As our student body diversifies, higher ed needs to respond and adapt. In this episode, Bryan Dewsbury and Mays Imad join us to discuss equity-minded strategies we can use to redesign or incrementally improve our courses. Bryan is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and the principal investigator of the Science Education and Society research program at Florida International University. Mays is an Associate Professor of Biology and Equity Pedagogy at Connecticut College and is a AAC&U Senior Fellow. Bryan and Mays are co-authors, with Flower Darby and Isis Artze-Vega, of The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching.
- Artze-Vega, Isis; Flower Darby; Bryan Dewsbury; Mays Imad (2023). The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching. Norton
- Moses, R., & Cobb, C. E. (2002). Radical equations: Civil rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project. Beacon Press.
- Algebra Project
- Who was Paulo Freire? – Freire Institute
- Parker Palmer, We Teach Who We Are. YouTube video
- Stephen Brookfield
- Laura Rendon
John: As our student body diversifies, higher ed needs to respond and adapt. In this episode, we discuss equity-minded strategies we can use to redesign or incrementally improve our courses.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Bryan Dewsbury and Mays Imad. Bryan is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and the principal investigator of the Science Education and Society research program at Florida International University. Mays is an Associate Professor of Biology and Equity Pedagogy at Connecticut College and is a AAC&U Senior Fellow. Bryan and Mays are co-authors (with Flower Darby and Isis Artze-Vega), of The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching. Welcome Bryan and Mays.
Mays: Thank you. Thank you for having us.
John: Today’s teas are: …Bryan, Mays, are either of you drinking tea?
Mays: I am.
Bryan: I am not.
John: Mays, what tea are you drinking?
Mays: I am drinking chai masala, that I prepare the night before, and I wake up and it’s the first thing on my mind.
Rebecca: Oh, that sounds amazing. I have an awake tea this morning, John.
John: And I have a ginger peach black tea today.
Bryan: So I’m it odd one out with a cup of black coffee.
John: That’s not uncommon. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: One of the most common teas we have.
John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching. Before we discuss the book itself, could you tell us a little bit about your own pathway to this project?
Bryan: Mays, you want to go first?
Mays: Sure. So my career started at the community college. And in fact, I was a postdoctoral fellow when I started, a postdoctoral fellow studying the cellular mechanisms of learning, which is vast and complex. And as a graduate student, as a postdoctoral fellow, I had this growing understanding that learning can happen, and it can happen spectacularly well, provided the right environment is there. So when I began to teach at Pima Community College, I began to see how so many of my first-generation working students, coming, showing up, doing all what is expected of them, and having a really hard time academically. And I began to understand the notion of the system and the complexity of learning. So really, for me, it started as a recognition that I, as a teacher, as a fellow human being, have a moral imperative to address what is going on. The inequities that I was seeing are not an inherent self-evident part of the system. It’s by virtue of the human-made system, that I had a choice and a chance and an obligation to start to shift and address and interrogate and even transform. So that’s how I began and fast forward to a few years ago, when Isis reached out to me, it was something that very much spoke to my heart and I said, “Yes.”
Bryan: yeah, a little bit of a similar story, I guess. I mean, without maybe recounting my whole academic career, all of the authors on this guide are people with whom that I’ve worked with in different contexts. And there’s a sense in which projects like these tend to be a combination of conversations that you’ve been having for years. And obviously, there’s a plan, there was a strategy, we carved this out and really tried to think carefully about what would be the most impactful. We also recognize and appreciate all the other books and publications out there addressing inclusive teaching. So it’s not to replace any of those, it’s really to just kind of add to the conversation nationally. We are an interesting mix in that, in terms of our individual careers, and that Isis is a provost. I’m a research faculty, but also do a lot of faculty development. Mays will probably describe herself the same way and Flower Darby is nationally known a lot of times in the online space, but really her work expands to everything. So I bring that up to say that you probably will see a lot of that complexity come to bear in the way the book is written and the kind of things we try to think about, that our faculty would need to think about, when they’re designing an equity-minded classroom.
