College teaching is often a very solitary endeavor and can result in feelings of isolation, especially in turbulent times, such as those we’ve experienced recently. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus joins us to discuss the role that a faculty book club can play in building a learning community in which the participants share their successes, concerns, and strategies.
Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence and the editor of Teaching History: a Journal of Methods. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is also the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning, which was released by West Virginia University Press.
- Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. West Virginia University Press.
- Neuhaus, Jessamyn (2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
- Jessamyn Neuhaus (2019). Geeky Pedagogy. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 82. May 22.
- Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Harvard University Press.
- Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. John Wiley & Sons.
- Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-Rich Education: How human connections drive success in college. JHU Press.
- Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Hachette UK.
- Addy, T. M., Dube, D., Mitchell, K. A., & SoRelle, M. (2021). What inclusive instructors do: Principles and practices for excellence in college teaching. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Miller, M. D. (2022). Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World. West Virginia University Press.
- Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West Virginia University Press.
- 268. Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout. Tea for Teaching podcast. December 21, 2022.
- Resources developed by Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan for reading groups for Inclusive Teaching
John: College teaching is often a very solitary endeavor and can result in feelings of isolation, especially in turbulent times, such as those we’ve experienced recently. In this episode, we discuss the role that a faculty book club can play in building a learning community in which the participants share their successes, concerns, and strategies.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
John: Our guest today is Jessamyn Neuhaus. Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence and the editor of Teaching History: a Journal of Methods. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is also the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning, which was released by West Virginia University Press. Welcome back, Jessamyn.
Jessamyn: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are: …Jessamyn, are you drinking tea?
Jessamyn: I’m not, I’m drinking sparkling flavored water. The people here at Plattsburgh know that the Center for Teaching Excellence fridge is always fully stocked with flavored seltzer water and today I’m drinking Bubly grapefruit flavor.
Rebecca: Oh, I like that one.
John: And I’m drinking English breakfast tea today.
Rebecca: I have blue sapphire tea.
Rebecca: Very tasty.
John: Is it blue?
Rebecca: It has these little dried flowers in them that are a sapphire color. [LAUGHTER] I don’t know what kind of flowers they are, but they’re tasty.
Jessamyn: It sounds like a power blue. Like a powerful blue.
Rebecca: Yeah, it’s like a really intense, bright, wonderful blue.
John: So, are you feeling blue today?
Rebecca: I am feeling like the blue that I want to be feeling. I want that intense blue. So I’m channeling the blue.
John: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss the use of book clubs for professional development. We’ve been jointly running some between our two institutions at SUNY Plattsburgh and SUNY Oswego every spring and fall since fall 2020. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about how the collaboration began?
Jessamyn: Sure. Well, I met you both in 2019 when I came on Tea for Teaching to talk about Geeky Pedagogy. It was actually the first interview I did and I was super nervous and I prepared like 25 pages of notes. [LAUGHTER] And you were so great. It was so much fun. And we just stayed in touch after that. I was working as the interim, really part-time, Director for the teaching center going into the fall of 2020 after, as everybody knows, the semester that changed everything in the spring of 2020. We don’t have a staff here, this is a center of one. So resources and budget concerns were always an issue in trying to develop programming that would work with just this one person in the part-time role, and that faculty would be able to take advantage of during these unprecedented upheavals and challenges. The book club was something that my predecessor, Dr. Becky Kasper had been running that had pretty good attendance. And that semester, since we were all getting used to Zoom for the first time, it occurred to me that maybe we could do the book club via Zoom, which opened up the possibility of collaborating with another teaching center. And that was you. [LAUGHTER]
John: And we had been running book clubs for quite a few years. Our very first one was Michelle Miller’s Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology the semester after that came out. Our’s started in a less planned structure. We had Michelle on campus for a talk. And everyone was so enthused about her talk that they said, maybe we could start a reading group to discuss this. So that’s how our’s got started. And we had been doing it every semester since then. And it had worked really well. But, it’s worked much more effectively with the collaboration between the two institutions. What were some of the things that you saw as being the benefits of doing a book club?
