210. A Pedagogy of Kindness

The informal culture of some academic departments can facilitate an atmosphere of mutual mistrust between faculty and students. In this episode, Cate Denial joins us to discuss how a culture of suspicion can be replaced by a pedagogy of kindness. Cate is the Bright Distinguished Professor of the History Department and the Director of the Bright Institute at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Cate is the 2018 to 2021 Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and the recipient of the American Historical Association’s 2018 Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award. She is the author of A Pedagogy of Kindness, which will be released as part of the West Virginia University Press’ superb series of books on teaching and learning.



John: The informal culture of some academic departments can facilitate an atmosphere of mutual mistrust between faculty and students. In this episode, we discuss how a culture of suspicion can be replaced by a pedagogy of kindness.


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 Cate Denial. Cate is the Bright Distinguished Professor of the History Department and the Director of the Bright Institute at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Cate is the 2018 to 2021 Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and the recipient of the American Historical Association’s 2018 Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award. She is the author of A Pedagogy of Kindness, which will be released as part of the West Virginia University Press’ superb series of books on teaching and learning. Welcome, Cate.

Cate: Thanks for having me.

John: We’re really pleased to have you here. Many of our guests have referenced you on past podcasts. And you’ve long been on our list of people to invite so we finally got around to that. I’m sorry it’s taken this long.

Cate: Oh, I’m glad to be here now.

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

Cate: I am drinking tea. I am drinking Yorkshire Gold black tea with just a hint of milk in it.

Rebecca: The true British way.

Cate: Exactly, it’s the way of my people. [LAUGHTER]

John: We long have had some of that stocked in our office for our British faculty members because that tends to be pretty much universally their preference.

Rebecca: I have that East Frisian, that’s my new favorite.

Cate: Ooh.

Rebecca: It’s a black blend, of what I don’t know.

John: And I have a pineapple ginger green tea.

John: We invited you here to discuss “A Pedagogy of Kindness.” You’re working on a book version of this now, which grew out of a document you posted on Hybrid Pedagogy in August 2019, and it’s been well referenced by many people. It’s been a useful resource, especially during this pandemic. In this blog post, you talk about your evolution as an instructor. Could you give us an overview of how your teaching approach changed after you attended that Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute at the University of Mary Washington that helped prompt some of these changes?

Cate: Yeah. The Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute in 2017 was kind of the “aha” moment for me. And events had been building up to that for a while. So when I was a graduate student, I was not taught how to teach very well. And I was sort of taught to think of students as my antagonists, to anticipate that they would try and get away with all kinds of things, they would plagiarize, they would cheat, they wouldn’t show up to class, or do the reading. And that my teaching career has been the process of unlearning all of those things. I have been helped along the way by colleagues in K-12 education when I worked with the Teaching American History grant in Iowa for 10 years, by some of my colleagues from Knox College, particularly Gabrielel Raley-Karlin, who is my friend and associate in sociology. And then I also was a participant in some intergroup dialogue workshops at the University of Michigan. And all of those things kind of came together to sort of make fertile ground for the stuff at DPL to sort of land. The Digital Pedagogy Lab is a profoundly kind place, everybody is so well taken care of, there are pronoun buttons, there’s great food, all of your creature comforts are taken care of. And this track that I was in, which was the introductory track, was very focused on how to really care about our students and to interrogate the way that we taught to ask if we were sort of thinking about their needs fully. While I was there that weekend, I came to the conclusion, I had this moment of going, “Why not just be kind?” and that really set me off on this new trajectory.

John: What were some of the practices that you had been using that you moved away from as a result of this Institute?

Cate: I took a long, hard look at my syllabus, and really noticed that the language in which I was speaking to students was very much from a place of authority, sort of on a pedestal, instead of thinking of them as my collaborators. So, I changed the way that I talked about all the policies on that syllabus. I changed the way that I talked about the honor code from being very sort of finger-waggy and sort of insinuating that everyone was going to screw up at some point, to a statement that said, “Hey, I take responsibility for teaching you how to do these things. And I believe that everyone in this class is fundamentally honest,” which is completely 180 from the language I was using before. I stopped taking attendance, I stopped having hard deadlines for assignments of any kind, I became infinitely more flexible with my students. I changed the “I” statements in my syllabus to “we” statements and really emphasized that I thought of students as my collaborators. Everything changed. Everything changed because I looked at it from a completely different vantage point after that moment.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that comes up when we say “kindness” is that people confuse that with “being nice,” or just being a pushover, having no standards.