Rebecca: So it is nice to hear all your different backgrounds and thinking about the authorship of the book, because it does help us think about, as you mentioned, the complexities of how it was written and also just the complexities of the things that we need to be thinking about when we’re teaching in this space. Your book is divided into three sections. The first section addresses class design, the second addresses the day to day operations of the class, and the final section focuses on critical reflection at the end of the course. During course design, what are some of the most important factors that faculty should consider when trying to design an inclusive course?
Mays: I’ll share some of them and Bryan, please feel free to jump in and add. So one of the things that are critical is that we approach this work with intentionality and explicit intentionality that right from the get go, even from before the students get there that we design the course to have equity in mind. And one of the factors, when it comes to course design and curriculum, is that the course has to be relevant for the students. And what the research that we found is many students find that the materials are not relevant. Now, when I think about how the brain works and how we have limited energy, oftentimes, when I see my students struggling, and I try to dig deeper and try to see how I can engage them, I usually find things like they say things like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to make me a better person,’ or ‘I don’t know how this is relevant.’ And so the brain is going to disconnect, it’s going to focus on something that is more urgent, more relevant. So we talk about relevance being very important… to explicitly make connections between students’ lives and what is in the course. The second one is transparency, why we’re doing what we’re doing. And there is a lot of research about transparency and how there is more buy-in from the students when we articulate for them how things connect, and that it’s not just busy work. And then a third factor that we say it’s really important to consider when you’re designing your course, is rigor. And we talked about the research behind rigor, and we problematize rigor, and what is the definition of rigor, and so on. And here we’re talking about academic challenge. We owe it to our students to challenge them academically, so they could succeed in their next courses, and we understand that this is multifactorial, and that we have to also find the resources so they could succeed when we challenge them academically. And so those are some of the factors that we talk about to take into consideration before you even meet your students: who are the students? what matters to them? and why it is important to cultivate the space where, when we challenge them academically, they can succeed.
Bryan: The only thing I will add because you know, we both wrote the book. So [LAUGHTER] refer pages 25 to 50, for your question kind of thing. But the only thing I will add, because this phrase wasn’t used in the book. But this phrase comes from another wonderful book called Radical Equations by Robert Moses, a civil rights leader from the 60s. And there’s a phrase they use during that time, which is then applied, he then came to apply to the Algebra Project, which he founded, which is “Cast your bucket where you are.” And that really speaks to what Mays just mentioned about getting to know your students and your context, especially at an entry level, it almost sounds like provocative, radical advice. But a lot of these things that are really important for good course design have nothing to do with the content of the class. This is not us saying that the content doesn’t matter and they should just all be signing Kumbaya for 15 weeks. What this means is that teaching is a skill and a skill that involves the psychology of the individual, the social context, both in real time but also what they brought before they showed up to that classroom. And this whole conversation is taking place because of the years we’ve been ignoring that. So I really want to kind of center that. Because I think a lot of times when people ask that question, the first thing they hear is, “Well, how do I make respiration more exciting?” Well, yeah, we’ll get to that, but this is a human being that you’re trying to build a relationship and a connection with. And that needs to take front and center before you get to inspiring them with the really beautiful content.
John: The second part of your book deals with maintaining the class, with the ongoing running of the class. And one of the things you emphasize throughout is the importance of creating a sense of belonging. Could you each talk about some strategies that could be used to help create that sense of belonging within the classroom.
