327. Attacks on Education

In the last few years, a growing number of state and local governments have attempted to limit diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and to place restrictions on what students are allowed to learn. In this episode, Kevin Gannon and Cyndi Kernahan join us to discuss strategies that can be used to resist these attacks on education.

Kevin is a history professor and the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Kevin also appeared in 13th, the Netflix documentary on the 13th amendment. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor.

Show Notes


John: In the last few years, a growing number of state and local governments have attempted to limit diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and to place restrictions on what students are allowed to learn. In this episode, we discuss strategies that can be used to resist these attacks on education.


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 Kevin Gannon and Cyndi Kernahan. Kevin is a history professor and the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Kevin also appeared in 13th, the Netflix documentary on the 13th amendment. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor. Welcome back, Kevin and Cindy.

Cyndi: Thank you.

Kevin: Thanks. Great to be here.

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

Kevin: I am not drinking tea, I have moved on to cold carbonated bubbles. And I’ve got a big vat of Diet Pepsi. [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: I love the word vat. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and Cyndi?

Cyndi: British Breakfast.

Rebecca: Perfect. I have blue sapphire today.

John: And I have some Christmas tea, left over from a reception we had in the teaching center here about a week or so ago.

Kevin: Isn’t it cold by now? [LAUGHTER]

John: It is freshly made today, but we had a lot of leftover tea from there… with a cinnamon stick sitting in it.

Kevin: Ah, very festive.

Cyndi: Fancy, yeah.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the restrictions that some state legislatures have been imposing, or attempting to impose, recently on what can be discussed in college campuses. Many of these restrictions seem to be focused on imposing alternative versions of history and on banning discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. Before we discuss these, though, is this something that’s entirely new, or have we seen this at some points in the past as well, with state intervention in academic freedom and issues of what students should be allowed to learn?

Kevin: I think this has some resonances with what we’ve seen in the past. And in particular, I’m thinking of the sort of anti-PC hysteria that emerged from so-called conservative thought circles in the 1990s. And so there’s the big curriculum debate over the National History standards that occurs in the early 90s. But what we’re seeing now with the mobilization of actual state power, I think, is an important difference of degree even if it does resemble some of the same sorts of rhetorical devices and button pushing that we might have seen in the past.

Cyndi: Yeah, the 1990s are what also popped into my mind, and it seems like attacks on higher education and on education generally, they come around in different ways, and for different reasons, it’s always an institution that is under attack.

Rebecca: So critical race theory has been the focus of many attempts to limit academic discussions of this topic. Can we start first by maybe defining what that is?

Kevin: What it is or what it has been made out to be?

Rebecca: How ‘bout both?

Kevin: I’ll actually take the second part of that first. What it’s been made out to be, is the sort of malleable boogeyman concept in the hands of pretty cynical right-wing actors, like Chris Ruffo, from the Manhattan Institute, for example, is probably the most prominent of these, who have basically admitted that this has become a stand-in for all of the things that are, quote unquote, wrong with higher education. It’s a concept that in its true sort of accurate provenance comes out of the critical legal studies movement. Critical race theory starts in law schools, and moves into areas like education, and then other areas of the humanities and social sciences to talk about how what we see as racism and, in particular, racist outcomes are not the product of individual bad actors so much as they are systemic features. It’s a counterpoint to the sort of feel-good narrative of civil rights, where people might say, “Oh, things were bad, and then Martin Luther King came along and segregation ended and then now everything’s great” and critical race theory says: “Not so fast, my friends, we need to talk about structures and systems.” And because it comes out of a discipline, Legal Studies, and is a largely academic conversation in many ways, it becomes easy to paint it with this brush of critical race theory is communism, critical race theory is reverse racism, critical race theory is anti white, because it’s such an unfamiliar concept to the general reading public that it becomes a blank slate for bad actors like Ruffo and others to inscribe whatever they wish on it.

Cyndi: I think, too, it’s important to keep in mind that that word system is a word that I think about a lot because I do think that there is a divide and a difference there around the folks who really don’t want to accept the idea that racism, along with other isms, is a systemic problem. And so I do think that, in that way, it’s really interesting to watch. One of the things that really caught my attention… I’m sure you all probably are familiar with the AP African-American Studies controversy in Florida, whether or not Floridian students would be allowed to take AP African-American Studies. As I was sort of watching, and it’s continuing with the evolution of that course, as the AP sort of responded to criticism, one of the things they did… I think they’ve since reversed this… is they took the word systemic out of the course, there was a report in The Washington Post about that and I thought, that’s really interesting, because that really is a divide where you see on the right folks saying, “we don’t want to think about this or talk about this, this is not a systemic problem;” whereas that’s not the scholarly understanding. And so that, to me, has become a really telling default line. I saw it echoed across the executive order in Oklahoma that was just handed down, I think, last week or a couple of days ago. And it was very interesting, the language around, “we want to guarantee access, but not equal outcomes” is an interesting phrasing that, to me, again, signified there’s an unwillingness to think about it as a systemic thing, which is where a lot of the fight of this becomes, and Kevin’s absolutely correct, that it does become this huge catch all. And even Ruffo himself says that in the interviews I’ve read, when they think of anything sort of bad in higher ed or education, it’s going to be critical race theory.

John: One thing that’s really struck me about this is how extensive it is, reaching from the federal level to stage to even local K through 12 school districts. We even saw some board candidates locally, who were part of one of these groups trying to restrict what students are allowed to learn. How extensive is this problem?

Kevin: Very. The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, has a DEI legislation tracker that I urge anybody listening to this to consult regularly, because it is a fairly quick moving landscape. And I think one of the dangers for those of us in higher ed is, if you live in a state, so called blue states, you can say, “Oh, well, this is a Florida problem or a Texas problem or a North Carolina problem. But it’s not. It’s a national problem. There are states that are further down that path. But this is not something that’s just going to stay over there. And because it is a movement that is national in scope, it’s funded nationally, it is heavily bankrolled, they’re using the same sort of legislative and PR templates. Those measures have been successful quicker in some places. But wherever they’re being used, they have been successful to a degree. And so I think that’s the thing to keep in mind here is that this isn’t just some sort of localized phenomenon. It is a truly nationally oriented thing that we’re wrestling with. And I think that not seeing that is to really put yourself in danger iIf you care about the fundamental values of what we’re supposed to be doing in higher ed.

Cyndi: I want to add another resource too to the Chronicle one that I like, I think, even better. It’s the CRT Forward Project from UCLA. They have a map. I like their map a lot, because you can filter between higher ed and K -12, local versus state level. My read of that most recently is that there are 10 states that have passed legislation and at the higher ed level that is restrictive around what we teach and what we can do. And then there are lots of other states that have things in the works. So it just gives you a sense of what Kevin’s saying of just how extensive this is. And I would argue further, I would add, I think another way I’ve started to really think about this, just based on what I’m reading, what I’m seeing in my own experience, is that this is so connected to the politics of austerity. And I think we don’t think about, that we don’t connect it. But a lot of the reason why these problems are cropping up, it’s also tied to the lack of funding for higher education, which makes it more difficult in multiple ways. But it weakens us politically, it weakens what we can do in the classroom. I won’t go into but there’s a whole bunch of analyses that really connect the adjunctification of our campuses to these attacks on DEI, to the cutting of DEI positions. There really are a lot of connections there that I think you’ll recognize. And that way, it makes it even more extensive, because I would argue it’s not just the laws, it’s also that cutting our funding and not allowing us to do the work that we need to do. I think it’s connected to all of this as well. It feels like a very bought this attack on higher education and education generally.

Kevin: Yerah, yhat’s a crucial point. Look at what’s happened recently in Wisconsin, where the state boards… I don’t need to tell Cyndi about any of this, because that’s her system… but, there’s a surrender in advance to the Republican-controlled state legislature sort of diktats against DEI work. You don’t need to pass laws that abolish DEI if you make funding contingent on presidents and individual institutions doing that for you. And those things work because austerity and the sort of neoliberal approach to higher ed has created an extremely resource scarce environment where those who shepherd institutions are predisposed to sort of comply in advance, as scholars of fascism warned us not to do. And if you look at the history of the austerity movement in higher education, one of the real touch points of this process is when Reagan becomes governor of California, and Reagan and the California Republicans stick it to the University of California system as a sort of revenge for the upheavals, in particular Berkeley in the 1960s. And so a state that offered free tuition for California residents, to this sort of crown jewel university system, Reagan gets rid of it, the Republicans in California get rid of that. And that becomes a blueprint for this process that Cindy’s just talked about. We’ve seen that go national, and it’s only taken a few short decades to accomplish.

Cyndi: Yeah, one last point on that, too, that your comments made me think of, Kevin, there was a paper in economics several years ago that showed that the states that have diversified the most, if they have Republican controlled legislatures, the funding in those states goes down, and it’s connected to the diversity of the institutions. So, that’s another way in which we see this connection between austerity and diversity and politics. That’s really troubling and challenging to work with. I feel like we don’t connect these things enough, but we really do need to.

Kevin: Yeah, it is no coincidence that as the proportion of faculty and students of color have increased in higher education, that funding has decreased in almost direct variation, and that is absolutely intentional.

Rebecca: So, you both talked about many contributing factors to the growth. Can you talk a little bit about why it’s happened so quickly? And maybe, [LAUGHTER] how do we make it slow down? [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Well, higher ed doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And we’re in the middle of an authoritarian turn, to say the least, in both international and national politics. So you have a globally connected right-wing movement. And if you look at the way that fascist and authoritarian movements have developed with the late 19th, and early 20th century, higher education and the sort of intellectual landscape are fields of play for these movements to establish power. Practitioners and students in higher education have made convenient boogie men for those who aspire to building support for authoritarianism and fascism. And so what we’re seeing, I think, is this process has accelerated so much so intensely in recent years, because we have a fascist movement in this country, and it has accelerated so much and so intently in the past few years.

Cyndi: I think there are phases where we can see effective ways to push back against this. I really do. There’s not enough of them. But there are ways to get to the second part of Rebecca’s question around like, “What do we do?” I think we have no choice but to act collectively and to work to push back together. I mean, that’s why Kevin’s point about this isn’t a Florida and Texas thing. It’s not. like I said, 10 states from my count, when I was at that CRT tracking math, and it’s on a lot of other places, and through lots of actions. So the collective action that’s inspiring to me… I think a lot about the state of Ohio… they had a bill that was quite restrictive, it would have restricted what could be discussed in general education, very similar to Florida. It had a lot of restrictions around what can be taught. And there was a strong movement against it. And what was crucial, in my reading of that, was not that it was just faculty and students pushing back, which they did, there were protests. But, more importantly, there was no compliance in advance, as Kevin mentioned a minute ago. So the regents or the board, I forget what they call it in Ohio, but those presidents of those institutions, they banded together, and they sent a letter pushing back against that. And it was the university leadership, faculty, and staff and students all pushing together against that. And that bill’s effectively dead now. It did pass the Senate, but it did not pass their assembly or else it did not become law. And this year, it has not been taken back up. There was just a word on that recently. That to me is very inspiring. That tells me that you don’t have to do this, we can push back in states that have systems. Those Chancellors, those Presidents can stand together against this. They do not have to comply in advance. They don’t have to argue with folks who don’t believe in what we do. I think that we can do that by getting everybody on board with that challenge.

Kevin: And Cyndi’s point here is essential, that institutional leadership has a really crucial role to play here. And this is where we’re seeing what I would term as a failure in so much of the leadership across higher education. You know, we’ve been told for decades that the increasing salaries of upper level administrators are because we’re bringing in bold, innovative leaders who aren’t afraid to make tough choices and hard decisions. And yet we’re seeing a vast silence from most of them as this last several years has unfolded. It’s not like the leaders of Ohio State institutions are like a Marxist collective. These are university presidents. [LAUGHTER] These are not wild-eyed radicals, but they led and the results were tangible. So if you look at things like Florida or Texas, one legal test case, pushing back against these curricular mandates as a violation of speech rights, for example. What would be the result of that? What message would that said to one’s own faculty, staff, and students? But we haven’t seen that we saw the community colleges in Florida, the presidents of those institutions issue a sort of collective statement, at least most of them, where they basically said, “Okay, fine, we’ll do all these things…” again, get this sort of comply in advance, and what message does that send to the people at your institution, because clearly, what you’ve done is you’ve abandoned your mission. That mission statement on your website needs absolutely nothing if you’re not willing to defend it against strong political headwinds. And so the main obstacle to this collective action is a leadership vacuum brought about by either moral cowardice or by leaders who actually agree with what’s happening and are willing to let these things happen to their institution because they personally sympathize with them. I don’t know which one of those is worse.

Cyndi: I think, too, there’s a little bit of an assumption that while it won’t be that bad, it can’t be that bad. They won’t really do that. And we’ve seen that a lot, too, I think. And that also is a fundamental mystery.

Kevin: It will be that bad. I’m a historian, and I can give you a reasonably expert opinion that it will indeed, if you let it get that bad.

John: Could some of this be caused by perhaps the fact that we tend to see people who have more education tend to be more liberal and perhaps might be less likely to vote for Republican candidates?

Kevin: I think there is that partisan element to it. I think that’s at the root somewhat of why this trope as universities of hotbeds of leftist radicalism is so effective, which again, takes one small slice of the intellectual and political climate at a particular institution of higher education and reads it across the entire sector, as if engineering and economics departments and business schools don’t exist. But I think that partisan element, this perception that well, here are the places where all the people who vote for Democrats live and work, is an effective one. But it’s also again, if you look at who’s wielding power and making decisions at universities, these are not hotbeds of leftism, by any means. And it’s just remarkable how successful that trope has become. It’s also, I think, an effective trope because we, and higher education, ourselves… back to Cyndi’s point about the necessity of solidarity and collective action… we have not been able to tell our story as effectively as we might. I’m not intending to get into blame the victim discourse here, but I do think that there are ways that we can advocate for ourselves and what we’re doing that have been more effective than what has usually been the case.

Cyndi: Yeah, I would agree. I think related to that point, it reminds me actually, of something you talked about in Radical Hope, Kevin, around the idea of sort of accepting this framing of what we do is we’re just only about workforce development, and we’re only about developing these sort of skills. And that’s not all of what we do. And we need to be able to talk more broadly about what we do and why it matters, and why it matters for everyone.

Kevin: Yeah, one example of this disconnect, if you look at all the surveys of prospective employers, and they say, “What are the skills that you’re looking for, for college graduates that you would want to hire into your company or your firm?” They all talk about things like critical thinking, ability to work in diverse teams, understanding people with viewpoints and backgrounds who are different than your own. This is the business community basically saying here are the things that are important. While you have right-wing politicians on the other side of the coin, saying these are the very things that we want to outlaw [LAUGHTER] in higher ed. And so I think it testifies to the power of this narrative that higher education is a hotbed of sedition, when, in actuality, most of what is in the crosshairs of these legislative and political efforts are actually things that are, on the broad face of it, not controversial, and generally agreed upon by almost all of society as good things to have.

Rebecca: I think to make collective action work effectively, folks need to be somewhat on the same page. And so if people are supporters of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but aren’t aware of counter arguments against that, it might be hard to take action. Can you talk a little bit about why folks are so opposed to these efforts?

Cyndi: My read of part of it goes back to that idea of racism as a systematic problem. There’s a lot of research on K-12 education around race that shows that, particularly for white Americans, but really across races as well, you see it as sort of a fundamental misunderstanding of what racism is, how it operates, how systemic it actually is. Part of that is because we’re in the United States, which is a very individualistic place and so we tend to think in terms of those problems, even the way often that DEI is framed, it’s very individualistic. And so we don’t think of it as a broader systemic thing. And that keeps us from acting collectively as well, because we’re not really thinking about it in that terms. I see that a lot. That is my main teaching and learning goal, when I teach about racism or other systems of oppression, is just to make that shift, sort of the individual acts of meanness over to this more systemic understanding, and understanding that really the most important things like, I constantly get the question from a lot of my students: “Well, okay, so what do I do about these problems? What should I learn more about?” and then like, “If you can learn more, that’s great. Like, I want you individually to learn as much as you want. But if you really care about this, you have to think about policies and voting, and what broader policies are being enacted.” And I try to give them examples just to help them start to think more broadly about these things. And I think that disconnect is part of it. Because if you believe that it’s just individualistic, it’s just about being a good, colorblind person, which is also often tied into one’s morality, like “I’m a good person, so that’s all I need to do. I don’t necessarily need to think beyond that.” And so then it makes sense if you are told over and over again, that there are these DEIi administrators trying to force you to have particular thoughts. It kind of makes sense from that perspective that you would want those thoughts, and that you would think they were going too far on the college campuses. But if you understand instead, that it’s not about color blindness, and it is this broader systemic thing and there are broader problems of not just access but opportunity and outcome, then that changes. But until people start to understand those broader things, I think it’s always going to be a struggle.

Kevin: Yeah, I think Cyndi’s point about us living in this overwhelmingly individualist sort of society and culture is a key foundation, a key part of the answer here, because one of the things that surprises me a little bit is that arguments like the one that Heather McGee makes in her book, The Sum of Us, that those haven’t gotten more traction, where she talks about the famous anecdote she uses is during desegregation, states in the South would close their swimming pools rather than integrate them. And what happens is, all these communities now don’t have a swimming pool at all. And so part of that is to the white folks of that community, rather than the swimming pool complexes racially integrated they went without. Is that really a good outcome? Taking the moral element out of it, it’s like, here’s a public good that is no longer available for the public. And so what racism does, McGee argues, is it hurts everybody to varying degrees and in different ways, but it’s actually something that is poisonous to the very roots of any sort of people that would claim to live in community or society with one another. And I remain discouraged that that argument has not gotten more traction, because I think we need to appeal beyond this sort of sense of individualism. Like Cyndi said, like, “Well, I’m a good person, so racism doesn’t exist. These other racists are bad, but we can quote unquote, educate our way out of it, or a magical black person like Martin Luther King, Jr. will come and absolve everyone from their sins,” right? And of course, that’s not how it works. But this tide of individualism, this conditioning that we have, is so powerful that it makes systemic critiques into a sort of existential threat for folks who are not ready to make that journey, because it becomes a threat to an individual to say, if you live in a system that is fundamentally racist and inequitable, for example, if you subscribe to this sort of inherent individualism as the core of your identity, that a systemic critique says, “You live in this system, and it’s your fault, at least partially that the system is like this.” And if you can’t separate those two out, and if you can’t make those distinctions, you’re not going to have a very useful conversation about what we would term as DEI. And instead, what you get is you get anecdotes of, let’s say, unskillful students making an argument in some inelegant way that is an easy thing to lift out of context and present as here’s what DEI is, these lefty kids running amok protesting food in the dining hall at Oberlin, for example, and turning it into a kind of theater of the absurd. And so we’re swimming against such a powerful cultural tide when we try to do this work because it is asking people at least to set aside this fundamentally individual centered ethos. And that is a really heavy lift for all of us, I think.

Cyndi: Although I have some good news, if you guys want to hear it.

Rebecca: I’ll take it, I’ll take it. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: I would love to hear good news.

Cyndi: This just comes from my own individual teaching experience, because what Kevin’s talking about is a powerful argument, the sort of Heather McGee’s and there are others too. And what I’ve started doing, and I’ve found that post-2020 It’s become a little bit easier for this to get purchase in terms of teaching. I really do think that there is a lot of hope in our teaching. One of the ways that I’ve started to help my students cross that bridge, that divide from the individualistic to systemic is to have think in terms of their own lives. And one of the most clear examples to go all the way back to like sort of where we started, it’s like they pay more for college tuition as a result, I would argue, of racism, and sometimes some forms classism, too. And there are several ways to get at this. Heather McGee, in that great book, The Sum of Us, that Kevin mentioned a minute ago, she has a whole chapter on college funding and how it’s gone down. I mentioned the economics research that shows that. So these austerity policies that are related to diversity and racism and fear, frankly, cost a lot of white students, particularly students that I work with, tend to be first generation, a little bit lower income, and I know you all do too, as well, at your institutions. Public regional institutions, and not private, we serve a lot of students who are directly affected by these austerity policies, they’re directly connected to race. So again, I mentioned Heatherr McGee. I also have another great resource that I’ve been reading, it was written by a couple of sociologists about the racial consequences of underfunding public universities, they look at two schools in the California system. You don’t have to give all of these to students. But it turns out that it’s very easy when you work with students to sort of talk about, let’s think about what systemic racism means. Here’s a way it impacts you directly. My classes are overwhelmingly white, but speaking with white students about that, and helping them connect those dots, they can do it. And part of what I think has helped us, that’s a strange way to say it, but post-2020, is that after 2020, people started using the word systemic racism a lot more like in social media. So I have more students that will come into my courses, saying that word, I don’t think they fully appreciate what it means. But it’s more of an opening. And so then we can start to think about all those ways in which it is harmful to everyone. Racism is harmful to everyone, it costs all of us more than it should in lots of ways. And not just in terms of like sort of the moralistic framing that we often use, but real material differences. So that’s one way that I found hope, I guess, it’s to go back and to think about how to teach about these issues in a way that feels good. And I think there’s a lot of things instructors can do, no matter what they teach, to sort of start to get out these issues and help students to think about it.

John: I’ve seen some similar things. And one thing I’ve noticed is that as our classrooms become more diversified, as we have more first-gen students, as we have more students from historically minoritized groups, we’re seeing people in general becoming much more aware of some of these issues. But one of the challenges, as you both have mentioned, is the issue of austerity that colleges have moved to a more contingent labor force, there’s a larger proportion of adjuncts. And while it’s important to be able to push back, many of the people doing the labor of classroom instruction are in a position where their jobs are very much at risk. And if their administration is not going to be supportive of DEI efforts, they face losing their very limited incomes that they’re receiving from these positions. Is there anything we can do to address that challenge?

Kevin: Again, I think part of the answer to this goes back to the idea of leadership of institutions. What is the mission of your university or college? What are you saying that you’re going to be doing? Why are you there? Our mission statements as institutions are promises that we make to all of the stakeholders of that community, whether they currently are part of the community or external groups in the town in which we’re situated in the area, for example, potential students and their families, we don’t put Terms and Conditions on our mission statements, we say that X University will provide a powerful educational transformative experience to all of our students. We don’t say all of our students who meet a certain income level or all of our students who come from certain demographic groups. We mean all of our students. And so if we’re going to do this mission driven work, and we’ve got study after study after study that talks about having a diverse student body and a diverse faculty and staff, not just racially and ethnically, but diversity and all of the ways that matter lead to better learning outcomes. In other words, we do this education thing better when we do it in diverse places with diverse people. And if that’s what you want, which I would argue we do, then that’s what we need to lean into. And so if you’ve got folks who are doing that work, who are not supportive, who are contingent and precarious faculty and feel that they cannot do what is, I would argue, inherently mission aligned work, that as an institution, that is a problem. And you need to do something about that. And so if you’re a department chair, how are you supporting your part-time colleagues? If you’re a professor with tenure, how are you supporting your part-time colleagues or your junior colleagues who aren’t tenured yet? How are you providing cover? How are you modeling things as a secure person in a secure position? How are you advocating in governance? How are you advocating in Provost’s Council or a senior leadership’s cabinet? How are you looking at getting rid of just semester-based contracts and moving towards annual- or several-year contracts? You can’t wipe out precarity at a single swoop. But what you can do is fix some of the sharpest edges of it, to blunt those. That’s the work in front of us in the short term. And if you’re not supporting your colleagues doing that, that none of this works… Again back to Cyndi’s central point, we either do this collectively or we don’t do it at all.

Cyndi: Yeah, I think anybody with any power in any sort of safety, and I use safety in quotes, but like anybody who can has to push back, and this pops up in really small places that you might not recognize. I was reading too about the southern accreditor, I forget what their official thing is. But you know, they’re talking about changing the accreditation, that is absolutely compliance in advance. That is the wrong way to go. Our accreditors, that’s part of what worked in Ohio, where the arguments about it were going to be out of compliance with accreditation. If the accreditors are complying in advance, and watering all this stuff down and not sticking to the mission, that’s a problem. So there are a lot of people who have a lot of power and the ability to push against this, but you have to push against it. All of us do, in all those spaces that Kevin just mentioned, because reducing the harm and softening those edges as much as we can, it’s our responsibility to do that, particularly for people who are adjuncts and semester-to-semester contracts, because that precarity is real, and it is a problem. And I’m sure you’ve all seen it, I have seen it too. And we can work with our students, because our students will work with us. They believe in these things. The ideas we have about students are so often wrong in terms of that. So working with our students and not believing in caricatures about students.

Kevin: Yeah, that’s an essential point, Cyndi, and thank you for raising that, because I think one of the things that we haven’t touched on here, but is a vital thing to bear in mind, is that these legislative efforts are profoundly anti-student. They’re not just anti-higher education, they are profoundly anti-student, anti-young person. They make the assumption that learning only happens through indoctrination. They are based on the premise that students will learn only what is sort of rammed down their throat, basically, pedagogically. They make the assumption that students cannot handle certain truths. They make the assumption that some things just aren’t worth knowing, and they take that decision process out of the students’ hands. They are profoundly anti-student. Among all of the other things they are, this is the essential truth at its core, that these laws, this legislative effort, this broader cultural political campaign is based on a profound contempt for students, for young people, and by extension their families. And so we need to understand that our students want the same thing for them that we want for our institutions. And if we’re able to see our students as allies in this and get our students to see themselves as allies in this, nobody wants a crap education. Nobody wants an indoctrination, force-fed prefabricated chunks of content. We know that doesn’t work. And so to engage the student voice in this in a systematic and supportive way, I think, is a really important part of the equation and a great untapped opportunity across our institutions. But that needs to be, I think, one of the ways in which we push back against these efforts is to really call the fact out that y’all just hate kids. Y’all hate learners, you don’t just hate schools and instructors, you hate the people that these institutions are ostensibly trying to serve. You may say that these are pro-children and pro-family, but they’re not. They hold children and students in profound contempt. And we need to hammer and hammer and hammer on that point, because that’s the reality.

Rebecca: Change is only likely to happen when the whole community’s engaged. So you’ve outlined today: administrators, faculty, staff, students, the whole community working together,

Cyndi: We have a lot more power than we do.

Kevin: Yeah. Scholars of fascism and authoritarianism will point out the fact that the one thing that successful movements of this stripe do is they get you to give up your agency and oftentimes without a fight. So that’s why complying in advance, the phrase that we’ve used several times, it’s so dangerous, because we give up our agency, we forget that we have it, and then it becomes much easier for these movements, which are not representative of the majority, not representative of our community or it’s aspirational values, but it allows them to be successful because the great majority of folks have given up agency. And so as long as we not just recognize the agency we have, but deploy it effectively, then, and only then, can we push back successfully.

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

Cyndi: What’s next is I have a final tomorrow. So that’s probably like what’s most salient in my mind. So, you know, wrapping up this semester, but definitely more seriously, I want to think more about these questions and how to get people collectively to think about these larger points, about just what Kevin was saying about the real paternalism and contempt for students that is evident in the laws, helping students to understand what this is and why it matters for them, figuring out how to write and speak and work with people more to get people to see the power that they have. We don’t have to do this. We don’t. We can keep our education systems and classes free from this interference, and we should.

Kevin: And I think, for me, as someone who works in Educational Development at a private institution. I think that those of us who have a little more latitude, we’re not immune from any of this, but we do have some affordances that public institutions don’t. And so it’s part of my job to help my colleagues and to build a model of what this looks like to do well. What does it look like to do this work in solidarity and community? What does it look like to do meaningful, as opposed to just performative, work along equity and justice oriented teaching and learning, because it’s so much easier to advocate for these things if we could point to concrete examples of what they look like, how they can sustain themselves, and what the benefits are. And so I think as an educational developer, that’s kind of my responsibility, what I feel bound to continue. And I’m fortunate to be in an institution that values those things. And so I need to take advantage of the climate I’m in to advance that work.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and giving us plenty to think about and ways that we can perhaps act by modeling and coaching and working to have collective action.

