250. Hacking Assessment

Traditional grading systems often encourage students to focus on achieving higher grades rather than on their learning. In this episode, Starr Sackstein joins us to discuss how classes can be redesigned to improve student engagement and learning. Starr has been an educator for 20 years and is currently the COO of Mastery Portfolio, an educational consultant, and instructional coach and speaker. She is the author of more than 10 books on education, including the best-selling Hacking Assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school, which has just been released in a new edition.

Show Notes


John: Traditional grading systems often encourage students to focus on achieving higher grades rather than on their learning. In this episode, we discuss how classes can be redesigned to improve student engagement and learning.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Starr Sackstein. Starr has been an educator for 20 years and is currently the COO of Mastery Portfolio, an educational consultant, and instructional coach and speaker. She is the author of more than 10 books on education, including the best-selling Hacking Assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school, which has been released in a new edition. Welcome, Starr.

Starr: Thanks so much. I’m excited to be here.

John: Today’s teas are… Starr, are you drinking tea?

Starr: I am drinking water. No tea unfortunately, not yet.

Rebecca: Not yet. Okay. See, there we go, there’s promise there. I have Scottish Breakfast tea today.

John: And I have spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: Well, that’s good.

Starr: Those both sound delicious, really.

Rebecca: So, you haven’t had that one in a while, John.

John: I haven’t had any in a while…

Rebecca: true that…

John: …we took a pause in recording for about a month. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Fair. But even prior to that it had been a while I think.

John: I think so too.

Rebecca: We invited you here today to discuss Hacking Assessment. The first edition of your book seven years ago helped to launch the ungrading movement. Could you give us some background on what prompted you to move away from traditional grading systems?

Starr: Absolutely. In years one to five when I was in the classroom, I would say that I pretty much did grading and assessment the way it was done to me. And the one major significant thing that changed during that time was I had a child. And in his elementary school, they actually use standards-based grading. And when I got his first report card and saw just how much information I got from his teachers, and how the behaviors were separate from the actual learning and the narratives were really aligned with where he needed support and what was going on. I was like, Mmmh…for someone teaching AP English, only having the opportunity to give one grade, with pre slugged sort of comments that I was allowed to bubble into my… back then we were still using Scantrons for entering grades. I’m definitely dating myself by saying that, but it’s the truth. And I started getting really frustrated with that. And from there, I started doing a lot of reading. Alfie Kohn has really played with a lot of these ideas for a long time now. And then folks like Ken O’Connor, who had the book 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, his first edition, I think it’s been republished twice already, in the time since I’ve read from there. I read his book, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I am doing all of this wrong.” There are so many things on this list that I do, and I never thought about it that way, and it’s just not how I want to keep doing things. And I think there’s a synergy with when you decide to read a book, whether or not it resonates with you and whether or not you’re ready to start implementing the things that you learn. And I think I was very ready to first acknowledge that the practice I was doing wasn’t serving my students as well as I could. And I was looking for alternatives. So having those jumping off points, having read a bunch of different things, and then meeting Mark Barnes along the way as well, and experimenting with alright, well, these are suggestions for this kind of space. What does this look like in New York City public schools, as an 11th and 12th grade English teacher and also as a journalism teacher? How do I start making this work? And that’s sort of how it all happened and then it took years to figure out how do I make this work well, because I did it for a while before it worked well. [LAUGHTER] There were a lot of mistakes, unfortunately.

John: We’ve been dealing with a number of people starting to experiment with ungrading in college, but it’s a little bit easier in a college environment, I think, to make these changes, because there’s a little bit less structure imposed on teachers. How were you able to implement this in a K through 12 system?

Starr: So I think I was very fortunate to be in a very small community when I started doing this. We were six to 12. I was already a very established teacher in that community. I had a track record of getting students prepared for college. And most of the families when I made choices, always kind of knew that they were intentional, and there were reasons. And in my AP classes, that was probably the most struggle, because parents get nervous when they have 12th graders, what is this gonna look like on the transcript? How is this going to impact my students moving forward from school? And I just really tried to set up systems and to be super transparent about everything that we were doing so that first of all, I live streamed my class a lot, for better or for worse. And I say that because not every class was a winner. So if you were watching when it wasn’t a winner, like, well, this is reality, it wasn’t a good day. But I think they were able to see the rigor of what was going on in the space and despite the fact that it didn’t look like what normal AP classes looked like, they could appreciate my wanting to be flexible to the individual learners in my classroom… that even the creative projects I was asking them to do was often a lot more intensive than just doing a test or just writing a paper and gave that level of inquiry into that process as well so that students could be really excited about the learning they were doing. And the more comfortable I got with different technologies… I experimented with blogging to increase reading. That’s one of the biggest problems in English classes. I think most kids don’t read the books for a lot of different reasons. So how do you get them to read when you’re teaching a literature class, beyond just the five or seven or 10 books you’re reading as a whole class. So they started blogging, and we started using the blogging communities for recommendations on different books they were enjoying on their own and why they enjoyed it. And I really encouraged them to use that space too as a way to develop their writing voice. So it wasn’t like analytical writing all the time, it was more conversational… reaction sort of stuff to what they were reading and focused instead of like overviews of everything that they read… an analysis paper, which isn’t always fun for every single kid. I started tweaking that and I think parents appreciated my transparency. I did screencasts of our dashboard, because I had changed the way I was using the tool that my whole school was using. So like, if you have any questions, this is what it looks like, this is what you’re seeing. And if they emailed me, I just really tried to get back to them immediately, so that I could really put their concerns to rest before they started doing the thing that parents do, where they start making it a lot worse than it actually is. So I tried to catch that right away. To be honest, though, my colleagues were the ones with the greater pushback than parents and students… a couple of students, but just shifting the conversation away from grades, instead of what did I get? What did you learn? How can we track that progress over time? How do you know you learned it? Where do you see that evidence in your own learning. And I think very soon after getting in the routine of this is how we do things now they got it and saw that the level of metacognition as well as the rigor in the actual tasks were much greater than what they would have been seeing in a regular class anyway. So sometimes I got the: “this writing reflection is like a whole other paper that you’re asking us to do.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it is. But it also helps me give you better feedback, and it also helps me know where I need to adjust my instruction. So there’s a reason and it’s worthwhile, and it’s gonna help you, when you’re not just in school. This is a practice that you’ll probably carry with you.”

Rebecca: One of the things that you just brought up, Starr, is something that I definitely want to follow up on, which is getting our colleagues to also buy into this, and administrators. We exist within systems that require grade inputs. Grades are transcripted. So how do we get the people around us who support us professionally, to get on board? And what does that actually look like, functionally, when we’re generating grades when we’re saying we’re kind of ungrading all semester.

Starr: So those are really good questions. And in the second edition, I actually have built in leadership tips to support leaders who are unfamiliar with this kind of assessment practice and how they can support teachers who want to do it, if they’re not doing it wholesale as a school. I advocate for systemic use of this practice, because if we catch kids much younger, by the time they get to high school, their language and fluency in discussing their own learning is a lot greater. I was a 12th grade teacher, my kids had come through an entire system where this was not how it was done. So it was like, literally at the last minute, I’m like, “Yeah, I know, that’s the way you’ve been doing it this whole time. But we’re gonna do it a little differently and I promise you’ll still get into college.” It’s a different vibe. And my colleagues, I think, knew my students appreciated it, because they would start hearing from my students: “How come you don’t do this?” …which is also like a little bit of a target was put on my back, because if a school or a district is going to make the shift, it requires a lot of professional learning. And if you aren’t the kind of teacher who makes the time to do learning on your own, then there really does need to be supports put in place prior to it’s happening. And I’m a super reflective teacher, I did National Board Certification, I will go out of my way to get myself to a conference even if my school wasn’t paying for it. Because as an educator, I felt it was an essential part of my job to continually grow and model that for my students. But not every teacher is like that. And I’m not suggesting that everyone has to be or whatever their process is, but I do think it’s important to invite colleagues into your space, give them that “what you could do tomorrow kind of tips” like what are the first few steps you could take to try this out before you commit to it wholesale. And in terms of the grading aspect, the way that I got around the traditional grading was assessment conferences with my students. So really building in a vibrant and robust portfolio system where students were collecting their learning over a larger period of time, giving them the vocabulary to talk about their growth as they looked at those things, and then a conversation just like this. So based on the standards we worked on this marking period, where do you find yourself in terms of mastery? And what does that translate to for a report card grade, because I had to put a grade on the report card as well. So it was really just making them acutely aware of what exemplary work looks like, how they were meeting benchmarks to get there over time, and then also switch that transactional sort of relationship around getting grades to a more progress minded model, where they understand learning doesn’t happen in one sitting. And even though you may have successfully completed one assignment, that doesn’t mean you’ve mastered a particular skill, it’s just your first go at it. In order to get to that mastery level, you have to do it over time with less and less support, and kind of do it on your own.

John: What sort of buy in did you get from other teachers that you were working with?

Starr: It was secret at first. There were like people just dropping by out of curiosity to see what was going on in my classroom. Then a couple of other people just asking, “what would this look like in my gradebook?” I was very lucky in the one sense that our whole school was a portfolio school. So that part of it was already there. And then I also did some PD with my colleagues around reflection practices. We tried to really create something that was consistent, and also the same. So like I had created a process for doing reflection, which is that five steps sort of: first, you have to reexamine what was it I was asked to do? What were my steps for completing the assignment? Where do I think I’m meeting the goals that I set for myself? How am I doing that? What level am I doing that at? And what would I do differently in the future? And then we kind of scaffold that down to sixth grade up to 12th grade. So what is that kind of reflection look like in a sixth grade classroom, a seventh grade classroom, all the way up to 12. So that there are realistic expectations in that space around those things. And my classroom was always open. And I resented the fact that when my principal decided that she wanted us to go to a standards-based model, I implored her to not do it the way she did. I think we should have a pilot team, we should have a committee that does this, we should test it out first, try to get either a grade level team or a content area vertically to commit to doing this and then have input from more people. And then we need to train folks in the areas they aren’t already familiar with, starting with unpacking standards and getting them comfortable with that kind of language and what our expectations are. But that’s not what happened. It was like an email that went out. We’re going to do this this year. And it was a disaster. And I got attached to the disaster as a direct correlation to how all that happened. And unfortunately, you get one good shot to make a significant assessment or grading shift in a decade, because unless your folks are leaving quickly, no one forgets. So really setting up systems in the future, if folks who are listening want to do this on a bigger scale, set yourself up for a three- to five-year implementation plan, start small and grow it organically and provide tons of support along the way so everybody feels confident and not just your teachers, your community also. What does this look like for your parents? What are they going to be receiving that’s different? And just make sure that you have answers to commonly asked questions on the front end, so that when new stuff starts coming in, you’re ready to triage that, you’re not just answering the standard questions over and over and over again.

John: You mentioned in your first edition of the book that one of the motivations for this was to get students to focus on their learning rather than on grades. How successful was this? Did this work for most students?

Starr: For most, yes. And believe it or not, the ones that don’t traditionally do school well, who don’t play the game, it worked best for them. And as three educators sitting on this podcast right now, I think we can all agree that sometimes our brightest students are not the ones who do the best. The ones who do the best are the ones who are most committed to getting high grades and kind of checking the boxes and doing everything that they have to be compliant for in order to get that score. So when we shifted the focus away from that and started looking at skill acquisition and content deepening, and really getting them to be able to advocate for their own needs in that specific area, I think that it wasn’t just about them completing the tasks I asked them to do, but it required them to engage with me in a dialogue in the kinds of tasks they wanted to be doing, the way they wanted to be doing it. And it required my flexibility with taking that input and actually putting it into action. So I think that once they saw that I was listening to their feedback actively and using it right away to shift the way class looked, they understood that I wasn’t just saying, “I’m asking you to do this,” it was a real partnership, where if this is going to be successful, and you want your voice to be heard, you need to contribute or else you can’t complain when you don’t like what ended up happening, because I really did try to say “yes,” just about to everything, if they could articulate how their decisions and their choices aligned with what the objectives were, then I was totally hands off in their process to sort of help them be successful in the big picture. And it also really decreased the amount of folks who didn’t participate in the group work or didn’t participate in the learning. So when people say my students don’t finish work, or they don’t submit things, to me, that’s a red flag that either something else is going on that you need to get to the bottom of, or the kind of learning you’re asking them to do isn’t resonating. And rather than just pulling out the binder from what you’ve done for the last 20 years, you really do have to make a concerted effort to make changes so that it meets the needs of the kiddos that are sitting in front of you right now.

Rebecca: So you’ve talked a lot about reflection, and the role reflection is playing. Can you talk a bit about how you were able to get students up to the level of reflection that is really meaningful and gets to this metacognitive skill, building

Starr: Feedback, feedback, feedback. We give a lot of feedback to everything that kids do in the classroom. But the first few times we ask them to reflect, it’s so important that we’re also giving them feedback on their reflections, providing exemplars for them, really creating success criteria too, like that co-construction, like if I’m telling you, these are three examples that are wildly different, but all successful, what do you notice about all three of them? What are the things that need to be a part of every single reflection that we do. And then as they do them, rather than have them revise every single one that they do, since they’re doing them with every major assignment, it’s like, “alright, well, now take the feedback you got from the last one, apply it to this one and let’s see if we can’t grow you.” And usually by, I would say November, they’re already writing fairly good reflections and their ability to have conversation about their level of learning already starts to increase, because by November, you’ve already had a progress report conversation, you’ve already had a quarter one report card conversation. And I was doing a lot of modeling myself, like I would reflect openly on how successful projects went, in my estimation, and be really, really tied to the outcomes. And not just what I think or what I feel, but what I noticed, and how I would do it differently if we had the opportunity to do something similar again. And I think, again, that level of transparency and my comfort with saying to them, I don’t know how to make this better. What do you think? What made this experience challenging? Were my directions not as clear as they could have been? What do I need to learn from this experience? So it was very much a two-way street, which took time. And I do want to say that too. Like, I think I was seven or eight years into the classroom before I was comfortable enough to say “I didn’t know something.” That takes confidence in a way that you don’t really think. In the beginning of my career, I felt like I needed to be the expert over all of the students in my room, and I had to have an answer for everything. And I said a lot of wrong things because I was trying so hard to look like an authority. And I think the older I get, the more I work with educators, the more I realize that I’m a learner, I don’t know everything, even the stuff I’ve spent a lot of time teaching I don’t know everything about and new perspectives are incredibly useful in how I approach something because it’s the first time this group of kids is seeing something I might have tried before. Their input is extraordinarily useful for me to make changes moving forward.

John: It’s also a great way of nurturing a growth mindset in students by reminding them that we’re all part of this learning experience together. And that no matter how much experience you have, there’s always more you can learn. And so I think that’s a really great process. And it’s something that I think it generally takes a while for most people to get to.

Starr: Yeah.

John: So you mentioned having conferences with students, how often do you conference with students?

Starr: So, there’s lots of different levels of conferencing. So you have your in-class formative conversation where they’re asking questions and you’re taking the pulse of whether or not you’re going too fast or if you need to stop the class and do a mini lesson on something you notice everyone’s struggling with. Or if you pull a small group because only a small group of kids are really having an issue. So there’s that kind of on-the-fly conferencing where you’re walking around with a clipboard or an iPad and you’re taking notes on what you see. And then listening to the questions kids are asking and making a determination as to whether or not this is a small or bigger issue that needs to be addressed. And then there are formal conferences where kids are coming prepared to have that conversation where you’re giving them time in class. So part of my structuring… because remember, I said it took me a long time to find a system that worked that ended up in Hacking Assessment… so I started creating Google Forms, where there were very targeted questions that also aligned with the assessments that we did, and the different pieces of learning and the standards that we were addressing at that time. And before they could set up a conference, they needed to fill in that whole Google form, then I had all that informatio, so I could really target clarifying questions or gaps that we could spend our five minutes talking about. If they had done all the work to do certain things, they don’t have to rehash what I could read. And if I had 34 students in most of my classes, so there’s a lot of kids, there’s a little time, you really have to make that three to five minutes count, and give every student the opportunity to give you the most information that you could have to be able to determine what was going to go on the report card. So those conversations certainly got a lot better over time as well. The first one, there was a lot of prompting from me, a lot of questions to get them ready by conference number 2, 3, 4, and certainly by the end of the year, if you watch on my YouTube channel, I have examples of what those look like. By the end of the year, the student is doing 98% of the talking. And I’m just redirecting if they kind of get off a little bit, or if they miss a spot versus at the beginning, it’s more of like a 40-60 where I am interjecting and kind of bolstering confidence, helping them set goals and stuff. So there’s more of a give and take at the beginning of the year.

John: You mentioned giving students some choice in terms of the assignments and so forth. What are some of the more interesting assignments or learning activities that your students have come up with?

Starr: The one that always comes to mind was, towards the end of my time in the classroom, before I became an instructional coach, I literally gave my students my entire unit plan for Hamlet. And I said, “Alright, this is the way I always teach it. But I want to do it differently this year. So I want you to look at the overall objectives. And as a group, I want you to come up with something different, then we’re going to vote as a class, which group suggestion we want to go with, and whichever group is chosen, you’ll come meet with me at lunch, we’ll design an assignment together and work through the success criteria and benchmarks for doing it successfully.” And if I tell you some of the things these kids came up with, I would have never come up with in a million years. And what we landed on was these psychological profiles of the characters of Hamlet, where they had to first use the text, to use Shakespeare’s language, to diagnose them with some kind of psychological issue. For example, Gertrude would be a narcissist. And then they do research on the actual issue, so there’s a research component as well. And then they had to come up with a treatment plan for the character and create a movie that demonstrated the growth from whatever the treatment plan was. And what it really did was have this really in-depth character analysis of each character from Hamlet, regardless of which character you did, you were set on a course. And then we also created this Google form, so that when we had screenings of the movies at the end, students were actively taking notes about what they learned about the characters and giving feedback at the same time to the creators of those movies about what they learned and what they were still curious about. And it was really phenomenal, honestly. I think that I wish I would have started doing stuff like that sooner. Other examples would have been students creating movies in Minecraft, like for our satire movies, that’s usually so like, just technology, but I was very uncomfortable with, that they were able to use that. I was like, yeah, “If you could do it without my support, I could help you with content, but you’re on your own for the technology.”

Rebecca: So you’ve hinted at some of the changes in your second edition. Can you highlight some additional changes between the first and second edition?

Starr: Okay, so yes, there are a lot more resources. So over the last seven years, part of the reason I hadn’t made a second edition up till this point, was because I really wanted there to be a value added. I wanted there to be new voices I can highlight. I was really also looking for systems that started doing this work because I wanted there to be more case study material that kind of went in that it wasn’t just single teachers kind of playing with it, but actually systematizing it in ways that work for them. So there are brand new hacks and actions for every single chapter, all of them have read the first edition and implemented it in their own way. So what you’re getting is people’s take on how what they learned looks like. I really tried to implement K to higher ed. So Susan Blum did write a section as well on what it looks like in college for all of my reticent K-12 folks who were like, “This isn’t going to be viable in the future.” I had central office people write about stakeholder buy in and how they brought this into their space from a leader perspective, instead of just a classroom perspective. A lot of new tools that have been developed in the last seven years, lots of stuff about that, rubrics, progressions, not just in English, which was my background, obviously, really trying to span math, science, social studies, related arts. So there’s one with a music teacher writing about how they’ve done that in that area… elementary teachers. So there really are tons of resources with a lot of different fresh voices who are using this now, as well as a very intentional talk about equitable practices. I think a lot of this stuff is equitable, but I never thought of it in that lens until COVID. And then once COVID happened, really trying to talk about how these things address some of those gaps that need to be addressed, but weren’t explicitly tied to them in the past. So that’s really where the bulk of things have shifted. And then there’s an incredible appendix with lots and lots of examples of everything.

John: And your first edition was wonderful. It provides a lot of good resources. And in each section, it talks about how to deal with pushback, which is one of the things anyone introducing something new has to deal with. So I’m assuming that continues into the second edition.

Starr: Yep, sure does.

John: So your first edition was very successful, and has received a lot of traction at all levels of education, and helped spur the ungrading movement at the college level that we’ve been talking about a lot in the last couple of years with our guests, and with many of our colleagues. For those people who have read the first edition, what would be the benefits to them of picking up the second edition, and who should they share that with at their institutions?

Starr: So I’m really hopeful that this time, it’s not individual teachers picking the book up on their own, although I certainly advocate for that. I want to see teams use this as a PLN opportunity and explore the text in a way that makes sense to them. It is not narrative, necessarily. So each chapter is its own sort of entity. And so I would encourage folks to choose the chapter that they’re most ready for at this moment and pick it apart in a way that’s going to make most sense for their practice.

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

Starr: Oh, I’m so glad you asked. So what’s next for me right now, we are doing a free book study with the new book when it launches August 2, and it’ll be on Amazon. And then also, once this one launches, and things are moving, I’m under contract with ASCD for my next book, which is specifically about portfolios and student-led conferences. So that is still something that’s a little thinner in Hacking Assessment, because I think that that really requires a little bit more depth than I could give it in that book in one chapter. So I am currently working on that and really trying to gather with some of the districts that I’m working with to build really great systems for building portfolios. What does that look like? And how do you parlay that piece into these student-led conferences so that you can have a robust system in your space?

John: That sounds like a great supplement. Well, thank you. It’s great talking to you. We’ve heard mention of your book from many of our past guests, and I’m glad I was finally able to get to read it. And I’m looking forward to the second edition, which should be arriving soon.

Starr: Awesome. Thank you so much.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much. This is such great information and we’re looking forward to all your new work as well.

Starr: Thank you.


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.


249. Winning the first day

Faculty that fit the cultural stereotype of a white male professor are often presumed authority figures in the classroom. Faculty that do not conform to this stereotype can face challenges in acquiring student acceptance of their expertise. In this episode, Sheri Wells-Jensen and Emily K. Michael join us to discuss the role the first day of class can play in addressing these challenges.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Wordgathering
  • Wells-Jensen, S. (2018). The Case for Disabled Astronauts. Scientific American.
  • Smith, K. C., Abney, K., Anderson, G., Billings, L., Devito, C. L., Green, B. P., … & Wells-Jensen, S. (2019). The great colonization debate. Futures, 110, 4-14.
  • Wells-Jensen, S., Miele, J. A., & Bohney, B. (2019). An alternate vision for colonization. Futures, 110, 50-53.
  • SETI Institute
  • Mission: AstroAccess
  • Baruch Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology


John: Faculty that fit the cultural stereotype of a white male professor are often presumed authority figures in the classroom. Faculty that do not conform to this stereotype can face challenges in acquiring student acceptance of their expertise. In this episode, we discuss the role the first day of class can play in addressing these challenges.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Sheri Wells-Jensen and

Emily: K. Michael. Sheri is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Bowling Green State University.

Emily: is a poet, musician, and writing teacher and is the poetry editor for Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature at Syracuse University. Sheri and

Emily: co-authored with Mona Makara a chapter in Picture a Professor entitled “How Blind Professors Win the First Day: Setting Yourselves Up for Success.” Welcome,

Emily: and Sheri.

Sheri: Hello.

Emily:: Hello.

John: Thanks for joining us. Our teas today are…

Emily:, are you drinking tea?

Emily:: I’m not, I’m drinking water.

John: And Sheri?,

Sheri: I am not drinking tea, I wish that I were. If I were it’d be some awesome lavender thing,

Rebecca: …which would be very nice. I have Scottish breakfast today.

John: And I have English breakfast today.

Rebecca: Before we get started talking about your chapter,

Emily: and Sheri, you do such really interesting and fascinating work. Can you share a little bit about some of the things that you do in your scholarly and creative activity?

Emily:, do you want to start?

Emily:: Sure, I got my masters and my bachelor’s degree in English. And I always knew that I wanted to teach English. But I didn’t start writing creatively until I finished my master’s program. And I kind of looked into the great abyss of what am I going to do with my life. And professors suggested that I start writing creatively. So I did, I started writing essays. And I had the first couple of pieces accepted for publication, and it really encouraged me. So I didn’t really attempt a lot of scholarly work, although my interests were scholarly. I’m very fascinated by disability studies, by environmental literature, and by how music affects people mentally, physically, emotionally. So as I continue to teach at UNF, I continue to publish essays and poetry mostly and I started doing some reviews. And then I was an associate poetry editor for WordGathering, which is located at Syracuse University. So that has been really exciting to be able to read and review and encourage up and coming and experienced disabled poets as well.

Rebecca: It’s been nice reading some of your work recently,


Emily:: Thank you.

Rebecca: How about you, Sheri?

Sheri: I started off as a young person wanting to go into astronomy and physics, and kind of a long, winding path later, I was in the Peace Corps, and was just smitten by the genius that was my Spanish as a second language set of teachers. These women, I just thought they were the most amazing people I’ve ever met. And I wanted to be just like them because they were brilliant, and they had technical knowledge, and they were super intuitive, and I was just amazed by them. And so my studies became linguistics, and I got a PhD in linguistics. And then my first year working at Bowling Green State University, our department chair asked me as new faculty what I’d like to teach in the summer. And I just reached randomly into my mind and said, I would like to teach a class in Xenolinguistics, combining astronomy and linguistics. And what would an alien language be like if there were an alien language? And instead of saying, “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said, “Oh, okay, go do that thing.” [LAUGHTER] Which meant for my first year, I was desperately scrambling to prepare that class and figure out what it was I would say about that, and what that would all be like. And so that landed me on another long trip, which has placed me in this remarkable position of studying the intersection of astrobiology and disability studies. So what would your mind and cognition be like if you had a totally different body in a different environment on a different kind of planet? And how would that affect your language? And then how would that affect your mind? And to some extent, then, could we ever communicate with beings like that, which also led me thinking about humans in outer space, and disabled people traveling into space on commercial and governmental space vessels.

John: Each of you and your co-author come from very different disciplinary approaches. How did you come together to write this chapter for Picture A Professor?

Sheri: So I saw the call for papers. And I thought, “Oh, this is so cool, because I think a lot about pedagogy, obviously.” And I think a lot about what it is I have to do differently, since I’m blind, what it is I have to do differently than other faculty and how that’s similar and how that’s different. And I started thinking about writing it myself. And then I thought, “Yeah, but I’m only coming from this small place of my own experience and my own discipline.” And so I was thinking, who are fabulous people that I could get to co-author this with me. And I thought immediately of both Mona and

Emily: as people who are in very different disciplines, Mona, being a chemist, and

Emily: being more on the creative writing end of things and I thought, “Well, let’s see how our experiences might complement one another.”

Rebecca: Can you tease us a little bit about your chapter in Picture a Professor?

Emily:: We had so much fun putting this together, we all got together on a zoom call, because of course, it was COVID time. And we all just started sharing stories, what happened to you? what happened to you? Oh my god, that happened to me too. So I really think it was cathartic for all of us to share that we all had the same bad experiences, but also that we all found workarounds to deal with negative experiences in the classroom and to deal with the inaccessibility of most classrooms. But we started from a place of gathering common experiences. And most of them, I would say, when we started to narrow it down to first day of instruction, it was that we walked in, and students thought “that’s not my teacher,” or “that couldn’t possibly be my teacher,” because we all talked about how we look so different. So Sherry uses a white cane. I use a guide dog, but I haven’t always used a guide dog. And we’re all different ages. And then when you walk in, and you’re visibly disabled, the students think that your lost, most of them will say, “Oh, can I help you find a seat?” And I’m like carrying a huge pile of photocopies like, “I’m the teacher, here’s the syllabus,” and they’re shocked. And so we really thought, let’s focus on the first day, and really talk about how we negotiate those impressions of us that are so off because again, for most students, we’re the first blind person they’ve ever met. And they’re just shocked that we would be allowed to teach. And then it’s like, “Oh, this isn’t a class about Braille. So what are you doing here?”

Sheri: Right, exactly. And then our philosophy on managing first- day scenario is much like you might hear anywhere else, except that this is not optimal for us… if we want to survive and want our classes to go well, we’ve got to deliberately engage with the narrative and take control of it. So we can’t let students decide what the class is going to be like. We have to decide what the class is going to be like, and with firmness and respect and lovingness. And let me go back to firmness. [LAUGHTER] Tell the students “This is how it’s going to be. Listen, friends, this is how the class is gonna go. Love ya. Pay attention. We are going to have to change your focus here.” And we want to be in a place where disability is neither central to the conversation nor taboo, and negotiate that… not so much that we’re negotiating who we are. But what we’re doing is taking the students, meeting them to some degree where they’re, at with the understanding that they might think this is weird, and explaining that, “Okay, it’s not weird, you’re going to be fine. Welcome to the ride.”

Rebecca: Here we go. It’s the adventure of the semester. Can you share maybe a tip that you talk about in the chapter?

Sheri: One of the things that we talk a lot about, which is necessary for us as blind people, is the preparation of the physical environment. So when I teach in a new classroom, I go there in advance, I scope it out. And this is part sort of grounding myself and part getting in touch with the physical environment. So I go into the class ahead of time, I take one of the seats, and I sit there and I think, “Okay, this is the perspective of the student, this is where they’re going to walk in, they’re going to take one of these seats. What’s this room like?” And that sort of helps me to ground myself, take a few minutes to breathe. And then I also kind of do the search, I kind of check around: Where’s the fire extinguisher, If there is one? Where are the windows? Where are all the exits? What is the arrangement of the seats? Do the seats move? I answer all those questions for myself. So that just like when my kids were little, I knew my physical environment so well, that whatever noise they made in the room, I knew what made that noise. That’s how my toddler survived, [LAUGHTER] ‘cause kids get into everything. So the way that I made sure that everything was safe for my toddlers was that I knew what was in my room and where it all was, so that when the kids did something, I’m like, “Oh, I understand that you are now messing with thing X.” And so we all do the same thing with our rooms, we make sure we know where the light switches are… the whole nine yards. And this is particularly necessary for us. But it’s a good idea for everyone to go take up your space, to own your space, to have your classroom kind of be your stage… more staging area than stage, I guess… so that you know what’s happening in there and that you feel very comfortable walking around in it and welcoming people into it.

Rebecca: Classrooms are so different. And if you don’t take the time to be embodied in those spaces, you can really stumble around on your first day, no matter who you are. And the technology is different, the layouts different. And then there’s always the variable of the students. So the more variables [LAUGHTER] you can be aware of before the unknown of the students comes in the better.

Emily:: I recently made the switch to teaching high school. And one thing that I got surprisingly emotional about… I did not expect to be so emotional about it… but I have my own classroom, and it’s mine. I don’t have to move. I don’t have to trade classrooms with anyone. And like you said, every classroom is different. And so as a college professor, you’re constantly a traveling teacher. You never get to settle anywhere. You have four or five classrooms for the semester. But again, If a faculty member rearranges the tables, and you walk in, you don’t know that. If the lights aren’t working to your advantage, you don’t know that till you get there. And so I remember my principal had picked out classrooms for me when I first started teaching high school and said: “I think this should be your room because it didn’t have any windows…” and I’m very light sensitive, so I want a dim lighting, I didn’t want sunlight. And she walked around and pointed to all the things that she had considered when she chose that room for me, I just started sobbing, I mean, I was so embarrassed, [LAUGHTER] you know, because that was my room. And when I walked in, I would know where everything was. And I would be able to control the lighting and she took all the outlet covers and replaced them with a contrasting color, so that I could actually find my outlets. It was huge. And I thought, “Wow, this is something that I never experienced at the college level.” There’s something very special about it being your room, and it just takes so much weight off of having to adjust every time you walk into, essentially, a classroom that you’re renting for that semester.

Sheri: Oh, that’s huge. Oh, my gosh, what a wonderful thing. I think the other thing, that if we could throw out one more thing that I think is really important from our chapter, which is for any professor who finds themselves not in the majority, is to avoid the usual advice. I think when I got started in grad school, someone said to me, “Well, you know, you’re gonna have to work four times as hard as anybody else.” And that, to some extent is true. But it doesn’t have to be as true as they say it is. Teachers already work really hard. It’s not really possible to work four times as hard as most teachers, it’s not like most teachers are sitting by the pool sipping margaritas all day long, [LAUGHTER] just like oh, I guess I’ll go teach now no big deal. That’s just not how it plays out. And so if you are a teacher with a disability, or if you’re a person of color, you know, if you’re LGBTQ, whatever your situation is, you can’t be 400% better than anybody else. And so the solution is to be just a little bit smarter, and to leverage what we already know about good pedagogy to your advantage, so that you’re not working harder, you’re working smarter.

John: So what would the first day of one of your classes be like for students in the class? One of the things I’ve been hearing a lot about recently, in some of our faculty conversations is “syllabus day.” And recently, someone even threw out this term “syllabus week,” both of which seemed like one of the worst things you could do on that first day. How do you start off your classes?

Emily:: I am guilty of syllabus day. [LAUGHTER] But I found a couple of ways to make it more interactive. So my students walk in. Usually their seats are not assigned on the first day, especially now that I’m teaching high school, I work with assigned seats, but in college you never do. I usually don’t. And there’s questions on the board designed to get them thinking about what the class is really going to be like, that maybe they might be provocative questions like, “Is there such a thing as standard English?” or “What is the emotional value of poetry?” …things that there’s not a clear right answer to which is what drives most students crazy. [LAUGHTER] And we kind of do a little introduction, and I do pass out the syllabus. Some of it is just again based on time, but if I have a nice long chunk of time I pass out the syllabus, then I make them either work alone or with a partner and come up with two questions from the syllabus or two expectations about the course. So I explain the nuts and bolts that I know they need to hear. And I also introduce my guide dog ‘cause he’s usually in the corner and they’re all looking at him anyway. [LAUGHTER] So, I introduce him, I tell them they can’t pet him or talk to him. So I crush their spirits a little bit. But then we do get into a more interactive approach to the syllabus where we will go around the room that I hear from every student an expectation about my class, like, “Oh, we’re going to write 20 page papers in here.” And then I could say, “No, we’re not.” And then I also take their questions. And what I feel that this does, instead of me just reading the syllabus, which I’m not terribly good or comfortable reading long chunks of material out loud, I feel that it makes me the authority in the world because I have all the answers. So when they have a question, are we going to write 20 page papers? I can say, “No, you’re not.” But I’m the one with that answer. And so instead of coming in and saying, “Oh, is she really my teacher?” …and for the more hostile students, “Does she qualify to be my teacher?” This makes me the clear authority in my own classroom.

Sheri: Yeah, I’m gonna agree with

Emily:. I don’t like syllabus day, but I do a couple of syllabus day things, because it’s really important for both my comfort and honestly for the comfort of my students that they feel safe with me in charge. So I do go in more on the first day than some of my colleagues do, and say, “Okay, sit yourselves down friends, this is how the class is gonna go, and this is who is in charge,” because their default is that I’m not in charge, and that someone else is going to come in and do things for me, or that they’re gonna have to take responsibility for doing things that they ordinarily would not have to do. So I agree with

Emily:. I also do a little bit of that. Here are the rules of the test. I establish how we’re going to interact, since they’re not going to raise their hands. That’s a big question that many of them have on the first day: “How are you going to know if I want to talk to you?” …and just some really basic uncertainties that they might have about me being in charge of their classroom. And so we do a bunch of that, and then I have them sit and write for five minutes. I have them make a list of everything you don’t know about language, just go. And then I put them in the groups and they compare, you know, what don’t you know? what don’t you know? and that kind of sets this class up for two things. First, this class is a safe place in that you have a real teacher. And also, we’re going to do really cool things, and you’re going to find out things that maybe you want to know.

Emily:: I would also like to add that it’s important on day one to do your best to set aside every negative experience you’ve ever had. Because most of the time, our students are not hostile. They just don’t know any better about how to treat you. So if you walk in and think “they’re all judging me and you feel defensive,” it’s the worst place you can speak from. And this applies to anyone: fat, thin, blonde, brunette, anything that you think: “Oh, my students are making fun of me, they’re judging me.” As a teacher, you have to turn that off, even if they are, [LAUGHTER] you have to turn it off. Because you can’t stand up there and maintain yourself as a teacher and feel insecure. And an example that I have is walking around the room, walking from table to table, hearing their questions about the class. A student said, “Are you blind?” I said, “Yes.” And I instantly felt embarrassed. Oh my gosh, I don’t know. It’s not always easy to be called out, even though it’s something that’s very obvious. And the student said: “oh, okay, I just wasn’t sure.” Totally neutral. I mean, the student wasn’t hostile. And at the end of class, the student came up to me and said, “I didn’t know that a blind person could be my teacher.” It’s really cool. So if we can try our best to set aside ego and to walk into this experience like, “okay, they’re gonna love me.” …like, psych yourself up a little bit, it’s gonna go better. I mean, you have the right to be in that classroom. And that’s something that you have to remember when you walk in on that first day.


Emily:, you say half the things I’m thinking, that’s really cool. And I would just add to that, that you have to absolutely have to go into it pumped and ready. And you also have to go into it, knowing your history and knowing that it could happen. So we don’t want to pretend bad experiences never happen, and we’re not ready, I’m ready for them to be hostile. So maybe I’m a little more jaded than

Emily: is. I am totally ready for them to walk out as the individual students have done on me before. But I approach it as: I know, this could happen, but I’m cool. I got this. And I also overtly tell them: I’m blind, and this is relevant to you in the following three ways. And then we just talk about it. I just talk about it. And I don’t open it up as a big let’s answer all your questions about blindness. That’s not the topic of the class, but I do present it to them and explain to them how it is going to be relevant to them in this classroom situation. And then we move on, we get on to the business of doing the cool stuff that we came here to do.

John: And when I mentioned syllabus day, I was not trying to suggest it’s a bad idea to distribute the syllabus and go over the basic ground rules. What concerns me are the people who say, well, they just go through the syllabus point by point and reading it, and it sounds like you’re each doing something much more engaging than that.

Sheri: Here’s hoping. [LAUGHTER]

Emily:: That’s the goal.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about your educational journeys as students and then now as faculty members, what has that looked like for you?