Jessamyn: Well, one of the first things that strikes me about doing a faculty book club, and this is coming from my perspective as somebody who writes and talks about the geekiness and nerdiness of us in academia, is that a book club really builds on something we as academics do very, very well and are very, very, very comfortable with: reading, absorbing content, and then talking about it. Even the introverts among us tend to be pretty comfortable discussing ideas and tossing around concepts and getting a starting place like a book is something, even across various disciplines, people are very skilled at and comfortable at. So I think, in that sense, it’s not a big lift when it comes to faculty development. It’s working with skills and abilities that most people teaching in higher ed are already pretty comfortable with. So I think that’s one advantage, or one benefit.
John: One of the reasons why we started this and why we’ve been continuing it is that we had given a lot of one-off workshops where people would come in for a session, maybe half an hour, maybe an hour and a half, maybe three hours, perhaps even all day, and then often very little happened following that up. And one of the nice things about doing a book club is that you’re working with a group of faculty for an extended period, discussing the same topics and reflecting on those topics in a way that doesn’t generally happen with short one-day sessions. And that’s been really effective. On a related note, you mentioned bringing together people from different disciplines, we often had trouble bringing in people from other disciplines when someone was presenting on one topic, but when people are discussing any of these books, they find that everyone they’re talking to in this group has been having exactly the same problems and have been struggling with the same issues in ways that they might not have recognized otherwise. So the opportunity to bring people together and discuss it is a great way to remind everyone that we’re all facing the same challenges. And sharing solutions can be really effective.
Rebecca: I think it’s interesting to think about how the one offs are just one offs. But a reading group builds a routine, and a schedule, and regular practice and reflection around these topics. And so having a regularly scheduled time, and we’ve certainly made sure in our collaboration, but also prior to that at our institution, having multiple times for reading groups to meet, you don’t have to come to the same one every time. But earmarking that time during the week for this practice, I think is really helpful. It’s really easy to put it into our schedule.
Jessamyn: Yes, that’s right, it’s hard to make time for our own pedagogical development, it’s hard to always and I’d say it’s probably even harder now, as the world continues to burn… but the group setting, and I never thought of it this way till just now as we’re discussing it, but both those components that you were talking about: the routine of it, and the by default, the multidisciplinary setting, it’s almost like it reduces any disciplinary defensiveness people might have, or sense of resistance, maybe, because we’re there to talk about a book together, we’re not there to lay down the law, this is what you must do to teach effectively, XYZ.
Rebecca: So I think also, the idea of bringing everyone together has that accountability factor. And you see some of the same faces and the same people regularly and you start treating it almost as this little accountability club to make sure that you’re doing your homework and staying engaged with the subject matter. And the other thing that I was hearing in what you were saying, Jessamyn, that I think is useful to think about is that it’s a shared experience… reading the book, it’s a shared thing. So we have a common place to start a conversation, which is what you’re getting at with the academic defensiveness or disciplinary defensiveness that might come out. Just kind of interesting to think about. I had never really thought about that before.
Jessamyn: Well, and here at Plattsburgh, we are still very much in the early stages of building a campus culture of educational development. For us here at Plattsburgh collaborating with Oswego was pretty mind blowing, I’d say, for a lot of people besides just the factor of it’s not the same old faces that you see at every workshop. But even beyond that, I think it’s really expanded a lot of people’s, I will say, maybe view of what educational development is, it’s not just Jessamyn saying, “Hey, try this in your classroom,” that actually it’s out there in the world and lots of people are doing it, and it’s a professional endeavor, maybe chipping away at the sense of isolation that we can feel. Certainly I think it’s true lots of places, but Plattsburgh is geographically very isolated. And there really is a sense sometimes that we’re just out here all alone in the cold North Country. And the Zoom setting just really blew that apart. I think it is helpful that our campuses and our student populations are quite similar… at least there’s a lot of overlap. So when people in the book club share their experiences and their perspectives, there’s a lot of nodding and recognition. Many of our teaching contexts are similar.
