here to talk about that. Could you give us an overview of this program?

Sue: Sure. It’s a new program for the University of Kentucky, run for the first time in summer 2023. We took 60 students, 60 undergraduate students, all of them first-generation students to either London or Dublin for a three- week Education Abroad program focused on career readiness.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about this program came about?

Sue: It came about in many different ways, actually. There were conversations happening on our campus for probably two or three years before COVID, even, among different colleagues, some in the Career Center wondering how they could produce really good career readiness, education abroad programming. So I’m in the office of first-generation student success thinking about how we could do a better job in introducing first-generation students to education abroad. And then in the International Center, in the Education Abroad office itself, there were lots of conversations about how we could partner with colleagues across campus to develop programs that would reach this demographic.

John: One of the things we were really intrigued about was a program that was designed to benefit first-gen students as well as providing those career readiness skills. Could you describe a little bit how this program integrates that career focus?

Beth: Yeah, I’ll take that one. So over in the Career Center, we have the national association called NACE and they have NACE Competencies. And so when you start thinking about any major that a student has, you want them to make sure that they have those skill sets. So when they actually get into the workforce, they’re able to be analytical, they’re able to have communication skills. And what I love about the first-gen program and Explore fFrst within that, is the idea of how do you do that in a global setting. And so when you start thinking about designing this curriculum, and me and Marianne had the privilege of helping to work on that. It was this idea of, we had at least find out what the foundation is that the students had. And so sort of thinking about block scheduling, where a lot of times professors may say we’re going to do one topic and then go to another, I did more of what we call spiral curriculum, where you introduce a topic, and we brought it in here in the United States before we left, so maybe it was resumes where they had to create a resume and work on a resume ahead of time. And then when we’re overseas, we re-introduced resumes to say, “How would you put this Explore First experience on your actual resume? …kind of the same when it came to networking. What does it look like to navigate, to connect with people? Okay, great. We do that here in the United States. But then how do you do that in a global setting. So it was one of those things where you can actually see that reinforced. I also thought that was really cool when it came to interviewing as well, of having that prep for the students within that area.

Rebecca: We have a couple of other episodes of tea for teaching that also talk about the NACE competencies that we’ll link in our show notes for folks that are interested in that particular detail. So we just talked about NACE. Can you talk a little bit about the benefits that students get from it being a study abroad experience?

Beth: Yeah, at least for myself, the world is definitely interconnected. And so what I loved about how we interacted with employers is that we first looked at those that were connected here to Kentucky, and then we reached out with those that would be overseas. So for example, we have a company named Alltech that’s located here in Lexington. And so our students on the Dublin trip was able to actually go see their location. So it wasn’t one of those things that “Oh, hey, we’re just randomly seeing a company.” We’re very methodical about how that connection is. Another company, Compass, for example, does food services for our University of Kentucky health care system. So it wasn’t one of those things of just like, “Oh, we’re just gonna go see a company.” It was one of those elements of not only is making this connection abroad, but how does this actually impact me back home. And we would actually talk about that. Students would be like, “Alright, yes, you see this in another country, how does cultural awareness make a difference? How does being able to navigate and learn about yourself influence who you’re going to be back at UK?” And one of my favorite questions we asked in the interviews that they had to do for one of the assignments was: “If you’re back on the college campus, and you run into the university president, what are two things you tell them about the program?” And it was really cool to hear from the students that like, “I didn’t think I could learn so much about myself in three weeks, let alone three months about a career,” and others have never been on a plane before to navigate what that looks like. So even if you go into the job market, most likely somewhere along the line, you’re probably going to have to travel somewhere and do connections, but to have that support to have other people with them, when they did it for the first time was really impactful.

Rebecca: I love that reflection question. [LAUGHTER] So many benefits to that.

Marianne: I think the global stage also provides a really unique opportunity to just boost confidence with these students, as Beth was talking about, some of our students had never been on a plane. And not only did they navigate getting on a plane, they navigated getting into and past customs and immigration and all of that. And then the most surprising piece to me, in terms of what this looked like in terms of that confidence boost is at the beginning of our core sessions with the students, they put together kind of a: “these are what my goals are currently.” And by the end of the program, not only physically the confidence that you saw as they stood in front of the class, and they were presenting what their new goals were, for some of the students it expanded the opportunities that they were considering. They had never considered what it might be like to be in a leadership position in a global organization, or for the other students, it solidified what it was that they were wanting to do. And that confidence that they had of “Yes, I’m on the right path,” I think came from them navigating situations that they hadn’t been in before. And then being able to connect with different companies and different leadership individuals within the company, who they could see like, “Oh, my gosh, they were first generation as well, and now they’ve moved abroad, and they have this position in the company,” and the confidence that came from being able to navigate an international city as well as “I have confidence in how I’m going to navigate my career pathway,” that was so amazing to see in the sestudents.

Sue: I will agree with that. I visited, I think, three of the four programs. The program was split into four different groups, two went to Dublin two to London. So there were 15 students in each and I think I’ve visited three of them over the course of the summer, and to see that confidence grow, almost hourly, was incredible. And I will say that I think it translates, we’re hoping anyway, that it will translate, into greater understanding and kind of sense of purpose as a student. So you can see the point of your degree, you can see the point of why you’re struggling through this or that course to make it through to graduation. And of course, we want to see good results in terms of retention rates and graduation rates.

Rebecca: I’ve had the opportunity to teach a couple of travel courses where I’ve had students who had never traveled before, some within the US and some travel abroad. And I agree that seeing the confidence growth in students is such a rewarding experience for the instructors as well as for the students. It’s a really powerful experience. But one of the things that I really love that you’re describing is this connection to alumni, and those really specific intentional connections between the businesses locally as well as abroad. That’s a really beautiful component of your program.

John: And one of the challenges that all colleges face is the relatively high DFW rates generally experienced by first-gen students. And by making clear to the students the salience and the relevance of the material that they’re learning, and how this can open up these possibilities to them in a very obvious manner that they may not naturally see, I can imagine this could be really transformative.

Marianne: I think one of the great moments we had as we were visiting one of our employer partners, as Beth was talking about the spiral curriculum, he had talked about LinkedIn profiles and been helping them and then we get to this employer visit. And they start talking about LinkedIn profiles. And it is almost the exact lecture we had given that morning. And students are turning around and saying, “Oh, my gosh, you told us that this morning, and here’s this employer saying this exact same stuff. You were right.” And so we revisited again, and then the next employer, and so it was the aha moment of “Oh my gosh, this is actually something that I’m going to need and I’m going to use as I navigate my career.”

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what a typical day for a student looks like in this program.

Marianne: There was no typical day, but this will kind of give you some activities they may have been shuffled around a bit. We’d start off with maybe some class time reviewing the visit. Maybe we’d have the day before talking about the experiences that the students had, answering any questions they may have had, how they navigated a challenge, just really taking time to connect and then help them build on the information that we were presenting. Once we kind of move through class time, we might have visited an employer in the afternoon and done a site visit where we not only learned about the company but also some of our employers took us through exercises like design thinking at some of our tech companies, or walking us through interviews and resume reviews in terms of a mock opportunity if you’re applying to their company. And then we may also have a cultural visit in the afternoon, visiting a significant landmark in the area or learning about the history and the culture of the particular space that the students were in. And then in the evenings, our students would maybe get together and cook in the residence hall, or they might go out to dinner together. And so generally we had class time and some cultural visits or an employer visit.

Beth: Yeah, exactly what Marianne said, and when you think about over the three weeks, because we were there for three weeks with these students, the beginning part of the classes were more kind of prep and foundation to get them to know what to expect. And so we broke teams of three, and so we would have one person would be the person who was in charge of introducing the group, we had one person that was the photographer, one person that was in charge of the “Thank you” at the end for each site visit. And that was really cool to see him learn collaboration, but also kind of change up and like, “Oh, well, this person is really interested in architecture, so we’re gonna have him be the speaker for this one, and then I’ll do the photography. And this one over here, we as a group, we actually wrote the thank you note together of what that means to follow up within it, kind of expectations within it.” So that was really cool in terms of curriculum, and kind of how we set that beginning. And then closer to the end like Marianne said, was more like review: “What did you learn from it and reflection?”