Emily:: I had an unusual educational journey, I don’t know how far back you’d like me to go. But I went to private school from K through 12. And from K through eight, I never used a cane, a white cane. And I just knew that I had low vision. And if you know anything about the blind, there’s lots of terms, but low vision is just somebody who’s not really blind, kind of have a low key… like big, thick glasses. When I made the transition to high school, I also made the transition to using a cane. My vision didn’t get any worse, but my campus was much more complicated. And so I moved from being somebody who wasn’t visibly disabled to somebody who was. And that also meant I became the target of a lot of negative attention. So high school for me, it was fun, in all the ways that high school is fun, but it was the first time that really people had made fun of my disabilities. And then I got to college, and I remember thinking college is really cool, because nobody makes fun of my disability. So I moved in these circles and it gave me a lot of things to think about in terms of my identity. And so now when I teach, I’m aware of how to respond to students who feel that there’s something shameful in the way that they’re made… in their disability, whether it’s visible or invisible. I can respond to that. I can say, “Okay, I’ve had bad experiences, and I’ve had good experiences, but I was always good in school.” I was a nerd, front-row student. And my biggest wake up call when I was teaching college was that not all students love school. I mean, I can’t believe that I have to say that out loud. Like I can’t believe I had to learn that, because I love school. So I thought everybody loves school. Not all students want to be in school. Again, I love school. And then I didn’t know what it felt like to be a C student, because I’ve never been one. And so one of my students said, “When you’re a C student, you’re ashamed to come to class, to know what you haven’t done.” And I had never thought about that before. And again, I’m a pretty empathetic person. It was a shock that I had never thought about that before. So what I have tried to do with my students is really dig into their history, because like I said, most teachers liked me. I did struggle in college with some professors who had never taught a blind kid before. So like one woman said, “Oh, I’ve never taught one of you before.” I was like, “You mean, a person?” [LAUGHTER] And she never learned my name. And she was just a weirdo. But then I had other professors who I had to constantly remind them to help me with my accommodations and things like that. I had very few teachers who just didn’t like me. And I don’t think that I’m anything special, that I’m a good student, and most most of the time we like our good students. I talked to my students about what it’s like to be somebody that your teachers don’t like, and how hard it is to ask for help when you think the teacher doesn’t like you, because now that I teach high school, I see a lot more of that, “Oh, she doesn’t like me, She doesn’t like me.” And some of my students say that about me, “She doesn’t like me.” And I have to really dig through and tell them, “I’m tough on you, but it’s not because I don’t like you. It’s just two totally separate issues.” But again, when a student has a history of being a troublemaker or problem kid, they don’t come into class wanting to be there, and they don’t know how to relate to their teacher. And so I think those are some of the things I’m still figuring out because I’m a relatively young teacher. So in a way, for me, the biggest issue academic was not my blindness, it was learning how to empathize with people at different levels of academic intelligence.

Rebecca: Thanks for sharing that story,

Emily:, something that we all need to think about. Most of us who are teachers like school.

SHEERI: …and most of us are big nerds, too.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Sheri: So I started out passionate about astronomy and physics. I was a big science fiction reader. I read goofy science books for fun. Although there weren’t very many books available to me as the blind kid. I’m fully blind, so I’ve read Braille my whole life. In the 70s, growing up in southeastern Michigan… lovely place to grow up… but it’s not a place where they expect young blind girls to go off to be astronomers. It’s not that anyone said, “Don’t be stupid, you’re not allowed,” but I could read the room. And I could tell when I started to get into higher math in high school, the hesitation that came into everyone’s voices, and the delays that came to me when I said things like, “Oh, well, I guess it’s geometry time.” Anyway, they were like “You could take geometry… we could get that book for you…” And I don’t know, it would have been different, maybe, if they’d said, “No, you can’t.” Maybe that would have created some kind of resistance in me, I would have insisted, but they never did. They were just kind of like, “Uh, you could do that, I suppose.” And being interested in adult approval as I was, I thought I can read this room, I know what it is given to me to do. So I majored in psychology. You remember those MASH episodes? I wanted it to be that…. what was his name? Sidney Friedman… the psychologist who would come out and do the big dramatic save on the traumatized soldier, and I thought, “Oh, okay, I could do that. That’d be cool.” [LAUGHTER] And I ended up in the Peace Corps, teaching English and doing some other things, and ended up in linguistics from there. And I began to see in my classrooms, I began to find students that were like me, in that they had also set aside something they were deeply passionate about. And they had also decided that they could read the room. And they’d also decided that they were going to take a different path than the thing that filled them with fire and joy. And they had shut down, or they felt the fire, but were reading in their lives messages that “You could do that if you want to.” That’s not straight up a disability thing. That’s the thing that we tell young people all the time, we tell everybody that all the time, I mean, just settle down, don’t be going all crazy on me… don’t do these wild things. And so I find so many students that have this deep longing to do something important, or to follow a specific path. And what I tell them, and I think is really true, is that if you ignore that fire, it will go out. If you don’t feed that flame in you, you’ll lose it. And that will be not only sad for you, but it will be sad for the rest of the world. So I try to think about that when I’m teaching and I find a student who’s good at something to be sure and go, “You’re really good at that. Have you thought about pursuing this as a career?” or, you know, “This doesn’t seem to be your thing, what is your thing? Tell me what your thing is.” …and try to remind them that they’re not here just to check boxes, and to grow old and then die. They’re here to really do a thing. And I don’t know what that thing is, but they secretly do. And if you sit and ask people about it, eventually they will tell you where their passion is. And sometimes it just takes a little tiny bit of work to fan that flame in students. And then they can start off on a thing that they’ve always wanted to do. And sometimes it needs to be tempered. Not everyone can drop out of school and take their guitar and travel Europe and be successful. But there’s always ways of accessing that fire that you have burning inside you. And I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to turn it around as an academic and do things that I really love, and not just things that will create a paycheck.

Rebecca: I love that. And I love thinking about ways to do that for our students.

Sheri: Yeah.

Rebecca: So Sheri, one of your research interests focuses on disability and inclusion in space exploration and astrobiology. And your publications on this topic include a Scientific American article on “The Case for Disabled Astronauts,” and you also address the impact of blindness on extra terrestrial communication and colonization. Can you tell us just a little bit about your work in this area. You’ve teased about it a bit, but it’s so interesting.

Sheri: It is so much fun. I’ll tell you the story of how I got started in this. Because I taught this xenolinguistics class a million years ago, my first year teaching at Bowling Green State University, I got a random, almost random, invitation to attend a colloquium that they were having at the Search for Extraterrestrial Institute, you know that Carl Sagan place… oh my God, it was so amazing. And that almost killed me, I was so excited, [LAUGHTER] like the excitement was almost too much from my heart to stand. And so in a desperate urge to not look foolish in front of people who knew Carl Sagan, I read frantically through the SETI literature. And I found a repeated claim in that literature, that any extraterrestrial race capable of building a telescope capable of intelligence and building a civilization, for example, would have some analogue of human visual perception. And I thought, what? Really? You can’t imagine a race of intelligent blind aliens that could build buildings and have science? What is that? And so I wrote what I thought was a really cool paper about the path of the development of science in a blind species. And it was really fun. And we talked about how, of course, they wouldn’t start with astronomy, like humans did, because I’ve never seen the stars like they couldn’t see the stars. So what would they do? And I wrote this cool paper, and I was very excited about it. And I presented it at a conference and we had this lively debate. And we argued… it was back and forth, we had so much fun. And a lot of them came around, like, “Oh, okay, we get it. Yeah, that could happen.” Blind aliens could build a telescope, blind aliens could build rocket ships and fly into space. And I felt fantastic about it. And then my paper was over. And I said, thank you, and I started walking with my cane toward the edge of the platform, which obviously, I just climbed up 45 minutes earlier, and a guy jumped up from the front row of seats, and he came running, like pelting, toward me, and he said, “let me help you down those stairs.” And I thought, “oh, no, oh, no, we have just established that blind aliens could do all these things. But you are unwilling to let a blind human walk down three padded stairs.” And I thought, “This is harder than I thought it was gonna be. It’s not like you can just present people with facts.” And they’ll go, “Oh, all those prejudices and assumptions I had, I guess I’ll just consciously set those aside now because I know better.” That’s not how it works. And so I started thinking about access to STEM fields for disabled people in general and blind people specifically. And I started working in that area. And I started thinking about, “Well, what is the ultimate goal?” For many astronomers and physicists, they all want to go to the International Space Station, don’t they? Well, can they? Well, no, right now, they really can’t. And so I started working with some folks to figure out what are those barriers, specifically? What are the accommodations that we would need to make that possible, given that if we have long-term human settlements in outer space, some of those people will become disabled while they’re there, because space is freaking dangerous and tries to kill you all the time. It’s not a safe place to live. [LAUGHTER] So disability and injury are gonna happen. We will have disabled people in space. And then what do we do about that? If they’re on the way to Mars, and people become disabled? Are we going to chuck them out the airlock? Or are we going to have constructed our environments and our policies such that those people who have acquired some disability along the way can still not only survive, but continue to be trusted and effective members of the crew. And if we’ve got that in place, you can become disabled in space and still keep your job. It’s not a big jump to maybe we need to rethink who goes to space and allow the best scientists and the best thinkers and poets or whoever we need in space to go there regardless of disability. I work with Mission:AstroAccess which sends disabled people on zero-G parabolic flights. So we all get a little taste of microgravity and we do research to see what accommodations we need there in zero gravity to be effective members of a crew. And I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard or had so much fun in my whole life.

Rebecca: …sounds like a healthy balance of both.

Sheri: Yeah, absolutely.


Emily:, on your blog, you wrote that your experiences provide a different perspective among people who are equally different. And also that the norm itself is a myth. Could you elaborate on that just a little bit?

Emily:: I think the easiest way to think about this is that often when I meet perfect strangers, they assume that I am worse off in the grocery store, Starbucks on campus, say things like they’re sorry for me, or there was a woman who said, “Well, I’m so sorry that you have a guide dog, but I’m happy you could finally find someone to love you.” I thought, wow. [LAUGHTER] I thought, whoa, whoa, I was just at the symphony. And I loved the symphony. And I wasn’t alone. So theoretically, I had found other people who love me as well.

Sheri: Oh my God.

Rebecca: Bizarre.

Emily:: But this idea that, as a disabled person, you’re automatically worse off than other people. And this is when you look into disability studies is part of it as what we call the medical model. And then part of it is what you call the symbolic model where disability some kind of curse or tragedy. And there’s a danger to saying: “Aren’t we all a little bit disabled, because many of us have needs that are not taken care of by the common desire of our society?” So for example, most of us could walk into a building without an elevator and still make it around. There are certain people who if they use a wheelchair, they wouldn’t be able to. But when I look at my group of students, most of them can. If we go to the grocery store, most of them can pick up a soup can and read it, and I can’t. So disability and disability rights are useful designations because they point to a portion of the population that is not covered by the features that we’ve already got in place. However, the fact that I have a disability does not mean that I’m automatically worse off, I’m automatically sitting in a corner thinking about how little vision I have. I remember one time, I went into a bank, and I swiped my card, and the teller congratulated me: “Good for you.” And I said, “Well, I didn’t even buy anything.” [LAUGHTER] So she said, “Well, don’t worry, honey, I run into walls all the time.” And I said, “Well, I don’t, so you might want to get that checked out.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Geez.

Emily:: So it’s the idea that my blindness is not a loss of perspective, it is certainly challenging. It is not to say that it’s not challenging, and probably the biggest challenge is dealing with people’s attitudes. And it is exhausting somedays, to be different from others in a way that is not as common. However, I’m not special because of my disability, I’m special because of who I am. My disability is part of who I am. I’m not automatically more saintly, or more insightful because of my disabilities. It’s about how we respond to the hand of cards that were dealt. And that’s kind of what I want to get at is the idea of what is normal. We have typical behavior, we have acceptable standards of behavior. But what’s normal for me might not be normal for someone else, in the sense that it doesn’t mean that my method is wrong. Something that I often feel self conscious about as if I get disoriented when I’m in a public place. Because other people might see me fumbling around and they might think, “oh my gosh, she’s not okay.” But I need that time to figure out where I am. And it’s not helpful for other people to be like, “Go to your left, go to your left.” That’s disorienting. I need to reorient and see where I am. I’ll never forget, I went into a grocery store and there was a mirror on the back of the bathroom door, which I didn’t see going in. But when I came out, or I tried to come out, I was like, “Where is the door?” I could not find it. The mirror was there. Luckily, no one was in the bathroom because I would have been so embarrassed. Because again, it does make you feel like there’s some kind of cartoon just kind of fumbling around. And finally it was like, ‘Oh, I feel hinges, okay, here’s the door. There’s a mirror on the back of the door.” That was crazy. And so I came out. I told my friends “Oh my god, I was trapped in there” and they were cracking up. But again, it’s like Sheri said about the stairs. People want to rush to help you but sometimes help is not helpful. It’s like, “Give me a minute to adjust. And then I will ask you if I still need help, for what I need help with.”


Emily: just made such a really good point. And I think one of the skills that we have learned as disabled people is to be okay with other people being uncomfortable with us, because they’re just gonna have to. If I’m in a meeting, for example, and the material is not provided to me in advance as required in our department, I will leave because I’m not going to be able to participate fully… my time is better used. I could do anything, I could go grade papers, I could go brush the cat, anything would be even more useful to me, than sitting in a meeting where the stuff is not provided, and I can’t participate. And so I was just mentioning that to someone. And she said to me, “I don’t think that’s respectful. I feel really uncomfortable when you walk out.” And I thought, “that’s too bad for you, isn’t it?” I’m sorry, that… actually I’m not sorry… but your discomfort, this cannot control what I do in my life, or where I go, or what I decide I’m going to try to achieve. Because if I… I think I can easily say we… if we allow other people’s ideas of what they’re comfortable with us doing to control us, we would be sitting in a corner doing nothing all day long. So there is a necessary element of defiance in what we do every day.

Emily:: Funny about the meeting, I have the same problem, because I require large print. I was at a meeting one time and there weren’t enough agendas. And they didn’t bring one for me in large print. So I took mine, I said, “Oh,” and I handed it to the professor who needed one, “please take mine. I can’t read it anyway, I would like someone else to be able to use it.” So you learn a little bit of theatrics to get people’s attention, because sometimes nice and respectful, doesn’t get people’s attention, and you can email them and say, “Please don’t forget my agenda.” And when they don’t have it, you can say, “Oh, I totally get it. But please still print it.” And you know, a million things can happen. So compliant and respectful. And I never want to be disrespectful. But there’s a way to say something with a smile that helps people to understand: “No, I’m at a disadvantage here because you literally didn’t print off an agenda for me.” And I’ve even told people: “Send it to me ahead of time, I’ll print it, I don’t care, I just want to be able to participate.” And so it is hard to get up and walk out. And people always assume you’ve got a bad attitude, you’ve got a bad attitude. And that’s where the exhaustion comes from. Because those are daily battles. There’s always the commercials, and they’ll say, “Oh, people who are losing their vision, will say “I can’t see the faces of my grandchildren. I can’t see a sunset. I can’t see any number of beautiful works of art.” And that’s not really what upsets me. What upsets me is when I am shut out of an experience because other people just happen to forget what I needed and there’s not anything I can do to access the things I need.

Sheri: Yeah, I agree with everything

Emily: just said, and I am willing to be disrespectful, or to be perceived as disrespectful if I’ve done my due diligence, and I’ve given it a try, and I’ve been clear and it’s not happening, I will walk out.

Rebecca: Such important reminders about our everyday experiences in rooms and spaces and with people. We really appreciate your time and attention and wonderful stories and contributions today. We want to be respectful of your time too. So we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

Emily:: I have some long term literary goals. I have this book that I’m setting it up being part of Picture a Professor, because it’s a really cool collection. And I have some poetry coming up in another collection pretty soon. For me, I recently got certified as a high school teacher. So that has been on my mind. And I haven’t had time to do much writing. So I’m really looking forward to getting back into regular poetry and having something to submit. My long term goal is a collection of essays. I have a ton of essays that I’ve written, I just want to put them all together. Definitely not a memoir, though, I have a thing about young people writing memoirs way too early. [LAUGHTER] The tentative title for my essay collection is something that a waitress said to me at a restaurant when I was trying to read the menu that was too small. And she said, “Oh, she’s smelling the menu. That’s interesting.” And I said, “I’m not smelling the menu.” So,my mom always said you should call it “No, I am not smelling the menu and other essays.” [LAUGHTER] Long term goal would be an essay collection and then I have a poetry chapbook which is very small, and I would like to put together a full length collection of poetry as well.

Rebecca: Awesome. Lots of wonderful things there. How about you Sheri?

Sheri: I am delighted to be able to say finally publicly that I’ve accepted the position of the Baruch Blumberg Chair in astrobiology, which is a six-month residency at the Library of Congress, funded by NASA. And I’ll be doing that for the first part of 2023, during which time, I’ll be working on all kinds of things related to disability in space, including writing a book about our first zero-G parabolic flight, sort of how that came together. I’ve also applied to fly on our November flight. So hopefully I’ll get my second zero-G experience. And if not, then it’s also fine because then I can play ground crew which is fascinating work. So that is my immediate plan, to go to Washington DC for six months and immerse myself in the Library of Congress and NASA and spend time writing and meeting fascinating and interesting people.

Rebecca: Sounds really cool for both of you.

John: Thank you. It’s been great talking to you and we look forward to sharing this episode with our listeners.

Sheri: Thank you so 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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


245. Higher Ed’s Next Chapter

During the past two years, faculty have experimented with new teaching modalities and new teaching techniques as we adapted to the COVID pandemic. In this episode, Kevin Gannon joins us to reflect on what we have learned during these experiences and what we are in danger of forgetting. Kevin is a history professor who has recently accepted a new position as the incoming director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is also the author of Radical Hope, a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press.

Show Notes

  • Gannon, K.M. (2020). Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press.
  • Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.
  • Whiteside, A. L. (2015). Introducing the social presence model to explore online and blended learning experiences. Online Learning, 19(2), n2.
  • Lewis, S., Whiteside, A. L., & Dikkers, A. G. (2014). Autonomy and responsibility: Online learning as a solution for at-risk high school students. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education/Revue internationale du e-learning et la formation à distance, 29(2).
  • Whiteside, Aimee, Amy Garrett Dikkers, and Karen Swan, eds (2017). Social Presence in Online Learning: Multiple Perspectives on Practice and Research. Stylus Press.
  • Cate Denial, Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, and Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt. (2022). “After the Great Pivot Should Come the Great Pause.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 25.
  • Mays Imad. (2021), “Transcending Adversity: Trauma-Informed Educational Development.” To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development. (39(3).
  • Hanstedt, P. (2018). Creating wicked students: Designing courses for a complex world. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Hidden Brain Podcast.(2022). “Do Less.” June 6.
  • Leidy Klotz. (2021) Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. MacMillan.
  • Betsy Barre (2021). Student Workload. Tea for Teaching podcast. April 14.


During the past two years, faculty have experimented with new teaching modalities and new teaching techniques as we adapted to the COVID pandemic. In this episode, we reflect on what we have learned during these experiences and what we are in danger of forgetting.


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…

…and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Our guest today is Kevin Gannon. Kevin is a history professor who has recently accepted a new position as the incoming director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is also the author of Radical Hope, a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Welcome back, Kevin.

Kevin: Great to be here with you both again.

And we just saw you a couple of weeks ago when you provided a closing keynote address at the SUNY CIT conference. It’s nice to have a chance to talk to you a little bit more.

Kevin: Yeah, it was great to be up there with you all in Oswego and I miss the Oswego weather now that I am here where it is 100 degrees outsideinf Des Moines right now.

Rebecca: That’s a little toasty.

Kevin: Yeah, it was not what I ordered, that’s for sure.

Rebecca: So dare I ask, what our teas for today are? So today’s teas are… Kevin, are you drinking tea?

Kevin: I am actually drinking a Diet Coke. Usually about midday, I moved to the cold and bubbly caffeine. So we have made that transition.

Rebecca: Cold seems necessary based on just the temperature outside.

Kevin: Indeed. [LAUGHTER]

And I am drinking a wild blueberry black tea from the Republic of Tea in a new mug that our graduate student at the teaching center had given us just a couple of weeks ago, as a thank you for working with us. And I don’t know why she was thanking us… she made it so much easier over the past year.

Rebecca: Yeah, big shout out to Anna Croyle for all her hard work on the podcast over the last year. And I’m drinking… is it Ceylon? How do you even say that? Ceylon tea?

Kevin: That’s how I’ve always said it. So if it’s wrong, I’ve been wrong. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Me too. It’s one of those where you read mostly and not say out loud. [LAUGHTER]

So we invited you here to talk a little bit about where higher education is going. You talked a little bit about that in the closing keynote address here and we thought it would be nice to get your opinion on the lessons that we’ve learned from the pandemic and where you see higher education as going, or where it should go, over the next few years.

Rebecca: Yeah, those might be two really different things. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Right. And I think that’s maybe where a lot of the stress and the angst comes from… that we’ve identified some places that a lot of us think higher education should go or at least a direction or a set of clear directions in which it should head. But we’re not at all certain that that’s actually how it’s gonna play out. And that dissonance between those two things can be unsettling. And I think that, at least from my perspective, that’s where a lot of the kind of stress and anxiety looking forward in higher education is coming from. And we’re obviously coming out, and not even completely out, but sort of coming out of one chapter and into a new chapter and landscape that’s been fundamentally reshaped by COVID, by pandemic pedagogy, and as a sort of immediate context. But of course, all of that unfolding in the larger context of defunding higher education and the sort of slow motion societal collapse that we find ourselves in as well. And I think there’s a lot that’s been laid bare by that. There’s a lot that I think folks sort of knew about intellectually, or were willing to sort of name but now feel much more viscerally and real and immediately, but we’re also really, really tired [LAUGHTER] and stretched thin. What’s the line that Bilbo Baggins says in The Lord of the Rings… “like butter that’s been scraped over too much toast.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s exactly it, right.

Kevin: Right? And I think that’s where a lot of us, if not all of us, are in some way or another. And so of course, just as we know when we talk about student learning and cognition, the less cognitive bandwidth we have available to do these sorts of complex tasks, the harder those things are. And I think on a macro scale in higher ed, I think that’s where we find ourselves too, facing some of our most difficult problems with less bandwidth available to address them than ever before.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s kind of funny, less bandwidth, but a lot of momentum and a lot of phase two.

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: It doesn’t always line up.

Kevin: Right? Like the cars going really fast over the cliff, but we can’t steer it. It feels like, and that’s not…

Rebecca: Yeah.

Kevin: …not a comfortable place to sit.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the things that we’ve learned in higher ed during the pandemic?

Kevin: This is a conversation that could, of course, go on forever. But I think one of the things that we learned, that’s central to so much of what we’re trying to figure out now is just how much learning or teaching and learning are social endeavors, are community endeavors. And that’s not to say that they have to be done in the same physical space at the same synchronous time, but that sociality, a sense of community, are vital to any sort of meaningful learning. And of course, we’d learned that mostly in the absence of those thing with the shift to emergency remote instruction and then the ways in which what we were trying to do and COVID either partially or completely shut places down was so attenuated, and for folks who didn’t have a lot of experience in online teaching and for students who didn’t have a lot of experience of being online learners, we lost that community piece, that sociality. It became a series of sort of atomized, fragmented, maybe conversations, but not even really that. I think a lot of what ended up happening was instructors sort of broadcasting things out, like we would send out radio signals in the hopes that some alien civilization would pick up on them, and maybe they’ll land somewhere. And I think that’s how a lot of us felt by a good year or so into this thing. And so I think what we’ve realized now is that, yeah, we lost something really meaningful. We did the best we could speaking broadly. And moving all of higher ed online in about two weeks, that’s not something that we should scoff att. But we also risk permanently embedding some of the things that really frustrated us during that pandemic period, if we’re not attentive to addressing those things now. So I think everything else that we need to, I guess “everything’s” probably too broad a word, but so much else that what we need to address in higher ed springs from that fundamental reality about sociality and community. And in particular, the difficulty of trying to do what it is that we do, either personally, or institutionally, when those things are missing.

We had that initial period where everyone moved to remote instruction for a while. And then even when we came back, it was to classrooms with a lot of distance separating people, and with masks and, in general, a lot of barriers that were not there before. And it’s been quite a bit of a challenge. I think we’ve all tried many things to build community in whatever modality or whatever mix of modalities we’ve happened to be teaching in. What are some strategies that we can use to build communities more effectively in our classes?

Kevin: So I think one of the things that I’m really interested in now, and something I think offers a lot of promise, and I actually talked about this in the talk that I gave when I was with you at Oswego, was the research that we have from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in the online world, and in particular, the sort of very venerable community of inquiry model, but in particular, the work that’s been done on social presence as a key part of that, so building social presence on the part of both instructors and learners in an online class. And it seems to me that the insights that underlay the idea of social presence for fully remote asynchronous learning, apply very well in pretty much any teaching and learning space we find ourselves in, either online or on-ground, synchronous, hybrid, or asynchronous. And in particular, I’m really indebted to the work of Amiee Whiteside and her colleagues who talk about what are the components that underlay a meaningful social presence, that is, social presence in the sense of to what degree are the people that are in the space recognized by one another as full human beings, not just avatars or not just user names on a discussion board thread? And one of the most important things that underlays this social presence is what Whiteside and her colleagues called interaction intensity. One of the problems that we had in trying to do pandemic pedagogy was like, “Oh, we’ll do discussion boards,” “oh, our students will be ‘communicating.’ they’ll be talking with one another.” But if you’ve ever taught online, you know that it’s very easy for these sorts of discussion board assignments to become very sort of pro forma empty exercises, respond to a classmate, put two comments here, and students resent them almost as much as we resent having to read them [LAUGHTER] as instructors. So those are interactions, but they’re not what Whiteside and her colleagues would say are appropriately intense interactions. That is I’m not expending a whole lot of cognitive or emotional or socially present labor to engage in those sorts of interactions. And so they’re not really accomplishing what they’re supposed to in that we say discussions help build community in a class. Well, not if they’re designed in a way that doesn’t prompt this idea of interaction intensity. So what are the interactions, whether it’s between individual learners, whether it’s between the instructor and students, or whether it’s between students and the particular course material or ideas that you’re addressing? And whatever online or in-person space this is, what are those interactions like and how intense are they? What kind of cognitive labor are we asking students to do? How are we asking students to invest effort, motivation, and the sort of cognitive lifting to do what we would call higher-order tasks of analysis, of synthesis, of creation, as opposed to just sort of rote memorization or regurgitation? And so that’s one example of what I think is a broader thing that we need to be paying attention to is how are we cultivating all across our higher educational spaces, how are we cultivating that type of interaction intensity, that meaningful work to connect and to engage? Because as any faculty member will tell you, other than money, the other two resources that are the most scarce for us are time and energy or emotional energy, and I think the same is true for our students. So if we’re asking our students to contribute both time and emotional labor to a class, we need to make sure that it’s worth it. There needs to be, and I hate to use the capitalist metaphor, but what return on that investment are students getting? Because that’s going to be the calculus by which they allocate energy and prioritization to the various paths that all of their instructors are asking them to do. And so what social presence research and in particular, this emphasis on interaction intensity, has us think about is what are we asking our students to do? How are we asking them to do it? And is it worth it? What is the return for that? In that sense, it’s us making a promise to students that these are meaningful tasks that we’re asking you to engage in, that go toward your accomplishment of the learning goals for this course, and the overall goal of making this course a meaningful space. So we’re not going to waste your time with stuff that isn’t contributing to that. And so I think being really intentional and informed by a scholarship that’s already out there, in many ways, is going to be of enormous assistance to us moving forward.

Rebecca: One thing that I’ve heard a lot of instructors talk about over the past year is this big gap between students who are really achieving and those that just aren’t, they’re not able to, and maybe a lot of that’s tied to mental health and other things, perhaps, but we don’t necessarily know. But a lot of faculty have talked about this, like big gap, like there’s a hole in the middle. What strategies can we think about institutionally and individually as instructors as we move into the fall to make sure that students aren’t just completely left behind or never get to finish their education or barely begin it?

Kevin: So on the personal level, I think anything that we can do to humanize our instruction. And again, no matter what space we’re in, how are we making these spaces human spaces, spaces for actual human beings and not just brains on sticks, so paying attention to what are the affective dimensions of our courses. Are our courses and our learning spaces welcoming spaces, inclusive spaces, the old idea of seeing courses as a barrier or a weed out space, it was never tenable, but it’s clearly untenable now. But one of the things I worry about is, we’re not going, I don’t think, be able to pedagogy our way out of all of this individually. And I worry that the emphasis might be so much on “here are things that you can do in your individual classrooms, which are great and wonderful,” and we need to be doing them. But they’re not going to fix everything, because these are systemic problems. And so systemic problems demand systemic solutions. And so this is where we have to be thinking institutionally, what kind of resources are we allocating to and for students, and it’s going to be everything, I think, from additional academic support, supplemental instruction, emergency grants, food security, all of these things that are going to have to be in place, and a lot of schools are sort of doing or at least making gestures at doing, but we need to be thinking a lot more systematically and strategically about doing those things. And we also need to be advocating in the communities of which our institutions are apart, because we’re not separated from them. We don’t exist in a vacuum. And the barriers that are in front of many of our students are barriers that come from these larger systems of inequity and deprivation that they are coming out of, and then entering our campus spaces already having their experiences shaped by those things. And of course, we know those barriers don’t exist in any sort of equitable way at all. So this is institutional, systematic work. And I worry that in, again, not post COVID, but in this next chapter, are institutional leaders going to be so nervous about their own institutions’ survival, that they’re scared to take on what for some of them might look like social justice oriented type of work? Is that going to be seen as too political or too activist? And are we going to damage our ability to attract funding? Or are we going to get the wrong kind of attention. And I think ethically, that’s a disastrous way to go about it. But I also think practically, that is a non-starter as well. Schools that run scared from these sorts of things in the next couple of years, are schools that I don’t think will survive.

We often talk about humanizing, or creating a more human presence. And we often talk about that in terms of just humanizing the professor. Would it help if we also focus a little bit more on bringing the students’ humanity and their lived experience into the class because maybe one way of bringing students back in is by helping students connect their own lives and their hopes for the future with what you’re doing in their classes. I think everyone advocates that to some extent, but might there be some ways of using that to help reach out to those disengaged students that Rebecca was mentioning?

Kevin: What a radical concept, recognizing students as actual human beings. Crazy talk, right? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation.

Kevin: But I think what this underscores is that I just said we’re not going to pedagogy our way out of all of these problems. But having said that, and put in that caveat, I think systematic and intentional attention to our pedagogy ,that is what’s the larger sort of philosophical lenses through which we’re looking to view our work? John, you get right at the heart of that question. How do we see our students? Because our students know what we think of them, even probably better than we know what we think of them, sometimes. What we do, the choices we make, the ways in which we engage or not engage with our students send very clear signals to them. And so I think one of the things that is super important for instructors to be doing in this moment is thinking very intentionally about how am I with my students. And so if we’re going to talk about social presence, in what ways am I present? What does that present look like to others? And can my students trust me? Do my students think that I trust them? What am I saying to my students, and all of the sort of broad ways, textual and otherwise? What am I telling them that I think about them? What am I saying about the reasons that they should be taking this class? What is this class going to do for them? So absolutely, being more attentive to the full and complex nature of the students who are sharing this space with us. I mean, we’ve always known that that is a good pedagogical thing to do. We’ve always known that that helps increase, for example, students’ motivation and interest in a class, which leads to more meaningful learning. But I just think ethically, at this point to0, students are our allies, students want what we want, they want our institutions to successfully fulfill the promises that we’ve made. Students may not define successful in the way that we might define it for them, or that may look different depending on where they are in their particular journey in our institutions. But we want the same outcomes. We want that success. And so recognizing that commonality and inviting students to help do that work with us, as opposed to either passively off to the side or in opposition to us, seems like a much better strategy going forward. And so some of that conversation, I think, in the coming year, you know, maybe there’s a sort of a back to the basics kind of nuts and bolts emphasis on just good effective pedagogical technique for humanizing instruction. When Ken Bain talks about the promising syllabus, boom, there’s a way to frame the sort of formal statement of the class, the first formal context some of our students may have with the class. When we talk about creating a good climate for discussion, collaborative expectation setting, you know, what are we doing for tone setting the first day of class, all of these sorts of bread and butter, nuts and boltsy kind of things are well worth revisiting and thinking about systematically in ways that we might not have been able to do the past couple years quite frankly,

Rebecca: I know one of the things that your talk had me thinking about Kevin is all the ways that we need to humanize all the other spaces on our campus and all the processes that feel like checking this box, go through this door, shove around that corner, go to that office, oh nope, you got to go to that office. Nope, just kidding. It’s this other office. Processes that aren’t streamlined or with the student experience in mind, maybe they work for the administrative shuffle that might have to happen, but not always thinking about the student as the human that needs to experience the process also. So that’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about is ways that maybe the social presence idea needs to take form in other places outside of the classroom as well,

Kevin: Absolutely. Because if it doesn’t, what students are getting is one space on campus that is attentive to these things. And then a whole bunch of other spaces on campus that are not, and that dissonance is going to be more telling to students than anything else. So yeah, we’re talking culture change, institutional culture change, which again, may seem like a really heavy lift, given everything. But I don’t think it’s so much additional work as it is a way to focus what we’re already doing to make it more intentional and meaningful, like bringing a coherence to the things that we’re doing anyway, or should be doing anyway, I think that’s the way to approach this kind of work. So one suggestion I always offer to folks on campus on the student services side and the administration side: do a communications audit. How are you communicating? Like, what are the literal examples of the reminder emails you send to students to pay their bill, to register, to drop by the drop date… you know, all this administrative stuff that we bombard students with… read those communications with an eye towards tone, with an eye towards that kind of, I hate to use the phrase but the customer service aspect of this? Because oftentimes what we find is that a bulk of the communication that we’re doing with students, that kind of routine, everyday communication is carrying a very impersonal, almost adversarial, stance that feels punitive, as opposed to supportive. And even if we don’t mean it that way, if that’s our regular constant mode of communication with students, then what are we doing? And what are the consequences of that? Yeah, absolutely. All across campus, as I said in the talk, and as I firmly believe all of our campuses are teaching and learning spaces. Our students are always learning no matter where they are. And so the question we should all have whatever unit or office we’re in is, “Well, what are we teaching and how are we teaching it?” And I think answering those questions in an honest and systematic way can go a long way towards doing that sort of culture change work that I have in mind.

At that conference we mentioned earlier, one of the things that came up in discussion is how some of our campus offices are named, which ties into that communication issue. We have a “Registrar’s” office, and we have a “Bursar,” those are not things that make sense to people, unless they’ve already had some experience with college and maybe simply renaming offices in ways that make sense to students and their role in the university could help a little bit [LAUGHTER] with some of those issues.

Kevin: Absolutely. And, you know, we should be able to answer the question, why would a student need to go to this place? Is the answer to that self evident? If I’m a student, why would I want to go to the registrar’s office? If I don’t know the answer to that right off the bat, that’s an institutional problem. So again, whether it’s the name of the office, or the way in which the services that they offer are communicated to students, there’s a lot of work that we can do as institutions to do this better. As you mentioned, John, some students are going to be familiar with those terms, who come from families where they’re not the first in their family to go to college, for example. So a lot of times the way our campus environments, in terms of the actual workflow of doing business, a lot of times the way that our campus environments are laid out rewards cultural capital, and, as a result, exacerbates the already existing inequities that we see.

Rebecca: I think one thing that students often complain about too, is the sheer quantity of communication, and trying to sort through it all, and when they’re already overwhelmed. And you mentioned before about having to make choices of where to prioritize time and effort and energy and emotional labor. And so sometimes it’s not on email, I sometimes feel that way as well.

Kevin: Yeah, I was about to say… absolutely.

Rebecca: So not only the quantity of what goes out, but also maybe more than one way to get that information.

Kevin: The institution that I’m at now, before I take my new position, has moved some of that communication into text messaging that students can opt in, and I think if students are able to opt in or something like that, that’s great. But I think, to your larger point, so many times individual units are communicating with students without any awareness of what other units are doing, too, which leads to all of us getting carpet bombed by emails. And so one way out of that, again, if you’re thinking about doing this sort of communication audit is compare your results. How many times a week are you communicating with students? And in what ways are you doing that? And might there be ways that you could partner up or collaborate across the unit, so you’re not redundant. And I think sometimes what we might find in institutions is that we’re actually communicating to students at cross purposes with one another, or at least tacitly undermining some of the messages that we might be sending to them. But yeah, when we complain that students don’t ever check their email, like I have a Google account where I sign up for something, or I join a fantasy football league, I use that address, because that’s where all the spam goes. And if I open that inbox, I just look at all the stuff that’s there, and I’m like, “Nope, I’m not even going to deal with that.” So if that’s our student’s university email inbox, with all the stuff that they’re just getting bombarded with from various campus units, I imagine that largely the same thought process is occurring there. And that maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re not checking their email, because we’ve made it much more complex and less, I don’t want to say fun, but a much more onerous process for students to wade through that stuff. And again, this may sound like a simple how big of a deal is email really, right. But it’s like the accumulation of all of these things. And I think that we, as faculty and staff felt this over COVID to, like I can’t do one more email right now, in the objective scheme of things. A 30-second reply to an email is not that big of a deal, but I’m looking at it like I gotta roll this boulder all the way up the mountain and I’m not going to do that. So being attentive to that and being mindful about that, even seemingly esoteric point, I think can make a significant difference.

We talked a little bit about some of the lessons that we’ve learned and things that we might want to take forward. Are there some things that we learned early in the pandemic, that we might be in danger of forgetting as we move forward into what seems like a return to something resembling, I hate to use the word normalcy, but as we move back to more on-site instruction.