Cate: [LAUGHTER] Yes.

Rebecca: …a laundry list of things that are associated. Can you talk about what you mean by “being kind”?

Cate: Kindness is definitely not niceness. I like to say that niceness is okay with lying, and kindness is not, it is unkind to lie to someone. And kindness often means telling very hard truths. But kindness is about three things in teaching, I believe. The first is justice, the second is believing people, and the third is believing in people. So justice means knowing who is in a classroom and who isn’t at any given time. Being super attentive to our positionality, and thinking about our social identities, and those of our students. Thinking about student needs in all their complexity. So having a basic needs statement in my syllabus, making sure I have fidget toys for students, I bring a huge bag of snacks to class, those kinds of things. So really thinking carefully and honestly about where I’m standing and where they’re standing. Believing people means that when people tell me that their printer died, their dog ate their homework, they had the flu, that I believe that on every score. I always feel that it is better to risk the idea that someone might pull one over on me, than to inflict more hurt on a student who’s already in crisis. So I always err on the side of belief. And then believing in people means believing that students can be our collaborators. So, changing the way that I grade so that my students and I do that together, changing the way that I think about our conversations as a class when we’re doing class discussion, and structuring those to make sure that everybody feels heard. Making sure that students get a say in what we read and what direction the course goes. And all of those things, I think, are integral to showing compassion and making the classroom a compassionate space.

Rebecca: I’d like to pick up on one of the ideas that you just presented, which was this idea of grading with students, not something we often hear. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like?

Cate: Yeah. So, I’m a big proponent of ungrading, and ungrading is basically a big umbrella term for any action that gets us away from having numbers and letters on assignments, at any point. So there’s a big spectrum, you can do very small things that contribute to an ungrading atmosphere, and you can get rid of grades altogether if your college supports you in that. So, at my institution, what I’ve done is my students and I put together a list of grading standards, things that we think constitute each of the grades on the grade spectrum. And then when they turn in their first paper, they also turn in a self-evaluation of their work. And some of the questions are very mechanical: Did you turn it in on time? Did you ask to turn it in late? Did you do what the assignment prompt said? And some are much more open-ended: In what ways was this assignment an act of exploring new intellectual territory? I always end the self-evaluation with: “Is there anything else I should know?” …which is a great space for students to be able to tell me all the myriad things that are going on as they’re trying to focus on this assignment. And then the students and I either sit down together or Zoom together to have a conversation about what they think their grades should be. And sometimes we reference those standards that we talked about already in class, and then what I think perhaps their grades should be, and we discuss it. We talk about what are the two big things they could do that would make their assignment even better. And we focus on what you can do next. So we come to an agreement about what a grade should be. And my role in that is, really, to make sure that people don’t undersell themselves, and to make sure that people are accurately summing up the work that they did, rather than, some students have said to me before, “I don’t want to seem conceited by saying I get an A.” So there’s all kinds of little hiccups that I have to take into account.

John: I think a lot of faculty resistance to ungrading deals with those two extremes with students who may undervalue their work and students who overvalue it. Do these discussions with students help correct their perceptions and help give them a better understanding of what they’ve actually learned?

Cate: I think so. And I think that having the conversation about grading standards before we even get to awarding a grade is a really integral part of the process. So we co-create those standards, and they get to say if they want to edit a line, take something out, put something in. So we’ve already had a really great conversation about what grading is, and why I approach grading this way, before we ever get to the point where we’re going to grade an assignment together. In the four years that I’ve been doing this…a little over four years now… I have never had someone overestimate their abilities. But I have had many students who have underestimated their abilities for a variety of reasons. And so, it’s great to be able to say, like, “I think you’re underestimating yourself, let’s bump that up.” And to explain why, also, so that they have a better sense going forward of what they’ve achieved, and what they can continue to achieve.