John: Do students travel with faculty or staff from the University of Kentucky?

Sue: We structured this program so that each group of students was accompanied and led by two professional staff members from the campus. Typically, it was a person from the Career Center, and a person from the Office of First-Generation Student Support. So it gave the students oftentimes very familiar people who understood where they’re coming from, and the skills they brought to the table, but also a person with the career advice ready for them kind of as needed. So it worked really well, I think, to have those program leaders on the ground with the students. And we weren’t hosted by a university, although we did visit universities in both locations. But we worked with a education abroad partner provider called AIFS. And they have provided the classrooms, they assisted us find student accommodation, and they worked on us with the cultural visits.

Rebecca: I think I remember also reading that you did some work prior to going abroad and some coursework there. Can you talk a little bit about what that looked like?

Marianne: We had an opportunity and clusters with the students, we broke them into smaller groups to help prepare them for what to expect as they were preparing for their education abroad experience. And so we covered a variety of topics of what about your luggage? What is a carry on? What is it checked bag? How do you move through security? What can you expect in an airport? What can you expect in terms of customs and immigration? We talked about how to prepare for the weather, how to think about budgeting, and being prepared for different costs of things, or how you might be able to consider all of the different pieces and parts of preparing for souvenirs that you want to get… all those different things, a variety of cluster topics to make sure that our students not only had a connection with the person that they were going to be traveling with, but also the other students. And then it gave us space for any of the questions that students may have had, as they were preparing for this experience.

Beth: It’s just a great way, because a lot of times when I’ve done education abroad, you might meet at the airport for the first time. But what I loved about this program is that we literally got to know each other prior, to at least kind of understand maybe some of the things that they were concerned about as a student. And so then as a staff member, we can be like, “Okay, let me give you some extra resources.” I remember one particular student, I ended up calling her mom and her was on the phone, because she’s like, “Okay, Beth, I know you went through the whole situation of what we need to do for the airport, but my mom has questions.” And I was like, “Sure, no problem. Let’s talk.” And so her mom was like, “Oh, nice to meet you Beth. Her mom dropped her off at the airport, gave me the biggest hug. When her mom picked us up. She was like giving everybody in the group a hug, because we were extended family for them for three weeks.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the timing of the program?

Sue: So last year, it was the first time through, so I think we had to do things very quickly. We had to assemble a team, we had to get these clusters stood up. We had to recruit students, we had to find the scholarships for them and all the rest of it in kind of a hurry. So this year, we’re spacing it out a bit more. So we’re recruiting for summer 24 right now. And we’re going to repeat the program, we’re going to take 30 students in two groups to London and 30 to Dublin in two groups. So we’re excited about that. And then their travel occurs during the summer vacation, early in the summer vacation, so May and June this year.

Marianne: The interesting piece of the timing as well was I was on the first group that went to Dublin, and we were actually able to connect with the group that was coming after us in the airport as they were preparing to go out, so my students were able to pass along some words of wisdom and some thoughts to the group that was coming after them. And so that was a really fun piece with the timing to be able to catch up with each other in the airport.

Beth: In terms of curriculum, the way it was set up, there was one class that everybody was part of. So we actually met as a group virtually, with all 60 students ahead time. So everyone had that basic foundation. And then when we’re actually over there, that was when we did the actual classes for the individual pieces. So I did Dublin two and London one. And so at the same time, we’re having curriculum in terms of giving feedback for the next group coming over.

John: Now, you mentioned that there was some time spent acquiring funding, could you talk a little bit about the funding that was used for this program?

Sue: Sure. And this is a little unusual, I think. It was a surprise to us when the Kentucky State legislature or general assembly awarded some funding to all Kentucky institutions of higher education to support displaced students, so refugee students primarily. As part of that program, they allocated a certain amount of funding also to support education abroad and exchanges. So when we realized that, which was only in the summer before, so summer 22, we thought, “Aha, we could finally make this happen. This thing we’ve all been talking about in different ways about connecting careers, connecting first-generation students with education abroad, and making a real difference for those students, and we could do it at a actually a quite a big scale for education abroad, 60 students is quite significant.” So we seized the opportunity. The trick, then, of course, was to find matching money, because it didn’t cover everything. So we found some money internally at the university, we used education abroad scholarships, our administration at the very highest levels awarded us some funding to kind of back us up if we needed it. So it was a team effort. And this upcoming year, we don’t have the state money. That was a one time deal, so we’re funding it all from our university funds.

Rebecca: So cost is always a concern, I think, for first-gen students, and may be one of the reasons why they don’t even think they might ever go abroad. I know that was the case for me, as a student. I didn’t think I was ever going to get a chance to go abroad, but I got to when I was in graduate school. So can you talk a little bit about what this meant to the first-gen students or if you had trouble initially even getting them to think that they could really actually participate in this program?

Beth: Yes, one of our students on Dublin two got the email about applying and that the program was going to be there when we started doing the recruitment. And he was like, “Is this a scam? Is this true?” We went over to the first-gen office to verify because he’s like, “it sounded too good to be true.” And so once we got the word out that it was, of course, students applied and said, “Okay, let’s do this.”

Sue: You’re absolutely right that it’s the number one barrier of first-generation students is finances. And I think it was the majority of our students on this program are Pell recipients. So first-gen is a very big category. But we did try and make a difference, particularly for students whose financial means were limited. So it was a tremendous opportunity for them. And as Beth said, some of them were very disbelieving at first of the opportunity, they couldn’t understand how this was happening, because they hadn’t thought that this was something that they could ever achieve. And that was another reason why we kept it to three weeks, because many of these students… well, in fact, I would say all of them… were working during the summer. So three weeks away from your summer job and earning is a big deal, and others had family obligations as caregivers, and so on. So that’s the reason why we ended up with a three-week timeframe was partly to be sensitive to those needs. And then in terms of the financing, London is an expensive city, and Dublin is an expensive city. And these are young people, these are primarily first- and second-year university undergraduates. So budgeting to shop, to eat, to go out is difficult, and especially when it’s a different currency and options are different, and the prices are different. So that was a big element that we’ve reflected on since this first time through, and I think we’ll be maybe just a little bit more supportive. We were supportive, but maybe just a little bit more supportive of how to budget when overseas because they were responsible for their own spending money on this program.

Rebecca: What about things like food or other personal costs for travel, was that included in the program?

Sue: So there were a few meals included. There were a few like welcome dinners and things like that included, but by and large students were responsible for their own catering as it were for their own food. And it turned out that was kind of an issue because it takes a bit of knowledge of the stores and what’s available and what’s affordable. It takes a bit of knowledge of how to cook in a budget conscious way and not just grab the processed thing. And of course these supermarkets are unfamiliar and I would say one thing we did think a lot about upon return and when we debriefed this was giving the students a bit more time to adjust to that situation and to learn their options and to cook because sometimes we were so busy with all these things we were doing every day that they didn’t have much time to plan their suppers, or to go shopping and cook so I’ll let Beth and Marianne chime in because they were on the ground, they know more, but that was the kind of impression I got.

Marianne: So, we had some bargain shoppers in my group that found meal deals at like close Tescos, things like that. And so it was always kind of a competition of “Did you know that the sandwich was included in the meal deal?” And so it was a pretty inexpensive breakfast and lunch and sometimes dinner opportunity for students that became somewhat of a game, to figure out, like, what are you going to put in your meal deal this time? And so a lot of our students were supportive in terms of sharing different deals that restaurants were doing. Did you know that on Tuesday, they have a student special where you can get this, this, and this. And so they were really great about sharing some of the tips and tricks and things that they picked up along the way. And then also sharing meals. So going to the grocery, and he brought me to purchase something, while I may not eat this whole thing, but if you split it with me, then I’ll get the next one. And so they were really great, that was really fun to see them kind of helping and sharing deals that they found along the way.