John: It’s always great talking to you. Thank you again for joining us, and we’re looking forward to more conversations in the future.

Kevin: Thank you for having us.

Cyndi: Yeah, 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.


326. UDL in Action

Universal design for learning, or UDL, is a framework to help us design more equitable learning experiences. In this episode, Lillian Nave joins us to discuss how she has implemented a UDL approach in her first-year seminar course. Lillian is the Coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning for Student Success at the Appalachian State University Hickory Campus and a senior lecturer in a first-year seminar course at Appalachian State University. She is also the host of the ThinkUDL podcast. She is the recipient of several teaching awards and often serves as an invited speaker on UDL issues.

Show Notes


John: Universal design for learning, or UDL, is a framework to help us design more equitable learning experiences. In this episode, we discuss how one faculty member has implemented a UDL approach in a first-year course.


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 Lilian Nave. Lillian is the Coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning for Student Success at the Appalachian State University Hickory Campus and a senior lecturer in a first-year seminar course at Appalachian State University. She is also the host of the ThinkUDL podcast. She is the recipient of several teaching awards and often serves as an invited speaker on UDL issues. Welcome, Lillian.

Lillian: Thank you very much. And I applaud you on all of the monikers that I currently have attached to my name that often don’t make sense. So, very good. And of course you said Appalachian in the way we say it down here in North Carolina and I don’t have to throw an apple at you. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, I’ve heard it so many times on your podcast that I wanted to be sure we got that down.

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

Lillian: I am and I brewed it specially for our interview today, it is Bengal spice, which is a Celestial Seasoning herbal tea that is caffeine free. I went caffeine free a while ago, and it’s fantastic and I don’t have to put sugar or honey or anything in it. It has cinnamon sticks and it’s delicious and my best friend in the world got me hooked on it. And it always just makes me feel warm inside and makes me think of the lovely conversations I have with the people who I’ve drank tea with in the past. And I also have iced tea because I continuously drink iced tea and this one happens to be actually just a Crystal Light [LAUGHTER] iced tea as well.

Rebecca: And I did notice, of course, and must state that there was a Tea for Teaching mug involved.

Lillian: Yes, exactly, and I appreciate that. John saw me at a conference and I was so happy to get my Tea for teaching mug that I made sure I was drinking from it today.

John: And I am drinking a peppermint spearmint blend today… also caffeine free today.

Rebecca: I am drinking a highly caffeinated afternoon tea [LAUGHTER] to make up for everybody’s caffeine deficits.

Lillian: Well, I have plenty of chocolate throughout the day that is not caffeine free.

John: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your work on Universal Design for Learning. We probably don’t have many listeners who aren’t familiar with UDL, but for those who are not as familiar, could you provide an overview of Universal Design for Learning.

Lillian: Of course, and I’d be glad to. Universal Design for Learning is a way of thinking, I would say, about teaching and learning that relies on three main concepts that include: engaging your students, providing accessible materials for your students, and varying the ways that your students can explain to you that they’ve learned something. And it is all based on neuroscience and also a lot of research that tells us that all of our students are different. Variability is the norm. And so we have students in higher ed that come from all different backgrounds, different cultures, different preparedness levels, different abilities and disabilities. And in order to reach all of our students, it’s important to think about that variability and universal design for learning gives us some really specific things to look out for. And three areas or categories: the engagement, the representation, and providing multiple means for those and multiple means of the student to express their knowledge. And so that’s like the general overview, but there are like so many weeds, that I can have a podcast [LAUGHTER] and talk to people about all of the different intricacies of UDL. But in general, that’s it in a nutshell.

Rebecca: I know we’ve talked about it a bit on our podcast before in terms of the difference between UDL and accessibility. But for those who haven’t heard those previous episodes, can you talk a little bit about the difference between those two ideas?

Lillian: Yes. So, accessibility is a part of Universal Design for Learning. You cannot have universal design for learning without attention to accessibility. But accessibility alone is not universal design for learning, it’s a part of it. And I like to think of UDL as like a three-legged stool. If you take out one of those legs, the stool doesn’t function anymore, it will fall over. And one of those legs is multiple means of representation. It’s typically the center column that’s purple if you look at the UDL guidelines at UDLguidelines.org. CAST puts those out. And that middle column about representation is about providing multiple forms of representation, so different texts or audio files, or making sure your font is readable too, especially for dyslexic students. So accessibility is about making sure that all students can access materials, that they have the ability to make sure they can actually get at that information. And this is less common now, but there used to be like those PDFs that a professor copied out of their book when they were a student and it has all their like markings and stuff in it. And then they would just like make a read really bad copy of it, and hand it out when everybody still used paper all the time, or maybe it’s on a screen. And those oftentimes were not accessible. And that means if a student needed a screen reader to read it, or even if they just needed to make the font bigger, they couldn’t because it wasn’t an accessible document, a screen reader couldn’t read it, meaning if a student was dyslexic or even blind, they had really no way to get at that information. So when you make your documents accessible, and you make your class accessible, you are making sure that everybody really just is on an even playing field, and they can get at that information. But in addition to accessibility, you want to make sure you’re also giving lots of opportunities for students to express what they know in different ways. And you’re also engaging with the students. And those two other things are not included in accessibility. That’s what makes up UDL.

John: How did you become interested in UDL?

Lillian: Well, I started working with our Center for Teaching and Learning in 2016 as a faculty fellow and I started doing faculty development as a one-course release for quite a while. And in doing that, we became part of a grant that was in three North Carolina institutions that was called College STAR. And STAR stands for supporting transition, access, and retention. And it was a two-pronged approach where there was a lot of student development, so tutoring centers and things like that. And then there was this other side, and that’s the part I got interested in and got pulled along with and that was supporting faculty. And to do that we used Universal Design for Learning. And I was just part of that grant. And that ended up me being the Universal Design for Learning Coordinator at Appalachian State. And I started going to different departments and introducing that at workshops and that sort of thing. So I became kind of the UDL girl or UDL lady for App state, which I think is about 2016 when that started, and then I saw it, like I’d never heard of it before, and I’d been teaching since 1997. And then I thought, oh, boy, this is really good, this makes a lot of sense. And so I started implementing it as well in all my classes.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a little bit about UDL principles broadly. So can we dig into maybe a specific example, like your first-year seminar course? That sounds pretty interesting.

Lillian: Absolutely. So my course right now, I teach one called intercultural dialogues, and I get first-year students, and so I love it that they’re small, under 24 students. This past year, I was at our new campus in Hickory, and I only had 18 students there. And we get to work on intercultural competence, which is one of those major things that colleges want our students to know. It’s a 21st-century skill, and it is about understanding our own cultures, and then understanding that other people have different cultures. And then how can you mindfully act and interact with somebody from a different culture. And I have heard some students, at the end of the term, say “this is something everybody should know, like, this is really, really important.” They’ve seen how important it is. But at the beginning of the class, like nobody wants to be there. Nobody wants to take a first-year seminar course. They’re usually there because it’s Tuesday morning and they have an open slot. I’m in that unenviable position of teaching first-year seminar, and it’s that Gen Ed requirement that nobody wants to take. So I want to make it interesting, and I want to make it worthwhile for them, and so we learn about our own culture and then I also match students up with students abroad. We’ve worked with students in Doha, Qatar, in China, in Morocco, in Germany, Thailand, and Japan in the past year, and they work on intercultural competency skills and talk about things like power distance in the classroom, or some of the UN Sustainability Development Goals, like gender equality by 2030. And so they’ve done some things with students in China about that. So the class itself is about intercultural competence. And I have infused a bunch of UDL into this class over the years. And so it wasn’t all at once, but it took a while. And so that means I have multiple ways for the students to get at that information. So there is never just one way to do the reading. It’s either accessible or I’ve recorded a voice audio file for students. So we have a lot of commuter students at this campus, and so actually, we have zero students who live on campus in our new campus in Hickory. It is a new campus, it just started and so there are no dorms, there’s only one building and we’re all in that one building. And so students come in, they have jobs, and so UDL is very helpful for me to think about those students who have various commitments of their time. So they could listen to the audio file rather than read the book, because they’ve got a 40-minute commute to come into campus or something like that. So they’ll have an audio or video. I’ve used H5P, which is on our learning management system, which is like an interactive video, there’s VoiceThread, which is another way to be kind of interactive for students to participate. And so there’s always multiple ways for them to get at that information. And then there’s multiple ways that I ask them to tell me what they know. And they’ve done concept maps, so we have very little like, “write me a paper,” there’s very little of that my class. And that’s also a culturally competent type of teaching thing, because we often in an individuated, Western academic model, we prioritize reading and writing, reading and writing, reading and writing. That’s always what it is. And yes, we need to have very good readers and writers. But there are lots of other ways to learn and express your learning that might be more prevalent in other countries and in other cultures. And so they’ve had to draw some of their answers, they’ve had to give me a visual representation, they’ve written a poem, drawn a cartoon, and tell a story. One of their first assignments is to bring in something that expresses who they are, a cultural artifact. And then the last class that we just had recently, I asked everyone to name everybody else’s cultural artifact, so they learned about each other that way. And it was things like a keychain or one student brought in the T-top of his T-top convertible car. [LAUGHTER] Because the car was really important to get him around and all that stuff. And engagement is the last part. But it’s really the first part that gets students interested in the activities and in the learning and why they should learn. So I start off with a liquid syllabus, which is a syllabus that students can access outside of our learning management system, and they can see what we’re doing, and they get a video of me talking to them. And that’s supposed to be engaging. And then they have a lot of authentic assignments working with students overseas. And this year, because I was finally back in an actual classroom and not doing remote teaching, as I have been since 2020, I took students up to New York City. And Appalachian has this amazing loft that actually anybody can go stay at so all of your listeners could go and stay at Appalachian’s loft, and it’s very inexpensive. It’s like $70 a night per bed, and it’s these two rooms of 10 beds each. And we took students up there to actually learn a lot about culture. We went to the Tenement Museum, they looked around, and it was very cool. So experiential type of education as well. So that took like years before I got to that rendition of how I teach that course. But those are all UDL principles that guided me.

John: You mentioned collaboration with students in other countries, what types of collaborative work did those students do in your classes?

Lillian: They had specific zoom meetings that they had to do personally one on one. So one of them is that students got matched one on one with fellow students in Morocco. And they were supposed to talk about the difference in power distance in an educational setting. So power distance is the amount of power that people in a group expect and believe should be shared or held by the people in that group. So in an educational setting, if you’ve got a first-year student who comes into a large lecture hall on a college campus, there is a larger power distance for that instructor who will pretty much lecture to those students, students don’t raise their hand all that often, there’s not a lot of back and forth, there’s not a lot of flexibility, they probably don’t even know the students’ names. And so that would be an example of a larger power distance. A smaller power distance might be in a classroom, like in my classroom, I say, “You can call me by my first name, you can address me in this very informal way. We’re not going to have a lecture, we’re going to be in small groups, and then we’re going to share our ideas.” And that way, there’s a lot more voices, there’s a lot more talking. And that can happen in various times throughout the semester. I may do a lecture, I may not. And so my students were talking with students in Morocco to find out about their understanding of what power distance was. And do you call your professor Dr. Smith? Or what do you address them by? Are there rules about when you can address your professor and those sorts of things. So that was one of them. And then we worked with students in China, and this one was a series of three Zoom conversations. And all of our students had to set all these up. They were all in English because our partner students wanted to do this in English, and most of them had never spoken to a native English speaker. So this was a really good goal for them. And in China, they can’t have Zoom, not allowed. And so the students had to receive our invite from our students, and their first session was kind of an introduction: who they are, what they’re doing, for about an hour. The second was a second list of questions, which was about: Who takes care of children? Who goes to work? Who do you live with? Do you live with an extended family? Do you live with a nuclear family? And it was really about gender roles. And one of those things that’s a national cultural dimension is something called achievement versus nurturance. And that continuum has also been called in the past: masculinity versus femininity. And it’s how much a culture believes that men and women should adhere to somewhat stereotypical gender roles. So are there women CEOs, and stay-at-home dads? In some countries, that happens in some cities. That happens a lot more than in other countries. Do you put more emphasis on earning a higher wage? Or on having the flexibility to work from home? Like, where are you on that? And so the students talked about that. And then in the last session, they talked about: if you could change anything, what would you see that might improve your country from where it is now and that sort of thing. So they got to do some really authentic conversations with people around the world, and the students in China were 12 hours ahead. So my students were meeting sometimes at two in the morning, but they were up, [LAUGHTER] it didn’t matter.

Rebecca: So it sounds like there was a lot of coordination with counterparts around the world to make sure that you designed experiences for both sets of students that met, maybe not the same learning objectives, but learning objectives that were relevant for each population.

Lillian: That is exactly it. And it was my colleague in China, who said she wanted to do something about the sustainable development goals from the UN. I said, “Okay, well, let’s try and look at that.” And it worked for each one. And it is a lot of coordination for the faculty. And so I would meet with my fellow faculty member several times throughout the semester. And so we got the dates right for when we’d have Thanksgiving, nobody else had Thanksgiving break, and we have holidays, and they started a month early or a month late, and so there was a lot of coordination. And then they had to give me the list of all the students and I needed gender, too, because some students wanted to stay within their own gender, women, especially, in Morocco where some were less likely to speak to male students, who wanted to stay with female students. So we wanted to be culturally sensitive to those types of things. So there was a lot of beginning coordination to set those things up.

Rebecca: I wanted to circle back to one other thing you said too, in that you mentioned your classes developed with all these UDL principles over a significant period of time.


Rebecca: I want to know how you got started, what was the first thing you implemented? And how did that set a trajectory for the others?

Lillian: The first thing, way back when, probably 2016, 2017, like the big aha moment for me, was not doing the same thing all the time, and not having to grade everything, meaning maybe we were just going to do some honestly experimental assessments in class that were kind of fun and authentic. And I didn’t have to grade everything. And when I kind of let go of that, it opened me up to some more ideas. And then I thought, well, I don’t need them to write a paper, because I really have a specific goal in mind. And the goal doesn’t necessarily need to be a paper that then I’d have to read, [LAUGHTER] it made my life easier too. Maybe they just needed to demonstrate their understanding of these concepts. And so like one of the first things we do is draw an iceberg, and talk about how the culture that we see here, taste, feel, smell, all those five senses, that’s about 10% of what makes a culture. And when we think about culture, it’s usually just those things, it’s like, “Oh, you eat this special meal on Lunar New Year, and you have these special foods, and the kitchen always smells this way, or we dress up in cultural clothing, or whatever.” But that’s really only 10%, the tip of the iceberg. And then we have to get really deep into what our values and beliefs and assumptions we make. And that’s typically the hard part of the class. And so I just had students either draw an onion or an iceberg. And then they had to kind of point to where this was, what are your deeply held beliefs and assumptions, and that culture is so much more. And it’s a lot easier, I think, to conceptualize it as a drawing than it is to write me a paper about what your deeply held beliefs are, [LAUGHTER] and where they align with the things that I can see on the outside.

John: You mentioned that the first thing you had done was reducing grading and doing more formative assessments, which is beneficial for students too because it takes some of the pressure off and gives them the opportunity to try something, make mistakes, and learn from that without any penalty. Is that something that you’d recommend for someone who’s interested in exploring UDL, as a first step, if they’re not already doing that?

Lillian: Absolutely, I think it frees up both the student and the faculty member to kind of see what works. And so much of Universal Design for Learning is about feedback, feedback from the students. And that is a major portion of UDL. And I should have said that at the very beginning, that you really want to be figuring out what works for the students and what works for you. So I do think that’s a great way to think about it. And also, the flip side of that coin, to me as well, was whoever is doing the work is doing the learning. So if you are always lecturing to your students, it’s hard, like, you got to put together this great lecture, I always felt like I had a top hat and a cane, you know, walking into my lecture, and yadda-dat-dah, I’m gonna, like dazzle you with my art historical knowledge, and make it interesting. And I was doing a lot of work to do that. And I have slowly moved into kind of the other end of this continuum, from lecturer into facilitator. And if I can facilitate the students working together, or a lot of feedback back and forth with me or with each other, then they’re actually risking some things like “talk to your neighbor about this,” and they don’t have to raise their hand in front of the large class, they’re actually trying and risking and doing these smaller things. And that’s where I see the learning happening. If they’re just listening, that’s fine, that’s great too, but the more they can participate in their own learning, the better it is, that I’ve seen, certainly in my classes, the more they can do, the more they’re learning. But it doesn’t mean I have to evaluate every single thing that they hand in, or that they produce. And I can certainly, on the spot, kind of tweak things and say, “Okay, let’s turn it into this direction,” or something like that. But it was the: “I don’t have to grade everything they do” and “The person who’s doing the work is doing the learning.” And it was like freedom for me to try all of these things that were totally not what I had done as a student, or had valued as a student or an instructor because I was very much in that: “Alright, you’ve got a 15-page research paper, a midterm, and a final, and that’s the art history course.” And I don’t do that anymore.

Rebecca: Well, it sounds like not only is there a benefit to the faculty, in terms of workload, joy, [LAUGHTER] etc, but also an emphasis on self efficacy for students and building confidence.

Lillian: Oh, yeah. Exactly. And they’re trying things out, and they’re seeing what works. And that feedback is really important, a big part of UDL.

John: And you mentioned that it took you time to build to where your courses currently are. Is that an approach you’d also recommend to faculty who are beginning to introduce UDL principles, because it can be a lot of work completely redesigning or transforming your teaching?

Lillian: Absolutely. I don’t know if I could have done this stuff early on in my career, because I was worried about how I looked and was perceived. I was very young, and so I think I needed to feel like I was in charge. And that power sharing was too difficult for me as a young instructor. So I understand that. And now I feel much more comfortable in the classroom. And I feel that being a facilitator is really helpful for the students. And sometimes they just want to sit and listen, but that happens too. But it took a long time to get there. And the course has evolved over a long time. And you try new things. Tom Tobin and Kristen Behling talk about the plus one mentality, just trying one new thing. And that’s what happened, is when I started this course, we weren’t speaking with students in other countries. That just sort of happened when I went to a conference and made some friends in other countries and said, “Oh, I bet this would make a lot of sense to add this in.” It’d be really authentic, which is one of the engagement principles is having really authentic learning experiences. And I used to be like, “Oh, you’ve got to plan everything out, and it has to be perfect.” And now I see that I fumble through a lot of things. And every once in a while something sticks, and it’s good. It’s a practice. They say being a doctor is more of a practice. I think being a teacher is very much a practice to see what works and what worked in my class five years ago, doesn’t necessarily work now. Things that were really fun and hot at some point, you know, like making memes is pretty fun right now, but we didn’t do that 10 years ago, and we probably won’t do it in another five years, like, what did you learn? Let’s make a meme out of it. It’s evolving.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that we’re talking about a course about culture. And you’re describing how the culture of higher ed or institutions or our classrooms also evolve. And that evolution requires risk both on the part of the instructor as well as on the part of the students, and that the UDL principles are really allowing that risk to happen on both ends.

Lillian: Yes, and sometimes there are forces outside of our control that make that more difficult, and it’s not an enviable position. So things like I wish I didn’t have to grade, but we still have to have grades in the end. And so how does that fit into your course. And so I know a lot of folks are using ungrading. I know you’ve talked with Susan Blum and Josh Eyler about various different kinds of grading, which I think is like a later on kind of thing for UDL. Start with accessibility, make sure your stuff is readable and devourable by all of your students, and then start kind of playing around with it. And then maybe I think that ungrading or different kinds of grading structures might be the last step on that process. But to each their own.

John: One of the issues involving student variability is that some students might be resistant to some of the approaches that you’re using, because there have been a number of studies that show that students often prefer to be lectured at. And it seems like they’re learning more that way, despite the evidence that that’s less effective. How do you persuade students to be open to trying new approaches to learning?

Lillian: Great question, I know exactly what you’re talking about, like students, they’re like, “this is how we learn best,” and then you actually poll their knowledge. And students in an active learning situation who kind of hated it are much more knowledgeable than the students that were just in a lecture where they really liked it, because that was kind of safe. And in the last year or so I’ve heard myself saying this a lot when I do speaking, and when I’m talking to folks, is I think everybody needs to be uncomfortable in the classroom, some of the time. We don’t want the same students to be uncomfortable all of the time. So that means varying those different ways that we assess students, so it’s not the “alright, every week, you’re writing a paper,” oh, that also gets boring. But for your great writers, it’s fantastic. But are we really finding out what that student knows? Are we finding out that they’re a good writer. And so maybe that’s a poem, or maybe it’s a concept map, or there are other ways to assess that info. And so I tell my students, like, I’m really conscious about that, like, you probably aren’t going to like some of these things, but your neighbor isn’t going to like the next thing. And so having those opportunities that you have to step out of your comfort zone, to get into the learning zone, but not all the way out to that outer edge of the target, which is the panic zone. And that’s actually an intercultural competence idea that I learned in that field. When you study abroad, the only way you’re really learning is if you’re in that learning mode, like if you go to Germany, but you’re living with a bunch of Americans, and you never speak German, and you go to McDonald’s, and you’re at an English speaking school, then have you really learned much about German culture? So you should go outside of that comfort zone. Maybe you’re living with a local family, and you have to speak German, but you don’t want to go and you are in like a chaotic household and they don’t speak English, and they haven’t made sure that you have any food, and you don’t feel safe, and all the classes you are way ahead of you in your German speaking. And so you’re not learning much either, you’re kind of panicking. So it’s that learning zone we have to be in and so I think in our classrooms, we need to do that too, have multiple different ways for students to express what they know, which is one of our UDL guidelines. And I am very overt when I tell students that. And I found that with student evaluations, like I would get student evaluations where they asked like, “Did you practice critical thinking skills?” And they’d be like, “No, like, I totally didn’t at all.” [LAUGHTER] And then the next year… and I think I learned this at like an academic conference… the next year, throughout the course, I’d be like, Okay, we’re gonna do this critical thinking exercise, this thing that we’re doing right now, this is about critical thinking, you’re going to use your critical thinking skills because this thing that we’ve done, that’s a critical thinking skill. Guess what? The evaluations… way up. [LAUGHTER] Exactly like you’re pulling back the curtain and you’re saying, like, here’s actually why we’re doing it, and this is what you’re doing. And so I think explaining that is really helpful. And then the students know why they need to do something like what I’ve asked them to do, why am I writing a poem or why am I drawing an iceberg? And I think we do need to tell students that and not just have them guessing, because then they’re going to be in the panic zone and not learn so much.

Rebecca: That’s a really good point to remind students that being uncomfortable and taking risks is actually part of the learning process. Can’t remind them too much.

Lillian: Yeah, exactly. It’s necessary. And they do want to just sit and doodle. And not that doodling is bad. But they just want to sit and listen and have us do all of the work. But it’s like, I know this stuff, so why do I need to explain it? You could just watch a video of me talking. We need to get you into grappling with this and doing the stuff that I know you don’t want to do and you don’t want to be here because it’s a first-year seminar and you’re a first-year student. So my heart is with all of those folks that teach Gen Ed [LAUGHTER] to the students who don’t really want to be there.

Rebecca: Switching gears a bit now, can you talk a little bit about how you started the ThinkUDL podcast?

Lillian: Yes, it’s going back to that College STAR grant. We were getting into doing like workshops, and so I was working with other universities in North Carolina. And we had a PI, the head of it was at our East Carolina school. And I said, “Do we have any multiple ways to do this. They were doing research and then some workshops. And it just made sense to me like, we need a podcast, like this would be so off brand for UDL not to have multiple means for us to get this information out. And a podcast has the added bonus of being asynchronous, so people can listen to it whenever they want. I’ve always had transcripts, too. So if you don’t want to listen to my voice, which is totally fine, you could read the transcript and you can get that information, you can see the resources. So there are multiple ways to get it. But there was money from that original grant that sent me and my shout out to Tanner, who was my first sound engineer, and we went to a podcast convention in 2018 in the summer in Philadelphia. And seriously, I didn’t know a thing at all. I didn’t even listen to podcasts then. The only one I’d heard of was the Teaching in Higher Ed with Bonni Stachowiak, and then like, “Okay, we’re gonna try it.” And the very early episodes are, I think, awful. But luckily, Tanner kind of cleaned them up. But there was a Chris Farley on Saturday, live long, long time ago, so I’m showing my age here. But he would interview, in these sketches. He’d interview people that were amazing, like Paul McCartney from The Beatles, right? And he would just fumble the whole time. Like, “Wow, so you were in the Beatles? Wow. Yeah. That’s great. So can you tell me like, what’s it like being a Beatle?” And that’s what I felt like the whole time, [LAUGHTER] like “Wow. Okay. All right.” So it took a while. But the grant helped it and for about three or four years it was grant funded. And now I’ve turned it into its own nonprofit. And Texthelp is now a sponsor. And so they do the editing for me because the grant ended. And Tanner, he was part of that grant. So i had to kind of move on. That’s how it started.

John: So you’ve been doing this for a while now with the podcast, and we’ve been listeners since the very beginning. What do you enjoy most about podcasting?

Lillian: Well, ours came out around the same time. So the nice Tea for Teaching, right? It’s like 2018. And so I enjoy talking to people. If you’re still doing it, you have to enjoy talking to people. But that’s the best thing. I talk to people just all around the world because I do want it to have a worldwide focus. And so I have listeners, the top five are in the US, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and the UK, and so English speaking countries, yay. But you can see like, all over the world on six continents that people are listening, and I had a listener in Australia say, you know, I was walking on the beach, near my home, on the coast of Australia. And that just blows my mind that people are actually listening. But mostly it’s like, I get to just learn about new ideas all the time. And you would think UDL like it’s so focused on UDL, like, there would not be enough, like I should be done with this, but there’s so much.There are 31 of these checkpoints in Universal Design for Learning, and as you mentioned, it’s really overwhelming. Like if you were to go and just look at the guidelines, it’s like a whole bunch. And it’s like, how am I going to do that? You can’t, you can’t do it all. You can’t just redesign your course right away. And so there’s just all these little conversations I can have to help people understand what you can do. And then I get to talk to really interesting, witty, awesome, brilliant people all over the world. And that’s the best part. If I could just do that, like that was just my job, I would love that.

Rebecca: Definitely something that John and I enjoy too. It’s kind of an introvert’s dream to talk to [LAUGHTER] a lot of individuals one on one rather than having to network through a conference or something like that. It’s a good opportunity to have really in-depth conversations with folks that might not have the opportunity to have otherwise.

Lillian: Yeah, my brain is always seeking out the new. And so I love like, “Oh, that’s a neat idea.” And then I’ll send them an email, and sometimes they write back, and “oh, I really love to talk about this, it’s cool.” And so I’ll read their article or their book or whatever. And then there’s something else shiny that I get to go talk to other people about. And it’s just been helpful for folks. And honestly, I just didn’t expect there’d be listeners, and there are listeners. And so that’s just really fantastic.

John: We started out as primarily to meet our campus audience needs for commuting faculty, and so forth. And then we were amazed at how it caught on and spread. And it’s given us that opportunity that you both mentioned, to talk to some really interesting people doing some really interesting work. Before that in the teaching center, we talked to people at a workshop, and we might hear from one faculty member for three or four minutes, maybe 10 or maybe they’d come in for a consultation. But usually that was about a problem or an issue they were facing, but it just provides a wonderful chance to connect to people that we normally wouldn’t be able to talk to. And we see an interesting article, and then reading through it and getting to talk to the people doing the research in depth, it’s really a valuable experience.