Rebecca: And I think what I’m hearing both of you nodding towards is a sense of belonging, like it’s a shared experience where people feel like they belong, in part because they’re sharing experiences that are similar. And in reality, we know there’s a lot of small departments where you might be the only one teaching a particular thing or teaching in a particular way…
John: …or the only one considering teaching in a different way.
Rebecca: And being a part of a community where there’s other people doing some similar things, or experimenting in the same way, can really be helpful in just feeling a sense of community, and ways that you can bounce things off of one another. I know from my own experience, as a designer teaching studio classes, I’ve done a lot of exchange with folks that are teaching lab-based things or a lot of hands-on-learning, whatever that is, in whatever discipline, there’s a lot in common about doing hands-on-learning. Or you could talk about how that might apply. And you can learn a lot from something that’s happening in a different discipline and I’ve always really loved that about our book clubs.
John: Going back to a point Rebecca had mentioned earlier about the commitment of time to this, many people will see a speaker who they think is interesting, and will decide to pick up a copy of the book, they’ll buy that book and put it on a shelf, and it will stay there with the expectation that someday they’ll look at it. But having the meetings every other week, or however they’re scheduled, does serve as a commitment device that people, if they haven’t done the reading, will apologize often at the start of the meeting, and say “I wasn’t able to get this finished.” But just the implicit pressure of having these meetings, encourages people to do more reading on the topics than they would have done otherwise. And that’s as true for me as it is for all the participants in the group.
Jessamyn: I will say that I try not to inflict guilt on people, I took a page from my colleague Jessica Tinklenberg, who’s the Director of the teaching center out at the University of the Pacific, she ran a no-guilt book club. So that’s what she called it, No-Guilt Book Club. And I definitely emphasize that to people as well, encouraging people to Zoom in, even if you haven’t done the reading that week, or whenever you can, to just emphasize that. But you’re right, people will still say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get to it.” Although as academics, they always still have a lot to say.
John: Yes, that’s never stopped anyone from participating. [LAUGHTER] We also have encouraged people to attend, even if they weren’t able to complete the readings, because they’re going to get something useful out of the conversation and often will contribute something useful as the topics are discussed.
Jessamyn: In fact, that was something I did want to touch on, that I’ve been really surprised by, I guess, as the club has continued, is how the book is definitely the starting point, but it’s these conversations, which I don’t know why it surprised me, because the same was true at every teaching conference I’ve ever gone to. The workshops are great, the speakers are great. But then, often, the thing that I do when I get home is the thing I talked about with somebody at lunch, or while I was talking to them before the session or there was an example on the slide and I was talking to so and so about it. That’s, in the long run, what ends up actually changing my teaching. And I see that happening with the book club at times, that the content is this great springboard, and it’s definitely a key part, but sometimes it’s the talking that really seems to make an impact.
John: And we’ll talk about this more in just a few minutes. But one of the things we’ve been doing is we’ve been having multiple sessions for each chapter or set of chapters that we discuss, and both Jessamyn and I have been attending all of those sessions, or nearly all of them and Rebecca had attended most of those when she was a co-director of the teaching center here. But what happens is every day’s meeting, the discussions are very, very different and they’ve all been really valuable. And I’ve enjoyed the diversity of discussions. So it’s just not repeating the same things every day, that would get kind of tedious. [LAUGHTER] And we’ve encouraged participants to consider coming back for other group meetings if they wanted to. We haven’t had a lot of people take us up on that, but the variety of topics and the richness of those discussions has been really an important part of the benefit of this, for those of us who do attend multiple sessions.
Jessamyn: Yeah, it is. It really is.
Rebecca: One of the things that’s been interesting is a lot of the books that have been chosen work well if you can’t read the whole thing, because many of them have nice little summaries at the end, too, to give people a little bit of a chance or some insight into what was in the chapter. And maybe that’s some good book selection on both your parts.