Beth: And one of the things that we did is we actually offered a time if someone wanted to come with me to the grocery store. We did a local one so they could see how close something was if they by chance needed something quick to eat. But then we actually went with them, which was one was a little bit farther away have more of the discount kind of larger what they would think of a supermarket type of thing here in the United States, just because, over there, you kind of buy more what you need, versus “I’m going to have lots in the refrigerator and freezer within it.” And we actually had a couple of times where we had meals together because it was someone’s birthday and we wanted to celebrate. And very similar to what Marianne said that they would be like, “here’s a deal,” or “hey, I’m going to make soup anybody else want?” And we had one student who loved to cook, and others are like, hey, awesome, I will help clean up, or pitch in for some money if you would be willing to be the person that actually wanted to make the meal, and they actually collaborated teamwork that way too. So it was really cool to see.

Beth: One thing I wanted to share is the fact I think people think that education abroad is three weeks, and then you’re done. For us, this is a lifetime connection for these students. So we actually had dinner with both groups separately, so they could get together and meet each other and see each other, I’ll get messages being like “Guess who I saw on campus?” and they have a competition of how many times they see a certain student, be like “I saw them three times this week, Beth, I saw this one four,” but even moreso is this confidence coming back to have to go after the dreams that they want. We had a student who, I’ll be very honest, had a really rough home life and had a lot of confidence issues and got over there had a chance to start talking, had a really good conversation with a couple employers. And we did a networking night where we invited all the employers back and they could come and network with the students. And she had a really good conversation with some of our staff that we actually had come over from UK to kind of see the program as well. And she followed up, wrote a note back to say thank you for this conversation, I appreciate it. This is what I’m looking for in terms of career or job, and that person connected her with to somebody back here in Lexington, she then goes and reached out to that person, met with them, interviewed, and now has an IT position that she never thought possible a year ago. So that’s really cool to actually see them do this steps, it’s one thing for us to say go do, it’s another for them to actually gain the confidence to go and actually obtain it.

Rebecca: What a great story.

John: One of the things that I think you’ve all mentioned is that this creates a really tight bond among the students as well as the connections to the staff members they traveled with. And that sense of belonging has been shown in a lot of studies to be a major factor in student retention. And I think programs like this can create really strong bonds that can help students be more likely to succeed.

Sue: I will agree with that. There were two young women on one of the programs who became fast friends. And I assumed they had been friends forever, and I just was chatting with them, and I said, “You know, you must have known each other a long time.” They said “no, we just met.” And one of them said that she was so excited to come back to UK in the fall… so this semester… and I said “well, weren’t you excited anyway?” And she said, No, she wasn’t, that her freshman year had been a little lonely, and she had not made a good connection with her roommate and was struggling a little bit to fit in. And she said “Now I have a best friend on campus, and we’re gonna have fun the next few years together. And I thought that was awesome.

Marianne: And I’ll brag on our students. They were phenomenal. I mean, when I told people that I was going to go to a foreign country with 15 college students, and we were going to travel the city and we were going to do all of the things they looked at me like, “Why would you take college students to an international city?” They were fantastic. They were supportive. They were curious. They were beyond what you could even imagine in terms of the questions that they were asking and the way that they engaged with the curriculum. We have phenomenal students here at the University of Kentucky and I was lucky to get to take 15 and I have them running across campus yelling my name saying “Oh my gosh, this is the first time that I’ve seen you since you’ve been back on campus” or seeing each other on campus is such an honor to be a part of just that family that we now have. And, like I said, they were the best students you could ever imagine traveling with. I do it again in a heartbeat.

Sue: So one thing that really impressed me about these students, actually taught me a lot about this category “first-generation” which is kind of thrown around is that these students are really amazing. I mean to get to the University of Kentucky, to be studying their majors, to be making good academic progress is an accomplishment for these students and they have the resilience, they have the resourcefulness, they have the curiosity, as Marianne said, to make the most out of education abroad. So these are not students who took this for granted. When they were in London or Dublin, their eyes and ears were open all the time. And they were busy taking it all in, reflecting on it, and they absolutely were some of the very best students I’ve ever seen on an education abroad program.

Rebecca: So do you have plans to evaluate the success of this program?

Sue: So yes, we built assessment into this program from the beginning. So we had a researcher from the College of Education who helped us and administered pre- and then during, and then post-surveys of each student. So she collected information about their responses and reflections to the assignments and to their learning, and also something about their intercultural learning as it were. So we’re going to also track these students and see how they do compared to the peers who didn’t get the opportunity to study abroad in terms of their academic progress and their graduation.

John: Excellent. We look forward to hearing more about how well this program works. We always end by asking, what’s next?

Sue: Well, we want to do this again. [LAUGHTER] So we think it’s working. We’ve got good results so far, assuming that the next summer is also successful. We hope to just keep tweaking it, making it better and better for the students and maybe building it in as kind of a signature program for first-generation students here at the University of Kentucky.

Rebecca: An incredible thing to invest in and offer first-gen students. Thanks so much for sharing the details of your program.

Sue: Thank you for having us. And thanks for your interest in this endeavor.

John: It sounds like a wonderful program.

Sue: Yeah, it’s been a blast to develop and to be part of I must say. It’s been fantastic. And I don’t think we mentioned but perhaps we should that over one quarter of our undergraduate students identify as first generation. So this is a significant population at our university which serves students of all sorts from the state of Kentucky and outside.

John: Excellent.

Sue: Thank you both.

Marianne: Thank you all

John: Thank you for taking the time to join us and to share this wonderful program.

Sue: Yeah, appreciate it.


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

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


322. Accessibility Challenge

Digital accessibility can be intimidating for faculty and staff. In this episode, Michele Thornton, Laura Harris, and Kate DeForest join us to examine one example of a gamified approach to professional development. Michele is an Associate Professor of Management at SUNY Oswego, Laura is the Web Services and Distance Learning Librarian at SUNY Oswego. and Kate is the Digital Content Coordinator at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes


John: Digital accessibility can be intimidating for faculty and staff. In this episode, we examine one example of a gamified approach to professional development.


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 Michele Thornton, Laura Harris, and Kate DeForest. Michele is an Associate Professor of Management at SUNY Oswego, Laura is the Web Services and Distance Learning Librarian at SUNY Oswego. and Kate is the Digital Content Coordinator at SUNY Oswego. Welcome Michele, Laura, and Kate.

Kate: Hello. Thank you.

Michele: Thanks for having us.

Laura: Thank you.

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

Michele: I am. I’m having a London fog. It felt like a good choice given the kind of rainy day.

John: … and Laura?

Laura: I am drinking the Comfort and Joy tea by Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: Sounds nice for a chilly day.

John: …and Kate?

Kate: I’m enjoying a nice chai tea.

Rebecca: Look at the variety in this group. [LAUGHTER] I have Harsha today, which is a black tea.

John: That sounds rather harsh and a bit different than the comfort and joy. [LAUGHTER] And I have, in the spirit of the season, a Christmas tea today.

Rebecca: So we invited you here today to talk about the article that we co-authored, titled “10-Day Campus aAccessibility Challenge” in a recent special issue of the Journal for Post Secondary Education and Disability. The accessibility challenge was an initiative developed by the workgroup on accessibility practices at SUNY, which you’ve all been an active member of. So first, Can each of you briefly describe how you got involved with accessibility work at SUNY Oswego and some of the specific projects that you’ve worked on? And we’ll start with Michele.

Michele: Thanks, Rebecca. My first introduction was by being part of our initial cohort of faculty accessibility fellows in 2019. So that was a year-long fellowship, where myself and a handful of other faculty members from across the campus were able to learn the importance of things like Universal Design for Learning, build skills and capacity around principles of digital accessibility, and become part of the growing community on campus that was really advocating for a more accessible and inclusive campus.

