Looking to the future as an instructor in higher education can seem daunting, especially as we plan for a more equitable future. In this episode, Jesse Stommel joins us to discuss some of those challenges, search for hope, and discuss ways forward that are ethical, humane and flexible. Jesse is the Executive Director of the Hybrid Pedagogy nonprofit organization, and organization he founded in 2011. He is also the founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. Jesse recently served as the Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. He is the co-author, with Sean Michael Morris, of An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, and, with Dorothy Kim, co-editor of Disrupting the Digital Humanities.
Emotions and past experiences can lead us to develop fixed mindsets in particular aspects of our lives and learning. In this episode, Kelly Theisen joins us to discuss ways to help foster growth mindsets within a course from the beginning to the end of the semester. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
- Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
- Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
- Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Yue, C. L., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Reducing verbal redundancy in multimedia learning: An undesired desirable difficulty?. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 266.
John: Emotions and past experiences can lead us to develop fixed mindsets in particular aspects of our lives and learning. In this episode, we discuss ways to help foster growth mindsets within a course from the beginning to the end of the semester.
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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Kelly Theisen. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Welcome, Kelly
Kelly: Thanks for having me.
John: Our teas today are:
Kelly: I have Earl Grey today.
Rebecca: And John, get this. I have a different kind, Gingersnap tea.
Kelly: Oh, that sounds good.
John: Where did you get that?
Rebecca: It’s a Tea Forte, you’d be happy to know.
John: Oh, I haven’t seen that one.
I have a summer berry green tea that I picked up in Epcot last year. My supply is dwindling, though.
Rebecca: I know, and you’re very disappointed you’re not going to be there this fall.
John: I know. I had planned to, but I will be online at that conference.
We’ve invited you here, Kelly, to talk about how you’ve been working to help students reframe their academic anxiety by helping them to cultivate a growth mindset. Before we discuss how you’ve been doing that, could you tell us a little bit about the courses that you teach?
Kelly: Yeah, sure. So I teach primarily my general biochemistry course for non major students, and I teach that every semester. And then in the spring, I also teach physical biochemistry, which is a much smaller class for biochemistry majors only.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about why it’s important that students develop a growth mindset?
Kelly: Yeah, so I think it’s especially important for my 371, the general biochem students to have the growth mindset, because they usually come into my class terrified, absolutely terrified of biochemistry, they’ve heard it’s like the worst class ever. And they think it has math, and they’re just so scared. So, I think that it’s important for them to have the growth mindset so that they feel like they can actually succeed in the class, which a lot of them again, they come in not thinking that they can. So, developing a growth mindset, reminding them that it’s hard, like the class is not gonna be easy, but that they can do it, they can get better with trying, is really key for helping them to keep going if they start to struggle. What I don’t want is for them to get to the first set of content that’s difficult, and then just give up. I want them to keep working at it, because I know that practice is going to make it better for them. For me, that’s why it’s so important, it’s because I want all of my students to be able to succeed, not just the ones who are already super motivated, and everything. I want everybody to get through the class and do well.
John: Why do you think so many people come into our classes with this fixed mindset?
Kelly: So, it can have lots of different origins. And I think some are internal and some are external. So, for example, a student could have somebody in a previous class, any previous STEM class who has told them, you’re not good at STEM, or you’re bad at math, or things like that. And so all it takes is maybe one teacher in school, a professor, when they get to college, who tells them that,for them to decide that this is just not for me, and I just have to take these classes for my major, but I’m just going to get through them because I’m not going to be good at it. And so that’s one way they can develop a fixed mindset about it. Also, it’s possible to have a fixed mindset in one area of your life and not in others. So student athletes is where I think of the most for this, where they have a growth mindset in terms of their athletics. They know that going to practice, working on whatever technique it is, is going to help them improve and do better during the game. But, they don’t always think to apply that to their academics as well. And so they might say, “I did badly on this test. That’s it, I’m done. There’s no point in me trying any more in this class.” Things like that can lead to the fixed mindset in classes, even if they don’t have one in other areas. So, it can be like I said, internal from them, or external with other people telling them, “You’re bad at this,” or whatever. And that happened to me actually a lot growing up, and in my career. Lots of people told me it shouldn’t or couldn’t be in chemistry, lots of very stupid reasons for that. But still, it happened enough that if I hadn’t had a growth mindset myself, and knowing that just because this person tells me I’m bad at something doesn’t mean I really am. Or just because I had to ask for help doesn’t mean I will never get this or that I’m bad at it, then I don’t think I would be here having this conversation with you, frankly.
Rebecca: Sometimes I find that the students that you might least expect to have a fixed mindset do, they might be the students that you think of as good students who have done well or have succeed[ed] previously in other classes they’ve had with you or in the discipline, but they come across a hurdle, maybe for the first time, and they just don’t know what to do, because things have come easy for them, or they haven’t had to work so hard.
Kelly: Right? Or they got by on just memorizing in high school, and then they get to college, and it doesn’t work anymore. And so then they can say, “This is just not working. I’m just going to give up. And I don’t know what else to do besides memorize, and if that’s not cutting it, then what am I doing here?” So, yeah, definitely. And biochemistry is a difficult class, and so not everybody is going to get 100% on every exam. [LAUGHTER] And so that can be challenging for some students, where they really want that hundred percent.
Rebecca: Yeah, and especially in the sciences, or any place where you need to explore or experiment, taking a risk can be really challenging if you have a fixed mindset.
Kelly: Yeah, exactly. And I want the students to think critically about what they’re learning. I don’t want them to just memorize the information and then spit it back out on the test. That’s not what science is really about. It’s about exploring and trying to figure out why things work the way that they do. And so, that risk taking, I usually make them do that every day in class. We do active learning, and they have to say, “Here, try to answer this problem before I’ve explained it to you. And so you’re gonna get it wrong, it’s fine.” And so that process, again, it’s sort of encouraging the growth mindset, but it’s difficult for them at first. They want to know the right answer ahead of time a lot of the time. So, you have to remind them and reassure them: “It’s okay, I’m not gonna grade you badly if you get it wrong. You’re just supposed to try and do the best you can.”
John: While anyone can have a fixed mindset coming into your class, some of students who expect to do well, some others based on their prior experience who might not expect to do very well. But, are there some patterns, perhaps, where first-gen students or students from underrepresented groups might be more subject to this, particularly in the STEM fields,
Kelly: I think that they’re just more likely to have been told that they’re not good at this or that they shouldn’t be in X, Y, or Z discipline. And as I said, that happened to me a lot. I was a first-gen student and female man going into chemistry, which is still pretty heavily male dominated. And then I went into computational chemistry, which is even more heavily male dominated. And so, yeah, I think that just because of that background, they might be more likely to have heard things like that before. And so actually, one of the things I do on the first day of class is, I say, “How many of you were told this or something similar to this?” I don’t usually get a lot of hands. I don’t think a lot of people want to disclose that necessarily in front of the rest of the class, which is fine. But the point of asking is, so that I can tell them, this happened to me all the time. And I made it through and I’m now a professor, and I’m doing these things that they told me I wasn’t any good at, but I actually am. So, that means that you can too, basically.
Rebecca: It’s funny how those early comments from teachers can have a really big impact for a long time.
Rebecca: I had some similar experiences. I remember very distinctly in eighth grade, like math teacher telling me I couldn’t do math. I remember a seventh grade art teacher telling me I couldn’t do art. And now I do art that has math in it.
Kelly: Right. Exactly. My teacher in high school told me I wasn’t good at computers, because I couldn’t type both quickly and accurately. Turns out, I’m just dyslexic, and so I just hadn’t practiced typing enough at that point. And I’m now a computational chemist, and I work with Linux and programming, and so it’s fine. It just took me a little longer to get up to that level that they were expecting, then it did some other people. But again, it’s just about focusing on “You can do it, you just have to keep practicing.” And knowing that where you start is only where you start, and that you’re the one who gets to decide where you end up.
Rebecca: You suggested that a growth mindset is a scientific mindset. Can you elaborate on that?
Kelly: Yeah, I think anybody who has done research knows that you have to have a growth mindset to go into research… to enjoy doing research, at least… because you’re going to fail all the time. You’re going to start an experiment, and it’s not going to go right, or it’s not going to happen at all, [LAUGHTER] and you have to figure out why, you have to understand, “Okay, something went wrong. Did I do something wrong? Is it the experiment is actually showing us negative data? What is happening? And that really does take a growth mindset. You have to be willing to fail to go into research. You have to understand that it’s not you necessarily failing, the process of science requires a lot of failure. So, that’s one of the other things I try to tell the students is like, you’re actually living like a scientist, right now. [LAUGHTER] And this is what we do all the time, we set something up, and who knows? We just have to see what happens and then go from there. And one of the things that I really like the most about growth mindset is it sort of freeing, it gives you the ability to just try and know that your first effort is not going to be your best. And I really love that because it frees you from perfectionism, or wanting things to be exactly a certain way, the very first time you do it. You just know, whatever I do, it’s only where I started, and it’s not going to be perfect. And that’s okay, I’m always going to get better from that point. And so I feel like that, at least, has helped me to approach research and teaching and knowing that I might not be great at everything to begin with. And it helped me to try things that I might not have been comfortable with necessarily. But again, it was “Okay, I know, I’m not gonna be great at this right now, but I’m still gonna do it. And I’m going to try my best and that I know, I’m going to get better from there.”
John: What are some of the approaches you use to help nurture a growth mindset in your students?
Kelly: So, there’s actually quite a few that I like, and I use them in all my classes, but again, especially in the general biochemistry for non majors class. So one of them is the frequent low-stakes assignments, it helps the students to build confidence in the material and it gives them sort of a grade cushion, for the exams. And the low-stakes assignments, it helps with inclusion and equity as well. So, one of the other things I do when we have face-to-face exams… I’m not doing it this semester, because this semester everything’s online. But, when I head face-to-face exams, I was doing exam corrections. So, basically, the students could earn back up to half the points that they missed on the exam. And basically, I think that this helps students continue to engage with the material, instead of you learn it for the exam, and then you forget it immediately afterwards. They would have to go back and look up what they had missed, and try to understand why they got it wrong, which helps them to keep engaging with that content. But it also helps them to stick with learning things that are difficult, right? Even the exam is kind of not the end, I guess. I always thank students for asking questions, or for volunteering answers in class, even if they get it wrong, because that kind of thing helps everybody learn. So, I always tell them that I appreciate that, that that’s good. I guess just reassuring students that even if they failed at something, that that’s a step in the right direction to helping them succeed eventually. This semester for the exams, I have them look up a research paper ahead of time. And a lot of students were apologizing because they hadn’t gotten it right the first time or even the second time. And so I had to remind them just because you tried it, that’s the point. Even if you failed, you’re getting better at it just by trying it. And then I think the last thing that I do, and the students really seem to like this, because it comes up on my evaluations quite frequently, is the learning objectives. And I actually think that this promotes growth mindset, because having sort of almost a checklist that they can go through and say here is everything I’m responsible for for the exam. It kind of gives them a way to say “Okay, here’s the things I already know, and here’s the things they still need to work on.” So, it almost forces them to have a growth mindset by going through and checking everything off. So, I really like to do that as well.
John: You mentioned having a list of learning objectives, is that something that you include, say in the course module in your learning management system?
Kelly: It’s on the slides every day. So, when they walk into class, the first couple slides will have the learning objectives. And then I show them again at the end. When we were doing face-to-face classes, there would actually be on their daily worksheet, they’d have a question at the very last thing, which said, “Is there anything you’re still confused about from today? Are there any learning objectives you feel were not met?” And then that gave them a spot to write in, if they had any questions remaining. And that way, I could kind of check in with them as well. It’s harder to do that online I found. And so I kind of missed that this semester. But the students really do seem to love putting questions in the chat and things like that. So. I think we’re still managing to do that okay.
Rebecca: One of the things that, along those same lines, that I like to have conversations with students about, is the more mistakes and things they make they end up learning more. [LAUGHTER] So, it’s like, “Well, if you got that all right the first time, you wouldn’t have had this whole learning adventure that you didn’t plan for.” And I find that framing it like that tends to put a positive spin on something that they might seem as being a very big negative.
Kelly: I don’t know if anybody else is as big of a nerd as I am and watches Disney movies, but in Meet the Robinsons, there’s the part where he’s trying to fix something and he completely fails, and it just like bursts apart. And they tell him that “Well, you learn from failure, you don’t learn as much from success.” And so it’s kind of the same idea.
John: And earlier, you mentioned too that you share some of your own struggles and some of the challenges you were faced with. And I think that probably helps build a growth mindset in your students too, by setting that example and normalizing struggles and failure as part of the growth experience.
Kelly: Yeah, exactly. And I think one of the things that instructors can definitely do is to model a growth mindset for their students, to tell them that things are not always easy for me, even. I’m an expert, but I still come across research problems where I’m like, “I don’t know what’s wrong.” I did that over the summer, I started a new project, and it took us, gosh, it was like months to figure out what was going wrong with our experiment. So, you’re right, normalizing it is great. Saying that just struggling with something is good, in fact. It’s how you learn.
Rebecca: You also mentioned setting up problems that they solve in class that they’re not quite ready for. Can you talk about how that nurtures growth mindset as well?