Jessamyn: Yeah, I was thinking as you were talking, John, that maybe we can pat ourselves on the back a little bit here about the book choices we’ve made. Although, then again, there are so many great books about teaching. It’s not too hard to reach your hand out and find an incredible book to talk about. But I totally agree that every meeting, even when it raises very different points, has a valuable take away. But I do think that part of that is the book selection that we’ve made.
John: Yeah, we’ve had some really superb books, maybe we can talk a little bit about some of the benefits of the collaboration. One of those is that if we tried to do three group meetings at my institution alone, we’d probably only have two or three people at some of those sessions, and the sessions wouldn’t be as rich. By doing the collaboration, it allows us to get a full group of people there on more days, which opens up more opportunities for people to attend at times that’s convenient for them. And that I think, has been really beneficial.
Jessamyn: Yeah, I’ll add that, in a very practical way, it lessens the workload for us as facilitators, it’s like co-teaching… that knowing “Okay, so it’s the Wednesday book group, I woke up with a headache. I don’t really feel like talking too much, but John’s facilitating it today.” But even more than that, is the sense of… Rebecca, you said belonging for our faculty. But for us, as teaching center directors, small, small, small centers with not an overabundance of resources, it’s easy to feel alone. And certainly when we began, it was especially isolating, really overwhelming, with having coped with the emergency pivot and faculty’s needs at that time and our own classes as well. It’s very easy for educational developers to start feeling isolated while often we’re in this sort of weird in between place where we advocate for students, but we advocate for faculty, but we advocate for the administrators too and we’re supposed to be everything to everyone. So making this kind of collaborative connection has been sustaining to me in my teaching practice, for sure, but also just as the teaching center director as well.
John: And it really helps having multiple perspectives approaching these books, because we’re from different disciplines, and we bring different perspectives. And that’s been an important part of it, I think, too.
Rebecca: I’m wondering if folks are interested in starting book clubs, if both of you can talk about some of the logistics behind how running the book club and each individual session might work?
Jessamyn: Well, it’s been an evolution in how we’ve run it. And when we started, I think I should take credit for being like overly anally retentively prepared, [LAUGHTER], and I think maybe especially like, right at the beginning, when we were still really like in the grips of the worst pandemic era changes and upheavals, that maybe it was helpful to have some very specific discussion questions ahead of time. And as we were getting used to Zooming, but now, at least in the past book, and we’ll see what the spring brings as well, it seems like it’s worked a little bit better to be a little more hands-off and let whoever happens to come in that day, those faculty, lead the discussion, maybe have a few questions in your back pocket, in case there’s quiet, but I don’t know, John, what do you think?
John: I agree. When I put slides together, they were pretty plain. They didn’t look as nice as your slides did. Mine were kind of ugly but when Rebecca did them, they looked nice, [LAUGHTER] given her background in graphic design. But I think it was important to have a little bit more structure, because the very first book that we used was Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and Jim Lang. And everyone was kind of panicking at that time. And having that focus, I think, was probably really helpful. But we’ve moved away from that, in general, with all the sessions we’ve been doing. And partly though, I think it’s because we’ve got a lot of repeat participants. Many of the people we have come back term after term. And they’re very comfortable at leading much of the discussion, and I think that’s been really valuable.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think that maybe there was a need for some trust building early on, in understanding that everyone was equally panicking. I remember using a lot of Jamboard and stuff in some of those very early sessions just to get some shared ideas in a base. But I think that also helped people feel connected, because they realized they had some of the same ideas, and then felt more willing to talk later on. And then I think John’s right, some of the same people help with that nice welcoming atmosphere.
Jessamyn: Sometimes things take on a momentum or life of their own. And I don’t think community is too strong a word. I think that is what’s being built in this collaboration. And it’s funny, I haven’t reflected on it until just right this moment, but that’s something that really came out of a panic, like flat out and out pants-dropping panic, [LAUGHTER] has led to something so productive. And it’s only because of Zoom. I mean, it’s only enabled because of the comfort level of Zoom and the convenience it offers people, enabling people to participate and enabling them to collaborate, like we are across a pretty major distance.