John: And we do have an earlier podcast episode on the origins of that project, and we’ll share a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: Kate?

Kate: Okay, I was hired as the digital accessibility analyst and remediation specialist in 2018. I was primarily focused on assessing and remediating online course materials at that time. When I was hired, I was invited to be in the work group, and quickly became one of the main resources for remediation and accessibility at that time. I’ve been involved with creating our digital accessibility website, many of the written and video tutorials, launching the 10-day accessibility pilot program and other subsequent programs, and currently involved with creating accessibility course modules.

Rebecca: Laura?

Laura: One aspect of my job is to support online learning and teaching. And in that role, Rebecca and a former colleague invited me to be part of the workgroup focused on facilitating the creation of accessible materials for online courses. Over the years, the scope of that workgroup has broadened, and now we focus on accessible practices in general. One of the projects I’ve really enjoyed is providing training on different models of disability.

John: Rebecca, you’re one of the people who put together the accessibility challenge. So could you explain your role in it?

Rebecca: Sure. I am one of the two founding members of our workgroup on accessibility practices at SUNY Oswego, and was the first facilitator of our Faculty Accessibility Fellows Program that Michele was in. So Kate, before we jump in too far with our accessibility challenge discussion, can you first help our audience understand what we mean on our campus by accessibility?

Kate: Sure. So the bare bones basic definition, as paraphrased, would be allowing a person with a disability and a person without a disability, the same or similar experience in the same or similar manner. And we are speaking of it in the digital capacity, so using websites and digital content, digital documents, and allowing people to basically experience them in a very similar way.

John: And before we go any further, could someone tell us what the accessibility challenge is? Michele, can you set the stage for us by providing an overview of the accessibility landscape at SUNY Oswego and the circumstances that led to the development of the accessibility challenge, and also, what exactly that accessibility challenge was?

Michele: For me, it’s hard to separate out the genesis of the accessibility challenge from two other important existing factors. The idea came to us in fall of 2020. And so if we can all put ourselves back there, we had just come out of the first spring of the onset of the COVID19 pandemic. That took our campus, like many others out there, into this rapid switch to online learning, and one that really brought the harsh light on many accessibility barriers that parts of our campus had previously not really observed or had much experience with. We’ve already talked about and highlighted a couple of different ways that our campus has been thinking about accessibility with the workgroup, our Fellows Program, and so we have this long tradition of campus leadership and support around promoting accessibility. But the unprecedented need that the pandemic really illuminated revealed that we needed to move even quicker to build a more robust, more skilled, more engaged community that would be prepared to meet the challenges that our students and faculty were facing. We had historically been offering a lot of different trainings and one-on-one faculty support, but we felt like we needed something much more concentrated, quick, that would be fun and enjoyable for folks to participate in. The pandemic was just in its first 12 months, and people were stressed and feeling isolated, nervous or afraid. We wanted to create an opportunity to connect as well as learn from each other. So we’ve talked about this as a 10-day challenge. It was essentially two weeks of an online community engaged learning experience, where folks signed up and took different asynchronous and sometimes synchronous online courses to build their skills and capacity around accessibility.

Rebecca: So Laura, can you talk a little bit about some of the design considerations that went into the challenge?

Laura: Sure, Rebecca. The workgroup often discusses training and professional development opportunities we can provide to faculty, staff, and students. And as Michele indicated, when we had those discussions in late 2020, we knew that many people were feeling overburdened, disconnected, and disenfranchised. And we didn’t want to add to people’s mental loads, we wanted to craft something that was fun and supportive. So one of the theories underlying our thinking is self-determination theory, which suggests that experiences that support individuals’ experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connectedness, will provide the best kinds of motivation. I want to talk about competence first. I think promoting competence around accessibility practices has always been at the core of what we do. However, the increase in online instruction caused by the pandemic made fostering this competence a necessity. We just didn’t have, and we do not have now, the staffing to remediate every course. Moving on to relatedness, I feel that offering a challenge instead of regular professional development opportunities really allowed us to foster that sense of connection. With challenges, there’s a shared goal, and when it comes to pulling people together, a shared goal can be more powerful than a shared interest. I also think that, with challenges, there’s often a more intentional effort at providing support and encouragement to participants. For example, the organizers behind National Novel Writing Month host live Q&As and have collected pep talk letters addressed to their participants written by well-known authors. So while competence and relatedness were things we considered early in the process at the macro level, the ability to foster autonomy and agency came through when we were planning the details. One of the other theories we incorporated into the design of the challenge is Universal Design for Learning (or UDL). I would argue that agency and choice are at the core of UDL, which focuses on providing learners with multiple ways of achieving a learning objective. So we made a point to offer multiple ways for Challenge participants to learn about and apply various accessibility concepts.

Rebecca: So Kate, can you describe the challenge and how it worked?

Kate: Sure, we wanted to basically simplify accessibility and allow all content creators to understand basic accessibility principles. So this challenge was centered around creating accessible Word documents through Microsoft Word and Google Docs. We broke it down, broke down accessibility into bite-sized pieces, and we focused on one topic each day. So we started off by introducing accessibility, we covered what it is, why it’s important, and who it benefits, because that’s sometimes lost in translation, depending on the definition that people think of accessibility. Then we went in and we focused on specific skills. So some of the topics included properly structuring content such as how to semantically make headings and lists. We covered writing alternative text for images, captioning videos, effectively using color, and providing descriptive hyperlinks as some of the basic principles. And then the last couple of days of the challenge ended with some self reflections, sort of what did the participants learn? Did the program help boost their competence around accessibility? …that type of feeling. So we send daily emails to the participants, and these emails give a brief background of today’s topic, again, who it benefits and why it’s important. We provided written and video tutorials that explained how to do the task, and then asked the participants to incorporate that principle into the documents of their choice. We also provided other related articles and sources of information, as well as links to live zoom sessions that were being offered that same day around that particular topic.

John: Laura, can you talk a little bit about the timing of the challenge and how participants were recruited to participate in it?

Laura: So for many years, the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching has provided a series of professional development opportunities that are offered for faculty and staff, and are usually led by faculty and staff. These usually are about two weeks before and after the spring semester. The ones that we have in January we refer to as the winter breakout sessions, we have been offering professional development on accessibility practices during the winter and spring breakout sessions for the last few years. So it really just made sense for us to offer the sessions related to the challenge at the same time. As far as recruitment goes, we worked with the Office of Communications and Marketing, they did a news story that was shared with the entire campus, they emailed all faculty, staff, and students. And we also communicated through some smaller communication channels, like the email list for the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.

Michele: If I could just build on a couple of things that Laura said, I think that we really credit the success of our first challenge to the timing of it and the relationship with the Winter Breakout sessions. I think there’s two important reasons for that, is that this period of time is between semesters. So we know that while faculty certainly are anticipating professional development at that time, they also tend to have kind of allocated some time and space to work on it. Secondly, I do think that if we had tried to replicate this at another time during the year, and rebuilt the structure and rebuilt the marketing around it all separately, that would have been just an even heavier lift for our committee that was working on it. So that connection to our existing structure mattered for sure.

Rebecca: We also had students participating. So, previous professional development had focused primarily on faculty and staff. And this particular initiative really invited students into the scope as well. And most students aren’t taking classes at that time. So there was a little more flexibility for students to take on the challenge as well.

John: One of the things we should note is that the timing of doing this in the early stages of COVID probably helped because faculty were using much more digital content, and were aware of how much they didn’t know, in some cases, about using digital content effectively. So I think all those things came together to help make the program remarkably successful. Laura mentioned that we had been doing workshops for a while, but we should probably credit Rebecca with that, because that was one of the first tasks she took on, actually even before she became associate director of the teaching center. We asked her to do a number of workshops, I think, in your very first year here actually on accessibility.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: …and that hasn’t stopped since then.