Bryan: I don’t want to run the risk of listing your audience to death here. So I want to offer what I’m about to say as maybe the thing that bubbles up to the surface to me as an instructor. There’s certainly a lot of things one can do to help students feel a sense of belonging. And the approach chosen might differ depending on the class that’s been taught in the institution. One of the classes that I teach most often is intro bio and it’s a really special class for me, because it’s it’s a privilege to teach that class. I’m grateful to have the chance to welcome students into a wonderful discipline and a way of seeing the world that’s relatively unique to that space. I also like the challenge of showing a lot of students who before may not feel like this is a place they belong or see themselves doing this 10, 15, 20 years in the future. I like the challenge of showing them that this is the real thing. You can be as much a biologist as anybody else, anybody in the book, anybody you’ve seen on TV, etc. But it is a very technical space. And any technical space kind of requires a slowly evolving comfort level [LAUGHTER] as you navigate through the technicalities of it. And I think that tends to be a place where some students and faculty get stuck into how you keep that door open and welcoming while navigating this environment that really requires a lot of time and attention on the cognitive challenge. So one thing, and it might sound simple, but how feedback is given really, really matters. Without saying my age here, but I certainly went to school at a time when it was your tool, just try harder, right? …just study harder. And any grade you got you there was this sort of assumption that any grade you got was just 100% due to whether you did try well or didn’t try well enough or knew this stuff or didn’t know it. There was no discussion of the way the teaching happened. There was no discussion of your actual approaches to studying. There was no discussion about what motivates you to even do this class in the first place. And now we know and we probably knew it then too, but we know how much all of that matters. So when a student sits in front of me and they have a C, it’s not just that “Well Mays, you need to do better than this.” It’s: “Tell me how you prepare for this moment. Tell me what is motivating you to be pre-med or to want to go to grad school.” And all of those things come to be in a conversation, the goal of which is for me to see you shine in the way that I know you can. How does it build a sense of belonging? It shows the student that I am not questioning if you can become a biologist, I’m actually assuming that. What I’m working on are things that are fixable. I’m working on strategy. I’m working on things that you can do something different and see a result. And so once you know I kind of have your back in that way, your effort then becomes different because it’s just a matter of specific things we can work on.
Mays: Yes, so thank you for that. Bryan. If I were to add to your beautiful answer, I would say take the time to find out what belonging means for your students, I think we often make assumptions about inclusion and belonging and what they want and what they don’t want. Of course, I start with the understanding that wanting to belong is a human need. We’re social beings, we want to connect and we want to belong, but on a day-to-day basis in my classes within my context, what does that mean and what it would look like that’s going to be different. And while I’m going to apply what I learned, and what the research says, I also want to take the time to ask students do you want to belong? And what makes you want to belong to an academic setting or a social group? And what are some of the things that make you want to belong? And what does that word mean for you? So I think starting with that is really important. It can be really informative to our practices.
Rebecca: I really related to what you were saying, Bryan, I teach in a really technical field as well. And that technical challenge can really discourage students if we don’t make those assumptions that they can indeed be in the field that they are studying. So thanks for sharing that as your top. I feel like that’s one of my top ideas, too. And I love, Mays, about thinking about our audience, and including our audience in the design. As a designer, I really gravitate towards those kinds of ideas. One of the things that you already kind of mentioned is this idea of connections and relevance. So what are some ways that faculty can help students connect course content to their lived experiences?
Mays: I think one of the things I asked them is I talk about how learning is very relational. We are relational, learning is relational, knowledge, when we co-create it, is very much relational. So one of the things I ask them is, “Why should you care about this lesson, this topic, this context? How does it relate to your life? How does it connect to your family? How does it impact the people you care about?” And throughout the semester this is a recurring set of questions that I ask. And in the beginning of the semester, I pause, and I model the answers. I care about this, because this is how it connects to the community, the people I care about, this is how it connects to something I feel passionate about. And then it becomes an exercise that they do regularly. We do this exercise at the beginning of the class of “What is your why? And what is your ‘why?’ beyond taking this class? Why is this important? And so we connect those many exercises or “Why should you care about the acid-based physiology” to that initial “why?” exercise?