Kevin: I think we’re in danger of losing a number of insights that are really hard won insights that we should not lose, that I think it would be a disaster, in fact, if we’d lost. So one of them, I think, is the discovery very shortly into this sort of shift and the pandemic pedagogy, that flexibility and compassion are much more effective than they have perhaps been given credit for across most quarters of higher ed. And again, that’s not to say that from here on forward, we all sit around in a circle and sing Kumbaya, but rather the idea that you can ask students to do really hard things, you could do what people would call rigorous education, but you can’t do it in a space where students feel that the adverse consequences of taking a risk and not succeeding outweigh the benefits of taking a risk and succeeding. I don’t know if that was the most coherent way… but the risk-reward analysis… if students are in a learning space that they see as rigid, as inflexible, as one that is not compassionate, where’s the motivation to do the really hard stuff, the risk taking that we know underlays successful learning in higher education. And so I worry that there’s this rush to “get back to normal,” back when deadlines were deadlines, and not all this mushy crap. If we just rushed to reimpose all that structure, without attention to the shortcomings of those structures, without sufficient attention to were those structures actually facilitating learning or acting as barriers to learning. I fear that we’ll lose that in the rush to sort of reimpose structure on what many folks have seen as a structure-less environment over the last couple of years. I think that it’s entirely possible the pendulum may swing too far back. I’m also deeply concerned that, on the administrative institutional strategy side, that we will lose sight and lose the urgency of the attentiveness to the humanity and well being of not just students, but faculty and staff, just because things might be getting “back to normal.” That next academic year, things will look at least superficially like they did before COVID, full classes, mostly in person and all that kind of stuff. It will be very easy to say that, “Oh, we made it past all of that and things are good now” …without reckoning with the fact that the faculty and staff are absolutely depleted by the last few years. And you can’t just all of a sudden return, “Oh, let’s do all sorts of new strategic things. And let’s do this. It’s business as usual.” I know university administrators are loath to say “this year, we’re not going to do anything new.” Because that sounds like a surrender. But what I would say is, this year use the year to refocus on sustainability and effective mission-driven work. And you can’t do that if you’re starting to pile all this other stuff on. And yes, it’s easy for me to say because I’m not a provost. And I’m not a president, but provosts and presidents right now who are not attentive to how little capacity the faculty and staff have right now are courting disaster for themselves and for their institution, and I think, ethically, are failing as leaders as well, and so I worry deeply. And in the United States, the way we wrestle with our history is often to pretend bad things never happen. And I feel like that’s in danger of happening here. Like, oh, COVID was awful. And man, pandemic pedagogy sucked, but we made it through. And now we’re just going to soldier on as if it never happened. We don’t want to think about this bad time that we had this negative messy thing. I’m not saying that we have to sit in the misery and despair of a global pandemic. But what I am saying is if we’re not remembering what that was like, and how that has changed people, then we are going to fail the people that we work with, or that work for us in our community. And to me, that’s a real threat right now. And I worry a lot about the sort of what I see is kind of a general refusal to recognize that faculty and staff capacity, which was already attenuated pre-COVID. Let’s not get that twisted. But where we are now is a real dangerous point, and becomes even more dangerous, because there’s this illusion of normalcy, that people are laying back over the situation that’s covering up some really dangerous faultlines right now. And I worry a lot about that. That, to me, I think, is probably the most urgent and dangerous lesson that we are are potentially forgetting.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: My new position is going to ask me to do a lot of leadership development with my new faculty colleagues. And so I’m dipping back into a lot of the literature on institutional level leadership and governance. And it’s fascinating and interesting, and it’s a new set of problems to solve. But it also, really, I think, just sort of drove home to me again, just how much higher ed leadership sometimes is like capitalism in general, like, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. If we don’t have a 5% growth in the GDP, than our economy is dead. But can you keep growing like that? Is that sustainable? And what are the costs of that? And so this coming year, if institutions are saying, hey, let’s do this new strategic initiative, on top of everything else… like yes, I see how there’s a sort of culture of higher ed leadership that places a real premium on these things, and also a stigma of if you’re not innovating, you’re dying, or you’re withering on the vine, but Cate Denial and Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, and I think there was one other co-author, wrote a really good piece in The Chronicle, and they call it for the great pause in higher education. That’s anathema, I think, to a lot of institutional leadership, but I think it’s obligatory this year. For example, if you’re in an institution where you’re already trying to recover from an enrollment dip over the last couple of years and your faculty’s burnt out, because you’ve been teaching HyFlex and remote teaching and faculty have been doing that for two years, and many of them have never done it before, so of course, the capacity to continue to do that is depleted even further. If you’re an institution that’s gone through all of those things, and is experiencing now the faculty and staff attrition that those things bring as well and then you decide”, oh, here’s a couple really big ticket strategic items that we’re gonna do for the upcoming academic year,” like, really, is that what you want to do right now, in this moment? Make a major shift to academic programs, or we’re not going to offer three- credit classes, we’re going to do four-credit classes now? Really, that’s what you want to do this coming year, in this moment, that’s a priority. And of course, that example is completely hypothetical, he chuckled. But that’s the sort of decision making process that really worries me, because I just can’t see it ending well, and I can’t see it doing anything but harm in a setting and among a community that cannot handle any more harm.

Rebecca: Yeah, I really appreciate that focus on sustainable work, sustainable systems, sustainable procedures, sustainable everything.

Kevin: Yeah, we’re not going to wellness app our way out of this.

Rebecca:I don’t think a wellness app is going to solve the fact that my daughter has been in 11 quarantines, and I’ve had to figure out how to manage all that. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think that’s gonna work.

Kevin: Mays Imad has written a lot about the collective trauma that we have all undergone as a result of COVID. And I think she’s spot on. And whether it was something that people felt directly or whether it’s the constant disruption, Rebecca, that you’ve been subjected to and your family has been subjected to, or even if it’s just the sort of I have seen all this other trauma unfold in my community, and in my friends, we’re all affected by that and to act as if that hasn’t been a thing, and to say, yes, we need to pay attention to self care this year, self care will be really important, and there are a lot of good wellness apps that you can download for your smartphone or tablet that will help you with this. Like, if that’s all you got, then what are you doing? if that’s what you tell your faculty and just sort of assume that they can pick up the rest from there. And you sit back and say, “Well, I’ve done my duty.” Oh, my gosh, no, not at all. But yet, that’s what’s happened in a lot of places. And that’s what worries me. There’s so much that’s tenuous right now, and so much feels unsettled and raw still. And there’s a sharp edge to so much of the exhaustion, that I worry about irrevocable consequences that come from trying to whistle past the graveyard about all this… which is super optimistic. I know, the guy who wrote a book on hope is talking about the impending collapse of higher education. But again, the things that we say we do in higher education, we’re critical thinkers, we’re sharp people, the capacity to reason our way through these problems. There’s so much capacity in our institutions and leaders of institutions who are not able to draw upon that collective capacity are failing their communities and their institutions. If any place is going to have the tools to work through some of these… Paul Hanstedt calls them the “wicked problems” that we face, right, if any institutions gotta have that, it’s got to be colleges and universities. Will we pick up the tool, though, is the question.

Rebecca: Yeah, the key is, is the collective, bringing the right people to the table and asking folks what they need? And what would help and figuring it out together

…without additional meetings, because that could push some people pass the breaking point, I think.

Kevin: Well, we need to ask what labor are we asking folks to do? Because in order to get through the next year, and in order to redress the problems that we face, there’s some other stuff that’s going to have to go. And so a successful leader, whether it’s a department chair all the way up to a university president are going to be able to answer that question: What is it that we’re going to let go right now to give people the capacity to untie these really complex knots that we’re going to be working on this year,

I’ve seen several podcasts recently, I’m trying to remember the name of the person who was interviewed. One was recently on Hidden Brain, but I’ve seen it on others as well, about the power of subtraction, that we always look at things to add a patch on to fix something which involves doing more and sometimes the most effective solution is to trim out some things or reduce some of the other things that we’re doing that perhaps don’t need to be done in the same way. There may be some ways of simplifying our work and perhaps cutting out some of the things that seem duplicative and focusing on the things that are really essential for the institution and also maybe in our classes, trimming out some of those extra things we keep adding in as we try new techniques. And often we add to the cognitive load facing our students making it sometimes perhaps a bit too challenging as we tried to modify things. We talked to Betsy Barre a while back about that as one of the challenges that a lot of students face during a pandemic, because faculty started learning about evidence-based teaching methods, focusing on retrieval practice lots of low stakes tests, and actually increasing student workloads quite a bit because we’re now requiring students to do the work that we always hoped they did or we always wished that they had done,

Rebecca: dreamed, dreamed… [LAUGHTER]

…imagined they had done.

Kevin: Right.

So yeah, I think that applies in many areas. It may apply in our own classes, it applies to administrators, and I think in our lives in general.

Kevin: Well, that’s another area where some of the scholarship we have about effective online teaching and learning helps us. And here I’m thinking of the work that’s been done on literacy load, how much text do we ask students to read in an online class as opposed to a face-to-face class? And of course, the answer is, if we’re not careful, a hell of a lot more. And of course, what are the effects of that, this increased literacy load? And so what is the broader equivalent of a literacy load? What’s the load that we’re putting on our students right now. again, we have tools that we can use to think about this in a critical way, to address this in a reflective and intentional way. But individually, or class by class isn’t going to cut it again, systemically. What can we subtract? It’s okay to not do all the things. I mean, we’re not doing all the things anyway, we’re just being honest about it. [LAUGHTER] This is what it comes down to.

Rebecca: Yeah, we have to think about our own cognitive load and cognitive lifts as well, not just the cognitive lift of students and the work that they’re doing. There’s work involved with implementing all kinds of things in our classes and stacking them on top of each other and [LAUGHTER] managing that too.

Kevin: Well, and I think that there’s something to that when we look at some of the things that have bedeviled us about student choices and strategies that may not have been effective for students. And this is beyond my expertise. And I don’t know if there’s been research done in it. But my own intuitive sense is, and I’ve experienced this, over the past two and a half years, I’ve been so immersed in the sorts of big ticket really complex things like “Hey, train all your faculty colleagues how to do HyFlex instruction, teach HyFlex courses yourself, do all these things,” that where I dropped the ball was like routine email. I had emails I would just forget to reply. I had a date-sensitive reply for a speaking engagement and I literally forgot to reply. And they were just like, “Well, sorry, we’re not going to bring you to campus anymore. We didn’t hear from you.” And I’m like, “Oh, my God, I totally ghosted this guy.” But I would see the email or occasionally remember, and then my mind was like, “Nope.” And so what happened, I think, was all of my cognitive bandwidth was taken up with so many of these things over here, and then like, basically tried to exist in everything that’s happening in our society, and what could not fit, what I literally had no ability to do, was put things on my Outlook calendar correctly, [LAUGHTER] and reply to routine emails. And I was horrible at it. And I still kind of am, to be honest. And those were not things that were true to that degree before COVID. And so I wonder when we look at students now like, “Why don’t they read the syllabus?” …maybe that’s where that bandwidth depletion is manifesting. I’m sure there’s research on this, I’m sure the psychologists can tell us a lot more than I am sort of incoherently jabbing out right now. But I wonder if going forward that we’re going to be seeing a lot of this, this sort of routine, mundane, seemingly small things, but that add up to a real cumulative weight that can really provide significant barriers in the way of student learning, or in the way of our own effectiveness as teachers and colleagues.

I’ve seen a lot of that myself this year. And if it wasn’t for Google sending me a reminder saying you have not replied to this email from three days ago, or you have sent this and you have not yet received a reply from this person, do you want to send a reminder. If it weren’t for those reminders, I would have missed so much more than I actually did. And that was not generally an issue before the pandemic. And I think part of it is, you mentioned this transition to HyFlex or bichronous or the various modes that we’ve used to connect to students both in the classroom and remotely. It’s a lot more work in many ways doing this. Where do you see that as going? Do you think we will be doing as much of this sort of mixed mode instruction where some students are in person and some students are remote? Or do you think we’ll move back to something a little bit more traditional?

Kevin: That’s the million dollar question right now. And I think that’s something a lot of institutions are wrestling with. I think you have some institutions where you might have administrators who are saying, “Yeah, we’re gonna keep doing HyFlex in certain selected areas, because it’s worked really well. And you have some programs and some disciplines for which that’s an ideal sort of solution. And here, I’m thinking of advanced undergrad and graduate programs in particular. And then you have some places that are like, “Yeah, we’re gonna keep doing these things because students have told us they want to be flexible, but they don’t really know what that looks like and they haven’t communicated that effectively and their faculty is like, “Oh, my God, please don’t ask us to do this.” And I think a lot of institutions are kind of in that space, that there’s this sense that “okay, we’re going to be doing some of this going forward, but we don’t know what that looks like and we don’t know quite how that’s going to happen…” which is, of course, a really stressful place to be for everybody involved, and I think underscores the urgent need for collaboration and communication in ways that we haven’t often done well in institutions even prior to COVID. I think too, as I said in the talk that I gave up at Oswego a couple of weeks ago too, learning has always been hybrid. And I think coming to terms with what that really means, in combination with the expanded set of tools and skills that a lot of us picked up during the last two years, hybridity is going to mean something different going forward than it has up to this point. But that, in some ways, is a difference of scale as opposed to actual nature. I think we have a lot more preparation as instructors for that than we realize. But using that awareness and that preparation and those skills intentionally in an environment that helped us do that, is going to be what’s really important. I think it would be a mistake to say that “Oh, students loved all the convenience of online and hybrid. So we’re going to offer every one of our classes multimodal or HyFlex or if you’re traveling for any reason, just Zoom into class, and we’ll all of us will still use it. Like that’s a mistake. That gets into that territory, where if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything’s a nail. There’s no one size fits all solution. But I think one of the things that we did learn during COVID Is that we did a lot of what I call micro adaption. At my own institution, we were teaching HyFlex, but a lot of our instructors made all sorts of micro adaptions within that modality depending on the nature of their class, who the students were, what the contextual needs were. And I think that those are the things that offer really rich opportunities for us to learn from going forward. But again, what that requires is faculty voice, and not just our full-time faculty, all of our faculty, and in particular, our adjunct and part-time colleagues who are teaching the large-enrollment 100 level courses, who experienced the whole continuum of these things. It’s those voices that have to be at the table when we have these institutional conversations about what does hybridity look like for us, for our institution, for our community, for our faculty, for our students, and for our mission, because that answer is going to be different depending upon the place.

Rebecca: As we wrap up our conversation, I want to ask, what are you hopeful about, Kevin?

Kevin: I am hopeful that we actually are able to untie a lot of these knots. The collective capacity within higher education to solve seemingly intractable problems is there. What I’m hopeful is that we figure out and I say we, especially for those of us who have at least semi-administrative or leadership position, that we are able to figure out how to honor that capacity and to affirm the colleagues who have that capacity and enable them to do the work in ways that are sustainable and not self destructive, which again, is another one of those really complicated knots that it’s hard to untie. But I think the capacity, and the willingness, is there across our higher educational spaces. It’s a matter of doing it in ways, again, that are sustainable and collaborative. Those are things that higher ed has not always done really well. But we have a context now that requires it of us. And I am hopeful that places will rise to that challenge, because I’ve seen what faculty, what staff, and what students have done for the last two and a half years. And it is amazing and resourceful, even if it was messy and chaotic at the same time. And I think out of that comes a set of aptitudes and a greater understanding of the stakes involved to lead to, I think, meaningful solutions that will work and not just in the short term. So it may seem counterintuitive to be hopeful right now, but I actually find myself remarkably hopeful.

As you note in your book, we got into this ultimately, because we are hopeful for the future. We always end with the question. What’s next? [LAUGHTER] …which is kind of what we’ve been talking about.

Kevin: Right.

But what’s next for you?

Kevin: Well, for me personally, it’s moving a whole bunch of crap to Charlotte to start my new job. And I found a storage unit for all the books that seem to have accumulated in my faculty and my teaching center offices over the last 18 years I’ve been at Grandview. So yeah, figuring that out. But I’m at a point in my career where the educational development piece is most of what I do now. I still teach, but I always saw myself as a history professor who does some of this other stuff, too. And that’s shifting now. And so my professional identity and the way in which I’m spending my time and the tasks that I am working on and entrusted with are different than, certainly they were at the beginning of my career, but even in the ways that I sort of thought of myself as a faculty member and a member of an academic community. And so, for me, processing what that means and experiencing that in this new position and feeling what that looks like and trying to make sense of it in a way that resonates still with kind of who I think I am as a teacher, as a historian, as a scholar, as a person. That’s kind of where I am right now. It feels a little unsettling… that transitions, I guess, are never easy, but I find myself in this sort of transitory space that is both fascinating and a little bit frightening.

As is true of so much we’ve experienced in the last few years. [LAUGHTER] We wish you luck there.

Kevin: Thank you.

…and it sounds like a wonderful position.

Kevin: Well, I’m excited to start it and it is going to be a wonderful position and I’m thrilled to be a part of a community. The folks that I’ve met there have been wonderful to me so far, so it’s going to be great once I get this damn move done.

…and Charlotte is a wonderful place to live

Rebecca: Well thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Kevin. It’s nice to talk to you again.

Kevin: Well thanks for having me back on. It’s great to be with the both of you.


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.


244. Unlearning

To deepen our understanding or improve our skills, it is often necessary to question our preconceptions and unlearn some of our past practices and assumptions. In this episode, Lindsay Masland joins us to discuss her unlearning journey. Lindsay is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and the Associate Director of Faculty Professional Development in the Center for Academic Excellence at Appalachian State University.

Show Notes

  • Blum, S. D. (Ed.). (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.
  • Jesse Stommel’s website
  • Stommel, J. (2018). How to Ungrade. Blog post, Jesse Stommel. March 11.
  • Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research, 77(1), 81-112.
  • Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., & Hattie, J. (2020). The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 3087.
  • Hattie, J., & Clarke, S. (2018). Visible learning: feedback. Routledge.
  • Pittman, C., & Tobin, T. J. (2022). “Academe Has a Lot to Learn About How Inclusive Teaching Affects Instructors.The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 7.
  • Chavella Pittman and Tom Tobin (2022). Include Instructors in Inclusive Teaching. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 231. March 16.
  • Prentis Hemphill


John: To deepen our understanding or improve our skills, it is often necessary to question our preconceptions and unlearn some of our past practices and assumptions. In this episode, we explore one faculty developer’s unlearning journey.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Lindsay Masland. Lindsay is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and the Associate Director of Faculty Professional Development in the Center for Academic Excellence at Appalachian State University. Welcome, Lindsay.

Lindsay: Hi, thanks for having me.

John: Are teas today are… are you drinking tea, Lindsay?

Lindsay: I am not because I’m one of those people that can’t have a lot of caffeine in the afternoon hours and this is afternoon hours for me, so I am drinking store brand seltzer. So, very fancy.

Rebecca: It sounds very fancy to me. [LAUGHTER] It sounds perfect. I’m celebrating the fact that it feels like it’s a summer day here, which is magical. And so I made iced tea fresh.

John: And what type of iced tea is this?

Rebecca: This is English Breakfast iced tea.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: Decaf.

John: Lady Grey, by the way, makes a superb iced tea.

Rebecca: It does, you’re right.

John: I had that for the first time at the English P=avilion in Epcot when we’re at one of the OLC conferences, and I had to ask them what the tea was because it tasted superb. I had never had it as an iced tea before.

Lindsay: Sounds like I need to branch out because I am in the south, you know, and we do like our iced tea. And I mostly have iced tea that I brew the tea myself, but it’s always English breakfast tea. I hadn’t thought to branch out.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Since this was an English pavilion, it was probably acceptable to try that.

Rebecca: You didn’t say what kind of tea you were drinking, John.

John: I have a black raspberry green tea today from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds nice.

John: It is good. I haven’t had it for a while.

Rebecca: I don’t usually think of raspberry and green tea together. I always associate that with black tea. That’s all… That’s the whole thought. [LAUGHTER] There’s nothing more there. And welcome to our land, Lindsay. [LAUGHTER] It’s the end of the semester. So we invited you here today, Lindsay, to talk about unearning. Can you talk to us a little bit about what unlearning is?

Lindsay: Well, I guess I should first say this is not my term. There are probably other people who could more likely say that this is their term. But I just know that when I think about my own experiences as a faculty member over the last 11 years (that’s how long I’ve been in academia), and then a faculty or educational developer for the six or so, that the main thing that’s happened for me is recognizing how much that I used to believe was true, that simply wasn’t serving me anymore. It wasn’t serving my students, for sure, but it also wasn’t serving me just as a person. And so to me, that’s what unlearning is, is when you have those aha moments, the achievement of threshold concept moments, if we want to connect to some of that language from faculty development, where you realize this is not something that I want to continue to believe or live out.

John: And I think this also applies to our students’ experiences and to our role in teaching students… that they come to us with a lot of preconceptions, as we come to teaching with a lot of preconceptions, and some of those don’t hold up very well. So I think it’s a great topic to be discussing. What are some things that you have unlearned, since you’ve been in this role?

Rebecca: Or are in the process of unlearning? [LAUGHTER]

John: Yes.

Lindsay: Yeah, I think that’s a really important caveat is that I feel like we never arrive, I think as teachers as humans. And so we’re always in the process of doing something I think a lot of the times, we’re thinking about being in the process of learning. But simultaneously, I think we should be in the process of unlearning the things that don’t serve. So I think one major thing that I was kind of socialized into is… my background is Psychology, my PhD is in Educational Psychology with a concentration in Quantitative Statistics, and I only bring that up because I think it’s really important for understanding, I guess, the baggage [LAUGHTER] that I brought in some ways to the teaching role, because psychology, especially when I was getting my PhD and the time before that really overprivileged a quantitative “objective” view of the world. And so that is what I was socialized into. We didn’t learn any qualitative analysis, for example. And so that’s kind of what I was carrying with me. And I also think… I don’t want to blame it on psychology, I see why psychology is that way… because psychology at one point kind of split off from philosophy hundreds of years ago. And one way they were able to distinguish themselves from philosophers was to say, “Well, we have science and we collect objective observations about things that feel really non-objective, because psychologists study feelings and behaviors and ideas and thoughts… things it seems like you shouldn’t be able to quantify those.” But like, our whole shtick is that we can. And so I bring that with me, I think, into the teaching, into educational development. And I don’t think that was very helpful, [LAUGHTER] necessarily, because what I think ends up happening is you start, at least I know I brought kind of a deterministic way of thinking, like, “Okay, we just got to figure out what are the evidence-based teaching strategies, and I’m going to learn those, and then once I become a faculty developer, I’m going to teach those. And then if we all just do that, everything will be great.” Because that’s a very, like, if then we measure this, we do this, we get this clear result. That’s the whole thing with psychology is trying to predict behavior. And so if you bring that into the classroom, it’s like, I’m going to design in a way that’s going to predict everybody’s behavior. So I think that was something I needed to unlearn. When I realized, you can’t predict behavior, [LAUGHTER] that teaching choices are not deterministic, they are contextual, and that you really need to bring some chaos theory [LAUGHTER] into your understanding, honestly, of teaching. So I think it was when I started to read some books seriously about chaos theory, and also about different types of statistics that were intentionally modeling either context or randomness. And I was like, wait a minute, we’re taking a math equation, and we have like a thing in the math equation that is measuring “randomness.” I was like, what’s that? But it made me realize, like, wait a minute, okay, if the physicists and the mathematicians are doing that, we need to get on board.

John: This really resonates with me, because my background is that I’m an econometrician. And I got interested in this by doing some research on what techniques seem to work in my classes and in other classes. And those error terms, though, I’ve always taken pretty seriously. But in recent years, I’ve become much more interested in behavioral economics, which introduces all the ways in which we don’t behave in ways that are entirely consistent with the economic models that we normally teach in our classes. Actually, I’ve been bringing in more psychology into economics, which is probably even more deterministic than psychology ever was.

Lindsay: Yeah, that’s a good point. But it’s so funny, because in so many of these models, we’re always trying to reduce the error term, or control for the error term, like make it irrelevant by our methodology, we’re going to control for the error. And I think once you start teaching, you’re like the “error,” first of all, that’s like a really problematic label [LAUGHTER] for your students, but the “error,” it’s like, that’s where it’s at, like, we need to actually be designing for that, because there is variation in ourselves and in our students. That’s, I think what successful teaching is. But, it’s important, because I’m seeing this discussion right now a lot on social media is people are expressing their, what I would call righteous frustration about certain teaching strategies, assessment strategies, belongingness strategies, any of that… certain strategies being kind of like heralded as the ideal, and then other people responding like, “Well, I can’t do that. That’s not feasible for me. So does that mean that I’m not going to ever be a good teacher?” Because that’s not effective. And to me, I’m like, “Okay, this is just all playing out now in our discussions, is people are starting to embrace the idea of context or interactions.” I mean, I think about it in terms of statistics. And in statistics, we have things called main effects where there’s one variable, and it seems to affect everybody equivalently. But most of the time, there’s also an interaction where different variables are interacting. And anytime there’s an interaction, you pay attention to that thing, not the other thing. And so I’m kind of excited that people are getting angry about “Well, I can’t ungrade…” …for example, or something like that… things that are a lot of people are talking about, I’m like, “Well, good, let’s have a discussion about that.”

Rebecca: As an artist, I really appreciate you coming to my site.

Lindsay: Actually, this connects well to unlearning. My day job, I guess we can call it, is an academic. But I have a second kind of life after my day job, which involves being on the stage, I have a lot of theater and dance activities that take up my time. So I actually have this whole artistic side of myself. But one of the things that I was kind of socialized into was keeping those separate. Academia is for serious people and art is not serious. And I want to really make it clear that I don’t believe that, but like, that’s what I was socialized into. And then it was a big unlearning, honestly. I stepped away from theater and dance for like 10 years, when I was finishing my PhD, and up until getting tenure. And in retrospect, I think I was doing that to be more serious. I was always saying to students, I get tenure, I’m going to do a musical again. And I did it. And I’m even getting emotional thinking about it. I was like, how did I live without this part of myself for 10 years, and that was really damaging. And I was like, I shouldn’t have had to do that. And I don’t want anybody to have to do that anymore. So, I think it’s really important because that was damaging to kind of live without that side of myself and now they’re together and I feel like a whole person again, because I’m bringing the subjective and the objective in together.

Rebecca: I think it’s important to remember that we’re all human. And that often gets lost when we’re thinking about teaching or we’re thinking about scholarship or we’re thinking about a trajectory. As a faculty member, the humaness and the things that are outside of the Academy are often lost or not attended to, at least during that tenure process.

John: And I had a very similar experience in terms of playing music up until the time I was in grad school. My band got together and went on tour, and I stayed in grad school. It was probably 15 years or so before I started playing again, and it’s gone back and forth a few times. But it is much more interesting when you can be that full person. And going back to the analogy with empirical studies, most of the variation in most studies of teaching is in that random component. And those random components are the people, the instructors and the students in that relationship. And it’s important not to forget that. So this is a really good point, it’s really easy to forget in our day-to-day work. So it’s good that you’re focusing in this direction, I think we all probably should focus more on being that whole person, especially now.

Rebecca: And we’ve all had those experiences of that randomness, because you might have two classes that feel entirely different, but it might be the same subject, the same syllabus, the same teacher, but the students in the room are different, the time of day might be different. So therefore, the context is now different.

John: What are some of the other things you have unlearned?

Lindsay: So another thing that I guess kind of follows on from that unlearning the obsession with objectivity is also disentangling or coming to understand what is my proper role in the classroom. And so starting in academia, I think a lot of people have this kind of experience, I guess I was 29, maybe, or just turning 30, when I was in my first tenure-track position, which is the position I’m still in, I’ve been at the same institution the whole time. And so I’m a female, I’m still in the same decade as some of the students that I’m going to be teaching. And I also am somebody that has a young face. I’m not tall, kind of like pint-sized, in some ways. [LAUGHTER] And so I have all of these kinds of status things that are, I guess, in some ways, possibly working against me, in terms of me thinking I can…I would never use this phase now, but… control a classroom, I think that’s kind of what I was thinking is like, “Oh, gosh, I’m going to do this.” And so I think you’ve kind of come at it with a lot of like, I’m the authority and I know this stuff and so that’s why you should trust me to grade you. I guess that’s kind of the unspoken thing that’s being shared there. That’s not to say I was extremely strict, because I don’t think that’s true. But I do think that I felt like my job was to show that I was smart. And I can’t fault myself for that, because that is your job in grad school, to show the people looking at you that you’re smart. That is your job in college. And honestly, it’s your job in K through 12, [LAUGHTER] the way a lot of the systems are set up. I’m not saying it should be the job, but a lot of the reinforcement systems are set up, that is what you’re supposed to be doing. So I can’t get mad at myself for being reinforced doing that for the first 30 years of my life. So that’s why you have to unlearn it. Because if you’ve been reinforced and rewarded for a certain way of being, of demonstrating your expertise, and I have a right to be here, then it’s going to be hard to turn that off. And then the other thing that connects to that is when I started to really think about my values, my pedagogical values, and what I was trying to live out in my teaching, what I was trying to bring to the classroom table, I realized that like expertise and being an expert and authority that was not on the list. That was never on the list. And so if that’s true, then that’s not a value for me, then why would I be doing things that are about reinforcing authority or reinforcing my expertise? So I think that’s another thing that I had to unravel and am still unraveling,

John: When you start as a new faculty member, might that be something that is perceived as being important in terms of affecting your student evaluations, and perhaps affecting peer evaluations, who’ve also been trained in that type of perception of the sage on the stage, the scholar who’s the expert in the room, I think those incentives continue on and it’s a lot easier to break that once you get past that tenure stage.

Lindsay: I think that’s so true, and that’s one of the things I struggle with a lot in faculty development. Before I was the Associate Director for Faculty Professional Development, my kind of stair step into this position was as early career programming coordinator. And I still have that role right now, we kind of pulled that into my position. But so what that means is that in addition to doing things like new faculty orientation, I’m working really closely with brand new faculty in learning communities and book clubs, and one-on-one consultations. And I continue to struggle with wanting to tell them: “Go break the rules, like go do this. Go live out your deepest values, because I know that, at least as a person, you’ll feel better because you’ll be living aligned to your values.” But then the other side of me is like, that feels irresponsible in some systems. And so that’s why in my non-early-career-focused work, I’m working to change systems of teaching evaluations, systems of promotion and tenure and reappointment, those kinds of things… though, I mean, I think it’s a both/and… we can work on them in both ways, and recognize that it’s inherently problematic for me to encourage that. So I do spend a lot of time with both the early career folks that I work with, but also anybody is talking about get really clear about your own personal margin for error, I guess, if we want to keep going with this statistical metaphor we’ve been using… but really just like the margin for you to get in trouble, like, what realistically could happen to you if you break these spoken or unspoken rules, either at your department level, your college level, et cetera. And as long as you’re really clear about that, then you kind of know like, “Okay, how far can I push it,” and then I say push it as far in the direction of your values. And if that means, like, being radical or progressive, as far as you can go without threatening other things that are important to you. So I totally agree, John, that it’s really hard to be saying, like, go break rules and say, but that might have dire consequences for you. [LAUGHTER]

John: My advice to junior faculty depends very much on which department they’re in and the culture of that department. And I let people know that what they want to do is really good and it’s really consistent with what we have learned about effective teaching. But some of it may have to wait until they get past that tenure threshold, unless there’s some type of revolution in their departments, which isn’t always likely.

Lindsay: Yeah. And so I guess what I’m trying to do is to plant the seeds of that kind of, in a lot of cases, it is more progressive pedagogy, or just more aligned to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, which is not always necessarily what I would call progressive, but it’s at least aligned to something, either evidence or values. But I guess my thought is, if I kind of plant those seeds, and then some of the early career faculty can run with it, because they find themselves in a department where they can do it, the other ones who have at least heard the message, and then maybe they will circle back to that when they get to a point where they feel more safety. But I know like even in my own department, because part of my time is in a Center for Teaching and Learning, but the other part is, I am a regular faculty member, and we even had to do some of that work in our own department. I mean, so we’re psychology, we’re the people who do the science of teaching and learning at a science level. That doesn’t mean there are people in my department who do that, per se, but at least everybody who’s a psychologist, at least in grad school, learned about cognition, motivation, emotion, we learned all the things that we talk about. So we have I say, a step up in our department, even though that’s true,that we have that privilege of knowing some of that information, we still were really in that sage on the stage expectation. And like even our peer review of teaching form, if you looked at it was really a form about entertaining public speaking, I would say. Like, that’s what the behaviors that were being measured. And so we had to go through a whole process that took, I’d say, at least two years to read, design that form, and get the buy-in from everybody, senior faculty and junior faculty alike, to approve, to adopt that form. And that form is more aligned to concrete behaviors that connect to the science and every behavior is like footnoted and hyperlinked, and things like that. And that’s kind of what we needed to do to get everybody on the same page about what does teaching excellence even possibly look like and how is it different from entertaining public speaking? So I totally agree that I guess that’s another data point for our idea that context matters, context matters in that case about how progressive can you be.

Rebecca: I really appreciate the thinking through that in terms of tension or in terms of risk, and really thinking about that that context matters for each person, and that they have to determine that for themselves, and really know that for themselves, and that it’s an individual choice. And those choices might be limited by your context. And that we might not have had models that demonstrate how that might be or how we might want those values to play out in a system. So I think it’s interesting that you’re talking about having to define values, but maybe not always having a model who had those same values.

Lindsay: Yeah, that’s a good point. When I think about the things that I would most like faculty to learn from me or from other faculty developers, it’s not actually the teaching strategies. It’s really about how to be self reflective. And how do I do that? How do I figure out what my values are? How do I figure out what my risk is? And then how do I put those two things together? And I feel like that’s maybe something that’s somewhat new in faculty development, because old models were really about: “come to a workshop to learn how to do this formative assessment technique” or something like that, but that completely ignores the context and the risks and the person who we’re asking to learn to do these things. Maybe it is an “evidence-based practice,” it’s in a journal somewhere, but it would fall totally flat, given this person’s personality, or given this person’s own neuro-divergence, or whatever we want to talk about in terms of the actual instructor themselves. And so that’s kind of what I am really interested in right now is figuring out how to best scaffold people into doing that. Because then it’s not about looking at some new teaching strategy and being like, “Oh, that’s awesome” or “Oh, that’s not awesome. So I’m going to bad mouth it.” It’s more “Does that work for me? No, it doesn’t.” And that’s fine. [LAUGHTER] I decided, “Oh, I totally see why that would work for so and so, but it doesn’t work for me.” And we’re all okay with that. But I feel like we have some distance to travel, [LAUGHTER] both as instructors and as people who do faculty development,

Rebecca: one of the things that’s often associated with expertise and authority in the classroom is grading and assessment. Can you talk a little bit about where you have been unlearning in that area?

Lindsay: I just want to point out that was a beautiful segue. I love that Rebecca. Yeah. And so ungrading is something that, honestly, I’m pretty new at, but like many threshold concepts, it’s one of those things that when you learn it, it can’t be unlearned. And also, you can’t turn off thinking about it, and it shows up in everything. So that’s how it’s been for me. So I’ve only really been dabbling with ungrading the past academic year. But I have been moving towards that, I’d say for five years, probably. And so for me, it was just reading. I read the book, edited by Susan Blum on Ungrading, of course, as many people have, but it was also just reading Jesse Stommel’s posts, and all of the things that he links to there… just questioning “what are grades?” It kind of brought that kind of naive look to it. But I don’t think I recognized how ubiquitous grades were and how we just assumed that’s just part of it. That’s just what you do. And that’s funny that I hadn’t questioned that because my scholarly expertise even before coming to all of the teaching and learning was academic motivation. That’s what my PhD is in. That’s my master’s thesis… even all the way back to my honors thesis was about motivation and learning. So it’s kind of blows my mind that I had not stopped to disentangle grades before, because they’re an extrinsic reinforcer. And so maybe that’s why it was so powerful for me when I read some of these arguments as saying, “Okay, is putting a letter or a number on to an assignment, actually accomplishing important things?” And I think the answer can be yes. But just simply asking the question, that’s not something that people had done before. And I was somebody that before I did ungrading, I did a lot of feedback. So I’m well aware of work by like John Hattie, and other people that show that quality of instructor feedback is one of the things that are within our controllable factors that can move learning forward the most. It has the biggest effect sizes in learning, the quality of feedback. And so like, I knew that, and so I was always assessing work with that in mind and giving a ton of feedback, but I was ending it with putting a letter grade on it, or a number, or something like that. And so reading about that made me really question, does actually putting the letter grade as the cherry on top, does that actually add anything else to what I’m doing? And I was like, wait a minute, it’s not. And in fact, there is, again, scholarship of teaching and learning research that shows that when you give students the feedback and the letter grade, at the same time, they orient their attention to the letter grade, and sometimes never even process the feedback. And so we’ve seen all types of experimental manipulations, where if you give the students just the feedback first, and then you let a period of time pass before you unhide the letter grade or something, students actually engage with the feedback and the quality of their work improves. So if we know all that stuff, I do all that stuff before I’m grading, but I just had never sat there and said like, well, what would happen if you stopped doing that? And that is what has happened for me in the last year. And so that’s one of my most current unlearnings. And so I did it in two graduate courses. Well, one graduate course first as an experiment, because that was a 10-person cohort. And I thought, first of all, it’s really small. And second of all, they’re graduate students. And so it seemed like a much lighter lift. And then this past semester, I did it with a new grad class, it’s a statistics class. So a lot of times when people talk about ungrading, they say that really only works in writing-focused courses. A lot of people who are English professors use it. And so I was like, “Well, I’m going to do it in statistics.” And so I tried that. And then I also tried it with a 50-student undergrad course this semester.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about how you implemented this in your statistics course? Because this is something I’ve considered for my econometrics class, but I’m not really sure how I could implement it very effectively.