Rebecca: I think it’s important to remember that in either of our institutions, we already had issues getting people in the same space at the same time. And obviously, to collaborate between institutions, we would need some way of doing that. But I think it’s afforded people the opportunity to join the call from home after they get their kids off the bus or whatever thing is happening in their lives that might cause them to have to participate remotely, anyways, whether or not we were all at the same institution.
Jessamyn: Yeah, it kind of acknowledges and recognizes the fact that people are burdened, that they have a lot to do in their own personal lives, at work, teaching. So the Zoom format, it really kind of sets a tone for the book group. We know that you have many, many demands on your time, like, it seems like it’s a very concrete way of respecting people’s time. We are offering the three different meeting times and having them via zoom. I’m not sure that I would even go back to just in-person book clubs after this experience.
John: Well, we had actually been offering things with video conference ability, going back to 2008.
Jessamyn: You are an early adopter, John, let’s clarify this.
John: I was…
Rebecca: He’s a very early adopter.
John: …but most of our faculty were not.
Jessamyn: That’s right. [LAUGHTER]
John: So, there would be a screen up with potential participants. But it was rare that we’d have more than one person coming in online. [LAUGHTER] But, the pandemic certainly made people much more comfortable with Zoom and gave them access to web cameras, or at least let them know that they had a web camera that they could use for this type of thing. So that it became really comfortable in ways that we had the ability to do that before, but it was very rarely used by most faculty.
Rebecca: Even if we’re thinking about faculty computer replacements and things institutionally, the institution is moving towards using laptops to make sure that people do have these tools. And so I think that’s really helpful because it does help with collaboration, not only within our own institution, but across institutions.
John: One of the things we’ve been very fortunate is that our administration has been very supportive of this and has been buying the books for faculty. And when faculty get a book delivered to them, they’re much more likely to actually participate because they feel guilty if they didn’t read it and if they didn’t show up, I think that’s really been helpful in doing it.
Rebecca: Does that also come with a commitment device of some sort?
John: In a sense, yeah, [LAUGHTER] there’s a little bit of guilt associated with not showing up. But the other thing that we had often done, it hasn’t worked this way for the last several book groups… we have an academic affairs retreat before the fall semester and we had often had the reading group focus on a book written by the keynote speaker at that event. And one of the things that happened when we’ve done that is that we keep the signups open through that academic affairs retreat and the number of participants normally almost exactly doubled every time when we had that keynote speaker because they tended to inspire people. We had some issues where we were hoping to have keynote speakers, but their books were delayed because there was this pandemic going on.
Jessamyn: Yeah [LAUGHTER].
John: … or other things come up that interfered with it. But that was something that, when we could make that connection, it was really effective in getting more people joining in, because we’d normally have a couple hundred people at the academic affairs retreat. And it was a nice way of marketing that.
Jessamyn: Yeah, and if I’m remembering correctly, you gave Plattsburgh Zoom access to one of those for when we read Relationship-Rich Education, Peter Felton came and spoke, and I noticed something very similar with this faculty group as well, as attracting a wider range of people.
John: I’m hoping we can get back to that at some point. But again, things have been a little bit more hectic. [LAUGHTER] And it’s been harder to plan for the contingencies of what is most appropriate next year in the environment we’ve had for the last two and a half to three years.
Jessamyn: And that also raises the point that selecting the book, we have had to think really carefully like, who will this appeal to most? What do people really need and want right now? And we try to vary it a little bit thinking about well, this book will be really appealing to XYZ, so then the next semester looking for something that might be a little bit different and mostly, I think, we’ve guessed very well.
John: I think so. Maybe we should mention some of the books that we’ve used.
Jessamyn: In fall 2020 in direct response to what was happening, we did Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and Jim Lang. And then in the spring of 2021, we read Distracted by James Lang. In fall 2021, we read What Inclusive Instructors Do, by Tracie Addy and co-authors. Last spring, 2022, we did Relationship-Rich Education by Peter Felton and Leo Lambert. This semester, fall 2022, we read Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology by Michelle Miller. And we are excited to be reading next semester Inclusive Teaching by Kelly Hogan, and Viji Sathy..