Kelly: I got this idea from a book called Make it Stick, where it’s called desirable difficulty. And I just love it. We do this all the time in my other classes. Well, that’s like the main principle that I use for my smaller majors class is having them try it before it’s explained to them. And again, it’s trying to get them to let go of that idea that I have to know the right answer before I can try anything, or I have to have had this explained before I can even try, which I think it’s kind of burned into them in the K through 12 system sometimes. Where you’re given the information, memorize it, spit it back on the test, that’s it, you’re done. And that’s what learning is to them. So getting them out of that habit is what I’m trying to do with giving them these assignments that they’re not quite sure about. And I actually tell them that that’s what this is called, especially this semester, I’ve really leaned into just like, here’s my teaching method, it’s called desirable difficulty. And here’s what it’s going to do for you, it’s actually going to help you understand it better when I explain it to you if you’ve tried it on your own first and gotten it wrong. And so we’ll do things like I will ask them, How does the entropy increase when the hydrophobic effect occurs? And they’re like, “Well, I don’t know.” And I was like, “I know you don’t know. Think about it. Here’s the system, here’s what’s going to happen. And what do you think and then don’t look it up?” And actually, they seem to not look it up this year, which was good. I was worried they might because we were on Zoom. But, they actually seemed to refrain from googling it. Because I did see a lot of wrong answers. I think it went pretty well. And then just kind of over the semester, they get better and better and less fearful about putting wrong things down on the worksheets, because they know, first of all, that they’re going to get the grade no matter what, as long as they put something down. But, also because I think that they’re learning to try more and to think critically. And so that’s what I hope for them at least.
Rebecca: Do you have them discuss their solutions in small groups? Or is it an individual activity?
Kelly: Yeah, so in class, I would typically do like a think-pair-share where they would get with another person, and then I could talk to them as the class. This semester, we’re now doing breakout rooms, because I have 50 students, and it’s a little hard to get them in pairs, and then in a bigger group, so I’ve just assigned them groups for the semester at this time. And then they will go and work with their group and discuss. And usually there’s a few minutes delay anyways, in terms of getting the breakout rooms ready to go and everybody into them. So, they have some time to think on their own as well, just because of that.
John: How large are the groups that you’ve been using in the breakout rooms?
Kelly: About five usually for each group. And that’s because, first of all, I wasn’t sure how engaged everybody was going to be in each group. So, I kind of wanted it to be big enough that if a few people went AWOL, that they still had a group. But also it’s nice just that people can work better with other people, and so then they have a couple options in terms of partners, if they wanted to work with just a few people.
Rebecca: Kelly, you’ve talked a lot about ways to foster the growth mindset throughout the semester. But, how do you set the stage maybe on the first day of class,
Kelly: This year, I actually did what’s called first-day fears, a brand new activity I’d thought of, but I had emails and some survey responses over the summer that said a lot of students were terrified of online learning, things like that. And everything was changing, and we were scared. And so it was just this whole mess. And so I basically said, “Here’s your first activity for the day, go into the breakout rooms with your group, write down everything you’re anxious about for the semester, and then I’m going to talk to you and we’re going to try to work through everything.” And so they did that. And I had a lot of “I’m scared of online learning. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” And we talked about how you can approach some of those anxieties with growth mindset, in terms of try something for the online learning. If it’s not working right away, then change it. Talk to me, see what else we can do that can help you manage your time better, whatever it is. And so that was how I framed it this semester was, “Yes, you’re anxious about things, here’s how you can address some of those with growth mindset.” Unfortunately, all the growth mindset in the world will not make COVID go away, it won’t give us more money if we need it, that kind of thing. So it’s not perfect, obviously. But in terms of the things that we can control, that’s what I love growth mindset for. So, helping them to understand that I’m a resource, that their group is a resource, and that we’re going to keep doing check ins throughout the semester. The other thing that I did is part of the activities, I told them what I was anxious about. So, I told them that I’m anxious about online learning, too. I’ve never done it before. I spent the summer learning about it, but it’s still the first time I’m doing it. And so I told them, here’s some of the things that you can do to help me, which is, if your camera’s not on, I can’t tell if you’re confused. So, you have to tell me that you’re confused. Say, “Hey, wait, stop, I need that explained again,” or put your questions in the chat. And here’s the ways you can do that. Yeah, so we basically just talked about things all of us were anxious about and trying to show them that, first of all, they’re not alone. Look, how many of your classmates have the same worries, this is why you’re in a group, so that you have people to talk to and then you can talk to me as well, then just trying to clear the air a little bit before we could get started, I guess, with learning this semester.
John: So you’ve talked a bit about how you try to help your students build a growth mindset. Do you explicitly talk to them about the differences between growth mindset and a fixed mindset.
Kelly: I do, actually. So, there’s a slide from the first day where I put some students’ examples of what a fixed mindset could look like, and what a growth mindset could look like. So, for example, from the student perspective, if you did badly on an exam or in a class, it might lead you to think “I’m stupid, I’m not gonna get this, why am I trying?” Or “Why am I participating in this class, everybody else is better than me,” it might lead you to think things like that, which are more fixed mindset. And then on the other side of the slide, then I had what a growth mindset would look like for that, which is to say, if you’re struggling, you should ask for help, you can learn more with practice. So, you should go and get more resources, ask for it to be explained, again, things like that. That you should still contribute to class because your responses are unique like you are. And so my favorite example, the one that I shared with them, I had a student my first semester at SUNY Plattsburgh, who was a great student, wonderful in class, and they completely bombed the first exam. And I felt so bad, because I knew they were trying, but anyways, so they kind of wasn’t sure how they were gonna bounce back from that, or if they were, and then we a little bit later, maybe a week or two, after the exam, we were having an activity about allostery, and nobody was getting it. Everybody was complaining: “This is so hard.” “I don’t understand what we’re doing.” “What is going on?” And there was just complaining. [LAUGHTER] And so I was walking around the class trying to help. And I got to the student’s desk. And they were like, “Well, I don’t know. But what about this?” …and they had got it, clearly they had understood what I was actually asking. And so I asked them to share with the class. And they did, and it was like a light bulb went on for everybody else. And so I was just reminding the students like this person failed the first exam, but they were the only person in the class who actually got the next thing. So, it doesn’t matter if you failed, you still have these valuable contributions to make, you’re still a part of the classroom, you’re still supposed to be here. So that’s, as I said, one of the ways that I tried to improve inclusion is just to say, “You’re always supposed to be here, this is where you are, we want you and you’re supposed to be in this class.”
Rebecca: I like how you’re framing things related to the anxiety and emotions that can be big blockers, to moving forward and addressing those emotions and normalizing those emotions and verifying that yes, indeed, we might be frustrated or confused or scared, but if we can acknowledge that and know that that’s what we’re working with, we can move forward and continue to grow and learn. And I think that students don’t always recognize that those emotions can get in the way.
Kelly: Yeah. And it’s about also recognizing what is in your control and what’s not. So, there’s some things that are not in your control, right? COVID is not under anybody’s control right now. Not any of us anyways. So, you can’t tell the students well, you should growth mindset yourself so that this doesn’t affect you anymore. No, that’s not how this works. The growth mindset is to say, “Okay, I’m trying in my classes, something’s not going right. Is there something I can change to maybe make it go better?” Or even just to recognize, “I’m doing the best I can. This is the most that I can do right now. And that’s okay.”
Rebecca: Yeah. Especially with the balancing act and the extra stress of COVID-19, and what have you. Recognizing that like, it might take longer.
Rebecca: It might not be an A, it might not be a B.
Rebecca: But, like, you got something. [LAUGHTER]
Kelly: Yes, exactly. And if you decide to try it again, later, you’re gonna do better because of it.
John: And having students share their anxieties makes them feel perhaps a bit less isolated, and recognizing that some of these challenges are ones that are shared by everyone, which I would think would help to build a better community or more productive community within the class.
Kelly: Yeah, that’s what I was hoping for. And again, that’s why I assigned them to the groups as well. With 50 students, I knew they weren’t going to meet everybody online. They barely meet everybody if they’re in person. So, I wanted them to have kind of a core smaller community that they knew, “Oh, yeah, we did this on the first day. We were all nervous about the same thing.” Yeah.
Rebecca: I’ve had those consistent smaller groups in my classes this semester, too, and it’s helped a lot… have it that tight community to express anxiety or share frustrations with. [LAUGHTER]
Kelly: Yeah, and I’ve called them their growth mindset groups, which is hokey, but I couldn’t think of another name. But, yeah, we’ve done a couple check ins so far. There was a question on the first exam about a situation that they had to face, like an academic challenge and did you approach it with a growth or fixed mindset… and then “How could you maybe change what you did?” or something like that, and then we did another… right after the first exam, we did a learning reflection, which is… same idea. I told them, you know, check your current grade on Moodle, because a lot of times they don’t always realize that that’s up there, and then come up with a growth mindset plan for going forward. You know, if you’re not happy with your grade, okay, what can we try that might help you do better?
John: Yeah, that sort of metacognitive reflection, I think, can be really helpful and helping students recognize how much they’re learning, and to see that they can change the pattern.
Kelly: Yes, and to look at the overall grade instead of just the exam grade, because a lot of them saw the exam grade and panicked. [LAUGHTER] And they didn’t realize that the exams are only 40% of the total grade. So, [LAUGHTER] you’re probably still okay,
Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking: what’s next?
Kelly: So, what I would like to do next… a couple things. First, the SUNY Plattsburgh orientations have started incorporating a growth mindset aspect to it. And so what I’m hoping is to see more and more students coming in who already know about growth mindset, then have started to develop it in their earlier classes too, which would be fantastic. I already lean in pretty hard to growth mindset in my classes, but maybe lean even further into it in terms of assessing it, and trying to see if my class structure actually helps students develop a growth mindset as they go. I’ve had a few students put that on their evaluations at the end, that the idea of growth mindset helped them to succeed in the class. And it was one of the first times they’d heard of it or things like that, where they’ve said that that plus the active learning helped them to be successful. But, in terms of actually assessing overall, even if they don’t tell me that up front, you know, can I determine if it’s actually helped them to develop a growth mindset is one of the things I’d like to do.
Rebecca: Sounds like good research project.
Kelly: Yes, yes, I do education research on top of computational research because I’m a crazy person, and I want to study everything. [LAUGHTER]
John: Well, thank you. It’s been great talking to you.
Kelly: Thanks for having me.
Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you very much.
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.
Faculty enter teaching careers with the hope of shaping a better future for our students and our society. In this episode, Dr. Kevin Gannon joins us discuss what faculty can do to build a positive and inclusive learning community that empowers and motivates students. Kevin, also known as the Tattooed Professor, is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which has recently been released by West Virginia University Press.
- Gannon, K.M. (2020). Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press.
- Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, 19th century Danish philosopher
- Grand View University
- Haskell, T. L. (2000). Objectivity is not neutrality: explanatory schemes in history. JHU Press.
- Jelani Cobb, Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism in the Columbia Journalism School at Columbia University
- Lamar University
- Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.
- Gannon, Kevin (2016) “Let’s Ban the Technology Ban.” The Tattooed Professor. May 15.
- Mary-Ann Winkelmes, Founder and Director of the Transparency in Learning and Teaching project and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Brandeis University.
- Transparency in Learning and Teaching project (TILT)
- Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press. (Ken Bain, the promising syllabus)
- Kevin Gannon, The Syllabus from a Student Perspective
- Yvette DeChavez’s website – The home of the “Decolonize Your Syllabus” t-shirt (and more)
John: Faculty enter teaching careers with the hope of shaping a better future for our students and our society. In this episode, we discuss what faculty can do to build a positive and inclusive learning community that empowers and motivates students.
While this podcast was recorded before the global pandemic resulted in a shift to remote instruction, the message seems especially timely.
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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Kevin Gannon, also known as the Tattooed Professor. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which has recently been released by West Virginia University Press. Welcome, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks. Great to be here with you.
Rebecca: Today our teas are:
Kevin: I am actually drinking water right now, but I am brewing up some Japanese green tea as we speak.
John: And I am drinking a peppermint, spearmint, and tarragon blend.
Rebecca: I have now resorted back to my English afternoon. I’m like about three or four cups in today, so I’m back to my old habits. [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: So you’re ready to go, then, is what you’re saying.
Rebecca: Yeah, I’m ready to go. [LAUGHTER]
John: We recorded one earlier today and she was off on a different tea, so.
Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
John: We’ve invited you here to talk about Radical Hope. Could you talk a little bit about the origin of this project?
Kevin: Sure. So the book actually started as a blog post I wrote back in the summer of 2016, back when we all had so much hope and optimism, right? [LAUGHTER] So it took me a lot longer to write it into a book than I thought it would. The first draft of the manuscript was actually really angry. [LAUGHTER] And as Jim Lang, my editor, pointed out, we’re not titling the book Radical Anger. We’re titling it Radical Hope. [LAUGHTER] So people would ask me, “So what’s it like to be writing a book on hope?” And I’d say, “Well, it’s interesting,” and “How’s the book coming?” …and… “Well, it’s interesting,” but that’s where it got its origin, and the blog post was written, I started the blog I think in 2014, even, I was trying to jump start my own writing practice. So, I figured having a platform to kind of put stuff out there in a less formal sort of way and try to develop ideas and if one or two people read them great, but it was mostly for me. And this post came after a particularly interesting semester, and interesting euphemistically speaking, where I was really trying to kind of make sense of some struggles that I had personally in the classroom with my students, but also just kind of the higher ed landscape in general, and I really felt like writing some, kind of clarifying my values and my approach, would be a really useful reflective exercise, and so that’s what the post came out of. And it seemed to resonate with a lot of folks, and Jim invited me to turn it into a book and longer than expected later, here we are.
John: Even though we’re in fairly challenging times right now, teaching, as you note, is an act of radical hope. Could you elaborate on that concept just a little bit?