Lindsay: Sure. So I think it’s important to say that the statistics course is a graduate statistics course. And so I could not say that you can do exactly what I did, because it’s a different context, right? And the context is probably pretty important too. So the graduate program that I’m affiliated with is a master’s and specialist level school psychology program. So the students go through three years of training. And at the end, after they take a test and stuff, they are licensed to be K-12 school psychologists, not school counselors, that’s different, school psychologists who are doing database decision making in schools. So these are not PhD level, but not undergrads. And the other thing that it’s important to know contextually, is almost no people go into school psychology wanting to do statistics. So none of them are like, “Oh, yes, I love math. And I love statistics. I’m going to be a school psychologist.” So I’m just rare in that all those statements are true for me, but almost nobody, [LAUGHTER] almost nobody else is that true for. So, that’s important context, because I’m talking about 10 students, I see primarily women, because that is who school psychology field draws, who are math phobic, and who in their heads are thinking, “I’m never going to do stats again after this class. I’m just going to get through this. And we’re going to move on.” And so for me, the goal there is to make them realize the power of statistics in their day-to-day future career as school psychologists. And so getting really clear with myself about like, “What’s the point? What’s the goal? Who are these people?” See, notice, I haven’t said anything about a teaching technique or an assessment or anything, yet, it’s just like, what are we trying to do here? And for me, it’s them to not be afraid of statistics anymore, and to be able to use it in their day-to-day lives. And I should say the third one is for them to recognize the power of statistics for social justice and how they could, for example, in their future schools, identify disproportionality in suspensions. Meaning what if your school over suspends black children when compared to white children for the same exact conduct offense or something like that? I want them to know how to point that out using numbers. Because we do know a lot of people seem to believe numbers more than words… not saying it’s okay, but they do. So I want them to be able to use that. So because that is my focus, what that allowed for me to do is really trim down my curriculum. And so I don’t teach a lot of statistics that most people would think surely you teach this, and I’m like, I don’t, because they’re not going to use that as future school psychologists. So that’s one thing I would say is important is cut out anything you can cut out, [LAUGHTER] that’s possibly feasible, because you need the space just in your semester to be able to do this kind of stuff. The next thing that I do, and I did this before ungrading, but it connects them, is the whole class is set up to be really scaffolded. And to follow like an I do, we do, you do approach. And so what we will do is if we’re learning some specific statistic of the day, or the week, or, you know, of the two weeks, first off, give them a general overview of it, not a mathematical way, but in a problem-based way. So what if this is what a school wants to know the answer to? This is the statistic you use for that, now let’s kind of figure it out. And then we will all work through together solving it. And then I will put them into groups. I’ll give them a new data set. But it’s the same exact thing we just did, y’all go do it. And then the homework assignment is again the same exact assignment, but a new data set. And so all that’s like really intentional scaffolding. So hopefully, by the time they have to do it themselves, they totally know how to do it. Now, where does the ungrading come in? In a class like that, to me, it kind of feels like, especially with graduate students, adding letter grades on to a process that has gone from, we’re all working together, then you’re working in groups, then you’re gonna do it yourself. And there’s tons of feedback and community the whole time, it feels almost insulting to put a letter on the end of that deep cognitive work, because by the time they get to doing it themselves, they should know what they know and don’t know, they should know what they’ve mastered and what they still need help with because we’ve been doing it so much. And so it almost just feels natural to when they then turn in that individual work, if there’s something they missed the boat on, I just like, “Hey, you didn’t do this right. Here’s how to do it properly.” And then we’re going to use that skill again later down the road. To me putting a letter or a number on that doesn’t help them anymore. But the real important thing about all of this is that if we never came back and did that one statistic again, why would they ever read the feedback in the first place, because now we’re moving on to a new unit. So at the end of the course, I have some kind of culminating assignment where they pull it all together. And in order for them to be able to make the case that they have earned some certain grade at the end of the semester, one of the course objectives is the ability to use feedback appropriately. So they have to go engage with previous rounds of feedback in order to create a final product that they could use. lobby for an A for. So that’s kind of how I do it.

John: Since you do have to assign a grade at the end of the course, how do you go about that process?

Lindsay: One big thing that I have learned, not unlearned, but learned, about ungrading this year, is that the true ungrading where we never put any letters on anything until the very, very end, when our institution requires that of us, at least for me, and for my context, I think that works best with graduate students. I’ve found over the last year of doing it, that if we have a list of learning objectives, and I also have a list of skills and dispositions that we’re trying to cultivate in them as future school psychologists, if I give them that list, they are very accurate at assessing whether they’ve got an objective or they don’t. So it’s like I never have to change the graduate students’ grades unless they have been too hard on themselves. And then that kind of feels like a gift of like, “Well, this is what I see. You’ve actually mastered everything. So how could this be anything other than an A?” So, that’s good. Undergrad is slightly different, right? They are in a different place, they need more support. And also, they’re not like grad students who have all truly willingly gone on, where undergrads… obviously college isn’t compulsory, but societally it feels kind of like it is. So with the undergrads I’d say what I’m doing there is something that should better be labeled collaborative grading, not ungrading. And we started to see some discussion about this of ungrading from an equity perspective. Some students are so focused, or have been so reinforced… so we connect back to what I was saying about how you reinforce your whole life. They’re so reinforced by a system that does put letters on work, that it requires a lot of unlearning for them and it may be too much to ask within a single semester and usually within a single course. It’d be different if a whole institution was doing ungrading and that institution was set up around preparing students to be successful in ungrading. Then I think we could totally get rid of all the grades. But that’s not my context. In my 50-person class this past semester, there were two students who had experienced ungrading before, 48 who hadn’t. I was kind of excited about the two, honestly. But there were 48 who hadn’t. And so to me, it felt irresponsible to throw them in that deep end. So what we did is a whole bunch of assignments, heavy feedback, all of that. But on the more high-stakes, or slightly more summative types assessments, I did include a rubric, but it was a rubric that didn’t have points, the levels were not included, approaching expectations, meets, or exceeds expectations. And so a lot of people have talked about like kind of a two point rubric or things like that before. So that was my variation on it, just you didn’t do it, you did it but it’s not there yet, or you get it. And so I did include that feedback for them, because I felt like they needed that level of structure, but I didn’t feel like putting letters or numbers on at that point were helpful. But we did bring in letters ‘cause three times during the semester… so at the third, two thirds, in the end… they did a process reflection, which is really common to ungrading where basically the instructor scaffolds the students thinking through their body of work up to that point. Now normally in ungrading, that kind of thing happens at the very end. So they’re thinking about the body of work for the entire semester. I was thinking the cognitive load of that is going to probably be too much for my undergrad students. So let’s have them do it first, just a third of the way in, and they’re going to think through: am I meeting learning objectives? Am I’m meeting habits and dispositions? Can I give evidence for why I think that’s true? And then I have a table at the end of that process reflection that says, from my perspective, as the instructor, these are the kinds of behaviors or benchmarks or assessment types of feedback you would receive that line up with an A. These are the ones that line up with a B, so kind of self diagnose, based on all of this. And so they do that, and we’re only a month or so into the semester. And so then I give them feedback on whether or not I feel like they’re on target with that letter. And so we did that two times during the semester before the final time, which gave us the chance to get on the same page about what letters mean. But it still feels kind of like ungrading to me, because I never put a letter on a single thing that was turned in, like one assessment or one assignment. It was always assess your body of work against these learning objectives and levels of quality, assess your body of work. Next time when I use it with them. I might not call it ungrading, I might call it collaborative grading.

Rebecca: I think sometimes the use of “ungrading” when there ends up being a grade is super confusing.

Lindsay: [LAUGHTER] That’s such a good point, because now there are a couple of colleges where they truly don’t have grades, but the rest of us it’s like there is a grade at the end, y’all. [LAUGHTER] And so I think you have to have a really small cohort that you can spend so much time individually making sure everybody understands like, “Well if it were up to me, there wouldn’t be a letter at the end, but there is…” …making sure everybody internalizes that. But most people don’t teach in a tiny context like that and don’t have that luxury. So that’s why I’m kind of thinking that this kind of collaborative periodic benchmarking of your body of work so far still to me does what Jesse Stommel says ungrading is. One of his definitions is that kind of skeptical eyebrow raised at conventional grading systems. To me, collaborative grading is still the skeptical eyebrow raise. But it also is respecting the context that is our students’ reality and our own reality.

Rebecca: …really cultivates a reflective practice too. And in some ways it’s like reflective grading, reflective practice, or something, you know? [LAUGHTER] I’ve been thinking about this a lot, too. I was experimenting this last semester with such things. And I was really uncomfortable with the term ungrading when there was a grade, ultimately.

Lindsay: Yeah, and you know that bit with reflection, like we’ve known for a long time that metacognition is really strongly correlated with student achievement. And so way before I’d ever heard about ungrading or untraditional assessment and things like that, I was already doing even scholarship in teaching and learning around like, “How can I kindly force my students to reflect? How can I gently get them to actually read my darn feedback? …because I had some statistics from my LMS that showed that only 10% of my students were spending more than 30 seconds on their feedback. And these were on like really comprehensive projects. And the LMS only triggers a view of the feedback if it’s been 30 seconds or more. And I was like, it would take anybody more than 30 seconds to read the feedback, and they’re not doing it. So I’ve been experimenting for a really long time with adding on assignments where you couldn’t complete the assignment unless you read my feedback. And you’ve probably heard of these exam wrappers… is what they’re frequently called. Yeah, I got rid of exams a long, long time ago, but I still had that wrapper thing where it was like, go and tell me what one of your strengths is, according to your feedback. Like you cannot answer that thing for a grade… this is back when I did grading… unless you could read the feedback. So yeah, I think that reflection is where it’s at. I think honestly, that’s what I think this whole upgrading thing is about. it’s about two things: it’s about questioning unquestioned assumptions and assessment. And then it’s also about leveraging the power of self reflection.

John: I think for undergraduates, providing those breaks in the process of the course can allow students to do some course correction, because students tend to procrastinate, as we all do. And if they know that the final evaluation occurs at the end, there may be a tendency to put off doing that reflective practice and the course correction that might be helpful for them ,until it’s sometimes too late. So giving them that feedback that perhaps has a little bit more weight to it, or may be perceived as having more weight in terms of its impact on their overall success in the course, I think is really helpful.

Lindsay: Absolutely. And I will say one thing that I learned this past semester doing it and I added it to what I call my “to fix” document. I have one of those for every course, just a bulleted list of things like “Don’t do that again.” And one thing I added just like a few days ago, because I was turning in final grades a few days ago, was add to the rubric… so that rubric of suggested grades have these behaviors line up with As and these behaviors line up with Bs… add to the A category, “shows evidence of responding to feedback.” That wasn’t one of the things. And there were people where I was like, I’m not convinced that you listen to that three-minute recording I did about your paper because you didn’t necessarily change it. And so I’ve already been reflective myself about that should be one of the learning objectives is learning how to use feedback. And so I’m already going to be changing that in my course.

Rebecca: Leading up to our conversation you mentioned student-centered teaching is one of the places that you unlearned, too, can you tell us more about that?

Lindsay: Yeah, so this one might feel like a little bit of a left turn [LAUGHTER] because we’ve been talking about things that are I feel like usually squarely associated with student-centered teaching, thinking about the student and the instructor as a whole person, me ceding some of my authority, me doing collaborative grading like that all sounds super student centered. But the unlearning piece around student centered connects back a little bit to the risk and margin discussion we were having. But it also connects to something that we have seen is that the people who seem to be the most student centered, will sometimes kind of martyr themselves in service of that value that they hold. And so it will become clear that all of their pedagogical values are about the student. And one thing I have learned is how important it is to support faculty in selecting pedagogical values that are about the teacher as well. And this connects to Chavella Pittman and Tom Tobin’s Chronicle article and I know you all interviewed them about inclusive teaching. And it’s so funny because for a few years I’ve been doing a faculty workshop called “Inclusive Teaching Includes You Too.” And so when that came out, I was like, “What? That’s what I think too.” So, I was like, so excited. Like I immediately messaged Tom and I was like, “This is so funny when this kind of thing happens that the same idea comes out of totally separate areas.” But for so long we’ve talked about student-centered teaching and there’s always this like implicit thing that like teacher centered is bad. But I think for a lot of us, especially those of us who have been at the forefront of student-centered teaching and have continued to like “How much more student centered can I be? How much more student centered?” We’ve gotten to a place where we are thinking that the instructor is irrelevant. Like, I’ll do anything for my students, I’ll make any choices, because it’s for their learning. But I want to make sure that we don’t forget how important we are too. Because if we only do this for the students, and we don’t do this for ourselves as teachers, and really value how important we are to this whole system, then we’re going to end up in that martyr place, we’re going to end up in a place where we’re making choices that lead us to burnout, that do not respect boundaries. And so I’m starting to think about bringing us back to instructor-centered teaching, but redefining what instructor centered means. And that it doesn’t mean sage on the stage, expert on the stage. It means human in the classroom, right? It means I know who I am as an instructor, I know what I bring to the table. And that is at least as important as everything that students bring to the table.

Rebecca: Imagine that, humans in a room, all treated as humans.

Lindsay: I know it sounds so obvious when you say it, but it’s like, but we’re not living in a way that makes us think we believe that. If there were like Martians watching us, they’d be like, What are these beings doing? [LAUGHTER]

John: I think that’s especially relevant now as we’ve come through the pandemic, where there has been so much emphasis in professional development on student-centered teaching. And I think a lot of faculty are experiencing a tremendous amount of burnout, because much of that has involved a lot of additional work on their part. And that sort of balance is important and forgetting your own human needs is not going to be very helpful in the long run if you’d like to continue to be helpful for students.

Lindsay: That’s the ironic thing is that if you are too good at being student centered, you will run yourself out such that you are no longer available to be with students at all. That’s the ironic thing about it. So learning how to set these boundaries, which a lot of times does involve saying no to students, which I think is something that a lot of people think we can’t do if we’re student centered, we say yes to everything. So I think a really important thing for us to be able to do is say no to our students, which feels strange for somebody who has typically conceptualized themselves as a student-centered teacher, it feels like you’re supposed to say yes to everything the students asked for. But there’s this amazing quote from an embodiment practitioner named Prentis Hemphill. And this is what they say… they say, boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously. And I think teaching a lot of the times is love work, even if we don’t like to call it, that it is kind of like living out our values, living out our love for teaching and learning. And that in order to do that the best, I have to have boundaries so that I can teach you and me simultaneously. I can love, I can learn, you and me simultaneously. But I think that will be a huge transition for a lot of students-centered teachers is recognizing that boundaries are empowering, not always limiting.

Rebecca: I think that’s a perfect moment to end on. So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Lindsay: That’s a good question. My hope is that nothing is next. [LAUGHTER] We’re coming into summer, we’re also going through some changes on my campus that may or may not have impact on what our year will look like and things like that. And so instead of overthinking about that, I just want, in some ways, to ignore the liminal space I’m in about academic career stuff and say, “You know what, this is a great opportunity for me to not work.” And so I typically teach classes in the summer, it’s not a requirement, it’s something I do extra. This is the first time in six years I have not taken on any summer courses, I’ve taken on summer faculty development, but I’ve tried to put it all in May, or the very beginning of June. So for me, my hope is that what’s next is a lot of reading and gardening and pondering and playing with my new little puppy.

John: That sounds wonderful. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That sounds like you’re putting the instructor first a little bit here.

Lindsay: Right? I mean, I am trying to live out my values and values or boundaries, joy, ease, so like that sounds like that. Yeah,absolutely.

Rebecca: That sounds perfect. Thanks for joining us, Lindsay.

Lindsay: Absolutely. It was great to talk to you all.

John: It’s great talking to you. We’ve been following you on Twitter and have appreciated all your posts and we’re glad we finally had this opportunity to talk to you and I hope we’ll talk to you again soon.

Lindsay: Absolutely.


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.


239. Credential As You Go

Students from low-income households often encounter barriers that prevent them from completing a degree. These students are left with a large burden of student debt, limited job opportunities, and low wages. In this episode, Nan Travers and Holly Zanville join us to explore the possibility of a flexible education system that would allow students to gain credentials incrementally by documenting all of their learning throughout their educational and career experiences.

Nan is the Director of the Center for Leadership in Credential Learning at SUNY Empire State College. Holly is a Research Professor and Co-Director of the Program on Skills, Credentials, and Workforce Policy at the GW Institute of Public Policy at George Washington University. Nan and Holly are co-leads on the Credential As You Go project.


John: Students from low-income households often encounter barriers that prevent them from completing a degree. These students are left with a large burden of student debt, limited job opportunities, and low wages. In this episode, we explore the possibility of a flexible education system that would allow students to gain credentials incrementally by documenting all of their learning throughout their educational and career experiences.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guests today are Nan Travers and Holly Zanville. Nan is the Director of the Center for Leadership in Credential Learning at SUNY Empire State College. Holly is a Research Professor and Co-Director of the Program on Skills, Credentials, and Workforce Policy at the GW Institute of Public Policy at George Washington University. Nan and Holly are co-leads on the Credential As You Go project. Welcome, Holly. And welcome back, Nan.

Holly: Thank you.

Nan: Hi.

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

Holly: I am, green tea with lemon.

Rebecca: Perfect. How about you, Nan?

Nan: I’m actually drinking a plain seltzer. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s a good choice. It’s a good choice.

John: And I am drinking Irish breakfast tea, again.

Rebecca: I’m back to the supreme English breakfast again, John.

John: We’ve invited you both here to talk about the credential-as-you-go project. How did your collaboration on this project begin?

Holly: Well, let me start, if that’s all right. I think about this as several trains, actually, converging in a train station. [LAUGHTER] First, there was the Prior Learning Assessment train, or PLA, which is really addressing the growing importance of recognizing learning acquired through prior coursework or through work, military travel, and other non-classroom venues. But at the same time, and this is many years ago, there was a national effort around reverse transfer to recognize significant learning equivalent to the associate degree that occurs when a community college student transfers to a university without acquiring the associate degree when they were at the community college, but they do acquire that learning once they’re en route to the baccalaureate at the university. So there were many efforts underway to develop mechanisms that will enable folks to award the associate degree to those community college students who transferred in many, many states around the US. And I was actually at the Lumina Foundation, then, as Strategy Director working with several foundations to help fund this type of work. But really troubling in this work, as great as that was, was a lack of parity for students who started at the four-year institution. What about them? What about them when they acquired learning equivalent to an associate’s degree? What about fairness? The data were telling us that 50% or so of the students at community colleges and public four-year institutions leave before the baccalaureate. So those tea leaves, [LAUGHTER] since we’re speaking about tea, were really clear, that higher education loss recognized valuable learning, credentialed learning. So when I was at Lumina, we made a new grant then to SUNY Empire State College to explore the concept of a credential-as-you-go approach for both community colleges and universities that would recognize that important learning is acquired at the workplace as well, assess that and recognize that in an improved system overall, and that would pull on the importance of prior learning assessment. And it would also incorporate advances in technology that were really getting much more prevalent that would let us think about data systems that could automatically determine when you had completed all the requirements for a credential, and Nan, luckily, was the PI at the effort that was working on that. And that’s when we started to collaborate, particularly on this larger credential-as-you-go concept, and implement a rapid prototype and to really try this out.

Nan: So in addition to that, we also had some other projects that were going on. At that time, Holly was also the strategy director at Lumina Foundation, in which we were looking at some different frameworks for being able to assess student learning, as well as really connecting the different kinds of competencies and credentials. And so with that work, we were also working with the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, Larry Good, who is the third co-lead on this project. So we’ve really been trying to think about how to bring together all of this work over the years that really works to being able to identify learners’ knowledge and skills, and being able to credential that regardless of the learning source.

John: So the basic problem is we have this pipeline where students go into colleges and don’t finish and they end up with these very high burdens of debt that make it really hard for them to make progress in their careers and so forth. And so the goal, then, as I understand it, is to tie all the learning that students have done together into some type of pathway that will allow them to progress forward, both prior learning that they’ve done on the job and in their everyday experiences, as well as any additional training they require through formal college and microcredentials. Is that a good summary of the goal of this program?

Nan: Yes, John, it is a good summary of it. What we really want to make sure is that learners are not left with learning on the table where they have to walk away from it and not be recognized for what they know and they can do. With the current higher ed system, we have a four-tiered degree system that we are basing everything on, but many learners actually come, they get the kinds of competency use their knowledge and skills that they need, they go to work, they gain more knowledge and skills in the workplace, and many of them go unrecognized. The data is pretty clear on this, that a little more than 50% of the adult population in this country do not have a college degree, and 1/3 of those have some college and no degree. So what we see is that we have a very large number of people who have learning that could apply to a college-level credential, but are not being recognized. And so we really have to be rethinking this system so that we can meet the needs of our adult population across the country.

Holly: And one last point I would add is that, in the middle of all this flux over the last 10, 20 years, workforce demands have changed, and the workforce demands are changing such that degrees are not required, particularly in this climate now for all jobs. And that means that shorter-term credentials that save some time and money that enable individuals to enter the workforce, and skill up over their entire lifetime. College is not just for six, eight years, it’s going to be a lifetime of acquiring competence and skills. It creates a situation where we need a different type of post-secondary system, we need a system that is made up of an array of different kinds of credentials, some short term, some that stack toward degrees into pathways, and that there are many ways in which you acquire competency and skills. So the employer side of the learn and work ecosystem has become very, very important. And we’re striving actually toward a transformation of the entire higher-ed system.

Rebecca: So, microcredentials have grown in popularity over the last decade and this idea of stackable credentials, there’s certainly a move in this direction. But why is there a need to go beyond just these more typical micro credentials and typical degree pathways that we’ve had before? You’ve talked about this need to do something a little more than that.

Holly: But it’s interesting that you use the word microcredential as typical because they are not typical in the current system. The typical system was what Nan already referred to, our four-tiered degree system, is typical. And what we’re recognizing is that there is an array of credentials. Some folks call them microcredentials, some call them non-degree credentials, some call them micro pathways, there are more and more synonyms for essentially what is the same thing, and it’s causing tremendous confusion in our system. But we do recognize that shorter-term non-degree credentials are needed, and they need to be woven into a system that makes sense that students and employers can understand. And that we can make changes in our curriculum to accommodate this change around the array of credentials that have value.

Nan: And so we really want to be able to capture people’s learning throughout their entire learning process, and not have the perception that when you’re done with a degree, you are just done with your learning, and that somehow, you can’t be captured for additional learning that you’ve acquired. And so when we think about the types of learning that is happening in the non-credit, and the credit from entry level all the way up through… we were talking with one of our institutions earlier today, one of the institutions in the project, and they were saying at the community college level, that they have the highest number of graduate students taking courses at their institution more than the universities in their whole area. And so when we start to think about the ways in which adults are gaining knowledge, and gaining the skills that they need in order to stay employed, to get reemployed, upskill, and be able to also continually grow and learn throughout their lives, the system right now does not capture that. And so we leave people hanging out there where they’ve got to figure out a way to get recognized for what they know. And so really, what we want is a system… and that’s why a project is called credential-as-you-go… that as people move through their lives, that they can be recognized formally, and be able to use those credentials in order to continue their education and for employment.

Holly: The other factor that’s emerging in this is the technology factor, and the development of learning and employment records, a type of e-wallet, as many people are calling them, that would be self sovereign, where learners, would take it with them wherever they go, kind of like your health record. And that on that record goes learning acquired in the world of work and from the military and from your college and universities, in some cases from high schools, where students increasingly are acquiring some industry awarded certifications and certain types of certificates. And that technology record is going to be very important to fit into this entirely transformed system that many folks are envisioning.

John: So one of the goals is to work towards a sort of common platform that any type of learning could be incorporated into to make it easier for individuals to share what they’ve learned with potential employers and for employers to get some record of the training that people have acquired?

Nan: There are groups that are working on platforms, such as what Holly was just talking about in terms of that digital wallet, or the learn and employment record, the comprehensive record that would incorporate, we do see a lot of movement there. Our project is not focused specifically on that, although we are integrating that work and looking at the ways in which technology can really help us here. And including in that technology is also thinking about a more comprehensive auditing system where people can be auto awarded for their credentials, because what we’re anticipating is that as people are acquiring more and more of the incremental credentials, that there are times that a learner will not realize that they’ve met one of these and that they need to be doing that. So there is a part of our project that is looking at technology and the technology solutions, but thinking about it from a holistic perspective in terms of what is the learner need, what are institutions’ needs? And then at a national level, what are the kinds of repositories that can really provide the right information about credentials, such as credential engine. And so by bringing those kinds of three pieces together, thinking about how we can meet the needs of the future of education.

Holly: And I would say, John, the one issue that I have with what you said was higher education doesn’t typically think of having common credentials, because there are many differences among them, among their kinds of programs, etc. And what we’re purely interested in is transparency of credentials, I might call mine X, and you may call yours Y. But what we want to know is: “Can you translate that so an employer and the student and others can understand?” Just tell me what those competencies and skills are that that credential that I carry on my wallet stands for. And those are the issues that we’re trying to address is put them into some understandable language so that we can translate and then we can carry with us. We don’t think that there will ever be a common list of credentials, but they can be interoperable and they can be decoded, so we can understand what they are.

John: It’s hard enough to get people in a department to agree on what they’re doing…

Holly: Exactly.

John: …trying to get across institutions with that challenge, that’s probably beyond the scope of anything that could be done by a group such as this, but making more transparent the learning that people have received so that it could be shared more easily sounds like a really wonderful thing to be doing.

Rebecca: The conversation’s really interesting to me, based on the discipline that I’m in, because I’m in design, and in kind of a coding side of design. So this is not radical to me at all. This is why it seems typical. [LAUGHTER] But when we look at all of higher ed, it seems quite radical, but in the area that I’m in, boot camps are really common ways of demonstrating knowledge about certain kinds of coding skills, or portfolios are good ways of representing design skills, that are these transferable kind of credential like things that you can show somebody and people understand what they mean.

Holly: Yeah. And some disciplines really do lend themselves to common standards, because they’re accredited by national, in some cases international, organizations. So nursing and cybersecurity and there are several other professions. Many of the IT professions are guided by common competency standards, and the faculty in those disciplines, they’re not troubled, just like you’re not so much Rebecca. [LAUGHTER] On the other hand, many of the liberal arts faculty do approach their disciplines as very unique. And so we have got to accommodate the largesse of the post-secondary system. And the ask is just tell us what competences and skills your credential stands for, and let everyone else figure it out.

Rebecca: I’m really curious about how you see this project impr oving equity for students. You’ve hinted at some of these ideas as we’ve been talking, but I’m wondering if you can underscore maybe some of these ideas.

Holly: Nan, maybe can add a few of the statistics that are so sobering, but I would say that credential-as-you-go, has a high priority on fairness, on equity in a higher ed system. And Nan’s got the numbers in her head. She talked about it earlier today. So I’ll let her explain why equity is at the top of our list.

Nan: So the numbers are actually quite striking when we look at those with credentials, and then those without credentials, and when we look at those that have been credentialed, around 78% of those with college degrees who are adults are white, and then the balance is divided across different racial and ethnicity groups. And when we start to look at that in terms of the proportion of those groups in our population, it becomes even more striking, because if we just look at the white population, only 33% of the population are white and yet 78% have degrees. So we really have an unequal system here. We also did some analyses that looked within groups to get a sense of, within any one group, where are the proportions falling in terms of people without credentials, some college and no degree and then being college credentialed. The highest proportion of adult learners that have some college and no degree are our black learners. And they are also carrying the highest debt load. At the same time, again, the proportion of those who are white are much higher in terms of college educated. And so we really see that credentialing is a equity issue. And when people are not being recognized for what they know, they’re not able to get the types of employment that they should be getting. And then it becomes an economic downturn cycle. So if you take our black population with having the highest college debt load, and then they’re also the highest percentage with some college and no degree, then they can’t be getting the jobs in order to be paying off the debt and moving their way up. So yet, if they have some college and no degree, they have knowledge that can be credentialed. And so we really feel very strongly that credentialing is an equity issue. And by credentialing learning, as everybody is going through it, more people can be recognized for what they know and can do, and are able to get the jobs that are appropriate for the types of knowledge that they have.

Holly: And many new job areas, I would add, are opening up that require possibly the equivalent of an associate degree, shorter and shorter term credentials around drone technology and sensor technology areas. But if we don’t open up doors and enable folks to enter into those programs, they’re not going to have access to good paying jobs.

John: And in addition to the racial inequities, there are also some fairly significant ones by household income, and also by first-gen and continuing generation status, which is also very highly correlated with the racial gap. So we’re seeing essentially that people who are privileged in society or children from households that have more privilege are likely to acquire more education and see relatively large increases in income, while households who are in the bottom of the income distribution end up falling further and further behind. Because much of the growth in income inequality has been due to the rising skill premium associated with education, and so forth. So this is a really important initiative that can do quite a bit to help clean that up, I think.

Holly: And there’s an important reason as Nan raised is that why the graduate student numbers are growing at community colleges. So they put time and money into developing graduate degrees, baccalaureate degrees, too, and then they can’t find good jobs, because they don’t have a strong enough skill set. So they’re going to go to a community college, potentially, and that’s where they’re going to acquire skills needed in order to enter good jobs. So it’s affecting everybody.

Rebecca: Do you see this as a replacement for traditional college pathways, or an and/or, both, all?

Nan: So when we talk about incremental credentialing, we’re not saying, you know, just the smaller term credentials, what we’re saying is that we need to credential people as they go through their learning. And so some of the credentials are degrees, some are certificates, some are diplomas, and some are microcredentials, some are badges, some are these other kinds of terms that are coming up. But what we really are saying is, let’s not just leave it to only a few ways of being recognized, let’s create a whole array. And so everybody is recognized along the way. But the degrees are part of the system, we’re not planning to replace the degrees, what we want to do is add to the possibilities.

Holly: So we are calling for a transformation of the hiring system that recognizes the changing workplace demands that recognizes the need for equity, and opening up options that actually I like to think about this like going through the drive thru to get a burger. Invariably, I like a single burger. So I asked for the single burger. And usually the person on the other end says, “Well, don’t you want the combo?” And I say, “No, I don’t really want the combo.” But increasingly, I’ve been thinking that the combo in a credentialing metaphor is really powerful because a degree plus two badges plus maybe a certificate is going to maybe serve someone in better stead than the degree alone, or even the two badges alone. There’s a growing number of researchers who as students start acquiring this array of credentials and packing them together, who are trying to understand is there more return on investment for people who get the combo and I will contend that there probably will be, particularly over a lifetime. And that is the kind of system that we’re moving to.

John: So, these additional credentials fill a gap for people who don’t go through the traditional pathways. But can the use of stackable credentials also serve as an entryway into those degree programs for those who may not be able to afford full-time college at some stage of their life?

Nan: Absolutely. And so some of the projects that are in the initiative, they are taking existing degrees and breaking them into smaller credentials that add up. And so that’s one way. And some of the initial research out there, there isn’t much research yet, and this project also has a whole research component to it. But the research is starting to show some tendency of a greater persistence and completion when people are being credentialed in these smaller pieces. And so we are seeing people progressing and going along. So that’s why we hope to be able to document more of that trend. So the framework that we have actually has six different kinds of strategies that really interrelate and the stackable is one of them. But we’re also looking at the incremental credentials, being able to look at skilling and upskilling, specialization, thinking about transfer, thinking about working with employers, and also thinking about what we’re calling retroactively awarding when people already have gained knowledge and skills in courses and being able to credential that. So the idea is some people will still just go through the traditional degree pathway. But what if they also could pick up additional credentials. So just as Holly was saying, there’s the additional that’s the deluxe hamburger, but just in terms of thinking about right now, one thing is that we give people limited choices. But also what if we auto-awarded as people were gaining this so that nobody was going without that, that also means that the incremental credential is also distributed more equally across so that we don’t have some groups getting it and some groups not. But that just everybody picks up as many different credentials as they can. Because the more you can show and demonstrate and have that transparency about your knowledge and skills, the more viable you are for gaining additional employment or upskilling employment and continuing your education further.

Rebecca: Seems to me like a system like this to be fully implemented really requires a lot of change, not just the change in credentialing, the change in how we think about how these credentials are taught, who teaches them, how they’re rewarded, but also maybe how people finance getting these credentials in the first place.

Holly: Yes, all of the above.

Nan: And so we’re seeing some changes in some of the state policies around this as well. For example, in New York, the budget that just passed this last weekend, has some funds for what they call TAP, the Tuition Assistance Program, to be able to be used towards a more workforce focused credentialing, and that’s a new aspect. And Holly, why don’t you talk about the policies that have happened in Colorado?

Holly: Yes, and Colorado recently has provided enabling changes in statute that let the universities offer associate degrees, which previously they couldn’t do. And that gets at that issue I raised when we first started the conversation around reverse transfer associate degrees. What about those students who started at a four-year institution, when they passed the milestone of a learning equivalent to an associate degree can they receive an associate degree? Previously, they could not. They’re at a university and a university doesn’t offer an associate degree, Colorado’s policy now will be permissive, so that the universities that wish to offer the associate degree, and perhaps they’ll call it something else, will recognize that learning and we think that that will be very positive for students. Keep in mind, the majority of students work their way through school, they’re not going full time, by and large. And we think that they’ll find better work, part-time work, full-time work ,while they’re going to school, if they are credentialed well along the way.

Nan: In addition to that, we are seeing other states as well really developing policy around prior learning assessment, around using military credits, finding different ways to enable the adult learner to return to higher education, and recognizing the kinds of knowledge that they already have, which is reducing the cost of their education.

John: Traditional degree programs are often fairly rigid in their structure and that may not meet the needs of employers or the needs of the individuals, and it seems like this system would provide a lot more flexibility for students to create customized paths that are appropriate for their own goals.

Holly: Yes. [LAUGHTER] And the higher ed institutions, the programs are being pushed because of workplace demands to establish stronger partnerships with employers, particularly in their own local areas, in order to improve their programs. And this means weaving in industry awarded certifications, where they may blend well with the curriculum of the degree program, to provide more apprenticeships, more internships, more work and learn, to recognize learning that maybe that part-time person is learning while they’re working. So there’s a tremendous pressure on the faculty in order to make a lot of these changes that would really, truly transform our system into a real learn and work ecosystem.

Rebecca: The Advisory Board for this project is quite large in scope and varied in nature. Can you talk a little bit about how the membership was selected, and really the kind of buy-in that you’re having from this project?

Holly: When we first got going, we talked a lot about the big lift, this will be just to bring awareness to the field about the reasons for this kind of transformative change, essentially. And so we knew we would need to work with influencers. And we would need to cast the net broadly. So we decided, as difficult as it is to set up a large advisory board, that we should go large. And we now have 114 members, and frankly, we’re in the process of trying to invite maybe another 15 or 20. And what we did was establish the stakeholder groups that make up the learn and work ecosystem, so we could guide who we would select to join the advisory board. And we came up with about a dozen stakeholder groups in the broader learn and work ecosystem. There are the accrediting and the standards organizations, there’s industry, the data and learning management industry, the foundations, the philanthropy group, the government and quasi-governmental groups, the higher ed institutions, international organizations that because much of this activity is going on internationally, not only in the US. So when we came up with this dozen or so group, we thought, okay, who fits into those, and we sent out invitations, and we explained what we were all about. We didn’t know what the response would be. And I don’t think there was anybody that turned us down. And we were surprised by this and [LAUGHTER] gratified by this. So we have a large group and it is growing, we meet regularly to seek guidance from the advisory. We have some workgroups going, and this group is going to be very important as this continues in the future, to build awareness for and to help us influence many types of groups about the importance of this work.

Nan: The other thing to note here is, and Holly mentioned that we have workgroups by having a larger board, we are able to break into workgroups and take on some of these critical issues, and really start to think through them in a more detailed way. But on top of that, our advisory board meetings are not where we just asked them: “What do you think about this?” But we’ve actually been bringing in and having discussions around key issues, things like technology. Today, we actually had one where we had the three states that are in the project, there’s 21 institutions across the three states that are part of this. And they were showcasing the kinds of things that are going on and really talking about just the whole credentialing space within those institutions. So there are ways that we’re using the Advisory Board as really a think tank and really helping us move this forward. And as a result, we are also engaging some of the advisory board members to write and to be speaking on this and really helping us create a whole national campaign and movement around this credential as you go.

John: Rebecca mentioned the size of the advisory board, but they’re also people with some really impressive credentials from a wide variety of stakeholders. It’s a very impressive Advisory Board. We can share a link to that in the show notes.

Holly: When we were developing the short bios, along with the photos that exist at our website that describes who was on board, we told them that they would have a 100-word limit and no degrees, no degrees and institutions where you graduated from on the list .We wanted to focus on what experiences do you have that you bring to the table? And that was a little new way of thinking about your bio, and folks really resonated well to that.

John: …ties in very nicely with the project as well.

Holly: Yes, exactly.

John: This is a really ambitious project that’s clearly taking a lot of time and effort on your part and the part of many people. Why is it so important that this work be done right now?

Nan: I feel that this is really important. We mentioned equity, but it’s really a social justice piece. We’re talking about: how do we recognize people for what they know and can do in a formal way that can be recognized across the country or across the world? And when we think about that number of people… 36 to 40 million adults in this country have some college and no degree, we have to recognize that the current system, which is an old, old system… it’s an ancient system…isn’t helping the society move forward. It helps some, but not everybody. And so this is a really important concept to really start to be able to recognize people and to help them move forward with employment and further education.

Holly: And I’d like to address the question of scale. Often, when people talk about innovation, there are the pioneers out there that are building gardens of innovation all around the country, there’s a tremendous amount of excellent work that’s going on at institutions everywhere, and in many of the states to set policy that will enable more innovative approaches. But if you look at all the institutions, I would argue that the innovation is still a drop in the bucket in that, to really transform the higher ed system, we’re gonna have to go to great scale. And so right now we have three states that are prototyping, we have a fourth state that has asked whether or not they can look over our shoulder for a year and plan for how they could become involved in credential-as-you-go, and we think there will be some others that will do that as well in the next couple of years. But, we’re going to be facing a massive issue around scale, how to move from those gardens of innovation around the country to major transformation. And that’s where the national campaign is going to grow in importance. We’re going to need to have resources available for folks that probably will not be in an individual grant project, there isn’t going to be enough money on the table for everybody in the US to join the credentials-as-you-go initiative. So we’re talking about developing the best resources we can put together to enable those who are interested in the concept to want to try to do this on their own, so that we could give them playbooks of what does it take to do this work, explain why it’s so important, give them examples of the kinds of incremental credentials that are being developed by discipline, by undergraduate, by graduate level, by types of institutions, so they can get a range of efforts that are underway, and to put together and employ the policies that the states particularly are passing in order to enable this. So we’re in the middle of discussions about scale, how quickly can we get to bigger scale than really the current initiative. And so I feel like that is something that we’re going to be contending with literally in the next couple of years.

Nan: One other thing that I’d like to bring up, and it relates to the size of our advisory board, we can’t do this alone, it’s not just our project that’s going to make a difference. There are a lot of initiatives that are happening right now in higher education, and also in the employment world, where all of these initiatives are moving the needle a little bit, but everybody is wanting to see change. And so we’re finding right now, the time out there is such that as we’re talking with faculty, when we’re talking with institutions, we’re hearing people say, “Yes…” we’re not hearing like, “Oh, no way.” But we also are building on work they’re already doing, we are connecting. We’re thinking of ourselves as real connectors. And so thinking about the different kinds of initiatives, we see this all being in that learn and work ecosystem space, and that it’s important to really bring everybody together and look at this in terms of where do we go? What is this going to look like five years from now? 10 years from now, 50 years from now? How do we start to really think about the role of higher education in the evolving world?

Rebecca: I think when you’re talking about scope and vision, we can see where we want to be, where we’re headed in the vision that you guys are sharing as part of the project. What are some of the next deliverables your team has planned [LAUGHTER] to incrementally get us there?