Lillian: Yeah, everybody should be a podcaster just to have these conversations. You don’t even have to record them. It’s just really neat. And so it’s given me that like, “Hey, I have a podcast,” like a reason for me to be intrusive in somebody’s email. Like, I really want to talk to you about this. This is really cool. Would you talk to little old me? If so I have a podcast. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I’m amazed at the number of people who say yes.

Lillian: Absolutely, me too, like, “Wow, you’re actually going to talk to me. That’s so fantastic. I appreciate that.”

Rebecca: We’re definitely a part of a really wonderful community of practitioners.

Lillian: Yeah, it makes a very thankful and it’s so cool, because I have listened to Tea for Teaching for a long time. That’s actually my most listened to podcast for teaching and learning. I enjoy the fact that there’s two of you, and you kind of go back and forth and just interesting topics. So I’ve enjoyed yours, ever since the birth of our podcasts in 2018. They’re siblings. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: They are.

John: So we always end with the question. What’s next?

Lillian: I am so excited about what Appalachian State is doing. About two years ago, they bought a building in a town called Hickory, North Carolina. And our main campus is in Boone. And it’s a beautiful campus up in the mountains. And I happen to live halfway between these two cities. And so I was going up to Boone to teach and it is about 42 minutes to get up. And you have to go over the eastern Continental Divide, over the Appalachian Trail, over the Blue Ridge Parkway in order to get from my house into Boone to teach. And that’s great. And it’s the most beautiful commute I think in the world. But it also gets foggy and icy and weather and I was enjoying it, and it was where I would listen to podcasts. But Appalachian State is now the first university in the North Carolina system that now has two campuses. And so we’ve opened this campus in Hickory, it is a commuter campus, and some brave students, we have about 250 to 300 that have started this past fall of 2023. It has birthed this campus. And so I get to teach there, and I get to do some faculty development. And it’s really exciting to be on the ground floor of a new campus. And it’s the only one in the North Carolina system. We’ll have other campuses, but there’s no multi-campus university for us. It’s like being in a startup, except I don’t think I get stock options. That’s the only bad thing. [LAUGHTER] And so meeting new faculty, some faculty are teaching for the very first time. And so there’s no like institutional culture that they’re jumping into at this new campus, although we are very much a part of the Boone campus. It’s new. And there’s only a very small number of faculty there. So it’s like being at a small liberal arts college in a state system. And it’s just really cool. And I’m loving meeting the faculty there and helping with teaching and learning and UDL and all that stuff. So that’s like the next big thing is Appstate Hickory, and it’s really exciting.

Rebecca: Well, I hope you have a wonderful adventure. [LAUGHTER] It sounds like a really fun opportunity.

Lillian: Yeah, in fact, I’m in a group of faculty, we have like a community of practice, a peer mentoring circle we call it, and we’re calling ourselves the Hickory Adventurers, because like, we don’t know what’s going on, [LAUGHTER] and we’re trying to figure it out together.

John: You get to help shape what’s going on, which is a really nice place to be.

Lillian: Yeah, it’s fantastic. I’m excited. And I think I’m just that kind of person. It’s new and shiny. And I’m there.

John: I think we’re both that way a bit. And that is one of the risks of having a podcast, you get to hear about all these great things that people are doing, and there’s always a tendency to try to do many of them. And that can be a bit overwhelming, not just for us, but also for our students.

Lillian: Yes I know I have to peel it back [LAUGHTER] just a bit, don’t go overboard.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us, Lillian. I know we’ve wanted to talk to you for a while.

Lillian: Absolutely. I’m so glad and when you contacted me, I was super excited. So thank you so much for having me on Tea for Teaching. I’m gonna show my mug that nobody can see ‘cause it’s a podcast, but I love my Tea for Teaching mug, and thank you for having me.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. It was great talking to you and we’ll look forward to more conversations in the future.

Lillian: Great.


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.


325. Looking Forward to 2024

As we enter this spring semester, we take a break from our usual format to discuss what we are looking forward to in 2024.

Show Notes


Rebecca: As we enter this spring semester, we thought we’d take a break from our usual format to discuss what we’re looking forward to in 2024.


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: So what tea are you drinking now, Rebecca?

Rebecca: I’m drinking Ceylon tea.

John: And I have ginger peach black tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: So it’s a new year, John, and we’re gonna have a nice positive episode. So what are you grateful for?

John: I’m grateful that we survived another year. I’m grateful for the continued return to face-to-face instruction and a continuing return to a more normal classroom environment and college environment after all the disruptions from COVID that lasted for a while. And I’m also grateful for the initiatives that we’re using on our campus, and most campuses, to provide more focus on equity and trying to reduce some of the equity gaps that we’ve been seeing. And I’m seeing a general interest in that across a wide range of faculty and the administration. And we’re just in the process of running some workshops, and we’re getting some really good attendance at workshops that focus on techniques that faculty can use to improve equity and reduce some of those gaps. And I’m looking forward to seeing continued expansion of more equitable practices. And also, we’ve had quite a few people trying to implement the TILT approach that Mary-Ann Winklemes has talked about on a past podcast episode, and we’re hoping that that, combined with the increased structure that many people are trying to use in their classes, will help provide all students with more equitable outcomes.

Rebecca: I’m really glad that you have brought up equity, John, because I was just reflecting on a couple meetings that I was in just this week, and thinking about how equity oriented many of our colleagues are. And it’s really exciting to see them really advocating for policies, instructional practices, and many other things that are really equity oriented, and thinking about inclusion, and access, and all the things that you and I have talked about for a long time and have cared about and tried to implement in our classes. I’m also really grateful for, and I know you are too, for the many guests that we’ve had who’ve shared their expertise with us and with our audience. When we do these weekly episodes, it’s so great to have the opportunity to talk to such experts, to learn from them, to stay fresh with what’s going on, and to be able to share it with everyone else. It’s an experience that I didn’t know that I wanted, and I’m glad that we get to continue doing it.

John: And one other thing I’m grateful for from last fall is I attended my first POD conference, and I got to meet dozens of guests that we’ve talked to before. And we’ve talked to them, we’ve seen them on camera, but it was so nice to meet them and talk to them in more detail and in more depth in person.

Rebecca: I felt that way when I went to EDUCAUSE for the first time this year and connected with a number of colleagues focused on accessibility and growing that network and really connecting beyond just names and emails and other ways that we’ve communicated.

John: What are some of the major things you’re watching in the higher ed landscape? We’ve seen a lot of changes going on in the last few years, what are things that you’re going to be focusing more of your attention on in the next year?

Rebecca: I know that some of the things that we’re working on in grad studies and that I’m personally really involved in are kind of some increased accessibility resources for our colleagues at Oswego as well as SUNY. I’m looking forward to building out some of those resources, sharing those resources, and wrapping up a couple of research projects related to accessibility and getting to share those out. And I’m really excited that the higher ed landscape generally is having a lot more focus in this space because students with disabilities have been often overlooked in our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. And there definitely is a push to be a little more inclusive, and to have that population represented in these efforts and initiatives. We’re also really focused on ideas of belonging for a wide range of students, thinking about how do we get our online students connected to each other and to the larger population of students and to see them as members of our community, extending some of those features and opportunities for international students and really thinking about what some of their needs are to be successful at our institution, especially with our kind of rural location, and what can make things really excited. So I’m really looking forward to finding ways to support our students not just in the courses that I’m teaching or in my instructional role, but also in policies and procedures that we’re implementing at the institution,in grad studies, but more broadly as well. How about you?

John: One of the things that I’m really following closely is the development of AI. This came about a little over a year ago and it’s been a really disruptive influence. It offers a lot of tremendous possibilities, but it also provides some challenges to traditional assessment, particularly in asynchronous online courses. So I’m looking forward to continued development, it seems like there’s new tools coming out almost every week. And it offers some really nice capabilities to narrow some of the equity gaps that we have by providing low-cost assistance for students who may not have come into our institutions quite as well prepared. It offers a possibility of students doing a little bit more retrieval practice for those classes where instructors are not providing those opportunities. It offers students who, again have a somewhat weaker background, to take more complex readings that they may have been assigned and simplifying it and creating a more accessible format to help students get up to the level they need in their classes. And so it provides tools that can help students improve their writing, and so forth. The challenge, of course, is that it can also be used as a substitute for learning in some classes unless assignments are designed in a way, and assessment techniques are designed in a way, that reduces the likelihood of that and that’s one of the things we’ll be working on a lot this year, ways of coming up with more authentic assessment and ways of providing more intrinsic motivation for the work that students are doing, so that students can see the value of the learning rather than focusing entirely on grades. And one of the things we’re doing is we have a reading group coming up early this semester on Grading for Growth by Robert Talbert and David Clark. And we’re, in general, encouraging faculty to at least consider the adoption of alternative grading systems, which shift the focus away from students trying to maximize grades to maximizing their learning. And there’s a wide variety of tools that could be used for that, ranging from mastery learning quizzing systems, which many faculty have already been doing through specifications grading, contract grading, labor-based grading, and also ungrading.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s really exciting that we’re going to focus on that semester, something that I’ve been interested in for a long time and have been using in my classes as well. I’m glad you mentioned AI, there’s certainly a lot of promise, and I’ve been really excited by how many faculty, staff, administrators who’ve actually really been engaged in the conversation around AI. I think sometimes there are new innovations and things and people kind of brush it aside and don’t always think it applies to them or isn’t relevant to them. But I think this is something that’s relevant to everybody. And most people are seeing that and engaging in the conversation, struggling in the conversation, but at least we’re doing that in community. And I think there’s some power in that as we think through policy, in assignments and all the things that we need to think about to provide an enriching experience for our students, but also engage and use the tools and the power that they offer.

John: One other thing I’m following is the development of a wide variety of new edtech tools. We saw an explosive growth in the development of tools and expansion of their capabilities in response to the COVID pandemic, but that growth and expansion hasn’t dropped. And we’re seeing more and more tools that have often been designed based on research about how students learn. And I think we’re going to see expanded use of many of these tools in the coming year.

Rebecca: And I think a lot of faculty got used to experimenting with these tools during remote education and are continuing to use them in physical and virtual classrooms, which I think is really exciting, maybe even more exciting to me was attending big conferences like Middle States and actually having a presenter use some of these edtech tools as part of a plenary. So rather than having more of a lecture style session, it was more of an interactive session, which doesn’t always happen at conferences of such scale, or these more leadership conferences. So it’s exciting to see that we’re modeling some of these practices at the highest level so that the wide variety of individuals involved in higher ed are experiencing learning and engaging with these kinds of tools. Along the same lines, I’m also excited that many of these tools are starting to actually attend to accessibility, in part because higher ed institutions are really pushing back to third-party providers and requesting them provide information about accessibility, and even refusing to adopt tools if they aren’t meeting basic accessibility principles, which I think is really excited and really important.

John: And I saw something very similar both at the POD conference where you might expect to see people creating more interactive workshops, but I’ve also been seeing it in the workshops that we’ve had in the last couple of weeks here. We have a record number of faculty presenting in workshops, they’re using polling, they’re using tools like Mentimeter and they’re doing many more interactive activities than in past years. If we go back a few years, many of the sessions that were presented were essentially straight walkthroughs through PowerPoint slideshows with not a lot of interaction with the participants. And our workshops here have been both in person and remote over zoom. And people have been working really effectively to bring all the participants into the discussion and into the activities, regardless of whether they are in person in the room or remote. And it’s been nice to see that. Much of that I think did grow out of the experiences of COVID, and people just getting more comfortable trying new tools.

Rebecca: Come to find out, practice helps us learn things.

John: Also, our campus enabled the AI Companion in Zoom, which will provide meeting summaries for people who arrive late or people who come in at the end of a discussion. And I think that’s going to offer some nice opportunities for people who may have missed part of the discussion early on in a session, or in a workshop, or in a meeting, because so many of our meetings now take place over Zoom.

Rebecca: And there’s lots to be watching that are also highly concerning, but John and I resolved that we weren’t going to focus on those today.

John: So this will be a relatively short episode. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So continuing on this theme of gratefulness and positivity, John, what are you looking forward to trying this year, or focusing on in your own work this year, or committing to this year?

John: One thing, and this partly follows up a couple of podcasts we’ve had in the last year or so. In our campus, many departments are working to build in some of the NACE competencies into their classroom. And there’s some really significant advantages for that. If it’s done well, it will help students recognize the intrinsic value of the things they’re learning in class and recognize that these are skills that they’re going to need later, which again, helps provide much more motivation for students to learn than if they just see a series of activities that instructors ask them to do, and they don’t see the value of that. So by making the connections between what we’re doing in the classroom in terms of the development of critical thinking skills, teamwork, and all those other NACE competencies, it offers some really serious benefits for students and for faculty. Because if students are more engaged in the activities and understand the purpose of them, I think they’re going to be much more likely to focus on the learning rather than again, trying just to get the highest grade. And that’s also very consistent with the TILT approach that we mentioned earlier. If students understand why you’re doing things, they’re going to receive the techniques and engage in them more productively than if they didn’t see the value of those tasks.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m glad that you mentioned TILT as well. We mentioned it earlier, but I was just remembering that one of the things I wanted to mention while we were talking today is a commitment to thinking about TILT, not just in a classroom context, but all the other places that touch a student experience. So thinking about policies and procedures and ways that we can use a TILT approach to really improve transparency and clarity for our students and provide some equity and access by doing so. The other thing that I’m committed to trying to do is get back to more play, we’ve had some episodes on Tea for Teaching focused on play. And they always get me really excited about some of the things that I’ve done in the past in some of my classes and that I’ve done with some of my colleagues… and that the burden of transitioning during COVID to remote learning, some of these things have taken time and maybe attention away from play. And I’m hoping to take some time in 2024 to put some more attention back on being a little more playful.

John: So, you think education could be fun?

Rebecca: Maybe.

John: Okay. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’ve moved to doing some exercises and activities again a little more recently that get to some of these more playful ways of creating and making and thinking through complex problems. And every time I do that the students appreciate it. I have more fun, they have more fun, and I think a lot more learning gets done.

John: Since we want to focus on the positive, we’ll leave challenges for future episodes.

Rebecca: We’ve got all of 2024 to do that, John.

John: And we really appreciate, as Rebecca said, all of the wonderful guests that we’ve had since the beginning of this podcast, and we appreciate our audience too. So thank you for hanging in there with us.

Rebecca: Have a great 2024.


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.


323. Explore First Study Abroad Program

Compared to continuing-generation students, first-gen students experience a higher risk of not completing a college degree. In this episode, Sue Roberts, Marianne Young, and Beth Hanneman join us discuss a study-abroad program for first-gen students that is designed to build their confidence, sense of belonging, and help them understand the connection between their education and their career goals. Sue is the Associate Provost for Internationalization at the University of Kentucky. Marianne is the Assistant Vice President for Smart Campus Initiatives at the University of Kentucky. And Beth Hanneman is the Associate Director of Career Advising and Career Education, also at the University of Kentucky.

Show Notes


John: Compared to continuing-generation students, first-gen students experience a higher risk of not completing a college degree. In this episode, we discuss a study abroad program for first-gen students that is designed to build their confidence, sense of belonging, and help them understand the connection between their education and their career goals.


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 Sue Roberts, Marianne Young, and Beth Hanneman. Sue is the Associate Provost for Internationalization at the University of Kentucky. Marianne is the Assistant Vice President for Smart Campus Initiatives at the University of Kentucky. And Beth Hanneman is the Associate Director of Career Advising and Career Education, also at the University of Kentucky. Welcome, Sue, Marianne, and Beth.

Sue: Thank you, we’re glad to be here.

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

Sue: I am not drinking tea right now. But if I were in my normal space, I would be drinking tea. Yes.

Rebecca: Do you have a favorite kind?

Sue: I do. It’s a rooibos tea, a red bush tea.

Rebecca: Wonderful. Marianme, how about you?

Marianne: I’m not currently drinking too, but I have one on the ready. It is a lovely wild sweet orange.

Rebecca: Nice. What about you Beth?

Beth: So I went to Montana this past summer for a yoga retreat and fell in love with Huckleberry. So I now drink a wild Huckleberry tea at least once a week. And that’s what I’m having this morning.

Rebecca: I have never had that. I think it’s a first on the podcast.

John: It is. I am drinking an Irish Breakfast tea.

Rebecca: And I have a Jasmine Dragon Pearl this morning.

John: Dragon pearls?

Rebecca: Dragon pearls. [LAUGHTER]

John: Ok, so we have a mythical tea. [LAUGHTER] We read about the Explore First Study Abroad program in an article in the Chronicle recently. And so we invited you here to talk about that. Could you give us an overview of this program?

Sue: Sure. It’s a new program for the University of Kentucky, run for the first time in summer 2023. We took 60 students, 60 undergraduate students, all of them first-generation students to either London or Dublin for a three- week Education Abroad program focused on career readiness.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about this program came about?

Sue: It came about in many different ways, actually. There were conversations happening on our campus for probably two or three years before COVID, even, among different colleagues, some in the Career Center wondering how they could produce really good career readiness, education abroad programming. So I’m in the office of first-generation student success thinking about how we could do a better job in introducing first-generation students to education abroad. And then in the International Center, in the Education Abroad office itself, there were lots of conversations about how we could partner with colleagues across campus to develop programs that would reach this demographic.

John: One of the things we were really intrigued about was a program that was designed to benefit first-gen students as well as providing those career readiness skills. Could you describe a little bit how this program integrates that career focus?

Beth: Yeah, I’ll take that one. So over in the Career Center, we have the national association called NACE and they have NACE Competencies. And so when you start thinking about any major that a student has, you want them to make sure that they have those skill sets. So when they actually get into the workforce, they’re able to be analytical, they’re able to have communication skills. And what I love about the first-gen program and Explore fFrst within that, is the idea of how do you do that in a global setting. And so when you start thinking about designing this curriculum, and me and Marianne had the privilege of helping to work on that. It was this idea of, we had at least find out what the foundation is that the students had. And so sort of thinking about block scheduling, where a lot of times professors may say we’re going to do one topic and then go to another, I did more of what we call spiral curriculum, where you introduce a topic, and we brought it in here in the United States before we left, so maybe it was resumes where they had to create a resume and work on a resume ahead of time. And then when we’re overseas, we re-introduced resumes to say, “How would you put this Explore First experience on your actual resume? …kind of the same when it came to networking. What does it look like to navigate, to connect with people? Okay, great. We do that here in the United States. But then how do you do that in a global setting. So it was one of those things where you can actually see that reinforced. I also thought that was really cool when it came to interviewing as well, of having that prep for the students within that area.

Rebecca: We have a couple of other episodes of tea for teaching that also talk about the NACE competencies that we’ll link in our show notes for folks that are interested in that particular detail. So we just talked about NACE. Can you talk a little bit about the benefits that students get from it being a study abroad experience?

Beth: Yeah, at least for myself, the world is definitely interconnected. And so what I loved about how we interacted with employers is that we first looked at those that were connected here to Kentucky, and then we reached out with those that would be overseas. So for example, we have a company named Alltech that’s located here in Lexington. And so our students on the Dublin trip was able to actually go see their location. So it wasn’t one of those things that “Oh, hey, we’re just randomly seeing a company.” We’re very methodical about how that connection is. Another company, Compass, for example, does food services for our University of Kentucky health care system. So it wasn’t one of those things of just like, “Oh, we’re just gonna go see a company.” It was one of those elements of not only is making this connection abroad, but how does this actually impact me back home. And we would actually talk about that. Students would be like, “Alright, yes, you see this in another country, how does cultural awareness make a difference? How does being able to navigate and learn about yourself influence who you’re going to be back at UK?” And one of my favorite questions we asked in the interviews that they had to do for one of the assignments was: “If you’re back on the college campus, and you run into the university president, what are two things you tell them about the program?” And it was really cool to hear from the students that like, “I didn’t think I could learn so much about myself in three weeks, let alone three months about a career,” and others have never been on a plane before to navigate what that looks like. So even if you go into the job market, most likely somewhere along the line, you’re probably going to have to travel somewhere and do connections, but to have that support to have other people with them, when they did it for the first time was really impactful.

Rebecca: I love that reflection question. [LAUGHTER] So many benefits to that.

Marianne: I think the global stage also provides a really unique opportunity to just boost confidence with these students, as Beth was talking about, some of our students had never been on a plane. And not only did they navigate getting on a plane, they navigated getting into and past customs and immigration and all of that. And then the most surprising piece to me, in terms of what this looked like in terms of that confidence boost is at the beginning of our core sessions with the students, they put together kind of a: “these are what my goals are currently.” And by the end of the program, not only physically the confidence that you saw as they stood in front of the class, and they were presenting what their new goals were, for some of the students it expanded the opportunities that they were considering. They had never considered what it might be like to be in a leadership position in a global organization, or for the other students, it solidified what it was that they were wanting to do. And that confidence that they had of “Yes, I’m on the right path,” I think came from them navigating situations that they hadn’t been in before. And then being able to connect with different companies and different leadership individuals within the company, who they could see like, “Oh, my gosh, they were first generation as well, and now they’ve moved abroad, and they have this position in the company,” and the confidence that came from being able to navigate an international city as well as “I have confidence in how I’m going to navigate my career pathway,” that was so amazing to see in the sestudents.

Sue: I will agree with that. I visited, I think, three of the four programs. The program was split into four different groups, two went to Dublin two to London. So there were 15 students in each and I think I’ve visited three of them over the course of the summer, and to see that confidence grow, almost hourly, was incredible. And I will say that I think it translates, we’re hoping anyway, that it will translate, into greater understanding and kind of sense of purpose as a student. So you can see the point of your degree, you can see the point of why you’re struggling through this or that course to make it through to graduation. And of course, we want to see good results in terms of retention rates and graduation rates.

Rebecca: I’ve had the opportunity to teach a couple of travel courses where I’ve had students who had never traveled before, some within the US and some travel abroad. And I agree that seeing the confidence growth in students is such a rewarding experience for the instructors as well as for the students. It’s a really powerful experience. But one of the things that I really love that you’re describing is this connection to alumni, and those really specific intentional connections between the businesses locally as well as abroad. That’s a really beautiful component of your program.

John: And one of the challenges that all colleges face is the relatively high DFW rates generally experienced by first-gen students. And by making clear to the students the salience and the relevance of the material that they’re learning, and how this can open up these possibilities to them in a very obvious manner that they may not naturally see, I can imagine this could be really transformative.

Marianne: I think one of the great moments we had as we were visiting one of our employer partners, as Beth was talking about the spiral curriculum, he had talked about LinkedIn profiles and been helping them and then we get to this employer visit. And they start talking about LinkedIn profiles. And it is almost the exact lecture we had given that morning. And students are turning around and saying, “Oh, my gosh, you told us that this morning, and here’s this employer saying this exact same stuff. You were right.” And so we revisited again, and then the next employer, and so it was the aha moment of “Oh my gosh, this is actually something that I’m going to need and I’m going to use as I navigate my career.”

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what a typical day for a student looks like in this program.

Marianne: There was no typical day, but this will kind of give you some activities they may have been shuffled around a bit. We’d start off with maybe some class time reviewing the visit. Maybe we’d have the day before talking about the experiences that the students had, answering any questions they may have had, how they navigated a challenge, just really taking time to connect and then help them build on the information that we were presenting. Once we kind of move through class time, we might have visited an employer in the afternoon and done a site visit where we not only learned about the company but also some of our employers took us through exercises like design thinking at some of our tech companies, or walking us through interviews and resume reviews in terms of a mock opportunity if you’re applying to their company. And then we may also have a cultural visit in the afternoon, visiting a significant landmark in the area or learning about the history and the culture of the particular space that the students were in. And then in the evenings, our students would maybe get together and cook in the residence hall, or they might go out to dinner together. And so generally we had class time and some cultural visits or an employer visit.

Beth: Yeah, exactly what Marianne said, and when you think about over the three weeks, because we were there for three weeks with these students, the beginning part of the classes were more kind of prep and foundation to get them to know what to expect. And so we broke teams of three, and so we would have one person would be the person who was in charge of introducing the group, we had one person that was the photographer, one person that was in charge of the “Thank you” at the end for each site visit. And that was really cool to see him learn collaboration, but also kind of change up and like, “Oh, well, this person is really interested in architecture, so we’re gonna have him be the speaker for this one, and then I’ll do the photography. And this one over here, we as a group, we actually wrote the thank you note together of what that means to follow up within it, kind of expectations within it.” So that was really cool in terms of curriculum, and kind of how we set that beginning. And then closer to the end like Marianne said, was more like review: “What did you learn from it and reflection?”

John: Do students travel with faculty or staff from the University of Kentucky?

Sue: We structured this program so that each group of students was accompanied and led by two professional staff members from the campus. Typically, it was a person from the Career Center, and a person from the Office of First-Generation Student Support. So it gave the students oftentimes very familiar people who understood where they’re coming from, and the skills they brought to the table, but also a person with the career advice ready for them kind of as needed. So it worked really well, I think, to have those program leaders on the ground with the students. And we weren’t hosted by a university, although we did visit universities in both locations. But we worked with a education abroad partner provider called AIFS. And they have provided the classrooms, they assisted us find student accommodation, and they worked on us with the cultural visits.

Rebecca: I think I remember also reading that you did some work prior to going abroad and some coursework there. Can you talk a little bit about what that looked like?

Marianne: We had an opportunity and clusters with the students, we broke them into smaller groups to help prepare them for what to expect as they were preparing for their education abroad experience. And so we covered a variety of topics of what about your luggage? What is a carry on? What is it checked bag? How do you move through security? What can you expect in an airport? What can you expect in terms of customs and immigration? We talked about how to prepare for the weather, how to think about budgeting, and being prepared for different costs of things, or how you might be able to consider all of the different pieces and parts of preparing for souvenirs that you want to get… all those different things, a variety of cluster topics to make sure that our students not only had a connection with the person that they were going to be traveling with, but also the other students. And then it gave us space for any of the questions that students may have had, as they were preparing for this experience.

Beth: It’s just a great way, because a lot of times when I’ve done education abroad, you might meet at the airport for the first time. But what I loved about this program is that we literally got to know each other prior, to at least kind of understand maybe some of the things that they were concerned about as a student. And so then as a staff member, we can be like, “Okay, let me give you some extra resources.” I remember one particular student, I ended up calling her mom and her was on the phone, because she’s like, “Okay, Beth, I know you went through the whole situation of what we need to do for the airport, but my mom has questions.” And I was like, “Sure, no problem. Let’s talk.” And so her mom was like, “Oh, nice to meet you Beth. Her mom dropped her off at the airport, gave me the biggest hug. When her mom picked us up. She was like giving everybody in the group a hug, because we were extended family for them for three weeks.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the timing of the program?

Sue: So last year, it was the first time through, so I think we had to do things very quickly. We had to assemble a team, we had to get these clusters stood up. We had to recruit students, we had to find the scholarships for them and all the rest of it in kind of a hurry. So this year, we’re spacing it out a bit more. So we’re recruiting for summer 24 right now. And we’re going to repeat the program, we’re going to take 30 students in two groups to London and 30 to Dublin in two groups. So we’re excited about that. And then their travel occurs during the summer vacation, early in the summer vacation, so May and June this year.

Marianne: The interesting piece of the timing as well was I was on the first group that went to Dublin, and we were actually able to connect with the group that was coming after us in the airport as they were preparing to go out, so my students were able to pass along some words of wisdom and some thoughts to the group that was coming after them. And so that was a really fun piece with the timing to be able to catch up with each other in the airport.