John: And even if you are not able to arrange for the authors to visit on campus, many authors have been willing to come in over Zoom to give a talk to the reading group, either at the beginning of the session, or at the end. And I think that’s also been really helpful.
Jessamyn: Yeah, yeah, many people are willing to do, at no cost, an informal question and answer session with book clubs. Many scholars of teaching and learning are willing and able to do that.
Rebecca: So it’s probably not fair to have a conversation about logistics without asking about some challenges you might have faced during this time, or during the collaboration, or just in running reading groups generally.
Jessamyn: This is not a challenge that we had, but maybe people should be aware that, as human beings, [LAUGHTER] some people don’t like other people, and collaborating with someone that you haven’t worked with before is an unknown in terms of your strengths and weaknesses together. Are you going to complement each other? As luck would have it, John and Rebecca and I worked very well together and our strengths complement each other, John mentioned too, all three of us come from very different backgrounds and training. But that’s seen as a benefit, I do think scholars of teaching and learning, generally, are more open to collaboration than some academics might be. So it may be less of an issue than other kinds of intellectual projects, but that’s maybe something to keep in mind.
John: One practical problem is that pretty much all colleges have classes that meet at different times. And trying to find times that work for both institutions can be a challenge. If we want to get faculty involved, we have to find times that don’t overlap with too many class schedules. So we’ve been fortunate to be able to do that. And once we found times, we’ve been keeping them at the same times each semester, because there’s enough of an overlap there that each session will overlap at most one class time period at each institution, making it possible for more people to attend.
Jessamyn: John, you mentioned it as a benefit, but it can also be a challenge that we have returning members participating, because we also have new people every book as well, every session as well. And it’s sometimes can be challenging when someone’s like, “Oh, we read all about that two books ago, I totally get it.” Okay, but the person Zooming in next to you has never read a book on this before. But that’s part of community generally, the issue for developing any kind of community is trying to balance the needs of the ongoing longer term members with the needs of the new members. How do you make it meaningful to everyone? It really reminds me of a class in a lot of ways, where you have one student sitting in the last row who’s never gonna get anything out of the class, they’ve decided you are stupid, and they hate the whole class, and they’re never gonna be there. Then right next to them is a student who’s ready to have their whole life transformed and they’re about to declare a major, they love it so much. You’ve got such a range in any group of students. And similarly, you’ve got a wide range with faculty, especially everybody’s context changes all the time. And some people Zoom in for our book club. And they’re in the midst of a semester from hell… everything going wrong, their department is toxic, and they are just burned out, next to someone who’s on top of the world and the book is speaking to their heart because everything’s falling into place. And they’re in the same Zoom call, talking about the same book.
John: And we actually did have someone on our campus who gave that sort of feedback, that there was nothing new that they hadn’t learned from previous books that we’ve read. And that kind of shocked me because there was a lot in this book that I had not read before, and I was part of all those other groups, but that can happen. And I think we’ve been able to choose books that no matter what you had read before, will bring something new to everyone. Because each of the books has brought in a lot of new research findings and some new things that we hadn’t covered, even though some of the basic principles are the same. I only remember hearing that from one person, maybe other people felt that, but I didn’t feel that way unless maybe I just forgot all the other things we had read before.
Jessamyn: I don’t think that people participating in the book club are as necessarily as hyper aware as we are of the benefits of just having the conversation. And of course, they can’t see like, over the semesters, the bird’s eye view. They might have a general sense that… and this is actually now that I’m talking like maybe we should have done more rigorous assessments [LAUGHTER] now that I’m talking and getting feedback. But my feeling is that, often, they are enjoying the benefits of having the conversations about teaching with not necessarily that facilitator view of “Oh, I see where we are talking about the book, but now people… they’re moving into more of these strategies or ideas or just moral support, like at certain times, in certain meetings, just Zooming in with other people who care about teaching, and are thinking about teaching” like you can tell that this is uplifting and encouraging. And that has less to do with the book content than being there in that call together.