Holly: Those are some of the deliverables: to use our advisory board, use the developments in the three states and some others, to pull together some best examples so that we can make them available. We’re talking about assembling a digital learner-work ecosystem library, that would be a wiki model, where we could identify what a lot of these terms mean, identify the networks and partnerships that are working in these spaces, in the broad arena of the learner-work ecosystem, and then identify what are the key initiatives that people who are having to build these highways can learn from. So we have a tremendous lift around developing materials and resources that will help the whole field to understand this better. And keep in mind the stakeholder groups that I mentioned, the 12 or so… policymakers don’t really understand this world so well, because it’s so rapidly changing. Employers are being besieged by candidates showing up with: “Well, I’ve got a badge here and a certificate of this and something of a degree…” and the employer doesn’t know what this means and they’re coming from different institutions. So we have got to help to make this world more understandable. And I would say those are some of the deliverables. We’ll have real examples,we’ll demonstrate what can be done. The research component of credential-as-you-go is very robust, and it will help determine whether or not the framework that Nan’s team in New York developed for pilot testing holds up and can help institutions in order to design a better curriculum. And whether or not it ends up being fairer for all. We need answers to those questions. So these are the deliverables that we have in mind for the next few years.

John: So we always end with the question, “What’s next?” Which is something you’ve already been addressing a little bit, but we’ll leave that open.

Nan: One thing that we haven’t really talked much about, but we do have a US Department of Education Institute for Educational Sciences (IES) grant that is funding some of this work. And in the grant, specifically, we are working with three states, 21 institutions, and by August 2024, we’ll have a minimum of 90 new incremental credentials that are part of what we’re looking at. It is a research grant. And so as Holly has already mentioned, we have extensive research that we are doing. It’s got two priorities, one is looking at the feasibility. What does this really mean? How do we really see that this works? …and the other is looking at student outcomes. And so we have a whole comparative analysis piece that is looking at student outcomes. And then the third leg of the grant is looking at this national campaign: How do we really help people with the messaging, helping all the stakeholders really understand what this is about and the value of it? And as a result, we’re building out a website that will house a lot of tools and resources that will be available for people to use. The research will be there, a lot of messaging, all different kinds of things that we’re building out. So those are some of the immediate things. But then what comes after that is, we see this in a couple of different ways. One is adding on more states. And we even in the grant, develop some strategies to, by the third year of the grant, be able to start really helping others come along. And so when Holly mentioned the playbook, that’s one of the ideas that we’re developing, we’re already developing the resources to go in that. But how do we leave kind of the footprint in such a way that others can just come along… that we don’t have to have more grants that this becomes really normalized. That’s really what we’re seeking is that this is just the normal way we do business. And so adding on more people, taking the results of some of the work. So as Holly mentioned, doing this inventory of policies, we really want to be able to then have some strategies for different states to be thinking about policies, looking at state systems, what are the things that need to be in place there, what are the things that need to be in place as an institution, so sort of the next level of goals is really to see about how to help scale this up, but in ways that can be adopted independent of a lot of support and help. I always kind of laugh about that, this kind of work is you’re working really hard to put yourself out of business. We’re not in this to be hand holding lots of institutions and systems and states, but rather, really providing the resources and tools that are needed to expand the work across the country.

Holly: And so, I just think of two elements in the next steps. We’re in the proof of concept now. And I think we’re heading to go big. And we will need 1000s of trains steaming across the nation bringing these kinds of transformations to their systems, along with all of their different stakeholders. And I’m optimistic… I tend to be an optimistic person. It’s not going to happen overnight. But a lot of this is underway. And this is the time coming out hopefully of COVID, all these workforce changes going on, students waking up that this is a very complicated system we’re all living in and that we need to be skilling up for our whole lifetime. These trains have converged and we think that we’re going to be going towards scale very soon. And that’s, in my mind, what’s next.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for sharing some interesting ideas for all of us to consider and hopefully act on.

John: And thank you for all your valuable work on this project. It can make a huge difference.


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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


238. Engaged Teaching

The past two years have been challenging for teachers to navigate and be excited about. In this episode, Claire Howell Major joins us to discuss what it means to be an engaged teacher as well as practical resources to support teachers on their journey. Claire is a Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership Policy and Technology Studies at the University of Alabama. She is the author or co-author of several superb books and resources on teaching and learning.

Show Notes


John: The past two years have been challenging for teachers to navigate and be excited about. In this episode, we discuss what it means to be an engaged teacher as well as practical resources to support teachers on their journey.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Claire Howell Major. Claire is a Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership Policy and Technology Studies at the University of Alabama. She is the author or co-author of several superb books on teaching and learning. Welcome back, Claire.

Claire: Thanks, I’m delighted to be here, John and Rebecca. Thanks for having me again. My second time, so yay.

Rebecca: Love it!

John: We’re really happy to have you back again. And our teas today are… Claire, are you drinking tea?

Claire: I am not. I’m drinking water.

Rebecca: John. I have a supreme English breakfast today.

Claire: Nice. Good choice.

John: Supreme as in?

Rebecca: It’s supreme.

John: Okay, we’ll leave it at that, and I have an Irish breakfast today. So part of the same empire there.

Rebecca: Yeah… [LAUGHTER]

John: That supreme empire.

Rebecca: I was going to say, is it very supreme? [LAUGHTER]

John: It is just Twinings Irish breakfast.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss Engaged Teaching: A Handbook for College Faculty, your newest book, co-authored with Elizabeth Barkley, and its relationship with the K. Patricia Cross Academy. Could you first tell us a little bit about the creation of the K. Patricia Cross Academy?

Claire: Sure Rebecca, I would be delighted to. The Cross Academy is a resource that Elizabeth and I developed, in part, to honor Pat Cross, and her many, many contributions to higher education. Pat had just an amazing career in higher education that started really in about the mid 50s. And she finished her work in the mid 90s. And she served in a ton of high level administrative positions: at Cornell, at Berkeley, and at Harvard. And these were really high level positions at a time where it was pretty difficult for women to get high level positions. And she just did an amazing job and was really respected for her work as an administrator, but also for her work as a researcher. And you probably know her Classroom Assessment Techniques with Tom Angelo. It’s a fabulous book that shares formative classroom assessment techniques, and it has been used far and wide. I use it myself on a regular basis, and it’s been around for a long time and is still just a great tool. In that book, Pat and Tom developed a format for the assessment techniques that Elizabeth, Pat, and I used when we co-authored our first book together, Collaborative Learning Techniques. And it also served as the model for several of our later books, including Student Engagement Techniques, Interactive Lecturing, and Learning Assessment Techniques. And those techniques became the basis and the foundation for the Cross Academy. So that’s where it came from, but in addition to honoring Pat for her work, we also wanted to share information with faculty. We wanted to make some of these techniques a lot more accessible, so people didn’t have to necessarily go buy a book. That they could go to an online resource and pull that information anytime, anywhere, and also for free. We just wanted an open resource that could help faculty, and help faculty in short chunks. Each of our videos is about two to three minutes, and so it’s not a huge investment of time to go watch two or three minutes of video to get a great technique that faculty can try out in their own courses, and hopefully find a good use for. So our purpose there was twofold, to honor Pat and her work and also to widely share information that her work was foundational for, and we developed it from there and wanted to share that information with others.

John: At the teaching center here, we shared many resources with our faculty during the course of the pandemic. But the one that was most appreciated by faculty, based on the number of responses, was the K. Patricia Cross Academy resources. People wrote back saying how very useful it was, and how they wished they had seen it earlier and it’s gotten a lot of really positive responses here on campus, and I’m sure everywhere.

Claire: Well, thank you for that, John. I’m just delighted to hear it. It just warms my heart to hear that your faculty have enjoyed it. We have had a lot of visitors to the site, over 200,000 at this point. So I do think we are accomplishing that goal of sharing information with faculty. And we’re always just delighted, and so pleased to hear that people are finding it useful. That they are using the techniques in their own classes… so, just great news.

John: There’s so many other resources out there that describe some of the techniques that you have there, but they’re usually text based with maybe some images, or there may be a YouTube video or there may be some handouts attached to the text and so forth. But what people seem to really appreciate with this, and what we really appreciate with this is… you’ve got all those resources together in a really nice efficient arrangement. And you’ve devised a site where it’s really easy to find this material. You have a number of ways of indexing it. Could you talk a little bit about the ways in which people can access the information on the site?

Claire: Sure, sure. The site currently consists of 50 main videos, and each video is focused on a single teaching technique. For example, quick writes, or digital stories, or case studies and so on, and all of these techniques can be sorted in several different ways. You can search by the activity type, is it an assessment technique? Or is it a group learning technique? You can sort by the problem that it solves, for example, are you having trouble with student engagement? Are you having trouble with student attention? You can sort that way, and you can sort by Dee Finks’ learning taxonomy. So is it for foundational knowledge you’re trying to use the technique for? Are you trying to help students develop higher-order thinking skills? Are you trying to help students learn how to learn? And so the site is sortable in all those different ways, but it’s not just those 50 techniques. Each of those 50 techniques also has an online version. So we developed 50 additional videos, where we say, “Okay, here’s what a jigsaw is,” in the main video. And then in the accompanying video for how to do it online, we would say, “Here’s how you do a jigsaw in an online course.” So we have 100 videos really, because each of the 50 has the online version. And in addition to the videos, because you know, I’m pretty much a text-based person. I love to read, I love to see things in writing, I love books, all of those things. But we also have the techniques in downloadable templates. So in addition to watching the video, you can download a written version that gives you the quick and dirty of: here’s how you do it… provides the rationale for it. It gives an example of how it’s done in practice, a lot of times those examples come from my courses or Elizabeth’s courses. But there’s also worksheets space for faculty to record their own answers. And we also have a blog on the Cross Academy site, which we call CrossCurrents. And the blog publishes monthly, and we have different write ups each month of things that are timely and topical for teaching. And so we might discuss blended learning, for example, in a video or a blog, or another blog might be: “here’s how you can get students to read for class.” So we have all those different features in the Academy.

Rebecca: I love that everything is so bite sized, so that you can curate your own kind of collection of things to share as well so easily because the examples aren’t embedded in other examples. Which is sometimes you know, you might have a video or a workshop on good techniques, but then they’re all in the same thing. You can kind of separate them out, which is really nice. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: Yes, thanks Rebecca. We think so too, and part of that is, we know how busy we are. I mean, gosh, right now especially, faculty are just overwhelmed with teaching, with research, with service, with whatever we’re doing. And it feels like now it’s even more so than, say, pre-pandemic, because there’s so much more emotional labor to engage in. And it’s just a lot of work. So how do you find time to work on your teaching, and that’s one of the things we wanted to do is make everything easily accessible, like I said, where you could learn something new in two to three minutes, or a five- or ten-minute read of a blog post or something like that. So the goal is to make it manageable, and very, very useful and very practical.

Rebecca: And such a great model for what we should be doing for our students.

John: One thing I do have to wonder, though, given what you just said about all the challenges that faculty are facing is… how you’ve been able to stay so incredibly productive with all of these books. I think you’ve written more really good books on teaching and learning than most faculty have ever read.

Claire: Well, thank you. I think that’s a compliment, [LAUGHTER] I’m gonna take it as one.

John: It is. I’m really amazed. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Please teach us the ways. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: I think there are maybe a couple of reasons for that. One, I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English. So my background is in English, and in English you learn to write a lot and you learn to write quickly, right? [LAUGHTER] Or at least in my degree programs that was one of the features, but the other thing is that, maybe because of that degree is, I process by writing. I learn things by writing. It’s how I take in information and understand the world. So a lot of the books I’ve written and co-authored with Elizabeth and other people. You’ve met Todd, and Michael and some of the other folks that I’ve worked with, just wonderful, fabulous folks, but one of the things that I think I try to do is learn something. And when I’m learning something, I’m usually writing stuff down about it, and by the time I’ve written all the stuff down that I’ve learned, then I think, “Well, I can just share this with other people,” right? I’ve done all this work to try to understand something myself, to think through it. That’s something I can share with others, and that’s certainly how the first book that Elizabeth, Pat, and I developed together, the Collaborative Learning Techniques, came about. I was really struggling with collaborative learning. It is hard to do that well. But the benefits are worth it because the research is really clear on that. It helps students learn, it helps develop their learning outcomes, it helps them get along with each other, it helps increase understanding and awareness, it really benefits marginalized students, it benefits not marginalized students. I mean, the research is really clear that it is a fabulous technique. And so I just wanted to learn how to do it and learn how to do it well, and so I started digging into everything I could get my hands on, and trying to pull it together, and synthesizing it. And I talked with Pat Cross about it, and Pat said, “You know, we should use that classroom assessment technique format for this book. And by the way, Elizabeth Barkley is going to be writing this book with us,” and that’s how that got started. Anyway, I think that’s mainly it. It’s me trying to learn and I’m on a constant quest for trying to learn new things, and I just try to share that information when I can.

John: And we all benefit from that . Thank you.

Claire: Thank you.

Rebecca: So glad you’re so curious. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: Yeah, I guess so. I guess I’m curious or motivated by challenges that I’m facing. So either way, either way.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how Engaged Teaching, your new book, relates to the Academy?

Claire: Yes. So I think there are a lot of different ways it relates, but I’ll say this, we wanted to write a foundational, or introductory book for college teaching. So one of the things I try to do in my work is, I’ve mentioned how busy faculty are, I want to put theory and research into the faculty’s hands in ways they can use it to improve their own teaching and learning. And those have been narrow slices, like collaborative learning, like learning assessment techniques, like interactive lecturing, some of those things are pretty focused. And so Elizabeth and I were talking about it, and we decided that it would be really useful to have a foundational text that does basically that. That draws together the theory and the research, but we’re both very, very practical people. We want things that help faculty in their day-to-day practices, that they can take away immediately and use something from. So we had the Cross Academy that have those takeaways. You can use this in your class tomorrow, watch this video, take it to your class tomorrow, or take it to your class in an hour. But we wanted to provide the theory and the research that supports that and some of the broader practical tips. So that’s kind of how it came into being. That we wanted this broader foundational book to give the techniques some context, and to give it some foundation and some grounding in the work. So they do talk to each other. Like I said, the book is the foundation, and the techniques are the very practical: “Here’s how you carry it out.” Although the book has that too, the practice parts, but it’s bigger practice, it’s more like a general tip. Whereas one of the tips might be, “Use small groups in your teaching,” and then the techniques are, “Hey, use a jigsaw,” or “Hey, try a think, pair, share.” So they are connected that way.

John: And you describe those linkages in the book and have a table of how those techniques tie back into the chapters to make it easier to do that cross referencing.

Claire: Yes, that’s right. And we mention the techniques within the chapters where we find them particularly relevant. Many of them can cut across a lot of different chapters. But if you’re reading the chapter on collaborative learning, we mentioned techniques that are on the Cross Academy site that are focused on group learning, and so forth.

John: The title of the book begins with “Engaged Teaching.” How do you define engaged teaching?

Claire: That’s a really good question and I think engaged teaching is a really interesting and important concept right now. You read things in The Chronicle of Higher Education… faculty are disengaged, students are disengaged, etc, etc… I’m not sure I believe that exactly. I know we’re tired, right? [LAUGHTER] I know that we’ve dealt with some things through the pandemic, and it’s taken a toll. But I think the engagement is still there, and I think to be really effective teachers starts with being an engaged teacher. One leads to the other. Being engaged can get you to be effective. So I think of engaged teaching as two things, it’s a foundation and also a process. And the foundation is an intellectual foundation. And that involves the knowing what, the knowing why, and the knowing how, and that’s how each of our chapters is structured. Every chapter you’ll read there’s a “what this topics’ about,” “why this topic is important” (largely drawing on the research), and then “how you can do this particular thing in practice.” So that’s the foundation, the intellectual part of that. And the process is implementing that in key areas of teaching and the key steps that we have to undergo. And that is developing our own knowledge. It means planning a course, it means creating a positive learning climate and choosing and using the appropriate instructional methods. And it also involves continual improvement of our teaching practice. So it’s going through each of those phases of teaching and thinking through the knowing what, the knowing why, and the knowing how.

Rebecca: When I think about engaged teaching, and as you’re describing things, Claire, I also think about reflective practice and how they’re tied together. And the idea that you have to observe what you’re doing to be fully engaged, or take time to reflect on that, to really dig into the research or to know what techniques you want to look into, or to recognize that you’re struggling with something.

Claire: Right, and I think that’s a key point. And I think the idea of reflective practice is kind of an overarching idea of the book. But we also have a chapter on that, on being a reflective teacher and using reflective practice in your teaching. So absolutely, they are definitely related.

John: For our listeners who have not yet picked up a copy of the book, could you provide an overview of the different sections of the book?

Claire: Sure, part one is about foundations of teaching and learning. And in that we start with engaged and effective teaching, and what engaged teaching means, and how that can lead you to effective teaching. We also think through pedagogical content knowledge, and that’s a specialized kind of knowledge that faculty have that no one else has and it’s really important to develop that, and we think about how to develop that. We also talk about student learning, which I think is really important and it’s something we don’t always have formal instruction on in our graduate programs, or prior to teaching our courses. But we think it’s really essential to understand what your views of learning are, and how students learn, and what can be challenges to student learning, and then how they can overcome those challenges. So it is a very foundational: “Here’s teacher knowledge, here’s student learning, and here’s some things you need to know.” Part two is about planning, and that involves thinking about learning goals, objectives and outcomes, everybody’s favorite, right? But those are more and more essential in today’s society [LAUGHTER] they say. We all have to usually do those for all kinds of reasons. For accreditation purposes, because we have to post our syllabi, and other things, and because it is just a good idea to do. The research shows that it helps improve student learning. If you have this kind of clear path laid out and know where you’re going, it helps you know how to get there. We also, in that section, talk about assessing and grading, and we talk about visual elements in teaching which is, I think, an under-thought-through aspect of teaching, but I think it is important to the planning process. And that could be from your syllabi to your slide decks to your online LMS or whatever. There’s a lot of visual content that we share with students that I think we can improve and really think through and do a good job on. Part three is about the learning climate. We think about student engagement and motivation. We talk about community and how to build community in classes, and we also think through and talk about how to promote equity and inclusion in teaching. Part four is about instructional methods, and we cover three big ones there: interactive lecturing, discussion, and then also collaborative learning. And then finally, in part five, we focus on improvement. And we talk about reflective teaching and assessing and evaluating student teaching from beyond student opinions of instruction, right? Some other ways to go about it. We do talk about student opinions of instruction and some of the challenges with those, and some of the benefits with those, but also thinking beyond that, and other ways to assess and evaluate teaching. And then our final chapter is on the scholarship of teaching and learning, and how we can go that extra step in collecting data, understanding data, and sharing that information with other people.

Rebecca: So basically, the textbook that none of us had when we started teaching. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: That was kind of the idea. Yeah, absolutely. I teach a course on college teaching, and this is what I would want my students to know.

John: And it’s everything from the basic theory of course design, implementation of the course, and looking back and seeing what worked, and what didn’t work, and what you could do better. It’s pretty much everything faculty need to do to become an effective teacher, or an engaged teacher.

Claire: Maybe not everything, but we definitely try to cast a wide net and cover a lot of important topics that we hope will benefit people from thinking through a little bit more.

Rebecca: I really love that this particular text includes an introduction to the scholarship of teaching and learning too, because it’s an area that many of us might want to engage in, but are never really exposed to necessarily, at least early on. You might stumble upon it [LAUGHTER] as opposed to it being like formally introduced.

Claire: Right, right, and there’s so much good work in that area. I mean, that field is really growing, and they’re just more and more articles being published, and I think it’s wonderful because so many times teaching is very isolated. We go behind our closed doors, or we sit behind our screens, and we teach our courses, and it stops there, and our students go out, and that’s wonderful, and carry on. But we may have faculty teaching the same courses at other institutions who never hear anything about what we’re doing, and if we can contribute to that knowledge then we can all get better. It helps us all level up just a little bit to be able to hear what other people are doing, and what’s working, or what’s not working, and to have that data I just think is really great. So I hope people will look at that and think, “Gosh, I could do this. I could go out and do an article on my teaching and share that with others.” I think that would be a fabulous, fabulous outcome.

Rebecca: Can you describe to our listeners, maybe a couple of your favorite teaching techniques or other nuggets from the book?

Claire: That is such a hard question, it’s like choosing your favorite child. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: All right, just an example, just an example, it doesn’t have to be your favorite. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: No, no, I’m gonna give you a couple. I have used, I believe, every single technique we have on the Cross Academy site, and so I have personally field tested them all, and I think Elizabeth has as well. And there are some ones that I turn to over and over and over again. Quick writes are one, I think background knowledge probe is another one, case studies I use quite often. There are two that I turn to, I would say, more often than others. And one is the digital story, and that’s where students create videos, and in these videos they describe how their own personal lives connect to the course content. And I like to use these early in a course to help students introduce themselves to each other, and also because it puts them in a mind frame of understanding, “Oh hey, I do have important knowledge and experience that relates to this course,” and that’s pretty good. And I have seen students just produce really, really wonderful, fabulous stories, and it’s really heartening. They share things and it’s just really powerful to see these. So I do love that one. Another one that I really love is a personal learning environment, and that’s where people have digital resources that they can use to learn more about their course content later on going forward. And it’s basically they create a concept map that’s got nodes and ties to the resources that they could use, and it could be people, it could be websites, it could be books, it could be journals that they’re going to consult going forward. But I often like to end a course by having them develop a PLE where they can say how they can continue to learn about the course content going forward. So those are two of my favorites, I think.

Rebecca: Those are good favorites. I like those two.

Claire: Yeah I like them, they’re good. And they work well both online and on site. So they’ve got some flexibility that way.

Rebecca: Just mentally noting like, “Yes, yes, that would be a really good way to end my class.”

Claire: Right?

Rebecca: Yes, maybe I should update my syllabus. [LAUGHTER] Re-writing the assignment in my head as we’re talking. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: Yeah, it’s one of my favorites, and they get really detailed with them. And they have all these mapping tools you can use like Popplet, or Buble.us, or whatever the newest programs are and they make just beautiful illustrations, and get really complicated maps, and do have very clear content sources that they can seek out in the future. And I think that’s great. And I love seeing the people that they choose. It’s really fun to see.

Rebecca: I imagine anything that doesn’t say “just Google it” sounds great. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: Yeah, although sometimes Google does pop up on one of the resources in the nodes. They do mention Google and that’s fair, right?

Rebecca: As long as it’s not the only node. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: No, it’s not. It’s never the only one. So I’m teaching this college teaching course, and I had them do a PLE for this course and they have all kinds of people who were out there talking about teaching. They have all kinds of books that we’ve discussed in class and journals that focus on college teaching, conferences that are related to college teaching. It’s really elaborate and intricate. I never really specify, you could specify how many nodes and ties they have to do, but I never do and they have not yet disappointed. They’re always really very thoughtful and well done, and really nicely mapped out resources.

Rebecca: I’m sure as the instructor that gets to look at all of them your own really expands. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: It does, right, right? Yeah, that’s a good point. They have great suggestions. They really do.

John: I really liked the way you described bringing students into the discussion though, by thinking about how it applies to their life and building the relevance and salience of the material, and then preparing them at the end to become lifelong learners. So you’re really bringing students into the conversation in the discipline in a way that a lot of classes don’t.

Claire: Right, yeah. I think it’s really important, and so I’m teaching this course that I’ve mentioned a couple of times now, online this semester. And students are really great and really open, and there are a few things that I’m doing there that I think are interesting. One of the things that I do is, instead of having them submit assignments, they submit everything through the discussion board, and so they all see each other’s PLEs, they all see each other’s digital stories. It’s sort of like a gallery approach to assignments and I love it, you know? And nobody’s complained about it yet. So I think that’s good. I will say I’m teaching graduate students, I might have a different approach if I were doing undergrad. But at the graduate level, they seem very willing to share their information with each other. And they always say that they learn from looking at each other’s posts, that they always think of things that they would not have thought about if they had just been submitting online. And so I do think it’s very important to have the conversation, and the students involved in the direction. Another thing I think is interesting is that I do a questions and comments section on each module. And that’s all it says, if you have any questions or comments, post. They have no reason to post there, and the first time I tried that I thought, “No one’s ever going to use this,” but they do. They get in there and they post, they post thoughts about readings, they post questions to each other, they respond to each other’s questions. And I don’t get very involved in that unless there’s a question that hasn’t been answered, then I’ll answer it. But mostly, that’s a self sustaining thing where students are just self managing the board and helping each other out and talking to each other without the instructor telling them to, and without a lot of monitoring, so that’s fun. So yeah, students are fabulous. I love involving them. I love hearing from them, and I love giving them a space where they can share and talk to each other.

John: And it sounds like they’re quite engaged.

Claire: They are, they’re great, they’re great.

John: The use of a discussion board for students submitting assignments reminds me of an earlier discussion we had on a podcast with Darina Slattery. She called the activity E-tivities, where all the work in her course… it was also, I believe, a graduate course in education…, was done through discussion board submissions. And she also described some of the benefits that students receive from sharing each other’s work and that collaborative environment. So it seems like a really good technique that I should try too. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: Right, It’s fabulous. I love it, I love it. I recently was revising my course with an instructional designer. He was like, “You know you’ve got all your assignments set up as discussion boards, right?” It’s like, “Yeah, yeah I know.” He’s like, “Do you think they’re going to be nervous about that?” I said, “Well, they don’t seem to be.” [LAUGHTER] They seem to be fine, just sharing away no one’s, like I said, ever really expressed discomfort either during the class, or through the SOI, it has only ever been very positive. I loved seeing what other people were doing, I learned from other people, it was great to be in that kind of dialogue with other people. And so it is an unusual approach, and I guess maybe it’s good to prepare people for it. But they seem to respond well, at least as far as I can tell.

John: But it’s also preparing people who are going to be teaching to work in an environment that’s collaborative so they’re not in their silos making the same mistakes that tens of thousands of people have made in the past, and being able to learn from each other and to share with each other. So, that seems like a really productive strategy.

Claire: It is a great strategy, at least for me and my students. I’m not saying it works in everybody’s class or for everybodys’ students, but it has been wonderful for me. The other thing I do in this course is that each week they create an assignment that’s called “create.” They have to create something, and it’s something for a final teaching dossier that they do. And so each week they produce something, like they might do a teaching philosophy, or they might outline a class session, or they might do something else. And one thing I’ve done this semester is ask them to offer each other improvements, right? Give everybody a constructive criticism. One compliment, one suggestion for making it even a tiny little bit better, because they then assemble all this work into a final portfolio. And so they’re helping each other out throughout the semester. I’m starting to see their portfolios come in, and it does make them stronger. They are doing really great work. They are all very constructive. They’re very kind to each other, and I had to nudge them a little bit at first and say, “No, you need to help them get it better, It will help their final grades if you can help them now.” And once they understood that they really locked into that and really started trying to help each other on their final projects, and that’s been really interesting and good to see as well.

Rebecca: I’ve been able to do something similar in using chat software. So right now I’m using Google Chat. But I’ve also used Slack to submit and share work.

Claire: Mmhmm.

Rebecca: And I find that my students are much more comfortable sharing in that environment where they can have written feedback and share written feedback, because they can contemplate what they say more carefully. And also, it makes a record of it, and they don’t lose it if we have a conversation about it. It’s like documented feedback. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: Yeah!

Rebecca: …or they can go back and reference, and those are things that students have said that they appreciate about an environment like that is that they’re nervous about speaking up about it, but they’re less nervous if they can plan a little bit more about how they approach it or talk about it in these chat environments. Which is funny because I think of chat as something being like, quick, [LAUGHTER] but they treat it more like a discussion board.

Claire: Right, right. Well, I’m doing it on the discussion board so I think it’s similar to what you’re doing. They do seem to appreciate it, they really do. And I think they’ve benefited from it, and I think through the process of offering constructive feedback, they see things they can improve in their own writing as well. So they’re helping somebody else out, and they’re helping themselves out, and I think that’s really fabulous, and it’s so exciting seeing their final projects come in, and how they have taken them and improved them over the semester. It’s really gratifying.

John: I’m having students do something similar, where they’re providing feedback on each other’s work. And in our last class meeting, one of the students said, “I wish the comments contained more constructive criticism.” And hearing it from another student, I think, has helped quite a bit in improving the quality of the feedback, because I asked them to provide constructive feedback to each other, but they were very reluctant to do that in the first round or two. But when other students are saying, “You know, I wish we could get more of this type of feedback.” They picked an example of that, and it seems to be making a difference.

Claire: Yeah, absolutely. It’s so gratifying. You’re just like, “Yeah, y’all are doing it, this is great.”

Rebecca: Along those lines, John, today in my class, we did an electronic whiteboard activity. I teach web design so we were critiquing a website. So I gave them a link to look at, and then to use sticky notes essentially to provide feedback. And then what I did was ask them, “Was this actionable feedback?” And then they were like, “No, not really. I don’t know what this means, I don’t know what this means.” It’s like, “Exactly,” [LAUGHTER] and I heard all kinds of clicks go on. So I think moving forward, as we moved on in the class period today, it was amazing how much better and more clear [LAUGHTER] the comments were, once they realized how vague they were when we took this thing that was outside of us to look at.

Claire: That’s great.

John: So now this book, Engaged Teaching, was written during a period of pandemic. And also I believe there’s been some developments on the K. Patricia Cross Academy during this period. Did the pandemic influence the development of these two projects?

Claire: That’s a great question, John. I think the answer is most certainly, yes. And on the Cross Academy side, I think it’s a very clear connection. We knew that we wanted to develop videos on how to do them online, eventually. So we had our 50 techniques, and we thought, “Yeah, you know what would be really good, and helpful and useful, is if we eventually, down the road sometime, created short videos on… here’s how you would do this online, either asynchronous or synchronous.” And we were kind of going along our merry way and the pandemic hit, and we realized that needed to happen a lot faster than we had originally planned. And so we sort of front loaded that, and got videos out really, really quickly, all things considered. And it was challenging because we do our filming in California, and we couldn’t travel. So there was no going there to do videos, we couldn’t be in a room with a bunch of other people trying to film those videos because, at that time, at least originally, we weren’t real sure how the spread was happening. And we didn’t know a lot about how to contain it, and I don’t think it would be great to be mask on those videos anyway. So we went to voiceovers and did a lot of work through voiceovers and accompanying footage through that, and so that shifted as well. I think as far as the book goes, I think it shifted our focus just a little bit to that concept engagement a little bit more, because we started to realize how important engagement is for faculty, for the life of faculty, for successful teaching, for all of those things. I think maybe initially it started out as the foundational textbook, and then I think we realized the importance of weaving the engagement piece through that, and thinking through, what does it mean to be an engaged teacher? And how do we engage in this work at any time, right? Especially when we’re struggling and we’re tired, and we’re doing things we don’t know how to do. I think that just became a lot more prominent. It was always there, but I think, like the online videos, the plans were there, they got frontlined. With the engagement, it was always there, but it got spotlighted or forefronted and a lot more

John: Is there some type of foundation funding the development of the K. Patricia Cross Academy? Or where does the funding and support for this come from?

Claire: So the funding for the Cross Academy has been 100% private donations, and anonymous donations to this point. So it has been completely funded by the generosity of people who wanted to support this work, to make this project an open project, and not a paid subscription or anything like that. We wanted it to be open and we found people who thought this was a good idea and were willing to support us from that. We could always use more funding, right? And so in part, this book can help with that because all the royalties that we receive from the book are going directly to support the K. Patricia Cross Academy. We’re supported by the SocialGood Foundation, and all proceeds are going directly to the SocialGood Foundation. The SocialGood Foundation is earmarking them for the K. Patricia Cross Academy, and so all of the money will go directly to support the Cross Academy for helping us continue to develop content, blogs, and videos, and continue sharing that information.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking, What’s next?

Claire: Yeah, that’s a great question. And there is always something next at the Cross Academy. We are continually trying to develop that site, and what is in the works right now is a new phase where we are developing an activity bank for college faculty to work through. And these activities will help faculty reflect on their own current views on the different aspects of college teaching in the book that we’ve just published, discuss their ideas with other faculty, and create teaching materials that can help them in their own classrooms, and also develop products that could help them in promotion, and tenure and merit reviews. So that is coming I hope soon. I guess it’ll be 2023, but that is the next phase that we are working on.

Rebecca: That sounds awesome.

John: It does.

Claire: We’re really excited about it. I hope it’s going to be useful for people and really give them the opportunity to engage with engaged teaching a little bit more, to engage with the Cross Academy in ways that can help them improve their teaching… and students’ learning by extension.

John: Well, thank you. It’s always great talking to you, and you’ve given us a lot to think about and our listeners a lot to think about. And we strongly encourage people to pick up a copy of Engaged Teaching. It’s a great book. I haven’t read through all of it, but I’ve read through a big chunk of it in the last few days since my copy came in.

Claire: Well, thank you, and thanks, John and Rebecca for having me. I have totally enjoyed being here, thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. It’s been lovely.

Rebecca: And we look forward to seeing the next round of materials that come out because I know we’ll want to share them.

Claire: Great. Thanks 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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


237. Latina Educational Developers

Our intersectional identities impact our positionality in the work that we do. In this episode, Carol Hernandez joins us to discuss her qualitative research addressing the experiences of educational designers from an underrepresented group.

Carol is a Senior Instructional Designer and Faculty Developer at the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Stony Brook University. Carol recently successfully defended her dissertation at Northeastern University. In it she examined the simultaneity of the multiple identities experienced by Latina educational developers working in higher ed. Before moving into higher ed, Carol was an award-winning journalist.

Show Notes


John: Our intersectional identities impact our positionality in the work that we do. In this episode, we discuss a qualitative research analysis addressing the experiences of educational designers from an underrepresented group.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Carol Hernandez. She is a Senior Instructional Designer and Faculty Developer at the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Stony Brook University. Carol recently successfully defended her dissertation at Northeastern University. In it she examined the simultaneity of the multiple identities experienced by Latina educational developers working in higher ed. Before moving into higher ed, Carol was an award-winning journalist. Welcome, Carol.

Carol: Hi, thank you for having me today.

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

Carol: I’m not drinking tea right now.

Rebecca: Oh.

Carol: Should I go get some? [LAUGHTER]

John: We have had a number of guests, probably about 40% or so, who are not drinking tea. So you’re in very good company.

Rebecca: Yes, excellent company in fact.

Carol: I’m usually drinking tea, but it just so happens that right now I’m not.

Rebecca: Do you have a favorite kind of tea?

Carol: Yeah, I guess I like chamomile.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds nice and refreshing and calming.

Carol: Mmhmm, or something fruity. There’s something called zesty raspberry zinger or something like that. I like that.

John: Raspberry zinger, yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m familiar.

Carol: Yeah.

John: And I have a peppermint spearmint blend today.

Rebecca: Okay, we’re calming down now, huh, John?

John: After the last four or five cups of black tea, yes.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m still hyped up on my Scottish afternoon tea.

John: We’ve invited you here because we were intrigued by the title of your dissertation, I’m Not Like You. I’m Different. But before we talk about your research and your dissertation, could you tell us a bit about your pathway, which is somewhat unique, from being a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to an educational developer?

Carol: So it starts with me going into journalism. At 19 I was an intern at the Miami Herald, and I loved it. I was so happy there, and I met all these famous writers. It was really such a dream, and I learned everything there. And then finished college and started working as a journalist, and really enjoyed it all throughout my 20s. And then I started editing, so I went to the editing side. And the way I think of writing and editing is like… writing is the creative, messy part, and then the editor comes in and analyzes it, and looks for fit, and cleans it up, and tries to make it even better. So the two really complement each other. I would never say one’s better than the other, but I think as a writer you have to be aware of those two approaches, because sometimes you just want to be in the writing space and sometimes you just want to be in the editing space. And I think what happens is sometimes you end up doing both at the same time, and you can’t get out of your own way. So anyway, in journalism, the things I really loved about it were writing, I love writing, reading. I love talking to strangers. [LAUGHTER] I love asking questions. I’m very curious, and I love learning. I love doing research, I love looking up documents, going to the courthouse and pulling lawsuits, reading things like that. That’s fun for me. And I realized I had this skill set, and there was an opportunity to teach as an adjunct at Stony Brook University in the School of Journalism. And so I started teaching, and I realized I am a subject matter expert, but I have no teaching background. I had never taught anything to anyone, and I needed help with the teaching. And I found myself at the faculty center talking to people who know about teaching, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know this was a job.” [LAUGHTER] And I thought, “Wow, this is interesting.” And I realized that the skill set that you use in instructional design is very much the skill set that you use as a journalist. And I also realized that as a journalist, you are, in a sense, an educator, because you need to quickly learn something, and then you need to explain it to your reader in a way that they will understand and be able to take some action, some informed action, based on the journalism that you have provided. So that opened my eyes to a possible career. And it coincided with the time that I had small children, and the life of a journalist, at least for me, when I was really having fun, that’s all I did, and it just took up all my time. But if you have a family that wouldn’t be fair. [LAUGHTER] So I looked around and I thought, “Well, what would be some other possible work?” And I decided, “Okay, higher ed seems like a very civilized workplace.” [LAUGHTER] Little did I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: At least it’s nice to think of it that way, yes.

Carol: You know, I just thought, “Well, I won’t have to work on Thanksgiving. I won’t have to work three to midnight. I won’t have to go ask people about their loved one who just got shot down in front of them, right? I don’t have to go to school board meetings.” There were so many pluses. [LAUGHTER] And when I was a journalist I did a lot of cops, courts, crime, really tragic stories. It was rough. I think I see myself as an upbeat person, and it was hard to stay upbeat when I was covering those kinds of events. And now that I’m not in daily journalism anymore, in that field they now discuss trauma and how it affects you as a reporter, and when I was a reporter nobody was thinking that way, and so it’s like a totally different way to see it. So I think that’s good, that it’s changed over time. So that’s basically my journey from journalism to higher ed and instructional design.

John: And working as an instructional designer, being upbeat and positive is actually a very useful asset when you’re working with faculty who are often a little bit anxious at the time, I would think.

Carol: Oh yeah, yeah. Yesterday somebody came in, and the person was so upset, and distraught, and just beside herself, and I felt almost like a counselor, “It’s okay, let’s talk about it.” [LAUGHTER] And then by the time she left, she was smiling and she wanted to make a date for coffee, and I was like, “Oh, thank God.” And I really felt like, I don’t know, she just needed, in that moment, somebody to hold some space for her, look at her course, and make some suggestions and commiserate with her, and then she was able to keep going.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: We have to rise to all kinds of different occasions in these roles, right? Like far beyond what we think our actual job description [LAUGHTER] is sometimes.