Beth: In terms of curriculum, the way it was set up, there was one class that everybody was part of. So we actually met as a group virtually, with all 60 students ahead time. So everyone had that basic foundation. And then when we’re actually over there, that was when we did the actual classes for the individual pieces. So I did Dublin two and London one. And so at the same time, we’re having curriculum in terms of giving feedback for the next group coming over.

John: Now, you mentioned that there was some time spent acquiring funding, could you talk a little bit about the funding that was used for this program?

Sue: Sure. And this is a little unusual, I think. It was a surprise to us when the Kentucky State legislature or general assembly awarded some funding to all Kentucky institutions of higher education to support displaced students, so refugee students primarily. As part of that program, they allocated a certain amount of funding also to support education abroad and exchanges. So when we realized that, which was only in the summer before, so summer 22, we thought, “Aha, we could finally make this happen. This thing we’ve all been talking about in different ways about connecting careers, connecting first-generation students with education abroad, and making a real difference for those students, and we could do it at a actually a quite a big scale for education abroad, 60 students is quite significant.” So we seized the opportunity. The trick, then, of course, was to find matching money, because it didn’t cover everything. So we found some money internally at the university, we used education abroad scholarships, our administration at the very highest levels awarded us some funding to kind of back us up if we needed it. So it was a team effort. And this upcoming year, we don’t have the state money. That was a one time deal, so we’re funding it all from our university funds.

Rebecca: So cost is always a concern, I think, for first-gen students, and may be one of the reasons why they don’t even think they might ever go abroad. I know that was the case for me, as a student. I didn’t think I was ever going to get a chance to go abroad, but I got to when I was in graduate school. So can you talk a little bit about what this meant to the first-gen students or if you had trouble initially even getting them to think that they could really actually participate in this program?

Beth: Yes, one of our students on Dublin two got the email about applying and that the program was going to be there when we started doing the recruitment. And he was like, “Is this a scam? Is this true?” We went over to the first-gen office to verify because he’s like, “it sounded too good to be true.” And so once we got the word out that it was, of course, students applied and said, “Okay, let’s do this.”

Sue: You’re absolutely right that it’s the number one barrier of first-generation students is finances. And I think it was the majority of our students on this program are Pell recipients. So first-gen is a very big category. But we did try and make a difference, particularly for students whose financial means were limited. So it was a tremendous opportunity for them. And as Beth said, some of them were very disbelieving at first of the opportunity, they couldn’t understand how this was happening, because they hadn’t thought that this was something that they could ever achieve. And that was another reason why we kept it to three weeks, because many of these students… well, in fact, I would say all of them… were working during the summer. So three weeks away from your summer job and earning is a big deal, and others had family obligations as caregivers, and so on. So that’s the reason why we ended up with a three-week timeframe was partly to be sensitive to those needs. And then in terms of the financing, London is an expensive city, and Dublin is an expensive city. And these are young people, these are primarily first- and second-year university undergraduates. So budgeting to shop, to eat, to go out is difficult, and especially when it’s a different currency and options are different, and the prices are different. So that was a big element that we’ve reflected on since this first time through, and I think we’ll be maybe just a little bit more supportive. We were supportive, but maybe just a little bit more supportive of how to budget when overseas because they were responsible for their own spending money on this program.

Rebecca: What about things like food or other personal costs for travel, was that included in the program?

Sue: So there were a few meals included. There were a few like welcome dinners and things like that included, but by and large students were responsible for their own catering as it were for their own food. And it turned out that was kind of an issue because it takes a bit of knowledge of the stores and what’s available and what’s affordable. It takes a bit of knowledge of how to cook in a budget conscious way and not just grab the processed thing. And of course these supermarkets are unfamiliar and I would say one thing we did think a lot about upon return and when we debriefed this was giving the students a bit more time to adjust to that situation and to learn their options and to cook because sometimes we were so busy with all these things we were doing every day that they didn’t have much time to plan their suppers, or to go shopping and cook so I’ll let Beth and Marianne chime in because they were on the ground, they know more, but that was the kind of impression I got.

Marianne: So, we had some bargain shoppers in my group that found meal deals at like close Tescos, things like that. And so it was always kind of a competition of “Did you know that the sandwich was included in the meal deal?” And so it was a pretty inexpensive breakfast and lunch and sometimes dinner opportunity for students that became somewhat of a game, to figure out, like, what are you going to put in your meal deal this time? And so a lot of our students were supportive in terms of sharing different deals that restaurants were doing. Did you know that on Tuesday, they have a student special where you can get this, this, and this. And so they were really great about sharing some of the tips and tricks and things that they picked up along the way. And then also sharing meals. So going to the grocery, and he brought me to purchase something, while I may not eat this whole thing, but if you split it with me, then I’ll get the next one. And so they were really great, that was really fun to see them kind of helping and sharing deals that they found along the way.

Beth: And one of the things that we did is we actually offered a time if someone wanted to come with me to the grocery store. We did a local one so they could see how close something was if they by chance needed something quick to eat. But then we actually went with them, which was one was a little bit farther away have more of the discount kind of larger what they would think of a supermarket type of thing here in the United States, just because, over there, you kind of buy more what you need, versus “I’m going to have lots in the refrigerator and freezer within it.” And we actually had a couple of times where we had meals together because it was someone’s birthday and we wanted to celebrate. And very similar to what Marianne said that they would be like, “here’s a deal,” or “hey, I’m going to make soup anybody else want?” And we had one student who loved to cook, and others are like, hey, awesome, I will help clean up, or pitch in for some money if you would be willing to be the person that actually wanted to make the meal, and they actually collaborated teamwork that way too. So it was really cool to see.

Beth: One thing I wanted to share is the fact I think people think that education abroad is three weeks, and then you’re done. For us, this is a lifetime connection for these students. So we actually had dinner with both groups separately, so they could get together and meet each other and see each other, I’ll get messages being like “Guess who I saw on campus?” and they have a competition of how many times they see a certain student, be like “I saw them three times this week, Beth, I saw this one four,” but even moreso is this confidence coming back to have to go after the dreams that they want. We had a student who, I’ll be very honest, had a really rough home life and had a lot of confidence issues and got over there had a chance to start talking, had a really good conversation with a couple employers. And we did a networking night where we invited all the employers back and they could come and network with the students. And she had a really good conversation with some of our staff that we actually had come over from UK to kind of see the program as well. And she followed up, wrote a note back to say thank you for this conversation, I appreciate it. This is what I’m looking for in terms of career or job, and that person connected her with to somebody back here in Lexington, she then goes and reached out to that person, met with them, interviewed, and now has an IT position that she never thought possible a year ago. So that’s really cool to actually see them do this steps, it’s one thing for us to say go do, it’s another for them to actually gain the confidence to go and actually obtain it.

Rebecca: What a great story.

John: One of the things that I think you’ve all mentioned is that this creates a really tight bond among the students as well as the connections to the staff members they traveled with. And that sense of belonging has been shown in a lot of studies to be a major factor in student retention. And I think programs like this can create really strong bonds that can help students be more likely to succeed.

Sue: I will agree with that. There were two young women on one of the programs who became fast friends. And I assumed they had been friends forever, and I just was chatting with them, and I said, “You know, you must have known each other a long time.” They said “no, we just met.” And one of them said that she was so excited to come back to UK in the fall… so this semester… and I said “well, weren’t you excited anyway?” And she said, No, she wasn’t, that her freshman year had been a little lonely, and she had not made a good connection with her roommate and was struggling a little bit to fit in. And she said “Now I have a best friend on campus, and we’re gonna have fun the next few years together. And I thought that was awesome.

Marianne: And I’ll brag on our students. They were phenomenal. I mean, when I told people that I was going to go to a foreign country with 15 college students, and we were going to travel the city and we were going to do all of the things they looked at me like, “Why would you take college students to an international city?” They were fantastic. They were supportive. They were curious. They were beyond what you could even imagine in terms of the questions that they were asking and the way that they engaged with the curriculum. We have phenomenal students here at the University of Kentucky and I was lucky to get to take 15 and I have them running across campus yelling my name saying “Oh my gosh, this is the first time that I’ve seen you since you’ve been back on campus” or seeing each other on campus is such an honor to be a part of just that family that we now have. And, like I said, they were the best students you could ever imagine traveling with. I do it again in a heartbeat.

Sue: So one thing that really impressed me about these students, actually taught me a lot about this category “first-generation” which is kind of thrown around is that these students are really amazing. I mean to get to the University of Kentucky, to be studying their majors, to be making good academic progress is an accomplishment for these students and they have the resilience, they have the resourcefulness, they have the curiosity, as Marianne said, to make the most out of education abroad. So these are not students who took this for granted. When they were in London or Dublin, their eyes and ears were open all the time. And they were busy taking it all in, reflecting on it, and they absolutely were some of the very best students I’ve ever seen on an education abroad program.

Rebecca: So do you have plans to evaluate the success of this program?

Sue: So yes, we built assessment into this program from the beginning. So we had a researcher from the College of Education who helped us and administered pre- and then during, and then post-surveys of each student. So she collected information about their responses and reflections to the assignments and to their learning, and also something about their intercultural learning as it were. So we’re going to also track these students and see how they do compared to the peers who didn’t get the opportunity to study abroad in terms of their academic progress and their graduation.

John: Excellent. We look forward to hearing more about how well this program works. We always end by asking, what’s next?

Sue: Well, we want to do this again. [LAUGHTER] So we think it’s working. We’ve got good results so far, assuming that the next summer is also successful. We hope to just keep tweaking it, making it better and better for the students and maybe building it in as kind of a signature program for first-generation students here at the University of Kentucky.

Rebecca: An incredible thing to invest in and offer first-gen students. Thanks so much for sharing the details of your program.

Sue: Thank you for having us. And thanks for your interest in this endeavor.

John: It sounds like a wonderful program.

Sue: Yeah, it’s been a blast to develop and to be part of I must say. It’s been fantastic. And I don’t think we mentioned but perhaps we should that over one quarter of our undergraduate students identify as first generation. So this is a significant population at our university which serves students of all sorts from the state of Kentucky and outside.

John: Excellent.

Sue: Thank you both.

Marianne: Thank you all

John: Thank you for taking the time to join us and to share this wonderful program.

Sue: Yeah, appreciate it.


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

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


322. Accessibility Challenge

Digital accessibility can be intimidating for faculty and staff. In this episode, Michele Thornton, Laura Harris, and Kate DeForest join us to examine one example of a gamified approach to professional development. Michele is an Associate Professor of Management at SUNY Oswego, Laura is the Web Services and Distance Learning Librarian at SUNY Oswego. and Kate is the Digital Content Coordinator at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes


John: Digital accessibility can be intimidating for faculty and staff. In this episode, we examine one example of a gamified approach to professional development.


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 Michele Thornton, Laura Harris, and Kate DeForest. Michele is an Associate Professor of Management at SUNY Oswego, Laura is the Web Services and Distance Learning Librarian at SUNY Oswego. and Kate is the Digital Content Coordinator at SUNY Oswego. Welcome Michele, Laura, and Kate.

Kate: Hello. Thank you.

Michele: Thanks for having us.

Laura: Thank you.

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

Michele: I am. I’m having a London fog. It felt like a good choice given the kind of rainy day.

John: … and Laura?

Laura: I am drinking the Comfort and Joy tea by Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: Sounds nice for a chilly day.

John: …and Kate?

Kate: I’m enjoying a nice chai tea.

Rebecca: Look at the variety in this group. [LAUGHTER] I have Harsha today, which is a black tea.

John: That sounds rather harsh and a bit different than the comfort and joy. [LAUGHTER] And I have, in the spirit of the season, a Christmas tea today.

Rebecca: So we invited you here today to talk about the article that we co-authored, titled “10-Day Campus aAccessibility Challenge” in a recent special issue of the Journal for Post Secondary Education and Disability. The accessibility challenge was an initiative developed by the workgroup on accessibility practices at SUNY, which you’ve all been an active member of. So first, Can each of you briefly describe how you got involved with accessibility work at SUNY Oswego and some of the specific projects that you’ve worked on? And we’ll start with Michele.

Michele: Thanks, Rebecca. My first introduction was by being part of our initial cohort of faculty accessibility fellows in 2019. So that was a year-long fellowship, where myself and a handful of other faculty members from across the campus were able to learn the importance of things like Universal Design for Learning, build skills and capacity around principles of digital accessibility, and become part of the growing community on campus that was really advocating for a more accessible and inclusive campus.

John: And we do have an earlier podcast episode on the origins of that project, and we’ll share a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: Kate?

Kate: Okay, I was hired as the digital accessibility analyst and remediation specialist in 2018. I was primarily focused on assessing and remediating online course materials at that time. When I was hired, I was invited to be in the work group, and quickly became one of the main resources for remediation and accessibility at that time. I’ve been involved with creating our digital accessibility website, many of the written and video tutorials, launching the 10-day accessibility pilot program and other subsequent programs, and currently involved with creating accessibility course modules.

Rebecca: Laura?

Laura: One aspect of my job is to support online learning and teaching. And in that role, Rebecca and a former colleague invited me to be part of the workgroup focused on facilitating the creation of accessible materials for online courses. Over the years, the scope of that workgroup has broadened, and now we focus on accessible practices in general. One of the projects I’ve really enjoyed is providing training on different models of disability.

John: Rebecca, you’re one of the people who put together the accessibility challenge. So could you explain your role in it?

Rebecca: Sure. I am one of the two founding members of our workgroup on accessibility practices at SUNY Oswego, and was the first facilitator of our Faculty Accessibility Fellows Program that Michele was in. So Kate, before we jump in too far with our accessibility challenge discussion, can you first help our audience understand what we mean on our campus by accessibility?

Kate: Sure. So the bare bones basic definition, as paraphrased, would be allowing a person with a disability and a person without a disability, the same or similar experience in the same or similar manner. And we are speaking of it in the digital capacity, so using websites and digital content, digital documents, and allowing people to basically experience them in a very similar way.

John: And before we go any further, could someone tell us what the accessibility challenge is? Michele, can you set the stage for us by providing an overview of the accessibility landscape at SUNY Oswego and the circumstances that led to the development of the accessibility challenge, and also, what exactly that accessibility challenge was?

Michele: For me, it’s hard to separate out the genesis of the accessibility challenge from two other important existing factors. The idea came to us in fall of 2020. And so if we can all put ourselves back there, we had just come out of the first spring of the onset of the COVID19 pandemic. That took our campus, like many others out there, into this rapid switch to online learning, and one that really brought the harsh light on many accessibility barriers that parts of our campus had previously not really observed or had much experience with. We’ve already talked about and highlighted a couple of different ways that our campus has been thinking about accessibility with the workgroup, our Fellows Program, and so we have this long tradition of campus leadership and support around promoting accessibility. But the unprecedented need that the pandemic really illuminated revealed that we needed to move even quicker to build a more robust, more skilled, more engaged community that would be prepared to meet the challenges that our students and faculty were facing. We had historically been offering a lot of different trainings and one-on-one faculty support, but we felt like we needed something much more concentrated, quick, that would be fun and enjoyable for folks to participate in. The pandemic was just in its first 12 months, and people were stressed and feeling isolated, nervous or afraid. We wanted to create an opportunity to connect as well as learn from each other. So we’ve talked about this as a 10-day challenge. It was essentially two weeks of an online community engaged learning experience, where folks signed up and took different asynchronous and sometimes synchronous online courses to build their skills and capacity around accessibility.

Rebecca: So Laura, can you talk a little bit about some of the design considerations that went into the challenge?

Laura: Sure, Rebecca. The workgroup often discusses training and professional development opportunities we can provide to faculty, staff, and students. And as Michele indicated, when we had those discussions in late 2020, we knew that many people were feeling overburdened, disconnected, and disenfranchised. And we didn’t want to add to people’s mental loads, we wanted to craft something that was fun and supportive. So one of the theories underlying our thinking is self-determination theory, which suggests that experiences that support individuals’ experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connectedness, will provide the best kinds of motivation. I want to talk about competence first. I think promoting competence around accessibility practices has always been at the core of what we do. However, the increase in online instruction caused by the pandemic made fostering this competence a necessity. We just didn’t have, and we do not have now, the staffing to remediate every course. Moving on to relatedness, I feel that offering a challenge instead of regular professional development opportunities really allowed us to foster that sense of connection. With challenges, there’s a shared goal, and when it comes to pulling people together, a shared goal can be more powerful than a shared interest. I also think that, with challenges, there’s often a more intentional effort at providing support and encouragement to participants. For example, the organizers behind National Novel Writing Month host live Q&As and have collected pep talk letters addressed to their participants written by well-known authors. So while competence and relatedness were things we considered early in the process at the macro level, the ability to foster autonomy and agency came through when we were planning the details. One of the other theories we incorporated into the design of the challenge is Universal Design for Learning (or UDL). I would argue that agency and choice are at the core of UDL, which focuses on providing learners with multiple ways of achieving a learning objective. So we made a point to offer multiple ways for Challenge participants to learn about and apply various accessibility concepts.

Rebecca: So Kate, can you describe the challenge and how it worked?

Kate: Sure, we wanted to basically simplify accessibility and allow all content creators to understand basic accessibility principles. So this challenge was centered around creating accessible Word documents through Microsoft Word and Google Docs. We broke it down, broke down accessibility into bite-sized pieces, and we focused on one topic each day. So we started off by introducing accessibility, we covered what it is, why it’s important, and who it benefits, because that’s sometimes lost in translation, depending on the definition that people think of accessibility. Then we went in and we focused on specific skills. So some of the topics included properly structuring content such as how to semantically make headings and lists. We covered writing alternative text for images, captioning videos, effectively using color, and providing descriptive hyperlinks as some of the basic principles. And then the last couple of days of the challenge ended with some self reflections, sort of what did the participants learn? Did the program help boost their competence around accessibility? …that type of feeling. So we send daily emails to the participants, and these emails give a brief background of today’s topic, again, who it benefits and why it’s important. We provided written and video tutorials that explained how to do the task, and then asked the participants to incorporate that principle into the documents of their choice. We also provided other related articles and sources of information, as well as links to live zoom sessions that were being offered that same day around that particular topic.

John: Laura, can you talk a little bit about the timing of the challenge and how participants were recruited to participate in it?

Laura: So for many years, the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching has provided a series of professional development opportunities that are offered for faculty and staff, and are usually led by faculty and staff. These usually are about two weeks before and after the spring semester. The ones that we have in January we refer to as the winter breakout sessions, we have been offering professional development on accessibility practices during the winter and spring breakout sessions for the last few years. So it really just made sense for us to offer the sessions related to the challenge at the same time. As far as recruitment goes, we worked with the Office of Communications and Marketing, they did a news story that was shared with the entire campus, they emailed all faculty, staff, and students. And we also communicated through some smaller communication channels, like the email list for the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.

Michele: If I could just build on a couple of things that Laura said, I think that we really credit the success of our first challenge to the timing of it and the relationship with the Winter Breakout sessions. I think there’s two important reasons for that, is that this period of time is between semesters. So we know that while faculty certainly are anticipating professional development at that time, they also tend to have kind of allocated some time and space to work on it. Secondly, I do think that if we had tried to replicate this at another time during the year, and rebuilt the structure and rebuilt the marketing around it all separately, that would have been just an even heavier lift for our committee that was working on it. So that connection to our existing structure mattered for sure.

Rebecca: We also had students participating. So, previous professional development had focused primarily on faculty and staff. And this particular initiative really invited students into the scope as well. And most students aren’t taking classes at that time. So there was a little more flexibility for students to take on the challenge as well.

John: One of the things we should note is that the timing of doing this in the early stages of COVID probably helped because faculty were using much more digital content, and were aware of how much they didn’t know, in some cases, about using digital content effectively. So I think all those things came together to help make the program remarkably successful. Laura mentioned that we had been doing workshops for a while, but we should probably credit Rebecca with that, because that was one of the first tasks she took on, actually even before she became associate director of the teaching center. We asked her to do a number of workshops, I think, in your very first year here actually on accessibility.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: …and that hasn’t stopped since then.

Rebecca: No, it hasn’t. [LAUGHTER] I think one of the other things that we might want to also point out about the success is not just the timing in terms of the January sessions, but also that our involvement in accessibility on campus was starting to mature. We already had campus-wide initiatives leading up to this particular one. And the first cohort of faculty accessibility fellows had completed in 2019. So we also had those fellows to support this initiative during COVID. So Michele, you spearheaded the evaluation of the challenge, can you talk a little bit about the methods used and the results of the challenge?

Michele: I think when we first came up with this idea, the first thing we did was tried to see if there were other models out there that we could pull from. And while I think there’s other examples of challenges, we knew early on, we had a hunch, that what we were doing was kind of novel and unique. And because of that, it was important for us not just to document what we were doing, but to have some attempt to gauge the impact that it was having, I think this would be helpful for us for a couple of reasons. One, just our ability to improve on future iterations or efforts that we would do in this space. But also, I think that you might start getting a sense that all of us feel really passionate and strongly about this. And so the ability for us to advocate beyond our own campus and share what we were doing and help others understand the impacts of it was important for us in terms of documenting and gathering data. So we took all sorts of approaches to gathering data, everything from monitoring the open rates on the emails that went out across campus, to looking at our website traffic through Google Analytics, but the majority of the data came from a pre- and post-set of survey questions. So we did everything from ask folks when they first started to reflect a little bit around their motivation. This gets at some of the things that Laura was sharing about our initial design, about why people were participating and what they were looking for from the challenge, all the way up to then in the post-survey asking folks, as Kate mentioned, to reflect on their experiences. From those surveys, we were really able to pull out key qualitative and quantitative data to get a sense of what motivated folks to join, really understand how their confidence changed and increased in their ability to do things like define accessibility, to be able to make a Word document digitally accessible, but also just understand what they enjoyed most. And over and over again, I think the thing that we learned that probably was maybe most surprising and really nice kind of unexpected benefit was folks reporting that they really enjoyed being part of the learning community together. and the sense of being part of something that was bigger than just “Hey, I’m learning some new skills to teach my class or to send out more accessible emails,” but understanding that they were sort of joining and connecting into this broader movement that was happening on campus was, I think, one of our most surprising and also exciting takeaways.

Rebecca: I think one thing that we didn’t mention that might be worth noting here, especially after you were talking about the surveys is that we did prime our audience at the academic affairs retreat in August, leading up to the fall 2020 semester, by having a few minutes on the agenda to talk about accessibility and to get the academic community aware of digital accessibility. And then the challenge followed up only a few months later.

John: Kate, can you talk briefly about some of the iterations of the project that follow that initial 10-Day Challenge.

Kate: So the initial challenge was held in January of 2021, as we mentioned, and March of 21, we held a presentations challenge, which focused on creating accessible presentations using PowerPoint and Google Slides. This was a weekly challenge, meaning that participants received one email each week for four weeks that focused on one topic. We also provided them with background information, written and video tutorials, and additional resources in the same manner that we did for the initial 10-Day Challenge. And then in January of 22, we ran a five-day accessibility challenge. This was formatted in a very similar manner to the 10-Day Challenge, but we basically split the content into two and created two tracks: we had a beginner level and an intermediate level. Each day, again, highlighted one topic, we provided participants with background information, the tutorials, and additional resources. But this time, participants could choose what content to work on for each day, whether they wanted to stick with the beginner track or go to the more advanced track or do a combination of both.

Rebecca: So Michele, can you talk a little bit about the newest iteration of the project that’s currently in progress?

Michele: I am so excited [LAUGHTER] to talk about the newest iteration of it, because really, this new version has given us a way to massively scale up what we started as kind of this idea of doing a 10-day challenge. Last fall, the entire SUNY system migrated to a new common learning management system. And when that happened, members of our team started imagining a way that we could use that common system to develop an asynchronous customizable version of our challenge that could be deployed across the 60+ universities, schools, campuses across SUNY. We applied for and got a nice grant to support the development of this idea. And there is a really fantastic team, committed faculty, staff, and even students here at Oswego now working to bring this to fruition. And our goal is to pilot it broadly this coming spring, but here at Oswego, we’re going to come back to our roots with the winter breakout session, and we’ll launch the first iteration of it and be able to get some feedback in the next couple of weeks here.

John: And the grant that funded it was a SUNY Innovative Instructional Technology Grant. We should credit SUNY for providing this competitive grant program. Could each of you provide a bit of advice for anyone thinking of doing this at their own institution?

Michele: I’ll start, and I think that we used a pretty big variety of resources. So we didn’t just kind of create material from scratch, we also linked out to things like existing resources from Deque, we pulled in literature and other articles that folks have read. So I think that the biggest takeaway, I would suggest, is that you can do this as big of a scale or as small, you could have a three-day challenge, it doesn’t need to be 10. But starting anywhere, and recognizing your capacity and reaching out to use other existing resources is a good way to supplement if you perhaps don’t have as big of a pool to draw from in terms of internally on your own campus.

Laura: I would add to that just starting wherever you are with whatever resources or personnel you have, it doesn’t have to be a fancy initiative. It can be sort of a grassroots within your own department or as small as you want it to be. But just getting started and sharing out whatever information you have is something, it’s movement in the right direction.

John: Following up on Kate’s comment, this is very consistent with Tom Tobin’s plus one strategy, start with some small changes, and then build on those every semester as you move forward.

Rebecca: In the show notes, we’ll link out to an overview of our challenge as well as the article that we wrote on the challenge.

Michele: You know, the only other thing that I would say is that it’s important to find support and partners and maybe places that you might not expect on campus. So thinking about how to connect this with your campus DEI efforts more broadly, or working with your accessibility resources. Again, we talked about so many different areas where we got support, even the communications and marketing team really helped us, but our CTS team, I think finding those collaborators is a big part of how to ensure something like this can be successful.

John: And CTS is Campus Technology Services.

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

Laura: So something that I’m working on right now is creating a guide that talks about the accessibility features that are available from each of our major database vendors like EBSCO, and ProQuest, just to make those features a little bit more discoverable… accessible… [LAUGHTER] to our users. We try to talk about those in our instruction that we do, but they’re not always obvious.

Kate: So I’ve presented at a number of different conferences, and I’ve talked about the accessibility initiative at Oswego, and this particular challenge and some of our iterations. So I hope to continue that and just kind of share the good word about what Oswego is doing and some of our projects that we’ve been working on and how we can help other campuses or help other departments or people implement similar types of projects.

Rebecca: And how about you, Michele?

Michele: Well, I think I gave it a little bit away, that most of my accessibility work right now is focused on making sure that our new iteration of the Challenge gets off the ground, and we’ve got everybody all hands on deck with that. Beyond that, though, Rebecca, you and I are working on a fun project when we find ourselves with time to take a similar approach in terms of documenting the impacts of accessibility work on our campus. And we interviewed all of the first few cohorts of our campus accessibility fellows, and we’re in the process of trying to figure out what we’ve got there and how that I think shares the story about how Oswego is maturing in its process of working to achieve accessibility, and a more inclusive environment.

Rebecca: Well, thank you all for your work in accessibility, and for sharing that today.

Michele: Thanks for having us.

Kate: Thanks for having us.

Laura: Thank you for having us.

John: Thank you. It’s great talking to all of you and we’ll be seeing you during the winter breakouts very shortly.


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.


321. College Students with Disabilities

Sharing student narratives about their experiences can help us to understand how our instructional and policy decisions impact the student experience. In this episode, Amy Fisk joins us discuss to discuss her research project with Rebecca on the perceptions that students with disabilities have of their learning experiences.