Kevin: Absolutely, so I’m using the word radical in its sort of literal sense, like root level, fundamental, pervasive. It’s an ethic, I think, that informs or can inform, and I would argue, should inform every sort of nook and cranny of our practice. So if you really think about it, what we’re doing on the everyday basis, the seemingly routine choices we make, “Here are the textbooks I will select, here’s how I’m going to run this particular class on this particular day.” Putting the work and the effort into doing those things is an assertion of hope, because otherwise we wouldn’t be doing those things, or we’d be doing them very poorly, or we’d be doing them and bitching and moaning about it the whole time too… which you see… but I would suggest the acknowledging that we are taking a stance with our teaching practices, whether we realize it or not. And I think it’s a lot more useful to realize that, to acknowledge it, to own it, and to be proud of the stance that we’re taking.
John: We’ve all seen those faculty who are often posting on Twitter, who are often posting comments on Facebook dealing with students, but they’re still in the classroom, and they’re still trying to make a difference, even if they don’t always display that hope. I think most of us have that hope. But one of the things you talk about in your book in the chapter on “Classrooms of Death” is the inspiration you found from the work of a 19th century Danish philosopher. Could you tell us a little bit about his critique of the educational system in Europe during that time?
Kevin: Sure. It’s Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig who I had no idea about, even as a historian of the 19th century, until I started working here at Grand View, which was founded by Danish Lutherans and we are the sole remaining Danish Lutheran college in the country, so there’s your niche higher ed market for the day. [LAUGHTER] It’s interesting that ethics suffuses a lot of the identity, I think, here in terms of access, in terms of looking at things democratically and what Grundtvig basically argued is he looked at the classical model of elite centered higher education in 19th century Europe that was built along the lines that we see in places like Harvard in the United States, so it was sort of a finishing school for the gentlemen of society, where you would learn things like Latin, and rhetoric and ranks would be assigned and all those sorts of things. And so that’s what Grundtvig called, in his sort of characteristically blunt way, Schools of Death. So I adopted the title from that for the chapter, even though it’s perhaps the most heavy metal chapter title ever, which I’m proud of. [LAUGHTER] It was like “You wrote a book on hope, but chapter one is called Classrooms of Death,” and I was like, “Well read the chapter, you’ll understand.” And so what Grundtvig does is he posits what he calls a life affirming vision of education, which is what we now know as the Danish folk school model, and it’s a mind-body-spirit model, it’s holistic, but what it really does is Grundtvig sees education as something that should enliven and awaken, as opposed to just sort of stultify and further ossify structures, in particular sort of this elite structure that was already in place. So that really appeals to me, and I think that if we’re looking for an ethic to think about our own institutions and the purpose of higher ed, we could do a lot worse than that.
Rebecca: I think it’s interesting when you’re talking about the idea of awakening students or awakening the community of learning, that a lot of faculty talk about trying to be neutral in the way they deliver content.
Kevin: So I’m trained as a historian, right? And so we, in our field, talk about this a lot. We have to be objective. Well, what is objectivity? That’s not a neutral term. In fact, Thomas Haskell, a social and cultural historian who wrote a great book called Objectivity is Not Neutrality that gets at this concept too, but this idea that there’s some sort of objective set of things out there, and if I present them objectively enough that all of my students will learn them thoroughly. Again, every choice we make, whether we realize we’re making it or not, is still a choice. And in that sense, education is eminently political, and if we try to ignore that and disregard it, we actually, I think, do more damage to it because then we make unthinking decisions. We don’t think about, necessarily, the consequences of the long-term effects of the decisions that we make. I think it’s much better to sort of acknowledge that, yes, we are on eminently political terrain, it is shaped by politics and identity and difference, and our students are not coming to us from a vacuum. They are coming to us from structures of inequality from a larger society, where all of these things are embedded. So we can’t pretend that our classrooms, whether they’re fully on ground or online, or whatever learning space it is, we can’t pretend that they’re somehow hermetically sealed from the rest of our students’ experiences. I don’t think it serves any of us well, them or us.
Rebecca: Wait, do you think we’re all people then and have emotions? [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: Yeah, I know that sounds like a radical concept, but one of the phrases that I heard of originally from Jelani Cobb was this idea that we are full and complicated human beings, and I just love the way that that’s phrased, full and complicated. It’s messy. We are complicated people. We are the products of an intersection of a kaleidoscope of experiences and identities, and that shapes the way we teach, that shapes the way that students learn, that shapes the spaces that we’re in, and I think we miss a real opportunity if we choose to not think about that as we create learning spaces and practice within them.
John: So when faculty try to be neutral and try to present content to students, what are they missing in terms of dealing with the actual students in the room rather than the ones they imagine to be in the room?
Rebecca: Or perhaps themselves. [LAUGHTER]
John: …which are usually little clones of their own past.
Kevin: One of the things that I tell colleagues a lot is, and I struggled with this earlier in my career, is when I was a young history major undergrad, I loved my history classes. I was in front, I was taking notes, I thought the lectures were witty and erudite, but now I am teaching classes with all of those students who were sitting behind me in those undergraduate classes who felt a little differently. So how am I teaching those students, they are not learning history, and they are not connecting necessarily in the same ways that resonated with my experience. And so in thinking about that, we know that students learn better and that learning is more effective and meaningful when there is that connection, there is that relevance to the student experience. And so we want students to be motivated, and a big part of that is avoiding demotivation, and I know that sounds like an obvious point, but there are things that can happen that will immediately turn off that switch for students. So I’ll give you one example of a way that the sort of aspect of neutrality could actually really damage the learning experience. At my institution, recently, a student came to me, an African-American male student, one of two African-American men in the class, 27 people in the class total, so the rest of the students were white. We are in Iowa, which you may have heard is a white state predominantly, and a discussion about the Confederate flag came up. And actually there’s a house about two blocks from our campus that flies the Confederate flag on a 20-foot tall metal flagpole in the front yard. So it’s something that our students see and notice, and this discussion came up and it turned into, very quickly, some white students say, “Well, it’s just a symbol of history. It’s a symbol of heritage. Basically, you can separate it from the defense of slavery, why don’t people get over that?” And these two Black students in the class were like, “Y’all really need to understand that this means something different to us,” and the instructor, in that case, completely unplugged, disengaged, let the students argue it out for themselves, and I think what that thought process was is, “Well, here is the marketplace of ideas. We’ll throw all the ideas out there and the best one will win.” And what it turned into was here are two Black students at a predominantly white institution being forced to basically argue for their basic humanity in a class of 25 white students and do that work by themselves. And so while the idea may have been that the instructor is not going to be an arbiter or shift things one way or the other, what you really have in that situation was something extraordinarily damaging, so when the student came to see me right after that class, they were in a place that it pains me that any student enrolled in one of our colleges or universities would be at the emotional place where that student was after that class.
Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting example, I had a situation one time when I was teaching, I teach art and design classes, and I had a critique class for graduate students with an international student that was using the Confederate flag as a symbol, but really didn’t understand the history. I pushed against that, “You really need to understand the history of the symbol and what it means and there’s a lot of different interpretations,” and the white students in the class just like “Ah, free speech, free speech.”
Rebecca: So I think it’s worth addressing that part of those kinds of conversations too, when a faculty member is trying to facilitate something and point out different identities and different perspectives, pushing against the dominant messaging that’s happening in the room when people are piling on, and that’s, I think, exactly why faculty try to move to the neutral zone, right, like, I don’t want to be here.
Rebecca: It’s certainly not comfortable.
Kevin: Yeah, it’s very much an avoidance mechanism. In conversations like that, I think it’s a natural reaction. If an off- ramp appears, I’m going to take it, but that’s not our job. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Yeah, boy, did I want to disappear. [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: Yeah, and I get it, as a historian, again, of the Civil War Era. I’ve been in the class where the one white student will say, “Well, why don’t Black people just get over slavery, it was 150 years ago for crying out loud,” and then feeling all the oxygen immediately sucked out of the room as we all look at this sort of figurative hand grenade that’s been rolled into the middle of the class. At that point, I was certainly reconsidering my choice of locations for the day. But I think it’s a really important thing for, in particular, our white students to learn that free speech doesn’t mean that basic humanity, dignity, and civil rights are open to debate, right, just as I would not hire a flat earther to teach a geography class. There are certain things that are not part of that discourse, because an idea that there is, for example, biologically distinct categories of race, of which some are inferior and some are superior, that’s not true. And so I’m not bringing a flat earther to teach geography and I’m not going to re-litigate racist pseudoscience in a history classroom, and I think that we have to get over this idea that if I retreat into some sort of clinical objectivity, that that’s going to fix everything, because it doesn’t, and our students see that. We say that we want our classrooms to include all our students, for all of our students to feel like they belong. We want our students to take risks. We want our students to not be afraid to fail, that if we haven’t created a space where every student genuinely feels that we mean what we say with that, then that’s a real problem.
Rebecca: I think it also means that we need to be willing to do all the things that we ask our students to do, too.
Kevin: Yeah, what a radical concept.
Rebecca: I know, there’s so much radicalness happening in this conversation.
Kevin: Very on brand, yes.
Rebecca: I think many faculty try not to take risks because you don’t want a mutiny in your class, it takes a little bit of bravery to do that, but I think if we’re not modeling that, and modeling failure, and modeling the ability to learn from that failure, then I don’t know how we can possibly ask our students to take those same risks.
Kevin: Yeah, especially if they see us actively avoiding taking those risks. I think students have a pretty finely calibrated BS detector, and so if we say that our values are one thing, and then when we have the chance to put those into action, and we decline to take that opportunity, that gets noticed. You’re absolutely right, that I can’t ask my students to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself in the classroom. And so what are some of the ways that we could model that effectively for our students, and of course, that’s going to look different. As a tenured white male professor, that’s going to look different for me to model failure than it would be foran early career faculty of color, for example, but I think that there are ways that we could do that in ways that are appropriate for our own context and for our individual class and student contexts, where we could model that yes, not everything goes perfectly the first time, learning is messy, learning is complicated. We’re going to struggle with some things, we’re going to problematize students’ prior assumptions that we have to create a sort of net underneath that when they feel that precarity for the first time, so it’s a structured discomfort rather than a throw ‘em to the wolves kind of discomfort. That’s really important, I think.
John: One of the things you suggest is that faculty should work to building equity rather than equality into their instruction. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Kevin: Absolutely. Yeah, so equity and equality are related concepts, but they’re not complete synonyms. And I think sometimes we get so focused on the equality part in terms of “I am going to be fair, so here are the expectations that I have of all of my students and here’s my attendance policy for all of my students,” and etc, etc and I don’t think that we’re flexible enough if we stick to that approach. What equity means is that every student has an equal opportunity. An equitable space is one where students can learn and succeed, and I will help them connect to or provide the resources with which they can do so, and of course that’s going to look different for students depending upon their prior academic experience, depending on their experience with the subject, all those sorts of variables that go in, and we don’t treat students equally now anyway, even if we say we do. Some students come to office hours and some don’t. Some students we work a little bit harder with outside of class and some we don’t, depending upon needs. We try to engineer discussions all the time. If there’s that one student who’s always raising their hand, sometimes we look somewhere else first. So we do this sort of engineering already. I think what’s useful is to acknowledge the fact that equity involves us thinking in a lot more nuanced and flexible way than just laying down a consistent policy in the name of fairness and then handcuffing ourselves to that.
John: And students come in with really diverse needs, but you suggest as part of this work towards equity, we have to be careful to avoid a deficit model. Could you talk a little bit about that and why that could be damaging?
Kevin: Yeah, so this is one of the things that I personally struggle with the most, I work with at risk students here at my institution, I teach some college success courses and some credit recovery courses, and even the label “at-risk,” like all of a sudden, what I am now doing is I’m categorizing students in terms of something they’re missing, and so when we work with students and think about things like developmental level courses, for example, what we’ve done is we tell the story really well of what our students can’t do. They can’t read, they can’t write, they can’t… And it’s very easy to sort of tell ourselves the story of “Well, this is how they are and this is the hand I’ve been dealt.” We don’t really talk all the time about what our students can do, even the ones that we would say are academically unprepared or that come from under resourced school districts. What are the strengths that they bring to class? Some of our students have had to navigate really difficult academic terrain, and now they’re in our classrooms. That ability to navigate difficult terrain is a real asset. So how can we make use of that instead of talking about whether all of their writing is grammatically and mechanically correct, but I really struggled because it is very easy to type. We want to help students, some students are going to need more assistance than others, how do I not see those students solely through the lens of what they’re lacking? Social workers would call this a strengths-based approach. I have colleagues in our social work department who really helped me think of this in some interesting and, I think, productive ways. So thinking about in terms like that, because if you think about it pervades a lot of our discours as faculty. Don’t we always say like, “Oh, today’s students can’t do this, like the previous, you know….” And we’ve been doing this for every generation of students, like “They’re always on their smartphones, so they can’t read a book, they don’t have the attention.” So it’s very easy for us to fall into these narratives. We’ve already told ourselves a story about our students before we’ve even actually worked with them.
John: You tell a really interesting story, a really moving story, about a student who stopped showing up for class after starting in class doing really well. Could you share that?