Rebecca: No, it hasn’t. [LAUGHTER] I think one of the other things that we might want to also point out about the success is not just the timing in terms of the January sessions, but also that our involvement in accessibility on campus was starting to mature. We already had campus-wide initiatives leading up to this particular one. And the first cohort of faculty accessibility fellows had completed in 2019. So we also had those fellows to support this initiative during COVID. So Michele, you spearheaded the evaluation of the challenge, can you talk a little bit about the methods used and the results of the challenge?

Michele: I think when we first came up with this idea, the first thing we did was tried to see if there were other models out there that we could pull from. And while I think there’s other examples of challenges, we knew early on, we had a hunch, that what we were doing was kind of novel and unique. And because of that, it was important for us not just to document what we were doing, but to have some attempt to gauge the impact that it was having, I think this would be helpful for us for a couple of reasons. One, just our ability to improve on future iterations or efforts that we would do in this space. But also, I think that you might start getting a sense that all of us feel really passionate and strongly about this. And so the ability for us to advocate beyond our own campus and share what we were doing and help others understand the impacts of it was important for us in terms of documenting and gathering data. So we took all sorts of approaches to gathering data, everything from monitoring the open rates on the emails that went out across campus, to looking at our website traffic through Google Analytics, but the majority of the data came from a pre- and post-set of survey questions. So we did everything from ask folks when they first started to reflect a little bit around their motivation. This gets at some of the things that Laura was sharing about our initial design, about why people were participating and what they were looking for from the challenge, all the way up to then in the post-survey asking folks, as Kate mentioned, to reflect on their experiences. From those surveys, we were really able to pull out key qualitative and quantitative data to get a sense of what motivated folks to join, really understand how their confidence changed and increased in their ability to do things like define accessibility, to be able to make a Word document digitally accessible, but also just understand what they enjoyed most. And over and over again, I think the thing that we learned that probably was maybe most surprising and really nice kind of unexpected benefit was folks reporting that they really enjoyed being part of the learning community together. and the sense of being part of something that was bigger than just “Hey, I’m learning some new skills to teach my class or to send out more accessible emails,” but understanding that they were sort of joining and connecting into this broader movement that was happening on campus was, I think, one of our most surprising and also exciting takeaways.

Rebecca: I think one thing that we didn’t mention that might be worth noting here, especially after you were talking about the surveys is that we did prime our audience at the academic affairs retreat in August, leading up to the fall 2020 semester, by having a few minutes on the agenda to talk about accessibility and to get the academic community aware of digital accessibility. And then the challenge followed up only a few months later.

John: Kate, can you talk briefly about some of the iterations of the project that follow that initial 10-Day Challenge.

Kate: So the initial challenge was held in January of 2021, as we mentioned, and March of 21, we held a presentations challenge, which focused on creating accessible presentations using PowerPoint and Google Slides. This was a weekly challenge, meaning that participants received one email each week for four weeks that focused on one topic. We also provided them with background information, written and video tutorials, and additional resources in the same manner that we did for the initial 10-Day Challenge. And then in January of 22, we ran a five-day accessibility challenge. This was formatted in a very similar manner to the 10-Day Challenge, but we basically split the content into two and created two tracks: we had a beginner level and an intermediate level. Each day, again, highlighted one topic, we provided participants with background information, the tutorials, and additional resources. But this time, participants could choose what content to work on for each day, whether they wanted to stick with the beginner track or go to the more advanced track or do a combination of both.

Rebecca: So Michele, can you talk a little bit about the newest iteration of the project that’s currently in progress?

Michele: I am so excited [LAUGHTER] to talk about the newest iteration of it, because really, this new version has given us a way to massively scale up what we started as kind of this idea of doing a 10-day challenge. Last fall, the entire SUNY system migrated to a new common learning management system. And when that happened, members of our team started imagining a way that we could use that common system to develop an asynchronous customizable version of our challenge that could be deployed across the 60+ universities, schools, campuses across SUNY. We applied for and got a nice grant to support the development of this idea. And there is a really fantastic team, committed faculty, staff, and even students here at Oswego now working to bring this to fruition. And our goal is to pilot it broadly this coming spring, but here at Oswego, we’re going to come back to our roots with the winter breakout session, and we’ll launch the first iteration of it and be able to get some feedback in the next couple of weeks here.

John: And the grant that funded it was a SUNY Innovative Instructional Technology Grant. We should credit SUNY for providing this competitive grant program. Could each of you provide a bit of advice for anyone thinking of doing this at their own institution?

Michele: I’ll start, and I think that we used a pretty big variety of resources. So we didn’t just kind of create material from scratch, we also linked out to things like existing resources from Deque, we pulled in literature and other articles that folks have read. So I think that the biggest takeaway, I would suggest, is that you can do this as big of a scale or as small, you could have a three-day challenge, it doesn’t need to be 10. But starting anywhere, and recognizing your capacity and reaching out to use other existing resources is a good way to supplement if you perhaps don’t have as big of a pool to draw from in terms of internally on your own campus.

Laura: I would add to that just starting wherever you are with whatever resources or personnel you have, it doesn’t have to be a fancy initiative. It can be sort of a grassroots within your own department or as small as you want it to be. But just getting started and sharing out whatever information you have is something, it’s movement in the right direction.

John: Following up on Kate’s comment, this is very consistent with Tom Tobin’s plus one strategy, start with some small changes, and then build on those every semester as you move forward.

Rebecca: In the show notes, we’ll link out to an overview of our challenge as well as the article that we wrote on the challenge.

Michele: You know, the only other thing that I would say is that it’s important to find support and partners and maybe places that you might not expect on campus. So thinking about how to connect this with your campus DEI efforts more broadly, or working with your accessibility resources. Again, we talked about so many different areas where we got support, even the communications and marketing team really helped us, but our CTS team, I think finding those collaborators is a big part of how to ensure something like this can be successful.

John: And CTS is Campus Technology Services.

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

Laura: So something that I’m working on right now is creating a guide that talks about the accessibility features that are available from each of our major database vendors like EBSCO, and ProQuest, just to make those features a little bit more discoverable… accessible… [LAUGHTER] to our users. We try to talk about those in our instruction that we do, but they’re not always obvious.

Kate: So I’ve presented at a number of different conferences, and I’ve talked about the accessibility initiative at Oswego, and this particular challenge and some of our iterations. So I hope to continue that and just kind of share the good word about what Oswego is doing and some of our projects that we’ve been working on and how we can help other campuses or help other departments or people implement similar types of projects.

Rebecca: And how about you, Michele?

Michele: Well, I think I gave it a little bit away, that most of my accessibility work right now is focused on making sure that our new iteration of the Challenge gets off the ground, and we’ve got everybody all hands on deck with that. Beyond that, though, Rebecca, you and I are working on a fun project when we find ourselves with time to take a similar approach in terms of documenting the impacts of accessibility work on our campus. And we interviewed all of the first few cohorts of our campus accessibility fellows, and we’re in the process of trying to figure out what we’ve got there and how that I think shares the story about how Oswego is maturing in its process of working to achieve accessibility, and a more inclusive environment.

Rebecca: Well, thank you all for your work in accessibility, and for sharing that today.

Michele: Thanks for having us.

Kate: Thanks for having us.

Laura: Thank you for having us.

John: Thank you. It’s great talking to all of you and we’ll be seeing you during the winter breakouts very shortly.


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.


321. College Students with Disabilities

Sharing student narratives about their experiences can help us to understand how our instructional and policy decisions impact the student experience. In this episode, Amy Fisk joins us discuss to discuss her research project with Rebecca on the perceptions that students with disabilities have of their learning experiences.

Amy is the Assistant Dean for Accessibility at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Amy oversees the Office of Accessibility Services, which coordinates accommodations and support services for students with disabilities. Prior to her role at Geneseo, Amy coordinated a support program for students on the autism spectrum at SUNY Purchase.