John: And I think some of the people you mentioned, who were having just this horrible semester, and lots of people have been feeling that recently, especially the last few semesters, often get the most benefit out of those discussions and that sense of community, as you said, is really valuable.
Rebecca: Well, there’s a lot of shared brainstorming and troubleshooting. When someone has identified a need, or has just expressed some anxiety or stress around what they’re experiencing, people are there to say “it’s not just you,” or “I’ve tried this and it’s been successful,” or “I tried that that you’re thinking about and these are the barriers that I faced” … that just makes all of us more aware of what to be thinking about as we implement new things.
Jessamyn: Yeah, the last book we read. Michelle Miller’s book about Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology, it’s only a small part of her book when she’s talking about specific classroom phone policies, but we had extended conversations about classroom phone policies, and for good reason, it’s on a lot of people’s minds and there’s a lot of experiences and issues to unpack with that. So I think that’s a good example of how it wasn’t a huge part of her book, she does address it and address it very well but it was less about going through point by point her argument and her evidence, and more about: “So, she’s saying this, alright, so what happened in class last week with the phones, with the devices? So then this happened, then this happened…” and people were just sharing that: “What went on? And what did you do and what worked, what didn’t work?” And in fact, it gave me the idea. I’m creating a new workshop starting next semester, it’s just called “Classroom phone policies.” And it’s basically going to be, let’s talk about your classroom phone policies. What do you think?
Rebecca: I think one thing that we might want to talk about as we’re thinking about challenges is not one that we faced, but one that collaborators could face if they’re not similar kinds of institutions. I want to just underscore that, again, that that’s, I think in part, why the collaboration has been so successful.
Jessamyn: I think so too. I think it would maybe raise people’s hackles if the teaching context was really different, the student populations were really different. Well, you can’t really understand if it could work, but you’d have to be aware.
John: It might be harder to find common ground between a university center where faculty’s focus is often on research and a community college where the focus is primarily on teaching and lots of classes and lots of students. It would be really hard to get topics that would work well in both contexts, I would think. But again, as you both said, we’re very similar institutions,
Jessamyn: Yeah, it’s sort of the basis for the trust you were mentioning, Rebecca, because there have been big differences. John, you teach very large classes, larger than even the largest classes here at Plattsburgh. So there are big differences that have come up. But there’s this starting place of trust, this is another SUNY institution, similar student population, some general similar challenges with teaching centers that have some similar approaches. That starting ground of trust for faculty to talk honestly about this.
Rebecca: Sometimes in the books too, there’s examples that don’t feel relevant to our institutions, like a med school example, for example, but then we can take that and as a conversation point to say, “I didn’t find this relevant,” but then someone else might chime in. “Oh, but I’ve done something similar in this other context,” and that can be incredibly helpful in helping people think through how different concepts or strategies might apply in their own context.
Jessamyn: That makes me think, though, that another challenge to keep in mind, for other people looking to start faculty reading groups, is that it might be hard to measure or assess the long-term impact of some of this community building and the connections that I’m seeing happen. It would be hard to pin it down and show a direct systemic correlation between this and improved teaching. I think we might be able to, if we were to find the perfect moment, get people to say it or write it down: “We did this in the reading group, and I applied it this way in my classroom,” but I’m not sure how you would measure just like… I know, for myself, this past semester, just knowing I was going to Zoom in with people, like looking forward to a Zoom call, like how do you assess that? But that is… I mean, what? …that never happens. So I know it’s good, but I’m not quite sure how I’m going to document it for my annual activities report.
John: Yeah, we haven’t been able to do randomized controlled experiments [LAUGHTER] where we assign some people to reading groups and other people not to participate. We don’t have so many applicants to participate that we’re able to do a lottery and then evaluate the impact on student learning. It might be nice if we were in that position, but the people who participate tend to be some of the best teachers on campus, or the people who are most concerned about their teaching, and I’ve seen that the people who attend are also much more likely to attend other workshops and get involved in other professional development. So it does lead to a little bit of a contagion effect, in that it spreads to other aspects, when they see that this is something they find valuable, they’re much more likely to engage in other professional development.
Jessamyn: I wonder too, if there’s something to be said for… sorry to use the “u”word… but it’s unprecedented, the times we live in. Our unprecedented challenges in higher education are really things we’ve never faced before. And a collaborative Zoom-based faculty reading group, I mean, it’s new. We’re like, “oh, it’s old hat.” We’ve only been doing it like two years or something. But we’re like, “oh, yeah, our book club” and people around like, “Oh, of course, that’s just how it is,” but it’s a radical major change. It’s an innovation. And we’re kind of still in the midst of it, we’re still figuring out what it might be able to do or how this might work. I’m still framing Zoom, not as an emergency measure, but something that could actually add support and encouragement to our teaching life.
Rebecca: I’m hopeful for the opportunity in the future, maybe, to continue connecting faculty across institutions, maybe with similar disciplines or ways where they may not feel connected at their own institution, but have ways to connect with others at another institution where they might feel some alignment and feel a sense of belonging. I think there’s opportunity to continue scaling up, which is kind of interesting.
Jessamyn: Yeah, I think as the question of how do we mitigate teaching burnout, not only is that not going away, but that’s probably going to really slam into us big time in the next few years. And that seems to be more and more that’s what I hear. What could we possibly do? I just came back from the POD Network Conference. And there was a lot about what can we do? How can we chunk out faculty development? How can we support and encourage faculty? And collaborations like this, these kinds of connections, they’ve gotta be away, I think.
John: We’d both came back from the OLC conference where we ran a session on this, which was in the episode that we just released last week. Yeah, that was a concept we heard a lot about at other sessions, too, that everyone is feeling burned out. And it’s going to be a challenge, as we deal with issues of student motivation, student engagement, in a world in which there are so many problems that make it a little bit harder for students and for us to focus on developing a more productive learning environment.
Jessamyn: Yeah, our next book on inclusive teaching, I think, is a good example of that. It’s something so many people care about so much, but it can start to feel overwhelming. It’s something you’re always having to keep revisiting and learning about. That’s by its nature. That’s what inclusive pedagogical practices require, that you continue to build your pedagogical skills over and over and over and without a place like a book club that kind of just is there to reinforce and support your growth mindset about teaching. Yes, everybody’s really tired this semester. It’s not easy to do, but we’re here together.
Rebecca: And it’s scheduled reflective practice.
Jessamyn: That’s right, exactly.
Rebecca: It’s already on the calendar.
Jessamyn: And it is a big benefit, John, like you said that we’ve been able to do it at the same times, the same three times three days a week is like sometimes I say my superpower is consistency. This is a good example.
John: And at Oswego, most faculty either teach Tuesday/Thursday or Monday/Wednesday/Friday, so by scheduling our meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, it makes it pretty easy for people to find a time to participate. They don’t always participate at the same time every week. And again, they get the benefit of meeting and working with a different group of people if they show up at different times.
Rebecca: And minimally, even if they can’t come to a meeting, there’s a schedule for how to read the book.
Jessamyn: And now that I’m thinking about it, we do have quite a few people who Zoom from home or other places working around their childcare. So it definitely increases people’s ability to attend.
Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking what’s next?
John: Well, what’s next, I think is our next reading group, which will be starting up in February 2023.
Jessamyn: We are very, very excited to be reading Inclusive Teaching. It’s one of the latest books out from the West Virginia University Press Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series. We’re super excited that the authors, Dr. Viji Sathy and Dr. Kelly Hogan, are going to be Zooming in for a Q&A with our book club when we’re done. They provide everyone a book club guide, some discussion questions, through their website. So we’re really really looking forward to that discussion.
John: If you’d like to consider a reading group on your campus and if you’d have any questions about how this operates, feel free to contact any of us. We’ll put our email addresses in the show notes.
Rebecca: Thanks for joining us, Jessamyn. It’s always great to talk to you.
Jessamyn: Thanks for having me.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.