Rebecca: One of the things that you also highlighted, Cate, is the idea of flexibility. And I think the phrase you used was “infinite flexibility.” [LAUGHTER]

Cate: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I can imagine many faculty really running away from the idea. [LAUGHTER] Can you talk a little bit about why you shifted to flexibility and what you mean by flexibility?

Cate: Yeah. When I say “infinite flexibility,” I don’t mean you have no boundaries and you do whatever. What I mean is more, there are so many ways in which I’ve been called upon to be flexible, that I couldn’t possibly enumerate them. There are different kinds of ways every time. So, what do I mean by flexibility? I mean, I plan my courses so that I have the time to be able to have softer deadlines, for example. So I set aside some time for these grading conversations in the week that a paper is due, but also in the week after because I know there will be students who need extensions. And so I make sure that I have plenty of time to be able to have those conversations with them, no matter when they’re going to turn in that paper. It means fostering an atmosphere where students feel okay saying, “Something’s come up, I really need that extra couple of days.” And I don’t force disclosure, so no student needs to tell me exactly what is going on in their life in order to get that extension. It’s really just a question of saying, “Hey, I need this thing,” and then it’s theirs. Flexibility in readings, being able to change things on the fly as things are revealed to be too easy, too hard, finding exactly the right mix for a particular community of students. Flexibility about time off. When do we all just need a break and a mental health day? Those kinds of things. Flexibility in terms of the kinds of assignments that I make, and the things that I asked students to do for a grade. That’s really important too, I think.

John: You mentioned giving students more ownership of the course and that flexibility certainly would be part of that. But you also, I believe, talked about using UDL principles in your class. Could you talk about some of the ways in which you’ve implemented UDL strategies?

Cate: Yeah. So the design of my syllabus is something that I thought a lot about on that score, in terms of making sure there’s always alt text where I have images, making sure that there are images that help guide people to certain pieces of information so that it’s not a wall of text that faces a student at any one time. Making sure that there’s lots of resources in the syllabus for students who might need extra help, whether that’s tutoring or talking to me, or connecting with our office for disabilities. In the classroom it has meant things like bringing in a large basket of fidget toys and encouraging people to use them. Making sure that, wherever possible, I have both a text version of something, and an audio version of something if it’s available. Making sure that if there is an audio version of something, there’s a transcript. Making sure if I’m uploading videos, that those are transcribed also and have subtitles. So all of these things adjust with me, trying to keep in mind: How can I reach the maximum number of students as possible at all times knowing that many of my students may have things like learning disabilities, but they’ve never been diagnosed? Or, they can’t afford to have them diagnosed. So planning things so that I try and catch as many things as possible that I can anticipate, and then being flexible with other requests as students make them of me.

John: Do you give students multiple ways of demonstrating their learning?

Cate: Yes, I do. So, one of my favorite assignments is the unessay. So that is an assignment where I ask students to show me what they have learned in any way that does not involve a major paper. I used to give them the option of a paper or something else. But I found that people often chose the paper because they thought it was the safer route. And what I was interested in was getting them sort of outside of that thinking and trying something experimental. So I’ve had students make food and diaries, and do embroidery, and make quilts and dioramas and maps and street plans, and just an amazing variety of ways to show me what they’ve learned in a given term. That also means that they can tailor that to what they are best at, right? So there are other assignments in the term that are written papers. So this assignment, if you’re someone who doesn’t write papers well or really struggles to write them well, this is a moment for you to show me that you can rap, or you can sing, or you can play guitar, or you can make something. And for the students who really find papers easy, this is a moment to refine another skill, to get really good at making a presentation, for example, or to think about how to visually communicate their knowledge. So I think it has something for everybody.

John: And for you, I imagine, it’s much more fun to listen to these different forms of assignments.