Kevin: Yeah, it’s one of the more obviously memorable things that’s happened. This was actually very early in my teaching career while I was doing my doctorate. I did my PhD at South Carolina, but I was living in Texas at the time, and I was a lecturer, an adjunct faculty member at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. So this is just a couple of years into teaching anything more than just one class a semester, and so I’ve tried to find my way and figure all this out and I’m teaching this survey course, it’s got about 45 students in it, and again, yeah, there’s a student who’s a little bit older, her friends were taking it together, the kind of mid 20s working students, but were taking classes to finish up a degree, started out really strongly and then just kind of disappeared and missed the first exam, didn’t come back for another week, and then it was two weeks, and so I’m asking her friend, like, “Where is so and so, she’s really in danger of failing the class, I need to connect with her so we can talk about what she could do to catch up.” And her friend was very vague, said “Well, she’s been going through some stuff, but she’s going to call you, she’s going to email you.” And that didn’t happen again for another little bit, and so I at that point, I just said, “Well, you know, so she’s gonna fail the class,” that narrative that goes through my head, like “I’ve given her all these chances, and she hasn’t taken me up on any of these opportunities, and hey, you know, that’s on her. Sometimes decisions have consequences.” And so I’ve told myself the story, that she’s just sort of blowing off the class and blowing me off and making these poor choices. Well early the next week, she does come to my office before class. And as I talk about in the book, I remember the scene so vividly because she looked awful, not just sick, but just, like, awful. And what she told me was that she’s coming off a heroin addiction, and she goes to the methadone clinic and the only times the clinic is open are the same mornings that we have this class, and sometimes she comes out of the clinic and feels so physically awful that she literally cannot come to campus or class. And so at that point, I’m sitting there and as soon as she started talking, I knew like, “Okay, my assumptions are about to be proven completely incorrect, right?” And then the story, I didn’t know what to say at first, and I was just kind of stunned. What happened was, we did have a conversation about “Okay, what could work for you? How could we work around this if you want to stay in the class,” and she was in a program that had very tight sequencing, so this class this semester was really important. So we came up with some ways that she could make up the work but also continue on so she didn’t fall further behind. We did a little supplemental instruction and she got a “B” in the class. She stayed in school, she ended up graduating, I think, a year and a half or so later. And what that really taught me was, again, this power of narratives, because we’ve all had students who kind of ghost us. It’s really frustrating, and then we start thinking about “These students have made really poor choices, and they can’t do this. Maybe college isn’t for them right now.” But here I have, you know, a student coming off a heroin addiction, which I have not done that personally, but I understand is really, really difficult physically, mentally, emotionally. I have some experience in other areas of substance abuse, but not that and needs the opportunity. And if I had shut down before she had the chance to visit, what would have happened at that point, like if I just said no, and that this was a required core class for her curriculum, what path happens after that, so who am I to say no, you have to stop when you are willing to make the effort. This whole myth of the entitled student, well here was a student that was literally at the lowest point in her life, probably, still trying to do this thing academically, and to me that was amazing. So who am I to not provide that opportunity and resources and that process that semester was an eye opener for me then, but I think really has shaped the way that I approach those sorts of “life happens” kind of moments with students ever since.
John: But you already created an environment where she felt comfortable talking to you. Not all faculty would have done that.
Kevin: Yeah, and I don’t know exactly what I did to do that, but I’m very mindful of trying to do that now for exactly that reason.
Rebecca: I think we all have students who have, not that narrative, but narratives that are powerful like that, that demonstrate they were making really good life choices, actually, at the moment, even though we were judging and thinking that perhaps they weren’t great life choices.
Kevin: Yeah, exactly. The proper choice for that student at that point was not to make History 1321 her first priority, so, yeah.
Rebecca: That was a good choice.
Rebecca: I’m really involved in accessibility and universal design for learning and spaces like that and inclusive pedagogy. And we’ve been really, as a team on campus, been thinking about ways to set up our classes so that it actually predicts that those kinds of things will happen, that we are setting our classes up from the start to accommodate those students.
Kevin: Yeah, absolutely.
Rebecca: And make them successful. Can you offer some tips about strategies that we can use, just so our classes are structured from the beginning without having to make exceptions, that it’s actually just open in that way?
Kevin: Yeah, it’s this idea of universal design for learning, that some of the things that we do think of them in terms of accommodations for a student with a documented disability. In this West Virginia series that I’m in, Tom Tobin and Kirsten Behling’s book, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone, is a fantastic overview of this idea of universal design. I think the best place to get started, and the way that I’ve really been able to think about this, is looking at the accommodations requests that we’ve gotten from a disability service office and the student brings in the form and “I need time and a half on an exam.” The first question to ask is, “Would this be an accommodation that would benefit learning for everybody, not just this particular student?” And so we get beyond this idea of one accommodation for one student at one time, and then we start thinking about, as you say, “How can I create a space that minimizes the need for those accommodations?” Because it’s already baked into the cake. In my experience, an accommodation request for time and a half on an exam got me thinking about “Why am I offering exams? Why do I have them as time limits? What am I really trying to assess here? And how might that shape the format of my exams?” And so now my exams are take-home, and there’s a different set of criteria and a process that we use, and they’re still summative assessments, but now, no one needs to make an accommodation request for time and a half or a different classroom. And so that’s, I think, one sort of practical example that people can use is when you get a request, ask yourself, “Is this something that would work for everybody?” And most likely, the answer will be yes, and then it’s “Okay, how do I operationalize that?”
Rebecca: I was talking to a group of faculty too about big groups of students being absent with the flu or COVID-19, or whatever it might be at anytime, and also just making it so that if a student has to miss a class because we don’t want them in our class if they’re sick, I don’t want to get sick. Everyone else in the room doesn’t want to get sick, how can we make sure that they can get that content or that experience in a different way?
Kevin: Exactly. So one of the other requests for accommodations that I would get a lot was students who wanted to record lectures, or discussions, or whatever happened to be going on in class. And of course, my thought was, “Well, this might be something that benefits everybody.” So when we do that we put it on our LMS, we have the audio file, you can stream it. And in my city, we don’t do public transit really well, it takes you an hour and a half to get anywhere on the bus, and so if you’re riding the bus from across town, maybe you want to listen to what you missed in class. We have a lot of student athletes who travel, well here’s a way to catch up on actually what happened in class rather than just a recap of it. So we’ve got tools at our disposal and some practices that we’re already doing individually. A lot of this is just thinking about how might we scale that out to work best for all of our students.
John: I’ve recorded nearly all of my classes for about five or six years now, and one of the things that surprised me was how students who had English as a second language would play back things multiple times and also slow down the pace so that they were more comfortable, until they get up to speed so that they got used to the technical terms in the class, and that was something I hadn’t really considered when I started doing that.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s a great point. Yeah.
John: You talk in your book a little bit about creating an inclusive environment in the classroom. Could you talk a little bit about what general strategies faculty should focus on to start towards a more inclusive environment?
Kevin: Well, I think it starts with this idea of universal design. How are we making learning the most accessible for all of our students even before we’ve met them, right? So what learning spaces are we creating? And again, back to this larger idea of thinking about the choices that we’re making. So at my institution, when I started here at Grand View in 2004, our student body was something like 92% white. Now we are 65% white, so in terms of race and ethnicity, my campus is diversified in its student body extraordinarily. And so how am I thinking about that when I’m choosing course materials, when I’m framing assignments, so sometimes it’s simply, “Who are the authors of my textbooks? What do they look like? Where do they come from? What’s their story?” Students who are taking my course, if I tell them that “When you take a history course you are a historian, right? We are involved in doing history. You can create knowledge in this field.” If I’m telling students that they can be knowledge creators in my field, do they see examples of people like them who are knowledge creators in the field? Because otherwise, my words don’t rain quite as true. So creating inclusive spaces in many ways a product of design, and then how do we put that design into practice? So being mindful, we know from the research that male students get called on in discussions much more than female students, male students interrupt more. So how am I framing? How am I having a conversation with students about expectations for when we’re working together in discussion in that seminar setting? How do we think about what people need in the classroom in terms of supportive materials, whether it’s recording or whether taking notes in a certain medium or not? How’s that going to work best for everybody? I think inviting students into that process early on, having them be collaborators and co-creating some elements of the learning space in a way that it’s not just the class discussion, but maybe have them do some writing and reflection about what has worked for them in terms of their learning in their academic career, and what are the things that have gotten in the way of their learning, and then looking through those results, and then coming back and debriefing the class the next time, like, “Here’s what you all told me, here are some of the things that I heard a lot, here are some of the things that maybe we should put on our radar screens for this discussion and then go from there.” So paying attention to the space we’re creating, whether it’s an on ground or an online course, the decisions we’re making about what’s going to furnish that space in terms of course materials, and then bringing student voices in and setting that idea of collaboration and all of our responsibility for making sure that that learning space is inclusive throughout the duration of the course.
Rebecca: When you’re talking about collaboration, I know you’re not just talking about students collaborating with each other, but also students collaborating with the faculty and thinking about the group as allies rather than adversaries. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Kevin: Yeah. So that’s my mantra, that so often we see students as adversaries, and they should be seen as our allies. And I think a lot of that is it is difficult to be a practitioner in higher ed right now, and especially if you’re a precariously employed faculty member and you’re teaching at three different campuses, and it’s eight courses and you’re stressed through the roof, who do you see the most? Your students. So for us, a lot of times students become the target of convenience, or the free floating stress and anxiety that we have rests there first, because that’s the easiest landing spot. I think it’s really easy for us to get into that place, and I think we need to be super mindful not to do so because the students are the ones that are in these spaces with us. So thinking about “What are the stories that we’re telling ourselves about students? What are the stories that students have been told about themselves?” So we know math anxiety is a thing. So many of our students have been told “You can’t do math,” that total fixed mindset, and that does a lot of damage, in my colleagues in the math and computer science department here, is true across the country. You know, that’s a big problem in terms of a barrier to learning. I think one of the most powerful ways to address it is to get students to see themselves as active participants in creating their knowledge. So how can we do things where we collaborate with them maybe to create course expectations or how are discussions going to work? How are we going to work if it’s an online class? What are the expectations we’re going to hold each other to in these interactions? Thinking about maybe assignment choice, I’ve got particular learning outcomes, can I let the students fashion a way in which they’ll demonstrate those outcomes? Maybe it doesn’t have to be a traditional research paper, it could be a number of other things. I talk in the book about un-essays, which I think is a really interesting and fun concept and has being used really well in history, for example. Students collaborating means students taking ownership of their learning as well, and that’s what we all say we want, so I think we need to be able to create spaces for our students to do that. Now, it’ll look different in a larger survey-level class than it might an upper=level seminar, but I think there’s the space to do that no matter what the class context, and I think it’s a really important thing to have student voices help shape the environment in which after all, they’re going to be learning in.
Rebecca: As a designer, a topic that comes up often is designing for people without including them.
Rebecca: So we want to design with, and not for, and so…
Rebecca: …you’re essentially describing that exact process, where you’re inviting students in to help design the experience..
Rebecca: …rather than just designing it for them by making a lot of assumptions about them.
Kevin: Yeah, and sometimes I use the metaphor of a house. But if we take a learning space, of course, I’ve built this house, do I have to furnish it and put in the carpets and paint the walls and do all that before anybody else comes in, or is that a process we can all do together? And maybe we decide we want to knock out a wall and add on something. Are there ways that we could do that? Because again, if this is the structure, in which we’re all going to be occupying throughout the duration of the course, is it a structure that works for everybody, that promotes rather than puts barriers in front of learning?
John: One of the things you talk about in terms of this collaborative approach is how to deal with issues such as distractions in the classroom from laptops and mobile devices. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Kevin: Yeah, the great laptop debates. As I’m sure everybody’s aware, this has been something that sort of lights social media on fire among educators about every six months or so. And my position is, as I titled a post on it, “Let’s Ban the Technology Ban.” Again, back to this idea of you know, are we handcuffing ourselves to overly rigid policies that aren’t going to work for all of our students? I don’t have a “no-laptop, no-cell phone” policy. That said, if a student is on doing their fantasy baseball team, that’s a problem. I invite students to collaborate when we set up class expectations, like “What’s going to help you learn? What do we want to hold each other accountable for in this class?” And it’s funny, because I’ll ask if they don’t bring it up, like “Okay, what about cell phones and laptops?” A lot of them share prior experiences like, “Oh, I didn’t know we were allowed to have those in class.” So it’s like, well, we have this thing called the internet, which could be a really useful resource at times, so why would we cut ourselves off from it, but then I show a quick summary of some of the research that talks about how technology use that’s not on task actually distracts people around that individual student just as much as it does the original student, and that reframes the conversation completely. Because now it’s not this “Well if I want to check out and go on ESPN or whatever, that’s a choice I make and I’ll suffer the consequences.” It’s “No, now you’re stealing time from classmates around you who didn’t get to make that choice,” and so if we’re going to be accountable to one another, what does that do in terms of thinking about about what we’re going to do and not do and what kind of environment are we going to create? The conversation that comes out of that is really interesting. So it’s this idea of laptops and phones, but not doing off-task stuff when we’re supposed to be doing on- n task stuff, and respecting other people’s attention. Because when you have conversations like this, and you ask students, “What are the things that we want to do to create this space?” The first thing that comes to their mind is respect. Well, what does that mean? So a part of this is we’re not going to steal somebody else’s time and attention, the resources that they have to bear for learning. So then when, and it’s not if but when, somebody’s doing their fantasy baseball team, I don’t have to be the cop. I’m not the bad guy. I just remind them of something that we all committed to earlier in the semester. And so it takes a lot of the kind of drama and distraction out of those reminders, and it becomes a nudge rather than cell phone cop and I’m much more comfortable with that because then it doesn’t create this sort of dramatic power imbalance in a classroom where we’re trying to flatten things out.
John: And you also say it could be used by the instructor, I believe, as a signal of when students are losing focus. When you have an activity that may not be so engaging, if you notice many of your students are distracted, something’s not working.
Kevin: Exactly, right? So you hear people complain, like “All of my students are on Facebook during class.” My first response, it sounds snarky, but it was like, “Doesn’t that sound like a you problem? Why are they all on Facebook?” It’s not that we need to be up there, one man or one woman entertainment, but it’s like, if I look out and see all of that, the first question I’m gonna ask is, “Alright, what’s the common denominator in all of this?” And then, “Where are we going to go to fix it?”
