265. The New College Classroom

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

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

Christina: Thank you so much.

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

Cathy: I am drinking English breakfast tea.

Rebecca: Yes. [LAUGHTER] And Christina?

Christina: I am drinking English breakfast tea.

John: And I am drinking wild blueberry black tea.

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

John: So you’re drinking a tasty tea.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Sneaky, very sneaky.

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

Christina: We’re drinking all of the things.

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

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

Christina: I’m the luckiest. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathy: It’s exhausting. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathy: Thank you very much.

Christina: Thank you so much.


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