Carol: Yes, yeah. So another job that I’ve discovered when you work in a Center for Teaching and Learning, that nobody told me about, is event planning.

Rebecca: Yup. [LAUGHTER]

Carol: Which I do not like at all, but I have to do it. So I feel like we need to tell people about this, warn them ahead of time.

John: Or not, because someone has to do it, [LAUGHTER] and sometimes it’s better to be surprised once you’ve already committed to it.

Carol: Yeah, we have a Teaching and Learning Center faculty commons space, it’s beautiful. And we used to have coffee, and people would stop in to get coffee. And so for some reason we would always run out of lids, and that became like a crisis, “We’re out of lids!” [LAUGHTER] “Somebody needs to order coffee lids.” And that was always an issue.

John: We used to offer coffee, but it just became too much of a pain for me to clean it, so we switched to tea, and that’s worked well for us since then. It’s pretty easy to clean up hot water.

Carol: Yes, yes. So because of the pandemic we stopped, so we don’t offer anything. We do have the water, so you could bring a tea bag and go for it.

John: We have probably over 100 different varieties of teas here, so we still provide that, but it’s all in nice sealed containers.

Carol: Yeah. Good.

Rebecca: Yeah, so we definitely want to talk about your dissertation. Can you provide a little overview of your dissertation and the methodology that you’ve used?

Carol: Sure, so my dissertation… I used a methodology called narrative inquiry. And narrative inquiry is a qualitative methodology, it’s based on stories, so the unit of analysis is the story. And you are looking at things that are literary concepts. So symbols, metaphors, emotion, humor, all the things that make for a good story, become the markers of what you’re analyzing. Because as people, that’s what we’re drawn to, and so that’s what you’re looking at. And in my study I had a small number of participants for a couple of reasons. One is I was looking specifically at Latina women, Hispanic women, who are working in higher education institutions and are doing educational development work, and there are not a lot of us. So I put out a national call, and I ended up with not that many people. So it actually works well with narrative inquiry because it really is for a smaller number of participants. It works well for populations that are marginalized in some way or have experienced some marginalized status. So there’s fewer of us. And it’s qualitative, so it’s based on interviews. It requires you, at least for my study, I did three interviews with each person, and so it also looks at past, present, and future. So you’re looking at people’s stories about their experiences, past, present, and future. So that was the methodology that I used.

John: And that interview process seems to track very nicely with your prior career too, that experience of interviewing and extracting information.

Carol: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think of it as extracting information so much as trying to immerse yourself in the lived experience of another person. And while I’m not saying you couldn’t do it in one interview, the approach that I used really emphasizes building a relationship with the participant, and it emphasizes that storytelling triggers the stories of those who listen and that it is a co-constructive process. So you tell a story, and it reminds me of a story that I can share with you, and so both of us are enriched by sharing these stories. And so that was the vibe the whole time. And I would say good journalists are aware of that. They’re aware of… getting a story isn’t just turning on a tape recorder, it’s really about connecting to people, to their humanity, and sort of trying to put yourself in their shoes. So I agree, it was something that… I felt so happy, and so lucky, I could not believe that this approach existed. Because when I started my doctorate I thought that I would be doing some statistical analysis, that I would have to have thousands of participants. Well, I didn’t know, I didn’t know anything about that stuff. So through my doctoral program, when I found out that there are other ways to do research I was just like, “Thank you!” [LAUGHTER]

John: So instead of gathering a lot of details on specific values over a large sample, you were exploring in much greater depth the experiences of those participants. So you’re acquiring a lot of information, but it’s a much more intensive process it sounds like.

Carol: Yes, and so in my doctoral program we were taught that the methods complement each other. So if you are drawn to quantitative, good for you, do it. And if you’re drawn to qualitative, do that. And those will complement each other, one is not better than the other. So the program I went to is at Northeastern, and they focus on the scholar practitioner, and they focus a lot on disrupting that hegemony. They’re really into social justice, and having us look at our own positionality, our own bias, our own privilege, and making us question ourselves as being scholars, as contributing to knowledge. So for me, again, I lucked out, because I got into this program, and it was just such a good fit. And again, I lucked out with my advisor, my advisor, I feel like she was an angel sent from heaven, I love her.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some of the challenges that the educational developers that you interviewed identified as they navigate within their institutions?

Carol: Sure. So there are a lot of challenges within the space that we know as higher education. It’s its own world with its own language, and its own culture, and its own tradition. And so many of those are just understood, so that makes them hidden. And when you are coming from a family, let’s say your family is an immigrant family, or English is not your first language, or your parents never went to college, your name is in Spanish. So there’s so many challenges where you constantly are reminded that you don’t belong there, or you don’t fit there. So one challenge, for example, one participant was saying that her name is a Spanish name, and early in her career she changed it to a name in English. And it worked for many years, and she realized one day that she had changed it to make other people comfortable. Other people couldn’t pronounce her name in English, so she changed it. And she realized that that was the power dynamics of the workplace, and that was a challenge. Another participant is Afro-Latina, and so people in her workplace didn’t know what to make of her, and just assumed that because she is not white appearing that she is an expert in diversity, and that was not her background at all. And so they kept pulling her into workshops to do stuff on diversity, and she’s like, “Why are you asking me to do this?” So that’s a challenge, and another challenge is… you can be a Hispanic woman and be white passing, and that’s a challenge because then people just assume that you have no other culture except the American culture. So this one participant, she was born in Puerto Rico, and her family moved here when she was young. And so her entire cultural identity was Puerto Rican, but in a higher ed space she was treated like a regular white woman. She felt weird about that. She’s like, “Well, do I need to tell people who I really am? Or should I just let them think whatever they want to think.” So those are some of the challenges that came up.

John: One of the things you mentioned was that people are often singled out because they are underrepresented to serve as representatives of that whole group. Was that something that was commonly experienced by participants in your study?

Carol: That depended on how their appearance communicated their identity, their ethnicity. And it really depends because for Hispanic women there’s colorism, there could be language differences, if you have a heavy accent that kind of becomes a marker for being different, hair texture, it really depends. So if you are different sounding enough or different looking enough, yes, somehow you do become the spokesperson, or you’re asked to comment on something that may or may not be your area of expertise. Unfortunately, you’re pulled into providing some extra labor and extra education and teaching around certain issues. Which, it depends, some people want that, and some people don’t want that. Across all participants they wanted to have an impact on their workplace, so they were looking at different ways of doing that. Could it be mentoring? Could it be creating affinity groups? Could it be collaborating to do research? So they were aware of it and actively trying to disrupt the system so that other generations of Hispanic women would have more space for them.

Rebecca: So one of the things that we’ve started talking a little bit about is representation. So there’s growing representation in college students, but Latinas are underrepresented among faculty, educational developers, instructional designers. What might be missing in our course design practices as a result of this under representation?

Carol: What might be missing in the course design? I think not just the course design, but just thinking about higher education in general.

Rebecca: The design of higher education. [LAUGHTER]

Carol: Yes, the whole thing, the whole thing. For example, we have so many programs where we have good intentions, but maybe we’re not thinking about it from a perspective of someone who doesn’t have access to social capital, or outside resources, or transportation. So one I think about all the time is how many institutions promote internships, and many institutions, they’re very proud of their outreach through internships, but if they’re unpaid internships you’re not helping anyone because students who are not self-funded are not going to be able to afford to do your internship. So things like that. Programs, for example, one of the participants is in engineering education, and she talked about programs that are meant for students who are underrepresented, so enrichment programs, trips, conferences, things like that. And what she found was that the target students were not taking part because they didn’t have the time, or the money to go on these trips, because they were working to pay for their schooling or their rent. I think that’s one design flaw. And even, just in general, I think higher education so often we have good intentions, but then we end up becoming gatekeepers and becoming very exclusionary, and I would like to work on that more. So when I work with faculty at the course level we might have conversations about… Who are the authors you’re assigning? Do you ever have students reflect on the positionality of the authors? And sometimes I’ll say, “Let’s look at your assessment. Are you doing a lot of multiple choice exams? Or do you have options for students to do other kinds of ways to demonstrate what they’ve learned? Are you diverse in how you assess learning?” So those are some things I could do with individual instructors, or in a workshop, or something like that.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a little bit about some design flaws for students. Can you talk about some of the design flaws in higher ed for faculty and staff?

Carol: So in the literature a few things happen. When we talk about, for example, a hiring committee, is your hiring committee diverse? And when you advertise or you promote a job, are you promoting it within networks that are diverse networks? And are you looking for a PhD or an EdD? Because if it’s a PhD it might be more restrictive, you might not get as many diverse candidates. And who are the leaders in your organization? Are they diverse? And are they assessed on how well they develop? Not just hire, but develop and promote diverse candidates. So often in higher ed we focus on just hiring people, but then we kind of forget about developing them, and promoting them, and thinking about how we want them to develop to the point where they leave and they tell other people about how great we are. So it’s not just about hiring people and keeping them there, but hiring them, developing them, and seeing them launch for the benefit of your institution, seeing that as a positive.

Rebecca: That’s a good point. I think that’s something that we don’t often talk about. Certainly, not developing community and helping someone develop as a member of a community, but then also that it’s important that they just have a good positive experience that they can share no matter where they end up, whether they stay or whether they go. I really love that you’ve highlighted that.

Carol: Yeah. So absolutely, what you find is that people are part of networks. For example, I’m part of this network, it’s Latinas Completing Doctorates. And so you get the inside scoop on everything, and that’s good because I want to know the inside scoop. So if I’m thinking about a job somewhere, I would get in there immediately and be like, “Tell me what’s going on.” So those networks do exist, and we need to be aware that if people come to our institutions and they feel isolated, it’s not going to be good.

John: And one of the problems we talked about in our previous podcast, and you’ve alluded to, is that often people who are from underrepresented groups get all these extra workload issues which makes it much harder to progress through the ranks and so forth, and make that sometimes a much more stressful experience than it is for people who are not in those categories. What can Latina educational developers do to have more influence in their positions?

Carol: That’s a good question. So one of my participants, we did talk about that, and basically she said she’s at an institution where, I think she said she might be the only Latina professor. And she said, “I’m white passing, and I like it that way. I do not want to have any conversations about diversity.” [LAUGHTER] She felt like she just had to protect herself. I said, “How do you communicate your identities to your colleagues?” And she said, “I don’t, I don’t need to do that.” She said, “I save that for my students. With my students I can be more honest, and I can talk a little bit more about myself. But with colleagues…” She said, “No, I don’t want to go there because I already know about the bias and assumptions.” She said, “I’m not going to go there.” So I think it really depends, unfortunately, on who you are and how visible you are.

John: One of the things you’ve chosen to work on, though, is the area of inclusive teaching practices, as a major focus of your work as an educational developer. Could you give our listeners some recommendations on some inclusive teaching practices that you encourage faculty to adopt?

Carol: I have chosen that. One of the things I noticed is… that doesn’t come up, maybe it’s coming up more often now, but when I first started in my research that was not something that would come up a lot in the research of educational development. We talk about excellent teaching and learning, and it’s excellent, and it’s active, and it’s high impact, and all of these things about good teaching. And I get excited about all that stuff, I love all that stuff. But I noticed that we never really talked about language, or accent, or ethnicity, or low income. I felt like there was this whole area that we were just kind of ignoring, and were saying like, “This is how you can be an excellent instructor, excellent teacher,” and ignoring things that, for students, are very at the forefront of their experience, like language. So, when I started school, I didn’t speak English. I learned English in school, right? So my teachers had to deal with that, and some teachers were cool, and some teachers were not cool. And the ones that were not cool, they were kind of nasty about it, and so then that affects how you feel about going to school, and how you feel about learning. And there’s a lot of research that looks at that, at being shamed because you’re not an English first language learner. Or your parents, they’re immigrants, and they don’t come to the school, they don’t come to open houses, and you know… Why? Is it because they don’t care? There’s all these things that come up for students, and it carries over to the college level even with graduate students. So one of the studies I read for my own dissertation looked at Hispanic women who were going for higher degrees, and how their own family sometimes would say, “That’s not a good idea, because who’s going to want to marry you with all this education?” Culturally, it was like, “This is not good. You need to focus on mom, family, caretaking. Do you really need to get a PhD? No.” So that came up. One of my participants said as soon as she told her mom she was pregnant, the mom said, “You need to stop with that little hobby that you have.” You know, her dissertation. The mom said, “Leave that alone.” To me, that tells you something about some of the barriers that you might face as a Hispanic woman, not just from society at large, but from your own family.

John: So one of the challenges we face is, many of our students are faced with that, particularly people who are from first-generation households, who may not understand the benefits of education and the role it can play. Often, it’s pressure from parents to choose a particular major, one that will guarantee a job in business or something else, but often students will want to pursue a career that they’re very interested in, but there may be some family pressure. And from what I’ve seen, it seems to be more common for first-generation students to pursue fields where the parents believe the job prospects are better based on their own experience and interactions. So I think that is something that perhaps faculty often are called on to address at least.

Carol: Right. In general, what I found through my reading is that higher education’s very expensive. And so families, of course, are questioning the value, and what is the outcome of investing all this money and time? Will my child end up working? Or just being in debt? Like what’s going to happen? So yeah, I think a lot of that is happening. We’re looking at higher ed and trying to assess it. Are students really learning what we’re saying that they’re learning? So yeah, there is more of a spotlight. When I went to college, you know, a hundred years ago when I was in undergrad, [LAUGHTER] the syllabus was one page. [LAUGHTER] It was like, “Here are the dates, there’s a midterm and there’s a final, and if you miss it, you fail the class.”

John: And maybe there was a list of topics you’d be addressing with the chapters corresponding…

Rebecca: Maybe.

John: …but that was about it.

Carol: Yeah, but I remember the syllabus was one or two pages, and it was a different time. We now expect a lot more, and I guess it’s good, but then when I see a twenty-page syllabus I just want to cry. [LAUGHTER]

John: So what are some other strategies?

Carol: Some other strategies… So what I’ve read is that first, as the instructor, it’s recommended that you talk a little bit about your own positionality. Whatever you’re comfortable with, you don’t have to tell people your life story. But by just acknowledging your own ethnicity, or race, or positionality, or first-gen status, that just by doing that, you are making it okay for others to reflect on theirs. Not necessarily even asking them to share that, but just kind of acknowledging your own. And so I tried it out, and I found that my students were receptive to that. It gave them words to talk about themselves if they wanted to. And another practice would be… Look at your syllabus and make sure that you’re assigning underrepresented authors. So are you assigning black women? Are you assigning trans authors? Are you assigning people who are not represented in your discipline or in your profession? Can you bring in guest speakers? Can you offer some choice in how students show what they know? Can you get students working on some kind of community project, helping them make some connections? What is the community impact of their learning? Helping them make connections to their personal goals. So those are some ways to address maybe some areas that we’ve overlooked in the past, and having students reflect on who they are and also who their instructors are. So Hispanic women, that segment of the labor force is one of the fastest growing. Hispanic women are also one of the fastest growing populations that are going to college, but they tend to be also the least likely to complete, and the most likely to be living in poverty. So by the time they get to higher ed they’ve already jumped through lots of hoops and surmounted a lot of obstacles. So the literature is looking even farther back, like preschool. So some of the things, yes, we can address, but it’s almost too late at the higher ed level.

John: Or at the very least, we need to provide more support for students who come in with backgrounds that may not be as enriched because of the quality of the educational experiences up to that point.

Carol: Right. Or let’s flip it, and say that their experiences are enriching, right? That they have experiences that they can share that are valuable. Why am I saying that they haven’t had enriching experiences? Maybe they were translating documents at age eleven for their parents. To me, that is a high level achievement. Being bilingual, that’s something important. Working for your family, supporting your family, that’s important. That’s another practice, is reframing… What is enrichment? And what is social capital? And what is cultural capital?

Rebecca: And what are those achievements? Because we often don’t value some of those achievements in our culture…

Carol: Mmhmm.

Rebecca: …the culture of higher ed. But those are so important, those are things that they can share with their colleagues in class, and that they can learn from each other. And I find that when I’ve had opportunities to find out things like that from a student, they’ve shared, and I’ve said, “Please share that experience with your colleagues in this context. This is actually really valuable.” They always seem so surprised.

Carol: Right!

Rebecca: They wouldn’t necessarily think of that as being a valuable thing to share, or they’ve been treated in a way that hasn’t made it so that it has been comfortable or optimal to share.

Carol: Right. So since you are the instructor, you sort of have a magic wand, and you can wave your magic wand and give them the words and the frame to say, “This is knowledge, and this is valuable, and you should be proud.” That’s the power you have in the classroom.

John: As an instructor, one of the most important jobs is to treat diversity as an asset within the class environment. And in fact, just telling students that they all are bringing in their own unique experiences that can enliven our discussion of these topics, and we need to hear all these perspectives in order to fully understand the topics we’re addressing in class. So welcoming that diversity is very important.

Carol: Yeah, for sure, for sure. The other thing I was thinking is… and my thinking changed over the course of working on my dissertation. So it took me six years from start to finish, and [LAUGHTER] I think I started with like, stars in my eyes, like, “Education is going to fix everything!” And then by the end I just was like some curmudgeon… I don’t know. I think I’m recovering from finishing the dissertation.

Rebecca: Yeah, but I mean, there’s so many barriers that sometimes it feels like it’s completely impossible to overcome those barriers, or to redesign a system that has such a legacy. It’s difficult to change a system. It takes a lot of time, and it’s really slow, and it feels like change doesn’t happen fast enough. [LAUGHTER] So it can be really easy to get frustrated, rather than trying to work to change the system further.

Carol: Right. So the theoretical framework that I use is a theory called simultaneity. And the scholar that proposed it, she was looking specifically at the system, and that they are all happening at the same time. And so when you talk about systems, that, to me, is the key, because an individual can be very prepared and go into a system that just chews them up. One strategy is numbers, we need numbers. We need more people who have had these experiences to come into these spaces, and that’s where a lot of my participants wanted to connect, and they were just so happy to be able to tell their story. And that was interesting to me because sometimes you think, “Who’s going to want to tell me their stories?” But they were so happy to share, they really loved it, and I was so grateful to hear them. So connections, mentoring, networking, affinity groups, supporting each other, joining committees, meeting people who are interested in the same things. Those are some things that I’m trying to do, personally.

John: So that’s important both for faculty and instructional support, as well as for students having those connections and networks.

Carol: Definitely. That’s why I came to talk to you both because I thought, “Wow, this is an opportunity,” and I love talking, so. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, we very much appreciate you joining us, and sharing your story with us.

Carol: Thank you.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking, What’s next?

Carol: So for me, when I finished with the dissertation, I felt like I immediately needed to publish something. I felt like I was in a race. And I don’t know, at some point I realized, I need to do something totally different. So I signed up for an improv class, and that was so much fun, I loved it. And then I signed up for a TV writing class, so now I’m writing sitcoms. And that’s totally different, and I’m learning again. I’m terrible at it, I’m trying to learn how to do this other kind of writing. So for me, that’s been my way to recharge, to figure out what the next step is. Because I don’t know what the next step is.

John: Those types of experiences are something that I think all faculty should experience, too. And Rebecca and I have talked about this in the past, because having the experience of struggling with something helps put you in a better mindset for dealing with students who are facing the very same sort of challenges when they’re approaching a new subject for the first time.

Carol: Absolutely, yeah.

Rebecca: It’s funny too, as a lifelong learner, that [LAUGHTER] it can be just as frustrating and scary to do something new, but also, I think as people who are in higher education, there’s something about that feeling that we must like because we keep going back for it. [LAUGHTER]

Carol: It’s fun, to me, to learn new things. So I guess I decided I should have fun. And not that my dissertation wasn’t fun, but it was such a long journey, and I feel like I deserve just some fun.

Rebecca: I think so too.

John: And it certainly helps maintain that positive attitude that you mentioned before.

Carol: Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. I love comedy, so I feel like it’s recharging my battery.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for sharing your story and some ideas about how maybe we can instigate some change in our institutions and in our classrooms.

Carol: Yeah, thank you for having me.


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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


235. Pandemic Teaching: Week 109

We take a break from our usual interview format in this episode to reflect on how our teaching has continued to evolve as we moved through a second year of pandemic teaching. We also speculate a bit about the longer term impact of the pandemic on teaching in higher education.

Show Notes


John: Roughly two years ago, our campus shut down for a two-week pause until the COVID-19 pandemic was brought under control. And now we’re celebrating a two year anniversary of that.

Rebecca: We’re celebrating that, John?

John: Well… [LAUGHTER] Let me rephrase that. [LAUGHTER] So this is now the second anniversary of that temporary shutdown, which has had some fairly substantial consequences for teaching and learning in higher ed. We thought this would be a good time to reflect back on how the pandemic has altered the way in which higher ed is taking place in the U.S., and also to speculate a little bit on what the long-term implications of these changes might be on instruction in higher ed.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

John: Since I’ve had lots of tea earlier in the day, I am having a Twinings Pure Peppermint tea.

Rebecca: And that seems good, that seems good. Given that we’re needing to find comfort, because this has been going on for so long, I have reverted back to my dear old friend, English Afternoon tea, for today’s episode.

John: Very good. We thought we’d start by reflecting back on where we were before the pandemic. What was our life like?

Rebecca: Oh, my life was glorious, John. I was on sabbatical, I had a studio space set up, it was all perfect for working. Had my really big monitor that I invested in because I was going to spend so much time in this studio. I was doing research, I was immersed in accessibility related research, inclusive pedagogy, and taking online courses.

John: I had some classes that were going really well, I was going to a lot of conferences, I had several conference presentations scheduled. And in general, things were really positive. And then we had this shutdown, and things have changed quite a bit.

Rebecca: I know, I had so many travel things planned too, John. I had conferences, travel, there were so many glorious things happening. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I think we’ve talked about this before, individually, but I don’t know if we’ve talked about it on the podcast, but the nice thing about going to conferences in person is that you can focus on them. You can actually focus on the topics that are presented, you can go to sessions and focus entirely on those sessions. And then there’s all those wonderful hallway conversations with the presenters and with other people doing similar work, without the distractions we have in our regular day-to-day work weeks. Conferences since then, at least for me, have been entirely remote conferences. And that’s been a somewhat different experience.

Rebecca: Well I’m going to so many conferences now, except… [LAUGHTER] I intend to go to so many sessions, and then often have to make concessions about what I can go to and what I hope to at some point in the future revisit in a recording later on. So I really appreciate the ability to engage with a lot more material. The potential is there with these remote conferences that in many cases didn’t even exist before in that format. So I appreciate that component of it, especially having a small child and not having to uproot for long periods of time. But if I’m in the office, or people know that I’m around, that I’m still teaching my classes, or going to meetings and all these other things are still on my calendar, even though I’m supposed to be at a conference the whole time.

John: And that’s been exactly my experience, that I sign up for these conferences expecting to attend three or four or five sessions with the hope of catching up on the others later. And I’ve been lucky to attend more than two or three at any of the conferences I’ve virtually attended this year. Again, it’s nice to have those videos, but it’s very rare that I’ve had time to actually go back and watch them. And I’m very much looking forward to the return of in-person conferences.

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, I’ve definitely had some great information that I’ve been able to access through virtual conferences, but I really do miss some of the opportunities to engage with colleagues that I don’t know, are new to me, who might have some similar interest that we might be able to collaborate or share resources. And I deeply miss that.

John: And also, I found I have a lot less time for professional development reading and other professional development activities, not just the ones at conferences, but also ones within the discipline: catching up on reading, reading new books, new journal articles. It seems as if we have much less time in the day now than we did prior to the pandemic.

Rebecca: I used to have a really regular routine prior to the pandemic of reading, both within my discipline but also pedagogy and other relevant professional development readings every morning. That’s how I started my day. I don’t do that anymore, I don’t have time.

John: And also I found, especially recently, I spend much more time browsing the news to see what the current potentially world-ending crisis is at any given day. Right now we’re in the middle of the war in Ukraine. And that certainly provides some substantial distractions from the areas that perhaps we might prefer to be focusing on. And I think that’s also true for our students.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that our attention is more divided in that way. I might be paying more attention or more careful attention to the news, or health-related news in a way that, although I certainly consume news on a regular basis, my consumption of such things is up significantly, and basically has replaced some of the other things that I might have read otherwise. And I think our students are feeling that too.

John: And one thing I’ve also noted is that the workshops that we do in the teaching center tend to have a bit less attendance this year than in the past. In the first year of the pandemic, we had an explosion of interest when people were transitioning to new teaching modalities. But this past year, faculty have generally been reporting that they feel a bit exhausted, that they just can’t fit in one more thing. And one of the things that’s made this a little bit more challenging on our campus and throughout the SUNY system, is that we’re going to be moving to a new digital learning environment this summer. And for those of us who are teaching in the summer, we’re going to have very few weeks to learn the new environment and to prepare our courses. And that’s been somewhat challenging. And a lot of faculty are very concerned about this one more disruption in the way they’re teaching. And I think that’s been making it much more challenging for many people.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think faculty are just tired. So many lifts that needed to be done to survive during the pandemic. We all went kind of in survival mode, put in way more hours to make experiences that were good for students. Because, as teachers, we really care about these student-centered approaches, and there was a real commitment on our campus by all of our faculty to do this. As John mentioned, lots of people participating in professional development, really putting the commitment and time in. And that’s really valuable work. But we’ve been doing it for two years. [LAUGHTER] And I think that faculty are just starting to get to a point where they’re trying to reclaim some time back for research, or reclaim back some time, dare I say, for leisure.

John: I remember reading about that at some point in the past. [LAUGHTER] But following up on your comment there, one of the things we’ve learned about inclusive teaching, partly from Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan, is the importance of providing students with structure. And from my observations, students need that structure more than ever in a world filled with so many other distractions and disruptions. And that all requires some work on the part of faculty to provide more complete directions, more instructions, and, more generally, just to provide more support for students than we had been doing in the past… that we probably were doing too little of it in the past, but I think now it’s needed more than ever.

Rebecca: You’re making a good point here. I know that one of the things that I shifted to doing that students have really responded positively to is providing weekly updates, or at this point, four semesters in, I’m doing recaps of each class period with, like, what to do for the next class period. And students await that to help structure their time outside of class. But one of the things that I’ve definitely had students report is just how much distraction there is, challenges that they’re facing. They’re also reporting things like mental health challenges, the state of the world weighing on their minds, and being distracted by health related things, war, race-related issues in the United States. The other thing that students are reporting is that they’re really self-conscious about interacting with other students, about giving feedback or receiving feedback. In my case, I’m teaching online, and they’ve all said that they would appreciate people having their cameras on, for example, in the Zoom class, but all report that they don’t, because other people don’t, and they’re conscious about their appearance. But also they’re reporting in reflection assignments that they’re really afraid of just what other people think of them, generally.

John: I think one of the costs of the year plus of remote teaching in general is that students lost a lot of connections with other students. And not only were there some issues in terms of a learning loss, it was also a loss of social interaction. For the classes that did take place in person in the first year of the pandemic, people were wearing masks and were separated often by six or more feet, and were actually discouraged from interacting in small group discussions and so forth, or small group interactions in general. And I think that’s led to some issues where people have to re-learn how to interact with each other again.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think unfortunately, some of the aftermath or during-math of the pandemic has been sometimes an over-reliance on sage-on-the-stage methods in the classroom, in part out of necessity, because facilitating those interactions was too difficult, especially in person.

John: In the fall semester, it was my first time back in the classroom after a year of teaching remotely, I was teaching our large class where most of the students were first-year students. And I had about 189 students in the classroom, but they were spread out in a room that seats about 420 students, which had often been filled with 420 students in past semesters. And when I tried to get them to interact, it was a real challenge because sometimes they were 10, 15 feet away from other students. Some of the students did interact, but whenever they were talking to other students they were pulling down their masks to do so, which was also less than optimal. So it was a bit of a challenge trying to encourage students to keep masks on but also to talk to each other. And it was a far lower level of interaction than I’d ever seen before. Now, I’ve noticed in the spring semester that interactions are much closer to what they had been prior to the pandemic, partly because I’m teaching juniors and seniors I suspect, but also partly because I’m dealing with smaller classes, and we actually did end the mask mandate just two weeks ago. And I think that has been a signal of a return to normalcy that I very much have enjoyed seeing, and I hope it lasts at least for another month or two before the next wave of the pandemic hits. But it’s been nice hearing students more clearly without the mask, and it’s been nice to actually see the faces of the students who choose not to wear masks. Some students have been consistently choosing to wear masks, and that’s probably not a bad strategy, especially if they face any health issues.

Rebecca: One of the things that has been really enlightening for me over the last couple years, having not really taught online before but teaching online synchronously, is how much using some text-based communication is so helpful in getting to know the students and allowing them to ask questions and get help. It’s not that I wasn’t using text-based communication before, because I have typically used chat tools like Slack as part of my class structures. But there’s definitely more of a reliance on that, and I’ve ramped up things like reflection assignments that are more written. And this is interesting, because I typically teach design classes, so there’s a lot of visual work that’s happening, and so the written work isn’t always a common element. But it’s interesting how honest students have been in those reflections in revealing things like being self-conscious, or being concerned about what their peers think, or being honest about mental health issues, and revealing that knowing that I was going to read that, and that that information I would then have. So it’s interesting, because I have not seen the faces of many of my students. [LAUGHTER] I’ve interacted with them synchronously, but not seen their faces, and still actually feel like we have a pretty strong connection. And I think that they’ve revealed or indicated that they have strong connections with each other as well. Despite what maybe from the outside would look like a lot of barriers.

John: I do have to say that it’s been such a relief to me to go back into the classroom, because when I was teaching that large class on Zoom and seeing that sea of black boxes, it was really hard to maintain my enthusiasm and to try to maintain engagement, because there were always a number of students who were just tuned out… who when you called on them just were not responsive, when you sent them to breakout rooms just kind of ended up hanging out there, and in general it was also reflected in their performance on all the graded activities in the class. And that was kind of depressing. And I’m very much enjoying the classroom interaction again. Now I’ve been teaching online for many years, asynchronously, and that worked very well all through the pandemic. But I think part of that is that the students were older and had very strong motivation for being successful in the classes because they saw the importance of the classes in their educational or career goals, which is not something that freshmen and sophomores always have intrinsically, at least.

Rebecca: I might add to what you’re saying, John, in that I certainly had that experience teaching mostly through Zoom. My class size has been relatively consistent throughout the pandemic as what it was before, which is smaller, about 25 students in total. And I definitely experienced feeling like, “What are you guys doing in these breakout rooms? Just like sitting staring at a wall? I’m not sure what’s going on here.” I’d pop in, and no one’s talking to each other. And I still have that experience [LAUGHTER] to be clear. I still pop in, and it seems like nobody’s engaging with one another. But what’s been interesting is that in the kinds of reflection questions I’ve been asking students, they’ve revealed more of what those interactions are like when I’m not present. And what’s interesting is that many of the students are indicating that they’re relying on each other to troubleshoot, to help each other out, to brainstorm, to get feedback from one another. They’re just not doing it constantly the whole time they’re in there, but they are getting a lot of value out of that. And my timing just is terrible? I don’t think they have any reason to lie about that, because there’s evidence of it, they’ve given specific examples of the kind of feedback that they’ve received or the kind of help that they got, and what happened. So certainly I’d like to see more engagement, but I also think that they’ve become more accustomed to working in that space, and knowing what the expectations of that space are. And I’ve also set up more structure for those spaces, and I’ve provided instructions and ways to intervene in those spaces. Using Zoom you can’t chat to breakout rooms using the chat feature, so we set up Google Chat to do that, and all of those things have helped manage those interactions in a way that I wasn’t doing in those first semesters.

John: And I should note that my experience was in the first full semester of remote teaching. And there the students themselves were complaining that some of the other students were not actively engaged in the breakout rooms, that they’d call on them and they just wouldn’t respond. They’d actually show up because they had to intentionally choose to go into the room, but then they just wouldn’t talk to each other. And I got that response from about 35 to 40 percent of the students, so it was a pretty significant issue. Maybe with more experience they’ve gotten better, but I’ve been out of that teaching modality for the last year, and I’m very happy to be out of it, because even though I’ve never required students to turn on their cameras, it makes teaching a lot more challenging when you can’t see the people that you’re interacting with. Sometimes you hear the voices, but not always even then, and most of the interaction was through chat. But the class that I taught in the fall of 2020 had over 300 students in it, and the chat with 300 students was often a constant stream of text. The signal to noise ratio in that was not quite as high as I would have liked. So I did rely on breakout rooms a lot, but they just were not as effective as I had hoped or have been in other contexts.

Rebecca: I think the kinds of classes we teach also has a big impact there. I’m teaching studio classes, we’re in class together six hours a week. I have a smaller class size, I know the students very well, and I have the opportunity to interact with them all individually on a pretty regular basis, which I think perhaps does guilt students into participating more. [LAUGHTER]

John: That makes a lot of sense. And my large classes are intro classes, and it’s their first experience in college and generally their first experience in a large class. And it can be perhaps a little bit intimidating, especially when they’ve just come out of a period where they were taught remotely in their high schools…after the end of their senior year was spent in remote instruction of somewhat varied quality depending on the resources of the school district and of the individual households.

Rebecca: Not to mention really some of the very sad results of having to go remote. For many of them, they missed in person graduation. Something that’s supposed to be a really culminating experience ended up being, for many, a letdown. And it’s no wonder why we have a lot of students experiencing some mental health challenges.

John: What are some of the challenges that you’ve seen during the past academic year? Now that we’ve had a year of adjustment to teaching during a pandemic.

Rebecca: I think the biggest observation that I made, or a difference that I’ve seen this academic year in comparison to even the first full year of the pandemic, is a lot more variance in the quality of student work, not engagement in class, but the quality of student work submitted. So having a lot of really strong pieces of work, and then really weak pieces of work, and not a lot in the middle. And what’s interesting is that it’s the same assignments and things that existed the first year of the pandemic and that was not the case.

John: I’ve seen something very similar, not just with the quality work but also the quantity of work. Most of those grades below a C are because of students just simply not doing the work. And for me that’s been fairly persistent last year and this year, although it does seem to be better this semester. And I think some of it may be just that students have adjusted, some of it is because I’m teaching upper-level students who are majors either in economics or applied mathematical economics, and so they’re just more intrinsically motivated in the subject. So that’s been a pretty significant factor.

Rebecca: I feel like sometimes I’m noticing, or I’m hearing folks say that they’re finding their students to be less motivated. And I have really been thinking hard on that. I’m not sure that they’re less motivated, I’m not sure that’s the right word. I’m certainly finding in class, and in student work submitted, that students are engaged. They’re doing interesting things, having interesting things to say. They’re contributing to class, but aren’t necessarily doing work outside of class, unless that time is really structured. And even then when I hear students report what they’ve done outside of class, it often sounds like they’ve chased themselves in a circle and haven’t really accomplished anything. And so that time outside of class wasn’t necessarily super useful. And I think that has a lot to do with the cognitive load of everything else that’s going on, and not really being able to manage the world-things going on on top of four other classes, and all the things going on in all of those spaces as well.

John: With all the challenges we’ve been having, I think we all have a bit more trouble maintaining our focus and concentration, and I think that’s part of the issue for students. I’ve certainly heard that from students, that they really have trouble concentrating on the work because they have other distractions. And I’m hearing much more of that than I ever have in the past.

Rebecca: And I don’t feel like lack of concentration on something is the same thing as lack of motivation.

John: Yeah, and I certainly suspect that’s probably a major part of the issue. This is really a challenging time to be alive for so many reasons right now.

Rebecca: And to really be a young person in our world.

John: And to be going through a college experience which is very different than the expectations you had just a couple of years ago.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that’s an important thing to always keep in balance when we’re thinking about how students are responding to things. They’ve really been incredibly adaptive, especially considering how drastic their actual experience has been compared to what they imagined a college experience might be like.

John: Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a lot of discussion about how remote instruction, or online instruction, hasn’t worked. One qualification is, what we experienced during the pandemic was a lot of emergency remote instruction done by people who were not trained in the modalities that they were using, and in particular using modalities that virtually no one had used before. So I think we should be a little bit careful in interpreting some of those claims.

Rebecca: Yeah, and even having the time and space and mental capacity to fully redesign something for a different delivery wasn’t something that we had the luxury of having. We were trying to pull these things out. I know that for me, because I was on sabbatical when the pandemic started, I actually had some time, not a lot, but I had some time, to do more of a development for the online synchronous modality that I’ve been teaching in over the last couple of years. And I think that gave me a little bit of an advantage because I was able to really consider the space and the way that I was going to be teaching and be reflective upon it, when I didn’t have to worry about the emergency things going on in the spring, or having to learn a lot of new technology because I already had some of those skill sets in place.

John: There have been some studies where there’s at least some attempt at natural experiments or random assignment of students. There was one that was done at West Point, and we can share a link to that in the show notes, which essentially randomly divided a class where half the class were face-to-face, half were attending class remotely on Zoom. But one thing I think to keep in mind with studies of that sort is that, essentially, they were comparing face-to-face instruction with students participating remotely in face-to-face instruction. One of the things that I think always happens when people try moving to a new instructional method or a new technique is people try to replicate what they were doing before. And there’s still really a lot that we haven’t learned about what will work best. So I think we should be a little bit careful about ruling out the possibility of synchronous remote or making global claims that it’s not going to work because, as you said, you spent a lot of time reflecting about it and thinking about how you needed to modify your approach to deal with this new modality. I think we should at least keep an open mind going forward about this, and do some research on what works better when we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic where the students who are there don’t want to be in that modality, and where many of the faculty using that modality are only there because they had no other choice.

Rebecca: Yeah, the ability to collaborate and work together synchronously using digital tools is really powerful, and is something we shouldn’t lose sight of using in the future. I found it really promising even though there were challenges, and continue to be challenges during this time. It’s really easy to bring in a guest using Zoom. Certainly you can use a classroom space and Zoom or Skype somebody in, but if the classroom isn’t set up for that kind of interaction it doesn’t work well. Typically, I find in my experience, it’s been really great when everybody’s in the same modality. So just watching recordings of something that’s happening live, or joining in on a live session but you’re remote… you’re not fully integrated into the situation often. But if you’re in the same platform and everybody’s in Zoom, then the chat becomes something that works a lot better, or breakout rooms become something that works quite well if you want to have some kinds of interaction. And if you’re taking advantage of the platform, and what the platform offers, and then extending with some additional tools. For example, I was using Zoom and extended with Google Chat so that I could chat with people in breakouts. And I extended with a tool called Miro, which is a digital-whiteboarding tool that’s far more developed than what’s available in Zoom. We could do all kinds of really great interactions that I couldn’t necessarily do in the same way in person, it was completely adapted to that particular situation and the context we were working in. So I can imagine this being a really important modality for working professionals, for example, who might be going back to school, who really wants to have some interaction with real humans in real time [LAUGHTER] but can’t necessarily get somewhere by a particular time.