Rebecca: And it’s funny, a lot of times, especially if you’re doing group work or something, it’s because the students need a little more structure. They’re not sure what to do nex. Often, they might need just a little more instruction, because maybe they’ve never done a task before, or they’re intimidated by it, or they’re not really sure where to start, or they’re stuck and they don’t know how to move forward.
Kevin: Yeah, I totally agree. I think group work gets such a bad rap because it so often sucks, but I think a lot of that is due to the fact that we sort of assume that students know how to do group work, and I’ve been on enough faculty committees to know that not a lot of us know how to do effective group work, much less our students. So what kind of structure are we providing? I’m a big fan of Mary-Ann Winkelmes and the TILT framework, the Transparency in Learning and Teaching that asks us to be really explicit about not just the goals, but the actual tangible steps that need to be done, and then, what does excellence look like in this task? How are you going to know if you’re doing this right? And that’s really reshaped my approach to group work in terms of providing that next step. Once you do this, here are some of the things to think about, once you answer this question, here are some of the ways that you might think about representing the knowledge or reporting this back out to the class, because otherwise, “Let’s get into groups. Let’s work on this.” Well what does that mean, right? And so after a few minutes, you’ll start to see that drift. So in this case, I think structure and not handcuffing people to anything, but providing steps and options and some sort of direction for students to take their efforts is, I think, really useful.
John: And building in these expectations, one of the places where we all should start with our course is the syllabus, and you have a chapter on “Building a Syllabus Worth Reading.” Could you talk a little bit about some of the key things to put in a syllabus to make it worth reading?
Kevin: I am a syllabus dork, syllabi fascinate me. I love to look at what people are doing, how they’re thinking about and conceiving of their class, their field. I mean, I’ve sought counseling for it, but yeah, I am an unabashed syllabus dork and I think a lot about syllabi. And we certainly all had our share, in our own academic career, of syllabi that we got and just sort of disappeared into the ether. It was something that I would never use for the rest of the semester. So I think we’d lose an opportunity when we approach the syllabus. The common metaphor is that the syllabus is a contract, and there’s this urban legend that there are actually court cases and judicial precedent that has defined it as such, and that’s not true. That’s not true at all. The syllabus has never been interpreted legally as the same way that one would interpret a business contract, for example. I think if we approach syllabi as, in many ways, this might be the first at least formal interaction the student has with us or our course. So what’s that first impression going to be like? Is it going to be like reading the rider to an insurance contract for my car, or is it going to be an invitation? Ken Bain talks a lot about the promising syllabus, which I think is a really useful way to think about it, because with any course we’re promising our students something, “You will be different as a result of this course. When you get to point B, you’re going to look back at point A, and say I am different in these ways.” So my syllabus should be able to answer the question, “Well, how am I going to be different? What’s that going to look like, and how am I going to get there?” And there are a number of ways to do that, where you can actually say things in interesting ways as opposed to legalese, it’s okay to use first person rather than the “instructor will” and the “students will” it’s “I will” and “y’all will” or “you will” if you don’t want to as colloquial as “y’all,” it’s okay to put in some pictures. It’s okay to think about design a little bit. It’s okay to have it to be just visually appealing. One of the things we really struggle with is of course, institutional bloat in terms of policies, right? …like, “Here are six pages of stuff that you got to put into your syllabus.” Well, are there ways you can offload that? Put it in your LMS and then put a link in the syllabus. “Hey, there’s other stuff that you should read too. Here it is, but I’m not putting six pages of “Thou shalt not” in a syllabus that’s supposed to promise you what the great parts about this learning experience would be.” What is our syllabus saying to our students? What are we telling them? The syllabus tells our students, “Here’s what I think about you, and here’s what I think about this class.” And so if we have two pages about what academic dishonesty is, and what plagiarism is, and what horrible fate will await you if you do it, heaven forbid if you do it again, what I’m telling my students, right there is, I am spending so much time on this because I expect you to cheat. Is that what I really want to tell my students? In my case, the answer is no, and so, there are other ways to get at that sort of academic integrity thing talking about collaborative expectations and accountability, and we’ll talk about this together, why these things are important, and then I’m not giving them a litany of things, “Do this and you will have X consequences,” and the syllabus should provide what the students need. “How am I going to know if I’m doing well in this class? What’s important to you in this class? What’s important to the instructor, and when am I going to be expected to do things?” I mean, we ought to have a calendar in there and it ought to be pretty clear. We ask our students to plan ahead for a whole semester, we should too, even if things change, and we should note that like, “Hey, things will probably change, but here’s how I’m going to communicate that if they do.” …so taking the steps and paying attention to those details, so our students know I have put thought and care into this initial go at a learning space for us.
Rebecca: We’ve been talking a lot about what to have in the syllabi, but if students’ expectations have been that it’s just a disposable document, because that’s what their experience has been in the past, how do we convince them that the one that we’ve created, that we’ve taken so much care to set the tone for, is worth the effort to engage with?
Kevin: That’s a great question. The first answer to that is, what is the first impression of this? Is it a visually compelling document to look at? And again, that doesn’t mean we all have to be graphic designers, but is this a photocopy of a photocopy? Am I just copying and pasting it from last semester and I forgot to change a couple of the dates? Students will put as much effort into the syllabus as I put into the syllabus. There are some tips and tricks, you can hide easter eggs in there. “Hey, if you’re reading this section, send me an email with a picture of a dinosaur,” or something like that. Some people do syllabus quizzes. An interesting thing that I have some colleagues who do is the first day of class, they divide students up into a group and each of them tackles a part of the syllabus and comes up with if there’s any further questions from having gone through that section. And so it’s sort of a way to assess as well as having students in the syllabus. And it’s also something that should live throughout the semester, we should be referring to it frequently. There should be links to materials in there, are there other course materials that we might embed in the syllabus? Is it a place where, if students lose a paper copy, that they can go into the LMS and get a copy of it, for example. Having a calendar, a good course calendar in there, keeps them reiterating back into it as well. And I think too, again, the first day of class is a real opportunity. We have a tradition here, the students call it syllabus day, where “I come to class, the instructor hands out the syllabus, we’re out after 10 minutes.” And so I had a student come in once, like, “Are you gonna keep us the whole class?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, that’s kind of the plan,” and the look of disappointment on their faces. [LAUGHTER]
John: I get that all the time.
Rebecca: Yeah, me too.
Kevin: What have we conditioned them to do?
John: I wouldn’t want to cheat you out of this discussion, this is where we’re inviting you to this class, yeah.
Kevin: Right, exactly, and it’s such an opportunity, and so a way to squander that opportunity is to read the syllabus for 20 minutes for the first part of that class. So how are we using the first day of class to pique interest in the course, and maybe looking at the syllabus doesn’t come until the second day, or later in the first day, like “I want to highlight a couple of things, and then next session, we’re going to talk about these couple of things, so be ready for that.” If we treat it as sort of a routine, “Okay, here’s a syllabus,” then they’re going to treat it that way, too.
John: We should note that you have some wonderful examples of syllabi on your blog, and we’ll share a link to those in the show notes.
Kevin: Oh, thank you.
John: We should also note that you’re wearing a T-shirt that says “Decolonize your Syllabus.”
Kevin: That’s right, yes. Today, and that is courtesy of Yvette DeChavez who directs a writing center at a university in Austin, Texas, and I bought it off her website and I can send you the link if you want to include it in show notes. She does a lot of great work, she was the one who introduced me to this concept of decolonize your syllabus and again, thinking about the choices we make, and what those say to students, I find it really important and fascinating work. And it’s a great t-shirt too, so everybody wins.
John: So we always end with a question, what are you doing next? [LAUGHTER] What’s the next blog post that’ll evolve into a book?
Kevin: I need to update the blog, so that’s a good nudge in that direction. Actually, my current book project is I’m working on a textbook for the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction Era, and the textbook was conceived as “I really don’t like any of the textbooks in the field, so I’m going to write my own, dammit,” and it took me about 10 years to get to that point. So it’s actually going to be a textbook framed through a continental history approach, which in the Civil War is often missing, and it’s going to be framed through settler colonial theory. And one of the things I’m doing with it, that so far the editor is okay with, is putting all the cards on the table up front. A lot of textbooks are based in a theoretical approach. Very few of them will tell you about it, I’m going to tell you about it right here. So, inviting the students in to those choices right away and talking about “Well, what is settler colonial theory? How does it provide a really powerful explanatory lens for what we’re going to be looking at?” and sort of demystifying that process. I’m excited, and I think it’ll be a little bit of a different textbook, it’ll certainly approach the period differently, if it turns out the way that I hope, maybe it’ll start some interesting conversations and help instructors who, like me, were frustrated with some of the extant stuff out there for teaching a course that’s offered across most colleges and universities.
Rebecca: Sounds like an exciting adventure, but the writing process is never done. [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: Right? What’s the old joke? I like writing, but even more I like having written. [LAUGHTER]
John: Yeah, it’s always so much easier in retrospect.
Kevin: Right? I do want to make sure that I really take the time to enjoy this book being out and the conversations that are surrounding it. I’m fortunate to have been invited to several places to talk about things in the book, to explore a lot of these things differently. I love going to other campuses and doing that. So, that’s the immediate next steps, are to continue the conversations that hopefully the book has started and see how they resonate with various people in different institutional contexts. I’m really excited for that.
John: I really enjoyed reading this. I read the PDF version because my print copy is not coming until later today.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a really fun conversation.
Kevin: Thanks, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for having me with you, I appreciate it.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Savannah Norton.
The sudden switch from face-to-face to remote instruction in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic caught many faculty, students, and colleges by surprise. Until a vaccine is available, regional or nationwide campus shutdowns may occur during the fall semester. In this episode, Dr. Josh Eyler joins us to discuss what faculty and institutions can do to help prepare for future transitions to remote learning. Josh is the Director of Faculty Development and a lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. Josh is also the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective Teaching.
- Eyler, J. R. (2018). How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. West Virginia University Press.
- Todd Zakrajsek, Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at UNC School of Medicine.
- Ahmad, Aisha S. (2020). “Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 27.
- Cowen, Scott (2020). “How to Lead in a Crisis.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 16.
- Costa, Karen (2019), “Trauma-informed Teaching.” Blog post. 8/12/2019
- Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books.
- Sara Goldrick-Rab, Professor of Higher Education Policy & Sociology at Temple University and Founding Director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia.
- Jesse Stommel, Digital Learning Fellow and Senior Lecturer of Digital Studies at University of Mary Washington and co-founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab and Hybrid Pedagogy.
- Rice University
- Tulane University
John: The sudden switch from face-to-face to remote instruction in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic caught many faculty, students, and colleges by surprise. Until a vaccine is available, regional or nationwide campus shutdowns may occur during the fall semester. In this episode, we discuss what faculty and institutions can do to help prepare for future transitions to remote 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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Today our guest is Josh Eyler, the Director of Faculty Development and a lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. Josh is also the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective Teaching. Welcome back, Josh.
Josh: Thanks very much for having me. I hope you’re both doing well.
John: It’s good to see you again. Our teas today are:
Josh: I’m just drinking water today. [LAUGHTER] Hydrating.
Rebecca: I have Lady Grey.
John: And I have Irish Breakfast Tea today. Most of my teas are up in the office safely locked away.
Rebecca: By contrast I have a really good array, so I’ve been having a bigger selection since then.
John: We’ve invited you here to talk about the situation we’re now in. This is only the second time that Rebecca and I have been recording from different locations because of the social distancing that’s taking place now, the second time during this event at least, and we’d like to talk a little bit about that. In the last few weeks, most colleges throughout the country and much of the rest of the world have suddenly had faculty transition from their usual instruction to remote instruction, with very little planning and prior notice, and many times for the very first time for faculty. How has this been going at the University of Mississippi?
Josh: I think it’s been going as best as can be expected. The faculty have really done heroic work, they’ve taken it very, very seriously and are really placing our students’ well being and welfare and learning at the center of the process. You know, it’s hard to learn… and that’s true for me as anyone… it’s hard to learn new modalities in such a short time. And they’ve all handled it with such grace that it’s been really inspiring, and so we dealt with hiccups and technical difficulties and things along the way. And the scale of it with 800 faculty is pretty enormous, but it’s gone relatively smoothly as far as that goes.
John: I think our experience is about the same and we have, I believe, about 800 faculty and I’ve been really impressed with people who had never used Blackboard, or Zoom, or Collaborate, or other tools, to step up and learn that within a really short time. One thing that was somewhat fortunate is it hit right before our spring break, which gave people some time to, not so much take a break, but to learn some new skills really, really quickly, and I’ve been really impressed with how they’ve stepped up.
Josh: Yeah, me too, and I hear similar stories from across the country. I mean, in many ways, faculty were given zero time with very strict parameters. It reminds me of that scene in Apollo 13, where they have to take bits of things that are around the cabin and make the carbon monoxide filter. It’s very, very similar, I think, in that faculty were given very strict parameters in some ways, technological capacity and frameworks that they hadn’t worked with before and said, “Okay, now we have to meet our students and help them through this crisis,” and they’ve all handled it just so brilliantly, I think.
Rebecca: As someone who’s been sitting a little bit on the sidelines because I’m not teaching this semester, it’s been really interesting to see faculty from across institutions and across departments working together to troubleshoot and help each other out. And the communities that have formed online of faculty across the country and across the world has been really impressive to me. It’s sad that it took a pandemic for that to occur, but I hope that some of these communities will maintain.
Josh: I do too. Yeah, and I’ve noticed that as well. I think that the community building has been an important element of this, I think, where higher ed recognizes that we’re all in this together, and we’re all in a very similar situation, so how can we work together to make this the best experience possible given the circumstances?
John: There’s that nationwide Pandemic Pedagogy Facebook group that I’ve seen lots of people have been joining. In our institution, Donna Steiner created a local Facebook group for people to share issues and stories and so forth, and just this morning, someone asked how they can work without a document camera and someone posted an image they found elsewhere of a document camera created by a smartphone wedged in between two cans of soup, [LAUGHTER] holding it in place above paper that then works through Zoom or some other application. It was impressive to see people coming up with interesting and creative solutions, sort of like as you described in that Apollo situation. So what have been some of the most difficult transitions for faculty and for students as well that you’ve observed?
Josh: Well, you know, the scale of this is one of the biggest obstacles across the university, helping folks, just that kind of scale. Within that there are subsets of obstacles. So for example, my wife is in the art department, art and art history. She teaches drawing and 2D design, so that’s a very difficult transition to make, much the same way that lab courses and sciences are hard to transition. So, there have been very specific kinds of obstacles as well as just the mass transition to unfamiliar platforms that we were talking about a second ago. So some of those have been, I think, really tricky. For students, you know, I think students and faculty together are wrestling with the disruptions, the emotional and psychological turmoil, a lot of the stress that comes along with all of this. I do think that students in particular are struggling with now taking five courses in an environment that they weren’t expecting, that are probably using different technological tools that the students may or may not be familiar with, and navigating all the syllabus revisions and all of the workload revisions as well. And so it’s a lot, and it’s one of the reasons that, I know that in our workshops that we were holding for faculty, we were strongly recommending asynchronous courses and asynchronous modes as the most equitable for students who were suddenly juggling all those things together. Not to say that you couldn’t have synchronous elements, but that those should probably be optional for the students who couldn’t be at the same place at the same time. And so yeah, they’re juggling a lot.
Rebecca: I think one thing that’s been overlooked by a lot of faculty is actually the complexity of students learning so many different tools because faculty aren’t using something consistent across classes. I think that learning curve is actually pretty substantial and can be really overwhelming, especially because a lot of faculty assume that students, just by nature, know how to use these digital technologies, but like all of us, if it’s not something you haven’t used before or aren’t familiar with, especially in this way, using it as a learning tool, for example, then it’s new.
Josh: I think we make those assumptions too often about students and technology, and the best metaphor for this comes from Todd Zakrajsek who said, “We all grow up in a world with cars, and yet we still have to learn how to use them.” So just being in a world that has technology and having been in that world from birth does not mean that they don’t need to learn how to use some of those tools, and so I think that’s important. The other obstacle for faculty working remotely, we all were just talking about with partners and with children in the same house, and I think that there’s a lot of work-life balance conversations right now, a lot of equity discussions, and I think that’s really important on the faculty side, as well, that we think about. A great piece in The Chronicle about not buying into the over productivity hype about this time. We need to take care of ourselves and our families and our students, and so that’s a baseline that, if we hit that, that’s good, that’s productive, and that’s on target. There’s so much that people are juggling right now.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think that people who are in caregiving roles, whether they’re parents or if they’re caring for older parents or family members, are in that predicament of complete life work overhaul… upside down… and it’s really challenging to balance all of those things but then expecting to then do all kinds of extra productivity is crazy. And when you see things like that on social media, I’m thinking, “What? I can’t get an hour and a half of work done, like what are you talking about?” [LAUGHTER]
Josh: Exactly. I don’t want to see what famous works were written during quarantine. I just want to get up in the morning and make it through the day.
Rebecca: I was like, “Oh, I got to read one whole article today, that’s huge.”
Josh: [LAUGHTER] Right, exactly.
John: In my case, I thought the default option would be to move entirely remotely, but fortunately we had a little bit of notice in my class, so I brought the issue up with my classes, and actually they preferred, at least as an initial position, to continue meeting synchronously, and they stated they all had the technology. I said, if anyone has any barriers to let me know, and it will be optional, and there’ll be other mechanisms if you can’t, but one of the things that I know they were concerned with is… at least a couple of the students said… they chose to take face-to-face classes because they have tried distance learning and it didn’t work well for them, and they preferred to maintain that type of consistency. And I said we’ll keep revisiting it, and I’ve been revisiting it at least once a week, and so far that’s what they want to do, but things may change if they start facing more barriers, but I am providing a mechanism for doing that, and I think it’s important to see what your students would like too, and to work with something that works for everybody.
Josh: Well sure, and I think the most important thing that you just described about that plan was your communication with them. And so I know many folks who are teaching small seminar-based classes where they all as a community decided that they could meet synchronously, and that works as long as it continues to work. So, I think that as long as there are ways for people to communicate that and they feel comfortable communicating that with faculty. On the other hand, the 200-person intro bio lectures is a little bit trickier. So yeah, I think just as long as we allow students the flexibility, which you are doing, so I think that’s great, then helping them to retain as much sense of normalcy of the learning environment as possible, because you are right, students didn’t ask for this any more than we did, and many of them want to be together in the classroom talking about Shakespeare or learning about evolution.
John: And it helped that they all had good broadband access, and they all had devices that made it possible for them to maintain that sort of normalcy up to this point, at least.
Josh: That is a relatively… well, it’s not a new addition… but it’s an issue about inclusive teaching that is getting a lot of spotlight for very good reason: that many students can’t access the internet in such a way to participate in synchronous courses and lots of other overlap between equity, class, and technology, I think, that are really important, and we may have let slip away from the conversation before this, but now it’s front and center for us to think about as a community.
Rebecca: In terms of inclusivity, one of the things that I’ve been exploring that I was surprised about is accessibility, which is an area that I focus a lot of my own attention on in general. So I’ve been doing some analysis of some of the accessibility practices that we’re doing, how to make sure that faculty are keeping up on these things, and so I was exploring a little bit what the students’ side of some of these experiences are like. I had just assumed, for example, as an instructor, because I’ve never been in the student seat of this particular thing, that the Blackboard app would have the same accessibility features as the Blackboard website, for example, and they don’t. We might not know that students are relying on their phones, for example, to get more accessible materials, and if they use the website they can get them, but if they use the app, they can’t. And if we don’t tell them that, they don’t know.
Josh: Right. Accessibility is something that I’ve spent a lot of time with as well, and I do know that it often plays second fiddle in some of these conversations, and it’s also having a spotlight cast on it right now.
John: On Twitter, you initiated some conversations about how we plan for this, should this continue into the summer and perhaps fall. You mentioned three scenarios. One is that we reopen, we go about business as usual sometime between now and the fall, and then we see spikes a bit and things come back again. Or a second one where we’re sheltering in place, or a third one, which is we go back to normal, which, you note, is probably the least likely of those scenarios at this point.
Josh: I know a lot of people are desperately hoping that that’s the case and deep down, so am I, but I also know that it’s much less realistic. And I’m certainly not a scientist, but I follow a lot of scientists, I read their work, and I trust in what they’re doing as experts. And so most of the models show that because it’s a seasonal disease, that even if we minimize the cases during this first wave, that it will spike again sometime in the fall or winter, or both, which suggests that, without knowing the intricacies that biologists know about that, it strikes me that higher ed desperately, at this moment, as soon as possible, needs to just start planning for contingencies. What would our enterprise look like in all those different scenarios? And so I think it ranges from planning for fully online courses from moment one, for both the summer and the fall, to planning face-to-face courses with contingency plans, solid, not the sudden emergency shift that we just did, but solid, well developed contingency plans in the event that we need to resort to social distancing for some period of time. And there is some discussion of the possibility of localized intermittent social distancing, so the kinds of things, in other words, that would affect some colleges but not others, and at certain periods of time, and then that would flip flop. And so the idea that you might be teaching in a classroom and then have a month where you’re not, and then you have another month when you’re in, that’s fully possible, given the range of different models that scientists have put out there. So, I think without knowing what’s going to happen, to really build a bright future for higher education we need to have really well developed plans for all the possibilities.
John: I’ve been reading quite a bit about this, and there’s some question about the seasonality of this, because one of the things that’s happening is it’s hitting the northern and southern hemisphere pretty much equally, so it doesn’t seem to vary that much with temperature as many other types of flu, for example, have varied.
Josh: Exactly, yeah.
John: There’s a lot of unknowns about this, but we should plan for contingencies now. What are some of the things that faculty can do to get ready for such eventualities in either the summer or the fall?
Josh: Well, I think, and this is an important role that teaching centers and instructional designers can play too. One thing that should happen as soon as the semester ends, is to really assess what worked and what didn’t for their particular courses. I have a friend from Rice and I saw that she was saying that she found this tool that works so well that even when she goes back to teaching normal face-to-face courses, she’s still going to use it. That’s really important information to know and to be thinking about… so, assessing what worked and what didn’t and building on the successes. I have another friend who is essentially doing mini-podcast sessions for his students and then tying activities to it. So he’s a tried and true medievalist, no technology for him, just recording his voice and then activities tied to it. And so something like that, assessing what really would work and then since there’s now time to plan, tying it to the most effective teaching strategies for these environments. So, let’s assess what you were most comfortable with and what really worked for you, and now let’s add to the mix ways that you can more effectively design assignments and activities and other assessments utilizing those tools that work. It’s got to be a very quick assessment of pros and cons and then proactive planning pedagogically.
Rebecca: It seems to me, then, it would be really useful to be thinking about this now as a faculty member, because you could be asking your students for their feedback on what’s going on, and obviously, you could be doing it now so that you could make some adjustments and things as the semester goes on, but also for future planning moving forward.
Josh: Right. I think that’s a really important component of this, hearing not so much what students felt about the teaching, because I also think faculty need a break on the normal evaluation structures that are in place, but I do feel the faculty should be free to get whatever formative feedback they want about their teaching. But, I do think that feedback at an institutional level from students about all the mechanics of all this, what worked, what didn’t, what failed, what really flew under the radar as being a super successful tool, something like that, that’s really important, and that can definitely help with the planning as well.
Rebecca: So one thing that I was thinking in terms of having student voice involved, not just at the institutional level but in your own classrooms, might be about particular tools or what parts of the things that they did helped them feel more a part of a community or reasons why they might not have felt like they were a part of a community. Not really putting it on you as a teacher about like, “What did I do well or not as a teacher,” but rather, “What kinds of structures might work well in circumstances to help facilitate some of the things that we miss when we’re not face-to-face?”
Josh: I think those are fantastic ideas, and this ties back into the teaching center conversation, because I think that one way that we could help is to help faculty design those surveys. Some LMSs have a function where you can kind of load survey questions into a cloud and faculty can pull them out to build their own tool. So, I think that kind of feedback is going to be critical, and the teaching center can take some of the burden off of individual faculty by helping design some of those instruments, or at least advise on ways to do it because I think an individual faculty member getting that feedback for him or herself is essential in this case, and that’s separate from a kind of formal teaching evaluation or formalized summative feedback as well.
Rebecca: What are some of the things that you’re hoping, as we plan for the future and we have time to actually plan for a circumstance like this moving forward, that you hope teaching centers roll out that maybe they weren’t able to roll out when there was such a time crunch?
Josh: I think you sort of highlighted it a little while ago. I think that there’s an open door for universal design for learning and accessibility in ways that are more holistic. So those conversations tend to be either very specific or isolated in different kinds of workshops, but here, I think you can lead with some of that, and you can also lead with inclusive practices, and I think that that’s kind of an open door for work that teaching centers can do. Not that there hasn’t been interest or that that hasn’t been happening, but given what we see, and over the course of this crisis, we can now lead with those elements because it becomes clear how central they are to the work. I’ve said it a million times, it feels like, over the last two weeks, that at the end of the semester, students aren’t going to remember content as much as they are the community that you built and the care that you showed and the work that everyone did together, and so I think that that has helped to really frame some of these issues in a really important way. So I think that’s certainly true. I also think that, and I’ve experienced this myself, and I know that I hope it will continue, and I strongly believe that it will. A lot of this work for teaching instructional design sometimes gets taken care of in silos in different corners of the university. And I know here, those get broken down completely. I was working with people I hadn’t even met before, and I mean that seriously, I had not met them and they are amazing, and we worked together. We met at 7:45 in the morning during the transition week, and we met at 5:15 every night and we’re in constant communication in between there, and really deployed to prioritize the work that needed to be done that day, and that, I hope, is something that continues, that certainly different instructional designers and different folks within teaching centers have different areas of expertise, and so it can be kind of liaisons with STEM or humanities or whatever, but coming together and seeing it as one project, improving teaching and learning across all corners of higher ed. I hope that that continues.
John: One of the things we’ve been doing is we’ve been having open office hours for faculty where we have people from many support areas all coming together. Rebecca and I have been there as well as some other people working with us. Some people from our campus computer technology services have been there and some of our instructional designers have been there, and when people have elaborate questions, we send them off into a breakout room where they work with someone over a longer period, and the others’ shorter questions are answered by whoever is best suited to answer that particular question, and that’s been working really well, and it’s been really nice to see that cooperation.
Josh: Yeah, I completely agree. I think people are recognizing that teaching centers have a lot to offer in terms of thinking about policy as well. The pass-fail debate is a great example of this. On the surface, pass-fail is a policy issue that connects to the catalog and the handbook and lots of other things, but beneath that there have to be people on campus who have an awareness of the research on emotions in learning, on how grades have an impact on learning, even in the best of circumstances, and related issues to that. And so I think teaching centers have gotten called on both to contribute to those conversations and even shape them at some universities as well, and I hope that that is a recognition for the work that teaching centers do that continues.
Rebecca: Yeah, one of the other things that came up in the Twitter conversation that you started, Josh, was about the need for trauma-informed pedagogy moving forward related to this particular instance. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Josh: Sure. I’ll admit it right up front, I’m in no way an expert on that. I learned a lot from Karen Costa, who actually brought that up in that thread, and so she’s taught me a lot. I think trauma-informed pedagogy is, if you imagine a Venn diagram, it’s in the overlap between inclusive teaching and the way we understand that emotion affects cognition, and so it occupies that middle space in a really important way. Normally when we talk about trauma-informed teaching, we’re talking about developing teaching practices that would provide access to students in our classrooms who may have experienced trauma in the past. And content warnings or trigger warnings are the most visible elements of that conversation nationwide, but there are lots more. But here we are actually seeing not just nationwide, but worldwide trauma. And so now it’s moved from, in faculty’s minds, “Hypothetically, I may have students in my class who have been affected by trauma and so I should prepare for that,” to many, many students who we will see in our classrooms from this point forward will have experienced a global trauma that we need to now account for. So, that moves beyond what we know genuinely helps decrease an emotional response. In the book that I wrote, I have a chapter on emotion, and there’s a piece of that chapter that deals with what happens when our emotional responses surpass our ability to regulate them. And everything we know about cognition at that point is that it shuts down, and so we have to help students mitigate that response in order to get back to learning. So, that’s at the core of trauma-informed education. Empathy is at the core of that, but there’s more specific things that those who do this work and write about trauma-informed pedagogy know with much more depth than I do, but creating space to make meaning from what is happening. One of the major tenets of trauma-informed pedagogy is that those who have experienced trauma can get caught up in a spiral of helplessness when confronted with the work ahead, in other words. So, helping them process that, making meaning of what has happened globally rather than ignore it, and building the meaning making into the work, accessibility issues, understanding absences and understanding some difficulty with deadlines as the responses spike. So I would encourage folks to go out and look at the experts. I learned, again, from Karen Costa. She writes a lot about this, but The Body Keeps the Score is a book that I know a lot of folks who do this work really recommend, not strictly about teaching, but it’s a very insightful book about what happens to a body that has experienced trauma, so that’s definitely something to look into. But, I guess the moral of the story here is we’re going to have to be much more attuned to that work going forward.
John: One strategy that a number of people have suggested is having a discussion forum or some form of reflection where students are able to share their thoughts and their reactions and their concerns. Do you think that would be helpful in this context?
Josh: Yeah, I think so, but with a caveat that most faculty are not clinical psychologists. And so certainly reflection is a key principle of trauma-informed pedagogy, there’s no doubt about it. I think working with folks who know this area of research in designing a reflection assignment is absolutely key, because those of us who are not clinical psychologists would not be prepared for what could happen if we delve into that, and then it opens the floodgates of emotional response that we are not ourselves trained to help mitigate, and so that can happen in any semester, in which case, we work with folks to try and get students to the right resources. But in this particular case we want to be careful about the construction of those assignments, not that we shouldn’t do them, but that we need to be attuned to that.
John: And also to be aware of what types of support services are available on campus for those who are experiencing trauma and difficulties.
Josh: I think that’s very important to think about. I know my university has them up and running, but certainly it’s not the same as it was for students when they were on campus. So, those folks are doing heroic work, but the situation has shaped that work in a very specific way.
Rebecca: I think one thing that’s surfaced a lot in the conversations, with our faculty anyways, and I think I’ve seen in other conversations that are more national and more global in nature, is so much more awareness of the basic needs of students not being met: food, shelter, etc, health care, and also the emotions that play into learning and really having to deal with the basic needs and basic emotional needs before getting to the work of learning. We’re all now in this space trying to figure out what exactly that might mean in our individual classes or subject areas. I think it’s something that we’re all more aware of than we had been prior to this.
Josh: Well, and I think that this situation has brought that to light in a way that, once it’s a part of the conversation, I don’t think you can ever undo it. And so there have been folks who have been screaming this from the rafters for a very long time, Sarah Goldrick-Rab in the Hope Center and Jesse Stommel, and so many people have been doing their part in calling attention to this. But now, I think you’re absolutely right, Rebecca, that there’s more widespread recognition, not just that those things are realities for our students, but that they have a significant impact on the work that students can do and the learning that can happen. And so marrying those two together has been critical, I think, both to help them over this obstacle. I’m hoping very hard that it continues to be a part of the way we see our work as teachers in the classroom, that this didn’t just start happening in early March, it’s always been a part of our students’ experiences of education, and so we need to keep that in kind of the forefront of our minds.
Rebecca: I think another thing that surfaced along these same lines, that pandemic has caused us to confront, is perhaps we all try to cram too much into our classes in the first place. And really thinking about how much content is there and what’s absolutely necessary as we try to scale back and shift gears and things like that. I know that there’s a lot of conversations about what can be edited or cut, and perhaps those were critical conversations that maybe should have happened previously, but are now happening out of necessity.
Josh: I think what you just ended with there is exactly the point, in that many of those conversations and, you know, I’ve led course design institutes and this is always something that we talk about it, you can do an exercise about trimming content, but until it becomes an absolute necessity, it lives in a kind of theoretical space. “Well, that’s a great idea, but you know, I still had to teach Moby Dick.” But now folks were faced with what is absolutely critical for students to know, and what can I dispense with in terms of supporting their learning, and so I think that, I hope too, has a long lasting effect.
John: Many people have been teaching the same way for 20 or 30 years, but when faced with this, they’ve had to significantly revise what they were doing. Might this provide a nice opportunity for faculty to grow and expand their tool sets so that they can be more productive? You talked about that a little bit before, but maybe we should leave the conversation on the bright spot of the opportunities this may present for the future in terms of faculty development and faculty discovering new ways to work with their students.
Josh: Sure, I absolutely think so. There are tons of stories of folks who didn’t know about something that existed, discovered it, and now are doing really fun things with it that are helping students. What I think we would envision, hopefully, is that folks would find things that they are really drawn to that, when they return to the teaching modalities that they’re most traditionally teaching in, that they utilize those tools that they found that help their students to learn, that we can take lessons from this time, and that should be one of them, I think, that we can stretch our conception of what good teaching is, or what can help us teach effectively, and really think about that for all of our teaching purposes going forward.
Rebecca: Do you think there’s other big lessons from this that we can take forward to stay on more positive notes?
Josh: The fact that we have placed students at the center of this conversation, I think, is an important lesson, and it’s one that I hope higher ed doesn’t forget. Also, something I said recently, but I’d want to echo here, is that the silos have really broken down in ways that are beneficial for higher ed, people who normally don’t work together are working together in trying to craft the best possible way forward, and I think that that’s an important lesson too. I’m sure you both know this well, that making change in higher education is really hard, and often the most daunting prospect is, that’s the way things were always done. And that’s a different office, right? That’s a different silo that takes care of that, and both of those have kind of been fractured, the way things have always happened can no longer be because we’re in a new reality, and the silos just don’t exist anymore, and so I hope that higher ed can take that lesson forward.
John: Tear down some of those silos a little more permanently, perhaps.
Josh: Right, right. Absolutely. And it’s also showing just how permeable those boundaries were from the beginning, I think.
John: One thing that’s come up with some students and some faculty is a question of whether we might lose weather-related cancellations in the future. I know sometimes people get excited when there’s a snow day or something similar, but might this mean those days will disappear?
Josh: Yeah, that’s a hard one to say. I think that here’s the likely outcome if we go all the way back to the planning scenario. A likely outcome, I would hope, in planning for contingencies is that folks are told to build their face-to-face courses with these kind of hybrid fallback models. And so going forward, it is possible that those will exist on a wide scale in higher ed, so if there is a snowstorm, faculty could get guidance just to kick those contingency plans into effect, or they may say that that’s optional. When the snowpocalypse hit Northern Virginia a few years ago, I think that they all had to develop contingency plans because they were canceled for weeks at a time, and I know that when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston when I was at Rice, there was a lot of talk of alternate assignments, digital resources that we could find, so things like that. So, this is something that I think individual campuses have been thinking about when the situations have arisen, and now we’re talking about those decisions on a much wider scale. I am an optimist by nature, I wear rose-colored glasses, I freely admit that. But the fact that you have a school like Tulane, whose former president was writing in The Chronicle last week, that came back from Katrina, and is a thriving university. We have institutions, even groups of institutions that have faced major crises before, and they have come out even stronger on the other side. If we continue to work together in higher education, we can have that same recovery on a broader scale. So the fact that these institutions have succeeded, that gives me a lot of hope, I think, for what we can do as a community, and a recognition that this isn’t the end or even beginning of the end. It’s a way of rethinking what we used to think of as normal and learning lessons that we can take forward.
Rebecca: Sometimes it takes a big disruption like this for us to realize that we need to think in different ways and that little boost in that direction isn’t always a bad thing.
Josh: As long as we capture those lessons and learn from them, I think that we can build a bright way forward, definitely.
Rebecca: So I think then in terms of snow days, if they’re going away, then we just need to make sure we build in rest days or something into our schedule going forward.
Josh: Well, I’ve worked almost exclusively in the south. So I haven’t had a snow day since I was in high school, I think. But yes, I agree.
Rebecca: We just really want just one.
John: Do you have any other advice for our listeners?
Josh: I just wish everyone luck. I mean, everyone’s trying their hardest in working this out, and we’re going to get through it, and we’ll move into the next terms with clear eyes, I think, as to how to move forward.
John: So we always end with the question, as you know. What’s next?
Josh: That’s the most loaded question at this time, I think. I don’t know, but what I hope is next is recovering and rebuilding. That’s what I hope.
John: Thank you. This was wonderful, and thank you for doing it on such short notice.
Josh: No problem at all, I appreciate the invitation. I hope you both are well.
Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you so much, Josh. This was a really good conversation, an important one to have right now.
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. Editing assistance provided by Savannah Norton.
Over the last two weeks colleges across the U.S. have made the decision to shift all classes from face-to-face to remote instruction in an attempt to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this episode, Flower Darby joins us explore the challenges and the opportunities associated with this transition. Flower Darby is the Director of Teaching for Student Success, an adjunct instructor in several disciplines, and the author, with James Lang, of Small Teaching Online. She is also one of the developers of the Online Teaching Toolkit created by the Association of College and University educators (or ACUE).
John: Colleges across the U.S. have recently made the decision to shift all classes from face-to-face to remote instruction in an attempt to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this episode, we explore the challenges and the opportunities associated with this transition.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
John: Our guest today is Flower Darby, Director of Teaching for Student Success, an adjunct instructor in several disciplines, and the author, with James Lang, of Small Teaching Online. She is also one of the developers of the Online Teaching Toolkit created by the Association of College and University educators (or ACUE). Welcome, Flower.
Flower: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.
Flower: Thanks for having me.
Rebecca: Thanks for joining us quickly.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are
Flower: I’m drinking a tall iced tea.
Rebecca: It can never be tall enough these days, right?
Flower: That’s right.
John: I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.
Rebecca: I’m drinking English afternoon. Sometimes you just got to go with comfort.
John: This would be one of those times.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think so.
John: We’ve invited you here to talk about the transition that faculty are having to go through throughout the country, and probably throughout the world, on fairly short notice to migrating classes from face-to-face to remote instruction. And a lot of faculty are really anxious about that. What advice do you give faculty in terms of where
they should focus their attention, especially if they haven’t done much work with online instruction?
Flower: I think the most important thing to start with is frequent communication with your students. Students are also very anxious, and so even if all you’re saying to your students is that you don’t know yet how it’s going to go, I think that that really puts students at ease, and the transparency will really serve everyone well. In addition to that, I know that centers like the one that you have there are offering all kinds of support workshops, tutorials, self-help, articles, all kinds of resources that faculty can avail themselves of. I’m not sure that the word is consistently getting out to faculty members. So, I would encourage you to turn to your teaching and learning center or your learning management system support area in order to find out what they’re offering. Schools across the country have broken down: Here’s the basics that you need to know to get up to speed with your LMS, especially for people who aren’t familiar with or don’t typically use it.
John: One of the nice things is how widely those resources are being shared. Look online and there’s lots of places, and your teaching and learning center is likely to be sharing them with you fairly regularly as long as you open their emails. [LAUGHTER]
Flower: I was working one-on-one with several faculty members yesterday in our drop-in support sessions, and my experience was that faculty didn’t know about all the websites that we launched last week and all the resources. So, as you said, John, one of the heartwarming aspects of this current situation is to see how institutions are sharing resources with each other very openly. So, as you said, do a little exploring, see what’s available generally online and what your own institution is offering as well.
Rebecca: I think along those lines, though, there’s also information overload because there is actually so much being shared right now. So if we’re looking for specific topics or subject matter related to this, what are maybe a couple of things that faculty should focus on to just get going?
Flower: That’s a great point, Rebecca, because I myself have felt that I’ve been in a blizzard of emails and resources, and distilling the awesome information into usable and organized material has been a real challenge this past week. So, again, I think the main thing at this point is to communicate. So, learning how to use the announcement tool in your LMS, deciding what is going to be your primary communication strategy, it might be that
you’re going to use email. Then the next thing that we recommend is getting your syllabus and a course schedule into your LMS if you haven’t already done that, and then third, understanding how to use the grade center to allow students to track for themselves how they’re doing in your course. Those are communications, uploading basic files or putting basic, like I said, course syllabus type of information and then beginning to understand how to use the grade center. That would be my recommendation.
John: And in terms of the syllabus, perhaps an updated or some type of addendum for the syllabus might be useful to let students know how things might be modified given the shift in instruction, right?
Flower: Great point, John. Faculty, while we don’t want to let go of or change our learning outcomes for the course, it is absolutely the case that many of us might be modifying what the original plan was, we might be changing the structure of tests and quizzes or creating new and different assignments. So yes, I love that idea of post an updated or an addendum to syllabus. And of course, maybe you also include a prominent statement that says “Subject to change with appropriate notice” to the students. One of the things that I’ve always communicated to my students is that if I make any changes in the syllabus or the course schedule, it will always be to your advantage. And I think students appreciate that sort of sense of security, that knowing things could change, but it will be done to help them if needed.
Rebecca: I think one of the other things that faculty are feeling a little overwhelmed by are all the possible tools and technologies that they can use, right, and sometimes this is opening wide doors of possibilities that they didn’t know existed, but then also, there are so many possibilities… “And my colleague here is using this tool and
my colleague over here is doing this tool, should I be doing that, too?” ends up being this common question, and I know my response has been “Don’t introduce too many new tools because information overload or that now there’s a whole learning curve there.” What are your thoughts on this? There’s so many tool possibilities.
Flower: Sure, Rebecca, I think we’re exactly on the same page, and I’ve been doing this kind of support work for several years now. And my philosophy really does align, as you might imagine, with the book, Small Teaching Online, and James Lang’s original , which is to start small. In terms of technology, I always recommend faculty to choose
something that they themselves are comfortable with, and to not make the mistake of trying, as you said, either several new tools, or possibly trying a tool, a technology, that is so sophisticated and complex that it’s outside of faculty’s comfort zone. So, I’m a big fan of deciding something that you feel comfortable with… starting small. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is we’re kind of in triage mode, I mean, pretty clearly right now,
but maybe four weeks from now, we may have settled into a better rhythm and you may be able to add or layer on additional approaches or technologies or different ways of engaging with your students. Again, as long as you’re communicating with your students, this is what we’re going to start with. And then later on, if you have the bandwidth personally to learn something new, or maybe after surveying what your colleagues are doing, you identify and isolate the one thing that you really want to bring in. Definitely keep it simple and understand that if you as
faculty are not comfortable using a tool, it’s going to create additional challenge for yourself and for your students as well. So stick with what you’re comfortable with.
Rebecca: I think that’s really good advice, and sometimes faculty just need a little reassurance that what they know is okay.
Flower: Absolutely. For sure.
John: Might you also recommend that they check with the students to see how it’s working and ask them if they have any barriers to whatever they’re doing? We have some people in the region who live in areas without broadband, or there’s some people who are living in households where they can’t afford wireless.
Flower: Yeah, there’s a really robust national conversation going on, which is helpful to really think about the student experience. Once again, I think it’s really important to remember that we’re all people and worldwide this is a weird situation, and everybody is under unusual stress and anxiety. And so another one of my basic rules of advice or guidelines here is to practice empathy and flexibility as much as you can. And so that said, I’m seeing contradicting opinions or different approaches, I should say, “Should we be asking students what technology they have available? Or should we not? Is that too intrusive?” I think, again, being transparent with your students and saying, “Hey, we’re going to try this, and if it’s not going well we will figure it out, we’ll change the plan,” can be a really helpful way to go. And then the other guideline that I’ve been sharing with faculty is to go low tech as
much as possible. So I know many faculty and many institutions are suggesting synchronous, live lecturing, audio and video options. Those are actually the hardest and most complicated, and the most prone to fail or challenge. That’s the peak of what we could be doing. In order to ensure the greatest accessibility, including both student access to technology and also any students who might be using things like screen readers or other tools, going lower tech and
using the tools and functions that are within the learning management systems, such as PDF readings and online discussion forums, and quizzes and assignments, those are actually the most possible to create success. Again, for the moment, it may be that later, after you’ve taken the pulse of how your students are doing, you might add more. Or you might host optional synchronous sessions, maybe a virtual office hour or a review session. But for the most success, I recommend going low tech, aiming for the lowest common denominator.
John: And that would certainly satisfy lower bandwidth requirements for people who might be on slower connections.
Rebecca: What are some things faculty might want to think about if they know that a lot of their students are using mobile technology rather than desktops and laptops? So in addition to this lower tech approach, are there other things that you would recommend when you know screens might be small that our students are relying on?
Flower: Great question, and I’ve long thought that higher ed is way behind the curve on mobile learning. If you look at industry or corporate training and professional development, there’s some really great mobile apps now. I’m not
saying that now is the time to go out and find a new mobile learning app, let me be clear about that. But I think higher ed has some work to do here, just a couple of simple strategies to consider. First of all, keep in mind the powerful computer that the smartphone is, and again, you have to be careful not to assume that everybody has a smartphone, but it can be a really interesting tool. Maybe students will record video reflections on their smartphone camera, the tablet camera, and upload those or maybe instead of a long, robust written assignment, maybe
you’re going to be okay with little blurbs of text that students can type with their thumbs on their device. It’s a time for flexibility, for creativity, for rethinking the way that you normally do things, and just embracing the adventure, really.
Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve thought a lot about too is making sure that you’re not putting too much emphasis on things that have nothing to do with your learning objectives. So if grammar and spelling really isn’t part of your learning objective, then some forgiveness over mistyping,[LAUGHTER] and maybe using voice commands and
things like that and using voice to text maybe is appropriate in this case.
Flower: Yeah, Rebecca, I think this is a time to rethink everything, honestly, in higher ed. And I’ve been thinking hard about “What are we going to reflect on looking back when we’re through this immediate crisis situation?” Absolutely, I’m a fan of: if the scholarly citation isn’t really needed for this particular demonstration of student knowledge, then maybe you don’t need to require that. So, I would invite faculty to really critically examine all of their usual practices because it’s not the use right now.
Rebecca: What are some of the questions that you’re getting hammered with?
Flower: Faculty have different levels of experience and comfort, and so some faculty are like, “Okay, I already use the Learning Management System, help me think about additional ways to engage my students online.” The necessity of building and creating and maintaining community cannot be overstated. Again, especially in precarious times such as
these, so many faculty want to know how to engage and interact meaningfully with students. Then we also have, of course, the very predictable question about “How do we do what we do in person such as a lab, or a studio or performance class or field work experience? How do we do that in an online setting?” That’s complicated and challenging, but faculty are resourceful and creative people, and I know that they’ll figure it out. The main takeaway for that question is really identify what the learning goal is for that activity, and then think creatively about how students can achieve that learning in an online or remote setting. Now, keeping in mind that it may be the case that you start to have students do some kitchen sink science labs, or some living room dance moves, or whatever it might be. Students don’t have to stay in the learning management systems, again, with their devices, they can capture video, they can take pictures and upload the evidence of what they did. Just a matter of really focusing on that learning goal and then thinking about the activities that will help students… and again, we have to be careful
not to assume that all students have all the things, that providing options for students to achieve that learning no matter where they are.
Rebecca: Can we circle back to this community piece? You’ve mentioned facilitating community is really important. You’ve talked a lot about communication. What are some ways to get students to come together and feel like they’re still a cohesive whole, rather than disparate people who have been dispersed across the world or across the nation?
Flower: So, before all of this happened, if you’re familiar with my work, you may know that I’ve really focused a lot on increasing the social connections in online classes because there is an inherent distance. It is most often the case that students doing online classwork are by themselves sitting at their home desk or at a coffee shop. It
is unusual for students who are doing online classwork to be sitting with another student or with others. And so just really thinking about that physical isolation, and then thinking about how we can’t use the non-verbal cues that we use when we’re in the classroom. So if we’re explaining something as we’re presenting a mini lecture, and we see a whole bunch of furrowed brows or we see that students are clearly off daydreaming about something else, we can
adjust our approach, we can stop, slow down, re-explain, ask the students what their questions are, and we don’t have that real-time feedback in an online environment. So it’s just very important to be really intentional to cultivate that. It can absolutely be done, you think about how we interact in social media settings. We can engage with other people in online situations, but it takes a little bit more intentionality. So, be visibly present for your students, post those announcements, return assignments, timely answer emails… students still say all the time
that they just wish their online instructors would answer their emails. But those are just ways that you want to be visibly present, posting in an online discussion forum, those kinds of things. And then encourage students. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if it might be helpful to just create a discussion forum just to say “What’s on your mind right now? How can we help? What are you dealing with? What are the challenges?” and just encourage people in
the class to interact with each other as people.
Rebecca: Wait, we’re all people? [LAUGHTER]
John: Students don’t always have that perception of their faculty face-to-face. This is a nice opportunity to open up in ways that perhaps you haven’t done in the past.
Flower: For sure.
Rebecca: I think a lot of faculty will be teaching remotely from their homes with their own levels of distraction and pets and kids and relatives.
Rebecca: Other habitats, right, to their households, just like students. And I think the more that we can share that and that we’re also trying to manage, or even strategies that we’re using for managing that, could actually be useful as a model for students as well.
Flower: I read a really funny, the beginning of what I think will be a series in The Chronicle of Higher Ed this morning, and it was basically, I think The Chronicle has now dispersed to all working from home. And this one reporter was just describing the challenges of sharing a house with three other working adults and two pets that
don’t get along with each other, and trying to be professional, and be on video conference calls or whatever when the cat’s rear end is brushing against the monitor. [LAUGHTER] So I do think, Rebecca, your point about being really authentic about the challenges that we’re all facing, and again, just practicing flexibility, both for your own approach, and then encouraging your students to do the best they can and you’re there to support them. I don’t think
we can message that frequently enough.
Rebecca: I certainly had cars getting drawn across my keyboard yesterday. So… [LAUGHTER] And up my arm and on my head. [LAUGHTER]
Flower: It’s a challenging situation, and this is just one aspect. You think about the potential financial impact that students and their families might be facing as so many businesses are shutting down right now. You think about if a student becomes sick themselves or somebody in their family becomes sick, there’s so many potential challenges
and barriers. I really think this is a moment for humanity to shine without overstating that, and just supporting each other and being willing to be as flexible as we possibly can, helping students achieve the learning, holding them accountable, but being really willing to flex and empathize as needed. I guess I would just reiterate that we should be kind to ourselves, we should not expect to be online teaching rockstars, we should remember that this is not online teaching as we traditionally think of it, this is a triage mode remote delivery of instruction. And we can’t become really well developed online teachers on the spin of a dime. So be kind to yourself, be patient, take it slow, do what you know how to do. It may be the case that in coming weeks, you can add more, you can become more educated as you avail yourself of the resources that your center and others are providing. But ,just kindness is all that I can really recommend to yourself and to your students.
Rebecca: I think that’s a perfect note to end on, and a good reminder that that flexibility goes both to yourself as well as to your students.
Flower: Absolutely. These are unusual times. We’re all freaking out about lots of different things. And so we have a job to do, and students have a job to do, and we can band together and support each other. I’m just thinking about what movie will be made by Hollywood. [LAUGHTER] I mean, there’s got to be tons of movies that will come out after
this, but specifically about higher ed, that would be interesting. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I think the term you used earlier was weird times, and I would agree, we can all be together in these weird times. [LAUGHTER]
Flower: Just practicing basic humanity and consideration for your fellow human beings, I think, is gonna go a long way.
John: It was just so much nicer reading Stephen King novels than it is to live in one of them.
Flower: That’s true. This is bizarre. Let’s just admit that and determine how we can best move on.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for the tips, and also just allowing us all to realize that we’re not alone.
Flower: That’s a great reminder, Rebecca, we are not alone. Let’s help our students feel like they are not alone, and we’ll get through this. We’re resourceful people.
John: We always end with a question. What are you doing next?
Flower: So, John, just this morning I offered and was encouraged to write a new column for The Chronicle. Now, I haven’t written it yet. But the tentative title of my new column, which I hope to develop in the next couple of days, is “Okay, So You’ve Pivoted Online. Now What?” and I really want to talk to people about, there was all this adrenaline, and all this frenzy and excitement, and then after we get through this rush, I can imagine that people might begin to deflate, they might become discouraged, the prospect of finishing this semester, it might not be really energizing to people. So I would like to write out some suggestions for regaining your energy and your enthusiasm and discovering the benefits of teaching remotely in this particular situation. We’ll see, I haven’t written that yet. We’ll see.
Rebecca: Yeah, I know that some of the conversation about graduations, and in my department it’s senior exhibitions and things, those kind of capstone moments that are really special and how we can make them special remotely, maybe they’ll be extra special.
Flower: So much opportunity for creative thinking right now. I’ve been wondering if this is going to be the demise of the higher ed conference or other industries as well, if we’ll ever get back together in person or if we’ll find so many other ways to interact virtually that things might be really different from here on out.
John: I know in our workshops, we’re seeing a lot of people coming in over Zoom that we’ve never seen before in workshops, and we’re hoping to see a lot more of them in the future. So, it’s opening up this type of remote access to people who have never tried it before, and that’s a really positive aspect.
Flower: Yeah, I love the focus on the opportunities that this situation is affording us. And then let’s think carefully, when we get to a point that we can kind of look back on the situation, I think higher ed leaders really need to be thinking critically about what needs to change to support effective teaching with technology, because if
there’s one thing we’re learning here, it’s a staple, it’s a support that we can’t do without. And yet many institutions don’t really support the effective use of technology in our teaching in a really sort of simple and sustainable way. So I’m, I’m encouraging, again, specifically leadership in higher ed to think critically about centers such as the ones that we live in, and about the role of instructional designers and “How do we make this much more of a core function in support of our institutions?”
Rebecca: I hope those conversations start.
Flower: I’m gonna do everything I can, talk to everybody I can about it. [LAUGHTER]
John: And I think those types of support are more valued than they ever have been before. I think a lot of people have discovered the instructional designers and the teaching centers across the country.
Flower: 100%. Again, that’s an opportunity that we’re being afforded right now is to help people see what we can do and access those people who haven’t come to our workshops before and demonstrate our value, a real opportunity to do that right now.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much.
John: Thank you. It’s great talking to you again.
Rebecca: Stay well.
Flower: Thank you, you too. Thanks for having me.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.