Amy is the Assistant Dean for Accessibility at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Amy oversees the Office of Accessibility Services, which coordinates accommodations and support services for students with disabilities. Prior to her role at Geneseo, Amy coordinated a support program for students on the autism spectrum at SUNY Purchase.

Show Notes


John: Sharing student narratives about their experiences can help us to understand how our instructional and policy decisions impact the student experience. In this episode, we discuss the perceptions students with disabilities have of their learning 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 guest today is Amy Fisk. Amy is the Assistant Dean for Accessibility at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Amy oversees the Office of Accessibility Services, which coordinates accommodations and support services for students with disabilities. Prior to her role at Geneseo, Amy coordinated a support program for students on the autism spectrum at SUNY Purchase. Welcome, Amy.

Amy: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

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

Amy: I drink tea every morning. So I have Bigelow French Vanilla black tea.

Rebecca: It’s a good way to start the day. How about you, John?

John: In honor of the holiday season, I have Christmas tea today.

Rebecca: I’m drinking Blue Sapphire from my favorite tea shop in Canandaigua.

Amy: Where’s that?

Rebecca: It’s right on Main Street. You should go there.

Amy: I should.

John: We’ve invited you to talk about the article: “Perspectives among college students with disabilities on access and inclusion,” which you co-authored with someone else… Rebecca, I think it was.

Amy: That name sounds familiar.

John: …which was published in College Teaching earlier this year. Before we talk about the article, could you tell us a little bit about your role at SUNY Geneseo.

Amy: So I oversee our Office of Accessibility Services, or OAS. I meet with students to coordinate accommodations and other kinds of support services for our students with disabilities. I monitor policies and procedures within our office. And I often work with faculty and staff on issues related to accessibility and inclusion. So for example, I might do trainings across campus, work with administrators on various committees, and having a voice on issues related to disability, education, awareness, and accessibility.

Rebecca: So prior to this project, Amy, and I didn’t actually know each other. Do you want to share the origin story?

Amy: I started my position here a month before COVID became a thing. So I was kind of thrown into some challenges I did not anticipate. But one of the things I had been thinking about, many of my colleagues were thinking about, was: How are we going to support our students with disabilities? We’re really kind of concerned about their trajectory during this challenging time. We wanted to just get some more information about students’ experiences during COVID. I started talking to Nazely about this, and she says, “You know, I know someone who does research who also might be interested in a potential collaboration.” So that’s how I got connected to Rebecca. And ultimately, we shared an interest in learning more about the impact of COVID on our students within our respective roles on our campuses. We knew that this was a really challenging time for all of us, but especially for our students with disabilities who had already been experiencing barriers pre pandemic. And so we really wanted to hear from our students about their experiences, and what can we learn about access and inclusion moving forward, even when the dust settles and we talk about things post COVID?

John: A lot of the studies that have been done have been quantitative studies. And your study is a qualitative study. Could you talk a little bit about how this qualitative research complements the quantitative research that’s been done?

Amy: Sure. So ultimately, we wanted to gather students’ stories, and many of our findings from our studies are reflective of findings from past studies on challenges and barriers students with disabilities face compared to students without disabilities. But we wanted to identify these specifically within the context of remote learning. And also within the context of navigating this challenging time just in life, we really wanted that student narrative. And we also wanted to assess the positive things that were happening, the practices that were helping our students feel successful, to really help inform tangible takeaways and recommendations to our readers. And we hoped for this information to be relevant, like I said, when the dust settles and regardless of teaching modality. And I think it’s important to highlight that despite the obvious challenges that COVID brought, it has highlighted the importance of accessibility in higher education and really gave us an opportunity to reassess what we’ve been doing, our everyday policies and practices, and we really wanted to highlight that from the student perspective. Beyond that, we also wanted to talk about the needs of our students with disabilities within the context of access and inclusion. So, often disabilities and identities, that tends to be left out of conversations related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. So it wasn’t just about how we need to provide appropriate classroom accommodations, but what are the ways that we can be more inclusive, promote a sense of belonging, proactively provide equal access? So those were the things that we had in mind as we were designing our study.

Rebecca: One of the things that comes up in a lot of conversations, at least more recently in higher ed., is this growing number of students who are registering for accommodations and also the mental health crisis. Can you talk a little bit about that to provide some context for our discussion today?

Amy: Sure. So the mental health needs of college students with disabilities was becoming really apparent before COVID hit, really significant needs related to depression, anxiety, other severe psychiatric impairments. And the studies that had been done around the time of COVID really highlighted those issues of more and more students connecting to their disability services offices, self-identifying as a student with a disability where they have a clinical levels of depression, anxiety, other debilitating mental health needs. And that theme came out in our study as well.

John: Did all the discussions of the challenges of COVID help encourage students to become more willing to declare their mental health challenges or their other needs that perhaps they might have been more reluctant to state prior to this time?

Amy: I think so. I think there is a shift in our culture, and it being okay to talk about mental health and mental illness, for students to say, “I’m having a really hard time, I’m struggling,” because mental health is a spectrum. We all experience a variety of emotions throughout the day, throughout an hour, and throughout our lifetime. And I think it’s becoming slowly de-stigmatized in talking about mental illness and the importance of promoting mental health, especially among our college-age population. A lot of college campuses are really taking seriously the wellness of their students on campus just because of the rise in numbers of students needing that extra support, because colleges across our country are noticing a pretty significant increase. And I do think COVID has propelled that de-stigmatization of talking about mental health.

Rebecca: We’ve talked in the past on this podcast with Kat MacFarlane about some of the barriers that students face in just even approaching and asking for accommodations, having to register with an office of disability services, or whatever the equivalent is on the campus, and having to self identify. And then a lot of students don’t actually choose to do that for a wide variety of reasons, some associated with stigma, but we are seeing increased registrations. So does that mean that there’s increased disability?

Amy: Yes, I think there are a variety of factors and more students connecting with disability services offices. One, I think high schools are better preparing students with disabilities to enter the post-secondary environment. Two, I think our offices are becoming more visible on campus. Again, I think there’s also a de-stigmatization of disability and accessibility services offices, and we’re becoming more visible and relevant on college campuses. And third, I think colleges are starting to talk about disability as an important facet of diversity more and more, I think there’s certainly room for improvement, but I think that conversation is starting to happen. So more students are finding their way into our offices.

Rebecca: So three key themes emerged in our research about the perceptions of students with disabilities, of our institutions, and their experience, and of belonging. And so those three themes are accommodations and accessibility, building relationships, and community, and then course structure and design. Perhaps we can take them one at a time here. Let’s start with accommodations and accessibility. Can you first start with what’s the difference between accommodations and accessibility? Because we know that this is often something that’s confusing to folks.

Amy: Sure. So an a ccommodation, by definition, is designed to remove some sort of barrier that an individual with a disability is experiencing. So an academic accommodation, for example, might be having extra time to take an exam, because timed tests can be a barrier for some students. Maybe it’s a notetaking accommodation because they need assistance accessing that lecture material. Sometimes it’s ensuring that the course materials themselves are accessible, that they can be read through a screen reader. Sometimes the accommodation is related to a course policy such as attendance for a student with a more severe chronic medical condition. So it is an individualized process to assess what an appropriate accommodation would look like. But the purpose of it is to remove some sort of barrier so that this person has equal access to their environment. And so accommodations, though necessary, is something that we’re legally required to provide for the ADA. It’s really a reactive way of ensuring equal access. It’s a floor, it’s a minimum. Accessibility, on the other hand, is about inclusion from the start, so that individual accommodation may not even be needed. And something I like to highlight is that accessibility is not about lowering standards. It’s sending a message that everyone belongs in this space and that inclusion matters.

John: What were some of the most common barriers that students reported facing related to accommodations and accessibility in your study.

Amy: Some of those barriers for students just not receiving their approved accommodations during remote learning, including extended time on tests, for example, or online course materials just not being accessible, or having to continually remind instructors about their accommodations, explain why they needed the accommodation in the first place, negotiating terms of pre-approved accommodations. And this was particularly true among students with what we might call an invisible or non-appearance disabilities such as learning disabilities, ADHD, mental health disabilities, these students are less likely to be believed and questioned about the validity of their disability or their need for accommodation. So those were some pretty significant barriers for students and just not receiving the accommodations that they were approved for.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that was also highlighted as a result of our study taking place, whilst COVID was in full force is how many campus resources students with disabilities and other students depend upon every day. So we had students reporting things like” I didn’t have access to a printer to pull up text when it was more of an image instead of an accessible text that could have been expanded digitally, or having access to a quiet space, like the library.”

Amy: Yeah, that was really significant. And then that is where you also saw some other equity disparities. So there were some students who live down near New York City in very populated areas, there was a lot going down there at the time. COVID, if we recall, some students did not have quiet spaces at home, whereas other students had quiet home offices and their parents may have been at home with them, helping to support them. And then other students who didn’t have a quiet space whatsoever took on more caretaking responsibilities, didn’t have access to WiFi. So those equity disparities continued to widen during COVID beyond the disability barrier, so that was something significant, I think that needed to be highlighted,

Rebecca: What are some of the factors related to accessibility and accommodations that actually resulted in positive perceptions?

Amy: So our students actually reported some very positive interactions with their instructors. So when receiving a student’s letter of accommodation, or like an accommodation notification that would come through our office, some would reach out and ask the student “How can I support you? How can I help provide this accommodation?” One student even noted how they appreciated that the instructor didn’t call them out in class, because that had happened before. So I think just preserving the students’ dignity, reaching out to the student, those were the kinds of things that our students reported as making a significant difference.

John: I know you’re study focused on the status of students during COVID, but in your role addressing these issues now, have the changes in faculty behavior persisted? Have faculty continued to become more sensitive to some of the accessibility and accommodation needs of students as we move back to more classroom instruction?

Amy: So in conversation with colleagues, other disability service providers across SUNY, but also across the country, I think we’ve seen a mix. I think there are some who just wanted to go back to normal, and didn’t we all. I think COVID, again, was a very challenging time and faculty too didn’t have a ton of support, and also really struggled with having that emergency shift to a remote learning modality and some didn’t have the skills or support to really deliver courses in the way that would have facilitated student success. So they were really looking forward to getting back to that in-person modality, back to the pedagogy that we’re used to, and that may have posed some new barriers for students coming back to college campuses. Conversely, we also saw instructors taking some of those learned lessons from the remote learning period and applying them when we did come back to campus. So I do know a number of instructors who, for example, are still utilizing the lecture videos they created during COVID and post them on their learning management system for students who may not have been able to attend class that day, for example, so they can still get the lecture material or recreating their course materials and documents so that they are accessible, creating videos, captioning their videos, modifying some course policies to be a bit more inclusive for students. So I think there has been a change in realizing we can still have students be successful and meet the learning objectives, but in a different and more inclusive way.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that we can highlight that also came out in the student experience, and students reported this in our study, is that some of them actually experienced better access during COVID. Not all but some, in part because some of the technology caught up. And when we first went remote, Zoom didn’t have captions available by default and now it does. And so a lot of these things have become norms that people with disabilities have fought for for a long time and never got.

Amy: And I would say that’s true as well with regard to course policies that may have been amended as well, introducing more self paced work, which is also something that students really appreciated during the remote learning period.

John: I just recently returned from the POD conference where there were many, many discussions of this very issue. And in general, the results there were pretty much the same as what you’ve described, that a lot of the changes that faculty made to better accommodate students needs persisted, but some faculty have moved back to old practices and the results are a little bit mixed. But on average, there seemed to be, in a number of studies, some substantial improvement in faculty responses to student needs.

Rebecca: Based on what students have reported, what recommendations do you have for faculty related to accommodations and accessibility to continue the forward movement as opposed to regressing?

Amy: So, actually I did a talk with faculty of one of our academic departments at the start of the semester, reviewing our office, some of the logistical pieces of implementing accommodations, that sort of thing. But before I started really getting into that, we had a discussion about how accommodations, and the dialogue about accommodations with students are approached, how it’s discussed, how it’s communicated, something as simple as taking time to actually review the portion in your course syllabus related to an accommodation, so maybe an accessibility statement. That tells students that this is important, making sure that your online materials are accessible from the start, that tells students that accessibility and inclusion is important. And students are more likely to engage in a reciprocal dialogue with you about their needs when they feel like they’re heard, when they feel like they’re a valued member of the class, that their accommodations are important and not burdensome. That’s a term we heard a lot in our study, that they’re not a burden, or it’s some sort of requirement that the faculty has to fulfill. And so I think this is probably true for most students, regardless of disability. But students in our study specifically noted how they appreciated when the instructor showed empathy and understanding and flexibility, recognizing that students have significant issues outside of the classroom. We all do, between family, finances, things that are happening in our world today. And I think this is important to acknowledge as well, given that we’re seeing an increase in students from various diverse backgrounds coming into the college environment.

Rebecca: And as we’ve talked about many times on the podcast, flexible doesn’t mean not having standards. [LAUGHTER] And it doesn’t mean a free for all. In fact, a lot of our students benefit from structure, which we’ll talk about, I think, in a few minutes, because that ties to one of our other themes. You talked a little bit about faculty workload related to this, and sometimes the perception that faculty put off is that it’s a burden to provide these accommodations. And the reality is that a lot of our students need very similar things. And so if we think about the common requests for accommodations, or digital accessibility strategies, from the start, we often don’t have a lot of one off things that we do need to accommodate, because we’ve already built it into our courses. That’s not to say that there aren’t accommodations that we need to provide additionally, but it may result in less work, ultimately, to really think about these accessibility principles upfront.

Amy: Right. And I think something as simple as making your course lecture materials available on the learning management system available to students. That can help reduce a lot of barriers for many students who might struggle with keeping up with the pace of the lecture and they end up missing material. A student who may have missed class that one day and just needs that material, other students who need to kind of re-teach themselves the material because, perhaps, they had challenges with staying focused during class. I think there’s a variety of reasons why students would benefit from that, but something as simple as that. Often, when students come to see me, there are maybe students who hadn’t needed accommodations previously, but they encountered a particular course where the policies were such that there were new barriers that arose and if the policy was different, perhaps they wouldn’t need that accommodation. That’s a concrete example of the difference between accommodation and accessibility. Some of our course policies and course design may be inadvertently barriers to students with or without disability. So this might include use of pop quizzes, not making lecture materials available to students, not permitting use of technology, not allowing students to even take breaks in class. And so although the purpose of these policies is probably to make students engaged and have accountability in the course, which these are things, of course, we want… again, we’re not lowering standards… students still need to go to class and do the work. But I think some of these policies actually might be having the opposite effect, and it does for students who request accommodations, rather than focus on learning in the course.

John: I think that many faculty who had only taught in a face-to-face modality before COVID, were able to avoid issues of accessibility by not creating digital content. When they moved to remote teaching, though, they were forced to begin developing digital materials and often received some training in creating accessible digital content. Do you think that that training received during COVID helped encourage more accessible practices by faculty in general?

Amy: I think so again, I think some of these practices have shifted over time, and I think COVID has shed light on the benefits of accessibility, not just for people with disabilities, but for all people. I mean, again, use of captions and subtitles can be beneficial for a lot of folks, whether you’re sitting in a busy Starbucks, whether you have a lot going on in the background, maybe you’re trying to juggle work and family, maybe, again, you’re hard of hearing, and so you need access to those captions. Again, accessibility is for all, not just about or for people with disabilities.

Rebecca: The second theme that kind of emerged in our research was building relationships and community, can you share some insights with faculty about the role that they can play in helping students with disabilities feel connected and included? And you highlighted some of those already: providing accommodations and showing students some dignity and respecting their dignity.

Amy: So again, I think engaging with a student and even something as simple as taking the student aside and asking, “How can I make this course more accessible to you?” speaks volumes to the student, that they are valued, they belong, that their needs aren’t burdensome, and they’re more likely to engage in a reciprocal dialogue with the faculty member when they feel like “Oh, they care about me and my success in this course.” I actually knew about a professor who did an anonymous Google form, asking students “How can I make this course more accessible to you? Are there barriers? In reviewing the syllabus, do you have concerns about something within the course?” One of my students actually told me about this, and said how it really made them feel seen and valued. And they were more likely to reach out to the instructor when they needed help, because some students fail to do so out of shame. They’re in a very vulnerable position to talk about their disability related needs to a faculty member, to an authority figure. And so when you do something as simple as asking a student, “How can I make this accessible to you? Are you experiencing barriers right now?” really opens that line of communication with the student and helps them build a positive relationship with that instructor and for maybe other instructors. It also helps to build a sense of community so that other students know that this is really important, and that inclusion matters. And that’s also sending a message to all their students within the classroom that we appreciate and respect diverse learners here in this classroom. I think that’s a teachable moment for our students as well.

Rebecca: So one of the other things that I think emerged is a desire to be connected with peers, but that faculty can play a really important role in facilitating that connection. So I think oftentimes, we just assume in a classroom that at the beginning of class students are socializing and getting to know other folks and have those contacts, but students really reported that having more structured ways of connecting with peers was really beneficial to them outside of class. And that’s something that I think we might take for granted as instructors in the classroom, that it would just kind of organically happen. But that structure, that scaffolding around that really bubbled up as being pretty important to our students,

Amy: Yeah, that peer-to-peer interaction for an even if it was virtual. One of our students said, “Our instructor had a virtual whiteboard that we could all do group work even when it was asynchronous, which is pretty neat.” So that helps set the stage for positive peer interactions, for peers to ask peers for help and mentorship, which is important. Often, students just feel that going to office hours is the only way that they can receive help. And when you provide opportunities to work together, learn together, that really helps, again, open up a line of communication among peers as well, which is a skill that we’re trying to teach our students.

John: And that was especially severe during COVID. But also, when we returned to the classroom, and students were asked to sit at least six feet away from any other student, it certainly reduced the amount of interaction and it has made it a little more challenging for all students to interact with others. That’s been improving, but I think, perhaps, that experience may remind faculty of the importance of building those types of connections. Because even before COVID, there were always some students who may not have felt as much a part of the class community. But I think we’ve all learned the importance of community during that time.

Rebecca: I think that’s just another example of something that students with disabilities have pointed out as being really important to them. But it’s also important to many other students, too.

John: The third theme that emerged from your research was course structure and design. And most of your findings in that particular category align with many other studies involving inclusive pedagogy and Universal Design for Learning. Can you highlight some of the common barriers that students with disabilities faced in terms of course structure and design.

Amy: So one of our students in the study commonly referred to one of their course LMS pages as a scavenger hunt, where they spent more time trying to find the materials and the information on the course rather than on the assignments themselves. So students in general benefit from an organized LMS and an organized syllabus for deadlines, instructions, policies are very clear and concise, but for students with disabilities, this is particularly important. Many of my students with ADHD, health or chronic medical conditions, or a learning disability, they need to plan ahead, because it might take the students double or triple the time to finish a task. So if students don’t know when their next test is, or if instructions aren’t posted a few days before something is due, we’re really not setting them up for success. And I also talked about some of those other policies and course design that might be inadvertent barriers to our students. And so some of our students reported that they did benefit from self-paced tasks, or on untimed learning assessments, having some autonomy and options for completing assignments in a different format, such as doing a presentation or a podcast, instead of a paper, working in groups or choosing to work individually on a project. Those are some of the specific practices our students highlighted as being really helpful. And again, we’re not lowering standards, they have to meet the same standards and learning objectives, as every other student, just perhaps meeting those same standards in a different way. And that’s what Universal Design for learning is all about.

John: One time in a workshop, a faculty member mentioned that they have students do a scavenger hunt in the LMS, to find various course policies, or to find materials. And I cringed at that and I suggested that it might be better to design your course in a way where the students don’t have to struggle to find things so they can focus their cognitive efforts on learning materials, rather than engaging in scavenger hunts, trying to navigate the course. Has that improved recently?

Amy: I think it has, again, in conversations with some of my colleagues who do this work and talking with faculty, I think it’s a mixed bag as it relates to how instructors are approaching course design in their policies. But other faculty are seeing that changing their pedagogy, changing their policies, changing the way they interact and see students and helping to meet those student needs have evolved, because perhaps they themselves have experienced accessibility barriers during COVID as well. And so it’s become more relevant, because they have that lived experience. And they’re seeing that adopting some of these inclusive practices are actually helping to keep their students engaged, that the students, even if they’re struggling, are more likely to tell their faculty member “I’m struggling and I need help, but I want to stay in this course, what kind of flexibility could be provided?”… rather than, we’ll use a college student term, ghosting [LAUGHTER] the class. So I think things are changing in a direction that speaks to some degree of flexibility and helping students meet those same standards, where the focus is more on learning, rather than adherence to an arbitrary policy.

Rebecca: I think the students really underscored maybe without realizing things like the transparency and learning and teaching or TILT, where being really clear and explicit about what the expectation is and how to get there and how you’re going to be assessed really helps and supports students… that structure and those guardrails is what all of us need. How many times have we worked on a paper the second before a deadline? We work on deadlines, and so if we help students with intermediary deadlines, we’re actually helping them and that doesn’t mean that we’re not flexible,and flexibility doesn’t mean not having those.

Amy: It’s about scaffolding. It’s about recognizing that not all students are coming from the same background and experiences and privilege. They’re not on the same playing field, and so providing those scaffolded learning opportunities… that can really help even the playing field, just providing those scaffolded learning opportunities.

Rebecca: And it’s really some of this scaffolded accountability, so it’s not all due at once, It’s helpful to faculty to remind them that there’s feedback throughout a process on a larger assignment, but also it’s helpful for students to hit individual deadlines to evolve their work as well.

John: And that’s something that is found, as you noted earlier, by Mary-Ann Winklemes in her research on Transparency in Learning and Teaching, and also by Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan in their research on the importance of structure in reducing equity gaps. While transparency and structure benefits all students, it especially benefits the students who have equity gaps of some form, and it sounds as if that’s also true for students with disabilities.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think none of this is really new, but oftentimes students with disabilities aren’t necessarily included in those studies about equity always, it’s not always one of the groups that’s pulled out separately.

Amy: Part of what’s next is also hearing about the experiences of students with disabilities from other diverse backgrounds, including students of color, students from lower SES backgrounds, students in the LGBTQ+ community, that those experiences are different and that intersectionality is really key in understanding students’ experiences in the classroom and how we can be more accessible and inclusive because, again, accessibility is not just related to are we providing a legally required accommodation, but are we creating a sense of belonging in that space, and giving students an equal opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and be successful, which is ultimately why we’re all here, I would hope.

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

Amy: I think it’s important to not just put a focus on what individual faculty can be doing in their classrooms to support students with disabilities. But how are we promoting access and inclusion at the institutional level, supporting students with disabilities and students from other diverse backgrounds is a whole campus responsibility and faculty needs support in doing that work as well. So I’m hoping what’s next is working with administration, other campus leaders and identifying ways we can really help move that needle in a meaningful way. Making accessibility into larger DEIB (or diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) campus initiatives, our campus-wide policy, strategic planning, campus-wide faculty and staff training, and other professional development opportunities, hiring diverse faculty and staff on our campus. So not just about talking the talk, but walking the walk when it comes to access and inclusion in higher education.

Rebecca: I think that’s definitely a theme that we’ll see throughout all of higher ed. I hope that we’ll all go home and arm and move in this direction collaboratively.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. It’s been great talking to you and we’re looking forward to hearing more of your future work on this topic.

Amy: Well, thank you so much for having me today. I appreciate it.


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

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


320. Gender Differences in Faculty Retention

Women and men leave academic positions at different rates and for different reasons. In this episode, Aaron Clauset and Katie Spoon join us to discuss their research on the magnitude of and differential causes of gender differences in faculty attrition.

Aaron is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a nationally recognized expert on network science, data science, and complex systems and he is the recipient of the 2016 Erdos-Renyi Prize in Network Science. Katie is a computational social scientist and a 4th-year PhD candidate, also at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  Aaron and Katie are two of the authors of a paper on “Gender and retention patterns among U.S. faculty,” which has received a great deal of attention and has been discussed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Times Higher Education, Science Careers, and Nature News.

Show Notes


John: Women and men leave academic positions at different rates and for different reasons. In this episode, we examine the magnitude of and differential causes of gender differences in faculty attrition.


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 Aaron Clauset and Katie Spoon. Aaron is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a nationally recognized expert on network science, data science, and complex systems and he is the recipient of the 2016 Erdos-Renyi Prize in Network Science. Katie is a computational social scientist and a 4th-year PhD candidate, also at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Aaron and Katie are two of the authors of a paper on “Gender and retention patterns among U.S. faculty,” which has received a great deal of attention and has been discussed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Times Higher Education, Science Careers, and Nature News. Welcome, Aaron and Katie.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Aaron, are you drinking any tea today?

Aaron: I am drinking coffee.

Rebecca: Always a popular tea choice. How about you, Katie?

Katie: I made tea specifically for this. And it’s

Rebecca: Yay!

Katie: …and it’s Trader Joe’s Ginger Tumeric herbal tea?

Rebecca: That sounds yummy.

John: That’s really good. I’ve had that. And I have Prince of Wales today.

Rebecca: And I have some Christmas tea, a little ahead of schedule.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your paper on “Gender and retention patterns among U.S. faculty.” Could you give us a general overview, of the focus of the study?

Katie: Yeah, so we were interested in this topic of gender retention in academia, because it’s really hard to identify faculty who have left academia. So a lot of studies have had to look at a very narrow or specific population of faculty. And so while there’s a lot of studies on this topic, the majority seem to focus on assistant professors, STEM fields, and higher prestige institutions. And so we were really interested in doing a systematic study across career age, institution, and field.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what data you used for this study.

Katie: So we have a data use contract with Academic Analytics Research Center, which is a company that contracts their data with research teams, and it’s a census for all of the tenure-track and tenured professors at US PhD-granting institutions across, I think, over 100 fields that we grouped into broader domains. And we have data from 2011 to 2020, for all faculty within that period, so we can see if anybody left their job during that decade, then we have that information. And then our study has two parts, we first look at just the rates women and men faculty are leaving their jobs using that employment census. And then we emailed a frame of around 70,000 of those professors from 29 fields, and got about 10,000 responses to a survey looking at the underlying reasons why faculty were leaving.

John: So that’s a remarkably large sample. How did you measure faculty attrition in a sample,

Katie: We calculated attrition risk as just the number of people who left divided by the number of people who could have left in a given year. And then we calculated that across career age. So that’s the year since a faculty member received their PhD. That was kind of our simplest calculation of attrition risk. And then, from that analysis, you could kind of see broadly that women were leaving their jobs at higher rates than men at every career age and the gap seems to grow over time. And so then we did a logistic regression analysis, looking at the odds of leaving a position where we adjusted for other factors.

John: What other factors did you hold constant in the logit regression?

Katie: So we were adjusting for career age, employer prestige, so the institutional prestige, and whether they were trained for their PhD in the US or abroad, and adjusting for those factors, we found women were more likely to leave than men. And that varied a lot across career age, field, and institution.

John: We’ve long known that women are not very well represented in the upper ranks of faculty, but many people would try to attribute that to the fact that we’ve seen a general increase in the number of women entering disciplines. But what you’ve demonstrated is that we’re losing a lot of people along the way, that we don’t see as many women full professors, not just because there weren’t that many women entering that stream a decade or more ago, but also because we’re losing so many people, which I think is a really important result, which I don’t believe had been measured as carefully before. Is that a correct interpretation?

Katie: Yeah, I think definitely both hiring and retention are important for overall gender equity in academia. If you hold the right It’s of attrition constant from our study, then even if you start with a 50-50 cohort of men and women as assistant professors at career age one, then even after a whole career, that falls to about 40% women, and a lot of people leave during that time, like a lot of men too. The majority actually have left over that time, but women are leaving faster, which I think is important to keep in mind.