Bryan: You don’t imply this in your question, Rebecca, but it does come up a lot about relevance and how it works. And I think one danger that I want to ask faculty members to avoid is the notion here is not that every aspect of the content has to tie back to something. You may fall into that trap if everything is not connected to something, but, you know, sometimes a cell is a cell is a cell kind of thing. But there are several things that do. For me, it’s actually less a case of connecting it to their lives, per se and more a case of communicating that human beings do science, human beings do the discipline. That, in and of itself, by definition, means that there’s a social component to how it’s practiced. It introduces the cultural context within which science is done and it introduces the bias that occurs with some scientific decisions, good, bad, in-between. It brings up a different conversation once you recognize that none of these things are really apolitical, values free. The second point is, to connect something to students’ lives, you have to first know student’s life so that this way you understand, it doesn’t feel patronizing or facetious. There has to be some authenticity there about Mays’ story about getting to know the students, I don’t think she just meant know them individually, but just also their broader context. When I taught in Rhode Island, it was important to know the local and the very ancient, but also more recent history of the state, of the city, of the neighborhoods the students came from. I knew the high schools that were big feeders. Those things made the relationship a lot more authentic, because the knowledge was there first. So I think once that all those precursors are present, honestly, the connection part is not that hard, it almost comes naturally. Because you just naturally want to teach in a way that builds a history of these beautiful people. And you kind of… I don’t want to say just is automatic because you are intentional… but it is so much, so much easier, and you have this desire to do it. I’ll just add one last thing, a lot of times with teaching, and I’m speaking now, as a faculty developer, here. I get good course design, I get you want to have learning outcomes, they’re going to be measurable, etc. But sometimes, even conversations like this can get stuck within the structure of what higher ed is, which is you get 120 credits and 15 weeks at a time you take a suite of classes, and those classes give you a grade and those grades average into a number, and then you become a 3.1. Student or a 4.0 student. We get it. We get how all of that stuff works. But I know Mays well enough to know that we have much more radical visions for what education is and what it can be. We come from the Freireian school of critical consciousness and preparing students to be civically engaged to have agency and power and to see themselves as agentic parts of a democratic experiment. So what’s driving all of this is who I want you to be, not necessarily getting your good grades in 15 weeks. So from that perspective, even simple things like group work, for example, it really is actually practicing deliberative democracy. Even things like how we talk about experimental design, they bring up other questions like whose voices are not at the table when you think about these questions, like whose perspectives are you not considering? Or who are you. So if you think about this a little bit more broadly, beyond like, I just want people to do well, in this really nice subject I have a PhD in, that you tap into the more socio-political aspect of education, which is a beautiful thing, I think, but it makes the connection to social life and just broader life in general easier to do.
John: One of the things that’s especially challenging is that we’ve always had students come in with very diverse prior backgrounds in terms of their training and what they know coming into our classes, but the experience of remote teaching during COVID resulted in much greater variations in their preparation. We want to create courses that are challenging for everyone. How can we do that in a way where we’re challenging the students with really strong preparation without losing the students who don’t have as much background? What types of support can we provide to make sure that all of our students are challenged, but also have the resources to be successful in our courses?
Bryan: We could just give everybody a trophy right? Now, that’s what they say this generation is. When I put on the intro bio hat again, and that’s a place where the differential readiness is really, really apart, I would have students who last science class you take, not bio, science class, was their first year of high school next to students who were in AP, went to private school or things like that. And that’s fine. It’s fine in the sense that I’m able to design for that. And I would say there’s kind of two things I’ll say to this point. Number one, you have to be able, as an instructor, to have things in place to accurately detect whose readiness might be further behind. And specifically, what areas of readiness that need addressing, and then have the tools in place to quickly respond to that. So a lot of times just my own history, it’s hard to study. A lot of times it’s confidence. Honestly, it’s fixed mindsets around who gets to do science and what counts as doing well in science and things like that. So the first month of that class is almost like a battle, that I generally win, I think, in convincing them that this is a place for them if we consider these specific things I’m trying to show you. So a lot of times, yeah, there’s class or whatever. But there’s a lot of times spent in office hours, which we actually call student hours, because it uses a smaller group. There’s a lot of time sneaking in conversations about: Have you tried this? Have you tried that? Emails that are sent to direct people, etc. Your students will come in and I’ll just say for now, maybe kind of fly in from the get go. There are other things that they can do to grow. So those are the students I might say: Have you thought about joining our research lab? I know it’s your first semester, but it’s a good time to get to know a professor more personally and see how science is done a professional way. A lot of times those students will come to student hours. And what I would do is I put them to work. I will say, “Mays, can you make sure this group of four understands glycolysis as well as you do,” and those students will typically go on to become my learning assistants in a future semester. So my point here is that everybody has a space to grow and has a direction and an amount that they can transform. The pedagogy is you being able to figure that out? And figuring out how to respond to what growth that is needed for that individual.