John: I think something very similar happened when we first started to teach online in an asynchronous manner. People were trying to duplicate the same classroom environment in an online environment. And a lot of the early results suggested it didn’t work that well until people started studying it and working through what worked best. And now we have whole new ways of teaching, many of which have made it back into the classroom because they have been successful online. So recent studies find that asynchronous and face-to-face instruction are essentially equivalent. Sometimes one does a little bit better than the other, but that varies by instructor, and the instructor’s knowledge of techniques and personality and so forth. But in general, there really doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in learning outcomes between those two modalities. And with some work and development, the same may very well be true for remote synchronous. But picking up on that issue of bringing in guests and so forth with video, I think many campuses, including our own, have to do a lot to upgrade their facilities. And one of the things that faculty have learned is how easy it is to bring people in remotely, either students who are sick who are out with COVID or something else, are able to attend remotely and actively participate using Zoom or other tools, as long as we have adequate video and audio capabilities in the classroom. And I think on our campus, and probably on most campuses, we haven’t quite reached a level of video and audio that really works that well for students participating remotely.

Rebecca: Even before COVID faculty might have done lecture capture or something like that. But the expectations around that is that it’s something you’ve already experienced, and you’re going back to review it. So the expectation of really high quality wasn’t necessarily there like it is now. Now everyone’s experienced the ability to lecture capture in something like Zoom and get some really high quality recording when we’re all in that same space. Have high quality transcripts, be able to see what’s on the screen. And so, as we move forward, these are new expectations. These are not just expectations of the students who had been in school the last couple of years during the pandemic and have experienced some of the synchronous remote things. But K-12 has done the same thing, we’ve got a good 13, 14 more years of students who have already had these expectations. This is where it’s going to be at. And professionals have this now too because they also have been working remotely, and have a lot more collaboration happening in this way as well.

John: And many faculty used to bring in guest speakers, but it used to require someone to physically be there and sometimes people would travel to do that. But now you can reach anyone pretty much anywhere in the world and bring them into your classroom, if you have adequate capabilities to do that. So I think all campuses need to work on upgrading both their microphone systems so that you can hear everyone in the room, not just the sage on the stage, especially since we don’t have stages in most of our rooms. And also better video so that people presenting remotely can see their class and see the people they’re engaging with.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely. I think one thing we should think about, John, is, I don’t know about you, but during this time I’ve used some pieces of technology differently or some new technologies that I haven’t used in the past—new to me, not necessarily new to the universe—that I don’t want to let go. [LAUGHTER] Like I want to keep going there. Or I want to find some sort of equivalent for the physical classroom, but I don’t know what that is yet. I’ve adopted some new practices, and I haven’t been back in the classroom, I know it’s different for you because you’ve been back in the classroom, but I see my teaching changing. How do you see your teaching changing?

John: Some of it was technology. When I moved home, all of a sudden I had faster computers, I had a nice big second monitor. And now coming back it’s really hard to adjust to the computers we have in classrooms, a single monitor which is really hard to do when you’re working with some students coming in on Zoom. Having a second monitor, and there were times when I really wish I had a third one, where you could keep the chat open on one, you could see the list of participants on it, and you could have other materials staged to bring onto the screen that you’re sharing with people participating remotely. It’s been a big adjustment. I had also had a video camera and microphone in my classroom for at least a decade, and I assumed all of our classrooms did, but this time I was assigned to a classroom that had neither of them and that required a little bit of adjustment. So I think we do need to upgrade these things so that all of our classrooms are able to adapt to the technology that’s become kind of the norm.

Rebecca: Yeah, prior to the pandemic I routinely used Slack for some kind of back-channel conversation, or to have some text conversation. But what I’ve realized now is I’ve adopted many practices teaching synchronously online that allow people to participate, who maybe don’t want to speak up for whatever reason. And I desperately don’t want to lose some of those ways of participating. And for me that includes the ability to answer questions using some sort of chat feature, the ability to use things like Miro, and so this whiteboard application has become so central to some of the things that I do, I’m now having a really hard time envisioning what that would be like if I was teaching in any kind of classroom that wasn’t a lab space where everybody had a computer. [LAUGHTER] Because these are places where we can brainstorm together, share ideas together, and have them all collate into a single location and not be lost in the time/space in a conversation. And these are ways that students have reflected in various reflection assignments that are really important to them. They found these opportunities to share their ideas, without having to speak up, to be really valuable. And it’s not just the camera thing. I think some people will jump to the conclusion that, “Oh, you’re teaching synchronously online, people are using these chat things because they don’t want to turn their camera on.” It’s true that students don’t want to turn their camera on for a wide variety of reasons which I fully support and respect. I don’t require that, we participate in other ways. But there’s also this deep insecurity that students have communicated about being afraid of being wrong, or just not wanting to voice their opinion, or needing time to think before presenting something. And these other platforms, or this other way of doing things, really supports this group of students in a way that I don’t want to stop supporting.

John: One of the things I did in my large class last fall is I had Zoom open, and I encouraged students who were present in person to use it if they wanted to participate using chat. That worked really nicely in a classroom where I had two monitors, so I could keep the chat open on one screen. And sometimes the students who are way in the back, when you have a few 100 students in the classroom they’re often really reluctant to raise their hand or to say something, but they’re much more comfortable participating in a chat discussion. And so that has helped. Another thing I’ve done is I’ve cut back on the number of exams. In my econometrics class this semester, normally, I had three exams where I used a two-stage exam which worked beautifully. And I was originally planning to do that again, until the first week of class when a third of my students were out with COVID. And we’re not quite past this yet. And I just noticed in the last week, our infection rate in this county has doubled. So I think we might still not be past it by the end of the semester, even though we’re…

Rebecca: It’s more than doubled. [LAUGHTER]

John: So I decided to drop all those exams, and I’m just doing a lot more lower stakes assessment. And much more of the work that students are doing that is assessed is done as group work where they’re working with each other every day in class on some assignments. And I more fully flipped the class where instead of giving them written assignments that they worked on individually, and then submitted, and I graded. A lot of that is done in small groups in class, but some of the basics and some of the retrieval practice and other things are done with videos I created during the pandemic with embedded questions. And that’s where they get some of the basic concepts, and they get to review it at their own pace. And they can take the embedded questions over and over again, after watching the appropriate parts of the video, as many times as they need to master the concepts. And it seems to be working much more effectively than it did when I was using a more interactive lecture approach in class.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting, and I would think those things are things that you certainly don’t want to lose, those are things to keep and continue finding ways to engage students with each other. I heard you just say something that sounded like persistent teams, John. And so I know that that’s something I have definitely adopted over the course of the pandemic. It’s something that I definitely used in a slightly smaller context prior to the pandemic, I had persistent teams for a particular project. But I’ve moved to having persistent teams for the entire semester as a way to connect students with each other, to work through problems, or to troubleshoot with one another, and just have a group of students within the classroom that they get to know each other better, it facilitates some of that relationship building. How about you, John?

John: Well, in one of my classes, in a seminar class, I have persistent teams that are working through the whole semester where they’re writing a book again. But they’re working in small groups, and they work every week on some projects. Each week they present some journal articles or working papers, and they also work on their semester-long project and that, again, has helped develop connections among students really effectively, and it’s created a really positive environment. In my econometrics class I haven’t been able to create the same sort of persistent groups simply because I’ve had students who were ill at various times in the semester. And I’ve also had a student who had a car breakdown, I had a student who was stuck in another country where their travel arrangements broke down after spring break, and I’ve had people who were hospitalized. And nearly all of them have been attending every class, but today, for example, I had all the students in class except for two. And those students were a group in the breakout room while they were working through the same sort of problems, and the others were meeting in person. So there’s some degree of consistency in the teams based on where they sit with each other, but it also shifts a little bit depending on who is there in person, who is there remotely.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s a lot easier to collaborate when you’re in the same modality. And so I think that’s an interesting challenge for HyFlex, which is showing good promise, but also definitely has its challenges. When we’re using some of these active learning techniques, or we want this community building, there can be some challenges when people aren’t there, all in the same modality.

John: And one of our earlier podcasts was on the topic of HyFlex. And in that one of the things that Judie Littlejohn suggested was exactly that: that one of the challenges with teaching in a HyFlex environment where some students will be in person, some remote, and some working entirely asynchronously, is you never know who’s going to be in class on any given day, which makes it really hard to have those persistent teams, and also to plan for in-person and synchronous remote, as well as what’s going to happen asynchronously. Because potentially, you have a constantly shifting pattern of in-person attendees, remote attendees, and students who are not engaged in any way synchronously on any given class day. And that could be a real challenge. The other challenge with HyFlex is it requires a lot more work on the part of faculty to develop the courses, and this also was discussed in that earlier podcast, and a lot more work on the part of faculty to manage it in terms of preparing things for all possible eventualities of different attendance patterns. And the development work essentially means that someone has to develop a fully asynchronous plan for each of the course modules or for each class meeting. They have to develop other activities that will work synchronously in person as well as remotely. At the very least, it’s like building two entirely separate courses. And that’s a lot more work than we typically have to do on either an asynchronous or a synchronous class, whatever the version of the synchronous class is.

Rebecca: I think what these conversations always reveal, or remind us, is that we really have to take in mind what the course objectives are, the kinds of activities that might help students best meet those course objectives, and then what modalities might best match that. [LAUGHTER] Some things are going to work really well synchronously online, and some things just aren’t. And I think some things will work really well in HyFlex, and other things will just be incredibly challenging to do there and maybe don’t make sense in that kind of a format. So I think that as we move forward and we’ve got more choice, we should really reflect upon what we’re trying to achieve, and then making good choices to help us achieve those things

John: And become more proficient using whatever we’ve learned about each modality to make our courses better. Which is why we have all these professional development activities, which have certainly become much more popular in the last few years than they ever had been before.

Rebecca: You know we’re going to be looking at professional development through these lenses too. Do we need more asynchronous professional development? Do we need more synchronous online, more in person, more HyFlex? What that mix is going to be. And it really is those same kinds of factors that we need to think about for our students. Like, who’s our audience? What are their limitations and barriers? And what modalities and things are going to help us overcome some of those barriers to participation the easiest? So, John and I have talked before about timing always being an issue for professional development, and that’s how this podcast got started. Thinking about… How do we address some of the professional development needs of our community when finding a common time was impossible to meet in person, or even to meet remotely synchronously online, especially when we have a lot of commuters and things.

John: It’s even tough for us to find time to meet to record these podcasts often. So we always end with the question, What’s next?

Rebecca: Good question, John. I’m not sure. I’m looking to the fall and thinking about teaching in person again, the first time in two years, and really just not knowing where to start. There’s a lot of things that I’ve gotten really accustomed to, and comfortable with teaching synchronously online, and things that I don’t want to let go of. Some emotional attachment to things, and I really need to rethink what things look like coming back in the fall because I cannot go back to the way I was teaching before. I’m a changed teacher, I can’t go back. How about you, John?

John: I think that’s true for all of us. For me, in my long-term horizon I’m going to hold office hours online in about five minutes, [LAUGHTER] and in the longer-term horizon I’ll be back with you to record a podcast in about an hour or so. And I suppose in terms of longer term planning, I’m looking forward to learning more about Desire to Learn’s Brightspace platform, which we’re moving to in SUNY very shortly.

Rebecca: Yeah, exciting new things happening, for sure. And I’m so glad that I’m part of your future, John.

John: The long-term horizon!

Rebecca: Yeah, I know, this is exciting stuff.

John: We’ll be back with another podcast next week.


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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


234. Education in Prisons

Education provides a pathway to a more secure and comfortable future for individuals living in poverty. This is especially true for those who are incarcerated. In this episode, Em Daniels and William Keizer join us to discuss the challenges and opportunities associated with providing education in prisons.

Em is a researcher who focuses on education, corrections, criminal legal reform, and abolition. She is the author of Building a Trauma-Responsive Educational Practice: Lessons from a Corrections Classroom. William is a Founder of Frontline Professional Development and Co-Founder of Revive Reentry Services and the Revive Center for Returning Citizens. He is a former state prison Adult Education Instructor, and in addition, he himself was formerly incarcerated.


John: Education provides a pathway to a more secure and comfortable future for individuals living in poverty. This is especially true for those who are incarcerated. In this episode, we explore the challenges and opportunities associated with providing educational in prisons.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guests today are Em Daniels and William Keizer. Em is a researcher who focuses on education, corrections, criminal legal reform, and abolition. She is the author of Building a Trauma-Responsive Educational Practice: Lessons from a Corrections Classroom. William is a Founder of Frontline Professional Development and Co-Founder of Revive Reentry Services and the Revive Center for Returning Citizens. He is a former state prison Adult Education Instructor, and in addition, he himself was formerly incarcerated. Welcome back, Em, and welcome, William.

Em: Hello.

William: Thank you.

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

Em: I’ve just got water. I’ve got boring room temperature water with no flavor in it.

Rebecca: That’s a disappointment.

Em: I know, I’m sorry. I set the bar very high, and then I didn’t even get over it. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, William?

William: I am water and lemon in a spill proof cup.

Em: He’s got a sippy cup. [LAUGHTER]

William: I’m a little clumsy sometimes, [LAUGHTER] Em knows. I take every precaution.

John: And I’m drinking a peppermint spearmint blend today.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds nice, John.

Rebecca: I have Scottish afternoon tea this afternoon.

Em: Mhmm.

John: Very good, appropriate. Because it’s afternoon and I’ve already had a lot of caffeine I’m doing a non-caffeinated route.

Em: I did have coffee earlier, just so people know that I haven’t abandoned the caffeine train. I just tried to finish it before, and I can’t have a tea right after a coffee. It’s too much liquid. [LAUGHTER]

William: I second that.

John: In an earlier podcast, we talked to Em about the general topic of trauma-responsive educational practice. Today we’d like to focus more on the topic of education in prisons. How did each of you become involved in teaching in prisons?

William: You know, it’s funny, as I was preparing for the podcast, it dawned on me that I actually started my career in education in a carceral setting, teaching life skills at a juvenile detention center, clear back in 1989. From there, I worked as an intervention specialist and a special education teacher in public schools. But around 2004, I’d been teaching life skills classes at a state work release program when I was hired to teach adult education in the state prison in our area. And I’ve always worked with marginalized populations. And so for me, it was just kind of a natural progression. I guess I’ve always just landed right where I’m supposed to be.

Em: Yeah, I started after Bill, but I also started out outside of academia, I started working in a community organization, helping people during the Welfare-to-Work years, as they were trying to transition people off of welfare. I worked for a small agency that did workforce development, and didn’t know anything, but learned quite a lot, and then continued working in just such a variety of different teaching and learning spaces, eventually coming to working in the prison for several years when I was living in Oregon, and had also worked in alternative high schools and left the prison in Oregon and then moved to Spokane, Washington, where I live now to work as a Re-entry Education Navigator, and my job was to try to help people who were coming out of prison who wanted to go back to school, and did that for several years… met Bill during that time, and feel like that whole experience of seeing what happens to people before they go to prison and what that education looks like, and then during prison, and then what happens when people come out of prison and want to continue education or enter education has really given me a fairly unique perspective on higher ed in prisons.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, can you describe some of the challenges facing both students and instructors within the prison system?

William: I think one of the significant challenges is to create an environment where students feel safe and respected, where they can settle and become ready to learn, especially a place where they can feel insulated from all the distractions that come with being locked up. It’s tough because students in a carceral setting are trying to learn while they’re dealing with stuff like maintaining a relationship with their significant other outside of the walls, or maybe family issues, family stuff, sick kids, whatever, because you’re powerless over what happens on the outside and it eats at you. Then you have internal distractions like prison politics, you may have issues with staff or with other individuals that you’re locked up with. And it makes it hard for students to try to settle and learn.

Em: Mmhmm. First, I’m going to say I think educational trauma plays an incredibly significant role for students in prisons, because so many of them have been denied public education or actively ejected from public education before they come to prisons. So they’ve already had a lot of really significant harm around education. So they come in with a lot of those barriers. And then when you look at the demographics of who was in prison, you see also many people who have disabilities, especially undiagnosed learning disabilities, the incidence of traumatic brain injury is anywhere from three to five times higher in the population in prison than it is in general populations. And that also presents significant barriers… addiction and the impacts it has on the brain, especially alcohol, provides really a lot of issues. So there’s just a number of barriers that show up in population, and are connected to reasons why people come to prison. So there’s that piece, and then some of the more logistical issues. It’s hard to describe how few resources there are, when you work in a prison setting. When I go into a prison, I’m like, “Well, I might be able to have a pencil and a piece of paper.” And that’s really the resource that I might be able to have. If I’m going in as a volunteer or something like that, if there’s programming inside, I probably have a little bit more, but there is no access to internet, not active internet. Some states and some facilities are working on a secure internet, where people can get on to certain sites, information and what not. And there are certainly, like, librarians and information management people at colleges, two- and four-year schools, do an outstanding job of trying to update resources that sit on a server. So they’ll put together sort of a secure server full of information and then they’re always trying to update those resources. But again, it’s still static, it’s not dynamic information. So the lack of access to resources is profound. There are certainly technical issues around funding, always around funding, Pell is being reinstated for people in prisons next year. So the scramble over the last couple of years, and will continue into next year for colleges and programming to try to adjust to people being able to have access to Pell again, and the benefits that that brings, but also the resistance of institutions to change and adapt so that people can get the most out of their Pell funding. To say it is very strong is an understatement, and that’s a whole other topic. Funding for programming is always challenging. And Pell is just a whole other big thing. There are all kinds of different issues around programming. So access, what materials you can bring in and bring out, who gets to come in and come out, what you get to talk about, all of these things. So there’s programming issues, and then probably, in addition to having to make an effort for students like a really, really big significant effort for students, the extreme cultural differences between, what you need for education, because education is inherently supposed to be a liberatory exercise, like it’s a movement toward liberation. And you are trying to do this in an institution that is designed to control and constrain and to hold people captive. So the cultural clash there is deep, it’s very deep. And because the corrections institution is really the one ultimately in charge, educational entities really have to walk a lot of lines that feel like compromise all the time.

John: One of the things you mentioned in the book, Em, was Eurocentric ways of knowing are built into our educational system. How might we adapt our approaches to education to better accommodate those from cultures who rely on alternative ways of knowing?

Em: Well, I would reframe that it’s not an accommodation, that it’s a rebalance… like, this country, it did not start out as a European country. And to say that European and Eurocentric ways need to accommodate other ways, I think is maybe a mis-frame. And I think that looking at all of the people and all of the representation of all the different people around the world who are living in the U.S. and go to school here, and pay taxes here, and are citizens, and all of this… this is really about how do we open our own minds and our own hearts to the way that we see the world? And understand that that is not the only way to see the world. And people talk about that a lot, but I’m, like, “This is more than just entertainment. It’s more than just a holiday.” It’s fundamentally, people see, they experience information. They take in information differently. They respond to it in their bodies differently. They respond to it in art and creativity. The way that they think about information is very different and those differences, while they certainly do present opportunities for us to push ourselves and stretch ourselves, that’s what we should be looking for. Because every time we push ourselves and stretch ourselves, it makes us better. It makes us more fully ourselves that we get to try to experience the world in all of these different ways. And I think that, when you look at the hallmarks of Eurocentrism, the production, quantifying things, wanting efficiency, wanting to make sure everything can be measured in a particular way, all of those kinds of things, none of those things are inherently wrong or bad. But when they are the only thing, the only way that you know the world, the only way that you even consider that could be possible to know the world, I think that that makes us all smaller. It makes us all less than what we really are. And I think that that piece of it, like really pushing ourselves and challenging ourselves to think about knowledge differently, is one way for us to step into a more fuller version of ourselves.

William: Yeah I agree, I agree. I guess in the literal sense, the Eurocentricity that’s embedded in our education system, really misinterprets and misrepresents the historical journeys of many marginalized populations. I think it forces those populations to use more informal ways of learning about their journey, like song and dance, and storytelling and art, just to get a more accurate understanding of who they are. And that shouldn’t have to happen. I think, really, the three things that are important for me are what’s being taught, how it’s being taught, and then how it’s being assessed. And we have to have a broader brush to be inclusive, otherwise, we’re just perpetuating that marginalization.

John: And that’s a critique of our educational system in general, but I think it may have even more weight in the prison system, given the large proportion of marginalized individuals who are in our prison system, it would seem to create even a greater amount of harm in terms of providing effective education.

Em: I agree. I think that one of the ways… like Bill talked about this earlier, building these relationships and building trust. And I think that when we think about what people need in a classroom to learn, and what they need in themselves, and in order for people to learn in a way where they are able to grasp that knowledge, connect it to something that means something to them, the things we really want students to do that there has to be sort of this calmness in the body. And that comes when people have some feeling of both physical safety, and I would say more settling than demanding that they label themselves emotionally. And one of the reasons I say that is because when you get students who have been really harmed by public education, and specifically when you’re talking about people of color who have been harmed by white supremacist entities or Eurocentric entities, and that can be white teachers, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it can be teachers of color, but it’s often white teachers, like asking them to be in a prison classroom, and they’re a person of color. And now there’s a white person, another white person in an authority role, and they’re supposed to just automatically trust them. That can be a big barrier. And it’s not something that you can talk about very often because race in prison, even though race is present in every single thing in every single interaction, always, it’s not talked about. When I was working there, race was one of those issues, like, you didn’t want to talk about it, you did not ever want to really have any conversation. I don’t know, I feel like that’s a mistake and not acknowledging it when we go in like the positionality, especially for white people, the positionality and the sort of inherent power that comes into that, like not acknowledging that and talking about it, at least amongst ourselves, is a mistake.

Rebecca: It seems particularly challenging when we’re thinking about these power dynamics that you’re talking about when it’s layered in a prison system where there’s already kind of a teacher-student relationship that has a power dynamic, but now there’s also a prison authority, telling teachers what they can and cannot do in this space as well. So how do you help students reach a feeling of being settled or overcome some of those barriers around power to actually have learning happen?

William: I think it’s super tricky, because with correction staff outside the classroom, it’s all about that absolute authoritarian coercive kind of power. And here’s the thing, often, new hire teachers, including me, receive their orientation training in the same sessions as corrections officers and other corrections staff. So there’s an expectation that we go in and behave like corrections officers in the classroom, see where in reality in the classroom success is found through compassion and collaboration and not coercion. So earning a student’s trust and respect by developing that teacher-student relationship goes a long way. If you ever have to exert your authority in the classroom, for example, enforcing classroom rules. I know from my own experience as a teacher that if you develop that relationship, you can gain compliance through respect and you don’t have to resort to threat of punishment.

Em: Mmhmm. I had that happen… When I was working I spent a lot of time building relationships with my students. And I had a very unique situation, I can’t imagine in today’s climate that I could ever have such a situation again, but, really focused a lot on building relationships with students, and also trying to walk the line of teachers are expected to be corrections enforcers when they’re in the classroom, like that is the expectation from the institution. And because teachers rarely get training that is not corrections offered training… Until this book, any training that was given was the program would put together some training. But the conversations around power and… What does it mean to be a teacher and be expected to be complicit in these dominator power dynamics? And what do you do with students who don’t have the ability to withdraw consent? And how do you navigate that? How do you not abuse that power? And that has been a question that we have not talked about. Education doesn’t have that question very often about, what do we do to maintain our own ethical core when we are in these positions where we are expected to wield power? And I think that, what Bill was talking about, where you’re building relationships with people so that they understand how you make decisions. They understand that a yes is always going to be a yes, and a no is going to be a no, and that doesn’t change based on the person. It doesn’t change based on, you’re having a bad day, you’re still going to make your decisions in the same way. People are going to know when they come to you, if you tell them yes, it would be a yes, and if you tell them no, it would be a no. And I think that we underestimate the importance of that, that consistency. I know that when I was at the prison, I had corrections staff who would come to me sometimes if they were having issues with a student, and they were someone who was in my class, they would come to me and they would say, “We know you have a good relationship with the student, can you talk to them about this or that?” And it didn’t happen all the time, but it definitely happened where they saw that I had a relationship that was not based on dominating the student and forcing them to do things. But it was based on trust and openness, as much as we can be open, and that I can at least have the conversation with the student where they might not even be able to do that.

William: Right, and I’ve had the same thing occur, and I think the big difference is that when you develop that relationship, that students begin to understand your motives for saying yes or saying no…

Em: Mmhmm.

William: …and that you do have their best interests at heart when you’re doing that, and you’re not just about asserting your dominance. It’s about trying to be that individual that is, again, working in their best interest.

John: And earlier, William, you mentioned how you received the same training that was provided to the guards. So it sounds like that could provide some insight for the correctional staff, who may perhaps be able to learn more effective ways of dealing with those who are incarcerated.

William: In a perfect world, that’s really all I can say. That institution has been doing things the same way for a long, long time, and is super resistant to any kind of change, especially in a more compassionate direction.

Em: Mmhmm.

John: Well it perhaps could lead to some gradual evolution in a better direction, at least.

Rebecca: Real slow, real slow. [LAUGHTER]

John: Really slow, but if perhaps instructors are better prepared in providing that sort of role model, it certainly couldn’t hurt, and it certainly couldn’t hurt the educational purpose. What are some effective strategies in providing trauma responsive educational practices in a prison environment?

Em: I think that the three things Bill and I always come back to over and again, and he’s always been the one to bring us back to that whenever things have gotten really difficult or challenging, is you prioritize the relationship, you maintain the dignity of everybody who is involved in whatever is going on, that’s yourself. I’m going to leave the word respect out of it, because respect in prisons is code for obedience, and I’m not interested in perpetuating that. So I think maintaining dignity, and then also strengthening connection. I mean I know, teachers, we have all had those moments with those students who are just… they feel intolerable. You’re sick of them. They have been irritating, they have been annoying, they will not leave you alone. They pester, pester, pester, whatever it is. And I think that on a free campus, you have a lot more latitude in how you work with students like that. And you get to leave, like you get to go. But in prisons you don’t really have the same amount of latitude. And losing your temper once can just destroy a relationship, and you don’t usually get second chances. People do not usually give you a second opportunity to regain their trust. So when I talk about strengthening connection, I think in that moment when you are disliking them the most intensely, you have to find something to appreciate about them, and you have to tell them that. So whatever it is, they have nice handwriting, or they’ve been speaking up in class, even if they’re irritating you to death, you have to find something to remember that these are people who are trying to learn, and that our job is to help them learn, and they are in a position that is so much more intolerable than ours. That’s something that we bring in when we accept the responsibility to teach inside, I believe that’s part of our responsibility, is to do that.

William: Absolutely, well said. Really, the only thing I think I can add to that is just to really be mindful to ensure that nothing that you say or do has a potential to re-traumatize individuals.

Em: Mmhmm.

William: Because, again, absolutely do no harm. But also, like Em said, you only get one shot with a lot of these students. And it’s part of the culture, you only get one shot. And if you do something to offend, or to re-traumatize, which is going to be perceived as offending, you may not get another chance to build that all-important relationship that you need to help them be successful.

Em: Mmhmm. To just add something to what Bill was saying, is that we talked about this a lot when we were prepping is… What would be helpful for people when we talk about strategies? And we aren’t going into more detail, because, well, we don’t have enough time and you can also read the book, but partly because some of the strategies are things that teachers have to develop for themselves. Like we can give people guidance on, How do you handle yourself when you go in? I assume that people who are teaching are professionals, and they may or may not have taught in prison before, but they’re professionals and that they have some experience and they have knowledge. And you know that they have their own strategies. So some of this is like, “How do you adapt your strategies?” Instead of telling you, “You have to do these things.” Just give you enough guidance, give teachers enough guidance, so they can see how their own strategies can fit into this very different environment. So I just wanted to say we’re not trying to avoid talking about more detail, it just feels like it’s not always helpful, you can get really into the weeds on it, and it’s not always helpful.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’m sure has impacted education in the prison system significantly is COVID-19. Can you talk a little bit about what that impact has been?

Em: That has been a disaster, like a disaster, as much a disaster as it has been for free campuses and for K-12, you just magnify that, because you have millions of people who are basically trapped in a building where they have to share ventilation. They are totally reliant on people who come in from the outside for protective gear, they may or may not be able to maintain social distancing. They have no way to ensure that people that they are around are vaccinated, or will get vaccinated, or can get vaccinated, and that includes prison staff, any staff who come in. And I’m going to refrain from more commentary about what happens in prisons to people, because those aren’t my stories to tell, but everything that’s happened outside of the prison, you can just magnify that by whatever amount you want to, and it probably still isn’t as bad as what happened inside.

William: We just lose that ability to provide the consistency that that population of students needs.

Em: Yeah. About education specifically, prison programs, because of the lack of technology and the lack of access, have almost entirely been face-to-face programs. There’s been like a little bit of, they can have a tablet, and you know, you update the tablet, but none of it is online, like the tablets aren’t connected to each other, you have to bring them in and plug them into a server and do the updates and things like that. So I think there’s a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of movement on that front, not very much. But most of the people that I know who teach, they can maybe get inside occasionally, but the minute there’s an outbreak they can’t come in anymore. So students, for the most part, have lost the last few years of access to education, in addition to being in a terrifying environment where they don’t have the ability to really care for themselves in the way that we do.

William: I don’t think we can overstate the importance of that face-to-face contact. I mean them seeing you on a daily or weekly basis and being in that physical presence. Because it’s everything you do, it’s your body language when you’re with them, it’s your facial expressions, it’s micro expressions. Everything you do is your message to them about why you’re there and what your motives are, and that you’re there to work in their best interest, to be an advocate for them to learn and to grow. Because that’s really, when we boil it down, that’s what we’re talking about, is we’re talking about individuals who are trying to better themselves through education. And it’s just, it’s a population that’s rife with trauma and negative educational experiences. And I think that that face-to-face time is just so important to support their success.

Em: I have a lot of colleagues who have been doing fantastic work through correspondence, or doing packets and things like that, because correspondence is a little bit different than doing packet work. And there certainly are people who benefit from having more time and people who are introverted, or have maybe some different needs in learning who like the asynchronous learning piece more, or they have more time to maybe reflect and things like that. So I don’t want to say that nobody has gotten any benefit at all. But I agree with Bill, like, my bias is certainly that face-to-face learning is… there’s so many benefits to it. And I think when you look at the literature around trauma, one of the big benefits when we talk about trauma responsivity, is that somebody has a settled body, like if you’re settled in your body, you can be in that space, and other people respond to that. Like mobs, you get one or two people who are just completely hyped up and doing all this stuff, and that’s contagious. Well, the same way that that kind of chaotic, high-level, excited energy is contagious. So also is the settled, calm, deeply grounded energy, is also contagious, and that can be really important when you’re working with folks.

John: There’s a lot of research that shows one of the best ways of escaping from poverty is through education and higher education. I would think that would be especially true for people who are incarcerated. As a society, are we devoting enough resources to provide educational services for those who are incarcerated? And what changes should be made to provide more resources? What are some of the most pressing needs for addressing some of these inequities?

William: For me, I just would like to see more resources devoted toward putting more teachers in the classroom. In my last teaching job in the county jail, my class size would be, sometimes, over 25 students. And it’s so much harder to… and I keep going back to developing these relationships because, to me, that’s a foundation for everything else that comes. But I would like to see more education staff and smaller class sizes, to help create those relationships that foster success and students.

Em: I agree, I think, definitely more teachers. I think that, like roughly half of the states in the country don’t offer education inside, or education is not mandated, and that may have changed a little bit. But last time I checked, it was, like, 28 states did. So it’s roughly half that do not mandate education. The demographics aren’t different, the people who go in, 60 to 70% of them don’t have a high school credential. And two thirds of people who are going into prisons are existing on, just subsistence, 12,000 a year or less, like very, very high rates of poverty. So absolutely. But I think we also have to think about re-entry, and 95 to 97% of people come back to the community. So if we’re thinking about education while people are in prison, but we’re not doing anything to make sure that people can have access to education, can have access to housing, and access to jobs when they come out, then, I don’t think education is ever a waste, but I think that it’s very short sighted, it’s not a good way to talk about lifting people out of poverty. I would say one thing people should be thinking about are background checks. Background checks are probably one of the biggest roadblocks to people getting housing, to people getting credit, to people getting jobs, sometimes getting into college, being able to spend time with their kids when they’re at school. Background checks impact people in so many ways and forever, because we don’t have any expiration date on them. So I’ve heard stories of people who got hired by a university to be a tenured professor, and then somehow it comes up that 25 years ago they had a conviction on their record and the university’s like, “Oh, sorry, our policy is that we can’t have you.” And I’m like, “Well, that person’s been working there for years, what are you talking about?” But it happens. So I think that that is one area where, because it’s so deeply entrenched, and it’s connected to employment law in a lot of ways and to public records, it’s such a tangled problem that people really don’t even want to think about it. But it is a huge roadblock for folks. So if we are going to invest in people, and we’re going to give them education that they should’ve gotten earlier in their lives and should’ve had access to. If we’re going to give them access to more education, then we’re just doing them a grave disservice if we are not making it easier for them when they come out.

Rebecca: Are there things in the education system we should be working on that happen, perhaps, before people end up incarcerated? So avoiding some of the traumas and things that are happening in the education system early on.

Em: Well… I feel like that is a very difficult question to answer because I have the same critique of our K-12 education that I did of higher ed, that it is very Eurocentric and that people of color, and people with disabilities, children with disabilities, who need to relate to information differently, who may need to consume information differently, all of that stuff, like, they’re not just treated as if they are trying to learn things, they’re treated as if they are wrong, as if they are deliberately challenging the authority of a teacher. And then they’re punished, they’re punished, because they can’t or won’t assimilate into these Eurocentric ways of understanding the world, which again, are not wrong, but are not the only way. And nobody should be punished because they understand information in a different way from somebody else. And that is a very broad statement, and I know that there are individual people who make an effort to try to not punish, or who try to have students learn in different ways. But systemically, the system itself does that. I mean, think about it, so if you are a black student, black parents, and demographically, perhaps you have a single parent household, we’ll say, and this could happen with any student, I’m picking a black student for a reason. So they have a single parent household, and the parent has to work a couple of jobs. So not only like if that parent is going to come to school and interact with teachers, which they definitely want to do, they have to deal with their own trauma from having been discriminated against and potentially punished because they were a black student in a white system. So they have that from their own childhood, from their own adulthood, from their own lives. And they have to try to come into a school which may have harmed them when they were young, and try to bring themselves in and do the things they need to do for their children. And so that’s a barrier that white parents, perhaps, don’t face. And this is a very general example, and I am not saying that all white parents or all black parents would have these kinds of experiences. But it is an example that I’ve heard from many students and many parents that this happens. And again, it’s just something that we aren’t addressing. And I’m very hesitant to say a whole lot on the topic of K-12, because I don’t teach in K-12, which is part of the reason I don’t feel like I have a lot other than a general observation, I don’t have a lot of direct experience that I can speak to. Bill, I think you taught more in K-12 than I have.

William: Yeah, having worked in about, I think five middle schools, and seven different high schools in different parapro and professional instruction capacity. What I can say is looking back, if I had access to Em’s book, to having a better understanding of trauma and the impact of trauma on how students learned. I felt that I was fairly effective as an educator, back in my time in the public schools, but had I had access to that I could have been more, I could have done more, I could have been more effective. Because for me, introducing a trauma-informed perspective into my instruction, I think it’s a game changer, I really do. I think that students who couldn’t be reached before, could be better reached, better understood. And even within the constraints of the framework of public education and the way it is right now, I think that teachers who adopt a trauma-informed approach into their teaching can’t be more effective. I can’t say enough about it, honestly.

John: There’s certainly a lot that we as a society can work on to provide a more inclusive environment all the way through for everyone, but let’s turn back to one of the things that is addressed in Em’s book, which is the importance of bringing joy into the educational experience, so we can end on a, perhaps, a little bit more upbeat note. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Em: One of the things I love about being in any kind of learning space is getting to learn with people. And I think that that’s learning from them, but also getting to learn with them. So I’m teaching how to make a widget, or write about widgets, or something like that. And I have a way that I do that, so I kind of teach from that perspective and maybe I have different strategies. But what I get to learn is, when that person, when that thing, whatever it is clicks in and they have that lightbulb moment. What I get to learn is how they understand it, and I get to learn how they see it and I get to feel that excitement that they feel because they, maybe opened up a new little neural connection for themselves, or maybe something they knew in one way they now know it in another way, and I get to share that with them. And that’s something, like people love working with kids because that’s what’s happening all the time. There’s so much they don’t know that everything’s like,“Oh my god, I can’t eat dirt.” That is exciting for a child because they didn’t know they couldn’t eat dirt, and, I mean, maybe they’re just going to eat dirt anyway, because it’s fun, because it makes your parents mad, but it’s really exciting, everything is exciting. And I think that we lose that as we get older and we get into adulthood and we take on adult responsibilities, and there is no structure in our society that encourages us to keep learning and to keep our learning muscles strong. And so we kind of forget just the joy and the pleasure that we experience when we’re being expansive together, when we’re expanding our minds together. And we’re opening ourselves up to learning with other people and learning from them. I think we forget that, because we’re not allowed to do it, or we don’t have places that we think we can do it, or we just get sort of swept away by circumstances of our lives.

William: And I take what Em said, and I want to frame that in a carceral setting too, because seeing the face of a student who’s learned something that they never thought they could learn, or seeing them begin to understand a concept and watch that light bulb go on. And just to know that something is happening that’s combating some of those past educational negative experiences that they’ve had, that they’re finding out that they have the ability to learn, that they can learn, and that they’re excited about it. And to be able to share that excitement with them, to me, that’s the joy of education, because like Em said, the instructor and the learner share that. So yeah, just knowing that the ability to learn is there. It’s amazing.