Aaron: So the gender representation in the U.S. academy is complicated, in part because the academy is really big and diverse. I mean, there’s lots of different fields and lots of different institutions. And this is partly why the literature on this topic is really messy, is because many of the studies look at one institution, they may look at R2 institutions, or fancy R1institutions, or only this field or that field. And so it’s been sort of hard to get a sense of what’s going on. And there’s lots of sort of claims about why it is that you don’t see as many women in the most senior ranks in academia. So the idea that it’s a sort of a demographic inertia thing that in order to be provost at a university, well, you got your PhD probably 20-30 years ago. And so the gender ratio at 20-30 years ago is what sort of sets the maximum gender ratio 20-30 years in the future for those senior people, and of course, that’s a part of the explanation. That’s certainly not wrong. But we were very interested in understanding this attrition aspect of people who are leaving academia. And not just like changing universities, I think that’s a critical piece of the way we measured attrition is that if you went from Princeton to Yale, we don’t count that as an attrition event, you have to leave the entire set of PhD-granting universities in the US in order for us to count you as an attrition event. So these are people who are not just leaving one academic job for another, but like they’re leaving the American academy entirely. And so the results of looking at the data, because this sort of broad census lets us see that the rates, overall, women are leaving at higher rates than men. But it gets really messy when you start looking at individual disciplines. Some disciplines have higher rates than others, some places, it doesn’t seem like there is a gender difference in the rate. And when you drill down to individual fields, it gets even messier because fields have different norms and different sizes and things. So the real power of the study is in part because it has this just enormous view, a quarter million faculty in the data set, which lets us look at differences in these small rates in a really powerful way.

Rebecca: You’re just mentioning that there’s messiness across disciplines and fields. Can you talk about whether or not there was any similarities in STEM and non-STEM fields?

Katie: I think, maybe surprisingly, we found the gender gaps in retention were actually larger in non-STEM fields than in STEM fields. And that was especially true at the full professor level, the gender gaps overall grow with rank. And so that kind of surprised us, I think, because it’s a little counter to what the literature has mostly focused on, which is assistant professors, and especially in STEM. So we actually find that full professors in non-STEM fields are the group with the largest gender gap in retention.

Aaron: This is an important finding, in part because there’s a narrative that sort of underlies a lot of discussion about faculty attrition and gendered attrition, in particular, that once you get tenure, it’s fine. You can’t get fired, tenure is the goal you’re looking for. Everybody wants it. And once you get it, somehow, everything gets better. And so this finding in the paper, that it’s actually tenured women who are leaving at higher rates than anyone else, it kind of inverts that narrative and shows that we’ve been maybe looking in the wrong place for the real effects of this thing.

Katie: And I think, yeah, more on that point, for us seeing that the effect was larger for full professors kind of points to maybe something else going on besides professional things, or work-life balance in the early career, which is what led us to do the survey and check out what was happening underneath the rates.

Rebecca: There’s often a stereotype that women maybe earlier on in their career leave because of childbirth or raising children and things like that. But that’s definitely counter to what you’re suggesting.

Aaron: Women certainly still leave the Academy for work life-balance reasons. So the observation that the rates sort of run counter to the narrative that has been explored very thoroughly in the literature, Katie was saying it really points to there being more to the story, not that the previous story was necessarily wrong, but like there’s just more going on. And also, things have certainly changed in the past 30 or 40 years. Gender norms change. Men are much more involved in child rearing now than they were 40 years ago, and so our study is at a particular decade of time. So we aren’t able to say things as much about what was going on in the 1980s. But today in the 2010s, when the census data on attrition was collected, we can see that there’s more going on and, as Katie was saying, that’s where the survey really helps us go beyond just looking at the rates of things to try to look at the reasons for these rates.

John: To investigate the causes of attrition, you then did a survey. Could you talk a little bit about the sample that you used, how large it was, how you determined it, and what you found?

Katie: So we took the larger census employment data and we selected 29 fields that we considered broadly representative. We wanted a mix of fields across different sizes, different domains of study, as well as fields that had commonly been studied in the literature, like engineering or computer science versus fields that were less commonly studied, like education. And we then attempted to get emails for all of those people, and then ended up with a frame of about 70,000 people who we then contacted. We got roughly 10,000 responses from both current faculty members, as well as former faculty members who either left academia or retired. And then we also looked at faculty who switched institutions. I think the survey really showed us that while there were no visible gender gaps in certain fields, or at certain ranks, in the first part of our study, where we were looking at the rates that women and men leave, we found that the reasons women and men leave are still very gendered, even in those cases. So for example, I think early career STEM faculty, there was no visible difference in the rates that women and men left. But in the survey, we did find that women were more likely to feel pushed out of their jobs and less likely to feel pulled towards better opportunities. And that, while there was a lot of variation across domains in the retention rates, that there wasn’t much variation in that pattern of feeling pushed or pulled, it was like varied more universally, I guess, across domains.

Aaron: That push-pull dynamic is really key, and it was something that had been studied previously in the literature. And so we wanted to incorporate that into the survey. And I’m just going to read to you so that your listeners can hear what we meant by a push and a pull. So the question we asked for the push was,:”I am unhappy, stressed or otherwise less than satisfied in my current position,” and the pull was “I am drawn to, excited by, or otherwise attracted to a different position.” And so the idea of those pushes and pulls is really about whether the person wants to stay in their current position or not. Are they drawn to something else? Is it an opportunity that they’re pursuing to leave their current position? Or do they feel like they’re being forced out, that they’d rather stay where they are, but they feel like they cannot stay. And so that push and pull really sort of illustrates the idea that it’s up to that person to decide whether they feel like they can stay or want to stay in their current job, or whether they are choosing to move to a different opportunity. And people could choose both. I mean, leaving an academic job is a big decision. Sometimes you might feel unhappy, and you start looking for an opportunity and then you find something that looks more exciting. And so survey respondents could check both. They said, “I could feel pushed and pulled at the same time.” And so our results on the push-pulls were just focused on the ones who said either push or pull.

Rebecca: Given these findings, what are some things that colleges and universities might do to reduce the gender differences in attrition rates and maybe make it more attractive to stay in academia?

Katie: Yeah, so I think a key finding of our study is that, even where the rates may look the same, looks like there’s gender equity, the reasons could be very different. So I think the first thing would be to also investigate: are the reasons people are leaving gendered, even if doesn’t look like they’re leaving at different rates? And then I think, as far as the particular reasons, we did kind of look into what pushes people were experiencing specifically. And while professional reasons like productivity and funding, as well, so work-life balance, which is things like caring responsibilities and the workload. While both of those categories are definitely still important, especially for faculty at different career stages, we found that climate, the workplace climate, so how someone feels when they go to work around their colleagues, they feel that they don’t belong or fit, if there’s dysfunctional leadership, that those workplace climate reasons were the most gendered, both for former faculty who actually left a position, as well as for current faculty who were considering a hypothetical decision to leave your job. And so I think focusing on the climate reasons, especially as a first step, would be a good way to reduce the gendered impact, specifically, but for retention overall, I think that all the reasons are probably important and listening to faculty, taking people seriously when they say this is why I left, is good.

Aaron: One of the workplace climate findings from the survey that was, I think, most striking is that climate was listed as a very important reason by women at all career ages, whereas the work-life balance issues were most salient early in the career and then it sort of tails off for everyone, men and women. And then professional reasons are sort of high but they also just sort of tail off over time, but the climate reasons are high for young women professors and also senior women professors. So this suggests that this is a place where universities are really not moving the ball forward and trying to improve things because you have both the young faculty and the senior faculty all saying consistently this is a huge issue for their stress. And they’re feeling like they belong, and they feel pushed or pulled out of their academic positions. So figuring out how to move that needle is critical. And there are some efforts. So for instance, Harvard has this CAOCHE survey that many universities do on climate, but it’s typically done at the institutional level, but climate is typically a departmental thing. So if you look at like the computer science department versus the sociology department, they’re very different social sort of contexts. And one department could have a good climate, one is very supportive and inclusive of women, and the other could have a very dysfunctional one. And so these sort of large scale institutional instruments for measuring climate, they may not really be up to the task of allowing an institution to improve in this way. So figuring out how to get down to the level at which climate is actually operationalized, which is the department level, I think, is a key need for institutions of higher education.

John: One of the results that we haven’t yet talked about is, when you were looking at the initial study of attrition rates, when you included a control for the major field, you found that there was no significant gender difference, holding academic field constant, for people at the more junior levels. But at the associate and full professor level, there was a significant gender effect. That result I thought was kind of surprising. I would have guessed that there would have been more women leaving earlier in the career. And I think that’s what many people would suspect because of issues such as work-life balance, and so forth. But I thought that result was really surprising. It certainly has to do with climate, I think, as you’re suggesting, but why would it be more severe at the associate and full professor level than at the more junior level? Or is it just the cumulative effect, perhaps, [LAUGHTER] building up and getting worse over time.

Katie: We added fixed effects for fields to try to get at if you have a woman and a man at the same institution and in the same field, so they’re probably in the same department then or very similar departments. We were trying to get at that average field effect. Our main results are like, if you were to just select someone in the natural sciences, what is their odds of leaving if they’re a woman compared to a man? And women are distributed across fields unevenly. And so basically, adding fixed effects for field lets us adjust for that variation in gender ratio, or other kind of field norms. And so I think the fact that the effect goes away at the assistant professor level, like the effect is not very large to begin with, for assistant professors. And so it’s possible that like, adding that field effect just reduces the gendered effect for assistant professors, whereas the effects are larger for tenured faculty. So really, it’s just saying that even when you adjust for someone’s field and all of these gender ratio, and other field level variables, we do still see something going on. We can’t say for sure why that is, but I think the survey really suggests very strongly, that is pointing to the climate.

Aaron: Our study was not designed to get at the causality of any of the differences in the rates from like a causal inference perspective. And so we can speculate about why senior women might feel like climate is a larger issue in terms of wanting to leave, and then many more of them are leaving, etc., and we can speculate about that. And certainly, if we all have experience in academia, we know women who fall into this category, we probably heard some of their stories. And those stories are real, and probably many more women have those stories than we might imagine. And so we can speculate about that, but the study itself was specifically aimed at looking at the rates for leaving for attrition and then asking in the survey, the reasons that people felt like they could or would or did leave their academic positions. When I was visiting UMass-Amherst last week, and I was talking with some of the folks in their NSF funded ADVANCE grant program. We had a very nice comment session about this specific question, about what it is that the senior women are experiencing. And several of the members of the ADVANCE team there sort of talked about the idea that… it makes a lot of sense… that over the course of a 20- or 30-year career, you might experience sort of the accumulation of these sort of devaluation experiences, and that might slowly sort of erode your belief in the system and your belief in a sense of belonging, even though you are tenured, or you are a full professor, or maybe even distinguished professor… you know, you’re at the top of your career, and yet 20 to 30 years of being devalued by your institution and your male colleagues. I mean, who wouldn’t consider moving on to something else, maybe considering early retirement, for instance. And so it’s not hard to imagine what’s going on with the senior women. But I think that it’s really important that future work really dig into that specific question. Because there is this sort of narrative that once you make it as a full professor, you get to be the boss and everybody else who’s more junior than you. But that’s not what we’re seeing in the data, we’re seeing that the senior women are saying that climate is as much of an issue for them, as it is for the junior professors who have been there for three or four years.

Rebecca: Your point earlier too isn’t lost on me that there’s fewer women in administrative roles. And this is the pipeline for those roles [LAUGHTER] too, that you have to be more senior often to be in those roles. And it’s really concerning about the future of the academy when we’re thinking about how few women are continuing on.

John: So, your study focuses only on PhD granting institutions. One source of attrition, though, that could occur, potentially at least, is faculty may be leaving for comprehensive or four-year institutions and so forth, which wouldn’t be picked up in the data. And that might be a nice thing for someone to explore as a future area of study, to see if some of this might be a shift in institution types. I suspect it’s not, but we do know that there’s a much larger proportion of women in community colleges and a much larger proportion of women in four-year colleges than in PhD granting institution. So it’s possible some of it could be attrition in that form. But that still doesn’t explain why there is such a gender difference in the climate, which seems to have a much larger cumulative effect than immediate effect.

Aaron: This makes me think of our results on prestige. Because nothing makes sense in academia, except in the light of prestige. And one of the things that our research group here has been very active in is in looking at how prestige structures academic careers, and the production of science and so on. So we really wanted to know, like, is prestige lurking on here as well. And we found some really interesting things.

Katie: Yeah, I think the main effect for prestige… it’s gendered slightly… but the main thing is that faculty at lower procedure institutions overall, regardless of gender, are much more likely to leave, then faculty at higher prestige institutions. And again, our analysis is looking at all-cause attrition, so we don’t know if they are leaving to go to a different type of institution or leaving academia altogether, but it’s definitely a huge effect. And then we do find a small gendered effect on top of that, where women are even more likely than men to leave low-prestige institutions, especially full professors.

Aaron: And if we think about how many professors are at those elite institutions, I mean, the Ivy League or the Ivy League plus, it’s a really small number of institutions that receive a huge fraction of our attention in academia. And that’s the prestige game right there. And so if you think about the number of people who are at the elite institutions where the attrition is lowest, it’s not many, most tenure-track faculty are at these less elite institutions. And so they’re experiencing these higher attrition rates. And we don’t have an explanation for why. But we’re very curious to know what is it about these lower-prestige institutions that makes attrition overall higher and more gendered?

Rebecca: Many questions to continue exploring, for sure. [LAUGHTER]

Aaron: Yeah, it’s a mystery.

Rebecca: So why do we care about attrition, anyways? We talk about it with students all the time, we talk about keeping students and retaining students. Why is it important to think about retaining faculty and keeping them in the pipeline in higher ed.?

Katie: I think there are a lot of practical reasons why it’s good to retain women. Studies have shown that people tend to ask different types of scientific questions based on their identity, such as their gender or race. We also know that having women in leadership roles, there’s been some studies showing that that can influence younger women’s perceptions of being a scientist and things like that. But personally, I think the most important reason for doing this is that scientific talent is not inherently gendered, and so there shouldn’t be differences in how women experience their workplaces. This is what I think.

John: And if people are going to invest in acquiring a PhD, that’s a pretty large investment for them as an individual. And it’s really unfortunate to have that wasted, especially if they’re feeling pushed out. If they were moving on to some other position where their skills could be better used, that would be an improvement in efficiency for them and for society, but if they’re leaving because of a chilly climate, that’s probably not the best use of society’s resources.

Rebecca: It’s a lot more resources to bring on new people over and over again too.

Aaron: Every faculty search is a big lift. And if you hire a bunch of talented women, and then they don’t feel like they belong in the academy, and they leave, then not only do you have to hire new people because you have the faculty leave, but every one of those incredibly talented, highly trained, highly productive women, their contributions to science have now been lost in some sense. And that seems like a moral tragedy for all of us.

Rebecca: I think a lot of our institutions focus a lot on having policies and strategies that are supposed to be equity minded. This is an equity gap that isn’t always attended to.

John: And also there’s a lot of research that suggests that when faculty are happy and excited about their work, that enthusiasm tends to get conveyed to students. And we’re losing that we have a lot of people who are unhappy being in the positions they’re in.

Rebecca: Wait, is that why we’re in higher ed, just teach students and get them excited about our fields. [LAUGHTER] Sometimes we lose track of that. [LAUGHTER]

Aaron: In some ways, that’s like the only reason to be in higher ed.

Rebecca: Exactly.

Aaron: As a tenure-track professor, our job is teach the next generation of students and then also make discoveries about the world and so on. And if we didn’t want to do the teaching part, then we would go be a research scientist somewhere. And there’s plenty of people who can do that. But it’s that combination of the teaching and the research that makes being a tenure-track professor in the American academy really special and sort of the envy of the world. In fact, the American system, to a large extent, is being copied and has been copied by the rest of the world’s higher education systems, because it’s such a powerful synergy. And you’re right. If your faculty are happy, the students will feel that and they’ll be excited about continuing on, and they’ll get infected with the excitement of science and discovery and so on. And in some ways, it’s kind of confusing that institutions are so behind the curve on faculty attrition, and especially gendered attrition, because it’s not like this is a new phenomenon. I mean, our paper is the latest in a long history, you know, 40 plus years of studies looking at gendered attrition at different places in the pipeline. And the fact that it’s still something to study is kind of an indictment of all of higher education.

John: And on that happy note…. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I was going to say, on that powerful note.

John: …we’ll move to our final question, which is: “What’s next? “

Katie: Well, we actually have a follow up study that we’re working on right now. Aaron had kind of mentioned a little bit earlier about this accumulation of feeling devalued across a career. We asked our survey respondents what needs to be different about their positions to reduce their stress, or what needed to be different for them to stay in their positions. And we got over 6000 free-text responses to that question. We then read them all and we’re working on writing up the results. But it’s very powerful reading these stories from people and really narrowing in on like, what exactly is going on in the climate? What is going on for older women? for women of color? for mothers? …and so we’re excited to get that out.

John: Excellent. Well, thank you. It’s been great talking to you. And we’re looking forward to seeing that next study.

Aaron: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, this is important information. I’m glad that we’re able to share it in this space.


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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


318. Reducing Equity Gaps

Gender and racial equity gaps exist in economics and other STEM fields. In this episode, Tisha Emerson joins us to discuss research on strategies to reduce these inequities. Tisha is the chair of the economics department and the James E. and Constance Paul Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University and is the incoming Chair of the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education.

Show Notes


John: Gender and racial equity gaps exist in economics and other STEM fields. In this episode, we discuss research on strategies to reduce these inequities.


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 Tisha Emerson. Tisha is the chair of the economics department and the James E. and Constance Paul Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University and is the incoming Chair of the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education. Welcome, Tisha.

Tisha: Thanks for having me. I’m so glad to be here.

John: I’m very happy to be talking to you. And our teas today are:… Tisha, are you drinking any tea?

Tisha: Yes, my favorite tea, I found a couple years ago, it’s a Golden Moon brand of Tippy Earl Grey.

Rebecca: That sounds nice.

Tisha: It’s delicious.

Rebecca:I have Harvest Memories today.

John: I don’t remember that one.

Rebecca: Well, it is from my little favorite tea shop in Canandaigua, New York, and it’s autumn flavors.

John: Autumn flavor?

Rebecca: Autumn flavors.

John: Do they have leaves dumped in there?

Rebecca: I mean, it almost looks like that. [LAUGHTER]

John: Ok. [LAUGHTER] Well, that’s one way of getting rid of all the leaves that have been falling. And I have English breakfast tea today. So we’ve invited you here today to talk about some of the research you’ve done, and also your new role and your past role with the AEA’s Committee on Economic Education. One of the things that we’ve observed is that there’s some significant equity gaps in economics and in STEM disciplines in general in terms of race and gender. And in one of the studies that you’ve done with this, in a 2023 paper in the Southern Economic Journal, you and KimMarie McGoldrick examined retake behavior for students who are not successful in their initial attempt at completing an introductory microeconomics class. Could you give us just a general overview of this study?

Tisha: First, let me say that this started a long time ago. And we got access to this great data, the MIDFIELD dataset, that was actually originally funded by the NSF to study the gap in engineering education, but it’s student transcript data. So we said, well, you could use that for economics too. And we have. And so this particular study looked at almost 180,000 students who take Principles of Microeconomics for the first time. And what we ultimately wanted to do is to think about the likelihood of success, and actually more so, failure, because a lot of papers already look at success and they stop there, because you have too small of a sample, fortunately, of the failures to continue on to look at them. But when you start with 180,000, you have enough to continue. So we find, as many others do, that, of course, aptitude matters, but that, unfortunately, females tend to be much more likely to be unsuccessful in their Principles of Microeconomics class, as are underrepresented minorities, or URM. And then we follow those students and we say, okay, so if you were, in fact, unsuccessful, and we define that as a grade of a D or an F, so grades that wouldn’t really let you continue in your study of economics, or you withdraw. And we say, if you’re in that category, what do students tend to do?… or first of all, for those students that are unsuccessful, what helps predict that? So given that you are in the unsuccessful category, what is more likely to cause that? And we saw that students who were carrying more concurrent credit hours were more likely to withdraw. Which makes sense, because if you have constraints that lead you to want to be full time, if you start with 12 hours, and the course is not going well… any of them… and you were to drop, then you would not be full time anymore. And so it gives them sort of this flexibility, they have more concurrent credit hours. But we found that students who got D or Fs, given that they were unsuccessful, they tended to have taken more related courses. So things like accounting (financial accounting in particular), calculus, and macro principles. And so we didn’t actually see a lot of gender or racial differences there. But then those students who were unsuccessful (D, F, or W), on retake decisions, we found that women were much less likely to retake if they were unsuccessful. But we did find that women who were of higher aptitude, who were unsuccessful initially, they were more likely to retake. So that was a positive. And we did find that underrepresented minorities were more likely to retake the course, but then more likely to be unsuccessful again, on their second attempt. So there’s some good news, but also, a lot of not so good news.

John: So you were able to follow students over time, how long a time period was there in the data set that you were analyzing?

Tisha: We had over 20 year period of data, but that doesn’t mean we followed any particular student for that length of time. Once we saw that they were unsuccessful, we made sure that they had at least one more semester at the institution so they did in fact have a chance to choose to retake the course or not and then we gave them three years post their initial unsuccessful attempt. And if they didn’t retake it in that period, then we said they chose not to retake.

Rebecca: In a 2019 study in the Journal of Economic Education, you and KimMarie McGoldrick use the same dataset to examine the decision to switch into an out of the economic major. In this study, you find that very few students selected economics as a major when entering college and that 83% of economics majors actually selected the major after taking their first economics course. What did you find in terms of the gender and racial composition of those that selected the economic major?

Tisha: So what we found was that, for the few students who started out as economics majors, so going into their principles class they already had said they were majoring in economics, we found that females were as likely to persist or not. That’s good. And we found something similar for underrepresented minorities, that is the females and URM students who went into the principles class planning to major in economics, they were as likely to persist as not.

John: What happened to those students who were not majoring in economics.

Tisha: Well, unfortunately, females were not as likely to persist and decide to major in economics. There was a larger proportion of females who opted to remain in their original major. So, they come into the principles class, they have some major other than economics, they were much more likely to stay in their other major and not switch to economics. Men were considerably more likely to switch, on average, than females were. But on a more positive note, we did find that students from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities and Asian students were more likely to switch to economics.

John: And one thing we should note, and you mentioned this in your study, is that because this datset was focused on engineering, the schools in this sample have relatively large engineering programs and some students switched to economics because economics was perceived as being easier than their original major. So some of this may not apply as broadly to liberal arts institutions that do not have engineering programs.

Tisha: That’s possibly true. And in fact, business majors were even more likely to switch to econ. So it was about 10% of those switching in were switching from engineering and 27% were switching from business. So at the liberal arts schools, to the extent that they don’t have business or engineering, there wouldn’t be that source of majors coming in.

Rebecca: Both of these studies are really interesting. But, how do we think about some strategies to create a more inclusive environment in economics and STEM classes? So what did these studies tell us? What should we be doing?

Tisha: Well, I don’t know that they tell us what we should be doing. They tell us that what we’re doing is not really working.

Rebecca: Fair.

Tisha: …which is unfortunate, because that’s what we’ve been doing for a really long time and we’ve been really unsuccessful at attracting women and underrepresented minorities. So there’s a new sort of strain in the literature that’s really trying to address some of this. And there’s a study, for example, by Porter and Serra, and that was published in 2020. They did a randomized control trial at Southern Methodist University, where they, just by happenstance, picked a couple of very charismatic female alums and they randomly selected which principles classes they would speak to. And this was just like a 15- or 20-minute exposure, where they talked about majoring in economics, and how that helped them in their career. And they found that this significantly increased the number of women from those courses who decided to major in economics and additionally, not necessarily just major, but take more economics courses. And I thought it was really fascinating that there was no effect on men in those treated classes, it was just the women. So that suggests possibly that there’s some room for role models. Other work that looks at role models from other directions, like some of my own work with KimMarie and John Siegfried, didn’t find any evidence that supports the idea of role models. So I think, still mixed, and the exact sort of interaction that students may or may not have with these people I think is going to be important.

John: You’ve done a number of studies on these types of issues, and one of them was looking at the effect of classroom experiments. Could you talk a little bit about what types of classroom experiments have you looked at and what’s the impact of those on students?

Tisha: Sure, I talk about that a lot, because I really love the classroom experiments. I think that they’re a great pedagogical technique. And so since your audience is more general, maybe I’ll explain just what we mean by classroom experiments. And that’s basically the idea that we’re going, in some cases, simulate markets or other decision environments for the students that will mirror the types of environments that we’re talking about in class. So for example, if we’re talking about a market, then we will have students participate in an experiment where some are buyers and some are sellers and they negotiate and trade. In my classes, we always do the experiment first, I don’t talk about any of the concepts. And then we collect the data as we’re going through the experiment on the decisions that they’re making: prices, quantities that are traded, then I’m able to talk to the students about “Well, look, this is what actually happened, this is your actual data that you generated, and now let’s talk about the theory.” And this is what the theory would predict the outcome to be. And they can see how well they match up. And they are able to discuss in class, this is why I chose to behave in this way. And they see how it fits in to the economic theory. And I did a study back in 2001, which was published in ‘04 in the Southern Economic Journal, where we were looking just at the effect of experiments and we looked to see if there was a differential gender effect. And in fact, there was. So you often see that women underperform men in these principles classes. But what the experiment did is it closed that gender performance gap. So it raised sort of everybody’s performance, but it raised the females disproportionately, so that they were closer to the same outcome as the men if they were in a classroom with experiments. So I do think that there is definitely room through pedagogy to improve women’s outcomes, and make them more attracted to economics, but also make economics more attractive to them. There’s a large literature that suggests that women are much more grade sensitive than are men, various people have gone about showing this in different ways. And if you can bring up their performance so that it’s on par with men. And it’s not really even that comparison, but you’re bringing up the females’ performance, then they’re getting better grades, and they’re going to be less likely to want to leave the study of economics.

John: And we’ll throw in a reference to an earlier podcast we did with Peter Arcidiacono, who had looked at that very impact in STEM fields in terms of the decisions of people to move from one major to another. And in particular, in that study, they found that women did better on many of the tests but still left because the grades were relatively lower than in other classes. So one issue I think might be worth addressing is the issue of grade differentials, that if we’re going to continue to assign grades that are lower than most other departments, there’s a good chance we’re going to lose majors in general, but disproportionately more female majors, based on what the research literature tells us.

Tisha: There’s this really cool study, McEwan, Rogers, and Weerapana, 2021. They’re at Wellesley, and so it’s all females, but they were trying to address grade inflation. And what that meant was, of course, there are some disciplines that have higher grades, they had to bring their average grades down, and economics is treated in the opposite direction, and that it actually drew more students into these harder grading disciplines, like economics and the other STEM fields. And so yeah, that’s certainly an issue. I don’t think we’re gonna across the board be trying to treat grade inflation. I don’t think this is published yet. But I was reading another study out of Wellesley, where they were allowing students… I think it was maybe for their gen ed classes… to take them all pass fail. And again, you saw students flowing into these harder grading disciplines.

John: I know a number of schools during a pandemic made all of their first-year classes pass fail, which is a good way of letting students get into a discipline without worrying so much about the grades so they can explore things without worrying about the impact on their GPAs. That might be another useful strategy.

Tisha: Yes, I agree, and then this is really anecdotal, but I’ve heard other people observe the same thing, that women, they’ll be in your principles class, and they’re doing well, but maybe they’re going to get a B plus. And they say, “Oh, either I’m not gonna take another economics class,” or I’ve even had students withdraw at that point, and I’m like, “but you’re getting a B plus, I don’t understand,” but they’re so sensitive to grades. And then there will be male students who are getting a C, barely, and they’ll say, “I’m going to major in economics.” and I say, “Okay, are you sure?” It’s hard to understand sometimes.

Rebecca: It’s interesting to think about withdrawal policies that have really kind of loosened up due to COVID. So our institution changed the policy more recently so that students can withdraw through the last day of classes without documentation. And so students who are doing really poorly might take that option, but as you’re discussing students with higher grades withdrawing, that sounds really concerning that policies like that could be kind of counterintuitive, or really have some other negative impacts. Classes all cost money, [LAUGHTER] and there’s financial impacts to withdrawing.

Tisha: It’s hard to really predict how this is all going to play out. And I have to say, I’ve never heard of such a generous withdrawal policy. At my previous institution, I think they could withdraw up to sort of two weeks out and not even have a W necessarily on their transcript. So this all seems like a lot. There’s a lot of moving parts. But on the positive side, so let me just say, first of all, part of me feels like it’s a little bit too generous. But part of me also thinks back to the work that KimMarie and I did. And if you don’t have that D or F, that you have to overcome, it’s a lot easier to persist, not just in your major, but towards graduation, whether you switch majors or stay. And part of me feels like that’s helpful to the student. So in some ways, I like a generous withdrawal policy, I definitely want students to know what the withdrawal policy is, what the deadlines are, so that they can make a good decision.

John: Yeah, the only concern I have with the policy is that it can lead to students making slow progress towards a degree and they could run out of funding before they complete their degrees. But on the other hand, it does provide a bit of a safety net for students who are adjusting. And as our student body has become more diverse, and we have more first-gen students, and we have more students coming from schools that did not prepare people particularly well for a college environment, it provides a safety net, which has allowed students to take some chances early on and not be harmed. And I’ve seen some students struggle in their first year or so, drop classes, and come back and be very successful, when before they might have been deterred from further study in the discipline.

Tisha: I agree, I can see that.

Rebecca: So, definitely one of the things that I’m always thinking about when students are talking about withdrawing is making sure that they know all of the ramifications. So what does it do to your GPA? What does it look like on a transcript? What are the financial implications? …so they can make a well informed decision. And depending on who they’re talking to, they are not necessarily always getting all of the information, and that can be problematic, too.

Tisha: Yes. So I think that points us to the issue of how important advising is, so that there are well informed advisors and that students have access to them, not just at the end when it’s time to register for next semester, but they have a relationship with their advisor, and feel that they can go in and ask those questions, because as John said, a lot of those students can’t go to their parents, they’re first gen, their parents don’t have advice for them. And even if your parents went to college, they don’t necessarily know all of the rules and regulations of the institution that you’re at. It’s really hard, I think, for students to have all the information that’s necessary.

John: I’ve had trouble keeping up to all the changing information [LAUGHTER] over the last few years. In terms of those requirements. You’ve done some work with cooperative learning. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Tisha: Sure. So that really came out of the fact that I had done a lot of efficacy work around classroom experiments. And KimMarie and I are really good friends. She is a cooperative learning expert. So I should say that she is the expert on CL. And she wanted to do an efficacy study, so we decided to team up and do that. So what we did is unlike a lot of some of the other work in efficacy, is that a lot of the work is comparing lecture. So you don’t do anything to this active learning technique. And with cooperative learning, the students are working on exercises. And when we talked about it, we said you know, it’s really not fair, and not even interesting to compare a student who is in a lecture-based class where they don’t get to see any of these problems to students in a cooperative learning class that are working on these problems in class in teams. So we thought a lot about the collaborative learning approach. And we’re trying to isolate what we thought could be the mechanism that might be driving different outcomes. And what we decided was we were going to compare the active team-based learning to individual learning, working on problems. So in our control, the students were exposed to the same problems, they had the same amount of time in class to work the problems as in the treatment, which was the collaborative learning. It’s just that in the treatment, they were working in teams in this think-pair-share share framework, and we didn’t find a significant difference. So at the end, we said that the cooperative component didn’t seem to be driving any difference. Although there are other people who’ve done work comparing collaborative learning to lecture based and they did find significant positive effects from cooperative learning.

John: One type of thing that I’ve done that seems to have been fairly successful is using clicker questions. Following the methodology of Eric Mazur, students are given a challenging question where typically half or so them will get it right the first time when they’re asked individually. But then they get to talk it over with the people around them, preferably someone with a different answer, they get to debate and argue it and I normally see between a 10 and 20 percentage point increase in the correct answer. And the really absurd answers tend to disappear down to about nothing. So that’s not a very formal study, but that second stage of that process where students are engaged in some peer instruction seems to have had a pretty significant impact. And I point that out to students, that when they talk to each other about it and explain it to each other, they do much better than when they’re working on their own. And I encourage them to try doing that outside of class, to work with other students, because there are a variety of studies… I haven’t seen too many in economics, but there are quite a few studies that find that that type of peer instruction, either in the classroom or outside, can be fairly effective.

Tisha: Yeah, so I’ve observed that too. I haven’t used clicker questions, but just going in and observing my colleagues when they teach, and they are using clicker questions. And I have to say, I’m stunned, because I don’t know how the right answer bubbles up as opposed to the person who had the wrong answer convincing the other of the wrong answer. I don’t know how that doesn’t happen. It’s like magic to me, almost. So part of me wants to think a bit more about what is the mechanism and how is that working? That’d be really cool to do a study on that.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s always curious to me about that particular dynamic is sometimes students discover, as they try to explain something to someone else, [LAUGHTER] that they really don’t know what they’re talking about. [LAUGHTER] They realize, huh, I can’t actually explain this concept, so maybe I’m the one that’s not correct. [LAUGHTER]

Tisha: Maybe that is what’s happening. Because everyone always says, “You have to really know your stuff to teach it,” and so if you are trying to explain it to your partner, you do have to know the material.

John: And when they’re raising objections and you don’t have a counter argument, that can help break down your misconceptions, because getting rid of those incorrect perceptions can be as important as trying to build new ones.

Tisha: Yeah, I could see that and maybe the people who are initially giving the wrong answe are just guessing. So maybe they’re not trying to explain and convince their partner of their answer, I guess. I don’t know. So maybe it’s not magic.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Feels like magic.

John: It does. And it works.

Tisha: When I see it happen, it does seem like magic. In general, I think that active learning is helpful, because I think that women are going to be more interested when you show them the applications, and that when you have active learning, there’s some community building that happens. So you’re illustrating relevance, you’re building this community, giving them a sense of belonging in the classroom, which is a lot of what I think actually happens with the experiments. And then actually also with the experiments, they’re kind of discovering some of the theory for themselves, which is a growth mindset. And there is research that shows that if you can show relevance, belonging, and growth mindset, and develop these in your classroom, that students are going to do better, but that it also is more appealing to females and underrepresented minorities.

Rebecca: There’s lots of things for all of us to think about, even if we’re not necessarily in economics classrooms. Definitely good food for thought. Switching gears a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about your work on the Committee on Economic Education?

Tisha: So I’m not officially on it at the moment, I’m the incoming chair. But I have served on it in the past. And I’ve been shadowing KimMarie McGoldrick, who is the current chair for the last year. So the committee is doing a lot of really great work. I think. When I first served on the committee, we basically just organized sessions for the American Economic Association meetings. And when I say “just” I don’t mean “just…” Compared to now, it’s just but we have, I think, seven sessions that we organize for the meetings every January. But while I was first on the committee, then chair Mike Watts, who was at Purdue, he said,”I have an idea. We should have a conference, so an all economic education conference,” and we started it while he was chair, and it’s CTREE, so the Conference on Teaching and Research in Economic Education. So the committee is in charge of that. It’s every end of May, beginning of June, depending how the calendar falls. So our next CTREE will be in Atlanta, not that far. It’s on the East Coast, maybe you can join us. And it will be May 29 through the 31st of 2024. We have many other things that we also are overseeing: an educate program, which is professional development for college faculty, and that includes two-year college faculty, in course design, different active learning pedagogies, and we talk about how to bring diversity and inclusion into the classroom. KimMarie actually started this this year, we have a newsletter called EconEdNews. And that features different pedagogies, it features the winner of the AEA Distinguished Economic Educator Award, which the committee also oversees, and some centers that we have for Econ Ed across the country… just a lot of information that’s in there, we have two issues a year. So we’ve had our first two, and our next one will come out in March of ‘24. So just a lot of great work, I think, that the committee is doing and I think really thanks to Mike who started us with our own conference. And then Sam Allgood succeeded Mike and added and then KimMarie is an overachiever. And she added a lot more in her six years as the chair.

John: And going back earlier, early surveys of economic instruction suggested that economists were using much more chalk and talk than many other disciplines were using. So these efforts have been fairly important in shifting people away from that. It’s a somewhat overdue change, but it’s nice to see that happening. And I would love to go to CTREE. But there’s two barriers that I’ve run into one is we run a series of workshops here, right around the same time, and the other is I teach at Duke in the summers. So I either am doing workshops here, or I am in North Carolina teaching econometrics now down there, so I haven’t been able to get there. I would love to go to a CTREE meeting.

Rebecca: I think I would have no clue what’s going on if I went. [LAUGHTER]

John: Oh I think you would.

Tisha: I think you would, I think you’d have a nice time. Everyone there is just so lovely and very engaged in teaching, and just really cares about the enterprise.

Rebecca: It’s nice to see education groups out of these professional organizations to really formulate communities of practice around teaching.

Tisha: Yes, I agree. I think economics, unfortunately, was late to the game. But we’re increasingly appreciating the importance and the importance not just of focusing on four-year colleges, but two-year colleges. So going back to the point of diversity, and the lack thereof in the discipline, the students in four-year colleges that I’ve worked with have predominantly still been very much what economists already looked like. And if we really want to improve the diversity in economics, I think we need to reach down to the high schools to the two-year colleges, and make economics more interesting and accessible.

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

Tisha: There’s lots of things. I guess, with regard to the committee, I’m hoping to just kind of not start anything new in my first term, and keep everything running as well as KimMarie has it now. But then for my own research, I am really interested now in looking at comparing pedagogies. So it’s been a lot of efficacy work looking at a particular pedagogy compared to sort of the standard chalk and talk. But now, how do they compare to each other? Is there a better pedagogy for students? And my first study, and I have the data, so I just have to start working on it will compare experiments to cooperative learning. And I told KimMarie, if experiments lose, then she won’t hear any more about this. I won’t write it up. I won’t talk about it. Because I don’t want to say that experiments lose, but no, I mean, seriously, that’s the next thing that’s first on the agenda. But also, I have a deep interest in diversity questions. KimMarie and I with Scott Simkins have a paper looking at HBCUs compared to PWIs and the study of economics there. And that was inspired by some work that showed that HBCUs contributed disproportionately to the STEM pipeline. And since economics is part of STEM, we thought, “Well, that should be true for economics as well.” So we did some work in that area. And we show that there are some positive contributions from HBCUs to the economic pipeline. But I think there’s a lot more to do there. So I would like to dig down in that. I’ve heard a lot of people at HBCUs talk about secret sauce, and I want to learn what that is. And not just at HBCUs but look at MSIs as well, more generally. And I do want to look at some questions at two-year colleges, so that’s for the next five to 10 years…

Rebecca: You’re going to be busy. [LAUGHTER]

John: For those who aren’t familiar with the terms PWI are predominantly white institutions and MSI are minority serving institutions.

Tisha: That’s correct.

John: Those terms are becoming more and more common, but just to make sure all of our listeners are familiar. Okay, well, thank you. It’s great talking to you, and it’s nice meeting you. And we will keep trying to get KimMarie McGoldrick on the podcast. I’ve been asking her for about four years. She’s been a little resistant, but we’ll see if we can get her here in the future. Well, thank you.

Tisha: Thank you so much. I hope you have a good afternoon.


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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


316. Help-Seeking Behavior

Continuing-generation college students are often better prepared by their family and peer networks for academic success than first-gen students with more limited support networks. In this episode, Elizabeth Canning and Makita White join us to discuss their research on differences in academic and non-academic help-seeking behaviors between first-gen and continuing generation students.

Makita is a graduate student in Washington State University’s Experimental Psychology Program. Elizabeth Canning is an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at WSU.

Show Notes


John: Continuing-generation college students are often better prepared by their family and peer networks for academic success than first-gen students with more limited support networks. In this episode, we discuss differences in academic and non-academic help-seeking behaviors between first-gen and continuing generation students.


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 Elizabeth Canning and Makita White. Makita is a graduate student in Washington State University’s Experimental Psychology Program. Elizabeth Canning is an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at WSU. Welcome, Makita and welcome back, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Thanks for having us.

Makita: Hello.

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

Elizabeth: I am drinking coffee this morning. It’s morning over here in the Pacific coast.

Rebecca: How about you Makita?

Makita: I have a hibiscus berry tea. I don’t usually drink tea, but I got some just for you guys.

Rebecca: Awesome. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice treat. I have some chai today. John?

John: And I have an English breakfast tea today, because I got a long band practice tonight. [LAUGHTER] So, a little more caffeine will help.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] So we invited you here today to discuss your recent study entitled “Examining Active Help-Seeking Behavior in First-Generation College Students,” which was published in Social Psychology of Education. Can you tell us a little bit about how this study came about?

Makita: Well, for me, this was actually my master’s thesis. When I became a researcher, part of my dream is to change the world, make a difference, and I’m really passionate about people getting access to the things that they need. So when I was in undergrad, and I was exposed to a lot of first-generation college students, and when I was hearing my parents talk about their experiences as first-generation college students, I started to notice that things were a little different when you didn’t have people around you who could tell you about what college was supposed to be like. And then when I started reading the literature on first-generation college students, and I saw how, in my opinion, excessively large, the gap was between first-generation and continuing-generation college students. That really captured my attention. So then, when I went to a school, where they have a really high population of first-generation college students, it felt really appropriate to look at first-generation college students. And also I’m honestly really interested in help-seeking behaviors. You probably have experienced yourselves where you see one person who is very persistent and active in getting someone’s attention, basically, very annoying, consistently waving their hand… [LAUGHTER] …trying to come up and get someone to basically give them whatever they need or they want, versus another person who maybe is a lot more quiet and sitting there hoping that someone will help them. And I wanted to know why. What makes one person act so differently from another? So I was really interested in first gens and help seeking. And then, at the same time, Elizabeth had recently been to a conference where they talked about first-gen forward initiatives, which is where colleges encourage faculty and instructors to self identify if they themselves were first-generation college students, to encourage other first-generation college students at the university to feel more comfortable, maybe talking to them or going to office hours, things like that. And we combined those two things together into this study, where we could look at help seeking in first-generation college students and a shared identity to try to see if that would change how help seeking looked.

John: And you mentioned some of the gaps that are observed. Could you talk a little bit about some of the equity gaps between first-generation students and continuing-generation students in terms of their academic performance and success?

Makita: Yeah, so for first-generation college students, we tend to see that on average, they earn lower grades, and they’re more likely to drop out of college. And they’re also less likely to engage in academic success behaviors, like going to office hours, or trying to talk to their instructors after class, things like that. And there are a lot of different reasons for that. They quite honestly don’t have someone at home who can teach them those implicit unspoken rules about college, about what’s expected of you and how you should behave. So they have to learn that on their own and that can take a little extra time, which is pretty valuable when you’re in college, that time. And then, a lot of the time, when you’re a first gen, you’re also coming from a lower income family, which may require you to work while you’re also going to taking classes and it means that you’re a little less likely to live on campus, which can influence you in all kinds of fun ways. But, we were, as I said before, really interested in whether or not there was a difference in the type of help-seeking strategies that students were using and how frequently they were help seeking. We wanted to see if that was maybe part of the reason for this gap.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I’ll just jump in too, that one of the big inspirations I think, for this work came from a sociologist, actually. Her name is Jessica Calarco. I think she’s at the University of Wisconsi- Madison now, but she wrote a fantastic book, it’s called Negotiating Opportunities. And she did a lot of field work with children, looking at at how children from lower- or upper-middle class families act differently in the classroom and how children approach their teachers or how they seek out resources and things. And she found that more low-income students are much more passive in their health seeking behaviors than upper-middle-class students. And so we had kind of read this work and thought it was really interesting and wanted to see if the same was true at the college level, and how that might look with those types of behaviors in a college setting. So we wanted to see if that gap that they found with children was the same for higher ed.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the methods of your study?

Makita: Yes, so this was a little complicated. But I’ll try to go through it in the most straightforward way I can.

Elizabeth: I will say for a first-year Master’s student, this was about the most difficult kind of laboratory experiment to design for, like right off the bat. But Makita did such a great job. And I think it turned out so well. But the complexities of it actually make it super interesting. So hopefully, we can explain it in a way that is easy to understand.

Makita: So we designed this study when COVID was in full swing, and we were in lockdown and, as a result, the entire study is set up to be conducted through Zoom. So the way it would work was a participant would join a Zoom room, where they would interact with one of our many undergraduate research assistants. And the research assistant would introduce themselves as a lead experimenter, and they would give the participant a phone number and an email, maybe like, “in case we’re disconnected or something goes wrong, you can reach out to me.” And then they’d give this participant 10 questions GRE style math test, and they would have 10 minutes to take it. And immediately after they finish taking this math test, the research assistant would have a short, partially scripted conversation with the participant, they would say things like, “Oh, don’t worry if you didn’t do that well. I didn’t do that well, the first time I took a GRE test, I didn’t even know I was supposed to take it until like right before I took it, I did really bad. But I did way better the second time I took it.” And then in the middle of that partially scripted blurb, they would, in one condition, say “I’m the first in my family to go to college, so nobody at home knew anything about graduate school.” And that was our main intervention. So for half of the students, they heard the research assistant was the first in their family to go to college, and for the other half, they didn’t. So immediately after that, they’re given another survey. And in that survey, they are told, “Hey, you’re going to take another math test after this one. And if you can improve your score by about 20%, or by about two questions, then you will be entered into a raffle to win a $20 gift card.” So we’re incentivizing them to want to do better. And then the survey says, “Do you want to go over your answers from exam one?” If you say yes, then the survey instructs the participant to reach out to their experimenter or this research assistant so they can do so; if the participant says no, then the survey instructs them to reach out to the research assistant to get the link to test number two. So in both cases, this participant has been instructed to reach out to the research assistant to get their attention so that they can move on to the next step. But in one case, they are getting academic help, they are going over their questions from exam one. And in the other case, they are just getting the link to exam two. The thing that makes this study fun is that the experimenter isn’t going to answer, the experimenter is going to leave their Zoom camera black, ostensibly off, while they are potentially off doing something else, or distracted, or maybe something’s gone wrong, and they are disconnected, who knows? And they’re going to ignore any attempt to get their attention for about eight minutes. And during that time, what they did was they recorded any attempt to get their attention. We were looking specifically for any additional behavior outside of the Zoom room, something active and persistent added on to that, like calling us or emailing us or texting us, using that information that was provided to them at the very beginning of the session. So after that eight minutes had past, the researcher would come back and say “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, something went wrong with my computer,” and then they would either help the student go over some answers or give them the link to the next test. And then the student eventually took the final survey with some demographics and final questions in it.

Elizabeth: So it’s a pretty lengthy paradigm. I think our research assistants had so much fun doing this study.

Makita: They really did.

Elizabeth: They had a lot of acting training to make it believable. But in terms of designing it, in a laboratory experiment, you have to kind of make some trade offs with making everything standardized, but also making it at least somewhat realistic to what might happen in the real world. So we were kind of playing off the idea of being an instructor and having a syllabus where you have lots of information about how to contact the instructor. And we have exams all the time, as instructors in our courses. And so it might be the case that they would need to go over the questions that they missed for the first exam before the second exam. And so we were trying to kind of mimic that type of setting in this one-hour laboratory study. But again, this is a sort of a different experience, where you’re not really getting graded, and it’s not going to affect your GPA. So we had to add a little bit in there around incentivizing them to want to do well in this sort of hypothetical situation. But again, I think our research assistants had a great time collecting these data.

John: What did you find in terms of the differences in help-seeking behavior between first-gen and continuing-generation students?

Makita: So we had a couple of different measures of help seeking in this study. The first measure was whether or not the student wanted to go over their answers. And we found that regardless of condition, so regardless of whether or not the experimenter self-identified as a first-generation college student, first gens overall sought less help than continuing-generation college students, which lined up with what we saw in previous studies. Things got a little more interesting when we started looking at the active help seeking behavior. So students who said, “Yes, I want to go over my answers,” we categorized as academic help seekers and students who said, “No, I don’t want to go over my answers,” we categorized as non-academic help seekers. Then, if students used some kind of additional method of help seeking during that eight-minute waiting period when the experimenter wasn’t responding, they were categorized as active help seekers. So we had active academic help seekers and active non-academic help seekers. And what we found was that students, our academic help seekers, weren’t really impacted by the identity of the experimenter, but our non-academic help seekers were. So in our control condition, when first-gen students were seeking non-academic help, about 13% of them used active help seeking, but in our intervention condition, it was more like 43%. So that was a really big jump, and it was really cool to see that. In other words, when first-generation college students had a help provider available, who was also a first-generation college student, they were more likely to reach out to them in this active persistent way on top of sending a message in the Zoom chat, they were also emailing or texting or calling. When the research assistant identified themselves as a first-generation college student that made our first-generation participants feel more comfortable with reaching out to them in this non-academic realm.

Rebecca: So when we think about this study, what are the implications as we talk to educators or higher ed leaders and actions we might take or ways that we might think about it?

Makita: It’s always difficult to try to generalize from a laboratory study to the field or to real life. In this case, because the person who was performing the role of the help provider was a peer, most things that we can generalize this too would also involve peers. So for instance, if we have a upperclassman teaching assistant for a really difficult math class, maybe if that person self-identifies as being first generation that might make first-generation college students in that class feel more comfortable with asking for help in regards to, say working Canvas or Blackboard or accessing their homework or figuring out how to get the right textbook, things like that. Based on these results, we wouldn’t expect it to necessarily help with their academic performance. But overall, engaging in this type of help over time, might.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I would just add that it kind of highlights two nuances of help seeking that we’ve kind of overlooked in the literature so far. There is a lot of evidence that suggests that first-generation college students seek help less often than continuing-generation students. But not a whole lot of people are talking about the types of help seeking. So, there’s passive type of help seeking versus active type of help seeking. So, differentiating that might be really helpful and understanding where we might need to intervene and help these students. And then what we’re seeing in this study is that we also might need to break it down into the type of assistance that the students are seeking. I think a lot of times, we’re just assuming that they’re seeking help for academic reasons, like I don’t understand this content, explain it in a different way, or related to the content of a class. And what we’re seeing here is that we might actually need to break this down into what’s related to the course content and what’s related to more of this sort of navigational type of awareness that first-generation students might not have the background knowledge to address. And so this non-academic help-seeking behavior might really benefit first-generation college students. And there’s a number of different scenarios in which that might be helpful. So applying for scholarships and financial aid, navigating course seeking and course maps, and figuring out the requirements for different degree programs, applying to graduate school, applying to different research opportunities. All of those things are academic-adjacent, but they’re not academic in the sense of the course material that they’re learning in that course. So it might be the case that all of these other types of help-seeking behaviors, it might be important to intervene in those areas to help first-generation college students.

Makita: And something really interesting about this study is that if we hadn’t separated help seeking into academic and non-academic, we wouldn’t see the difference that we found, if we had just examined it as basic help seeking without separating it, then the nuance of this situation would be lost. And as Elizabeth said, in many of the studies that we read, and that we looked at, they look at help seeking as this just basic block, they’re not separating it out into active or passive or academic or non-academic. And it seems like that actually might be really important because how well an intervention is working for a different type of help seeking might be something that we actually didn’t notice in some of these previous studies.

John: And there’s been a lot of studies recently indicating the importance of providing students with more structure, particularly first-gen students, which might help students get past that barrier. But there’s also been a lot of studies that have investigated the effect of a sense of belonging and comfort in the institution. And having that peer connection to someone else with a similar identity as a first-gen student can help break down some of those barriers and help them overcome that, so that they’ll be more comfortable seeking help in the future, I would suspect.

Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. I think anytime an instructor can talk about their personal experiences, overcoming challenges that they have gone through, I think first-generation identity is something that is not as visible as other types of identities. And so that might be something that we need to provide to students if we feel comfortable doing so and talking about that in a way that might relate to students and that belonging, right, making them feel like you can have the same types of success, the same types of career plans, the same types of goals in college, as other students, no matter what your background is.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting for instructors to just think about taking the time to be explicit about that. It’s an identity that you might take for granted or not think about exposing, but it might be worth planning to expose that really early on in the semester to see how that might benefit students.

Elizabeth: Absolutely.

John: One thing we did on our campus last year was we had a committee that was looking at challenges for first-gen students. And one of the things they did was they created some images that could be used in your signature line indicating that you were a first-gen student. And they distributed that pretty widely. And a lot of faculty and staff members have included that to help form those types of connections. It sounds like, based on your research, can be fairly important.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think it’s a great initiative. I think here on our campus, we have some stickers and some like door hangers that you can put on your office door and things like that. But I like the email signatures a lot, because that kind of gets blasted to everyone. But yeah, I don’t think it can hurt. I mean, it’s a pretty simple type of thing that you can do. There’s not any evidence that it would be negative for anyone, at least at this point. So it’s sort of like a no-cost way of helping potentially a few students along the way. So yeah, I think it’s a great practice.

Rebecca: Are there follow up studies that this is making you kind of itch to do?

Makita: Oh, yes, definitely. For me, the ideal next step would be to try it in a real classroom, have either an instructor, or a TA for a lab, self identify as first gen to half of the class and not self ID the other and then see if help seeking changes. It would be really, really cool if we could do another behavioral measure of help seeking instead of just self report, but it gets a little complicated when you try to figure out how to track whether or not someone is emailing the TA or the instructor without accidentally infringing on someone’s privacy. So we still have a lot to go when it comes to actually figuring out how to run a study like that. But that would be my ideal.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think one of the things that we really need is a really good measure of help seeking, whether it’s self report, or whether it’s a way to assess that in some kind of behavioral data. Right now, there’s several different help-seeking skills out there where students respond to them. But they’re not as nuanced as what we’re seeing here around this academic versus not, this passive versus active. So a measure where we could really look at that nuance, I think, would help the field in general in terms of looking at whether interventions are increasing help seeking in various ways. And then of course, the behavioral measure is really, really interesting to us in terms of what students are actually doing. And we’re still kind of figuring out what that might look like, is that something that we can pull from, like their website data. So how often students are looking in the LMS for certain material, how often they’re clicking on things, whether or not they’re going to tutoring centers and office hours and things like that. So we’re still trying to figure out how to measure the behavioral side. But at the very least, we definitely need a really strong self-report measure of help seeking to move this research along.

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

Makita: What’s next is I’m going to go back on campus and teach an introductory psychology class.

Elizabeth: Great. Next for me is I have meetings all day. [LAUGHTER], but I’m looking forward to the weekend. Actually, something that’s exciting for me is next week I’m going to a conference in Indiana that’s bringing together a bunch of educators looking to build up infrastructure for conducting research in education. So we’re going to be talking about barriers to doing types of different research in education and how we might solve those in the future. So I’m excited for that. I think it will be a great brainstorming opportunity to figure out how to make this type of research easier to conduct in different educational settings.

Rebecca: That sounds awesome. I hope that you’ll share back what you’ve learned and decided. [LAUGHTER]

Elizabeth: Yes, that’s the plan.

John: Well, thank you. It’s always great talking to you, Elizabeth, and it’s really nice meeting you Makita, and I hope we’ll be able to talk to both of you in the future.

Elizabeth: Great. Thank you so much for having us.

Makita: 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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


315. Unessays

An unessay assignment provides students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in innovative and creative ways. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus and Maggie Schmuhl join us to discuss how they have employed unessay assignments in their courses.

Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Maggie is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and the Associate Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at SUNY-Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A guide for intellectuals, introverts, and nerds who want to be effective teachers. Morgantown, WV, USA: West Virginia University Press.
  • Neuhaus, J. (2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Neuhaus, J. (editor) (2022). Using the Unessay to Teach History. Teaching History: A Journal of Methods. Vol. 47. No. 1.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge. Beacon Press.
  • Jessamyn’s American Promise Unessay Assignment
  • Pittman, Chavella (2022). “Strategizing for Success: Women Faculty of Color Navigating Teaching Inequities in Higher Ed” in Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Ed. by Jessamyn Neuhaus. West Virginia University Press.
  • Pittman, Chavella (2023). Navigating Teaching Inequities. Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 291. May 31.
  • POD Network Conference
  • Teaching, Engaging, and Thriving in Higher Education Series. University of Oklahoma Press.
  • American Historical Association Annual Meetings


John: An unessay assignment provides students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in innovative and creative ways. In this episode, we explore ways in which different faculty have employed unessay assignments in their courses


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Jessamyn Neuhaus and Maggie Schmuhl. Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Maggie is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and the Associate Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at SUNY-Oswego. Welcome back, Jessamyn and Maggie.

Maggie: Hello.

Jessamyn: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Maggie: Good to be here.

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

Jessamyn: I am. In preparation for this very question, I’m drinking a wild sweet orange.

Maggie: Oooh.

Rebecca: Sounds nice.

Maggie: That sounds very fall. I am drinking a bread pudding tea. It’s a black tea from a little tea shop in Sacketts Harbor.

Rebecca: That’s a first on our podcast for sure.

Maggie: I think it’s called Tea Thyme, the little shop. It’s quite lovely.

Rebecca: Nice. I have Irish breakfast this morning. So we’ve invited you both here today to discuss unessay assignments. Could you tell us a bit about what an essay is?

Maggie: I guess I’ll say an unessay is anything but an essay. Jessamyn probably has some more nuance? [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Not really, that is the basic premise. In classes where you might traditionally ask students to show their learning via a standard essay, either like the five-paragraph essay or a research paper, an unessay project asks students to demonstrate their learning, increased understanding, via any other kind of format.

Rebecca: Jessamyn, can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to use unessays in your class?

Jessamyn: Sure. And this also relates to… I know, we were maybe going to talk about what was appealing for historians, in particular, about the unessay. And some points for history professors generally and me, what attracted us to considering using the unessay. A couple of things about our discipline: first, that the unessay, it’s a good way for students to explore some key historical thinking skills in different new ways for them, so things like citation, research, and historiography. So trying to understand what other historians have written and argued about the past. There’s also been a pretty significant sort of public history turn in the world at large, like trying to better understand different audiences for historical research. Some other more general reasons were issues of equity and inclusion, especially around Universal Design for Learning, trying to offer students some options as a way to increase their learning, increase engagement. And the final thing I’ll say, just for me personally, is that I wanted to make assessment and grading a more joyful and happy part of my teaching life. It had really started to drag me down. And I didn’t want to approach assessing student learning as a soul sucking slog, not just for personal reasons, but also that it was interfering with my ability to accurately assess. If I was absolutely dreading reading a stack of essays, then something was amiss, and I wasn’t going to be able to, in my view, really accurately assess what has this student achieved.

Rebecca: About you, Maggie?

Maggie: I think really a lot of what Jessamyn said echoes in the reasons I decided to incorporate the unessay in my classroom. I was actually inspired by a talk that Jessamyn gave to our faculty, I guess it was over a year ago now, about the unessay and I immediately thought of my senior seminar class. So in criminal justice, in our department particularly, it was common for students to write a 20- or 30-page long research paper, and they dreaded it. It was a source of anxiety for students. It was something in the end that I’m not entirely certain they felt proud of. They just were trying really hard to get the A in the class, to make it perfect, to spend lots of late nights trying to perfect this project and I don’t think it brought about the kind of learning gains that I was hoping to see with my students, it seemed like there was a lot of going through the motions. And the unessay just gave us an opportunity to really turn that on its head and give some of that autonomy back to students and some of that creativity back to learning.

Rebecca: I’m loving these themes of joy, creativity…

John: …which are not terms we often associate with either writing papers as students or with grading them as faculty, and Jessamyn, you were the editor of a fall 2022 issue of Teaching History that focused on unessays. Could you tell us a little bit about ways in which you and other historians have been using them in your classes… some examples of ways in which students have demonstrated their knowledge?

Jessamyn: Sure, and I’ll just give a little promo here, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods is an open access journal. So you can just Google Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, and it’ll take you to the open access platform. It’s hosted by Ball State University. And so that issue is still totally available for anyone interested in reading it. I would say, like some specific projects that were explored in that issue, there was an article about using maps as historical documents, there were a number of projects that were exploring how to present history and historical thinking in a public history setting. So along the lines of museum exhibits, and especially in a digital format, the upsurge in digital humanities is something several of the authors were looking at. And then there’s a whole range of examples that were discussed in the two interviews I did for everything from board games, to graphic novels, to quilt, to the annotated recipes. All those were discussed in that issue.

Rebecca: What are some specific projects, Jessamyn, that you’ve done in your classes,

Jessamyn: A couple that have come up that I used… it’s interesting… Maggie used the unessay with her senior students. And I have helped students in the history department here, they also have to do a major research project. And I’ve been the advisor on a number of non-traditional projects is what I called them at the time, and now would say unessay. So at the senior levels, students did major research projects, like a fictional interview with a historical figure, historical fiction would be another example. I’ve had a couple of students do online exhibits and one person do an in-person exhibit. But I also use the unessay assignment in my intro level class, which is a basic history survey class. And those projects ranged from again, the board game, I had a number of posters, I had one student who was a trained professional baker do a set of cookies with icing, comparing different protest movements, the Bonus Army March in the 1930s with the more recent climate change activism. And one of my very favorites was a video recording that a student did, showing step by step how she made a family recipe. And since the theme of the class was the American Promise, and the way that throughout our history, as a nation, we’ve struggled to achieve the ideals of equality and liberty for all. And we get closer and we fall short. And her recipe was from her family’s background from India. And she took us step by step through it. She had music playing and was describing the importance of this particular dish in her own family history. The unessay was encouraging them to see their location in the American Promise. And it really struck me, in my previous life as a historian of food and food waste. So that was interesting. But most striking to me was, this was a student who had been very, very quiet in class. I felt like I didn’t know her very well. She was doing great work, but she was sort of on the edge of things it seemed like, and with this unessay, it completely changed my perception of her. I felt like I got to know her so much better and so did the other students as well. Having students share their unessays is an important part of the work and It really changed just the whole classroom dynamic in that way. So that was really notable.

Maggie: Nice.

John: Maggie, what are some of the projects that your students have done as unessay assignments?

Maggie: Yeah, so I mentioned before that I assigned the unessay for my senior seminar class. So it’s a sort of capstone project. And there were some really awesome projects that came out of this and I probably don’t have time to talk about all of them. So cut me off at some point when I’ve been going on for too long. But I had a student who wanted to be a elementary school teacher, and had gone through our program and decided that being a practitioner in the field of criminal justice was not exactly where they wanted to be. And so his project was to create lesson plans for second graders to communicate some of the harms of incarceration and how it affects youth when their parents or caregivers are incarcerated. And so it was a really wonderful project, all the students had worksheets, kind of like you can think about having when you were in second grade, and little matching puzzles and games, and it was a really cool experience. And for him getting interested in a master’s of education program, it was a way that he could then take that project and show to his grad school applications and advisors, like, “Hey, this is something that I’m really passionate about. I’ve been working towards this. And yeah, it was a lot of fun.” We had a good time, even some spelling words thrown in there. [LAUGHTER] It was great. Another student project was a choose your own adventure story. There’s various examples of this. But in my youth, it was the Goosebumps choose your own adventure where you read to a certain part in the story, and then it gives you the option of what you want your protagonist to choose. And then you have to flip to a different area of the book and see the fate of that character. And so the students started a really great project, unfortunately, didn’t get to finish it for various reasons, but started a really great project about reentry. And so the main character was someone who was being released from prison and had to navigate all of the barriers and circumstances around reentry that made it difficult for him to assimilate back into society. So that was a big fan favorite amongst the class. They really enjoyed that. Of course, we also had some board games, one in particular, was a monopoly game that examines varying socioeconomic status, and how that influences someone’s path through the criminal justice system. So the players started off with different amounts of money. And as they would pull community cards and have to purchase property and such, they would be challenged to need to pay a particular court fine, and how that would set them back from being able to find a job. It was a very well thought out game of Monopoly. But the goal to show and highlight the inequalities related to income and how that affects criminal justice processing. I could probably keep going, but it really gave a lot of opportunities for students to combine what they were interested in. There was a student who had run their own podcast for a period of time. So she conducted a podcast series on Amber Alerts and their effectiveness. And it was something that when she had been traveling down to Texas, and had received a number of Amber Alerts in the short time that she was there, she was like, “Are these things really working? And how can I explore that through a medium that she was already quite drawn to?”

Rebecca: Unessays always sound like so much fun?

Maggie: Yeah. And they’re fun for us. I know Jessamyn touched on that, too. It’s a whole different experience as someone assessing the work that they’re doing when you know that they’re passionate about it. And it gets me excited about assessment, which I don’t think is something we can typically say.

Rebecca: There’s not a big line of faculty raising flags saying assessment is fun.

Maggie: Right. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: I also wanted to follow up on a point Maggie’s touched on a couple times about student autonomy and agency. I think for both our student populations, this is a really key academic, professional, and personal skill that many of our students need to build, that they arrive to college with a sense of themselves as very passive recipients of education and have not had the opportunity to really see themselves as producers of knowledge. as having agency in academic settings. So for me, one of the great glories of the unessay, is that it’s starting point really is, what do you want to do? What do you want to do to demonstrate that you understand this topic, and for a lot of students, it’s scary at first. A few might think that you’re trying to trick them. And I know this was something we did want to talk about. It does require, on our part, a fair amount of structuring and transparency and communication with students, maybe even especially the highest achieving students. One of my favorite students of all time went on to become a high school social studies teacher. And she did a fantastic job in the intro class with the unessay and then told me like a year later, “You know, I hated that assignment when I did it.” And it was because she was very, very nervous. She was a straight A student who was really nervous about doing something different. But she said, “Now, it’s my favorite, looking back.” So providing that structure and support and transparency, a lot of careful thought on the front end.

John: And one of the things we’ve been talking about in one of our reading groups, Mind over Monsters this semester, at both of our institutions, is the importance of autonomy, in terms of increasing student motivation and giving them more sense of control. It sounds like it’s really helpful in motivating students.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I think so. In both of our disciplines, criminal justice and history, there is a major learning curve to helping students see themselves as having agency in this particular discipline, especially the way they may have interacted with it before. And for me, coming from a lot of their previous experiences with history has been learning what happened and not actually doing history or thinking about those processes and the unessay could really help them move towards that particular desirable learning outcome.

Rebecca: I think one of the challenges that faculty who have been engaged in unessays before see before they enter in is the complexity of having students doing many different kinds of things at one time and managing those projects and also assessing those projects. Can you talk a little bit about how you help provide that structure for yourselves and for students?

Maggie: Yeah, so for my criminal justice class, I spent a lot of time the summer before I implemented this project, creating very detailed instructions and expectations. Jessamyn, I went to your website, and I use some of the self assessment tools, and I adapted them for my class as well. It was a very mindful process to think about how to give students the structure they need to feel confident in their ability to carry out this project, but also give them enough flexibility and creativity to take this project where they want it to be. I also spend a lot of time reading about different alternative grading practices to also incorporate in this, so I use kind of a combination of ungrading and specifications grading as well to help students assess their work. And I met with students quite often throughout the semester, particularly we had a midterm and a final exam meeting where we talked about the strengths of their projects, where they needed to go and what areas they needed to work on, whether it was engaging more deeply in the research and how to communicate that effectively in their projects. It was a lot of work for the faculty, but it was worth it in my opinion. It wasn’t so onerous and it wasn’t boring. It was exciting to meet with students, even if it meant spending my entire midterm week in the office with the students. It was almost every minute of my day for an entire week doing this, but it was, I think, a unique opportunity for making those connections with my students.

Jessamyn: I have been lucky. I have a relatively light teaching load and small classes. So that did make a difference in how I thought about structuring and implementing the unessay. There would be challenges on a larger scale. I would also say that there’s components of the unessay, that it’s not just do anything you want, and then nothing, and then in the end they turn in something. No, there’s stages and components like usually a proposal process and I also was able to meet with students. You could meet with students in small groups as well, if it’s a larger size class to go over the proposals, and many unessay assignments also do have a written component like a bibliography, an intro. At the midterm and end there could be a reflective assignment or sort of summary of work achieved. I did co-create with students the assessment guidelines for their projects. So taking the autonomy and agency a step further, I didn’t leave it totally up to them, we worked together on it, but asked them, “So this is your idea, this is the project you have in mind. How will it show these important skills? How will it show that you’ve met these course learning objectives?” And we work together on it. And that part is always great for me, I just really enjoy trying to de-center myself a little bit as the instructor which again, is something I can do from a place of certain privileges. I have tenure, I’m white, I’m cisgendered. But trying to enlist students as partners more, decentering myself a little bit, and asking them to reflect on what would show that you have achieved this learning outcome with this unessay assignment. A nice bonus is always students, at least one student, will say this is so hard, teaching must be really, really hard. [LAUGHTER] So bringing them in on that assessment process can help them even reflect on what does grading and assessment mean? What would show me that you’ve successfully achieved this learning, this desirable outcome?

John: Do either of you use rubrics for the unessay assignments?

Jessamyn: Well, when I co-created assessment guidelines with students, some of them used a rubric form. A lot of my students found rubrics helpful for things like deadlines. And I did set deadlines for certain benchmarks. And that was something that was easy to map out and help them structure their work time and stay on track as well.

Maggie: Yeah, I created a checklist with that self assessment that was on Jessamyn’s website, geekypedagogy.com. I did have students go through that and rate themselves, and then we got together in a meeting to discuss where we felt the accuracy of each of those points. But I think it gave them some comfort in saying, “Okay, I know I did multiple revisions of this, and I incorporated all of the feedback I was given. And here’s the changes I’ve made, or here’s the areas that I think I probably could have done better, or I could have focused my time a little bit better in this way.” And it just gave them, I think, a nice guideline to be able to talk about the strengths and areas of improvement for their project.

Jessamyn: I’ve used rubrics before, when I was co-creating the assessments. That’s fine with me, if that’s what they want to use. I will say that this part of it, while being very cognizant, like I said, of my own privileges and positionality and aware of that, your teaching context can really shape what kinds of assessments you can implement, for sure. But I also think that it’s at least worth considering the idea of our academic egos and our investment in our discipline and expertise. And what the unessay may challenge us to do is let go of the thing we know how to do absolutely better than anything in the world. So as a historian, a trained historian, I know how to assess student writing better than any other task I do as a teacher. I know so much about it. And it’s easy for me to do, not joyful, [LAUGHTER] but not difficult. It doesn’t push me to think about anything outside my comfort zone. And when I assign an unessay, I have to let go of that and think about things differently. And again, keeping in mind that I know bandwidth is limited, the incredible pressure on a lot of people in the pandemic pivot and for all various reasons, our limited energy, it might be too big an ask, too big a lift. But I would encourage listeners, if it’s possible, to consider maybe it’s not about me. [LAUGHTER] It’s not about us, and what makes us most comfortable as the person with the PhD in the room. That being a little uncertain. how can I assess did students meet this learning outcome with a quilt, with a board game, with a podcast, that it’s okay for us to feel a little bit discomforted. That’s about maybe getting out of the students way a little bit.

Rebecca: When I hear folks talk about unessays, both of you as well as others that I’ve heard talk about unessays, I see a big emphasis on process and the behaviors of a discipline, rather than necessarily the outcomes of something. So often in a research paper, we might assess on some of the polish of something like that, rather than really seeing always the process that goes into the thinking. But I feel like a lot of times with these projects, you end up knowing a lot more about a student’s thinking, because you’re talking with them about their projects in an ongoing way. Can you talk a little bit about that process piece with unessays?

Jessamyn: Well, one thing that jumped into my mind, Rebecca, when you were asking your question is writing a thesis statement for a research paper. Now, this happens to be something I’m incredibly good at helping students do, crafting their thesis statement. But, just like you described, it’s often so much about the academic writing skill that I’m helping them with, and when they have to write a thesis statement for the research paper they’re working on, that’s a great skill to have, if you’re going to be an academic. If you are engaging in scholarly writing, you have to know how to do that. And for a few students, that’s important. And that’s not like written communication skill. I’m talking about the highly academic scholarly skill of summarizing the argument you’re about to make in a paper. So for students who want to go on to be graduate students, I’m all in. We’re going to sit and we’re gonna go through this word by ever loving word to figure out the best way to state your argument. For a lot of my students, though, is that the best investment of their time, and the best way I can help them? There might be other ways to, just like you said, have them articulate and demonstrate their thinking, which, and I’ll just throw it out here in the age of generative AI and ChatGPT, this is at the heart of how we help students navigate is their original ideas really matter, their ideas, and their thinking matters. So if I can support a student being able to demonstrate their thinking and ideas in a way that matters to them, that they feel articulate doing, then, mission accomplished. That’s what I want. That’s what I want for students.

Maggie: Yeah, and I would say that, in my class, the 20- to 30-page research paper does serve students who are going to go on to graduate school. But like said, I don’t know if that is the best way to help them make the connection between what we’re doing in the classroom to what they are going to be doing on a regular basis in their various careers that they find themselves in. I wanted to make this project less about a means to an end for them, I wanted them to really think about how they start with an idea and how if they spend enough time thinking about that idea, and really focusing on how to communicate that expertise that they gained throughout the research on this idea, that they can create something that they’re proud of and they are hopefully less focused on the grade at the end of the semester and more focused on “Okay, I was actually able to start in one place, develop that project, develop this in a way that I can now go to my future employer or in an interview and say that I’ve developed these skills along the way that are mine and mine alone. They’re not ones that have been imposed on me by an instructor.”

John: We have increasingly diverse student bodies in terms of their prior preparation. Some have come through and had lots of practice writing throughout their high school careers and have developed those skills, others haven’t had as much preparation in writing. And we have lots of courses, though, that give them that but writing skills are not always one of the most important learning objectives for many of our classes. And it seems to me that perhaps using unessays can help provide a more equal playing field for students who may not have as strong of writing skills, but might be fairly comfortable creating videos or might be able to engage in some other creative activity that can demonstrate what they learned much more effectively than if they were constrained to having to do it in a written format.

Maggie: Well, I would say that was my experience for sure. I had a group of students make a series of TikTok videos and so they were quite excited about their ability to use something that they are on almost every day, if not every hour of their day, to use that as a platform to communicate the time topics that they were most interested in. And so it did mean that I had to learn a little bit about TikTok, I had to create a profile so I could follow my students and be able to see the videos that they had created. There’s an up voting system, too, I had to navigate [LAUGHTER] but yeah, in terms of equity, it does give students the ability to make decisions about how to present information in ways that they’re comfortable, but still challenging. I think that no matter what mediums students picked, it was challenging regardless. So it didn’t feel like students were just picking something that “Oh, well, I do this all the time.” It really was a strong motivator. And I think in a lot of the conversations we’ve been having in our reading groups about how to channel anxiety about something into a more direct way to accomplish a challenging task. I think it gave even students who are perhaps underprepared for academic writing, or find a lot of anxiety around that to shift their focus away from what they envision that they struggle with to then start in a place of, “Oh, I know I can do this, and I can communicate it in this way.” So I think it gave them some of that confidence back, that perhaps they find disappears when we impose a pretty lengthy paper or academic medium on them.

Jessamyn: There’s two aspects of the unessay and equity minded teaching I’ve been thinking of. One is the universal design for learning concept of providing some choice. It doesn’t have to be unlimited, it doesn’t have to be infinite choice. But providing some choice does increase accessibility. The second kind of key equity minded principle I have in mind with the unessay is that we should not be grading and assessing people’s life circumstances, we are grading and assessing their learning and their ability to show that they have reached certain benchmarks and outcomes. Just to put it in here as a caveat, I do think all kinds of writing is very, very important. Writing skills are very, very important. And a lot of the unessay assignment as I use it does include some clear written communication, because that is a skill we need in this world of ours. So the equity piece comes in though, that if I’m going to be assigning a grade assessing student writing, then it’s on me as the instructor to teach that and create the conditions in the classroom, the practice and the feedback, and more practice and making mistakes, and more feedback to do that writing piece. And if I’m taking into account the wide variety of academic backgrounds, what needs to happen in the course, for students to be able to demonstrate their learning accurately via a written essay, that’s a lot of writing work that I’m going to be doing to provide that equitable classroom. So the unessay as an option, that’s something a lot of people do offer the unessay as an option alongside a traditional essay option, the unessay as an option could increase equity in that way. I think it does convey the idea that our diversity is an academic asset. That all said, it’s interesting that the unessay could also exacerbate inequities without structure, without support. Students who have had very rich and varied past educational experiences may leap at the opportunity and see it just solely in terms of its benefits. Other students with less of that in their background might be extremely nervous about it as a whole new frontier for them. So without some structure, transparency, without all that prep work, Maggie, that you were describing, it could actually exacerbate some of those inequities.

John: And I think the scaffolding that you both described is really important in relieving some of that uncertainty, because I know some students when I’ve given similar types of assignments are really anxious about it and letting them do it a little step at a time and master that step seems to help relieve the pressure on them by just reducing the uncertainty.

Maggie: I know one of the things I incorporated in the project, and I think Jessamyn did this as well, that I gave students unlimited rewrites on any of the written work. So I did have a bibliography and I did have a proposal and a sort of artist’s statement reflection at the end of it. I think, again, I took that from geerkypedagogy[.com] and I gave students the opportunity to just keep rewriting and rewriting. And yes, it was a bit more work on my end. But it was so refreshing that students were actually taking my feedback into their work and they were making improvements. I think that whenever I’ve done drafts in the past, they might go through and make just the easy corrections and leave some of the harder things aside. But in this project, because we started a lot of those elements very early in the semester, we spend weeks and weeks just revising. And it really did give students, I think, a opportunity to make sure they fully were understanding and achieving those outcomes.

Jessamyn: Yeah, that point Maggie about your feedback actually being read and applied is so important for students and for faculty. It’s discouraging and disheartening to provide students a ton of feedback and then feel like it hasn’t been read. It’s up to us, though, to provide the opportunity for students to apply the feedback. If it can’t be applied, it’s very difficult to take it seriously [LAUGHTER] and to see it as meaningful and relevant. And I think another aspect of what you are describing that listeners might be interested in… if we haven’t totally convinced you yet [LAUGHTER] to use the unessay… is that it does get students’ attention, it cuts through the static. We get into a routine we’re just trying to get through, check that box for students who are overworked, overloaded, for whatever reason. I really feel like it kind of cuts through a fog that many of us, students and faculty, are in just by asking us to do something a little bit different.

Rebecca: Sometimes in those cases, and you guys have alluded to this before, that doing something different if they’ve not done it before, is risky and scary. And so all that scaffolding that you’ve built described as so important for students to be able to take that first risk and maybe take other academic risks in the future.

Jessamyn: Yeah, we can’t underestimate the impact of our traditional grading systems and traditional school systems where the stakes are sky high. You can’t overestimate them, financial aid, everything, is so tied to a student’s GPA, their families support, staying in school is often tied to GPA, their own sense of their selves as students, who they are, is defined by the grade they get. So asking them to, Rebecca, like you said, consider the process, not the end point. It is a big ask. So we can’t expect instant student buy-in, that they will immediately jump on board and with ease and joy, even if we are feeling that way about it.

John: So it sounds like it’s been a lot more fun, even though it may sometimes take more work for both of you. How have students responded? You’ve mentioned a little bit about student responses. But how do students generally respond at the end of the semester? Is it something that they find to be equally joyful?

Maggie: Jessamyn touched on this, but there was a bit of student buy-in that I had to get. And there were a couple of students who still wanted to write a traditional research paper. But in the end, they did a podcast element as well with it. So it was the sort of combination of the two, but it was the first time I had ever implemented an unessay in my classes. So I didn’t have a lot of student examples to show them. But I did spend a lot of time creating my own examples of what an unessay would look like. And I think for each of those scaffolded assignments I created a bibliography and a presentation and I tried to create an unessay myself so that they could see what it would look like. I think that gave them a little more confidence in knowing what was expected of them. But really, it took a lot of conversations with students on why I was doing this, what I thought the importance of shifting away from a traditional research paper, what gains they were going to have from that, and every student, at least to my knowledge, really enjoyed the process and much preferred the unessay over their 20- to 30-page research papers.

Jessamyn: The student resistance you just mentioned, Maggie, reminds me that I mentioned teaching context before, but it is important to underscore that any non-traditional teaching and learning practice and assessment, you can expect greater student resistance or reluctance when you quote unquote don’t look like a professor. So when you don’t fulfill the stereotype of what a professor looks like, if you’re navigating any kinds of intersectional biases, you may have to take into account the student resistance component and student biases. It’s a point that Chavella Pittman has emphasized for like an ungraded practice, that it’s very important to take those considerations into account. I will add that the biggest benefit besides my own grading joy is what I see… it’s extremely hard to measure… I couldn’t put it on my end-of-the-year file assessments of my own teaching, but students gain confidence, students gain some agency, some autonomy. I can see it in how they talk about it. If you can have a showcase or a gallery walk, you can see that they are proud of what they have achieved. When we’re doing senior presentations, that’s always very clear, like students’ sense of accomplishment is very notable. And it’s not that that doesn’t happen with the research papers. Well, it can, but the range of students who express and demonstrate to me that they’ve gained some confidence in themselves as students, as thinkers, as knowledge generators, as producers, it’s really heartening.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? Jessamyn, you want to go first?

Jessamyn: I’m headed to the POD Network Conference. I’m gonna do a session, with Chavella Pittman and Thomas Tobin, on faculty development that acknowledges teaching inequities. And I am working on a book on teaching and learning when things go wrong in the college classroom, and I just recently signed a contract for that book with the new series at University of Oklahoma press called Teaching, Engaging, and Thriving in Higher Education.

John: Maggie and I will both be at POD and will try to get to your session. And we’re looking forward to that book.

Maggie: I suppose what’s next for me feels like such a loaded question right now because I’m anticipating applying for a sabbatical. And so I’ve been really ruminating on this question of what is next for me. I’m entering into a mid-career stage, and so I feel like my answer is “I’m not quite sure yet.” But as far as the unessay goes, I do plan on bringing the unessay to my courses next semester. I’m teaching two elective courses on death penalty, and women and crime. And I think really any course, but particularly these courses, would be well suited for an unessay project.

Jessamyn: That reminds me, I am lucky enough, I’m going to be going to the American Historical Association Conference this spring and doing a workshop on the unessay, so any historians listening, I hope I see you there.

John: And we will include links to Teaching History, to that specific volume, as well as to the other resources that have been mentioned here. So check the show notes to find more of those resources. And thank you both for joining us again.

Maggie: Thank you so much.

Jessamyn: Thank you.

Rebecca: It’s always wonderful to talk to both of 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.