Mays: Thanks, Brian, I have a couple things to add. So number one, obviously, as I hear you, John ask the question, I think it’s complex. So yes, there are students that are going to come in that may not have the academic background, perhaps they come into my pathophysiology class not really knowing the cardiac output and the cardiovascular system as they should in their previous class. And then there are students that come in ready to be challenged. At the same time, there are students that are going to come in that are going to have perhaps subtle and not so visible skills that other students who maybe have the academic background are going to have. So it’s not just that I want to bring everyone up to speed academically, I want to also bring them up to speed when it comes to issues that really matters for citizens, their empathy, their non-academic problem solving, their collegiality, and so on. So there are a couple of things I do, I want to get to know who knows what. And I tell them that I’m very transparent why I do what I do. And I tell them that this is a way to give me feedback, so I could know how to maneuver forward. I also bring the tutors and the preceptors myself from my previous classes. And I rarely bring the ones who got A’s, I bring the students who came into the class, not quote, unquote, having the background. And then they picked up the background. And they succeeded. And they ended up with a solid B, and sometimes even a C, and I bring those students and we meet on a weekly basis. And so the culture of my class is very much we’re going to work together with the tutors. And then the third thing is I tell the students, we come from different backgrounds. And I use my story that when I started graduate school, my background was in philosophy, and all of a sudden, I am studying neuropharmacology. And many of my peers in graduate school were steps ahead of me. And I was trying to figure out just basic things in cellular neurophysiology, or cellular neuroscience. And so I talk about the notion of some of us have this background and not the other background as a way to celebrate the diversity. And I say the way I’m going to approach this is I am going to start slow, because I want to review for some of you and I want to bring up to speed others, those of you who are going to feel like this is slow, I want you to stick with me. And I want you to think about what’s coming ahead. And then sometimes I’m going to speed up and some of you are going to feel like this is so fast, I also want you to stick with me, I’m going to slow down. So it’s very much relational. I’m telling them what’s going on, I’m working with the tutors, they come and talk with me. At the beginning of the class, I do a lot of exercises where students answer on a form, it’s a one-item form: should I slow down or speed up. So I’m getting this real live feedback, slow down or speed up. I’m not learning anything new, this is overwhelming. And it gives me the opportunity to change and accommodate. No class or no session is going to be the same as the previous one. So those are some of my approaches. Again, be transparent with the student, get to know what they know. focus on not just what they perhaps don’t have academically, but what other assets they bring that perhaps the students that have the academic background don’t bring and celebrate those. Those are also important and constantly seek feedback from your audience.
John: And it sounds like using peers in the classroom to provide feedback and using group projects would be another way of leveraging the strength of all the students so that those who do have better strength in a topic can assist those who are still at an earlier stage of development, which benefits both types of individuals because by explaining it to other students, they’re going to reinforce their own learning and the students who have things explained to them by their peers are going to be able to connect to that in a way they don’t often if we were explaining it to them.
Rebecca: You just kind of talked a lot about some feedback loops that are necessary in learning. And one of the things that you advocate in your book is a process of critical reflection at the end of the term that relies on self examination and engagement with course data. Can you talk a little bit about that process and what data faculty might use to assist in this kind of reflection?