Em: I had a student once, this is not when I was in the prison, but I had things like this happen when I was in prison. And we were talking about getting jobs and doing interviews and things like that. And I had a group and we would do a group interview, and then I would interview them one on one in front of their classmates, which was a small class, and it was a cohort so it wasn’t like it was a bunch of strangers. And this one student was just terrified. Like, didn’t want to even get in the chair at the front of the class to do the group interview just where the class was sort of asking questions. And all they could do was just sit in the chair. And the class went around and they all asked the question, and I don’t even remember if the student really answered anything, but they did stay in the chair the whole time. And when they got done, that moment of recognition… And of course, the rest of the class was very supportive. If they could answer that would be great, but if not just overcoming their fear of sitting there. And that moment when the student realized that they had stayed in the chair, that was such a moment of success and triumph and joy for them. And all the class got to share in that we all got to support and cheer for this person, even though it was really, really hard. And that’s something that you would not necessarily consider a learning that you could measure. That what? Somebody would just, like, sit in a chair? That’s not a piece of learning that you can quantify, you can’t put a grade on that. But when I ran into that student years later, and they were working as an educational assistant at the local community college, and they had gone through however many interviews they had to do to get that job. And if they had not done that, they would not have ended up on that career path. And I thought, “Oh, this is one of those things that you need for people to be able to do.” But you shouldn’t have to put a grade on that, a number or a letter. This is part of what it means for us to be human together, and to be in this space together, and to support each other, and care about each other. And I always remember that whenever we talk about what is learning, and joy in learning, and that piece of it. And I saw things like that happen, I would have students who would fail two or three tests in a row, but they would get one or two points more on each test. And so the whole class would just celebrate, because the person was obviously starting to get a little bit better either at taking tests or remembering information or learning how to study or whatever that was. And I think that those are things that our current education system doesn’t give us time for. And I think especially when you’re talking about prisons, and just the level of educational trauma and denial and rejection that those students have gone through, of anyone who needs that kind of attention and care, I think that our students who are inside really do. And joy as an antidote to trauma, Bill mentioned ability to learn, but I think that when you look at what trauma does to the brain, the stress chemicals and keeping us locked into fear and survival, but when you talk about joy everything just opens up. When you are having those joyful moments everything just opens up, and I can’t help but think that those moments of joy and what happens in your body really is an antidote to some of the impacts of trauma.

Rebecca: That was a great story, Em. So we always wrap up, though, by asking, What’s next?

Em: Hmm. So for me what’s next, I’m working on a book chapter for a handbook on prison education, a friend asked me to do a chapter on that. So working on the chapter on that. But beyond that, I am starting to put together, like a companion or guide for the text, Building a Trauma Responsive Educational Practice. And I just started thinking about what that would mean, and what are the things that would be most important to unpack? And what would I want people to take away from that. And then, of course, my consulting business, I’m going to be talking to Princeton in May, which is very exciting. And I’m going to be doing a training session with John Jay College, which has two or three programs around corrections ed and teaching and working in prisons. So I’m pretty excited to be doing that later in the year. But yeah, I think the companion book is starting to take some shape in my head, so I’m excited about that.

Rebecca: That’ll definitely keep you busy.

Em: Yes.

Rebecca: How about you, William?

William: For me, a couple of things, I am working on a re-entry survival guide, which is kind of a workbook manual for people coming out to help them through just some of the beginning pitfalls of re-entry. You know, how do you get your ID? How do you get connected with your state services if you need them? Job hunt, finding housing, things like that. And then I’m also looking at putting together an in-service training, a lot of it based on Em’s work to take into the public schools. Because I think that if students have an opportunity, say at a secondary level, to be exposed to educators who have a trauma-informed perspective, a trauma-informed approach, then hopefully we can mitigate some of the high prison populations that we have now, and maybe go a long way to having some of those students skip going to prison. [LAUGHTER]

Em: Mmhmm. It would be at least nice to be able to reduce the overall level of connection between education and prison. Like people are always going to make mistakes and screw up, and part of abolition is imagining… What would it be like to be able to make a mistake and screw up and not have to go get locked in a cage? So part of the work of abolition is imagining that and I think for me, too, part of that work of abolition is… What would it be like if education wasn’t a pipeline to prison for so many people? What does that mean? How would education have to change? How does society have to change? And I think that’s work that is very interesting to me, and necessary.

John: Well, thank you both. You’re doing some really important work, and we thank you for sharing it with us.

William: Thanks for having us.

Em: Well, thank you, too. Yeah, and I welcome if people have questions or want to learn more, I’m happy for them to reach out to me. I think you can put my email in the show notes.

Rebecca: Thank you both.


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.


233. Guided Notetaking

Many college classes contain a substantial lecture component, but our students arrive at college with little or no training in taking effective notes. In this episode, Tanya Martini joins us to discuss how guided note taking can be used to promote equity and student success. Tanya is a Professor of Psychology at Brock University in Ontario.

Show Notes


John: Many college classes contain a substantial lecture component, but our students arrive at college with little or no training in taking effective notes. In this episode, we examine how guided note taking can be used to promote equity and student success.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Tanya Martini. Tanya is a Professor of Psychology at Brock University in Ontario. Welcome, Tanya.

Tanya: Thanks very much for having me.

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

Tanya: I am drinking tea, yes. So, my tea is a pomegranate white.

Rebecca: Oh that sounds nice. Nice and light.

Tanya: Yeah. My friend was joking with me because I said I was doing this podcast about tea and teaching, and he said, “So, like, basically two of your favorite things in the world.” I said, “Pretty much!”

Rebecca: You’re in excellent company then. [LAUGHTER]

Tanya: Are you also drinking tea?

Rebecca: Always, always.

Tanya: Always.

Rebecca: Today I have English afternoon. I was in a rush, so I couldn’t get a fancy pot going.

John: And I’m on my fourth cup of tea for the day, and it’s a peppermint spearmint blend.

Tanya: Oh, that’s nice, that’s really nice. My mum was English, so we always drank tea when I was growing up. And then I met my husband when we were hiking in Wales. So we basically have a household where the kettle is never cold.

Rebecca: Yeah, my house is like that, too.

Tanya: Is it?

Rebecca: When John’s like, “Fourth cup?” I’m like… “Fourth pot? What are you talking about?” [LAUGHTER]

John: We have had three kettles today, because we’ve had a number of people come into the office earlier today.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss how you’ve been using guided note taking in your introductory psychology course. Can you give us a little background on the course first?

Tanya: Sure, it’s at Brock. So there’s 1500 students in the intro psych class, and about 220 or 230 of them would be psych majors in their first year. And the rest of them are taking it either as a requirement for another degree program like education or nursing, or they take it as a social sciences elective. So I would say about 85 or 90% of them are genuinely in their first year, they’ve just arrived from high school. We don’t have a lot of non-traditional students in the class, a few, but the majority of them are 17, 18 year olds, and they’re just making their transition from high school to university.

John: What’s the modality for this class? And how is it taught in terms of dealing with that many students in one class?

Tanya: Yeah, it’s a good question, because different people will handle that sort of volume of students in different ways. We made a really intentional choice even before I came on board that we wanted all psychology students to have the same experience. So rather than trying to split the students up into different groups taught by different instructors, what the instructors do is they split the weeks. So our course runs 12 and 12, like 12 weeks in the fall and then again in the winter. So it’s a 24 week, full-year course for us from September to April. And in the past I would say decade or so it’s three instructors, but it’s usually kind of two primary instructors and what we call a junior partner. And so the two, kind of, main instructors would teach 10 weeks each and then the junior partner would teach four. And it’s been kind of a good model. I started as the junior partner and it gives people a bit of a chance to decide… Is this a course that I could see myself moving into? Or is this really not something for me? Because it’s not for everybody to be in a course that’s that large. So in terms of structuring it, that’s how we do it. And it gives everybody a very consistent kind of experience. And then, like most Canadian universities the last couple of years, the big, big courses have been asynchronous online. So that’s what we did last year, what we’re doing currently this year. In normal times, it’s run as a three hour per week course, where two hours is allocated to a lecture. We don’t have enough seats in any space for all of those people. So what we do is we run the same lecture three times a week to 500 people, and we would do a two-hour lecture. And then we run 75 small group seminars every week, so 18 to 20 people usually. And those seminars are run by third and fourth year undergraduates. So we have, like, a peer mentorship model in the seminars. And it works actually pretty well, because what we find is that the first-year students, our impression, anyway, from the evaluations, is they like having other students leading those discussions. It makes them feel comfortable, and not just with the content, but I think they feel comfortable if they’re struggling with the transition. They feel as though this is kind of a senior mentor who can help them to find the resources that they need. But I really like the fact that our department and our faculty kind of puts the resources behind it because it’s quite resource intensive to run that many seminars in a course. It’s nice because it helps students to make the integration into university and help them cross that bridge from high school. Because they’ve got this one person who knows who they are, knows them by name, knows that if they go missing somebody will be checking in on them to make sure that they’re okay. And it also just helps them to meet people and make new friends in the first year. And then a few years ago, we got permission to have the teaching assistants, those third and fourth year students also take a course in facilitating good discussions. So that they’re not walking into the seminars feeling ill prepared. And it’s a great space for us to teach them some transferable skills that are very applicable to the workplace. So it’s kind of a nice model. Very resource intensive, and I’m grateful for that, but it works really well.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the seminar for your TAs?

Tanya: Yeah, sure. It’s a full-year course. So it runs basically in parallel to the first-year course. And what we do is, I really try to model it as… it’s not a kind of “how to TA intro psych course,” I really try to sell it and emphasize its applicability to the world more broadly. So we tackle a number of different topics that are relevant to those seminars, but are also relevant to the working world, too. So we talk about diversity in groups. And so if you’re facilitating conversations in groups that are diverse, what are some of the advantages to that? And what are some of the challenges? And how do you overcome those kinds of challenges? How do you manage the balance of the discussion so that you don’t have decisions being made based on the people who talk the most or who talk the loudest? How do you get over those kinds of challenges? We talk about active listening and what that means, and we talk about cultivating a level of self awareness so that if you start to feel kind of anxious or upset, you recognize that in yourself, and you know what to do to bring it down. We talk about… How do you facilitate things when it starts to get challenging and heated? What kinds of things can you do? And then in the second semester, we move into talking about things, like, How do you give a good presentation? So if we move away from the facilitation skills, we talk about good multimedia presentations, the students do the equivalent of a 15 minute TED Talk. So it’s all meant to be very applicable to a broad array of settings. And most students find that it’s a great community, because we hire 18 students every year to fulfill the seminar leader role. And we tend to find that they coalesce into a really nice, tight community, they’re very supportive of one another. So you get a great exchange of ideas and lots of support, if you’re feeling anxious, or things aren’t going well, or whatever. So that course runs separately, but it’s a really nice counterpoint to the very, very large first year course. So I love having the big, big class on the one hand, but then also this smaller class where I really get to know those 18 TAs really well.

Rebecca: In our notes for this episode related to this course, one of the things that you talk about is how diversity doesn’t necessarily promote inclusion, or the other way around. Can you expand on that a little bit more? It totally caught my attention. I was, like, I want to know more about that!

Tanya: Yeah, it’s such a great point. So I have the luxury of being on sabbatical this year for the first time in eight years, and it’s such a great gift. And one of the things that I really wanted to do was, to do more reading about diversity and inclusion and thinking a little bit about… How do we incorporate that into the syllabus? And what does it mean for our seminars? Are we doing the best job that we can be doing? And I have been taking, like, a number of workshops, and I went to this great workshop being run by an organization that promotes diverse viewpoints. And the woman who was running it is from an organization in the States called The Village Square, where they purposefully bring people together who are on both sides of the political divide, I think, in that case, left and right. And I had a conversation with her, and she’s, like, taking this really great course, this… it’s a MOOC basically, Massive Open Online Course, and she said, “I think you would really like it. It’s all about bridging differences.” And so that comment about you can have diversity without any inclusion comes from this course that I’m taking. And they just talk about how you can have diversity, like, you can purposefully hire or take on people who look different from one another, or different religious backgrounds, political backgrounds. But unless everybody feels comfortable articulating their opinions and talking about where they’re at, unless they all feel comfortable with one another, you don’t really get true inclusion. Because inclusion sort of necessitates that not just you have a roomful of diverse people, but that all of those people are contributing to the conversation. And I thought that that was a really valuable and important point to take away. Because although I think, of course, you have to make some effort to bring those diverse people into the room, the job doesn’t stop there. Because at that point then, you have the sometimes challenging job of getting all those people to a place where they all feel as though their opinion matters, and they’re comfortable articulating it. And they go on to talk a little bit about how in some cultures, for example, there’s much greater value placed on listening rather than talking all the time. And so you have to work with that and work around that and try to draw people in so that the discussion is somewhat balanced. And at that point you’ve kind of done a better job of reaching inclusivity, as opposed to just diversity.

John: This is a really great set of skills you’re providing the students, who no matter what they do in the future are going to be working with diverse groups, as well as having to do presentations in some form or another. You mentioned hiring these students, what type of compensation do they receive? Are they paid for this work? Or are they receiving credit for it as a result of the courses they take?

Tanya: Yeah, so that’s another great question. And it’s a model that has changed over time. So at Brock, and at a number of schools in Ontario, teaching assistants are unionized. And for a long time this was a unionized position, they would get paid for something like 300 hours a year. And then, like this won’t surprise you at all, we went through financially difficult times as budgets were shrinking. And there was a period in the last decade where enrollments were shrinking just because of the demographics of Ontario. There was a much smaller pool of 17-year-olds in high school, and we were all competing for those people. And I was really only the junior partner at that time. But at that time, the Dean really started to make noises about the amount of money that it cost to mount this course. And so what we decided to do was to implement this strategy where we would make it a hybrid. And what we did was we rolled some of the things that used to be paid tasks into a course. So on the one hand, it would be disingenuous of me to say this was all driven by pedagogy, because it was driven to a large extent by budget. So what we did was we created this course, and about one third of the hours, we rolled into course related stuff. So a lot of the seminar preparation material, where we would pay them for that before it kind of became part of the course and talking through the seminar preparation with your colleagues and me giving some scaffolding around that. So now they get paid for about 200 hours. And the rest of it is rolled into this full-year course from September to April. So they get course credit for that. What it does mean, though, just from a logistical point of view is we used to have a model where people could do the course a number of times, they could TA the course a number of times. In fact, they were more likely to because they would get seniority in the union. But now you can only TA when you’re taking this course, and you can only take it once. So we don’t have the continuity we used to have, but we get a fresh group of 18 people. And I try to look at it as the upside of that is we can deliver these skills to more people because it’s a unique cohort every single year.

Rebecca: Are most of the courses in your college the two semesters back-to-back, like full-year courses?

Tanya: No. In fact, it’s kind of a rarity. Almost all of them are a half-year course, so 12 weeks, from either September to December or January to April. Intro psych is one and then we have a research methods course that’s a full year. But, in general, the guiding principle has been one of breadth. But I think what we have always felt is that a full year for first year is a good idea. Not so much because it’s such an important year for us and there’s so much to deliver. I mean, there is, but I think just in terms of integrating students into the department and to the university, and again, helping them to make that transition, giving them the full year course is really helpful in terms of allowing time and space for that to happen.

John: We saw an article in The Chronicle recently describing your use of guided note taking and it seemed really effective. Could you describe how guided note taking has been used in your classes and how your use of it has evolved?

Tanya: Basically in terms of historical context, what we find, and this won’t surprise anybody, in a class of 1500 people, you get everything from A to Zed. So we have students who are amazingly well prepared for university, and they know how to take notes, and they know how to read dense text, and they’re very skilled and savvy about taking exams, and they have great study strategies. And then on the other end, we have students who are quite ill prepared. And sometimes not even ill prepared, but maybe they’ve been out of school for a long time, and so those skills are kind of rusty. And so retention is an issue for us. We’re always trying to make sure that we’re a course where we’re bringing everybody up to the same place. By the end of the 24 weeks we’re trying to get people ready so that everybody is kind of on a level playing field. And when I joined the course, laptops were just starting to be a big thing. And what we were doing at that time, and this predates my involvement in the course, is we were supplying notes to students. But they were the PowerPoint notes. So you print the PowerPoint notes, you’ve got the slide, and they’ve got a bunch of lines on the side, and students would make these notes. And we would supply these paper notes for a fee, and they would buy them at the bookstore bundled up. And then they could just put them in a binder, and bring them to the course. And so some of the students, as I was coming into the course, were just kind of ignoring them and they were taking notes on a laptop, other people were taking notes using these paper copies. So it was kind of quite a mix at that time. But one of the things that really started to become clear to me was students really weren’t sure what they should be writing down. And my slides are somewhat sparse. Yeah, I’ll have the main points on there. And students would come up during the break, and they’d say, “Well, I kind of missed this point.” And sometimes I would be looking and it was just full of dense text, like, they were trying to write down verbatim everything I said. And then some of them would come and they hadn’t written down anything because they had the picture of the slide there, and they assumed that if it wasn’t on the slide it probably wasn’t worth talking about or remembering. So it really struck me how there was so much diversity in what people interpreted to be good note taking. And I was talking to my colleague about that, and I said, “Sure,” that this is really a good thing. And so that was my first sense that maybe we needed to do something and talk more explicitly about note taking. And could we do something that would scaffold their note taking? And so that was where the first iteration of our guided notes came from. And basically, the first iteration was just, like, a hierarchical overview of, here’s what the lecture looks like from the top, here’s the three main points or the four main points, and here are the subpoints. Just like on a PowerPoint slide, you get the main points and the subpoints. So that they could kind of see at a glance, these are the big things. And then what the guided notes looked like was almost like a series of small exam questions, because that’s really what the lecture is, it’s the answers to a number of different questions. And so if I was talking about, say, four things that determine whether you will pay attention to something in the environment, the question in the guided notes would be: “Name and describe four things that determine whether you pay attention to something in the environment.” And might even give them a table to fill in. And so they started to see the lecture as providing answers to a number of questions, some of which are connected, and giving them clearer space in which to put it in. And then we had students in that first iteration commenting on the fact that they didn’t want to take notes on a computer, or they didn’t have a computer. And so we started creating a digital copy and a PDF copy with spaces, and they could either write with their pen or they could type on a computer. And that’s what we did for four or five years, that’s kind of what it looked like. And then one of the things that I wanted to do during this sabbatical was just think a little bit more about them, because I started to think it would be a good idea to have something similar for the text. So I co-authored the textbook that we use, and I started to think, you know, it’d be really good to have something comparable to the text. Because in as much as they struggle to take notes during lectures, sometimes I think they struggle just knowing what to extract from the textbook. There’s so much material there, and sometimes they come in with all the highlighting. Okay but, [LAUGHTER] like, it’s the whole page.

Rebecca: It’s a rainbow page. [LAUGHTER]

Tanya: I know, the rainbow page! And so it was sort of clear that sometimes we’re struggling to extract what the central stuff was. And rarely did I see people making marginal notes or anything like that. And so I started to think that would be helpful. So that was one of my sabbatical tasks. So I went into the note taking literature a little more deeply, and I started to create them, and they’re a little more in keeping with the Cornell Notes. So they take the form of the Cornell Notes, and they are a little more sophisticated. And that was what prompted the rework of the lecture notes that they commented on in The Chronicle. So they look more like Cornell Notes now with the features of Cornell Notes. And the other thing, it’s such a great blessing that a sabbatical is, I was reading about diversity and inclusion, and went back into some texts that I hadn’t read for a while, like Dan Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School? And he talks about the fact that, one of the things that you could do and might be advantageous to do is to sort of frame the lecture around a series of questions and make them explicit. And so it really pushed me… this whole reformulation of the lecture notes has really pressed me to think about my lectures a lot more carefully. And so what I started to do is think… Okay, well, if I was going to distill this section on attention into, like, six or eight main questions, what are they? Because Willingham’s contention is, instead of it being like this steady stream of information just being thrown at you, if you can kind of organize it into a series of questions that are somewhat interesting, that makes things, first of all, organized a little bit better in your head, but also just a little more interesting to listen to. So the guided notes now kind of look like Cornell Notes. And they’ve got this accompanying, what I call “the roadmap,” which is basically just a graphic organizer. I did a lot of reading about graphic organizers. It sort of shows, these are the main points, these are the main questions. And then as we’re answering this question, we’re tackling this study and this study. And you’re not meant to write on the roadmap, it just gives you a visual of… here’s where we are in the grand scheme of things, here’s where we are in this particular unit.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, can you talk a little bit about what Cornell Notes are?

Tanya: Sure, yeah, I would love to talk about Cornell Notes. And there are obviously slight variations, but the way Cornell Notes are set up is that if you’re thinking about a page, there’s two main columns, usually. And in the left-hand column, in my notes, I list the main questions or the main points for my textbook notes. It’s like, here are the learning objectives for this chapter. And then the students’ written notes are on the right-hand side. And I scaffold those by putting in the sort of smaller questions that were always in the guided notes. Like, name and describe the four things that guide whether you’ll pay attention to something in the environment, is there. But what I do is also to include, and sometimes it’s structured differently, but I’ll section on, like, What are your questions about this? So that students have a space to write down if something’s going by, and they know that they haven’t understood it, it’s a space where they can very clearly plant a flag and say: “I need to go and check on this,” or “I need to ask the instructor, or I need to go to office hours, I need to talk to my TA.” So there’s a very clear space there for… What questions do you have? And I always frame it that way, too, because I think it’s a subtle difference. But when you say, “What questions do you have?” You’re basically saying, “It’s totally normal to have questions. So what are they?” So our Cornell Notes look like that. They’ve got a section for here are the main questions over here on the left-hand side, and as we’re answering that question, here are the things we’re going to cover. And you can make your notes on that right-hand column. And then before we move on to another question… What questions do you have about this? What do you need to check on?

John: You mentioned at the start of this, the wide diversity in students’ note taking skills, and so the students who are going to do well would probably do well, anyway. But I would think that this would benefit some of the students who would come in with weaker skills, and they are now able to focus on the things that are much more relevant and important for learning the course content. As well as it’s providing them with some clues about how it all fits together with the questions and with the structure you provide. Has this reduced some of the equity gaps in your classes?

Tanya: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And the answer is, I don’t know, because I don’t have data. But one of the things that I found really interesting, and I was saying I did a lot of reading about note taking and so on, and I hadn’t really thought about guided notes as being an equity issue. But Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan, who are both in North Carolina, have written extensively about how providing structure of this kind is incredibly beneficial in terms of students who have come from usually some disadvantage and have less preparation, or their preparation for university hasn’t been as strong. And so I don’t have any data, but certainly Kelly Hogan in her intro biology class, and I really admired the fact that she actually dug around in the data. And what she found was that, quite unbeknownst to her, the number of Ds and Fs was not spread equally across different groups. And so she found that people who were Caucasian ancestry, like they were getting a relatively small proportion of Ds and Fs. It was slightly higher among her Latino and Latina students. And then it was really quite high among the African American students. And I found that quite surprising too, but certainly she’s got data to support the idea that providing this kind of structure is very beneficial in terms of diminishing those kinds of gaps. But what I will say, and I’m not sure if this would resonate with other people, one of the things that has always concerned me a little is when you provide this kind of structure in a first year course, and then you send them off into the world in second year, with me knowing that none of my colleagues are providing these kinds of support… Are you in fact just pushing off the retention issue and all the problems into second year? And so one of the things that I think is really important is not just creating these guided notes and the scaffolding, but really talking very explicitly about: If you find this helpful, let’s talk about why it’s helpful. And let’s talk about how you can transfer that skill into another course where they’re not necessarily going to give you guided notes for your textbook and for your lecture. So what are these things doing for you? How are they scaffolding? And I think having that explicit conversation is really important. Otherwise, I feel like we run the risk of just pulling the rug from under them, but doing it a little bit later on. So one of the things we talk about is, How do you decide what’s really important? So if it’s in a textbook, being cued into what’s in bold type, and what’s in italics, and so on. But I also try to kind of just get back to the structure issue. Because it’s interesting how you teach for a long time, and it seems so obvious, but it’s not obvious to them. So it’s like, if I give you this chapter, why don’t you just try mapping out the headers and the subheaders? So that you get some sense of how this material is organized. And you’ll see in chapter eight, there’s like four big topics, that’s the big text, the main A headers, and then there might be two subheaders under this one. And then if you kind of create that map for yourself, it gives you the big overall picture. And one of the benefits of teaching intro psych is we talk a lot about memory. And how is memory structured? And what do you do to facilitate memory? And we talk about how memory is organized in this kind of way, and hierarchies are important and useful. And so I’m really trying hard not just to provide the scaffolding, but to help them to understand why the scaffolding works. So that in second year, if somebody has dismantled it and the scaffolding isn’t there, at least you have some sense of, “Okay, how can I recreate that effect for myself?” And I think that that’s something that is still kind of a work in progress. I don’t know if I do that well enough yet, or enough yet. But I think that that’s a really important component of providing the support in the first place.

John: And that’s something I think that most students have not been exposed to along the way. So helping them develop those types of skills would be really helpful, I think. And we should probably mention that Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan have a book coming out at some point in the near future, and I’m very much looking forward to reading that.

Tanya: Me too.

Rebecca: I’m sure many of our listeners will be. We have it on our radar, like the second it comes out, we’re going to know. [LAUGHTER] Have your students responded to this scaffolding that you’re providing through note taking? Have they given you some informal feedback that you could share?

Tanya: Yeah, so, so we’ve had informal feedback verbally, and sometimes it’s solicited and sometimes it’s not. So if students come to my office hours, and they bring their notes, I don’t hesitate to ask them, “How’s it working for you? Does it matter to you?” Occasionally students will tell me they don’t use the notes, but they will refer to the notes before a test. And sometimes they tell me that it feels like it’s the only thing that is keeping them going through the lectures, which sometimes does feel like it’s quite a lot to take on board. But on the course evaluations, we see a number of people… because sometimes I asked about it explicitly on the course evals, and what we get is uniformly positive feedback. Sometimes it’s quite effusive, and sometimes it’s not, but we don’t get people saying, “This is terrible, don’t do this again.” Even if they’re not using them, they genuinely appreciate the fact that we think about the fact that this is sometimes a skill that’s challenging, and that we’re trying to support them as best we can. So yeah, the informal feedback and the formal feedback has been uniformly positive. The question of the data is an important one, and I don’t have any data to supply. But I kind of lean on the fact that Kelly Hogan’s work, to me, is pretty compelling if you can move students in that way. That’s a big deal to me, because, as I said, we have a lot of traditional students. They’re 17 and 18-years-old, but they come from such different places, and the extent to which high school has prepared them well varies a lot. And I’m not sure what your experience has been like, but I think the pandemic has just amplified that a lot. The kinds of experiences they’ve had, the extent to which they’ve been in the class versus not in the class, the extent to which teachers have had the resources to rise to the occasion, or not, has really created significant inequities, I think, in high schools in Ontario. I don’t doubt that everybody’s doing the best job they can, but they don’t always have the same resources to work with. So I think we’ll only see more of that in the future as they move through high school and arrive on our doorstep.

Rebecca: I think tools like the note taking that you’re talking about, are just really great ways to help students filter out the mass amount of noise in an already very noisy world. And it seems particularly noisy these days. [LAUGHTER]

Tanya: Yes.

Rebecca: There’s so much going on, that helping provide that structure to really narrow focus seems really helpful. I know that my students have been certainly reporting that there’s just so many distractions, and things that are occupying their minds, that the ability to have structure like this in place can be really helpful to getting through a class, or being successful in a class in ways that maybe if that structure wasn’t there wouldn’t happen at this moment in time. Maybe it would happen in a different moment in time, but not at this moment in time.

Tanya: No, I totally agree with you. I think that that’s true. And I also think that, I’m not sure about your experience, but my experience is, even in the normal times, many of them are not accustomed to sort of sitting through it, our lecture. I do try to break it up quite a bit, actually, so that we’re trying different class activities. Or I’ll do something where, in a class of 500, I can divide them into groups, and we try to replicate an experiment. And like, “You’re going to be the group that has these instructions, and you close your eyes now, and you guys will have these instructions, and then…” So we’re always trying to mix it up a little bit. But sitting for two hours and trying to take stuff on board, it’s a lot. And I’ve been doing different things on this sabbatical, some of which have involved me sitting for hours, and struggling by the end of it.

Rebecca: I love that you’re taking classes on sabbatical, it was something that I did when I was on sabbatical as well. It’s a nice reminder of what it’s like to be a beginner in things again.

Tanya: It’s totally true. Especially, I think, the last couple of years. Doesn’t it feel like there hasn’t been two minutes to spare to do anything that elevates your teaching? I was trying to really struggle just to get through, and you know we were pivoting this really big course online, and suddenly all the assignments are different, and no in-person exams. It just felt like… it was so intense. And so this has been just such a great gap to kind of go, “I have time to do some reading,” and “I have time to take this course that I think will be beneficial to me, and it might be beneficial to my students.” So yeah, it’s been so amazing [LAUGHTER] just to be able to remember what it’s like to go learn some new things and get excited about that. I also started taking karate lessons, right? Which I thought, this is the best example of why you have to really have a lot of patience with beginners. Because I’m now at that stage where I’m a complete beginner myself, and hopelessly uncoordinated, and there’s all these black belts who are incredibly patient with me. But it’s sort of like, “Oh yeah,” everybody who teaches first year students should actually go do something brand new every now and again and remember what it was like to feel like you don’t know anything, and you’re not really very good at it. So that’s been a good reminder, too.

Rebecca: I love it.

John: When you were talking about the course for the teaching assistants, you emphasized how the skills they’re learning are going to be useful in the rest of their lives. Since most of the students in your psychology class are not going to become psych majors, and I think many of us have experienced challenges in getting students engaged in content in gen-ed classes. What type of strategies do you use to help emphasize the relevance of the skills they’re acquiring or the knowledge they’re acquiring in your class?

Tanya: Yeah. So that’s been kind of the focus of our research for a number of years now, and it was born of just some of those lightbulb moments. I’m sure you guys have had them too, where you have these experiences, like, “Ohhhh!” So I’m just going to describe one of them to you. So it started to become clear to me… now I’m going back probably eight or nine years, where I was having a good discussion with a student who had worked as a TA for me, she had worked as a research assistant for me. She was one of these young women who just had it all going on, like really smart, and really thoughtful, and a good thinker. And we were having this conversation as she was getting ready to apply to graduate school, and she was putting her application stuff together, her letter of intent. And we got to talking and, just to paraphrase, she was basically communicating that she really didn’t know, she spent four years and tens of thousands of dollars, and she really didn’t know how to articulate or leverage what she had been learning. So even though I had zero doubt that she had all these skills, she didn’t know how to talk about them, and she didn’t know how to talk to somebody else and persuade them that she had skills. And I suddenly started to think, that’s a huge problem. [LAUGHTER] That’s a really, really big problem. And that led to some of my early research, where I started to look at that question among our site undergrads at Brock, and it wasn’t an anomaly at all. And what I found was that students, when you ask them, “What do you think you’re getting out of these assignments that they’re giving you? Most of them would say, “Well, the instructor wants me to learn about topic X. They want me to learn about the content.” And very rarely did they ever say, “They want me to improve my communication skills,” or, “They want me to improve my teamwork skills,” or whatever. And so for me, that was really telling. And so I started just trying to be a lot more intentional about being explicit with students about the skills. And so in PSYC 1F90, what the main project that they do is, they would gather some data as a group, usually on some really famous study that works pretty well consistently, and they would gather data from themselves as participants. And I would get the data from the TAs, and I would combine it, and I would analyze, it’s very simple analysis. And then they would take the findings, and they would write it up like a mini psychological paper with an introduction, method, results, and discussion. And I would talk a little bit about that, and I would talk about the fact that it builds communication skills and writing skills. And so I think that I’m doing well, and then I had my second lightbulb moment when I had a history major come in. And we were talking about the assignment, and she was very polite, like really polite, but kind of candid. And she basically said she thought the assignment was pointless. And I said, “I was talking in lecture, it builds communication skills.” And she said, and again I’m paraphrasing, “Well, maybe that’s the way psychologists communicate, but that’s not the way historians communicate.” And I thought, that’s really interesting. [LAUGHTER] Because suddenly it became clear that she was kind of focused on the superficial aspects, like, it’s got our introduction, method, results, and discussion, and that’s not what historians do. And I suddenly realized it’s not actually enough to say, “Well it builds communication skills.” You actually have to talk about how there’s some transferability of communication from one discipline to another, right? So, absolutely true, historians probably write papers that look quite different. But let’s talk about the fact that all communication—written, verbal, whatever—you have to think, first of all that, What’s the main thing you want to talk about? So what are the main points you want to make? And what are the subpoints? And how are you going to order those points? What’s the logical flow of information that you want to present? And then you need to think about your audience and think about their characteristics. Do you need to persuade them? Or are you going to be preaching to the choir? What do they know in advance? What background do you need? All these things, it doesn’t matter, I said in an essay that I wrote for the Times Higher Education, it doesn’t matter whether you’re like a cop giving testimony to a jury, or whether you’re writing a psychology paper, or whether you’re given a TED talk, or whether you’re writing a history paper, or whether you’re writing an auditing report for Price Waterhouse. Those things matter cutting across different disciplines. And I never realized that it was really important to actually get to that level of detail in explaining the skills to get buy-in, but that’s what I do now. We’re doing a different project going forward, and I’ve got a whole section of the instruction sheet. It’s like, How can you leverage the skills from this assignment in a job interview? And I don’t know if they’ll read it, but I’ll be talking about it in class anyway. And so this is where I’ve arrived in terms of students and skills. And I know some people will probably say, “Wow, you spend a lot of time in class talking about skills,” but I actually think it’s really an important element of what we’re doing. And I think, left to their own devices, it’s not always obvious to students that this is going on, that you’re acquiring this, as well as some knowledge of “what are the factors that influence whether you pay attention to something in the environment.”

John: Faculty often complain about the silos that we created within our discipline, and we forget that students create their own silos where they think of each thing as something entirely separate from the rest of their academic career. And if we can make it clear to students that the material they’re learning is going to be useful for them, they’re going to be much more engaged and much more interested and enjoy it a lot more, I would think.

Tanya: Yeah, I think it’s really important in terms of buy-in, I really do. And you’re absolutely right about the silos, and I think I had been quite naive to that. I think I really didn’t realize it until this wonderful young woman took the time to articulate it to me, and that was incredibly helpful. So you’re right.

Rebecca: While you’re talking about this, Tanya, I’m also thinking about how often I experience students focusing in on the thing that seems newest to them, the thing that’s most unfamiliar. And that’s what they get hung up on, and they think the entire class is that one thing that they don’t understand. And then the things that seem familiar—like writing seems familiar, we’ve written before—that’s the thing they pay the least attention to, and it’s often some of the things that we want to pay the most attention to. And so it’s funny how the newness, or our fear of not knowing how to do something, can put our attention there, and forget about the details of other things that also have a learning value to them that aren’t always recognized.

Tanya: Yeah, and I think you’re right about that. I have to constantly remind myself that they might not see that. It’s very obvious, but they might not see that. And to make it explicit, and to take time to talk about it, and answer questions about it. And that was something that I didn’t do nearly enough of in the early days of my teaching. Like, I really just thought, I don’t know, I thought if it was obvious to me it should be obvious to you. [LAUGHTER] But students over the years in articulating some of these things have really crystallized for me how important it is to be explicit. And for sure, some of them absolutely do get it, they don’t need me to explain it. But I come back to the variability in a class of 1500, and even really, I mean, I don’t even think that’s totally wrong for upper-year courses. Sometimes students don’t necessarily always see things that we think that they will. It helps me to think to myself… Okay, what’s the most important thing here, in terms of content but also in terms of skills? And then let’s make sure that I talk about that, and talk about how it moves from this particular course and this particular assignment. Like, can you see how you might use it out there in the world? And I usually try to talk in terms of multiple examples, like my students are going into law enforcement, they’re going into business, they’re going into nursing. So I try to draw from a few different disciplines, just to give this sense of… Yep, it transfers over here, and it transfers over there, and it transfers over here, just so they get in the habit of thinking about that.

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

Tanya: What’s next for me is, I’m still working on the diversity and inclusion piece, and so that’s taking up lots of the space between my ears. Trying to think more about… How, in a class that is so diverse, how do you create the kind of inclusivity that we’re looking for? Recognizing that students don’t participate for lots of different reasons, and we want to kind of take them gently into the water in some cases. So I was mentioning that we’re moving away from that old assignment where they would write kind of a mini psychological paper. And then what I’m trying to get them to do is to work on a persuasive message, and they’re going to present it in a couple of different ways, so they choose a topic they agree or disagree with. And then what I’m working on is… It’s got an element where they have to find some sources to support them, and there’s an information literacy component. So I’m doing a lot of research on that, and how do you promote good information literacy at a time when information is just boundless, and some of it’s good and some of it’s not good? And then they have to present it in a screencast. So we talk to them about good multimedia, and they do a very short screencast with their preliminary ideas. And then they have to write an op-ed. And so one of the things I’ve been dialoguing with my co-instructors about is, just lots of students are incredibly nervous about putting a screencast together. I try to talk a little bit about how this is kind of a gentle introduction to presentations. So we’re not going to ask you to give a flawless presentation in front of 20 people or more, and if you don’t like your first recording, you can try re-recording. So I acknowledge that there are people who have significant anxiety, for example, and so on that diversity, on a side of that kind of diversity, trying to create an assignment that will gently lead them into improving their sense of confidence about their ability to present. And looking at the seminars, and asking myself, How can I draw on this Massive Open Online Course? Which is all about, How do you facilitate good communication among people who don’t agree? How can I bring that into the TA course and help them to inspire really good, inclusive conversations among the first-year students? So I’m thinking about inclusivity in a really broad kind of way. I’m thinking about it on the side of my assignments, I’m thinking about reworking my syllabus. I’m thinking about… How do we bring it into the seminars? In more than just, “Well I’m going to introduce you to some African Canadian scholars,” or “I’m going to draw in people who are diverse into the course.” It’s more about, how do we get diverse participation? And the sense from students that we’re all part of this community, and we’re all going to contribute to this community that is the intro psych.

Rebecca: Sounds like you’ve got a lot on the horizon for sure.

Tanya: Yeah, it’s an exciting time, it really is. It feels like it’s a time where you just have an opportunity to do some really good work, and I’m going to really try to capitalize on it.

John: Well, thank you. It was really enjoyable talking to you and you’ve given us a lot to think about.

Tanya: Thank you very much. It’s been such a pleasure to speak with you today.

Rebecca: Thanks, Tanya.


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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.