Cate: It’s super fun. And their creativity just astounds me every time that I do the unessay and I do the unessay in almost all my classes. I would not have thought, for example, to make a star quilt in a course about native history. But one of my students decided to research the kind of sewing that students were asked to do at some of the boarding schools, and found the long history of star quilts in native culture, and then decided to make a very simple one for themselves. That was a tremendous project where they learned so much about native history in the 20th century, and I would never have predicted that in a million years. Their vision of what they can do is so much bigger than what I can imagine on my own. And that’s one of the real delights of the unessay, is getting to find out all the other things that they’re good at, and all the ways they can draw connections to places around campus, other things they’re doing, other disciplines that they’re really interested in.

Rebecca: Cate, when you have students complete an assignment like an unessay, is there some sort of companion to go with that to explain the learning that occurred while they were doing that activity?

Cate: Yes. So there are a couple of other pieces that go with it. The first is that when the students make a proposal to me for what their unessay will be, they also have to turn in our grading standards modified for that project. So that’s another place where the grading standards come in really useful. That means that when I’m going to grade everything, I have an individualized grading sheet for every single project and can sort of just go through them one by one. Students also turn in a reflective paper where they reflect on what they learned by making or doing their project. And those are some of the best pieces of writing that I get to read. They’re much more informal than a paper would be. But they are these wonderful spaces where students are incredibly honest about where they struggled, and how they overcame those struggles, and what the projects have meant to them, which is really exciting.

Rebecca: For those reflective assignments, do you have specific prompts that you encourage students to respond to, or is it more open than that?

Cate: It’s much more open. I just say, “You know, I want you to reflect on what you learned during this process.” And they can take that in any direction that they want.

Rebecca: One of the other things that you brought up, in terms of flexibility, were less rigid deadlines. But a lot of faculty are often very concerned about workload or other things that could occur if the deadlines were relaxed. Can you talk a little bit about how you manage your time with this flexibility? You’ve talked a little bit about the conferencing and making sure you have conference time, but when you’re getting many things in over the course of the semester, how do you manage that?

Cate: I have reduced the number of assignments that I ask students to complete. I used to have many, many more. And I realized that some of that work was busy work, and that I would rather have fewer assignments that took longer, and where students were more engaged than lots of little bitty assignments throughout the term. Some of it is planning, some of it is planning to give myself a different kind of time to grade these things. So, in the grading conversations, like I said earlier, being able to have sort of time spread over two weeks, instead of just one, to get everything graded. It’s also about talking to students about exactly how much time they need to get the assignment done. So you raised the question of workload like, “Aren’t we going to add to students workload and their stress if they’re just putting these things off?” But what I found is that I can’t predict when their workload is highest. And sometimes my assignments really make for a crunch for them, because everybody’s expecting everything at the same time, such as around midterms. So saying to a student who asked for an extension, “How much time do you need?” Then perhaps a conversation where we can say, “I just need a day,” or “I need two.” And it never becomes a situation where I’m like, “Turn it in whenever you want.” [LAUGHTER] It’s much more about, like, “Let’s realistically think about what extra time would be useful to you, without it becoming an open-ended thing that can drag on forever, and really become a problem.”

Rebecca: That’s a really important point because having infinite deadlines is not helpful for anyone. It’s not helpful for us as instructors, and it’s not helpful for students.

Cate: Absolutely.

Rebecca: We all get motivated by deadlines, even if they are a little flexible. And as professionals, we know that our deadlines are a bit flexible, often.

Cate: Exactly, yeah.

John: So, do you think that pandemic has made people more open to consider a pedagogy of kindness as they’ve observed some of the struggles more directly of our students?

Cate: I think that has been the case, yes. I think there is tremendous momentum towards pedagogies of care. I think that we’ve also experienced the pandemic for ourselves. And we have been overworked and stressed out and worried about our families and friends and communities. And we have needed kindness, we have needed the breathing room that this can provide. So, I think that it is both seeing the real challenges our students face often because for the first time we were inside their homes, and seeing some of the material circumstances that they were living in, hearing from them about the challenges they were facing mentally and physically, but also reflecting on our own experiences and knowing what would help us. And we didn’t always get that help ourselves. And so being able to provide it for others, I think, has been a really good thing.