Bryan: I guess for me, I really would like the conversation about how we look at semesters that we teach, to move away from a hyper focus on whether we grade or not grade, or just assess learning. And I’m not saying that assessing learning is not important. But I would like to move away from that and broaden it to evaluating an experience. And that language matters. Because in the latter, by definition, when you’re doing any kind of forensic analysis of an experience, you naturally have to think about all the factors that contribute to whether that experience was successful, however its success is defined for that situation. And the factors include ourselves, the factors includes things we did well or didn’t do well. The factors include the physical environment of the classroom or the virtual environment. The factors include the support structures that were available for both the instructor and student to be their best selves. And so once the conversation broadens in that way, it just by definition necessitates some critical reflection. It really presents the class with that question wrong. It’s probably not them, it might be me. So just things like that. It gets us away from what I think is a little bit of a false dichotomy on that kind of issue. Should you put a ladder or should you not put a ladder, that is what it is, but this is what our section is really asking us to respect. If it’s a humanist process, then every human involved will have some questions to answer about how well it went or didn’t go.
Mays: So teaching, as I mentioned earlier, is very relational. And it’s a work in progress, as learning is. And so the feedback that we see from our students is critical to help us look at what we’re missing, look at assumptions we made, assumptions we didn’t make. It really helps us move forward in a kind, equitable, and liberatory way. So, first of all, we advocate for feedback throughout the semester. Talk with your students, listen to your students. It’s a co-creative process. And then the feedback that we seek at the end, we of course, problematize student evaluation. And we say that, on the one hand, there are so many biases and so many problems with how instructors are not evaluated equitably, especially instructors from racialized backgrounds and women instructors. And at the same time, the feedback is so important, because it is right now, it’s arguably the only source of information we get about students’ experience, not so much about their learning, but about their experience. And that’s really important. We do talk about ways to enhance the reflection, too. So we could get more in-depth information about students’ experiences. And we talk about this idea of reflection, why it is so important. Parker Palmer talks about how we teach who we are, and how our inner being is so critical in the teaching process. And when we reflect on even the most harsh evaluation, what we’re doing is trying to find the truth, find a truth within that, with the intention that this truth can help us grow as teachers, as instructors, as facilitators, as human beings. So it could help our future students. So those are some of the things we talked about that the reflection is so critical, and it’s been written about in bell hooks’ work and Paulo Freire’s work, and certainly Stephen Brookfield and Parker Palmer and Laura Rendon. And those are really important. I hope when I finish a class, that it’s not just my students who are changed, that I change as well, that it is a process where as bell hooks calls it, liberating mutuality, where the classroom, whether it’s online or in person becomes a space where both the instructor and the students are transformed by the end of that experience. So those are just some of the things we underscore in that section of the book.
John: We always end by asking, what’s next?
Bryan: I will say what’s next, for my program in general, is we’ve been keeping our ears to the ground on the political landscape in the US, particularly around the kinds of things that we’ve been writing about over the past several years. And I think one thing the field needs more is we need to continue to have scholarship around these ideas and think critically about how to have education systems that allow everybody to thrive. But I think there also needs to be really well designed communication projects that message this and perhaps ways other than how academia typically messages this, which is through the research process. This is not trying to throw that process out of the water, but I think getting into more storytelling type projects, podcasting, narrative, op ed. So the short answer to you “what next” question is there’ll be more projects like that are coming down the pipeline, because we think that there’s a gap and a real need for that.
Mays: For me, it’s really bringing the wellbeing and mental health to the equity conversations. I think for so long we’ve done equity and inclusive work, kind of like in a vacuum without taking a holistic approach and that exclusion can have a profound impact on our sense of wellbeing or even mental health. I mean research shows just how systematic exclusion and microaggression can impact our cortisol level, for example. In my own work, I’ve been just saying how they intersect mental health and equity and inclusion and justice. And I want to be more intentional to, I guess, bring that to national conversations. What are you doing about mental health? I know you have this and that initiative for equity-minded education. Where does mental health fit in within that?
John: Well, thank you. Your book is a tremendous resource that can be really valuable in helping people build a more equitable classroom environment.
Mays: Thank you for having us.
Rebecca: We appreciate you joining us today.
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.