Show Notes


John: Sharing student narratives about their experiences can help us to understand how our instructional and policy decisions impact the student experience. In this episode, we discuss the perceptions students with disabilities have of their learning experiences.


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 Fisk. Amy is the Assistant Dean for Accessibility at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Amy oversees the Office of Accessibility Services, which coordinates accommodations and support services for students with disabilities. Prior to her role at Geneseo, Amy coordinated a support program for students on the autism spectrum at SUNY Purchase. Welcome, Amy.

Amy: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

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

Amy: I drink tea every morning. So I have Bigelow French Vanilla black tea.

Rebecca: It’s a good way to start the day. How about you, John?

John: In honor of the holiday season, I have Christmas tea today.

Rebecca: I’m drinking Blue Sapphire from my favorite tea shop in Canandaigua.

Amy: Where’s that?

Rebecca: It’s right on Main Street. You should go there.

Amy: I should.

John: We’ve invited you to talk about the article: “Perspectives among college students with disabilities on access and inclusion,” which you co-authored with someone else… Rebecca, I think it was.

Amy: That name sounds familiar.

John: …which was published in College Teaching earlier this year. Before we talk about the article, could you tell us a little bit about your role at SUNY Geneseo.

Amy: So I oversee our Office of Accessibility Services, or OAS. I meet with students to coordinate accommodations and other kinds of support services for our students with disabilities. I monitor policies and procedures within our office. And I often work with faculty and staff on issues related to accessibility and inclusion. So for example, I might do trainings across campus, work with administrators on various committees, and having a voice on issues related to disability, education, awareness, and accessibility.

Rebecca: So prior to this project, Amy, and I didn’t actually know each other. Do you want to share the origin story?

Amy: I started my position here a month before COVID became a thing. So I was kind of thrown into some challenges I did not anticipate. But one of the things I had been thinking about, many of my colleagues were thinking about, was: How are we going to support our students with disabilities? We’re really kind of concerned about their trajectory during this challenging time. We wanted to just get some more information about students’ experiences during COVID. I started talking to Nazely about this, and she says, “You know, I know someone who does research who also might be interested in a potential collaboration.” So that’s how I got connected to Rebecca. And ultimately, we shared an interest in learning more about the impact of COVID on our students within our respective roles on our campuses. We knew that this was a really challenging time for all of us, but especially for our students with disabilities who had already been experiencing barriers pre pandemic. And so we really wanted to hear from our students about their experiences, and what can we learn about access and inclusion moving forward, even when the dust settles and we talk about things post COVID?

John: A lot of the studies that have been done have been quantitative studies. And your study is a qualitative study. Could you talk a little bit about how this qualitative research complements the quantitative research that’s been done?

Amy: Sure. So ultimately, we wanted to gather students’ stories, and many of our findings from our studies are reflective of findings from past studies on challenges and barriers students with disabilities face compared to students without disabilities. But we wanted to identify these specifically within the context of remote learning. And also within the context of navigating this challenging time just in life, we really wanted that student narrative. And we also wanted to assess the positive things that were happening, the practices that were helping our students feel successful, to really help inform tangible takeaways and recommendations to our readers. And we hoped for this information to be relevant, like I said, when the dust settles and regardless of teaching modality. And I think it’s important to highlight that despite the obvious challenges that COVID brought, it has highlighted the importance of accessibility in higher education and really gave us an opportunity to reassess what we’ve been doing, our everyday policies and practices, and we really wanted to highlight that from the student perspective. Beyond that, we also wanted to talk about the needs of our students with disabilities within the context of access and inclusion. So, often disabilities and identities, that tends to be left out of conversations related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. So it wasn’t just about how we need to provide appropriate classroom accommodations, but what are the ways that we can be more inclusive, promote a sense of belonging, proactively provide equal access? So those were the things that we had in mind as we were designing our study.

Rebecca: One of the things that comes up in a lot of conversations, at least more recently in higher ed., is this growing number of students who are registering for accommodations and also the mental health crisis. Can you talk a little bit about that to provide some context for our discussion today?

Amy: Sure. So the mental health needs of college students with disabilities was becoming really apparent before COVID hit, really significant needs related to depression, anxiety, other severe psychiatric impairments. And the studies that had been done around the time of COVID really highlighted those issues of more and more students connecting to their disability services offices, self-identifying as a student with a disability where they have a clinical levels of depression, anxiety, other debilitating mental health needs. And that theme came out in our study as well.

John: Did all the discussions of the challenges of COVID help encourage students to become more willing to declare their mental health challenges or their other needs that perhaps they might have been more reluctant to state prior to this time?

Amy: I think so. I think there is a shift in our culture, and it being okay to talk about mental health and mental illness, for students to say, “I’m having a really hard time, I’m struggling,” because mental health is a spectrum. We all experience a variety of emotions throughout the day, throughout an hour, and throughout our lifetime. And I think it’s becoming slowly de-stigmatized in talking about mental illness and the importance of promoting mental health, especially among our college-age population. A lot of college campuses are really taking seriously the wellness of their students on campus just because of the rise in numbers of students needing that extra support, because colleges across our country are noticing a pretty significant increase. And I do think COVID has propelled that de-stigmatization of talking about mental health.

Rebecca: We’ve talked in the past on this podcast with Kat MacFarlane about some of the barriers that students face in just even approaching and asking for accommodations, having to register with an office of disability services, or whatever the equivalent is on the campus, and having to self identify. And then a lot of students don’t actually choose to do that for a wide variety of reasons, some associated with stigma, but we are seeing increased registrations. So does that mean that there’s increased disability?

Amy: Yes, I think there are a variety of factors and more students connecting with disability services offices. One, I think high schools are better preparing students with disabilities to enter the post-secondary environment. Two, I think our offices are becoming more visible on campus. Again, I think there’s also a de-stigmatization of disability and accessibility services offices, and we’re becoming more visible and relevant on college campuses. And third, I think colleges are starting to talk about disability as an important facet of diversity more and more, I think there’s certainly room for improvement, but I think that conversation is starting to happen. So more students are finding their way into our offices.

Rebecca: So three key themes emerged in our research about the perceptions of students with disabilities, of our institutions, and their experience, and of belonging. And so those three themes are accommodations and accessibility, building relationships, and community, and then course structure and design. Perhaps we can take them one at a time here. Let’s start with accommodations and accessibility. Can you first start with what’s the difference between accommodations and accessibility? Because we know that this is often something that’s confusing to folks.

Amy: Sure. So an a ccommodation, by definition, is designed to remove some sort of barrier that an individual with a disability is experiencing. So an academic accommodation, for example, might be having extra time to take an exam, because timed tests can be a barrier for some students. Maybe it’s a notetaking accommodation because they need assistance accessing that lecture material. Sometimes it’s ensuring that the course materials themselves are accessible, that they can be read through a screen reader. Sometimes the accommodation is related to a course policy such as attendance for a student with a more severe chronic medical condition. So it is an individualized process to assess what an appropriate accommodation would look like. But the purpose of it is to remove some sort of barrier so that this person has equal access to their environment. And so accommodations, though necessary, is something that we’re legally required to provide for the ADA. It’s really a reactive way of ensuring equal access. It’s a floor, it’s a minimum. Accessibility, on the other hand, is about inclusion from the start, so that individual accommodation may not even be needed. And something I like to highlight is that accessibility is not about lowering standards. It’s sending a message that everyone belongs in this space and that inclusion matters.

John: What were some of the most common barriers that students reported facing related to accommodations and accessibility in your study.

Amy: Some of those barriers for students just not receiving their approved accommodations during remote learning, including extended time on tests, for example, or online course materials just not being accessible, or having to continually remind instructors about their accommodations, explain why they needed the accommodation in the first place, negotiating terms of pre-approved accommodations. And this was particularly true among students with what we might call an invisible or non-appearance disabilities such as learning disabilities, ADHD, mental health disabilities, these students are less likely to be believed and questioned about the validity of their disability or their need for accommodation. So those were some pretty significant barriers for students and just not receiving the accommodations that they were approved for.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that was also highlighted as a result of our study taking place, whilst COVID was in full force is how many campus resources students with disabilities and other students depend upon every day. So we had students reporting things like” I didn’t have access to a printer to pull up text when it was more of an image instead of an accessible text that could have been expanded digitally, or having access to a quiet space, like the library.”

Amy: Yeah, that was really significant. And then that is where you also saw some other equity disparities. So there were some students who live down near New York City in very populated areas, there was a lot going down there at the time. COVID, if we recall, some students did not have quiet spaces at home, whereas other students had quiet home offices and their parents may have been at home with them, helping to support them. And then other students who didn’t have a quiet space whatsoever took on more caretaking responsibilities, didn’t have access to WiFi. So those equity disparities continued to widen during COVID beyond the disability barrier, so that was something significant, I think that needed to be highlighted,

Rebecca: What are some of the factors related to accessibility and accommodations that actually resulted in positive perceptions?

Amy: So our students actually reported some very positive interactions with their instructors. So when receiving a student’s letter of accommodation, or like an accommodation notification that would come through our office, some would reach out and ask the student “How can I support you? How can I help provide this accommodation?” One student even noted how they appreciated that the instructor didn’t call them out in class, because that had happened before. So I think just preserving the students’ dignity, reaching out to the student, those were the kinds of things that our students reported as making a significant difference.

John: I know you’re study focused on the status of students during COVID, but in your role addressing these issues now, have the changes in faculty behavior persisted? Have faculty continued to become more sensitive to some of the accessibility and accommodation needs of students as we move back to more classroom instruction?

Amy: So in conversation with colleagues, other disability service providers across SUNY, but also across the country, I think we’ve seen a mix. I think there are some who just wanted to go back to normal, and didn’t we all. I think COVID, again, was a very challenging time and faculty too didn’t have a ton of support, and also really struggled with having that emergency shift to a remote learning modality and some didn’t have the skills or support to really deliver courses in the way that would have facilitated student success. So they were really looking forward to getting back to that in-person modality, back to the pedagogy that we’re used to, and that may have posed some new barriers for students coming back to college campuses. Conversely, we also saw instructors taking some of those learned lessons from the remote learning period and applying them when we did come back to campus. So I do know a number of instructors who, for example, are still utilizing the lecture videos they created during COVID and post them on their learning management system for students who may not have been able to attend class that day, for example, so they can still get the lecture material or recreating their course materials and documents so that they are accessible, creating videos, captioning their videos, modifying some course policies to be a bit more inclusive for students. So I think there has been a change in realizing we can still have students be successful and meet the learning objectives, but in a different and more inclusive way.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that we can highlight that also came out in the student experience, and students reported this in our study, is that some of them actually experienced better access during COVID. Not all but some, in part because some of the technology caught up. And when we first went remote, Zoom didn’t have captions available by default and now it does. And so a lot of these things have become norms that people with disabilities have fought for for a long time and never got.

Amy: And I would say that’s true as well with regard to course policies that may have been amended as well, introducing more self paced work, which is also something that students really appreciated during the remote learning period.

John: I just recently returned from the POD conference where there were many, many discussions of this very issue. And in general, the results there were pretty much the same as what you’ve described, that a lot of the changes that faculty made to better accommodate students needs persisted, but some faculty have moved back to old practices and the results are a little bit mixed. But on average, there seemed to be, in a number of studies, some substantial improvement in faculty responses to student needs.

Rebecca: Based on what students have reported, what recommendations do you have for faculty related to accommodations and accessibility to continue the forward movement as opposed to regressing?

Amy: So, actually I did a talk with faculty of one of our academic departments at the start of the semester, reviewing our office, some of the logistical pieces of implementing accommodations, that sort of thing. But before I started really getting into that, we had a discussion about how accommodations, and the dialogue about accommodations with students are approached, how it’s discussed, how it’s communicated, something as simple as taking time to actually review the portion in your course syllabus related to an accommodation, so maybe an accessibility statement. That tells students that this is important, making sure that your online materials are accessible from the start, that tells students that accessibility and inclusion is important. And students are more likely to engage in a reciprocal dialogue with you about their needs when they feel like they’re heard, when they feel like they’re a valued member of the class, that their accommodations are important and not burdensome. That’s a term we heard a lot in our study, that they’re not a burden, or it’s some sort of requirement that the faculty has to fulfill. And so I think this is probably true for most students, regardless of disability. But students in our study specifically noted how they appreciated when the instructor showed empathy and understanding and flexibility, recognizing that students have significant issues outside of the classroom. We all do, between family, finances, things that are happening in our world today. And I think this is important to acknowledge as well, given that we’re seeing an increase in students from various diverse backgrounds coming into the college environment.

Rebecca: And as we’ve talked about many times on the podcast, flexible doesn’t mean not having standards. [LAUGHTER] And it doesn’t mean a free for all. In fact, a lot of our students benefit from structure, which we’ll talk about, I think, in a few minutes, because that ties to one of our other themes. You talked a little bit about faculty workload related to this, and sometimes the perception that faculty put off is that it’s a burden to provide these accommodations. And the reality is that a lot of our students need very similar things. And so if we think about the common requests for accommodations, or digital accessibility strategies, from the start, we often don’t have a lot of one off things that we do need to accommodate, because we’ve already built it into our courses. That’s not to say that there aren’t accommodations that we need to provide additionally, but it may result in less work, ultimately, to really think about these accessibility principles upfront.

Amy: Right. And I think something as simple as making your course lecture materials available on the learning management system available to students. That can help reduce a lot of barriers for many students who might struggle with keeping up with the pace of the lecture and they end up missing material. A student who may have missed class that one day and just needs that material, other students who need to kind of re-teach themselves the material because, perhaps, they had challenges with staying focused during class. I think there’s a variety of reasons why students would benefit from that, but something as simple as that. Often, when students come to see me, there are maybe students who hadn’t needed accommodations previously, but they encountered a particular course where the policies were such that there were new barriers that arose and if the policy was different, perhaps they wouldn’t need that accommodation. That’s a concrete example of the difference between accommodation and accessibility. Some of our course policies and course design may be inadvertently barriers to students with or without disability. So this might include use of pop quizzes, not making lecture materials available to students, not permitting use of technology, not allowing students to even take breaks in class. And so although the purpose of these policies is probably to make students engaged and have accountability in the course, which these are things, of course, we want… again, we’re not lowering standards… students still need to go to class and do the work. But I think some of these policies actually might be having the opposite effect, and it does for students who request accommodations, rather than focus on learning in the course.

John: I think that many faculty who had only taught in a face-to-face modality before COVID, were able to avoid issues of accessibility by not creating digital content. When they moved to remote teaching, though, they were forced to begin developing digital materials and often received some training in creating accessible digital content. Do you think that that training received during COVID helped encourage more accessible practices by faculty in general?

Amy: I think so again, I think some of these practices have shifted over time, and I think COVID has shed light on the benefits of accessibility, not just for people with disabilities, but for all people. I mean, again, use of captions and subtitles can be beneficial for a lot of folks, whether you’re sitting in a busy Starbucks, whether you have a lot going on in the background, maybe you’re trying to juggle work and family, maybe, again, you’re hard of hearing, and so you need access to those captions. Again, accessibility is for all, not just about or for people with disabilities.

Rebecca: The second theme that kind of emerged in our research was building relationships and community, can you share some insights with faculty about the role that they can play in helping students with disabilities feel connected and included? And you highlighted some of those already: providing accommodations and showing students some dignity and respecting their dignity.

Amy: So again, I think engaging with a student and even something as simple as taking the student aside and asking, “How can I make this course more accessible to you?” speaks volumes to the student, that they are valued, they belong, that their needs aren’t burdensome, and they’re more likely to engage in a reciprocal dialogue with the faculty member when they feel like “Oh, they care about me and my success in this course.” I actually knew about a professor who did an anonymous Google form, asking students “How can I make this course more accessible to you? Are there barriers? In reviewing the syllabus, do you have concerns about something within the course?” One of my students actually told me about this, and said how it really made them feel seen and valued. And they were more likely to reach out to the instructor when they needed help, because some students fail to do so out of shame. They’re in a very vulnerable position to talk about their disability related needs to a faculty member, to an authority figure. And so when you do something as simple as asking a student, “How can I make this accessible to you? Are you experiencing barriers right now?” really opens that line of communication with the student and helps them build a positive relationship with that instructor and for maybe other instructors. It also helps to build a sense of community so that other students know that this is really important, and that inclusion matters. And that’s also sending a message to all their students within the classroom that we appreciate and respect diverse learners here in this classroom. I think that’s a teachable moment for our students as well.

Rebecca: So one of the other things that I think emerged is a desire to be connected with peers, but that faculty can play a really important role in facilitating that connection. So I think oftentimes, we just assume in a classroom that at the beginning of class students are socializing and getting to know other folks and have those contacts, but students really reported that having more structured ways of connecting with peers was really beneficial to them outside of class. And that’s something that I think we might take for granted as instructors in the classroom, that it would just kind of organically happen. But that structure, that scaffolding around that really bubbled up as being pretty important to our students,

Amy: Yeah, that peer-to-peer interaction for an even if it was virtual. One of our students said, “Our instructor had a virtual whiteboard that we could all do group work even when it was asynchronous, which is pretty neat.” So that helps set the stage for positive peer interactions, for peers to ask peers for help and mentorship, which is important. Often, students just feel that going to office hours is the only way that they can receive help. And when you provide opportunities to work together, learn together, that really helps, again, open up a line of communication among peers as well, which is a skill that we’re trying to teach our students.

John: And that was especially severe during COVID. But also, when we returned to the classroom, and students were asked to sit at least six feet away from any other student, it certainly reduced the amount of interaction and it has made it a little more challenging for all students to interact with others. That’s been improving, but I think, perhaps, that experience may remind faculty of the importance of building those types of connections. Because even before COVID, there were always some students who may not have felt as much a part of the class community. But I think we’ve all learned the importance of community during that time.

Rebecca: I think that’s just another example of something that students with disabilities have pointed out as being really important to them. But it’s also important to many other students, too.

John: The third theme that emerged from your research was course structure and design. And most of your findings in that particular category align with many other studies involving inclusive pedagogy and Universal Design for Learning. Can you highlight some of the common barriers that students with disabilities faced in terms of course structure and design.

Amy: So one of our students in the study commonly referred to one of their course LMS pages as a scavenger hunt, where they spent more time trying to find the materials and the information on the course rather than on the assignments themselves. So students in general benefit from an organized LMS and an organized syllabus for deadlines, instructions, policies are very clear and concise, but for students with disabilities, this is particularly important. Many of my students with ADHD, health or chronic medical conditions, or a learning disability, they need to plan ahead, because it might take the students double or triple the time to finish a task. So if students don’t know when their next test is, or if instructions aren’t posted a few days before something is due, we’re really not setting them up for success. And I also talked about some of those other policies and course design that might be inadvertent barriers to our students. And so some of our students reported that they did benefit from self-paced tasks, or on untimed learning assessments, having some autonomy and options for completing assignments in a different format, such as doing a presentation or a podcast, instead of a paper, working in groups or choosing to work individually on a project. Those are some of the specific practices our students highlighted as being really helpful. And again, we’re not lowering standards, they have to meet the same standards and learning objectives, as every other student, just perhaps meeting those same standards in a different way. And that’s what Universal Design for learning is all about.

John: One time in a workshop, a faculty member mentioned that they have students do a scavenger hunt in the LMS, to find various course policies, or to find materials. And I cringed at that and I suggested that it might be better to design your course in a way where the students don’t have to struggle to find things so they can focus their cognitive efforts on learning materials, rather than engaging in scavenger hunts, trying to navigate the course. Has that improved recently?

Amy: I think it has, again, in conversations with some of my colleagues who do this work and talking with faculty, I think it’s a mixed bag as it relates to how instructors are approaching course design in their policies. But other faculty are seeing that changing their pedagogy, changing their policies, changing the way they interact and see students and helping to meet those student needs have evolved, because perhaps they themselves have experienced accessibility barriers during COVID as well. And so it’s become more relevant, because they have that lived experience. And they’re seeing that adopting some of these inclusive practices are actually helping to keep their students engaged, that the students, even if they’re struggling, are more likely to tell their faculty member “I’m struggling and I need help, but I want to stay in this course, what kind of flexibility could be provided?”… rather than, we’ll use a college student term, ghosting [LAUGHTER] the class. So I think things are changing in a direction that speaks to some degree of flexibility and helping students meet those same standards, where the focus is more on learning, rather than adherence to an arbitrary policy.

Rebecca: I think the students really underscored maybe without realizing things like the transparency and learning and teaching or TILT, where being really clear and explicit about what the expectation is and how to get there and how you’re going to be assessed really helps and supports students… that structure and those guardrails is what all of us need. How many times have we worked on a paper the second before a deadline? We work on deadlines, and so if we help students with intermediary deadlines, we’re actually helping them and that doesn’t mean that we’re not flexible,and flexibility doesn’t mean not having those.

Amy: It’s about scaffolding. It’s about recognizing that not all students are coming from the same background and experiences and privilege. They’re not on the same playing field, and so providing those scaffolded learning opportunities… that can really help even the playing field, just providing those scaffolded learning opportunities.

Rebecca: And it’s really some of this scaffolded accountability, so it’s not all due at once, It’s helpful to faculty to remind them that there’s feedback throughout a process on a larger assignment, but also it’s helpful for students to hit individual deadlines to evolve their work as well.

John: And that’s something that is found, as you noted earlier, by Mary-Ann Winklemes in her research on Transparency in Learning and Teaching, and also by Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan in their research on the importance of structure in reducing equity gaps. While transparency and structure benefits all students, it especially benefits the students who have equity gaps of some form, and it sounds as if that’s also true for students with disabilities.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think none of this is really new, but oftentimes students with disabilities aren’t necessarily included in those studies about equity always, it’s not always one of the groups that’s pulled out separately.

Amy: Part of what’s next is also hearing about the experiences of students with disabilities from other diverse backgrounds, including students of color, students from lower SES backgrounds, students in the LGBTQ+ community, that those experiences are different and that intersectionality is really key in understanding students’ experiences in the classroom and how we can be more accessible and inclusive because, again, accessibility is not just related to are we providing a legally required accommodation, but are we creating a sense of belonging in that space, and giving students an equal opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and be successful, which is ultimately why we’re all here, I would hope.

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

Amy: I think it’s important to not just put a focus on what individual faculty can be doing in their classrooms to support students with disabilities. But how are we promoting access and inclusion at the institutional level, supporting students with disabilities and students from other diverse backgrounds is a whole campus responsibility and faculty needs support in doing that work as well. So I’m hoping what’s next is working with administration, other campus leaders and identifying ways we can really help move that needle in a meaningful way. Making accessibility into larger DEIB (or diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) campus initiatives, our campus-wide policy, strategic planning, campus-wide faculty and staff training, and other professional development opportunities, hiring diverse faculty and staff on our campus. So not just about talking the talk, but walking the walk when it comes to access and inclusion in higher education.

Rebecca: I think that’s definitely a theme that we’ll see throughout all of higher ed. I hope that we’ll all go home and arm and move in this direction collaboratively.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. It’s been great talking to you and we’re looking forward to hearing more of your future work on this topic.

Amy: Well, thank you so much for having me today. I appreciate it.


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

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