John: What is the anticipated publication date for your book?

Cate: I don’t know. And that is because I needed a little kindness myself this summer, and for my deadline to be a little bit flexible. My original due date was September 1st for delivering the manuscript but I had some major health challenges this summer. And so I wrote and asked if I could have some more time, and I was very glad to be working with an editorial team that was great, and that gave me that extra time. So, the book manuscript will be delivered this Fall, but I’m not sure where that will put things in terms of a publication schedule.

John: In the meanwhile, your “Pedagogy of Kindness” blog post is available to anyone who would like to read it, and it’s a very useful resource. And you’re joining a great collection of books there, we’ve had many of the authors on and we’ve referred to these books very often. And we’ve used many of them for our reading groups, and we share many of them with our faculty.

Cate: Yeah, I was once given the advice by one of my advisors that, when you’re thinking of publishing somewhere, look on your bookshelf and see where all the rest of the books come from. And when I looked at my bookshelf on pedagogy, everything was coming out of West Virginia University Press, and so I knew that that was exactly where I needed to pitch my book.

Rebecca: I know you have many people waiting for it, and we’re all excited to read it.

Cate: I’m very excited to finish it, so…[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m sure. The best part about having things on a to-do list is crossing them off. [LAUGHTER]

Cate: Exactly, yes.

John: You’ve been running the Bright Institute for a while, could you tell us a little bit about this?

Cate: So the Bright Institute was something I came up with five or so years ago. We got a very generous donation at Knox College, from the family of Edwin and Elizabeth Bright. And it was to facilitate the teaching of history before 1848… American history before 1848. So my idea was to bring together other liberal arts professors from across the country who also focused on that time period, so that we could try and help people with some of the challenges that liberal arts professors face. So we generally have less time to devote to our scholarship and to keeping up with readings in the field. We tend to not get grants or fellowships at quite the same rate as our colleagues at big research institutions. And we are people who have a lot of responsibility for teaching. So the format of the Bright Institute is that every summer there is a two-week seminar. The first seven days of that seminar are about reading scholarship in some particular field within early American history. We’ve had some just incredible conversations in those parts of the seminar. And then the last three days of the seminar are devoted to pedagogy. So taking the content knowledge that we now have, and thinking about, “How do we apply that to the classroom situation?” And then to help with research, we give everybody who’s a part of the Institute $3,000 every year to fund their research or to take them to conferences, there’s lots of ways that people have used that money to support them in this scholarship.

Rebecca: That looks like something to look forward to every summer.

Cate: Yes, one of the highlights of my career [LAUGHTER] is to be able to support so many people in doing such incredible work. And it’s such a delight to bring everybody to Galesburg every summer and have 14 other people who all do the kind of history I do. We tend to be kind of isolated on our campuses, we’re very often the only person who does early American history. And so to have this wonderful team of people with whom you can talk about scholarship and teaching is just so filling.

John: I wish we had more of that in all disciplines.

Cate: Me too. And I wish that I could replicate this… like I personally had the funding to replicate this for say, community college people, for precarious academics. It seems to be working very well, and I would love to see that model replicated in other ways.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for all this information and things to think about as we’re moving into next semesters, next classes, next academic years. We always wrap up by asking, “What’s next?”

Cate: What’s next, most immediately, is finishing the manuscript and getting that off to my press. And then after that, my college just won an NEH grant. So next summer, I will be leading a team of students in researching the dispossession of native nations from what is currently called West Central Illinois, building out on a website that some students and I have already built, and going to visit the communities that were dispossessed, to build relationships between the college and those communities. So that’s a really exciting thing to have on the horizon for next summer.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Cate: Yeah, it is. And we just found out about it, so it’s brand new information. [LAUGHTER]

John: That’s wonderful news, congratulations.

Cate: Thank you.

John: We’ve really enjoyed talking to you. We’ve been looking forward to doing that for a while and thank you for joining us.

Cate: Thanks so much for having me.


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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle.