343. Writers’ Groups

Faculty writing groups can help motivate writing, provide peer feedback, and lead to higher quality writing products. In this episode, James Lang, Sarah Rose Cavanagh, and Mike Land join us to discuss their highly productive long-term writing group.

Jim is a Professor of Practice at the Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Notre Dame, the author of 6 superb books on teaching and learning and is the author of a regular column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He was the founding editor of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, and is now a co-editor of a new series at Oklahoma University Press. Jim also was the founder and long-time Director of the teaching center at Assumption College.

Sarah Rose Cavanagh is a psychologist and the author of four books related to teaching and learning. She is the senior associate director for teaching and learning and associate professor of practice at Simmons University and is also a regular contributor to The Chronicle and many other publications. Jim and Sarah are regular keynote speakers and have both provided keynote addresses at SUNY-Oswego.

Mike Land’s early writing and editing experiences included 15 years of newspaper journalism, a masters and doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and 23 years of teaching journalistic and creative nonfiction at Assumption, working for many years in the office next door to Jim Lang’s and a short walk from Sarah Cavanagh’s. He’s an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Community Service-Learning Program at Assumption University.

Show Notes

  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Lang, J. M. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Jensen, J. (2020). Write no matter what: Advice for academics. University of Chicago Press.
  • Scrivener
  • A General Education – Jim Lang’s substack account
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over monsters: Supporting youth mental health with compassionate challenge. Beacon Press.
  • Reading groups at Oswego (in the last three we were joined by Jessamyn Neuhaus and colleagues from SUNY Plattsburgh):
    • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning.
    • Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Hachette UK.
    • Lang, J. M. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. 2nd ed.
    • Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over monsters: Supporting youth mental health with compassionate challenge.


John: Faculty writing groups can help motivate writing, provide peer feedback, and lead to higher quality writing products. In this episode, we explore a highly productive long-term writing group.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guests today are James Lang, Sarah Rose Cavanagh, and Mike Land. Jim is a Professor of Practice at the Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Notre Dame, the author of 6 superb books on teaching and learning and is the author of a regular column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He was the founding editor of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, and is now a co-editor of a new series at Oklahoma University Press. Jim also was the founder and long-time Director of the teaching center at Assumption College. Sarah Rose Cavanagh is a psychologist and the author of four books related to teaching and learning. She is the senior associate director for teaching and learning and associate professor of practice at Simmons University and is also a regular contributor to The Chronicle and many other publications. Jim and Sarah are regular keynote speakers and have both provided keynote addresses at SUNY-Oswego. Mike Land’s early writing and editing experiences included 15 years of newspaper journalism, a masters and doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and 23 years of teaching journalistic and creative nonfiction at Assumption, working for many years in the office next door to Jim Lang’s and a short walk from Sarah Cavanagh’s. He’s an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Community Service-Learning Program at Assumption University. Welcome back, Jim and Sarah and welcome, Mike.

Sarah: Thank you.

Jim: Thank you.

Mike: Thank you.

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

Sarah: Never. You know me. I’m drinking seltzer. It’s too late in the day for coffee. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, Jim?

Jim: I had several cups of tea already today, it’s orange pekoe? And then my last one was English Breakfast actually at about one o’clock.

Rebecca: Nice. How about you Mike?

Mike: I am sampling some Bengal spice which the box tells me is brimming cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and cloves and it’s an adventurous bland.

Rebecca: Does it taste adventurous?

Mike: It does. Everything about this is an adventure to me. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have a blueberry green tea today.

Rebecca: And I have not my favorite tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: And what do you mean by that?

Rebecca: It’s not a good tea. It’s the first time I’ve ever had it. It’s supposed to be gingerbread. And I think it’s kind of disgusting. [LAUGHTER]

John: Now you know why we never get any sponsorships from tea companies.

Rebecca: I didn’t say where it came from. [LAUGHTER]

John: That’s true, but I’m sure there’s probably not too many gingerbread teas out there.

Rebecca: There shouldn’t be. [LAUGHTER]

John: In past podcast discussions with Jim and Sarah, we had heard about the writing group that you’ve all participated in. Can you tell us how this group got started?

Sarah: I guess I can take that one. I think it was about 2014…2015. Mike, do you know the year? He’s giving me a big nod. 2014. And Jim had recently invited me to write the Spark of Learning and his first series at WVUP and Mike was working on a book…had just come off sabbatical doing a cross country trip. And Jim was working on the first edition of Small Teaching. Since all three of us were working on book projects, Jim said, “Hey, why don’t we form this writers’ group.” And we started meeting. And it was really such a beautiful process to write my first book with my editor [LAUGHTER] reading every chapter as it came out, was a very developmental process. And as well as forming some really great friendships.

Rebecca: Sounds like a great start to a long endeavor. Can you talk a little bit about how regularly this group meets and if you still continue to meet?

Jim: We do continue to meet, but not regularly, as you might expect, [LAUGHTER] especially just because we were initially together at Assumption and were all working in the same area, and I just mean sort of geographical, and now Sarah’s in Boston, I’m going back and forth between Worcester and South Bend. So it’s a little bit harder to get us together in the same place at the same time. So we kind of meet on a more ad hoc basis at this point. if one of us has a project that we want feedback on will sort of send an email around saying “I need help, [LAUGHTER] and so let’s get together and can we have a writers group coming up?” So we’re still probably doing that maybe six to eight times a year, I would say. Maybe we were trying to do it every month but now it’s kind of morphed into that kind of more occasional kind of schedule.

Sarah: So we usually squeeze in a Christmas one.

John: That’s true.”

Sarah: So usually a mid December writers’ group. Some of them are in Zoom just because of how we’re spread around but the Christmas one is always in person. It’s really nice.

Jim: Yes, we have holiday themed groups. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: …with teas.

Sarah: Well, for some of us.

Mike: …or beers, but yeah, we’ve tried to have a couple of year that are also just social and in person. We’ve got more used to Zoom,as everyone has, and since we’re in three different…well, Jim and I live two doors from each other, but it’s harder to get us all together physically in the same space, but we’ve try to do that two or three times a year.

John:. When you were meeting regularly at Assumption University, what happened during the meetings when you got together? How long were the meetings? And what did you do in the meetings?

Jim: That would also depend upon where everyone was, in terms of their writing projects. A typical meeting would last maybe 90 minutes. Mike’s especially a social guy, [LAUGHTER] he would sort of want us to start with some social time, we sort of built that in. And so we’d have a little social time initially, you might be around a meal, for example, for the first 15 to 30 minutes, just catching up on our lives. And then we kind of just go through the project, essentially. So we essentially will just pick one off the pile, and say, “Okay, so here’s my essay this time,” like, for example, I might be doing a Chronicle essay or a chapter of a book. You have to read it in advance. So that’s an important thing to note, that we don’t read out loud, which sometimes writers’ groups will do that. You read in advance, we send the stuff out at least 48 hours in advance. You’re expected to read that material, come into the group having already written comments, either online or actually some of us still use the paper versions and bring those in as well. So then, essentially, the person whose material that we’re critiquing is supposed to just sit and ask questions, and the people that have read will kind of go through, essentially page by page, there might be like an initial comment, “overall, this is what I think of the piece,” but then we kind of go through page by page. That doesn’t mean every page is commented on, because it depends on where the issues are. But say, each person’s piece could take 15 or 20 minutes or so to walk through it. And then we move to the next one. And so we move around the circle that way. That’s the basic process, but what am I leaving out?

Sarah: No, I think that’s most of it… Kind of the flow.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the benefits of having formed the writing group and what other people might think about in forming a group?

Sarah: It is so invaluable, I think, in so many different ways to have first readers who can read something. It’s so vulnerable writing and putting your thoughts out into the world, and to have a safe place where people can give you feedback on very early drafts, I think is so valuable. And it’s also a really good test of are you expressing your ideas well, and are your references sound. I’m always telling Jim, people who don’t know sports aren’t going to understand this reference, and he does the same for my sci-fi references, and so that kind of tells you what a broader audience might think of your ideas. And it’s just a place to bounce your ideas around as well, like sometimes we do a lot of line-by-line feedback, and Mike is awesome at that from his journalism background. But we also sometimes just ask advice and just say, Is this even working? Should I draft this project and go to something else? Kind of really broad ideas as well. How about you, Mike, what do you see as the benefits?

Mike: The things you said. I think it’s a lonely pursuit, and if you don’t have an audience of people who are intelligent readers to let you know whether you’re totally going in the wrong direction or not, you’ve been staring at what you’ve been working on for so long, you convince yourself that yeah, this makes perfect sense, or this was a good move, or they’ll laugh at this, whatever it is. And so at some point, you got to try it out on audience members you trust and who also understand the writing process, because they themselves are writing and have written a lot. So they differentiate some things, maybe what not to do or to do. There’s a temptation in fiction writing, when I was in the fiction writing program, we were warned about trying not to turn the short story of the person being critiqued just into the story you had felt like writing instead. [LAUGHTER] Well, I figured out what the person is trying to do, and help them do that, and stay locked in on that, to some extent. So yeah, there was a lot there. And it is an extra deadline and something to get you moving.

Jim: That’s an important thing to know, too, that it was oftentimes a way of saying, “Okay, I have this book coming out, so I want to make sure I go chapter by chapter, and so I would make the writing group deadlines, my internal deadlines for getting those chapters done.” That’s a really, really helpful structural enabler, when you’re trying to especially do like a long project. The other thing I mean has come up in actually both these comments from Mike and Sarah, about the audience. And that’s true in terms of your audience. Think about your ideal audience who you’re trying to really write for. It’s also really true for your editors and potential publishers. And we often talk about that, like, “Okay, who would really be the right place to submit this to?” And we might be able to share examples of the publishers that we’ve worked with or strategies for reaching out to an editor, maybe we have a connection, and we know somebody. So we can have also that as well. So especially if you have books in your writers group who have published other things, you can start building networks around a writer’s group and I think that’s really important, too. Again, I think what Mike and Sarah are saying about audience is a real big benefit of you’re sort of thinking about the readers that you’re trying to reach, and you can often refine those. The example that Sarah gave about references, like if I’m writing to a community of people who love science fiction, I don’t have to worry about those references. But if I am going to expand beyond that audience then I have to either explain them or make more universal ones, and I think that process of like hearing at least two other readers, helps you expand a little bit in the number of people that you can reach with your writing.

John: And I would think having that relatively timely feedback would be much better than writing a big chunk of a book, sending it off, having it go out to reviewers and then getting reviews back when it’s perhaps a little bit late to make some of those major changes, that getting that more immediate feedback, I would think, would be helpful in keeping the writing project going in the direction you intended.

Jim: Absolutely. For example, I had like a little mini readers group with my Chronicle editor. Now I’d submit my work to her, and she would really sort of hack it to bits, [LAUGHTER] in a nice way, she’s a great person. But over time, I’ve sort of recognized, this is what she wants, this is what she looks for, this is what she changes. And I kind of learned to sort of mold myself into that kind of form that she wants. And the same thing is true for your writers’ group, you can sort of start to anticipate the things that they’re going to point out to you, which are often little habits that we have, which are not always great ones. [LAUGHTER] I always remember that Sarah would always point out that I used the word “so” all the time as like, “and so this,” and I never would have noticed that unless she started to circle all my “so’s” and then “look how often you do this,” that was like a really helpful thing for me to know. So now I’m aware of it, I still use them, but I’m just more aware of it now. So it’s very helpful to see other people’s perspectives and then you can start to anticipate that.Sarah sometimes uses phrase, “I had Jim in my head when I was reading this sentence,” or “I had Mike in my head…

Sarah: Yep. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: …telling this anecdote” or something like that. So that’s a really helpful thing to have as well.

Mike: Yeah. And it’s interesting, you’ll learn those things about each other, and then we can decide when to accept or not accept that, right? [LAUGHTER] In my case, and I think it’s true of Sarah, we can anticipate that if we throw in one too many anecdotes, we know Jim’s going to be there waiting to pounce on our extraneous anecdote that we love. And I’m somewhere in the middle, from the South, so somewhat more elliptical in my storytelling and less linear. So I’m favor of the extra anecdote. But there are times when you can tell, when you looked at it, and you have that voice and you go, “Okay, this really is extraneous, get it out of the way, don’t even bother other people with it.” And that’s that kind of thing and that’s kind of why we assign undergraduate students to do peer editing of each other is to learn to be editors, and to hear those voices too. So it’s really useful that way.

Jim: Mike, you know about other readiness groups and this question, John asked us about, like, guidance for other groups, can you give some examples, Mike, if you know of other writers’ groups that have sort of different ways of working?

Mike: There have been some groups that seem to exist just for people to pat each other on the back. And they don’t really do much criticism at all. A friend of mine who’s dyslexic said that he was in a group where you could never correct anything ever, grammatically or stylistically, which would drive me crazy, because I would want people to note every time I slipped up on something. So those are a couple of examples, and I’ve been trying to come up with some more, but it seems like there are a lot of variations in the rules in how they do it.

Jim: Sarah, you have also one that’s more like keeping you accountable, right?

Sarah: So I have another writers’ group with some friends at Tufts University, and we call it “writing and hijinks.” And so we gather together in a coffee shop or somewhere and we just write quietly, although one of them, like Mike, is very social and has trouble with the quiet part. [LAUGHTER] And so we just write, it’s just dedicated writing time for a couple hours, and then we go out and have fun. Although we’ve been sliding more and more towards just the fun and not doing the writing [LAUGHTER] over the last few years. This is motivating me to say to them, maybe we should bring back the writing part.

Rebecca: We have a writing group at Oswego that functions like yours, Sarah, that you’re talking about, where it’s just kind of some dedicated time, accountable time, this is the time we’ve set aside to write…

Sarah: Right.

Rebecca: …which can be really helpful if you have a designated time and space to do that, if you aren’t good at scheduling it on your calendar otherwise. Julie

Jim: Joli Jensen has a book about writing from the University of Chicago Press, and she actually makes the argument that writing groups for academics should not be content critique groups, which is what we have, actually. And she makes the argument that it’s not helpful, for example, English professors to be working with a psychologist because they won’t get your references and all that kind of stuff, and it won’t be very helpful to you. But actually I would argue that what we’re doing here, because most of us are running for, like broader audiences, the content critique part is really important. If Mike and Sarah don’t understand what I’m saying, well, then I’m not gonna be able to reach a broader audience instead of just writing specific to my little expertise audience. So that’s another way to think about distinguishing content, whether you focus on the content or just the writing, the sort of grammar and the stylistic part of it. So that’s another way to think about what are you actually trying to do in your writers’ group? Are you trying to expand beyond your discipline and getting different kinds of feedback? Or are you just trying to focus on, as Mike said, maybe patting each other on the back or accountability or style and grammar? So there’s a lot of different ways you can go.

John: I think that would depend a lot on who your intended audience is. So that if you’re all psychologists, or all economists, or all mathematicians, if you’re going to be submitting things to journals, it might not be a bad audience. But for a general audience, having someone who is not necessarily an expert in the field, seeing it from a different perspective would lead to a lot of really productive comments in terms of what some of the hidden assumptions are, the implicit assumptions in the writing.

Jim: Absolutely, you can actually even think about it as a teaching thing too, I mean teaching to like a gen ed class, their first-year students, that’s almost like a content critique group in the sense you can’t take too much granted about background knowledge in discipline, like a really focused content critique group, all from a discipline, you’re essentially teaching a graduate seminar. And so you’re looking for different things from those experiences, and you’re being required to explain different levels of things to those two audiences.

Rebecca: So I’m curious what participating in this particular writing group with the three of you has done for you as writers? How has it shaped your writing? And why are the three of you a good group for each other?

Sarah: I think that one of the things that has really shaped my writing process, this is beyond all of the wonderful things that we have said already about audience and things like that, is being in a writers’ group with two English professors is really valuable. I tested out of intro writing in college, so I actually never took a writing course of any sort, and then decided I wanted to be a writer. And my writing is very organic and intuitive. And working with these two really helped me like the things that they would correct. Like I didn’t know periods went inside the quotes, until Mike corrected me. [LAUGHTER] But the first year, we were writing together, and you would think I would just absorb that from reading, but I just never noticed that. And so really tiny things like that, but then also just thinking about the structure of your writing and the organization of your writing, because I had never really done that for this kind of general audience writing. And so having this writers’ group with writing professors is really amazing, as Jim would sometimes send me to the whiteboard, when we would meet [LAUGHTER] at Assumption, because it’d be like, you’d have a lot of really interesting ideas here in the writers’ group, but they’re just in a big pile,[LAUGHTER] and he’d have me map out, do a literal map of my work. And that was very, very helpful.

Mike: That’s one of the fascinating things about being in a group is working with two people that have such different composing processes. And Jim, you’re fairly linear…

Sarah: fairly…

Mike: kind of have it in order [LAUGHTER] and smoothly.

Sarah: …the computer. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: So what was the computer program that you’re using that divided the screen into quadrants?

Sarah: Yes, Scrivener, you can put your bits of writing on literal digital index cards, and just move them all around.

Mike: Yeah, which is something I’ve seen poets do. I’ve seen poets tear their poems apart, line by line and move the lines around in the coffee shops. So it’s just two equally effective ways of doing that. And I guess I’m somewhat in the middle, but with the road trip narratives, obviously, there was someone’s this town and that town, but it’s fascinating to watch how people’s brains work differently.

Jim: Yeah, I think for me, Sarah and Mike are different kinds of writers. But as a result, I’m kind of benefiting from both the sort of storytelling advice that comes from Mike and from Sarah, again, more of the research, making sure that I’m supporting my points well, and thinking about other perspectives on the topics I’m addressing. And it’s helpful to get both those things, because I’m getting different things from others, like editors, for example. I like the idea of starting a piece of writing with a story or something like that, my editor at The Chronicle always wants me to lead with the thesis, essentially. And so I’m trying to put some of Mike’s ideas advices into that kind of storytelling opening, but also trying to satisfy my editor. So anyways, it kind of helps you develop new strategies and see how strategies might land with different people and Sarah’s especially good at ways that I should include more readers, more thinkers from different backgrounds, and essentially making my writing more inclusive. And I think that’s really valuable as well, and making sure that I engage with the research that I might not be aware of, in the teaching and learning fields. So that’s really important, too. So I can look at my own writing and see how it’s benefited from both their perspectives.

Rebecca: I think one thing that I’ve benefited from when I’ve participated in writing group opportunities is actually seeing early stages of other people’s writing, and just what that looks like and feels like and sometimes provides strategies to future me [LAUGHTER] when I’m stuck, [LAUGHTER] like, “oh, wait, this other person would have attempted it like this.” And when I felt stuck on something, sometimes I use the strategies that I’ve observed other people using, which can be really beneficial, that things that I wasn’t taught or hadn’t been exposed to otherwise.

Sarah: That’s great.

John: You mentioned future me. And one of the issues that we know from behavioral economics and psychology is that when given a choice between pursuing your long range objectives and immediate gratification, immediate gratification sometimes wins out, [LAUGHTER] because it’s always easier to start these things tomorrow or next week. And one of the things you mentioned earlier, Jim, was that having the regular meetings of the writing group provided a bit of a commitment device that you want to get to the meetings with some new material you want to share that material before it. Do you think that has helped increase the pace in which your work has taken place?

Jim: For me absolutely, yeah, having that structure there. I think structure is always a really helpful thing in teaching and writing. If you sign a book contract, the deadline might be two years away. So you know that two years, an editor might check in after a year, but like, you need to have more structure in that to kind of get yourself moving along. And I’m a pretty structured person, but I can also fritter time away. I’m pretty good at that, too. [LAUGHTER] But I’m self aware enough to know I need a little help in terms of structure. And so it definitely has pushed me to become more productive.

Sarah: Absolutely. I agree. This whole conversation is making me want us to do this more regularly, [LAUGHTER] instead of the as needed, because I think about especially the beginning of the writers group. And when I was writing Spark of Learning, my daughter was a toddler. And she was only in daycare three days a week, and I was on the tenure track and just doing a billion different things. And I do not think I would have written that book if it weren’t for writers’ group monthly meetings. I think at that point, we were really regularly meeting in person monthly. And just finding the time at four in the morning [LAUGHTER] or terrible times often, but I don’t know that I would have gotten it done if it were just like, “oh, I have a contract and I must do this giant thing.”

Mike: That definitely helped this begin…the structure. I don’t have a long-term project I’m working on currently so hard for me sometimes to come back around and really have anything that’s worth them looking at. But yeah, you mentioned those long period of the book contract, and there’s a long period of only doing shorter things, whereas so there’s not that continuity from chapter one to chapter two to chapter three, and you’re eager to write those next two pages that are the bridge to the next thing, so group can help with that as well. It seems like a lot, but what happens in writing group is when someone is working on a Chronicle column that needs to be turned in in 48 hours or letters and things like that. And I was wondering if you can give examples of that kind of stuff when the group comes into play. That’s not the big primary thing we’re working on, but it’s kind of the emergency stuff.

Jim: We’ve done a little bit of that, but it’s kind of hard because especially for an upcoming deadline, I think typically we’ve handled that when someone just needed something very quickly, we just handled that by email. But the writers’ group is available in those emergency situations, because we already have a quick sense of like, if Sarah sends me something, and it was for a quick turnaround, it’s for The Chronicle, I can be able to spot very quickly a couple of things that you could maybe do in that short window. And likewise for me. So it’s challenging, though, because you want to have time for people to have opportunity to read and think about that as well. But it’s available for those situations. So it’s good for that.

Rebecca: I can imagine that you’re strong relationship with one another, having written with each other for so long allows for that quick turnaround by email, because you can sense the tone someone’s providing some feedback in [LAUGHTER] and it…

Sarah: Help!

Rebecca: …has a different kind of context. [LAUGHTER] Yeah.

Jim: Absolutely.

Sarah: And it’s such a pleasure, like it’s hard to ask for emergency work from people, even people you’re close with, and maybe even especially people you’re close with, because you know, they have so much else going on. But it’s such a pleasure to read these gentlemen’s words, that it’s not a burden at all, even the emergency ones because it’s like, “Oh, I get to relax, not with a cup of tea, [LAUGHTER] and read some words from Jim or Mike.

Jim: That’s true. That part of it is good, because you know that you can help them in the emergency because they’ve helped you in the past, that same situation. Right now, you know, I’m sort of developing a substack account. And I haven’t really used the writers’ group for that. And as a result, I need to have my wife proofread for me,[LAUGHTER] because substack doesn’t have an editor, and I’m really annoying her by this process. So I need to start using my substack columns for writers group stuff as well.

Mike: Yeah, it is really helpful and we know that there’s just a lot less explaining to do amongst the three of us. If I were going to send something cold to another friend, I think I would have to explain a lot more about what was going on for them to get it. So that’s incredibly useful that way. But it’s funny how different it is from like growing up in a newspaper family, and I would interview someone in the morning and I would revise it four or five times in a period of like four hours and hand it to my editor who would then tell me to change three things. And the whole thing from beginning to end was less than a day. But there was no deep thought, there was no deep reflection or big structural things, and then my time sort of expanded magically as I became an academic and suddenly you can get trapped in a lot of whirlpools of uncertainty about which way to go or that way to go. Whereas in journalism, there wasn’t much choice a lot of the time.

Sarah: Writers note, I love that “whirlpools of uncertainty.” If I were in writers’ group, I would say underline it, put a little exclamation point next to it. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: Well, I was a really terrible student in an undergraduate poetry workshop at the same time my sports editor was trying to teach me to write in a linear way. And my teacher said at one point, Mike what you’re writing, as poetry is prose with line breaks in random places. And he said, “Let the language go where it wants to go.” And I was having a hard time imagining telling my sports editor that on [LAUGHTER] Friday night during high school football season, but it seriously took a long time for me to learn I could do both. I could loosen up and be this one kind of writer, and then be this very mechanical quick writer. And that took years as an undergraduate to figure out how can I do both of these things at the same time.

Rebecca: One thing I heard Sarah say is that currently you’re meeting as needed, but then I also heard in the conversation, that maybe we need these things, and we just don’t know it. So having it regularly on the calendar could be helpful. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Mm hmm.

Jim: Yes, we’re convinced now this conversation is very helpful to us. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: Yeah, and plus this almost the end of the semester, so suddenly, we’re gonna have a lot of time on our calendars.

Sarah: …well, those of us still teaching. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: Yeah.

Sarah: I’m at 12-month contract now.

MIKEL Oh, you are?

Sarah: Yeah.

Mike: For you, year round.

Rebecca: Me too, Sarah. [LAUGHTER] Maybe we need a separate writers’ group. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Or therapy. [LAUGHTER] …support group.

John: What sort of advice would you give to other people who are thinking about forming a writers’ group?

Jim: Actually, there have been been other people in the writers’ group over the years, I’ve been in other writers groups too. For me, the thing that I look for is people who I thought were sort of ambitious and were writing, because you don’t want to be the person who is trying to gather people together, when they’re just not writing, they don’t want to write, you don’t want to be like the taskmaster in a writers’ group. So find people that are writing and are interested in writing, and find people that you find interesting, you want to hear more of their thoughts. So that has always been a driver for me. And sometimes, if I’m looking for people that I want to hear their thoughts about my own writing, and I want to talk to them about their own writing, I’m gonna be more interested in going to that writers’ group and participating. And so those are sort of two general points I would make: look for people that are writing and interested in writing, and then people who are interesting, you want to see it develop and getting access to their ideas as they’re developing. And I would just say, most people, I think, are flattered, you would like to hear and read their work. So if you identify someone that and you might say, “Well, oh, you know, they’re probably too busy, or they probably already have other people to work with,” that might not be true. And so extend the invitation and see if they want to join you in pushing writing forward.

Sarah: And I think I would add, it’d be hard to figure this out, [LAUGHTER] but one thing that I appreciate about this group, and I would want in any writers’ group is having a similar level of like sensitivity and openness to feedback and criticism. So I think that all of us are really great at taking feedback and taking constructive criticism, without either taking it personally, or I think Mike referenced this, but sometimes the Jim in my head or the Jim on my page, I’m like, “Yeah, I’m not listening to you.” [LAUGHTER] But then a lot of times you do. And so t o people who are at that level of like, open to hearing criticism, but also confident enough to stick with their gut if they feel it’s right. And yeah, and so that’s a delicate thing. And it’s hard to figure out about someone without actually engaging in writers’ group. But I think if they were in your department meetings or on committees with you, kind of keep an eye and get a sense for how open they are to other people’s thoughts and how willing they are to give them.

Mike: Yeah, and along the line with open is something I always warn undergraduates about, but in grad school it would come up with separating the characters on the page, even the narrator, that that person I’m writing the first person about, it’s Mike, the narrator on that page, but it’s not necessarily all of what I am. So, ‘cause when you’re talking to someone, then you can point out stuff that you think is maybe sexist, or is whatever, but be able to talk about it in a separation where you’re not personally attacking the writer, but that you are holding that in a certain place. I think we’re really good about those sorts of things, we know the level each of us are trying to get to, we’re just trying to help each other get there and again, smooth out anything that the audience might misinterpret. That’s a mental discipline that takes a while to be learned. And I’ve had friends who have been in groups where things have devolved to name calling, and to really unfortunate situations where the writing group had to be broken up, and so I’ve even heard that happen in academic settings, like in actual seminars. Fortunately, I was not part of any of those, but where people went stomping out of the room. And so yeah, having the maturity in just the way you carry yourself in life, I guess, to know how to treat other people and work with them constructively, a really important thing. But otherwise, in terms of advice, let’s say that whatever kind of writing group you want to have, you want to sit and just right beside each other and then go have drinks that what this one’s gonna be, are you all aiming to publish and you’re trying to help each other get published? That can be a very different mentality, depending on what you’re trying to do. That’s my two cents.

John: Do any of you have any other thoughts about writing groups that you’d like to share with our listeners?

Jim: I will say just as an editor, you know, editing the book series, I can also sometimes tell people who had writers’ groups when they turn their manuscripts in who had prior readers. So just from my perspective as an editor, I absolutely recommend this, forming a writers’ group, especially if you’ve signed a contract, and you’re intimidated by it. The fact that you have this deadline, you have this big project coming up, A writers’ group can not only put some structure on to the process but also forestall a lot of the work that I will have to do as an editor. So you can make my life easier when you’ve had some prior readers who kind of work with you to iron out a lot of the kinks that have developed, as any writing project will have in the drafting.

Sarah: Yeah, my editor was very grateful for writers’ group. We met monthly, my editor for Mind Over Monsters and she was wonderful. But writers’ group was like a third character in the room. [LAUGHTER] Because we would meet monthly, I’d be like, “Alright, well, here’s the chapter, but this is what writers’ group says, and they think that I should reframe this.” So it was really like the three of us, or I guess, the four of us, melding you two into one being in the conversation and in the room. And that was an interesting process.

Mike: I think another thing that’s been interesting to me is that because Jim and Sarah have books out a lot of the time, and there’s a good bit of talk about the publishing aspect of it, there are times when say, Jim might know someone that one of us should hit up, or contact, or things like that, or how to interpret an editor’s reaction. And there’s been a good bit of conversation about those things where I kind of felt like I know, these editors I’ve never met. [LAUGHTER] I’m sure that’s a big stopping point for a lot of people is they’ve written this thing, and now they don’t know what to do. They don’t know what the path is, and how to get there, how to get someone’s attention. And so there’s a lot of talking back and forth about things like that.

Rebecca: Do you have wishes for your group moving forward?

Jim: I guess, more regular meetings.

Mike: …more regular meetings, yes. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Sounds like a way to save Jim’s marriage.[LAUGHTER]

Mike: I guess, I should sell them another road trip so I could write another road trip manuscript.

Jim: Yeah.

Sarah: There you go. I would read that.

Mike: As we sneak toward possible retirement…a travel book…that could be the plan.

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

Sarah: Well, more regular writers’ groups, I guess. But I think as Mike just referenced, he’s retiring. So he’s going to have a lot more time to write coming up. And Jim and I are both, I think at the phase of thinking about next book projects. And so maybe it’s going to be a new day for writers’ group.

Jim: That’s true. I’m actually doing the final, final, final revisions of my current book manuscript, which are due on April 22nd. So that will be coming up shortly. And so I’m in that phase where like, I’m kind of finishing everything up, and also the editing and all that stuff, and copy editing, but still at least starting to open up in the sort of creative part of your brain about like, what might be next? And so that’s maybe one final thing I might say about writers’ group is sometimes we will come in with just like a one pager of ideas. And Sarah has done that several times. And we kind of give her feedback like, this is the one that seems like it might be the best path to pursue, for example. Anyways, I’m in that space right now. So I hope that for me going forward writers’ group might help me land on the right project next.

Mike: I should mention too that just the venting of frustration is good. And it just crossed my mind, one of Jim’s funnier Facebook posts of all time was when you were finishing up a book and what you posted about how you felt about the book. I don’t know if you recall this or not?

Jim: Yeah, absolutely.

Mike: So tell them. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: So I just remember talking about the fact that whenever you finish a book, I’m just so sick of it. At that point, I never want to think about it again. [LAUGHTER] And then of course, a year later it comes out and you have to think about it all the time. [LAUGHTER] I’m a person that has multiple interests, and they sort of change on a regular basis and like, by the time I finished a book, I’m like, “Okay, I’m done with this now, what’s the next thing?” But then, you know, hopefully a year goes by when it’s coming out, and then you get interested in it again during that time, hopefully.

Mike: Well, the specific line I remember was, “I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate you, stupid book.” [LAUGHTER]. It was that quote.

Jim: Yeah.

John: Well, I can see it’s probably good that you focus on the writing and not the marketing of these books. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Yeah.

Mike: It wasn’t this book, it was a different book.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you about your work. And we’ve been hearing about this writers’ group [LAUGHTER] for a while. So we were glad to have the opportunity to dive in a little more deeply.

John: And we’re also grateful that we’ve been able to benefit from the writers’ group. I was just thinking back, four of our reading groups over the last few years were products of this writing group.

Jim: Wow.

John: So we appreciate the work that you’ve been doing.

Jim: That’s very cool.

Sarah: Thank you. It’s an honor.

Mike: 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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


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.


291. Navigating Teaching Inequities

While women faculty of color are underrepresented in the professoriate, they are responsible for a disproportionate share of faculty workload. In this episode, Chavella Pittman joins us to discuss strategies that can be used by individual faculty and by institutions to create a more equitable workload distribution. Chavella is a Professor of Sociology at Dominican University. She is also the founder of Effective & Efficient Faculty, a faculty development company that works extensively with faculty and campuses across the country to help them develop strategies for inclusive learning environments and the retention of diverse students and faculty. Her research interests and expertise include higher education, interpersonal interactions and marginalized statuses, research methods, and statistics. Chavella is also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes

  • Effective & Efficient Faculty
  • Neuhaus, J. (Ed.). (2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • 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 NeuhausWest Virginia University Press.
  • Winklemes, Mary-Ann (2023). “Transparency in Learning and Teaching.” Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 290. May 24.


John: While women faculty of color are underrepresented in the professoriate, they are responsible for a disproportionate share of faculty workload. In this episode, we discuss strategies that can be used by individual faculty and by institutions to create a more equitable workload distribution.


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 Chavella Pittman. Chavella is a Professor of Sociology at Dominican University. She is also the founder of Effective & Efficient Faculty, a faculty development company that works extensively with faculty and campuses across the country to help them develop strategies for inclusive learning environments and the retention of diverse students and faculty. Her research interests and expertise include higher education, interpersonal interactions and marginalized statuses, research methods, and statistics. Chevella is also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by our friend Jessamyn Neuhaus, and that’s what we’ll be talking about here today. Welcome back, Chavella.

Chavella: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me back. I enjoyed my last conversation, so I’m looking forward to this one.

John: We did too. And it’s about time we have your back on again.

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

Chavella: I am. I have a lemon and ginger tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds so delightful.

John: And I am drinking a Dragon Oolong tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s a difference for you, John.

John: It is. it’s been in the office for a while and it’s been sitting there feeling lonely. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: We have a good variety today because I have a hot cinnamon spice tea.

Chavella: Oooh. [LAUGHTER]

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: We couldn’t get I think many more different options today. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor entitled “Empowered Strategies for Women Faculty of Color: Navigating Teaching Inequities in Higher Ed.” While most colleges have substantially increased the diversity of their student body in the last decade or so, faculty still remained substantially less diverse. Could you talk a bit about the representation of women faculty of color among college faculty?

Chavella: Yes, absolutely. I think that people think that there are more of us than there are. [LAUGHTER] I think people know the numbers are low, but I don’t think they realize like how low the numbers are. So specifically, when you take a look, I think if we’re looking just at women, white women are 35% of US college faculty and women of color are about 7% total. So across all the groups, there’s about 7% of us. So 3%, Asian, about 2%, black, less than 1% of Latinos and about, you know, less than 1%, of Native American. So I think that with all of the talk of diversity, the valuing of diversity, the saying, “we’re going to do the this and the that,” people think that our numbers are much, much larger, and they are really, really low. And they don’t match the population in the US. That’s usually the measure of whether or not groups are underrepresented or not, if they match the numbers in the population. And so yes, there is very few of us out there.

Rebecca: So we were just talking about how faculty of color are disproportionately underrepresented among faculty generally, but also among tenured faculty. And while this might be partly the result of recent increased efforts to diversify the professoriate, you note that this is also due to many women faculty of color leaving academia because of the higher demands placed on them. Can you talk a little bit about the additional labor that’s required of women faculty of color in particular?

Chavella: Yes. One thing I didn’t say before, is that, and this sort of, I think, lay’s upon this question as well, is that even though we’re underrepresented in college faculty, we’re over-represented in certain types of roles. So more of us are likely to be contingent faculty, we’re more likely to be at minority-serving institutions, we’re more likely to be at community colleges, we’re more likely to be at the lower ranks if we’re tenure track at all. So part of the reason I’m adding it here is because it connects a little bit to the additional labor that’s required by women faculty of color, or just women instructors of color, which is that we tend to have teaching overloads, we tend to have like actual higher teaching loads. Somebody might be teaching like one niche course on their research topic, like a seminar, like five to 10 students, but then women faculty of color are teaching, if they’re teaching one course, it’s like a service course. So like, you know, 75 to 300 students. So even if the load is the same, what the load looks like is different because we end up in a lot of these service courses, but in actuality, the load usually is not the same. We usually have the higher load. A lot of faculty that are from privileged statuses, they’re buying out of their teaching in some way, shape, or form. They’re reassigned in some sort of leadership role. So that person really might have a load of one course, whereas a woman of color, who’s an instructor of faculty might have a load of 3, 4, 5, 6 courses, if they’re teaching an overload to sort of make up for whatever… financial things sometimes usually… but sometimes it’s just the way people are assigning us. In addition to actually having a higher teaching load, they tend to have more labor dealing with colleague and student resistance to their teaching. So that takes effort, that takes cognitive load, that takes emotional load, that takes affective load, to deal with colleagues and students that are actively resisting your teaching. So that’s some of the additional labor, and in the prep that comes with sort of trying to navigate some of the inequities of like having too high of a teaching load, and having people who are on a regular basis, challenging your teaching. There’s all sorts of ways in which labor ends up sort of multiplying, but those are the ways that sort of makes the most sense to discuss straight out: teaching overload, student challenges, and then like navigating all of the things. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m sure some of that also includes increased mentorship among certain populations of students, getting asked to provide service on certain kinds of committees, that your colleagues are not being asked to do.

Chavella: Absolutely. And in sitting on all the committees that have anything to do with curriculum or pedagogy. And the funny thing is, I rarely mention those. I mean, obviously, the research shows that the women of color are the ones that are providing a lot of that advising, not just to students of color, and students that are marginalized, they’re providing that advising to all of the students, they’re providing that mentoring to all of the students, I tend to not mention those because a lot of times, allies or administrators think that it’s our choice, and sometimes it is our choice. But give us credit for that. We’re doing the labor that the institution says that it values, but we’re not given credit for that. And then sometimes it actually isn’t our choice. A lot of people are asked to be on all of those committees, they’re asked to write those letters, they’re asked to mentor those students. And because we tend to be in these contingent, lower status roles, we don’t often feel that we have the space to say no, even if we are actually overwhelmed by that labor.

John: So in addition to resistance that may be due to racist attitudes, you also note that one of the reasons why there may be some resistance is that women faculty of color often use somewhat different teaching techniques than the general college faculty. Could you talk a little bit about some of the differences in terms of the methods of teaching that are often adopted by women faculty of color?

Chavella: Yes, absolutely, and it’s one of the reasons I wrote this chapter is because a lot of times, the narratives that women faculty of color hear about their teaching are negative, and they’re deficiency based. And it’s because a lot of us don’t know the scholarship of teaching and learning. We don’t know the pedagogy stuff. We are experts in our discipline, but not of the practices that we’re actually using. And so I wrote this chapter, because I wanted people to really see all of the wonderful beauties and benefits and all the fantastic things they’re doing in theirteaching. So I really wanted women faculty of color, to have a different narrative about their teaching. So the research is pretty clear about a couple of features about the pedagogy for women faculty of color. We tend to use more innovative, evidence-based and transformative pedagogy. We’re more likely to do things like active learning, or collaborative teaching, we’re more likely to focus on higher-order cognitive skills, instead of surface learning. We’re more likely to have assignments that are connected to the real world. We’re also more likely to have assignments that are connected to diversity in some way, shape, or form. We’re also more likely to focus on learning goals that are beyond just the straight knowledge and the straight skills, we’re more likely to include things that are about affective emotional, moral, or civic development of students. We’re more likely to encourage them to think critically, and to think about society in structural ways. So those are just a couple of examples. And I think that sometimes when folks hear that list or allies, they’re like, “Oh, I do that, too.” I’m like “Ok.” Yes, no one is saying you don’t do that. [LAUGHTER] But as a group, women faculty of color are doing that at a higher rate. They’re doing it more often, it’s woven through all of their courses. It’s not just the courseware, they happen to have some sort of diversity topic. And so we’re engaging in all of these pedagogies that are shown to be transformative, to have like high payoffs for student learning. But no one is acknowledging that. And so I’m glad that you asked that question because it is one of the reasons that I wrote the chapter. I want women faculty of color to sort of stick their chest out a little bit and be proud [LAUGHTER] of all the fantastic things they’re doing.

John: And those are things that teaching centers have long been advocating that all faculty do, so it sounds really great.

CHVELLA: Yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: So you talk about these kinds of teaching strategies that are maybe less common and that we certainly advocate for in the teaching center and on this podcast: evidence-based practices, active learning, etc. But we also know that faculty who are using these teaching methods face resistance from students, in student feedback, for example. Can you talk a little bit about the bias that we see in student evaluations and peer evaluations, when looking at these teaching strategies?

Chavella: Yeah, at the end of the day, our colleagues and our students are used to what’s familiar, which a lot of times is not what’s best practice. So people, they might be used to being taught a particular way. So then when you come in doing active learning, when they’re used to being in a more of a passive scenario, they’re going to resist, they are now thinking you’ve done something wrong. They already think that you’re not credible in some sort of way. And so the fact that you’re doing something different, they’re using that as evidence that you don’t know what you’re doing. And it’s the same thing with our peers, our peers very much so think that the way that they’ve been doing it is the way that it is to be done. So the moment that you start having some sort of active learning instead of standing in front of the classroom lecturing in a very non-interactive way for like an hour, they’re now thinking that you have done something wrong as well. So all of that stuff gets baked into the formal evaluation of teaching. So this is how we end up with these negative narratives of women faculty of colors, teaching, because colleagues are like, “What are you doing? You’re doing something that’s wrong and disruptive, and it’s not what I’m doing.” And then students are complaining to those same colleagues that, “Hey, this person is doing something that’s different, that’s wrong, and it’s disruptive that I don’t like,” but then that gets baked into the narrative of “The teacher is incompetent, they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re getting low evaluations. Their peers evaluating them in ways that are negative.” And so it’s not aligned at all, because what we’re doing is actually what the research says we’re supposed to be doing, it’s just not common practice.

John: And peer evaluations are generally not done by people who have been trained in effective teaching methods or in effective peer evaluation. And they’re often more senior members of the faculty who are likely to be using more lecture in their classes. So that problem is a pretty serious one, it would be nice if we could somehow improve on in the institution.

Chavella: It’s insane. It’s totally insane. And the point that you just made, very often, that’s who’s giving feedback to the faculty that I work with, faculty that come to me as clients is that it is the senior person, it’s the chair in their department that’s like giving them teaching advice. And I’m like, “That’s bonkers, [LAUGHTER] like what they’re suggesting, no one would tell you to do,” but that person is just so gung ho that they know what that person needs to do, and usually it’s like, flat out wrong. It’s not even like halfway in the ballpark. It’s like completely wrong. So yes, I wish we could solve that.

Rebecca: And I think there are faculty in power, who can help to start to solve that, and we need to advocate for evaluations that reflect good teaching and evidence-based practices that in and of itself, will move the needle.

Chavella: Absolutely. I mean, I say the same five things over and over again, that institutions should be doing: the need to sort of monitor and adjust course assignment, you can keep an eye on what those loads actually are for people; to establish a policy for disruptive student classroom behavior, so that there’s some recourse for faculty who are dealing with students who are resisting; promote faculty development opportunities, and reward effective pedagogy, so actually make it a practice so that people know that these are the best practices, and that they’re actually rewarded for using them; provide training on how to interpret the student ratings, which the student evaluations are their own beast, which is why I separate that from implementing sound practices to evaluate teaching for tenure and promotion, that’s more of a holistic thing. And then some campuses don’t have teaching centers, or they’re overwhelmed with other things, or they have a specialty on something other than diverse faculty, or evaluating teaching, which is why I think places should also allocate resources for faculty to get that sort of support off campus, like every teaching center, they can’t be everything to everybody. And so I say those same things over and over again, those are the six sort of pieces of advice that I give to institutions over and over again, to sort of deal with the teaching inequities that women faculty of color, and a lot of other diverse faculty, face.

John: In this chapter. You also note that women faculty of color provide many benefits to the students besides the effective teaching methods that they’re using in their classes in preparing students for a future career and life in a diverse world. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Chavella: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think that people get stuck on the idea of college being a place where students come, you teach them the ABCs and math, they come in, they go out and that’s the end of it. When you really look at the purpose of college, it’s actually a much more broad set of outcomes that we want for our students. Unfortunately, are more traditional colleagues are focusing on the ABCs and the math, but the faculty that tend to come from diverse backgrounds, including women, faculty of color, are focusing on that broader range of skills. So I’ll give an example just to make it concrete so I’m not just saying things that are abstract. The AACU has their essential learning outcomes. And whether you abide by these or not, it’s a useful framing. There are four categories. I think most people focus on the knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world. That’s where you actually learned the ABCs and the math, essentially. And then the intellectual and practical skills, people start inching a little bit into that category. So the critical thinking, writing, those things that skill, teamwork, but very few people actually focus on teamwork and problem solving, in terms of goals for college which faculty are trying to do. But there are two other categories: personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning. And the personal and social responsibility are the things that are meant to benefit society. One of the goals of college is to set our students up so that they can actually do well in society, but also to continue society and for it to do well. So some of the goals there are like: civic knowledge and engagement, intercultural knowledge, ethical reasoning, foundations and skills for lifelong learning. So those are the things that our women faculty of color are also focusing on in addition to those other categories. The last category is about applying all of the other categories to the real world, which I mentioned in some of their pedagogy. So they absolutely are, like, “Great, you’ve learned the ABCs, you’ve learned how to do some math, how to communicate ethical reasoning, now we’re going to take a look at how does that apply to the water crisis in Flint.” So using all the things that they’ve learned to apply them to new contexts and to complicated problems. So they’re doing that as well. So that’s how they benefit society by making sure that they’re developing well-rounded folks, versus just teaching them the ABCs and one, two, three.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a lot about the great contributions women faculty of color have in higher education. And we also talked a bit about some of the resistance and barriers that they face. What are some strategies that you offer to faculty of color to overcome some of these biases and inequities, or at least push against them, and give a little bit of a leg up.

Chavella: The other reason that I wrote this chapter is because in addition to wanting women faculty of color, to be able to stick their chest out and be proud, I wanted them to actually be able to be proactive and push back a little bit. Because the teaching isn’t just about the student learning, like these are people’s careers, they just depend on these things for their livelihood. And so the last thing I want is for them to face these inequities and then be out of a job. Essentially, you can’t just talk about student learning, and not talk about the actual reality of a pending review. So whether it’s a review for renewal, a review for tenure, or a review for promotion, and so I made it a point to have a couple of strategies in the chapter of what people can do to sort of deal with these things. And they’re, I don’t want to say basic, but they’re easily attainable, keeping in mind that they already have all this other labor on their shoulders and that institutions should actually be coming up with these solutions, but they’re not, immediately. So the first thing that I encourage people to do is to have a very intentional teaching narrative, which means most of the people that women faculty of color are going to interact with, they aren’t going to actually know the research on our teaching, they are going to have either a neutral or a negative view on our teaching. So you have to have a narrative that’s very explicit, you have to have a narrative that’s informing people, that’s teaching people, that’s educating people about what it is that you’re doing. So you need to be able to say, “I engage in these types of pedagogy, they’re evidence-based, here are the learning goals that I’m trying to achieve with these pedagogies, here’s how this is aligned with the university mission.” So you have to have a very intentional narrative about your teaching, you can’t just be casual about it, you have to be intentional, just to be strategic. And then you have to actually share that narrative. You can’t just sort of get it together for your own edification, and only in your circles that are trusted. You need to be telling that to allies, to administrators, etc., because that’s part of educating and informing people that what you’re doing is not being an agitator, or an outlier. Well, [LAUGHTER] you probably are an agitator or an outlier. But the thing is, you’re doing it right. So, [LAUGHTER] that’s what you need to be informed that you’re actually doing it right. So that narrative has to actually be floating around, because otherwise the only narrative out there is that you’re deficient in some way, shape, or form. And because the way that people currently assess teaching quality is primarily through student evals, which we’ve already talked, people don’t know how to do the numbers, the way they do peer reviews is horrible, you have to have some other sort of evidence that what you’re doing is effective. And so you have to document student learning. So you have to have a way that you’re collecting and analyzing and sharing data that shows that what you’re actually doing in your classroom is successful. And you can’t leave that up to someone else. Because those others probably aren’t going to have a lot of experience dealing with folks who have teaching inequities. They’re not used to it being make or break for your career. So you have to be in a habit of collecting your own data, or analyzing your data, communicating your own data on student learning. And it could be simple stuff, it could be like a pre-post test, maybe the first day of class, you give students like a 10 item quiz of things that they should know by the middle of the class, end of class and then you give a post test, it could be doing something similar at the beginning and end of a course session, you could have students write multiple drafts, and you do an analysis of an early draft, and you do one of a later draft. So it doesn’t have to be labor intensive. But you do have to have your own data. Because unfortunately, the data that people are using of student learning isn’t actual evidence of student learning. So those are the things that I would suggest that women faculty of color do until allies and institutions come to speed about the other suggestions that I made.

Rebecca: I love that you’re advocating building it into your process, that it’s not an add on, but can be really informative to what you’re doing. And therefore it’s just part of what you’re doing. Because otherwise it often feels like so much extra.

Chavella: Yes. I feel so guilty, sometimes telling folks like, “Yes, you’re juggling an actual teaching overload. Yes, you’re juggling a mentoring overload. Yes, you’re having to deal with all this resistance. And let me add this extra thing to your plate.” But it’s required, because it’s going to give you a little bit of space to reflect on what you’re doing, breathe, be acknowledged for it, instead of being punished for it, I guess, so to speak. But yes, very much so baked into what you’re already doing. So I like to tell people the easy lift things to do.

Rebecca: I like that strategy.

John: One of the nice things of this approach is that to the extent to which faculty are sharing teaching narratives about effective practice and documenting student learning, that can have some nice… well, in economics, we refer to them as externalities… that, while they benefit the students directly from the use of these techniques, to the extent to which he is shared with other faculty members who then can learn about more effective ways of increasing student learning, those practices can become more diffuse in the institution, which is something I think many of us would like to see.

Chavella: Absolutely. I talk about that explicitly, because that’s what I want allied colleagues and that’s what I want faculty developers to do, I’m suggesting things at the institutional level, for sure. But the things that people could do at an individual level are to mimic these practices to make them normal. So that it’s not just the diverse faculty or the marginalized faculty or the women faculty of color that are doing these things, but so that everybody’s doing it. So the more normative it gets it would benefit student learning and teaching all around, but it very much still would make it be much more of a mainstream practice, it would just be beneficial to everybody,

Rebecca: I think it’s helpful too to have a box of strategies that you can use as an individual and with your colleagues to kind of have a ground up approach as well as institutional strategies from the top down so that maybe we can meet somewhere in the middle. [LAUGHTER]

Chavella: Absolutely. I love the middle. I’m a social psychologist, so I love the middle. [LAUGHTER] I think so many things honestly get done at the middle. I mean, exactly because of what you just said. I think of an example of that, one of the things I was suggesting that institutions can do to deal with these inequities is for them to establish a policy for disruptive student classroom behavior. That’s very much one that an allied colleague could do in their own classroom, that a faculty developer could suggest to a whole bunch of faculty, like a cohort or two of faculty, that if the policy doesn’t come from the top, it can very much still come from the bottom. As people start to see it, it becomes more normative. Students start to realize different things help and inhibit my learning and different professors. It just makes it normative, that it’s not the wild, wild west, essentially, in the classroom.

Rebecca: I love this reflective approach too, in terms of having your own teaching narrative and sharing that, especially when sometimes you really do feel beaten down, taken advantage of, tossed around. It gives time and space and requires time and space to recognize success or to recognize that what you have done has actually made a difference and to see that other narrative.

Chavella: Absolutely, and it’s one of the things I love most about working with faculty is women of color will tell me like “Oh, you know, I do this thing in my class,” and they’ll describe just the logistics of what they’re doing and what they’re trying to do, and I usually have like a term for it. Like I’m like, “Oh, that’s XYZ pedagogy and like, that’s the goal” and they’re like, “Oh!” So they’re doing all this fantastic stuff, they just don’t always have the language for it, to be able to talk about it sort of out front. So I love being able to give them the language and say, “Hey, this thing that you’re doing that students are very clear that they hate [LAUGHTER] and are telling everybody that they hate, that this is actually the right thing to do, and here’s how you can communicate it to your colleagues that this is what you’re doing. This is where you’re trying to get students to go. And this is why it’s important for you to do it.” Those conversations. are the best for me, because people seem to just like intuitively know how to bring folks into the learning a lot of times from their own experiences either being taught well, or not being taught well as diverse folks. So being able to give them the language in the scholarship of teaching and learning has been a very powerful thing for people to experience.

Rebecca: One of the things I wanted to follow up on, is we talked about sharing the teaching narrative with colleagues, but what about sharing with students? Would you recommend that to women faculty of color?

Chavella: Absolutely. I always recommend this to my diverse faculty. And first of all, I have them put it on their syllabus, usually as an abbreviated teaching philosophy statement. There’s a lot of research about like transparency in learning and how it aids students learning. And I think what it does is it makes it really plain to students that what you’re doing is backed up in the research. So even if it’s not familiar to them, it’s an evidence-based practice. It also makes it really plain to students that the learning goals that you have for them, again, are backed up by the research, because some of the resistance that students give women faculty of color, sometimes, they’ll say, “Oh, this is your opinion, or this is an agenda.” It’s like, no, that’s not what’s going on here at all, I’m trying to actually build your skill in this particular way. And this is the goal, I’m not trying to convert you to a way of thinking. I’m trying to get you to achieve this particular skill. to have this particular outcome. So I always advise diverse faculty to put these things on their syllabus as a way of communicating to students that these are evidence-based practices, these are known and lauded learning outcomes. So I very much will always make sure that they engage in a particular practice on their syllabus. Again, it’s strategic, but it’s very helpful. [LAUGHTER]

John: And we can put a plug in for that we just recorded with Mary-Ann Winklemes, who talks about transparency and learning and teaching and the benefits that result from that. So that’s a nice tie in.

Chavella: Absolutely. Her work is what I’m usually reading about TILT. So yes, I love her work. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: You know, Chavella, I think we often see underrepresented faculty having a lot of struggle. But we also know that this group of faculty is really passionate about what they do. That’s why they explore different kinds of pedagogies and believe in evidence-based practices. What advice do you have to help us all see that joy in teaching and have a really positive way of looking at our roles as faculty members at our institutions,

Chavella: What I would really like to see and where my work has always existed, but where it’s about to go more fully on the front stage, like this is the backstage version of my work, is that I would love for this work to be more about faculty wellness, about faculty development and success, instead of just about faculty productivity. So I’m very much interested in whole faculty development. So work is one part of what we do, but we actually have to have full, rewarding, sustaining lives away from work in order for us to even bring the best version of ourselves and for us to be able to contribute at work. So that’s what I would like people to be much more open about in the front stage and to think about much more in the front stage, is sort of faculty wellness overall. And the timing couldn’t be better for these conversations. Burnout was already existing for a lot of our women faculty of color, a lot of our diverse faculty. The pandemic, George Floyd, like all of these things made it worse. And so maybe this is the point where institutions will really be curious to pursue it, as they see that people are quiet quitting and great resignation and burning out, browning out, etc. Maybe this will be the time for them to actually start investing in the development and the wellness of faculty as humans, not just as cogs in the machine.

Rebecca: It’s interesting when you’re framing it like that, Chevella, because we often talk about things being really student centered. And I’m always thinking like, “Why aren’t we making it people centered, because faculty and staff are also part of the bigger community of learning and making sure that learning kind of is happening up and down and around.” And that’s really what higher ed is about, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.

Chavella: No, it doesn’t at all, and depending on what day you catch me, [LAUGHTER] I’ll tell you… well I’m saying it in a flip way… I will say I care less about the students, I care more about the faculty. But for me caring for the faculty is caring for the students. So it doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the students and I’m not focused on them. I’m focused on them by being focused on the faculty. So I’m very, very, very faculty centered in what I do and staff centered as well, but just trying to shift the lens so that we’re not just only looking at students, because like you said, there are other parts of that equation.

Rebecca: Come to find out we’re all human.

Chavella: Yes, turns out. [LAUGHTER] Who knew? [LAUGHTER]

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

Chavella: Well, again, my book is still forthcoming. So I have an entire book that’s for women faculty of color, about navigating these teaching inequities. So that chapter is just sort of a sliver of perspective shifting and strategic advice so that women faculty of color can be successful. And then the book is like a much larger version, a much more in-depth version, for how people can, again, have a shift in lens on their teaching, protect themselves from inequities. And there is a chapter in it about joy, about engaging in joy. So that’s the thing that’s what’s next, and I’ll continue to do things that promote for faculty to be whole, well, happy people, not just cogs in a machine. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m in it for the joy. Let’s have more joy. [LAUGHTER]

John: Joy is good.

Chavella: Absolutely.

Rebecca: We’re looking forward to talking to you again when your book is ready to come out.

Chavella: Absolutely. I’ll be back here with bells on ready to chat about it.

John: Well, thank you. It’s always great talking to you. And we’re looking forward to that next conversation.

Chavella: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me on.

Rebecca: It’s always our pleasure.


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.


273. North of Neutral

Reports of student mental health concerns have been rising steadily during the last few years. The traditional approach is to assist those dealing with these concerns only after they have been reported. In this episode, Amy Bidwell joins us to discuss an alternative approach that focuses on strategies that can help our students improve their ability to thrive, even under adverse conditions.

Show Notes

  • A video in which Christpher Peterson described positive psychology.
  • Martin Seligman
  • Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 1-53). Academic Press.
  • PubMed
  • Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. JHU Press.


John: Reports of student mental health concerns have been rising steadily during the last few years. The traditional approach is to assist those dealing with these concerns only after they have been reported. In this episode, we explore an alternative approach that focuses on strategies that can help our students improve their ability to thrive, even under adverse conditions.


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 Bidwell, an associate professor and the chair of the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome back, Amy.

Amy: Thank you, John. Thank you, Rebecca.

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

Amy: I had tea earlier. And I was going to show you my mug but you can’t really see it anyways, It’s called Be Well, but it was a new raspberry green tea that I got for Christmas. Very good actually.

Rebecca: That sounds good. How about you, John?

John: And on a similar theme, mine isn’t so much “be well,” but it is a blueberry green tea.

Rebecca: Mine at least sounds well. It’s the Hunan Jig.

Amy: I don’t know what that is.

Rebecca: It’s a black tea that has some blonde tips in it. That’s pretty tasty.

Amy: Wow, I was thinking, the blueberry one, lots of antioxidants. That’s good.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss some strategies that can be used for anyone to improve their morale during these relatively challenging times. Could you talk a little bit about some strategies that people can use to improve their general mood?

Amy: Definitely. Thank you, John. Thank you, Rebecca, for having me. One thing that I would love to just start with is the fact that we all know generally what we’re supposed to do to stay well, yet, we aren’t exactly well, especially right now. And so I think the approach that I take from this is slightly different in a sense, where it really looks at the overall person in terms of more, how do we thrive in life? Not “are we healthy?” Because that’s one thing. Yes, we’re drinking our blueberry tea. But are we actually thriving in life? Are we happy in life. And I think that there’s a distinct difference there. There’s the “I’m healthy,” and “I’m well.” And if you go to the doctor, and you get a good, clean checkup, and your cholesterol is good, and your blood pressure is good, you walk out and you’re like, “Ah, good, I’m healthy,” but are you well? and that’s really the perspective that I take. Because if you look at overall health, it really looks at “are all of your measurements healthy?” But what thriving really looks at is we really want to stay with what we call “north of neutral.” And Christopher Peterson is a huge researcher, he has since passed, that really put this into the forefront, which is how do we stay north of neutral? So the typical kind of treatment method of health is to make sure that we’re treating any sort of issues so that you can be healthy. Well, staying north of neutral is really developing skills in your toolbox, resources in your toolbox, to allow yourself to stay healthy and well, so that when adverse things happen, like major pandemics, your body, your mental state, your physical state, can actually absorb that trauma and that stress and be able to handle it and still be considered well. And that’s really the difference. So if we look at a treatment method, from more of the traditional psychological perspective, really take somebody that may have some mental health issues, disorders and then treat them to get them at that zero baseline. So we go from maybe a negative seven, where we have some sort of mental health disorder, to a zero, but then when a pandemic hits, or something as simple as a nasty email that pops into your inbox just really bothers you, right? So you’re now at a zero and then you went back to your negative. We don’t want that negative, right? So if we can keep people north of neutral, and so again, at maybe a positive six, positive seven, when they get that nasty email, it might pop them to maybe a four, but they’re still on that positive side. And so that’s really that difference. And obviously, when you have significant trauma, a death in the family, a pandemic, loss of job, those are going to impact your overall well being much more. But again, if you can stay north of neutral, it still won’t get you to that zero or negative side. And so a lot of the tools and strategies that I have researched myself, but there’s actually an enormous amount of research… I counted this morning, I have 77 articles on my computer right now that are waiting for me to do a systemic review on. I haven’t done it yet. They’ve been sitting there and they’re going to get done soon. Martin Seligman is kind of the founder of positive psychology in the modern day, and he was, I believe it was in 96ish, he was the American Psychological Association president for a year and that’s when he really started working with Christopher Peterson and kind of looked at this phenomenon of north of neutral. And why are we focusing so much on treatment, when we could actually be focusing on prevention? So he started this positive psychology movement, which has since really turned into more the study of human flourishing. Some of the theory that Martin Seligman came up with is this theory of wellbeing that looks at PERMA. And what PERMA is, is positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, accomplishments, and then since over the past 10 years, vitality has been attached to that. But what that is, is those are those six components that an individual must have in order to truly flourish and thrive in life. So staying north of neutral. And what I’ve really been researching is those six aspects, and I’ve actually used them in my classroom a lot.

Rebecca: One of the things that we’re always thinking about is, and we’ve talked a lot about mental health challenges that our students are facing and also burnout [LAUGHTER] that faculty are facing from addressing a lot of the urgency around the pandemic, and you’re talking a lot about moving to north of neutral, I think many of us are feeling like AAAHHHH, [LAUGHTER] still having a lot of stress. So what are some strategies to help us as faculty and staff maybe stay north of neutral or get a little above neutral so that we are able to handle the stressors of our everyday jobs and the added stress of working with other people?

Amy: Rebecca, that’s a great question. There’s many answers, but the easiest that everybody can do right now is social media. So what I mean by that is, I don’t know what the percentage is, but John, you probably have this stat somewhere, the percentage of negative comments that are on social media versus positive. My number one recommendation is, and I did this myself, I have completely gotten off social media. Now, when I say that, I still use Pinterest once a while, I’m not sure if that’s considered social media, but I do have a backyard I’m trying to landscape. But when you get up in the morning, everybody grabs their phone to turn their alarm off, you need to put that phone right back down. A lot of the research says that for the first hour that you’re awake, no technology… imagine that, like John, comprehend that one. He’s thinking, nope, that’s not gonna happen. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ll see. I’m mostly just on Facebook and Twitter, and that’s only positive material, [LAUGHTER], as I’m sure you’ve experienced too.

Amy: Which is why I don’t have Facebook and Twitter anymore. [LAUGHTER] And honestly, it’s funny, because I’ve had this conversation with people about Facebook. And of course, you know, in my generation, that’s kind of what it was. My daughter does Snapchat, but I’m the Facebook generation. So the thing is, even if you go on today, and you see your best friend in this beautiful Caribbean vacation, it’s supposed to be something happy, right? Well, not so much. Because as I’m sitting in my office, I’m looking at a rainy gray sky. So immediately, my emotion has now changed. And ironically, as I’m miserable looking out my window, because it’s gray and gloomy out, I just received an email from someone berating me about something I didn’t do. So now I’ve just gotten a little bit higher, and it just compiles and then I have someone knocking on my office door… this isn’t really happening… but someone knocking on my office door asking more from me. And it’s like, AAhh, I can’t do it. And all this started with looking at my friend’s Caribbean vacation. And again, there’s a ton of research to support how our emotions are affected the second we wake up. So another tool that’s really great… and I got my students to do this… is okay, your alarm goes off, you turn the alarm off, you turn your phone off, you’re not gonna get on technology. Before you get out of bed, visualize your day. So for instance, Rebecca, you had already mentioned that you have three recordings on Friday. So immediately that’s stress, right, the immediate stress that that can cause. I’ll use a different example. I unfortunately had a cousin pass away unexpectedly a few months ago. And all of a sudden, I found out I had to drive my mother to North Carolina. So in a car for 12 hours with my mother, just the two of us. And it was like, “Okay, the next day we had to go.” And so when I woke up in the morning, I immediately visualized what my day could look like, not what I’m thinking it might look like but what do I want it to look like? And so by doing that, the second you wake up, visualizing the good in your day, instead of “Oh my gosh, I have five meetings, three recordings. I have to sit in the car for 12 hours with my mother,” those types of little tiny things are things that can really help us

Rebecca: I think in a time of great distress, little things are always a good first step, for sure.

Amy: And that’s what it’s a lot about, is these little things. And when people think of positive psychology and the science of happiness, they kind of immediately go to oh, “let’s just walk in a room and be happy.” It’s not that at all, it’s these little tiny things. And again, it starts with the second you wake up in the morning. A tool that I used with my students, that was amazing, first time I ever did it this November, right before Thanksgiving break, I had them all sit in class and write a letter to someone that they’re grateful for, and grateful letters, they have been researched for the last few decades of the importance of positive emotion. But the kicker was they had to write it, then when they went home, they had to go to the person’s house, stand there and read it to them. They said it was literally life changing. And not only that, the research shows that doing grateful letters or gratefulness, the impact over a long period of time is substantial. And so that’s a really great simple, simple thing that we can do to help improve our day-to-day emotions.

John: And even just reflections on things to be grateful each day have been shown to be effective in improving overall happiness and satisfaction.

Rebecca: If we all start with a little more gratitude, we probably will be much happier when we’re around other people and [LAUGHTER] we’ll spread the gratitude-ness. [LAUGHTER]

Amy: But Rebecca, what you said, that’s actually scientifically proven, that if the three of us are in a room together, and I come in in a more positive mood, it immediately affects you too. And so I have really changed as a department chair. Unfortunately, when I took over as department chair COVID hit the next semester. So my whole experience as chair has essentially been putting band aids on things. But the first 18 months or so I would walk in a room like a chicken with my head cut off. And what happens is that vibe is now spread across my conference room. Since I started taking this nine-month training that I was granted funding through SAMSHA and the Counseling Center to basically learn the scientific study of human flourishing, I have completely changed my approach to meetings. And it’s something as simple as my attitude walking through the door. I’m not rushed. I’m not flustered. It completely changes the vibe of your staff.

REBECCAS: …or of a classroom, I am sure.

Amy: Yes, and I haven’t mastered the art of getting to class early yet. At some point I will. I get there on time, but definitely not early. I agree with that 100%, and I certainly can share some ideas of things to use in the classroom as well.

John: You started with an acronym, maybe if you could talk a little bit about each of the components and provide an example of how each component can be used in practice.

Amy: Definitely. So, again, PERMA-V. So P is positive emotion. And that’s really where most of the research is at this point. And this is something in the classroom that can be really important because if we look at Barbara Fredrickson’s research on broaden and build, there is so much research on changing the attitude of the classroom the second you walk in to more of a positive state. It could be that, and I was just discussing this with someone earlier on a meeting, having each person go around and just quickly yell out one thing that they’re grateful for that day. Now, obviously, John, in your 400 Student economics class that might take some time. With that said, if you just, once a week or twice a week, have three people randomly do it, it keeps people on their toes. And that immediately changes the vibe of the classroom, which then increases those individuals’ ability to learn and retain information. So the positive emotions, there’s a ton of research with that, from an employee/faculty idea is this kind of negativity bias. And again, that’s something that’s been studied a lot. And that’s the thought of going in with that negative emotion. So I’m walking into a staff meeting, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we have another meeting about meetings. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to listen to this person just sit on their soapbox.” So going in with a positive attitude and saying, “I’m excited to see my colleagues again,” really changes things up. The next one is engagement. And this is where you are in a situation where you are 100% engaged in what you’re doing. And so I can just see looking at John and Rebecca they’re just totally engaged with what I’m saying.

Rebecca: And so you only can see that because we’re on video while we’re recording [LAUGHTER]

Amy: But, you were so engaged with what I’m saying, I’m sure. And I know everybody that listens to the Tea for Teaching is very much engaged in what they’re listening to. And so think of something that you can do every day where you completely lose track of time. For me, it’s reading, I just absolutely love to read. I’m going to say actually, it’s also going down the research black hole on PubMed. But those are the things where you completely lose track of time. Your classroom, you want to give students activities or something that they can do where they actually are so engaged that they lose track of time, which I don’t know if anyone’s really mastered that yet, but we’ll get there. Relationships, research shows that social wellness, in fact, a lot of the COVID research now they’re saying that the social isolation that we experienced during COVID was more detrimental to our health than obesity. So I find that interesting. Relationships from a college perspective, one of the number one reasons students leave college, they don’t feel socially connected to the campus. We have to provide relationships. So breaking down those barriers with our students where the professor is up here and students down here, we want to try to create those relationships where the students understand that it’s not just this person speaking to us, but they’re with us.

Rebecca: It seems like the Relationship-Rich Education book would be a great resource for people to tap into to think about ways and roles that relationships play in a positive affect towards their college or university.

Amy: In fact, when I was reading that book, I was part of that book club, it was almost like I was reading a book on human flourishing, it was spot on; everything that they said was spot on. So I agree with that. Meaning… meaning is “What is your overall purpose in life?” And I do this with my students, especially with first-year students. Okay, what do you want to do when you graduate? Okay, I want to be an engineer, I want to be an economist. But what is your passion? What is your purpose? In 10 years from now, when your alarm goes off on a Monday morning, after a long weekend, do you jump out of bed? Or do you say, “Uh, I gotta go collect my paycheck.” You want to do something that truly brings you some sort of purpose or meaning. For me, it’s helping my daughter with her homework. That’s not much. But that gives me a sense of purpose. Accomplishment… we all know we need this, not to say that we give everybody a trophy, but we need to experience some sort of excellence or accomplishments. And this goes back, John, I know you’ve talked a lot about low stakes-grading and low-stakes assignments. Students need that, because it’s giving them that little touch of positivity, that touch of achievement. Accomplishment increases their emotions. And then the last one is vitality. This is what we hear about when we think of well-being. This is our health. This is our mental health. This is our physical health. This is getting enough sleep, decreased stress. But in general, like I said, the PERMA-V theory of well-being states that we should experience all of these each day. And it can be in small amounts, very small amounts, something as simple as actually saying hi to the person at Dunkin Donuts, instead of just saying hi, it’s like, hi, like look them in the eye, something as simple as that can increase positive emotion.

John: How have students responded when you’ve discussed some of these strategies in your classes?

Amy: It’s interesting, because if you ask my students what positive psychology is… actually, they would know because I do use that term a lot. But half the time they don’t even know what they’re doing, like in terms of “Oh, this is actually increasing my happiness,” or “this is actually making me feel fulfilled.” And so in my first-year course, in my Be Well course, I probably, if I had to take a guess, about 15 activities throughout the semester that I incorporate that are specifically evidence-based activities and resources that I implement. And in fact, I am currently collaborating with a group from the UK to implement the exact same resources and activities in both communities, both schools. But the students, because I actually did evaluate the effectiveness of it… it’s amazing. And I’m not just saying that from an anecdotal perspective, I did actually do the research. I’m in the process of analyzing the data right now. And we did some mixed methods analysis to look at: 1. did it actually help improve their ability to flourish and thrive? So we’re using evidence-based validated surveys to measure this. And then we’re also doing qualitative data where we’re doing some semi-structured interviewing and looking at the themes that are being pulled and one thing that always kept coming to the top was this theme of this positive emotion in the classroom. So the atmosphere that I portrayed, but in my class, it’s slightly unique… so I do have coaches that I use and their attitude in the classroom. And one thing that we did in almost all of our classes is the one thing that you’re grateful for. That was something that we did all the time that they absolutely loved. But the visualization that we used to do, we would spend the first five minutes of class journaling. And I know this isn’t feasible in all classes. But even if you did two minutes of journaling, by visualizing, what is the rest of my day going to look like? Because again, if you sit there and say, “Oh, my gosh, I have three more classes today,” there goes that emotion. And so we visualize “What does this day look like?” Yes, you have three classes after this. But let me write down and visualize how I can actually make this day look a little better. It sounds superficial, but it had huge impact on them. The low-stakes assignments they really liked, because of that sense of achievement was really, really important. The social connections… and again, I don’t teach large classrooms, the largest I’ve ever taught was 50 students… so I don’t know what this could look like in a large group setting, but they really loved having this kind of collaborative group that they were able to text and become friends with, that really enhanced the relationships. So those are some of the main themes. I would say stay tuned, because my colleague Jessica Harris and I are literally in the midst of writing a paper that will be submitted by the end of the month on all the data that we’ve collected on this whole positive psychology in the classroom.

Rebecca: I’m curious, Amy, about some initial resistance that you might get from some students, and then maybe they try it, and it works well. And how you might counter some of that initial resistance that you might get.

Amy: Great question. And I will tell you that 90% of the time, I have resistance, so I’m not going to pretend that this is all happy-ology. It’s not, it is difficult, and I would say you just keep doing it. So, for instance, one thing you’re grateful for, it’s like, “ah…Mom, really?” and they all say “Oh, my family, my friends.” Well, then I take that off the table, and it makes them dig a little deeper. But this is the thing, Rebecca, is I don’t need to keep reiterating the importance because they do it once and they feel it, they actually feel the change that it has in their emotions. There’s a great tool… I would love to do this… I’ve yet to do this in my class… but, I went to a happiness retreat two years ago. And one of the activities that we had to do, and these were complete strangers, we had to stare into the individual’s eyes for five minutes. I mean, you could blink it wasn’t like a game, but you literally just stare into their eyes, the emotion that comes up with that is intense. And so you just do this once, and the students feel it, they feel the change that it has in their emotion, and they buy into it. But no doubt, resistance is there. It’s just a matter of “Guys, let’s just play along, play along with me, try this out. Let me know what it feels like.” Meditation… I would do it with meditation. I’d say it got the most resistance with that. But we worked around it. And now I think there’s probably more students in the class that meditate than not.

John: One criticism of positive psychology and also the research on grit and on growth mindset is that it’s sometimes accused of being a very western individualistic approach, which ignores the role of society in influencing happiness and economic inequality. And the fact that some people are in really difficult circumstances, and it assigns responsibility for their happiness to them, when there are societal influences. Given those concerns, why might it still be worthwhile to work on these things?

Amy: Great question. And the importance of that question in this day and age is huge. The research shows that anywhere from about 40 to 50% of our overall happiness is genetically influenced. Then we have about 10% that is affected by our circumstances. So our financial circumstances, our socioeconomic circumstances, where we live, but there’s about 40% that is in 100% our control, so there are controllable factors. And so there is no doubt that if you are struggling financially, and I know during COVID we had lots of people losing jobs, but just from an equity perspective, you still have 40% that’s in your control on your day-to-day activities, in your day-to-day actions. And there’s a lot of research about happiness and money. And John, you probably know more about that than I do being an economist. And I don’t know if this is still the case, I know at one point, they said that as long as your overall needs are met, that any additional financial gain doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, I have since read things that are kind of saying the opposite.

John: The original research on thst was a little bit flawed in that it was treating the impact of additional income as being a linear effect, so that $1,000 increase in income would have the same effect on someone whose income was $10,000 a year as it would for someone who was making $1.5 million a year. And it turned out that for higher incomes, the same dollar increase did not yield as much of an effect. However, once they use a log transformation and they looked at percentage changes that broke down. And it turned out that, in most of the studies that I’ve seen, it’s a percent change in income which matters. So it takes much more income to make a really wealthy person happier than it does for a poor person. But when you allow for that, income seems to be extremely important, but also so does relative income. Because, in general, when societies become wealthier, people often will revert back to their original happiness when there’s a sudden change in income. But in general, at any given time, an increase in income, will improve happiness, but it’s the percent increase in income that seems to matter the most.

Amy: That definitely makes sense, and one of the things that we study in this human flourishing realm is the hedonic treadmill. And so this hedonic treadmill really kind of gets at what you were just saying, and from a financial perspective, and going back to your original question, from a financial perspective, money can buy happiness in a sense, where if it’s pouring rain out, and I have to walk to campus versus getting an Uber. If I have the money to get an Uber, then I’m going to be happier, because now I’m not soaking wet. But what this hedonic treadmill says is this kind of setpoint that we have, so we get a new job, and we get a 20% increase in a raise, we are happier for a momentary period of time, but we go back down to that setpoint. And that setpoint might be a little higher now, because our financial status has changed. But it’s that whole idea of keeping up with the Joneses. If we start to make more money, we live in different areas we associate possibly with different people, and so now your setpoint has actually increased. But does your happiness correlate with that? And research says no, because you get back down to that set point where, “Okay, it’s great, I got a 20% raise, but now I want this $100,000 car instead of the $40,000 car.” And so we’re constantly reaching for that next best thing. And if we look at it from that perspective, it doesn’t matter what your financial situation is, it doesn’t change the fact that you have control over 40% of your happiness on a day-to-day basis. And the research has shown that it’s the small wins that you have every day that create more happiness than these larger wins, where I just was promoted to tenure, or I just got this new car, that space that brings you back down, whereas our every day strategies that we can use is what really going to make a difference. So again, that’s in our control. And it’s really unrelated to our financial or socioeconomic status. Because, again, if we use example of getting up in the morning and staying off social media, that has nothing to do with anything other than your controllable factors.

John: And also, as individuals, we’re not going to be able to eliminate the inequities in our society, but we can perhaps try to make lives better for ourselves and for the people around us, including our students.

Amy: And I think of the negativity bias as soon as you said that, because I can think of a handful of students where when they tell me their stories, I want to cry, because they’re so deep, and they’re so intense, and they struggle so much, and where they are, I just want to give them a hug because I’m so proud of where they are. But what makes one person who’s from the exact same background struggle when somebody else from that exact same situation thrives and is resilient. And I think a lot of it’s this negativity bias where you come into your space, your classroom, wherever it is, with this thought of “Woe is me, I’ve been given these bad circumstances, I’m not going to thrive. I can’t do this.” Whereas another individual that has those same circumstances walks into the room and says, “I am so grateful for this opportunity, I am going to take full advantage of it and thrive in this community.” And so I think that’s really where we get into this individualistic change in response.

Rebecca: And I think that there is that community aspect that you’re mentioning too of relationships or just how your emotional state at any given time does impact the people around you, because they’re responding to that emotional state.

Amy: Yeah, I think of all those times that I have that unfortunate poor student that decides to walk in my office right after I read a nasty email, I’m like, “Oh, man, I don’t want to take this out on you, but you’re just my first person that walks through the door.”

Rebecca: I’m sure there’s much of that that happens that we are unaware of, but maybe could be become more aware of and actively take action on.

John: You mentioned earlier issues with mobile devices and with social media. And this is one of those issues we see in our classes where students may be continuously using these things, while they perceive themselves as being focused on class as well. And yet there is a fair amount of research dealing with our ability to multitask. How do you address that with your students?

Amy: Well, I used to take the approach that probably most faculty took, which was no cell phone. Well, obviously, that doesn’t work. Because although they think they’re sneaky, they’re still sneaking them out. I have gone with more of a passive aggressive approach, which I’m actually finding is working pretty well. And it’s not passive aggressive, but in a sense, it is. I explain to them this concept of multitasking, and that you can’t multitask. If I’m speaking to you, you can’t be doing anything else. And so I go with, if you are not 100% engaged in my class, or want to be engaged in my class, you shouldn’t be here. And what I mean by that is, if you are going to check that text message, that immediately means that you’re not multitasking, which means you don’t find this classroom important enough to you. So don’t be here, I’ve yet to have anyone leave. And I will be honest with you, they all literally put their phones away. And then I tell them about the research of, even if they have their cell phone laying on the table, because you know, you’ll tell them to put it away, and they just put it on the desk and flip it over. There’s research to show the anxiety that that cell phone brings to the person next to you. Because the stress that the individual has that’s sitting next to you is thinking, “Oh, when is that person going to pick up that phone? And when is that going to now distract me because I see them picking their phone up.” And so I kind of take that approach of you can’t multitask. And it actually has helped. I would like to throw faculty under the bus with this. When we’re in meetings on Zoom, can anybody literally say that we sit there and we’re giving 100% attention to our Zoom meeting? Or do we have another screen with email on it. We’ve all been there. It’s not increasing your ability to thrive, multitasking cannot work. And this is something as simple as when you talk with your significant other, you sit there and you put everything down, and you talk to them and you look them in the eye, and it’ll immediately increase your emotion.

Rebecca: Of course, we always have students that need devices for accommodation reasons, perhaps to take notes and things or maybe a student has children and they’re sick, and you’re kind of monitoring. So there are occasions where we’re forced into multitasking, even though we know it’s not the best situation. But making people aware of how that might distract or impact others can be really helpful. I know one strategy I’ve used is encouraging people that need to be monitoring or using their devices to be more on the periphery so that they’re not right next to someone where it might be distracting,

Amy: …or cell phone breaks. I know teachers that will do a text break, a two-minute text break. I haven’t done that. And to go back to what you said, Rebecca, I have one or two times actually answered my daughter on my watch in the middle of class because if my daughter is calling me in the middle of the day, something’s wrong. I get that. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I do have to say that some of my highest productivity is during zoom meetings, when I can actually get some work done without other interruptions.

Amy: I agree, John, I so want to agree with you. And I so, so do it. So this is one of those things, do as I say, not as I do. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Well, it may be that you’re just focused on the other task, right? And the other thing’s just background noise. [LAUGHTER]

Amy: That’s it. That‘s definitely it.

Rebecca: You’re not really multitasking, you’re just tasking with the illusion that you’re doing two things.

John: Right. So our names are up on the screen. And it looks like we’re focused if we have the cameras on.

Amy: …except when you see your eyes, the eyes drop because you could tell you’re reading the email lower.

John: or one of the resources shared by the presenter. [LAUGHTER]

Amy: Of course.

John: That’s a good excuse to do that.

Amy: There we go.

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

Amy: What’s next? I have amazing stuff that’s coming up down the pike. I am in the midst of creating a brand new course called Thrive, which I actually I have been offering. And it’s 100% about positive psychology, it’s actually a seven-week course. And each week, we do a different aspect of PERMA-V. And I’m hoping to offer that to as many students as possible. But I’m also in the thought process in my brain of putting together some sort of training type thing to help individual faculty learn some of these strategies. And that training will probably start with a spring CELTworkshop that I might do during breakout in the spring of how to actually take what we just talked about and give you substantial resources that you can actually use. So I’m in the process of having a student work with me right now to create a website that has just drop down menus of all the resources so that people can just pull right from that and say, “Let’s do this today.”

Rebecca: Sounds like a great resource to look forward to. Thanks for joining us, Amy.

Amy: Thank you. This was great.

John: It’s always great talking to 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.


271. Should I Say Yes?

Busy faculty and staff are known to get things done, resulting in additional requests to engage in service activities. In this episode, Kristin Croyle and Kendra Cadogan join us to discuss how and when to say no throughout your career trajectory.  Kristin is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego. Kendra is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Interim Director of the James A. Triandiflou Institute for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Transformative Practice at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Ansburg, P. I., Basham, M. E., & Gurung, R. A. (2022). Thriving in academia: Building a career at a teaching-focused institution. American Psychological Association.
  • Thriving in Adademia. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 252. August 31, 2022.
  • Webinar:  The Art of Saying No, National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.
  • Monday Motivator – “Just Say No”, National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.
  • Five Ways to Say No, Chronicle of Higher Education (August 28, 2014),Transcript.


Rebecca: Busy faculty and staff are known to get things done, resulting in additional requests to engage in service activities. In this episode, we discuss how and when to say no throughout your career trajectory.


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 Kristin Croyle and Kendra Cadogan. Kristin is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego. Kendra is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Interim Director of the James A. Triandiflou Institute for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Transformative Practice at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Kendra and welcome back, Kristin.

Kristin: Thank you, John.

Kendra: Thank you so much.

Rebecca: So today’s teas are:… Kendra, are you drinking tea?

Kendra: I’m not. I’m drinking a protein shake [LAUGHTER] if that counts.

Rebecca: I think that might be the first protein shake that we’ve had. [LAUGHTER] So that’s good. Usually we get coffee, diet Coke, etc. How about you, Kristin?

Kristin: I got a tea for Christmas, an early Christmas present. It’s turmeric chamomile, And it’s very tasty.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds tasty.

Kendra: …sounds good.

John: And I’m drinking an Irish Breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: And I have blue sapphire tea again,

Kristin: Oooh. It’s got the best name

John: …that’s getting repetitive.

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER] But I only have like one more pot left. And then I’m gonna switch to something else. Because I’m running out. I think I have one pot left.

John: Maybe you can play a green sapphire or something?

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: So we’ve invited you both here today to discuss the challenges faced by those faculty and staff who made the mistake of being productive in some service role, and then continually get asked to do more. We often hear that expression, “if you’d like to have something done, ask someone who’s a busy person.” And we know both of you have experiences as volunteers to do service work, as well as in your current positions, asking other people to do some work to assist in your roles. Why do we end up with such an uneven division of service requests of faculty and staff?

Kristin: One thing I love about starting with this question, because we’re going to talk about some strategies that people can use to think about service and say no, but you didn’t ask that as the first question. What you asked was about the structure of the institution, and what makes the structure of higher ed create uneven service roles. So, without answering to start with, I’m just gonna say, I love that as an entry question, because it’s easy to talk about the difficulties people have saying no as an individual issue, but it’s an issue that people can develop individual strategies for. But it’s not an individual issue, it’s an institutional issue, it’s an academia issue, it’s a structural issue. So, good question. And I’m gonna start by saying that there is no good institutional tracking of service. I’m sure all of us on this podcast have asked people to serve. But it’s not like we’re looking at a list and saying, “Well, this person is already advising two student orgs and serving on six committees and doing all of these other things.” There’s no master list. So we can’t look and say, “Oh, it would be so much.” And, at the same time, I also realized that’s a total cop out answer, because, even though there’s no institutional lists, we also know, don’t we? Like I could ask this person who is chairing faculty assembly… you know that’s what she’s doing. I could ask this person that I’ve seen at the last 12 committee meetings that I went to, and that’s not at one committee that’s at 12 different ones. [LAUGHTER] So, on the one hand, there is no institutional tracking, but on the other hand, the frequent targets, we know who they are. So, why don’t keep asking the same people? What do you think, Kendra?

Kendra: I think that those are all great points, Kristin, and I totally agree. You mentioned the chair of the Faculty Senate, who happens to be a woman. And I think that segues into another trend that we see really well, which is that we often see women and minoritized faculty being asked to do things more frequently. I think some of that is related to just some antiquated stereotypes that we have about gender and ideas about human being nurturing, and all of those things, and maybe willing to please, or able to serve and roles that we might not traditionally ask male faculty and staff to serve in. But I think that some of it, particularly for women, and I guess for minoritized faculty, too, is about the pressures that women sometimes face in the workplace around their careers and around advancement and wanting to make sure that they’re always going above and beyond to prove themselves. And we never want to say no, because you don’t know how that will reflect on you. And you certainly don’t want to be seen as less capable or not a team player or not willing to take charge or take initiative. So all of those things in ways work against folks and I think make it easier for us to continuously burden certain people with a plethora of requests.

Rebecca: One of the things that you both highlighted a little bit is that the faculty and staff who are regularly involved, regularly volunteering, regularly providing service, become more visible in these spaces. So those are the people that you think of first because they are visible. There’s a lot of faculty and staff who may actually be great folks for particular things but they’re just not as visible as well. I’m not really sure how we raise the visibility of some of those folks too, but I think that is just something that does occur.

Kristin: And part of what you’re mentioning is also that service really is a skill, and that when people do certain things they get better and better at it. So if the Dean is looking for an interim chair from outside of the department, the list of people who has both the skill set and the temperament and proven leadership skills, that’s a shortlist; that’s a very short list. Certainly, as people serve in more challenging roles, they really do develop unique skill sets that make them more easily tapped in the future. But on the other side of it, in asking newer faculty and staff to serve, I don’t know what you do, Kindra, but I actually, in the college, I look at a list, like, here’s the entire list of faculty and staff in the college. And I look down the list to make sure that I’m not just thinking about the people that I have run into and talked to in the last few days, or that have served in a similar role in the past, so that I can think about and tap people who could potentially grow from a service opportunity. So it is both a skill set, but also an opportunity for a lot of different people.

Kendra: That’s a great strategy. Kristin. Typically I try to ask around, I ask for referrals, I ask for deans or the provost or whoever, faculty who maybe live and work in those spaces already to provide recommendations. “Hey, is there someone that you know who’s up and coming or who’s looking for more experience in this particular area that could benefit from me tapping them to do this thing?” [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: One thing we didn’t talk about specifically, is the desire to have diverse voices in many of our service opportunities, and how that is unduly burdensome for some faculty and staff.

Kendra: Yeah, that’s a great point. And I think that’s a big conversation. On one hand, of course, you want representation, representation does matter. Like we say that all the time, and I think that we really, really mean it. But then again, it’s also very easy to fall into the patterns of “these are the diverse faculty that I see or interact with regularly, or who are very active in these spaces, so I’m gonna keep tapping them for the same things.” I think part of the solution to that or a path toward a solution is to make sure that we are centering inclusivity and belonging in our institutional priorities, and really thinking about how we help others develop their DEI skill sets and elevate their DEI practice, so that they can step into those spaces and be impactful and provide leadership and guidance in the way that we heavily sometimes rely upon faculty and staff of color, in particular, a diverse faculty to provide. It’s kind of a long path toward a solution, but I think it’s one way of really beginning to eliminate that problem of constantly overburdening diverse faculty and staff with requests.

John: And part of the issue is the underrepresentation on college faculty and staff of the groups that we have been referring to… and those same faculty and staff, though, often have more demands on them from students, because while our student bodies have become much more diverse, the faculty and staff have not been, and many students will reach out to people from affinity groups that are again, often somewhat limited on many of our campuses, which puts additional burdens on those faculty and staff.

Kendra: Yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: And that service… that’s often invisible, it’s easy to count or say like, “oh, this committee, that committee,” but I think advisement and mentoring that takes a lot of time and energy, and it’s not as well documented. Clearly Kristin already [LAUGHTER] raised the flag that we don’t have a great way of tracking these things anyways, but I think that, in particular, is something hard to quantify, because it doesn’t look the same for everybody.

Kristin: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think that one of the difficulties with this is that the recipient of the service is the student, which makes it highly visible for students, and almost invisible for faculty colleagues. So if you’re advising a student organization that is really active, they may be doing amazing work, and the work that a faculty member is doing as that advisor may be the thing that makes the difference in retaining those students and mentoring them to successful careers, but their colleagues may not see any of it, because it’s happening directly with the students and their colleagues are not going to the student org meetings, because their student org meetings, not faculty organization meetings. So not only is it downplayed sometimes in tenure and promotion materials, their faculty colleagues don’t catch that it’s downplayed. If they were serving in Faculty Assembly or on the Gen Ed Committee, or the Curriculum Committee, their colleagues would say, “Wait, hey, didn’t you do all of this stuff that you didn’t talk about?” But it’s both not given as much credit as sometimes it deserves at some universities, but it also is sometimes literally not recognized because people didn’t see them do it.

Rebecca: So why do we say yes to so many things?

Kristin: Why do we? Rebecca, I feel like you should ans….. No, I’m kidding. You’re actually very good at this.

John: I’m actually asking because I need some advice here. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Kendra, why do you say yes?

Kendra: Oh, man, that’s a loaded question. [LAUGHTER] It’s hard to say because it’s hard to say no. It’s hard to say no sometimes. And when you feel like someone is coming to you, because there’s a need that you can fill, sometimes you can get carried away with this idea that you are the person who has to do the thing, because if you don’t do it, it can’t be done. And then there are some of the other things we’ve talked about: the pressures of our careers, wanting to be taken seriously, wanting to be credible, wanting to be able to advance. You can often feel like your path to advancement is going to be barred at some point. If you keep saying no.

Kristin: The number one reason that I say yes, is one that Kendra mentioned, it’s usually because the ask comes from people I care about in professional terms, colleagues that I respect who are doing good work. And if they say, “Can you help me with this good work?” I want to say yes to them. And they’re often asking about issues that I care about… colleagues that are doing good work on things that I think are really important… I want to say yes to that. But I also say yes, because I am interested in a lot of things. And if people say, “I’m going to work on this thing that you haven’t worked on,” sometimes that’ll be a yes, because I just want to learn about that new thing. And when I learn about new things, that is a type of personal growth for me and I get renewed from that. So saying “yes” sometimes also means that I get that personal growth boost. Or there have been times when the ask has been like “You’re the only one who can do this, can you please step up?” …and I know that faculty have that implied experience too, not always like the explicit, someone literally says, “You are the only one who can do this, can you please do this,” but sometimes it’s just implied. And it can be a strong implication like ‘In your small department, you are the only tenured faculty, how about you become chair?” So I do want to question… just push back a little bit. If you stick around in higher ed for longer than about 15 years, you’re going to start realizing there are ways to get the business done, it is almost impossible that you are truly the only way, almost… not 100%, but like 95%. Now, I don’t want anybody to think that they’re really not irreplaceable, because everybody, at least at SUNY-Oswego, I think, is irreplaceable. But do you really have to do that one thing you really don’t want to do? Isn’t there another way that the institution can find a way to get the work done? And if you think about your colleague who’s really good at saying “no,” you see how that works, that there is a way that if this really is going to push you beyond your limits, there’s a way… there’s a way.

John: So what are some good ways of saying no to those requests that push you a bit beyond your limit?

Rebecca: …or that just provide inequity?

Kendra: Well, I think it depends. One of the things that we didn’t really mention was that the flip side of always saying yes, you know, there the positive reasons that Kristin really just highlighted, but there are also some more practical reasons that aren’t always so positive, like tenure, or time spent as an institution. For newer faculty and staff, it can be really scary, or unclear even, about how much can I say “no” to? What is a directive and what is an option? And if you’re new, if you’re not, I think too a lot of times, maybe at even a public institution where you do have some backing of unions, the employment structures are a little more forgiving. In some cases, it can be really scary to say “no” as a new person, a new faculty member, a new staff member. So I think that there have to be strategies for someone tenured and who have been in a place for a long time can employ that will work really well for them, that might not work so well for someone who’s newer. And it’s important, I think, to maybe flush out what’s a good idea for someone who’s been here for a while and what’s the strategy that a newer person might employ to say no.

John: For new faculty who are struggling with all the other commitments they have to do to be successful and advancing towards tenure, what are some good strategies to say “no?”

Kristin: I think it’s a good question that speaks to learning academic culture. And even if you’ve been around a long time, you’re still learning the academic culture, because your role is always changing. It’s a strategy that an Associate Professor uses or a full professor or someone who has transitioned from faculty to staff, there are all kinds of culture change questions. How do you negotiate this new culture? And the first thing I would say is to be clear what you need to do for your job. And if that’s, “I need to make tenure, so I need to publish this much,” if that’s “I now am in a staff position and staff often have less flexibility in saying yes and no, and these are the outcomes that I need to achieve to keep my job.” So part of it is being absolutely clear. You can say yes to 50 things right now. But if you’re on tenure track, and you don’t get your publications, your master service is not going to pay off. So being very clear on what your job is. And if you don’t know, which is a real possibility sometimes, you develop your kind of committee of mentors. Who do you go to and say, “Hey, I got this really interesting request” or even like “I got a cold outreach from a publisher to write up my course as a textbook. I got a cold outreach from this person I don’t know on campus to fill a university wide-service role.”? You got to have somebody to ask So developing your committee of mentors, not one mentor, but your committee of mentors, because they’re all going to have a different view. And then you combine that with delay, especially like the sidewalk ask, you know what I’m talking about, right? Or like I caught you after this meeting, or I’m just going to do this quick ask. So the first answer is to delay. Say “that sounds like a great opportunity. Let me think about it for a day or two and look at my other commitments,” delay, then you go to your committee of mentors. And if you don’t literally have one, John, you had this great book for a new faculty reading group in the fall Thriving in Academia. And I think you also did a podcast, right?

John: We did, with all of the authors.

Kristin: So in Thriving in Academia, there’s a table, a little flowchart, a flowchart that says, with this service request, what do you think about first? And what do you think of next? So if you can’t go to your committee of mentors, you can go to these three authors, as your committee of mentors and check the flowchart. Does the flowchart say you should do it? Or does the flowchart say, Oh really, think hard about this one. This is a no. What would you add? Kendra?

Kendra: I’m just thinking about myself now. How do I usually say no? And now I’m wondering if I say no often enough? [LAUGHTER] Probably not sometimes. But when I do say no, on the rare occasion, what I try to do is also think about who I can point to, to the person asking me for whatever, to actually fulfill the request. So is there someone who’s better suited to complete this project or do this thing than I am? I think about resources. And I try to make sure that rather than just saying a flat no, and leaving someone hanging, I’m pointing them in the direction of someone who can help, someone who can fill the need and hopefully benefit from it, not just someone that I can shove the work off onto, but someone who can really fill the need, benefit from fulfilling that need, and it can be a mutually beneficial situation. I also think about just being mindful of self in those moments. So re-centering self care, we talk about self care all the time in higher ed, we write about it, we research about it, I think we’re actually really bad at it a lot of the times. You have to really center yourself. When someone is making a request, you have to think about yourself. What am I able to do? It’s like they always say on the plane, you have to put your oxygen mask on first, before you put someone else’s oxygen mask on or else both of you will be out of luck. So I think in those moments, you have to really be mindful about centering yourself and tuning in and knowing where you are: what your bandwidth is, what can you give, and is it something that you can do and still be healthy and still be whole and still be able to do all the other things that you’ve already signed up for, that you’re already responsible for? So I don’t know that those are necessarily strategies, per se, but they’re things to think about when you say no. Sometimes you just have to say no, very clearly and concisely, [LAUGHTER] you can’t do it.

Kristin: Kendra, do you have a script in mind when you say no? Like, do you have the words?

Kendra: That’s actually a really good question. I think when I do say “No,” it’s usually something very pleasant. Like, “I’m sorry, I’m not able to do that.” Sometimes I’ll literally just say, “Unfortunately, I don’t have the bandwidth, but here is someone who might help.” Or “here is another option,” maybe another way of accomplishing this task, another group of people who are already doing this work and can give you some additional assistance. So it’s usually like the nice thing that like the pleasant but clear, “No, I’m not able to do that.” And then the “but here’s how I can help you by sending you in this direction or sending you towards these resources.” That would probably be my script.

Kristin: And part of that is because I think your role is unique. And so when people are asking you, they’re really asking you. [LAUGHTER]

Kendra: Yes.

Kristin: So being able to provide another alternative, or another way that you could contribute, is a really nice option. In other choices. There could be just “That sounds like a great opportunity, but right now, unfortunately, I don’t have the time. I look forward to seeing what the results are. I look forward to seeing the report from that committee.” And no, of course, you don’t always have to provide an explanation. You can just say, “No,” you don’t have to say “I’m too busy.” You can just say no. But perhaps that person is going to be someone you’re asking to serve in the future. So it can be nice to continue to develop the relationship even if you have to say no. Something that frequently serving people sometimes forget that they can do is also think about how much time this commitment is going to take and asking for that time back. So let’s say you’re in a small department and your colleague is injured and is out for half of the semester in the course that only you can double up on. So this is one of those where you’re almost irreplaceable, there really isn’t anybody else who can step in. And you know that if you’re injured in the future, you’d really like your colleague to step up. So there’s a little bit of a social contract where you want to say yes, but that’s a significant time commitment. So what are you going to lose from spending your time on that and how can you get it back in the future? So you could ask, if the area of your rub is really financial, you can ask for extra pay, and you probably should get extra pay either way, because it is extra work. But if your area of rub is research productivity, that you’ve been really trying to write, you can say, “Well, if I’m going to do this, then I need a course release the next semester” and negotiate for the thing that you are having to sacrifice to see if you can get it back in a different way. And that is not an unusual thing. So it wouldn’t be like the weirdest thing that anyone has ever asked for, even if you’ve never thought about it before, someone else has thought of that and asked for it before. So you can always ask, what is your trade off =and how can you trade that back? If you’re a junior faculty and your chair is asking you to do something that you really don’t think you have the time to do, but you’re a little concerned about the chair ask you can say these are the things I’m doing right now, w hat would you suggest I take off my plate? How would you suggest I reorganize this? I’d love to say yes to this, but right now I don’t have the time. How would you suggest that I prioritize so that I am ready for my next tenure review? So there are ways… there are ways. But it is good to have a script in mind because we can all say “no” when we’re actually not being asked to do anything, you could just make one up right now. But if you’re in a higher pressure situation where someone you care about their opinion is making an ask right at that moment, it can be hard to come up with an answer unless you already have one in mind. So “that’s a great opportunity. Let me think about it for a couple of days.” Go ahead, use that one, just go right ahead. Even if it’s me doing the ask, you can say it right back to me, I’ll be okay with that.

Rebecca: One strategy I’ve used too is, in that delaying tactic, is always asking for clarification: what the responsibility will be, what the time commitment will be, what the meeting schedule is, so that you actually have enough information to make an informed decision. Because often the ask doesn’t come with all that information.

Kristin: And you know what happens when you ask those questions, right? The person making the ask is like, “Oh, I don’t have answers to all those. We should have goals and a timeline.” … you know, good stuff.

Rebecca: Sometimes you really want to say yes to something because it just is very appealing for whatever reason. What are some strategies so that you can say yes? We’ve mentioned negotiating for time or other resources. But the other thing that I think about is you look at all the things on your plate, and see what are some things I could roll off of, if I want to roll on to something new? Or if I want to pursue something different? What can I get rid of or step away from? Are there strategies for being able to step away from some of the things that you were committed to before that we could think about in terms of strategies for ultimately saying yes, but saying no to something else? [LAUGHTER]

Kendra: One of the things that we didn’t necessarily mention before in the saying “no,” but that applies here is this idea of acting as a consultant. So if a great opportunity comes up, and you really want to say yes to it, but you have a whole bunch of other things that you’ve already committed to, it might be a great time to reevaluate those other things and determine what are the things that I really need to put the legwork into and be boots on the ground on? And what are the things that I can provide a perspective on or give some guidance on in a more passive way, that then frees me up to maybe actually do the heavy lift for this other opportunity? That’s really great that I really want to be involved in. So I think that’s one way to move yourself closer to a yes [LAUGHTER] and an offload of some of the other things that might be standing in the way of that “yes,” Kristin, if you have any thoughts?

Kristin: Yeah, and again, thinking about I say, a five year plan… some people actually have those. I’ve never had a five year plan. But I admire people who do. But I do have my idea of my career trajectory, what I find really rewarding and what I don’t. And when I’m offered a service opportunity that aligns to the things that I find really rewarding, that it is exciting and I’ll learn something new about, and be able to contribute about things that I value, I want to say yes, even if it’s really time consuming. So yes, I look at the combination of things that I’m doing, think about how they contribute to both the things that I value and what the institution has hired me to do, because I do have a job that I have to do. And there are always ways to rollback your commitment on some. Many service opportunities require only an intermittent time commitment, you got to really hit it hard for a couple days here and then you can back off for several months, and figuring out how to fit that together. And consult, consult, consult, ask other people, I actually used the flowchart myself in the book at one point a couple months ago saying, “Oh, this looks interesting. Should I do that?” My flowchart says no. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: And the flowchart can’t possibly be wrong. [LAUGHTER]

John: Actually, the flowchart most often says no, because of concerns about faculty taking on too many responsibilities.

Kristin: Yes, because the first question in the flowchart is, “Do you have the time?” which leads you to “no” a lot of the time but it was also of low institutional value and not really important to me and not really important to anyone else, and I didn’t have the time and like “flowchart says, “no.” I was like, “well, probably right, [LAUGHTER] those are all good points that I should have been thinking more about.”

Kendra: Well, Kristin, I think to your point, too, about going back to your five-year plan and think about your career trajectory, and how well the things you’re involved in are serving you toward that end, it is absolutely okay to go back to previous commitments, and say “I had a wonderful time, this has been a great opportunity. I’ve learned a lot. but this doesn’t necessarily fit anymore in my larger plan. This might not be as helpful for me in my trajectory as it once was, and so I’m going to maybe end my involvement as of such and such a date.” Sometimes it helps to give folks a timeline on your end, clearing your plate for other things doesn’t mean that you have to immediately walk out the door on whatever else you had going on, right? …It’s probably not advisable, actually. But I can tell you that I’ve reached out to folks to ask them to serve on things or to participate in things that they’ve been participating on. And they’ve had really nice responses that are like “Kendra, I really appreciate this opportunity. I’ve really enjoyed the work that I’ve been doing, but I’ve taken on some new responsibilities that are more in line with some of my other interests or other needs or professional development, and so I won’t be able to participate in this anymore.” And I can’t be upset about it, it’s a lovely response. And I totally understand that folks want to develop, they have other interests, they need to be able to spend their time and spread it around sometimes and they’ve really been helpful to me in the time that they were able to engage in the thing that I needed them for. And I’m more than happy to say, “We’re going to miss you so much, you’ve been amazing, but I wish you the best of luck in this new thing that you’re really interested in. And let me know if I can be helpful to you.” Or let me know if these two different interests have any synergies or if there’s ever any way we can collaborate in the future. So it’s certainly okay to sometimes walk back from previous commitments very tactfully and very appropriately, but it can be done.

Rebecca: I think it’s also possible to say yes to just a part of something…

Kristin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …like, maybe the ask is like this big, like, it’s huge, but what they really want you for, or where you could provide the most value, is during a brainstorm session, or designing how something might be implemented, but not actually work on the implementation. So there’s a way to sometimes contribute without committing as much as the ask was originally.

John: …and defining a scope upfront.

Kristin: Yeah, that’s a great point. With all the searches that we do, I hear a lot from faculty about the incredible amount of time that goes into searches, and different ways that departments organize them that burden some people versus the others, but I think that’s a great example. If you can say, ”I’m gonna take candidates out to dinner,” which is a huge time commitment, but it’s very focused, it only happens during the visits, “I don’t have time to review all of the applicants and to serve on the committee in that sense, but I can take them all out to dinner,” there are trade offs that can work better for life in the way that your time is structured, that you can see that other people can’t see. So nobody’s going to suggest to you, how about you just do part of this, but they may be very open to that response.

Kendra: I would say in 9 times out of 10, someone’s asking you to do something and your response is, “Here’s the piece that I can do, I’m not able to provide assistance in these other areas,” that person is going to be more than happy with what you are able to contribute. So those are great points and great ways to be able to clear room to say yes.

John: What are some of the differences in the constraints of faculty and staff when they’re being asked to engage in service roles?

Kristin: I think the differences there are really baked into the differences in the roles, that faculty are expected to serve institutional priorities, but in some ways, almost work as independent contractors. It’s like ”here’s work to do, figure out how you’re going to get it all done in this amount of time, we’re going to come check on you in a year, see how you’re doing,” whereas staff are expected to stress institutional goals on a day-to-day basis. They work much tighter in teams, and their collaborative skills are usually much more highly valued. And because of that, if a faculty member says no, the expectation is well, that’s because they’re busy doing the other stuff that they’re supposed to do. We don’t even need to ask them what that is right now, because they’re hopefully writing. But if a staff member says no, in some ways, it’s weird. Staff say yes. Because so much of their work is being asked, being asked to lead, being asked to run a program, being asked to show up at 11 o’clock at night to serve a midnight breakfast… being asked, and the expected answer in many cases is yes. So being able to constrain the role and say no is often more fraught for a staff member. Kendra, what has been your experience working with staff and helping coach them to shape their time as much as they can?

Kendra: Yeah, that’s a great way to articulate the differences between faculty and staff, I think. I don’t know if faculty have performance programs.

Kristin: …not like that, not like staff do.

Kendra: Yes, exactly. Staff have sometimes very prescriptive performance programs that literally layout, area by area, theme by theme, what all of the duties and expectations are going to be. And then of course, there’s the other duties as assigned. So it can be very difficult for a staff member to say no, and it can also be very confusing, I think, in some cases for staff to understand “What are the things that I can potentially say ‘no’ to? What are the things I’m given latitude on to exercise autonomy and say, ‘No, I’m not interested in this,’ versus what are the things that are more imperative.’” When working with staff, what I try to do is be very clear with the folks I work with, with my colleagues, about what are the expectations and the needs versus the options and opportunities. So I tried to be really collaborative with colleagues and say, “Hey, there’s an opportunity that’s coming up,” or “there’s a need that needs to be filled, you have expertise you have, whatever the reason, I see you as a great fit for this.” Now, the conversation can then go one of two ways. One way, which is what I try to always have it be is, “Please let me know what you think. What are your thoughts about this opportunity? Are you interested? Is this something that you would want to do?” And that gives the staff member agency to think about what’s on the table and to make a decision about whether or not they want to be involved. The other option is to say, “This is something that needs to be done. you’re the person strategically for the job, so I really need your help in completing this.” And that’s less of an option, but at least it gives folks and understanding of like, okay, this is not necessarily optional. This is something that I need to do to be a strategic and fully collaborative member of this team. So sometimes it can be a little tricky. But I typically find that if I’m really transparent with my colleagues, and let them know, “Hey, here’s what I’m thinking about. Here’s why this makes sense. And this is either something that I’m offering to you that you have agency to say yes or no about, or this is something that is part of our strategic plan that I really need you to be responsible for. And here’s what you being responsible for it looks like.” Folks seem to deal with that really well. I think it’s much harder for staff when there aren’t clear expectations and when they’re also not given any input in decision making, when you’re just “voluntold.” …not even really voluntoldl, like literally just, “this is what you’re going to be doing.” It’s always better to include folks in the decisions that you’re making, and to provide as many opportunities for options as possible.

Kristin: Absolutely, you can see the differences in other ways too, like if a faculty member is asked to serve, usually no one is asked except the faculty member, the department chair isn’t asked, the dean isn’t asked, unless it’s someone like, “Can you think of anybody?” and then you suggest them, but usually it’s straight to the faculty member and it’s up to them to figure out whether or not they want to say no. Oftentimes, when staff are asked to serve in different roles, their supervisor is asked first, could you release them for this? Would it be okay with you if they do this? And sometimes faculty who move into administrative roles will start to experience that difference in culture in subtle ways and may not understand, like, what is happening around them? How come when I’m in this committee meeting, only the faculty say no to something. the staff say yes, or how come when I approached this person for help, I got a little cranky email from their supervisor. So it’s good to know that there’s a difference and also to respect that the two kind of different cultures, that both have a role and their pros and cons, and to know what you’re stepping into when you’re asking people to do things.

Rebecca: I think this highlights a little bit of what you were mentioning before, Kristin, about knowing what your role is or what your position is. Because sometimes staff would also have the opportunity to ask a clarifying question like, “How does this fit into my performance plan?” or “How does this help us meet the goals or initiatives that my division or my group is meant to be achieving?”

Kristin: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Because if there’s not alignment there, then that’s a pretty easy “no.”

Kristin: Absolutely. Do either of you two have strategies that have worked for you?

John: I have never been very good at these decisions. Rebecca?

John: I say no, sometimes.

Kristin: How do you do it?

Rebecca: I’ve worked really hard to make sure, and it took a long time to do this, but to align my scholarship and research and creative practice with service and my institutional responsibilities. And there’s pretty good alignment with those things at this time. And when something seems like it’s not in alignment, that’s when I have a pretty clear “no.” When it does seem aligned, that’s when I have a harder time saying “no.”

Kristin: And you don’t want to.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Kristin: That’s a great strategy. And the people I have known and worked with that say no the best, they have developed over time clear guidelines, very much like that. I worked with someone who was really good. This is something I could never do. I could never say no to a student who wanted to work with me in research. I don’t think I’ve ever said no to a student who wanted to work with me in research. I have occasionally matched them to someone who’s a better match. That’s different. But he was very good at saying no to students who wanted to work with him in research, which was like my Achilles heel, but he just had very clear guidelines: “I only work with students who are at this point, X, Y and Z,” and they were not unreasonable things. And then he would say yes to those students. And it opened up time for him to really mentor them. And I’ve been lucky to work with people like you and him. You have a way that you approach your career that you have thought about. This is where my limit is, so I can say yes to these students who want to work with me and really work with them. But I can say yes to this giant time commitment, because I know it contributes to my research and to my service,

Rebecca: I think that it can help to also just have colleagues around you who say “no.”

Kristin: Yes.

Rebecca: …and seek out that camaraderie. [LAUGHTER]

Kendra: I think that’s a great point. And it goes back to something Kristin said about when you’re that faculty member, you don’t understand the faculty staff. dynamic and you reach out to a staff member to ask for help and get a cranky letter or cranky email back from their supervisor. That does happen. But the reality is, I think we need to, again, be more supportive, particularly of newer colleagues. I’m thinking of new staff very specifically, and I’m thinking about this from the perspective of a supervisor. I think it’s really important when we’re mentoring new staff, and helping them develop professionally and think about what the next steps are for them, we also need to provide some additional support to them in helping them to say no, helping them to really prioritize and think about what serves them and what doesn’t. And one of the things that I’ve said to folks that I’ve worked with in the past is they’ll come to me and say, “Well, Kendra, someone’s asking me to do this, or this or that, and I’m not really sure that I want to do it, or I just don’t know.” So like, okay, let’s talk about how this fits into your professional trajectory. Does it makes sense for you, does it make sense in the work that you’re doing? And if the conclusion that we come to is really no, this doesn’t serve you, then by all means, feel free, if you don’t feel comfortable saying to this person, for whatever reason, no, if you’re too new to feel comfortable doing that, then by all means, I’ll be happy to reply as your supervisor and say, “This is not going to work, this doesn’t fit into whatever,” I’ll just say no for you. Or you can always feel free to say, I spoke with my supervisor, she doesn’t think it’s a great time for this, I don’t have the bandwidth. Feel free to throw me under the bus. Because I do think that part of what I have to help folks learn is, of course, how to advocate for themselves and how to be full adult professionals, but it’s also to be supportive, and to help them to kind of get their legs under them. And sometimes part of that is helping them say no.

Kristin: Awesome,

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

Rebecca: Please tell us how you’re going to redo higher ed [LAUGHTER] and make this better?

Kristin: That would be awesome. And you know, the funny thing about that question is that it’s always a problem that we don’t keep track of service better. But the other side of me is like, “Oh my gosh, what a pain that would be, a huge amount of work for very little payoff.” Is there a better way to do it? So I don’t have an answer on what’s next for supporting service, except to be more proactive in my request to say this is what the commitment is, let’s talk about your current commitments and how we can shape what you’re doing to support both what you want to get done and what I’d really like to ask you to do, [LAUGHTER] not just the single ask, yeah, not just like, here’s the one thing, but instead to ask in a more comprehensive way.

Kendra: And I also don’t have any solutions for fixing higher ed, unfortunately, at this time. [LAUGHTER] But I do think that we can also make sure to just model the behaviors that we’re talking about, again, just being mindful of our own personal practices and making sure that we’re not just talking about saying no, but that we’re actually doing it for ourselves and so that the folks that we work with and work for can see what this looks like and be mindful for themselves too, about how they need to think and work through this space. I think that’s one small thing we can do.

Rebecca: Well, thank you for joining us.

Kristin: Thank you. It’s always a pleasure.

Kendra: It’s been fabulous. Thank you so much for having me.

Kristin: It’s great talking 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.


269. Faculty Book Clubs

College teaching is often a very solitary endeavor and can result in feelings of isolation, especially in turbulent times, such as those we’ve experienced recently. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus joins us to discuss the role that a faculty book club can play in building a learning community in which the participants share their successes, concerns, and strategies.

Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence and the editor of Teaching History: a Journal of Methods. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is also the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning, which was released by West Virginia University Press.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. West Virginia University Press.
  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn (2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Jessamyn Neuhaus (2019). Geeky Pedagogy. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 82. May 22.
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-Rich Education: How human connections drive success in college. JHU Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Hachette UK.
  • Addy, T. M., Dube, D., Mitchell, K. A., & SoRelle, M. (2021). What inclusive instructors do: Principles and practices for excellence in college teaching. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Miller, M. D. (2022). Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World. West Virginia University Press.
  • Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West Virginia University Press.
  • 268. Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout. Tea for Teaching podcast. December 21, 2022.
  • Resources developed by Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan for reading groups for Inclusive Teaching


John: College teaching is often a very solitary endeavor and can result in feelings of isolation, especially in turbulent times, such as those we’ve experienced recently. In this episode, we discuss the role that a faculty book club can play in building a learning community in which the participants share their successes, concerns, and strategies.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Jessamyn Neuhaus. Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence and the editor of Teaching History: a Journal of Methods. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is also the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning, which was released by West Virginia University Press. Welcome back, Jessamyn.

Jessamyn: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

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

Jessamyn: I’m not, I’m drinking sparkling flavored water. The people here at Plattsburgh know that the Center for Teaching Excellence fridge is always fully stocked with flavored seltzer water and today I’m drinking Bubly grapefruit flavor.

Rebecca: Oh, I like that one.

John: And I’m drinking English breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: I have blue sapphire tea.

Jessamyn: Yum.

Rebecca: Very tasty.

John: Is it blue?

Rebecca: It has these little dried flowers in them that are a sapphire color. [LAUGHTER] I don’t know what kind of flowers they are, but they’re tasty.

Jessamyn: It sounds like a power blue. Like a powerful blue.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s like a really intense, bright, wonderful blue.

John: So, are you feeling blue today?

Rebecca: I am feeling like the blue that I want to be feeling. I want that intense blue. So I’m channeling the blue.

John: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss the use of book clubs for professional development. We’ve been jointly running some between our two institutions at SUNY Plattsburgh and SUNY Oswego every spring and fall since fall 2020. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about how the collaboration began?

Jessamyn: Sure. Well, I met you both in 2019 when I came on Tea for Teaching to talk about Geeky Pedagogy. It was actually the first interview I did and I was super nervous and I prepared like 25 pages of notes. [LAUGHTER] And you were so great. It was so much fun. And we just stayed in touch after that. I was working as the interim, really part-time, Director for the teaching center going into the fall of 2020 after, as everybody knows, the semester that changed everything in the spring of 2020. We don’t have a staff here, this is a center of one. So resources and budget concerns were always an issue in trying to develop programming that would work with just this one person in the part-time role, and that faculty would be able to take advantage of during these unprecedented upheavals and challenges. The book club was something that my predecessor, Dr. Becky Kasper had been running that had pretty good attendance. And that semester, since we were all getting used to Zoom for the first time, it occurred to me that maybe we could do the book club via Zoom, which opened up the possibility of collaborating with another teaching center. And that was you. [LAUGHTER]

John: And we had been running book clubs for quite a few years. Our very first one was Michelle Miller’s Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology the semester after that came out. Our’s started in a less planned structure. We had Michelle on campus for a talk. And everyone was so enthused about her talk that they said, maybe we could start a reading group to discuss this. So that’s how our’s got started. And we had been doing it every semester since then. And it had worked really well. But, it’s worked much more effectively with the collaboration between the two institutions. What were some of the things that you saw as being the benefits of doing a book club?

Jessamyn: Well, one of the first things that strikes me about doing a faculty book club, and this is coming from my perspective as somebody who writes and talks about the geekiness and nerdiness of us in academia, is that a book club really builds on something we as academics do very, very well and are very, very, very comfortable with: reading, absorbing content, and then talking about it. Even the introverts among us tend to be pretty comfortable discussing ideas and tossing around concepts and getting a starting place like a book is something, even across various disciplines, people are very skilled at and comfortable at. So I think, in that sense, it’s not a big lift when it comes to faculty development. It’s working with skills and abilities that most people teaching in higher ed are already pretty comfortable with. So I think that’s one advantage, or one benefit.

John: One of the reasons why we started this and why we’ve been continuing it is that we had given a lot of one-off workshops where people would come in for a session, maybe half an hour, maybe an hour and a half, maybe three hours, perhaps even all day, and then often very little happened following that up. And one of the nice things about doing a book club is that you’re working with a group of faculty for an extended period, discussing the same topics and reflecting on those topics in a way that doesn’t generally happen with short one-day sessions. And that’s been really effective. On a related note, you mentioned bringing together people from different disciplines, we often had trouble bringing in people from other disciplines when someone was presenting on one topic, but when people are discussing any of these books, they find that everyone they’re talking to in this group has been having exactly the same problems and have been struggling with the same issues in ways that they might not have recognized otherwise. So the opportunity to bring people together and discuss it is a great way to remind everyone that we’re all facing the same challenges. And sharing solutions can be really effective.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting to think about how the one offs are just one offs. But a reading group builds a routine, and a schedule, and regular practice and reflection around these topics. And so having a regularly scheduled time, and we’ve certainly made sure in our collaboration, but also prior to that at our institution, having multiple times for reading groups to meet, you don’t have to come to the same one every time. But earmarking that time during the week for this practice, I think is really helpful. It’s really easy to put it into our schedule.

Jessamyn: Yes, that’s right, it’s hard to make time for our own pedagogical development, it’s hard to always and I’d say it’s probably even harder now, as the world continues to burn… but the group setting, and I never thought of it this way till just now as we’re discussing it, but both those components that you were talking about: the routine of it, and the by default, the multidisciplinary setting, it’s almost like it reduces any disciplinary defensiveness people might have, or sense of resistance, maybe, because we’re there to talk about a book together, we’re not there to lay down the law, this is what you must do to teach effectively, XYZ.

Rebecca: So I think also, the idea of bringing everyone together has that accountability factor. And you see some of the same faces and the same people regularly and you start treating it almost as this little accountability club to make sure that you’re doing your homework and staying engaged with the subject matter. And the other thing that I was hearing in what you were saying, Jessamyn, that I think is useful to think about is that it’s a shared experience… reading the book, it’s a shared thing. So we have a common place to start a conversation, which is what you’re getting at with the academic defensiveness or disciplinary defensiveness that might come out. Just kind of interesting to think about. I had never really thought about that before.

Jessamyn: Well, and here at Plattsburgh, we are still very much in the early stages of building a campus culture of educational development. For us here at Plattsburgh collaborating with Oswego was pretty mind blowing, I’d say, for a lot of people besides just the factor of it’s not the same old faces that you see at every workshop. But even beyond that, I think it’s really expanded a lot of people’s, I will say, maybe view of what educational development is, it’s not just Jessamyn saying, “Hey, try this in your classroom,” that actually it’s out there in the world and lots of people are doing it, and it’s a professional endeavor, maybe chipping away at the sense of isolation that we can feel. Certainly I think it’s true lots of places, but Plattsburgh is geographically very isolated. And there really is a sense sometimes that we’re just out here all alone in the cold North Country. And the Zoom setting just really blew that apart. I think it is helpful that our campuses and our student populations are quite similar… at least there’s a lot of overlap. So when people in the book club share their experiences and their perspectives, there’s a lot of nodding and recognition. Many of our teaching contexts are similar.

Rebecca: And I think what I’m hearing both of you nodding towards is a sense of belonging, like it’s a shared experience where people feel like they belong, in part because they’re sharing experiences that are similar. And in reality, we know there’s a lot of small departments where you might be the only one teaching a particular thing or teaching in a particular way…

John: …or the only one considering teaching in a different way.

Rebecca: And being a part of a community where there’s other people doing some similar things, or experimenting in the same way, can really be helpful in just feeling a sense of community, and ways that you can bounce things off of one another. I know from my own experience, as a designer teaching studio classes, I’ve done a lot of exchange with folks that are teaching lab-based things or a lot of hands-on-learning, whatever that is, in whatever discipline, there’s a lot in common about doing hands-on-learning. Or you could talk about how that might apply. And you can learn a lot from something that’s happening in a different discipline and I’ve always really loved that about our book clubs.

John: Going back to a point Rebecca had mentioned earlier about the commitment of time to this, many people will see a speaker who they think is interesting, and will decide to pick up a copy of the book, they’ll buy that book and put it on a shelf, and it will stay there with the expectation that someday they’ll look at it. But having the meetings every other week, or however they’re scheduled, does serve as a commitment device that people, if they haven’t done the reading, will apologize often at the start of the meeting, and say “I wasn’t able to get this finished.” But just the implicit pressure of having these meetings, encourages people to do more reading on the topics than they would have done otherwise. And that’s as true for me as it is for all the participants in the group.

Jessamyn: I will say that I try not to inflict guilt on people, I took a page from my colleague Jessica Tinklenberg, who’s the Director of the teaching center out at the University of the Pacific, she ran a no-guilt book club. So that’s what she called it, No-Guilt Book Club. And I definitely emphasize that to people as well, encouraging people to Zoom in, even if you haven’t done the reading that week, or whenever you can, to just emphasize that. But you’re right, people will still say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get to it.” Although as academics, they always still have a lot to say.

John: Yes, that’s never stopped anyone from participating. [LAUGHTER] We also have encouraged people to attend, even if they weren’t able to complete the readings, because they’re going to get something useful out of the conversation and often will contribute something useful as the topics are discussed.

Jessamyn: In fact, that was something I did want to touch on, that I’ve been really surprised by, I guess, as the club has continued, is how the book is definitely the starting point, but it’s these conversations, which I don’t know why it surprised me, because the same was true at every teaching conference I’ve ever gone to. The workshops are great, the speakers are great. But then, often, the thing that I do when I get home is the thing I talked about with somebody at lunch, or while I was talking to them before the session or there was an example on the slide and I was talking to so and so about it. That’s, in the long run, what ends up actually changing my teaching. And I see that happening with the book club at times, that the content is this great springboard, and it’s definitely a key part, but sometimes it’s the talking that really seems to make an impact.

John: And we’ll talk about this more in just a few minutes. But one of the things we’ve been doing is we’ve been having multiple sessions for each chapter or set of chapters that we discuss, and both Jessamyn and I have been attending all of those sessions, or nearly all of them and Rebecca had attended most of those when she was a co-director of the teaching center here. But what happens is every day’s meeting, the discussions are very, very different and they’ve all been really valuable. And I’ve enjoyed the diversity of discussions. So it’s just not repeating the same things every day, that would get kind of tedious. [LAUGHTER] And we’ve encouraged participants to consider coming back for other group meetings if they wanted to. We haven’t had a lot of people take us up on that, but the variety of topics and the richness of those discussions has been really an important part of the benefit of this, for those of us who do attend multiple sessions.

Jessamyn: Yeah, it is. It really is.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s been interesting is a lot of the books that have been chosen work well if you can’t read the whole thing, because many of them have nice little summaries at the end, too, to give people a little bit of a chance or some insight into what was in the chapter. And maybe that’s some good book selection on both your parts.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I was thinking as you were talking, John, that maybe we can pat ourselves on the back a little bit here about the book choices we’ve made. Although, then again, there are so many great books about teaching. It’s not too hard to reach your hand out and find an incredible book to talk about. But I totally agree that every meeting, even when it raises very different points, has a valuable take away. But I do think that part of that is the book selection that we’ve made.

John: Yeah, we’ve had some really superb books, maybe we can talk a little bit about some of the benefits of the collaboration. One of those is that if we tried to do three group meetings at my institution alone, we’d probably only have two or three people at some of those sessions, and the sessions wouldn’t be as rich. By doing the collaboration, it allows us to get a full group of people there on more days, which opens up more opportunities for people to attend at times that’s convenient for them. And that I think, has been really beneficial.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I’ll add that, in a very practical way, it lessens the workload for us as facilitators, it’s like co-teaching… that knowing “Okay, so it’s the Wednesday book group, I woke up with a headache. I don’t really feel like talking too much, but John’s facilitating it today.” But even more than that, is the sense of… Rebecca, you said belonging for our faculty. But for us, as teaching center directors, small, small, small centers with not an overabundance of resources, it’s easy to feel alone. And certainly when we began, it was especially isolating, really overwhelming, with having coped with the emergency pivot and faculty’s needs at that time and our own classes as well. It’s very easy for educational developers to start feeling isolated while often we’re in this sort of weird in between place where we advocate for students, but we advocate for faculty, but we advocate for the administrators too and we’re supposed to be everything to everyone. So making this kind of collaborative connection has been sustaining to me in my teaching practice, for sure, but also just as the teaching center director as well.

John: And it really helps having multiple perspectives approaching these books, because we’re from different disciplines, and we bring different perspectives. And that’s been an important part of it, I think, too.

Rebecca: I’m wondering if folks are interested in starting book clubs, if both of you can talk about some of the logistics behind how running the book club and each individual session might work?

Jessamyn: Well, it’s been an evolution in how we’ve run it. And when we started, I think I should take credit for being like overly anally retentively prepared, [LAUGHTER], and I think maybe especially like, right at the beginning, when we were still really like in the grips of the worst pandemic era changes and upheavals, that maybe it was helpful to have some very specific discussion questions ahead of time. And as we were getting used to Zooming, but now, at least in the past book, and we’ll see what the spring brings as well, it seems like it’s worked a little bit better to be a little more hands-off and let whoever happens to come in that day, those faculty, lead the discussion, maybe have a few questions in your back pocket, in case there’s quiet, but I don’t know, John, what do you think?

John: I agree. When I put slides together, they were pretty plain. They didn’t look as nice as your slides did. Mine were kind of ugly but when Rebecca did them, they looked nice, [LAUGHTER] given her background in graphic design. But I think it was important to have a little bit more structure, because the very first book that we used was Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and Jim Lang. And everyone was kind of panicking at that time. And having that focus, I think, was probably really helpful. But we’ve moved away from that, in general, with all the sessions we’ve been doing. And partly though, I think it’s because we’ve got a lot of repeat participants. Many of the people we have come back term after term. And they’re very comfortable at leading much of the discussion, and I think that’s been really valuable.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that maybe there was a need for some trust building early on, in understanding that everyone was equally panicking. I remember using a lot of Jamboard and stuff in some of those very early sessions just to get some shared ideas in a base. But I think that also helped people feel connected, because they realized they had some of the same ideas, and then felt more willing to talk later on. And then I think John’s right, some of the same people help with that nice welcoming atmosphere.

Jessamyn: Sometimes things take on a momentum or life of their own. And I don’t think community is too strong a word. I think that is what’s being built in this collaboration. And it’s funny, I haven’t reflected on it until just right this moment, but that’s something that really came out of a panic, like flat out and out pants-dropping panic, [LAUGHTER] has led to something so productive. And it’s only because of Zoom. I mean, it’s only enabled because of the comfort level of Zoom and the convenience it offers people, enabling people to participate and enabling them to collaborate, like we are across a pretty major distance.

Rebecca: I think it’s important to remember that in either of our institutions, we already had issues getting people in the same space at the same time. And obviously, to collaborate between institutions, we would need some way of doing that. But I think it’s afforded people the opportunity to join the call from home after they get their kids off the bus or whatever thing is happening in their lives that might cause them to have to participate remotely, anyways, whether or not we were all at the same institution.

Jessamyn: Yeah, it kind of acknowledges and recognizes the fact that people are burdened, that they have a lot to do in their own personal lives, at work, teaching. So the Zoom format, it really kind of sets a tone for the book group. We know that you have many, many demands on your time, like, it seems like it’s a very concrete way of respecting people’s time. We are offering the three different meeting times and having them via zoom. I’m not sure that I would even go back to just in-person book clubs after this experience.

John: Well, we had actually been offering things with video conference ability, going back to 2008.

Jessamyn: You are an early adopter, John, let’s clarify this.

John: I was…

Rebecca: He’s a very early adopter.

John: …but most of our faculty were not.

Jessamyn: That’s right. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, there would be a screen up with potential participants. But it was rare that we’d have more than one person coming in online. [LAUGHTER] But, the pandemic certainly made people much more comfortable with Zoom and gave them access to web cameras, or at least let them know that they had a web camera that they could use for this type of thing. So that it became really comfortable in ways that we had the ability to do that before, but it was very rarely used by most faculty.

Rebecca: Even if we’re thinking about faculty computer replacements and things institutionally, the institution is moving towards using laptops to make sure that people do have these tools. And so I think that’s really helpful because it does help with collaboration, not only within our own institution, but across institutions.

John: One of the things we’ve been very fortunate is that our administration has been very supportive of this and has been buying the books for faculty. And when faculty get a book delivered to them, they’re much more likely to actually participate because they feel guilty if they didn’t read it and if they didn’t show up, I think that’s really been helpful in doing it.

Rebecca: Does that also come with a commitment device of some sort?

John: In a sense, yeah, [LAUGHTER] there’s a little bit of guilt associated with not showing up. But the other thing that we had often done, it hasn’t worked this way for the last several book groups… we have an academic affairs retreat before the fall semester and we had often had the reading group focus on a book written by the keynote speaker at that event. And one of the things that happened when we’ve done that is that we keep the signups open through that academic affairs retreat and the number of participants normally almost exactly doubled every time when we had that keynote speaker because they tended to inspire people. We had some issues where we were hoping to have keynote speakers, but their books were delayed because there was this pandemic going on.

Jessamyn: Yeah [LAUGHTER].

John: … or other things come up that interfered with it. But that was something that, when we could make that connection, it was really effective in getting more people joining in, because we’d normally have a couple hundred people at the academic affairs retreat. And it was a nice way of marketing that.

Jessamyn: Yeah, and if I’m remembering correctly, you gave Plattsburgh Zoom access to one of those for when we read Relationship-Rich Education, Peter Felton came and spoke, and I noticed something very similar with this faculty group as well, as attracting a wider range of people.

John: I’m hoping we can get back to that at some point. But again, things have been a little bit more hectic. [LAUGHTER] And it’s been harder to plan for the contingencies of what is most appropriate next year in the environment we’ve had for the last two and a half to three years.

Jessamyn: And that also raises the point that selecting the book, we have had to think really carefully like, who will this appeal to most? What do people really need and want right now? And we try to vary it a little bit thinking about well, this book will be really appealing to XYZ, so then the next semester looking for something that might be a little bit different and mostly, I think, we’ve guessed very well.

John: I think so. Maybe we should mention some of the books that we’ve used.

Jessamyn: In fall 2020 in direct response to what was happening, we did Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and Jim Lang. And then in the spring of 2021, we read Distracted by James Lang. In fall 2021, we read What Inclusive Instructors Do, by Tracie Addy and co-authors. Last spring, 2022, we did Relationship-Rich Education by Peter Felton and Leo Lambert. This semester, fall 2022, we read Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology by Michelle Miller. And we are excited to be reading next semester Inclusive Teaching by Kelly Hogan, and Viji Sathy..

John: And even if you are not able to arrange for the authors to visit on campus, many authors have been willing to come in over Zoom to give a talk to the reading group, either at the beginning of the session, or at the end. And I think that’s also been really helpful.

Jessamyn: Yeah, yeah, many people are willing to do, at no cost, an informal question and answer session with book clubs. Many scholars of teaching and learning are willing and able to do that.

Rebecca: So it’s probably not fair to have a conversation about logistics without asking about some challenges you might have faced during this time, or during the collaboration, or just in running reading groups generally.

Jessamyn: This is not a challenge that we had, but maybe people should be aware that, as human beings, [LAUGHTER] some people don’t like other people, and collaborating with someone that you haven’t worked with before is an unknown in terms of your strengths and weaknesses together. Are you going to complement each other? As luck would have it, John and Rebecca and I worked very well together and our strengths complement each other, John mentioned too, all three of us come from very different backgrounds and training. But that’s seen as a benefit, I do think scholars of teaching and learning, generally, are more open to collaboration than some academics might be. So it may be less of an issue than other kinds of intellectual projects, but that’s maybe something to keep in mind.

John: One practical problem is that pretty much all colleges have classes that meet at different times. And trying to find times that work for both institutions can be a challenge. If we want to get faculty involved, we have to find times that don’t overlap with too many class schedules. So we’ve been fortunate to be able to do that. And once we found times, we’ve been keeping them at the same times each semester, because there’s enough of an overlap there that each session will overlap at most one class time period at each institution, making it possible for more people to attend.

Jessamyn: John, you mentioned it as a benefit, but it can also be a challenge that we have returning members participating, because we also have new people every book as well, every session as well. And it’s sometimes can be challenging when someone’s like, “Oh, we read all about that two books ago, I totally get it.” Okay, but the person Zooming in next to you has never read a book on this before. But that’s part of community generally, the issue for developing any kind of community is trying to balance the needs of the ongoing longer term members with the needs of the new members. How do you make it meaningful to everyone? It really reminds me of a class in a lot of ways, where you have one student sitting in the last row who’s never gonna get anything out of the class, they’ve decided you are stupid, and they hate the whole class, and they’re never gonna be there. Then right next to them is a student who’s ready to have their whole life transformed and they’re about to declare a major, they love it so much. You’ve got such a range in any group of students. And similarly, you’ve got a wide range with faculty, especially everybody’s context changes all the time. And some people Zoom in for our book club. And they’re in the midst of a semester from hell… everything going wrong, their department is toxic, and they are just burned out, next to someone who’s on top of the world and the book is speaking to their heart because everything’s falling into place. And they’re in the same Zoom call, talking about the same book.

John: And we actually did have someone on our campus who gave that sort of feedback, that there was nothing new that they hadn’t learned from previous books that we’ve read. And that kind of shocked me because there was a lot in this book that I had not read before, and I was part of all those other groups, but that can happen. And I think we’ve been able to choose books that no matter what you had read before, will bring something new to everyone. Because each of the books has brought in a lot of new research findings and some new things that we hadn’t covered, even though some of the basic principles are the same. I only remember hearing that from one person, maybe other people felt that, but I didn’t feel that way unless maybe I just forgot all the other things we had read before.

Jessamyn: I don’t think that people participating in the book club are as necessarily as hyper aware as we are of the benefits of just having the conversation. And of course, they can’t see like, over the semesters, the bird’s eye view. They might have a general sense that… and this is actually now that I’m talking like maybe we should have done more rigorous assessments [LAUGHTER] now that I’m talking and getting feedback. But my feeling is that, often, they are enjoying the benefits of having the conversations about teaching with not necessarily that facilitator view of “Oh, I see where we are talking about the book, but now people… they’re moving into more of these strategies or ideas or just moral support, like at certain times, in certain meetings, just Zooming in with other people who care about teaching, and are thinking about teaching” like you can tell that this is uplifting and encouraging. And that has less to do with the book content than being there in that call together.

John: And I think some of the people you mentioned, who were having just this horrible semester, and lots of people have been feeling that recently, especially the last few semesters, often get the most benefit out of those discussions and that sense of community, as you said, is really valuable.

Rebecca: Well, there’s a lot of shared brainstorming and troubleshooting. When someone has identified a need, or has just expressed some anxiety or stress around what they’re experiencing, people are there to say “it’s not just you,” or “I’ve tried this and it’s been successful,” or “I tried that that you’re thinking about and these are the barriers that I faced” … that just makes all of us more aware of what to be thinking about as we implement new things.

Jessamyn: Yeah, the last book we read. Michelle Miller’s book about Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology, it’s only a small part of her book when she’s talking about specific classroom phone policies, but we had extended conversations about classroom phone policies, and for good reason, it’s on a lot of people’s minds and there’s a lot of experiences and issues to unpack with that. So I think that’s a good example of how it wasn’t a huge part of her book, she does address it and address it very well but it was less about going through point by point her argument and her evidence, and more about: “So, she’s saying this, alright, so what happened in class last week with the phones, with the devices? So then this happened, then this happened…” and people were just sharing that: “What went on? And what did you do and what worked, what didn’t work?” And in fact, it gave me the idea. I’m creating a new workshop starting next semester, it’s just called “Classroom phone policies.” And it’s basically going to be, let’s talk about your classroom phone policies. What do you think?

Rebecca: I think one thing that we might want to talk about as we’re thinking about challenges is not one that we faced, but one that collaborators could face if they’re not similar kinds of institutions. I want to just underscore that, again, that that’s, I think in part, why the collaboration has been so successful.

Jessamyn: I think so too. I think it would maybe raise people’s hackles if the teaching context was really different, the student populations were really different. Well, you can’t really understand if it could work, but you’d have to be aware.

John: It might be harder to find common ground between a university center where faculty’s focus is often on research and a community college where the focus is primarily on teaching and lots of classes and lots of students. It would be really hard to get topics that would work well in both contexts, I would think. But again, as you both said, we’re very similar institutions,

Jessamyn: Yeah, it’s sort of the basis for the trust you were mentioning, Rebecca, because there have been big differences. John, you teach very large classes, larger than even the largest classes here at Plattsburgh. So there are big differences that have come up. But there’s this starting place of trust, this is another SUNY institution, similar student population, some general similar challenges with teaching centers that have some similar approaches. That starting ground of trust for faculty to talk honestly about this.

Rebecca: Sometimes in the books too, there’s examples that don’t feel relevant to our institutions, like a med school example, for example, but then we can take that and as a conversation point to say, “I didn’t find this relevant,” but then someone else might chime in. “Oh, but I’ve done something similar in this other context,” and that can be incredibly helpful in helping people think through how different concepts or strategies might apply in their own context.

Jessamyn: That makes me think, though, that another challenge to keep in mind, for other people looking to start faculty reading groups, is that it might be hard to measure or assess the long-term impact of some of this community building and the connections that I’m seeing happen. It would be hard to pin it down and show a direct systemic correlation between this and improved teaching. I think we might be able to, if we were to find the perfect moment, get people to say it or write it down: “We did this in the reading group, and I applied it this way in my classroom,” but I’m not sure how you would measure just like… I know, for myself, this past semester, just knowing I was going to Zoom in with people, like looking forward to a Zoom call, like how do you assess that? But that is… I mean, what? …that never happens. So I know it’s good, but I’m not quite sure how I’m going to document it for my annual activities report.

John: Yeah, we haven’t been able to do randomized controlled experiments [LAUGHTER] where we assign some people to reading groups and other people not to participate. We don’t have so many applicants to participate that we’re able to do a lottery and then evaluate the impact on student learning. It might be nice if we were in that position, but the people who participate tend to be some of the best teachers on campus, or the people who are most concerned about their teaching, and I’ve seen that the people who attend are also much more likely to attend other workshops and get involved in other professional development. So it does lead to a little bit of a contagion effect, in that it spreads to other aspects, when they see that this is something they find valuable, they’re much more likely to engage in other professional development.

Jessamyn: I wonder too, if there’s something to be said for… sorry to use the “u”word… but it’s unprecedented, the times we live in. Our unprecedented challenges in higher education are really things we’ve never faced before. And a collaborative Zoom-based faculty reading group, I mean, it’s new. We’re like, “oh, it’s old hat.” We’ve only been doing it like two years or something. But we’re like, “oh, yeah, our book club” and people around like, “Oh, of course, that’s just how it is,” but it’s a radical major change. It’s an innovation. And we’re kind of still in the midst of it, we’re still figuring out what it might be able to do or how this might work. I’m still framing Zoom, not as an emergency measure, but something that could actually add support and encouragement to our teaching life.

Rebecca: I’m hopeful for the opportunity in the future, maybe, to continue connecting faculty across institutions, maybe with similar disciplines or ways where they may not feel connected at their own institution, but have ways to connect with others at another institution where they might feel some alignment and feel a sense of belonging. I think there’s opportunity to continue scaling up, which is kind of interesting.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I think as the question of how do we mitigate teaching burnout, not only is that not going away, but that’s probably going to really slam into us big time in the next few years. And that seems to be more and more that’s what I hear. What could we possibly do? I just came back from the POD Network Conference. And there was a lot about what can we do? How can we chunk out faculty development? How can we support and encourage faculty? And collaborations like this, these kinds of connections, they’ve gotta be away, I think.

John: We’d both came back from the OLC conference where we ran a session on this, which was in the episode that we just released last week. Yeah, that was a concept we heard a lot about at other sessions, too, that everyone is feeling burned out. And it’s going to be a challenge, as we deal with issues of student motivation, student engagement, in a world in which there are so many problems that make it a little bit harder for students and for us to focus on developing a more productive learning environment.

Jessamyn: Yeah, our next book on inclusive teaching, I think, is a good example of that. It’s something so many people care about so much, but it can start to feel overwhelming. It’s something you’re always having to keep revisiting and learning about. That’s by its nature. That’s what inclusive pedagogical practices require, that you continue to build your pedagogical skills over and over and over and without a place like a book club that kind of just is there to reinforce and support your growth mindset about teaching. Yes, everybody’s really tired this semester. It’s not easy to do, but we’re here together.

Rebecca: And it’s scheduled reflective practice.

Jessamyn: That’s right, exactly.

Rebecca: It’s already on the calendar.

Jessamyn: And it is a big benefit, John, like you said that we’ve been able to do it at the same times, the same three times three days a week is like sometimes I say my superpower is consistency. This is a good example.

John: And at Oswego, most faculty either teach Tuesday/Thursday or Monday/Wednesday/Friday, so by scheduling our meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, it makes it pretty easy for people to find a time to participate. They don’t always participate at the same time every week. And again, they get the benefit of meeting and working with a different group of people if they show up at different times.

Rebecca: And minimally, even if they can’t come to a meeting, there’s a schedule for how to read the book.

Jessamyn: And now that I’m thinking about it, we do have quite a few people who Zoom from home or other places working around their childcare. So it definitely increases people’s ability to attend.

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

John: Well, what’s next, I think is our next reading group, which will be starting up in February 2023.

Jessamyn: We are very, very excited to be reading Inclusive Teaching. It’s one of the latest books out from the West Virginia University Press Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series. We’re super excited that the authors, Dr. Viji Sathy and Dr. Kelly Hogan, are going to be Zooming in for a Q&A with our book club when we’re done. They provide everyone a book club guide, some discussion questions, through their website. So we’re really really looking forward to that discussion.

John: If you’d like to consider a reading group on your campus and if you’d have any questions about how this operates, feel free to contact any of us. We’ll put our email addresses in the show notes.

Rebecca: Thanks for joining us, Jessamyn. It’s always great to talk to you.

Jessamyn: Thanks for having me.


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

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


268. Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout

This episode is a live recording of a panel session at the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate Conference in Orlando on November 17, 2022. The panelists were Michelle Miller, Liz Norell, and Kelvin Thompson.

Michelle is a professor of psychological sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and also more recently, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching and Learning and the Science of Memory in a Wired World, which was recently released by West Virginia University Press. Liz is a political scientist, and an associate professor at Chattanooga State Community College. She is also an experienced registered yoga teacher with over 500 hours of training completed. She is currently working on a book on Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. Kelvin is the Executive Director of the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning, and graduate faculty scholar in UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. He developed the open courseware BlendKit course that many of us have taken, and cohosts TOPcast, the Teaching Online Podcast.

Show Notes

  • Panelists:
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Miller, M. D. (2022). Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World.
  • Norell, Liz (forthcoming). Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. West Virginia University Press.
  • BlendKit
  • TOPcast
  • Brandon Bayne’s twitter post on the adjusted syllabus.
  • Nick Sousanis’ syllabi
  • Behling, K. T., & Tobin, T. J. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. West Virginia University Press.
  • Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository (TOPR)
  • Joosten, T., Harness, L., Poulin, R., Davis, V., & Baker, M. (2021). Research Review: Educational Technologies and Their Impact on Student Success for Racial and Ethnic Groups of Interest. WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET).
  • Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press.
  • Eaton, Robert; Steven V. Hunsaker, and Bonnie Moon (forthcoming, 2023) Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.
  • Enneagram test


John: This is a recording of a live panel session that took place during the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate Conference in Orlando on November 17, 2022. We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did.


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: Welcome to “Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout.” I’m John Kane, an economist and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Rebecca: I’m Rebecca Mushtare, a designer and an Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at SUNY Oswego. We’re the hosts of the Tea for Teaching podcast and the moderators for today’s session. We’d like to let everyone know that we’re recording this session in order to release it in an upcoming episode of Tea for Teaching. And today’s session will include 30 minutes of moderated discussion, followed by 10 minutes of questions from all of you, and I’ll turn it over to John to introduce our panel.

John: Our panelists are Michelle Miller. Michelle is a professor of psychological sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Michelle is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and also more recently, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching and Learning and the Science of Memory, which was recently released by West Virginia University Press. We also have Liz Norell. Liz is a political scientist, and an associate professor at Chattanooga State Community College. She is also an experienced registered yoga teacher with over 500 hours of training completed. She is currently working on a book on Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. We also have Kelvin Thompson. Kelvin is the Executive Director of the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning, and graduate faculty scholar in UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. He developed the open courseware BlendKit course that many of us have taken, and cohosts TOPcast, the teaching online podcast.

Rebecca: This wouldn’t be a complete episode of tea for teaching if we didn’t ask about tea. So Kelvin, our coffee drinker, are you drinking tea today?

Kelvin: I am drinking tea today, Rebecca, this is a mint tea from Tazo. I have to admit, I went looking for my favorite conference tea, which is that orange Tazo tea that I looked everywhere and they didn’t have any.

Rebecca: Ah, a little bummer. Michelle?

Michelle: Well, true to form, I’m drinking coffee and I’m going to admit that I also mixed it with Swiss Miss hot chocolate, [LAUGHTER] a very guilty pleasure on many levels.

Liz: I don’t drink anything hot. So I’m drinking diet coke.

Rebecca: Woo!

Liz: Thank you.

Rebecca: As many guests before you have as well.

Liz: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: John?

John: And I am drinking an English breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: And I have some very strong Awake tea, so that we’re really awake for this episode.

John: The pandemic spurred a rapid transition of instructional methods and an increased focus on inclusive teaching, and we want to talk a bit about that in today’s session. We’d like to ask the panelists: What were some of the improvements in inclusivity and building a sense of belonging, that you’ve observed during the pandemic? …with particular emphasis on remote and asynchronous courses. And Liz is going to start.

Liz: What I found, particularly in asynchronous online courses, is that I have noticed this has much broadened the ability of neurodivergent students and students who have some kind of disability, especially an invisible disability. And the way that it’s done that is by really forcing us to accept multiple kinds of student engagement. So what I noticed in March of 2020, is that students who had been almost invisible in my face-to-face class, when we came back to Zoom after spring break, I didn’t see their faces, but I heard their voices, if not vocally than in the chat. And I have so thoroughly appreciated that. I also learned from my students that you can change the way you show up in Zoom by getting one of those little lens things over your camera and changing your virtual background. So oftentimes, they would come into a Zoom room, and this would be in a synchronous class, and they would have a different cartoon character of the day. And this is a wonderful way to get to know more about them and their personalities. What I’ve also found is that when we are meeting synchronously, recording the classes is really helpful for a lot of learners. And so, since I’ve gone back to face-to-face teaching, I always open a Zoom room and record it and sometimes students will join by Zoom because they can’t come to campus that day. My partner who teaches math has also started doing this because they found that it’s really helpful for the students to be able to review what they did in class when they’re trying to apply it in their homework or preparing for an exam. The last thing I want to mention is that I teach political science, we always do a unit on civil liberties. And one of the things that I did in person was bring in a prop box and have them do skits where they acted out the precipitating events to major Supreme Court civil liberties cases, and I thought there’s no way we can do this over zoom, right? Yes. And it’s just getting really creative with Zoom backgrounds, with props that they have in their houses. It makes it so much more campy that it’s much more fun, because in person they always like “Oooh, I’m nervous.” In Zoom, it’s going to be a train wreck, okay, we’re just gonna embrace that, and that really creates a really fun dynamic in the classroom.

Kelvin: I would agree with the broad brushstrokes of what Liz said, I would like to broaden it further though, and say that throughout the last couple of years, what I’ve seen in a way that I’ve never seen before is an emphasis on empathy, and what we might call a human first orientation. I was really heartened to see that in a lot of ways in the early days of the lockdown era of remote instruction, and I still see ripples of it now. Two things that come to mind from the early days that are worth a review, if you haven’t looked at him in a while. One that got kind of viral, the so-called adjusted syllabus of Brandon Bayne from UNC, where he got really kind of real and transparent with students and released it out all over for adaptation. And then Nick Sousanis from San Francisco State University more recently had what he called notes on now as a syllabus section that just kind of, in a more encapsulated way, he sort of said that he wants to keep anchoring down to that human-first element, and just keep that a present part of every course’s syllabus.

Rebecca: Thank you, both Liz and Kelvin for giving us some insights into what we’ve already been experiencing and reminding us about some of the strong improvements that we’ve had. Many campuses are moving back to onsite instruction, while also considering how much of their portfolio should be including online options. And while each campus continues to adapt and adjust, how can we maintain the momentum around inclusive practices and avoid slipping back into our old habits? Michelle, will you start us off?

Michelle: And I love the framing here as momentum, because I think that many campuses have generated a lot of great energy around the why of inclusion, the why of equity, the why of justice, and why this is so important. The trick is going to be to follow that energy on with more on the what and how… how do we put that into practice. And I really struggle when I think about it, because our students, they need practice when there’s a new skill, a new way of responding. They need practice in lots of new contexts. And I talk a lot about transfer. And we may remember a skill or develop a skill in one context and we just don’t remember to activate it and carry it through in a new context. And we’re going to need that. We’re going to need to have certain techniques and teaching moves that do become second nature to us and be able to recognize, hey, this is one of those opportunities to put those into practice. So I was just doing a session this morning by a group from the University of Wisconsin. And they talked about, for example, the need to provide lots of concrete examples to faculty like what does this look like? Maybe even in your discipline? So, for example, increased course structure, we know this is proven to be an inclusive teaching practice. So I need to say, “Oh, yeah, this is the place to do this.” The frequent low-stakes assessments, we know that that reduces disparities in opportunity and disparities in achievement across many student groups. And so offering those concrete paths, making sure we know how to set them up, and then showing faculty that we see it when they’re making the effort and rewarding that. We don’t always need that little extrinsic reward, but institutions have to really keep that up if they’re going to see that this carries through, because that’s going to be the difference between institutions that really have that momentum moving forward and the ones that fall behind.

Liz: I agree… [LAUGHTER] with what she said. I come at this from a little bit of a different perspective, because I am in the classroom, or at least in a virtual classroom. But I think the word that comes to mind for me when I think about momentum is intentionality. And I think if we can remember to teach through our values, especially those values that became so crystallized during COVID, that’s a really good first step. And I’m fond of saying that what’s good for students is good for us. So I want us to think about the ways that we prioritized care, humanity, grace with our students, and also make sure we’re doing that for one another and for ourselves. And I mentioned this before, but COVID really revealed a lot of inequities that had been there for a long time. And now that we know that they’re there, we have to be very intentional about ensuring that they don’t just kind of go back to being invisible again now that we’re not all on Zoom together. So those are the things that I’m thinking about. It’s really leaning into our values, not forgetting what we learned, being intentional and doing for ourselves what we have seen we need to do for our students.

Rebecca: That’s a great reminder to think about not just the students, but the whole community, faculty, staff, etc.

John: During the early stages of the pandemic, we saw a lot of experimentation. And we saw the rapid growth of remote synchronous instruction and HyFlex instruction. And one of the things I think many of us are wondering is what roles they will play as we move forward into the future. Helvin?

Kelvin: Well, my crystal ball never was working. [LAUGHTER] It’s not even broken. But here’s kind of what I think is happening and what may continue to happen. I think synchronous online options will continue to be a factor in our digital teaching and learning in a way that it was not before the pandemic. And it is certainly possible that what I refer to as true HyFlex may still have a place as well. It’s just, gosh, it’s hard to pull real true HyFlex off, right? It’s such a design-intensive approach. What I contrastingly refer to as pseudo HyFlex… dual mode, simulcasting, webcasting of classroom experience… that has challenges. It has a place, perhaps, in individual instructor preference. But I’m going to tell you, firsthand from faculty colleagues I talked to as well as data I’ve seen, it’s exhausting. And it’s challenging for students, the what is sometimes touted as student flexibility ends up just becoming sort of a lowering of expectations and come and go as you wish and the intentionality and momentum seems to dissipate. I’m a big fan of intentional design and modalities of choice, and so forth,,,that way, instead. So, I think synchronous is around and I think our mutated modalities are around. And true. HyFlex has a place. But I’d love to see a diminishing of pseudo HyFlex.

Michelle: This is sparking so many of my own thoughts that I’m really feeling in a way validated here. And I’ll echo a lot of this as well. I think that again, in true HyFlex, where I am fully engaging the folks who are all spread out, I’m fully engaging whoever’s in my classroom, and we’re achieving all of our objectives. That really is a lot. And it’s not the technology. It’s the cognitive capacity. And as a cognitive psychologist, I say, “Well, when you practice remembering to read the chat and read the room at the same time, those demands get a little bit less, but they don’t go away. It’s just too complex.” So I think that we are going to have, yeah, the true bonafide HyFlex courses going forward, they need to be designated, they need to be supported in a particular way. So they may not be unicorns exactly, but I kind of see that coming forward. What I feel like I’ve kind of settled into a more HyFlex light, HyFlex infused is, for example, if you’re home and you’re remote, you need to be remote today, I don’t have an elaborate Google doc with a structured discussion maybe for you. But you can follow along, you can send in a participation card, I do give a lot of credit for participation, and so we’re kind of moving to that. I do think that we still have a sense of possibility. I mean, we have definitely gotten those skills, and we will find new ways to use them. But even just the basics, like “Hey, you can record your class meetings.” And I offer that too as an option for catching up sometimes where needed. I really thought that was going to be a disaster for a lot of different reasons going on. I said that’s not going to work. And I will eat those words now. So we have a few of these tools in our toolkit that we can use in this lower key way, I think.

Rebecca: So Kelvin, you mentioned the ability of changing modalities and offering some flexibility here. And the ability for students to choose the modality that they take the course in is just one of the ways that we’ve seen increased flexibility. But we’ve also seen increased flexibility around attendance, assessments, and many other aspects of teaching. How can we continue to support increased flexibility for students without overburdening faculty. I’m really hoping you all have some magic that you can help with.

Michelle: Yeah, so increased flexibility without the overburdening of faculty… When I reflect on this, I think we can borrow from the plus one strategy that you might be familiar with from Universal Design for Learning. Tom Tobin and his colleagues who write about this… the idea being that, yeah, we’re working towards perhaps a very rich environment with many different ways to demonstrate what you know, to take a test, to participate in in a learning activity, but you don’t do it all at once. And I also think, too, that I know that I’ve gotten, I think, pretty adept at finding those opportunities for flexibility that don’t necessarily add more for me to do and I think an example of this would be the way I give exams these days. So during the pandemic, I said, there’s always going to be an option instead of sitting for a traditional test. So I have an option that’s an essay paper with length and scope parameters and so on. But students can structure this. I suggest they often structure it as an email home to your family about what you’ve learned during this portion of the course. I’ve had a few students who have run with it as a science fiction writing exercise, which works great in psychology. So people will report home to their alien commander or home base about what they’ve learned about humans on Planet Terra. And those are, if anything, just a change of pace for me to read. I’m reading the exams anyway. So I’m always about the efficiency and so that’s something that I’ve tried to capture as well. But here too, we have to remember there are risks when we offer these and faculty who do go out on that limb and try it the first semester or two… maybe it doesn’t work perfectly… they’ve got to be affirmed, and they’ve got to be protected especially untenured. Folks,

Kelvin: I feel like I want to report to my alien commander now. [LAUGHTER] “Mork calling Orson, Mork calling Orson,” that’s a deep cut call back, you have to be of a certain age to appreciate that. I agree with a lot of that. I don’t think I disagree with any of that. But I will broaden out a little bit and maybe anchor back, Rebecca, to your prompt a little bit. I personally think we should lean into intentional course design in intentionally designed and created modalities for which student flexibility is the intent. Asynchronous online is probably the most flexible thing we offer outside of maybe true adaptive learning, which is… don’t get me started… that’s another whole tough banana to peel. I need a better metaphor… bananas aren’t that tough to peel… [LAUGHTER] a tough onion to peel, there’s lots of tears. I don’t know… something. And then I think we need to reiterate to ourselves and to our faculty colleagues that there are codified effective practices in each of these course modality domains, like… a shameless plug… at UCF, we host the teaching online pedagogical repository (TOPR), an online compendium of online and blended teaching and design practices. So there’s stuff that we know that are research based, time honored, that work well and benefit students, things like the broad category of learner choice, which I think just echoes a little bit of what Michelle was saying. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel if we lean into those things. And there’s real student benefit for doing that.

John: The disruptions we experienced in education during the pandemic when people were learning remotely affected all students, but disproportionately affected students who are first-gen, students from low income households and minoritized students. How does higher education need to adjust to meet the diverse needs of all of our students, some of which were not as affected by the pandemic if they were in well-resourced school districts and others that were left behind a bit when they didn’t have access to the technology or the resources that better funded school districts had?

Kelvin: Yeah, we could do better. Even here at the conference in which we’re participating here as we record this, we saw even today, student voice represented on stage and I think we can do better with that. There’s knowing who our students are, there are data that we are collecting and could collect that tell us something. But there’s also just attending to students’ personal stories, keeping a human face on the student experience, being grounded in our work there. But broadening further, again, I’m a big advocate of research-based and time-honored teaching practices. And in our digital teaching and learning domain, many of those have been shown to benefit minoritized and disadvantaged student sub-populations. I would do a shout out here to Tonya Joosten’s research review that has its long title. It’s got educational technologies and student success and racial and ethnic groups of interest all in the title. It can be Googled, it’s free, it’s available, but she does a nice job of reviewing and synthesizing the extant literature and making some recommendations from that. And so there are ways in which our online and blended in particular design and teaching practices benefit everybody but in particular, benefit first-gen, minoritized students, and so forth. And here’s a little free factoid… in a little fascinating recommendation. She says, you know, there’s some evidence to suggest that reduced seat time blended courses at the lower-division level particularly benefit disadvantaged students subpopulations and then going into online courses at the upper division in the major kind of courses. Those two things together. You know, it’s stunning, that’s not whiz bang, whirly gig shiny, right? …but it’s just doing the work but as we align that it really has benefits that evidence would bear out.

Liz: I just want to start by echoing something that Kelvin mentioned, which is that if we’re going to serve the students we have and the students that we will have, we have to know who they are. And there are studies of generations and qualities, but I don’t think anything replaces asking the people in your classroom about themselves in a way that is safe and non-threatening, but comes from an authentic place of curiosity. So I do this with my students. At the start of every semester, I ask them questions, none of them are required, but I ask them questions about things like, what kinds of technology do you have? And how many hours a week are you working? And which of this very long list of challenges do you think you might face during the semester? What kinds of things can I do to help you? …just so that I have a sense of who’s in the room, and what might be going on with them. So just yesterday, I was teaching my Zoom class from upstairs in my hotel room, which I was very grateful for, because I’m an introvert, and this conference is overwhelming. So I was happy to have an excuse to get away for three hours to teach. But we spent 20 minutes just asking, “How are you? No, no, how are you?” Not, I’m fine. I’m okay, but what’s going on? And one of my students said, I’ve always struggled with depression, and I thought I had it under control. But the last week has taught me that I don’t. And it’s only because we’re in week six of a seven week class that that student felt like he could say that, and the whole class could say, “Me too.” And those moments, I think that is so critical. And it’s just the humanization that we’ve already talked about, and meeting people where they are, I want to put in a plug for Zaretta Hammond’s book about, I don’t remember the full title, but it’s the brain and culturally relevant responsive teaching. It’s got a lot of really good buzzwords in it. But it talks about how, when the brain is in a state of trauma, or stress, you can’t learn. And so we can talk about all of these things that we can do. But if our students are not in a place to hear it, nothing that we do is going to make a difference. And I think if we’re talking about how to teach the students we have, we have to be aware of that before we can move forward.

Rebecca: So you’ve nicely connected to our next topic. [LAUGHTER]

Liz: …almost like I meant to.

Rebecca: lI know, it’s almost like you knew it was coming. Campuses are seeing a rise in mental health needs in their student bodies, both prior to the pandemic and it obviously continues to increase. And shifting to more inclusive practices is shifting the relationship that students are having with the faculty, just like you mentioned, being able to be more open about some of these things. In my own experience, I’ve seen an increase in disclosure of mental health challenges and distress and the need to refer and actively engage in suicide prevention. These are things that I didn’t need to do five years ago, [LAUGHTER] or maybe I didn’t need to do but didn’t see, but definitely see now. So how can faculty and institutions more effectively respond to mental health challenges facing our learning communities? And obviously, Liz, you kind of started us off on some ideas here. Michelle?

Michelle: Yeah, I’d like to put another book on the radar actually, as well. And full disclosure, I was an editor on this book, but I really believe in it. It’s coming out next year, actually, it’s called Learning and Student Mental Health in the College Classroom, lead authors, Robert Eaton. And it is in this space of friendly, actionable strategies when we do have increased disclosure. I mean, I found too, that Zoom itself is a sort of a dis-inhibiting space, like many online spaces are and going in I should have known that. it’s like on paper, I’ve read it, but then it became very, very real. So what do we do with that? Because the thing for faculty is, we mean this well, but our minds immediately go to: “How do I fix it? Oh, my gosh, do I have to kind of do amateur therapy that I’m not qualified to do?” And no, that is absolutely not what we need to do next. It’s a good thing to be concerned about not crossing boundaries at that same time as we are responding to what students are disclosing for us. So the strategies that I like are those that say, well, let’s start by not accentuating the crises and the stresses that are there. And a few other kind of concrete things… For me, not asking for doctor’s notes. Boy, when I started teaching a long time ago, I was all about the documentation and “show me exactly what happened at the emergency room,” and that type of thing. So now I offer flexibility and many paths to catch up that much like universal design for learning are built in for everyone from day one of the course. So if there’s something that prevented you from coming to class or making that deadline, okay, we can talk about it if you want, but we don’t have to. And you can simply take those paths that I’ve already laid out for you. I think taking the time to empathize, many of us did practice those skills and we can continue to do so. When I get to talk to people who are just starting out as teachers, I say, “You have this big loud microphone, this megaphone to a student’s ear. Your words land very, very powerfully. So you really need to think about those.” I find that my students seem to come to me expecting very harsh treatment and very harsh reactions, when they tell me about what they’re going through. And so I remind myself to simply start with warmth and compassion and human empathy, and a way forward. So that’s something that we can do. And when all else may fail, I say “How would I want my own child, in the same situation, a crisis, which is hopefully temporary and passing… how would I want them to be spoken to? How would I want that email to be phrased? What kind of pass forward would I want for them?” So that’s how I take it.

John: We’re a little behind schedule. So we’re going to ask anyone in the audience to come up to the microphone. One of the issues we haven’t quite gotten to is the issue of preventing burnout. Maybe if Liz could address that briefly while people come up.

Liz: So I want to talk about burnout in a very particular way. Because I think we often think of burnout as a me problem. And I think of burnout as an every one problem. It is a system that is creating it. And so I want to tell every one of you listening, that you are not the problem, and you haven’t done anything wrong. But in order to mitigate burnout, we have to be aware of what our boundaries are. And that often requires getting really quiet, and listening to ourselves. Because we’ve been steeped in this culture that tells us that hustling and productivity is the only way you’re valuable. And that is not true. But you’re not going to be able to figure out what your boundaries are if you’re listening to those voices. So you got to step out of that for a minute, and figure out what really matters to you. And here’s a good way to do it. Think about yourself 20 years from now. What are the things that are going to have mattered about what you’re doing right now? And what are the things that you won’t really care about? Choose to spend your time on the things that will matter to you 20 years from now, and all of these other kind of petty political debates in your institution… because we all have them… that’s not what you’re going to be remembering when you look back on your career. Focus your energy and your care on the things that you’re going to care about over a career and make choices accordingly. I think that’s the advice I would give.

JELISA: My name is Jelisa Dallas, I’m representing the University of Phoenix. My role is as a recognized student organization manager, a program manager. And so my question was, “How do we effectively work with students in a way that’s going to help streamline their purpose as it pertains to connecting with them in the classroom? So a lot of students have a lot of things going on, and how do we streamline that to get them to stay focused and prioritize when so much is going on and around?”

Liz: Thank you for the question. I mean, I think it’s making sure that what we are doing, we’re transparent about why it matters to them. And it’s creating relevance to whatever their goals are. And of course, you can’t do that if you don’t know what they are. So again, you need to know your students, but designing the work for your class, so that it feels intrinsically valuable, I think, is the best advice I can give.

ALI: Hi, I’m Ali Kirwen, I am a course operations specialist with the University of Michigan, we are an all online program, or I work for an online master’s program. It’s asynchronous, we have students everywhere in all different time zones. And we have faculty that care a whole, whole lot about our students. So I’m wondering, as a designer, how can I help encourage my faculty to set boundaries with their students in a way that honors their joy of teaching and interacting with their students, but is working towards preserving them and not burning them out as well? [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: Well, I think that even subtle things like wording choice. So are there things that say over and above, do we give awards for the person who did the most? Or do we give awards for people who did the best? So I think that faculty, especially when they’re new, are really looking for those cues. And so those can be powerful.

Kelvin: What Michelle said… [LAUGHTER] No, what Michelle said but just maybe that underscore and amplify that for a second, I’ve thought about doing this myself, and I just haven’t. But I love the colleagues and maybe some of you are them who have those little statements in the bottom of your email, right? Like, “if you’re getting this email, when you’re not working, don’t feel some sort of obligation to respond right now. I sent it at a time that I was working, that might not be the time that you’re working. And, in a collegial sort of way, we can have that same kind of a vibe, I think, in our course interactions between faculty and students. And then again, wording… I got a note just last night on a book project I’m working on from a colleague who’s gonna peer review. And he said, “I show my respect by being direct and blatantly honest.” And so I think framing is everything. Word choice is everything. And making explicit where you’re coming from without just sort of caving to the implicit pressures and cultural expectations. That’s hard. But it’s important.

Liz: Yes. And women in the academy, we do a lot of emotional labor. And that comes very naturally to me, if you know anything about the Enneagram, I’m a 2, like, I want to fix all your problems, okay. But the way that I do this, because students tell me everything. I think they tell me everything, because they know that I will listen. But what I have learned for myself, and this has been the difference between moving towards burnout and not, is that I am here to listen to you deeply. I am not here to fix your problems. And I will refer you to people who can help you. But if you just need to be heard, I will listen. And sometimes that does get heavy. But I also recognize that if I fix all the problems for all the students, I’m going to be exhausted. And that doesn’t really serve them in the long run. Because they don’t need someone to fix their problems. They just need someone to tell them that they’re okay and that I believe in you, and I care about you. And so I would say that, but deep listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone else. And that’s just listening to understand what they’re saying, not to respond. So that’s what I would say. And please never send pictures from the ER, never. [LAUGHTER] You know, students tell them, no ER photos,

John: We always end by asking: “What’s next?” …and we’ll start with Kelvin.

Kelvin: Crystal ball, still not working. [LAUGHTER] But here’s, I guess, my read on the situation, there are more options for people to learn and work than there ever have been before. So I think that we can either meet the needs of our colleagues and our learners, or someone else will when they go elsewhere.

Michelle: What’s next for me, I want to keep doing the absolute best I can teaching my actual classes. I’m just reconnecting so much with that. And I think that’s a good thing for now. And I’m eagerly looking at, hopefully, deeper changes in the academy, also looking for rebuilding online presence. Twitter used to be a big part of my online life and I quit that in May, and saying what kind of connections was this yielding with other faculty, even with students and the big ideas in my field. And maybe I can take more charge and have more agency in that going forward?

Liz: I’m working on a book. So you should all buy it when it comes out. Michelle is the editor, so it’s going to be really good. [LAUGHTER] It’s tentatively called The Present Professor. And we mentioned it in the introduction. But really, I’m just looking for ways where we can create more student centered,e students supportive and faculty well being centered places of learning. That is my passion. And I’d love to talk to any of you who are interested in that.

John: Thank you all for coming. And on your tables, there’s little packets that Rebecca designed with some tea in them, so please take them with you so she doesn’t have to bring them back to Oswego.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you all for joining us. And thanks for those that asked questions. And thank you to all of our panelists and we finished on time. [APPLAUSE]

Liz: It is exactly 12:30.


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.


262. What Teaching Looks Like

Video recordings of faculty teaching classes have long been used for professional development. In this episode, we examine Martin Springborg and Cassandra Volpe Horii join us to discuss how still photography may also be used for this purpose. Martin and Cassandra are the co-authors of What Teaching Looks Like: Higher Education through Photographs. Martin is the Interim Dean of Liberal Arts and STEM at Dakota County Technical College. Cassandra is the Associate Vice Provost for Education and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University.

Show Notes


John: Video recordings of faculty teaching classes have long been used for professional development. In this episode, we examine how still photography may also be used for this purpose.


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 Martin Springborg and Cassandra Volpe Horii, co-authors of What Teaching Looks Like: Higher Education through Photographs. Martin is the Interim Dean of Liberal Arts and STEM at Dakota County Technical College. Cassandra is the Associate Vice Provost for Education and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University. Welcome, Cassandra, and welcome back, Martin.

Cassandra: Thank you.

Martin: Thanks for having us.

John: Today’s teas are: …are either of you drinking tea?

Martin: Oh, yeah. In preparation for this.

Rebecca: Awesome.

Martin: So normally, I drink coffee all day. Today I’m drinking one of my favorite drinks, a London fog, which is Earl Grey tea made into a latte.

Cassandra: Very nice. That sounds great Martin. And I have an iced Jasmine green tea, given the summer nature of what we’re doing and being out in California, but I had my coffee earlier.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Well, I appreciate the real effort to have good tea for the day. I have a jasmine black tea today.

Cassandra: Another Jasmine drinker.

Rebecca: A nice summer flavor.

John: And I have spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss What Teaching Looks Like: Higher Education Through Photographs. Can you talk a little bit about how this project got started?

Martin: I started this project when I was teaching photography courses, and specifically an Intro to Photography course at Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota. So I had been teaching, I don’t know, maybe three or four years, going into this a little bit in the book, but I was doing nothing but teaching. So I was really wanting to do some of my own work again, and I decided to make this project that both I can work on and my students can work on at the same time. We were learning about documentary photography at the time. We’re talking about photographers, like Robert Frank, other photographers in this area. And just really getting to that subject, I encouraged them to make photographs of their lives as students. And I told them, I would make photographs of my life as a faculty member. So they could just see what that looks like. And I could learn about them. It blossomed from there. So it was a great project in class, and I loved it so much that I wanted to keep doing it outside of class, and even when I moved out of teaching and into educational development, and away from the college, I started doing this project, or kept doing this work, and actually named it something and said I was going to do this thing on my own and made some photographs of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, then that’s where our system was called. I think I presented the work at the POD conference. Cassandra was there, and she liked the work, and she invited me out to CalTech, and I’ll let her take it from there.

Cassandra: Yeah, I was blown away by these photographs when I first saw them. It was around the time that Martin and I were both interacting through the professional organization, the POD Network, and working on conference organizing. So we had some committee work together, and they just stopped me in my tracks. I’d never seen anything like them. I hadn’t ever seen represented what happens in classrooms in this visual, but also visceral, way that got to the heart of what mattered, what I loved about being in a university environment. And at the time, I was starting up a new Center for Teaching and Learning, really working on communicating what teaching was all about, how to engage with teaching. And so Martin’s visit was, I think, the first outside of Minnesota. We got him into classrooms of a great variety of different formats, lecture formats, but also labs, and discussions, and conversations between faculty and students and teaching assistant meetings behind the scenes, and that work ended up being so impactful and important in the change process for our institution. It’s something that we started talking about and building on. And then I think, as Martin went to other institutions, became a part of the conversation. We also had the thought at some point, “Hmm, what if we talked with the faculty whose classrooms were photographed and started to really understand the impact on them.” So from that, we developed a protocol for consulting about teaching with faculty using photographs. And again, it just grew from there, and I think Martin could tell us a little bit about the inspiration for, actually, the book.

Martin: Yeah. So from there, we were talking with so many faculty after making photographs in their classrooms, and really just, in a lot of cases, shadowing them throughout their entire day, in other roles they were in. Getting faculty to reflect on their teaching practice, and other things about teaching, related to teaching, it was just really inspiring, and we thought, “well, this can’t be just kept between us, just can’t be this secret.” So then we started to dig into what else had been done, like if anything else had been done in this area. What could we learn from that? And how could we lend what we had done to whatever scholarship existed out there on this topic? We saw scant offerings out there on this topic. Some people who were doing video consultations, which is a very common way of doing teaching consultations with faculty… set up a video camera in a classroom, let it roll and then have the faculty member watch it and then talk about it. Nobody was really doing the still photograph approach to that. So we put together a book proposal. And really, the book proposal, I think originally was nine chapters, we narrowed it down in scope a little bit. But basically 15 years worth of documentary photography, institutions across the United States under the broad title of “The Teaching and Learning Project.” We billed it as the most comprehensive photographic exploration to date of contemporary post-secondary education in the US, which it is. And then the book proposal also included in those chapters, insights about the state of teaching and learning, challenges and solutions, and how and why to integrate photographs in an educational change and improvement work at organizations, institutions at that college level. And now, we’re hearing back from a lot of people who are diving into the book, and they’re just saying that it’s timeless. And there’s something we really didn’t expect to see. We got some feedback early on in the book proposal process that, well, now that we’re in COVID, this is just going to play as a time capsule of what teaching was. But that’s not what it is at all. And we’ll get more into that I’m sure later as we dive into how it’s being received now. But yeah, that was really the crux of the proposal.

John: What Teaching Looks Like is part of the Elon University Center for Engaged Learning Open Access series. Why was open access important for you as authors for this project?

Cassandra: Yeah, thanks for that question. So as you’re probably getting a sense, and you’ve taken a look, I’m sure, this is a very different kind of book about higher education and for higher education. Not only does it contain photographs, but it’s probably half photographs, it’s nearly 200, and those are really integrated with the text so that they sit in this co-equal fashion, the purpose is also somewhat different. So given these unique factors, we wanted it to be as fully accessible as possible in format and also in terms of cost. So we found that the editorial team at the Elon University Center for Engaged Learning, including managing editor Jennie Goforth, and a series co-editors, Jesse Moore and Peter Felton also had that clear vision and dedication. They were very excited to be able to make the supplementary resources readily available, and to explore the capacity, I would say, and the possibility of this format. Just for one example, we worked very closely with the editorial team on exactly how and what kind of descriptive text would be provided for these nearly 200 photographs. So that descriptive text is embedded right there in the electronic format, in a way that works with screen readers, and it’s also potentially enriching and available to all readers. So the other piece is that we really believed in the potential and the possible impact of the book and helped us zoom out for a moment. And, you know, through your conversations with authors that there are so many more excellent high quality books available and emerging about how to teach in higher education, how to teach in different disciplines, through different methods, and we think those are incredibly important. And now we’re seeing more books, volumes, articles coming out about how change works in higher education, how to structure change, strategies for systemic change, also incredibly important, and Martin and I are working on those things too. The thing that What Teaching Looks Like does that I think is different is it gets at why to change, why teaching matters, why to improve, and provides some new tools in our collective repertoire that engage people’s whole selves in that work. So when we talk about culture change, which is so important to sustainable and systemic change, there has to be that drawing in and sustainable interest in participating so that it’s not purely top down, it’s not a forced experience. The other thing we know is that reflection is so important, pausing to really deeply think about why we teach in particular ways and how to go about change, also incredibly important. And what we found was that, like Martin said, we were missing this whole avenue of engaging with people, and we need everything we’ve got to really tackle the challenges in higher education. So kind of circling back around to why open access. These factors are not necessarily a well-tested formula for publishing in higher education. But again, we think it’s really vital. And as Martin mentioned, the early reception to the book is indicating that it’s landing, so we’re getting messages back in email that you People are saying, like “I’m blown away. This is reminding me what I love about teaching. It’s making me think in new ways,” …and a real sense of excitement about the things that they want to do and the conversations that they want to have with their colleagues.

Rebecca: As an artist and a designer, I was really fascinated by this project since Martin first mentioned it to us, a while back, in part because we don’t typically think of SOTL as something that is visual, or that is documentary in nature. Can you talk a little bit about the methodology and what it reveals that some of these other methods don’t? You’ve started hinting at some of these things, but I’d love to hear more about “why photography?”

Martin: First of all, since high school, it’s the way I’ve communicated. So I’m used to communicating that way. And I think you touched on something.SOTL is typically text based. There’s a lot of great stuff there. But you’d have to dedicate yourself to sitting down with it for quite a long time. And if we’re asking faculty, who was really our main audience for this work, to learn from something, photography was just the first place I went, as far as just being a SOTL project, because still photographs instantly land with you. If you look at something, you have an opinion about it, whether you like it or don’t like it, whatever you see in there, immediately, it hits you at a very gut level, the longer you sit with something, the more you see the intricacies of it and more maybe the message that was intended by the author or the photographer, but because it was familiar to me as a way of communicating, that’s really why the methodology, and that’s why I see it as different from a lot of SOTL work is because it takes so little time comparatively, to get into it. You can use photographs to teach faculty something in far less time.

John: And imagery can be really powerful. When we think back to many historical events, key photographs from those events often have a much longer impact than any text that was written up describing those events. So I think you’re onto something quite interesting here. But could you talk a little bit about the structure of the book, and what readers can expect to find in each chapter?

Cassandra: Yeah, I’d be happy to take you through the outline of the book a little bit and preview what you can expect. So in the introduction, we talk a little bit more about the origins of the project itself and some of that surrounding work, which we alluded to a bit here. We also give readers a chance to anticipate how they might interact with the book and think about some strategies for observing the photographs, for taking that pause to really look closely. We continue to do that throughout, of course, but there’s this little primer in the beginning for just interacting with this type of a book, several of the chapters take up place, or a kind of experience in higher education, because we started with really the thematic commonalities that were coming through in these really 10s of 1000s of images that Martin had from multiple different campuses across the United States. Those often pointed to these thorny, challenging questions about what’s current, what’s difficult, what’s interesting about being in higher education today. So in classroom interactions, one of the chapters, it starts out with this quote from one of our participants, “if I were lying on my deathbed, I would want to look at these pictures to know that I did some good teaching.” When we heard that, we just got goosebumps, at least I did, and it speaks to this visceral power that we’ve been talking about. That chapter also looks at what the absence of photographs to date says about the value we place on teaching, what kinds of things we learn when we do have photographs. It’s interwoven with some of the theory and critical perspectives on what photographs are and how they function. We also look at, in another chapter, student perspectives, and really think about the student experience today, what kinds of emotions and forms of engagement, collectively, we’re willing to showcase and what we might be hiding from students that could get in the way of the deeper learning that we’re trying to get at, as well as we know that roles for educators are shifting as we move more toward active and engaged forms of collaborative learning. We also think in another chapter about our interactions with technology and spaces, that interplay that’s also speaking to the importance of those resources. They set the stage and the kind of agency that we might still have and the power relationships that we do have the capacity to change in those environments, and even looking at the nuances of partnerships beyond campus, of community engaged learning. There’s a set of chapters too that take on a little bit more of a philosophical slant. So we look at the productive chaos and the messy nature of education… a sort of deeper exploration of order and disorder, and really a critical admission and questioning of perhaps, the sort of secret aesthetic that we might come to in our experience as educators. Many of us might think that there’s something beautiful about learning, but it’s not something that we say, and we need to say it, but we also need to question it. And then there’s also kind of a real look at the behind the scenes, hidden work, the hidden labor behind education that we almost never show: the work of contingent faculty, adjunct faculty, tenure-track faculty, alt-AC staff, administrators. And we really see the liminality of some of those positions showing up in the images themselves, but also the capacity for that to connect across roles and generate empathy. And then the arc of the book ends with thinking about photographs and change agents, and how they can play a role in campus communities, making intentional, institutional, and educational change through the ways we communicate, how we bring people together through exhibits of photographs, through having this representation in our shared spaces, and then how photographs can have an impact on our teaching practice through the conversations that we might have about them. So every chapter ends with some open-ended questions for reflection, and those are expanded on in the website resources.

Rebecca: I really appreciated seeing the collection of photos and what you were saying about the absence of such photos existing or that documentation existing really resonated with me. I’m working on our graduate student orientation in our new learning management system, which is much more visual, and I’m trying to collect images and represent some ideas, and what I was quickly realizing, at the same time I was looking at your book… this was happening at the same time… was, “Wow, we’re not really great, just generally, taking photos of what learning really looks like or what being a student looks like, or what being a teacher looks like, what being in grad school looks like, because a lot of the things are very staged or focus on extracurricular spaces or they’re just very staged…” it was thinking about other opportunities where I’ve gotten to see something which I appreciate being able to see something in action, but often those seeing of the things in action are staged.

Martin: I’ve given talks to faculty at institutions when I’ve gone to to make photographs. And that’s one of the things that is often in those talks is wrestling with how we project ourselves to potential students and their families, the balance between marketing and what they would love to do, and the reality of what students see when they get to college. They’re often not the same thing. So we project a lot of images that don’t represent ourselves in truth. And I think that’s potentially why students are shocked often when they get to college. And they realize that, “oh, this is a wild mess,” in a lot of aspects. “This is crazy. I don’t know if I can take it.” What I’m trying to say is, if we do have more photographs available to students, sadly, if we’re able to have discussions around those truthful photographs… I won’t say truth… but around those honest photographs, then I think we circumvent a lot of that, we take some of the shock away from what it is to be in college, what it is to be a student, what it is to be a faculty member. If we showed photographs like this to our graduate students more often, they would understand what’s ahead of them when they teach their own classes. They get that in the teaching assistant roles, of course, but there’s more in those photographs to learn in that respect.

Rebecca: Yeah, the authenticity of the collection is really impactful. I really also appreciated all the companion resources, and would love for you to talk through some of those. There was multiple things that you’ve included, not only within the text itself, but also as this companion material on the website. And there were a couple that I was particularly interested in that I hope you might walk us through. One of them is the close reading and observation activity. Can you share a little bit about that?

Cassandra: Yes. And in fact, if you’d like we can try that out a little bit right here. Are you game for that, Rebecca and John?

Rebecca: We can try. We can try anything.

Cassandra: Alright. So the companion resources, as you alluded to, includes a set of close observation, close reading exercises, which excerpt, one photograph or sets of photographs around several themes, and then offer some prompts for reflection, conversation, discussion. We imagine that these… and they are actually…. being used in a reading group and book groups. I have given workshops on my own campus and Martin and I have done similar things in conferences where we take this similar method and really work with a group. It’s a great warmup, gets people very engaged, gets them thinking, also a wonderful activity in the context of reflecting on teaching. So lots of different uses, but I’m gonna have John and Rebecca, and Martin, if you like, open the resource called close reading and observation exercises, just to the first photograph that you find there. So it’s on the second page. And it’s called Introduction, close reading exercise. Is everybody there?

John: And we will share a link to all the resources, especially this one, in the show notes.

Cassandra: Fantastic. So let’s just start out by engaging, looking at this first photograph. And I’m going to ask John and Rebecca to share what you notice, in this image… start to describe it. Of course, we’re on audio. So your description will be helpful for listeners, and it will tell us something and yourself something about what you think is important and what stands out. What do you see?

Rebecca: I just want to verify that we’re looking at the figure 2.01.

Cassandra: Yes, 2.01.

Rebecca: So what I see is two groups of students, and each group is organized around a computer monitor. In the group that’s closest to us, I see a diverse group of students. And there’s one student who is gesturing with his paper at the screen, two students leaning in to see this screen, and one student hanging back a little bit… looking, peeking at what’s on the screen, but not quite leaning in like the other two are.

Cassandra: Awesome. Thank you. So there’s no wrong answers here. All of those are things that are present in the photograph. John, is there anything you would add, just at first glance, of what stands out to you?

John: Well, the students all seem focused on the same material, they all seem to be actively engaged in the activity, which is not something we always see in classrooms.

Cassandra: And as you think about, look at this photograph a little bit more, is there anything in it that maybe seems typical or atypical?

Rebecca: I think the level of focus is not always typical, as John mentioned, but it’s also, like a super win [LAUGHTER] when that level of focus is there. So I’m feeling the winning happening. It gives a teacher who is probably walking around the classroom, and you’re feeling like, yeah, the students are into this thing. So I can’t see that. But I’m feeling that.

Cassandra: Yeah, well, and that emotion is coming through in the details that you already have observed. So Rebecca, you pointed out some of the expressions and the body language that you’re noticing in this photograph, some of those signs that you see about what engagement might look like, what happens when students are getting engaged, that sort of leaning in, and the gesturing that’s happening. So there’s this action that you’re noticing as well. One more little question is this, you might not be able to tell from the photograph, the person closest to the lens, whose back is toward us, and who has the piece of paper gesturing toward the screen is actually the professor, the teacher in this setting. So any thoughts about knowing that about this image now, what might be going on and what you notice about the roles?

Rebecca: To me, it seems like the faculty member is checking in on something that’s happening, and now they’re having a conversation and maybe some explanation of where there was a misstep. And really the leaning in of like, “Wait, I want to know the answer. I want to understand this better.”

Cassandra: Yeah, fantastic. So I don’t want to go on too long. But I think, hopefully, that demonstrates that just with that moment of looking and some prompts and questions, you start to really get deeply into the photograph, deeply into the experience. And if we were in a course design institute, we might use this prompt and this image, to start to open up a conversation about how we want to structure in-class work, once we have some learning outcomes defined, the big goals of the course. And think about different ways we want to get students engaged and what that’s going to be like for the instructor. If we’re thinking about active learning, we might use this as a starting point to really reconsider the role of the instructor, the moves that they need to make, how to check in with students, we also might be thinking about student groups and how they’re interacting. So there’s lots of ways we can go and it’s that sort of open-ended, reflective quality that is really exciting, and I think fun to engage in and can open up some new possibilities.

John: And it’s especially nice to see all these resources provided with an open access piece of work, because that often doesn’t happen. These are really useful and powerful supplements that make these tools much more usable for professional development.

Martin: Another thing that I want to mention, in reference to this question about additional resources is the guide to photo-based consultations that Elon has on their site. So this is just really us offering our complete template to conducting a photo-based teaching consultation. It’s exactly, with very little modification, what Cassandra and I used every time we sat down with a faculty member that we photographed and guided them through reflection on their teaching practice using the photographs as a reference point, and I think it’s a very powerful way of conducting a teaching consultation, it was often an emotional experience for the faculty that we talked to, and I don’t even remember how many of these we did, we did quite a few at several institutions. They’re all very valuable experiences.

Cassandra: There’s a standalone published article about the teaching consultation framework and some of the findings about what we coded as incidents of reflection and different kinds of reflection that came through in these photographs. And then material from that same study is also incorporated into the book. So readers will see it again, less as the formal research study, and more as a compliment and an accompaniment to the images around these different themes.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a bit about the photographs that you’ve taken and the discussions around the photographs. Can you talk a little bit about the process of actually making the photograph and what the interaction was like with a faculty member to set up that opportunity? And then to follow them around all day? [LAUGHTER] And that was like, and how do you keep that authentic?

Martin: I’ll just start by saying it’s not easy, and it especially wasn’t easy in the very beginning. The first people I photographed were my colleagues, because they were colleagues and also friends, they trusted me. They’re like, “yes, you made this work in your class of yourself, for your students. But how are you going to do that of me in my class?” So it took some getting used to in the very beginning, and then we have like a two pager guide to making photographs in the resources on Elon site as well. But the biggest thing to remember is that things were more than likely be a little weird for about five minutes, you just have to keep making a lot of pictures, and only after you make a lot of pictures of the first few minutes that you’re there that people just tune you out, it does happen. You just have to trust the process, it’s just, you see all the photographs in the book. I had been in those classes with that faculty member trailing that President for some time, and they acted as though I wasn’t even there. And then the photographs, you can see that the people are acting naturally, as though nobody else is in the room with them. That’s my biggest piece of advice. For those that are wanting to do this on their own, I think that the biggest thing to keep in mind is that those moments will come. And you have to remember the ultimate goal of why you’re there and what you’re doing.

Cassandra: One question that we often receive is about permissions for the photographs, which is very important to protect the privacy and let people course consent and elect in to being represented in photographs. So everything that’s in the book, and in Martin’s body of work, every single person has consented actively and signed a photographic release. And when you’re working in your own institution, it’s a good idea to consult with your communications colleagues, potentially General Counsel, just to make sure that you’re following your own institution’s guidelines. Sometimes there’s a blanket photographic release that students elect into or out of that you can access. And in this case, because Martin was also exhibiting and presenting the work outside of the institution, that separate release was very important.

Martin: It’s important to note as well, that the release form gives equal use rights to both myself and the institution. So we have a shared ownership of the images, when I’m finished photographing at a location. And I just give them a complete set of the photographs that I made, so that they can use them for whatever purposes they need to use them for. I’ve almost always worked just with Center for Teaching and Learning staff. They’re going to use those photographs to really put teaching and learning out there visually as a priority at their institutions, and many of them have done that.

John: You visited many campuses and lots of classrooms. What were some observations that stood out in terms of really effective practices or effective activities that were occurring in these classes?

Martin: That’s a tricky word, “effective,” I think. So I’m going to dodge that question, I think, a little bit and talk about the different things I saw that on face value wouldn’t seem like they would work in terms of teaching students things, but ultimately did work to teach students things. So one part of the book that Cassandra mentioned earlier, that messy nature of teaching and learning gets into a situation I was in at one of the institutions where it was this kind of like a giant office hour or recitation session for students in an enormous class with three or four hundred students. It was right before an exam. There was a lot of nervousness in that room. Students were crammed in there together and they were all just sort of tossing notes back and forth… literally through the air, in some cases… handing laptops back and forth from table to table. But in that mess, were also a lot of TAs and the professor of the class, just making round after round after round, consulting with students. And that, if you were to just walk by, would be very loud, as it was loud and chaotic. And you would think “what’s happening here? What good could possibly come from this?” But if you get into the nuances of those photographs, those still photographs, you’ll see that sort of emotion and caring that’s in those interactions between the TAs and the faculty member and those students. And you’ll see on student faces, those moments where they’re like getting it, those “aha” moments. If you teach, you know the face, and those faces, or in those still images, I’m gonna dodge the most effective methods and go to those kinds of moments where I discovered something that to the outside wouldn’t appear to be working, but actually was working very well.

Rebecca: Were there any other really prominent moments, Martin, that really stuck with you?

Martin: There are so many. One situation I was in, I’ll always remember it. So I photographed a large lecture class, it was at night. So there were some students at the back of the room, and the hockey game was on their laptops. They weren’t paying attention to the lecture, it was nine o’clock at night. And then there were other students very engaged in that class, what I wanted to do was capture everything that was happening. When I make photographs of a complete class, which is always what I do, I never want to go into a class and photograph for 15 minutes and exit, I want to be there at the beginning before class starts, and then photograph even after it ends, and students coming up and talking or asking questions. Because that’s the whole thing. So I make probably hundreds, easily, of photographs. And then I whinnow that down to about 60 or so. And then I give those photographs to the faculty member to reflect on for teaching consultation moments that we have, because there are bad photographs, you’re gonna make a lot of bad photographs. But I try, in those 60 or so, to give them a summary of what happened from everything that was happening in that class. Well, this one faculty member just didn’t believe that that was what was happening. He just didn’t believe it, and wanted to see every single photograph and the timestamp on the photographs to know exactly that I got the whole class. And he wanted to see them not in black and white, he wanted the color just because he knew that they existed. I take color photographs, and I make them black and white. So that stuck with me and the reaction after I said “fine, I don’t mind giving you all these, here they are.” But the reaction after that was like, if you can summarize the email that would summarize it as like aha moment where it’s like, that really did happen. All that stuff was going on. I’ll never forget that. I don’t know why. But that’s one moment, one opportunity that stands out to me amongst all the others.

Cassandra: On the flip side, if I can add, there have also been these really striking conversations when instructors were having the chance to observe maybe the student in the back corner of the room that they maybe don’t engage with directly as much or who is quieter, and seeing them get really excited when the instructor is somewhere else in the room. So there was also a lot of seeing things for the first time, seeing students get excited, and recognizing the real difficulties that students are sometimes facing. There’s one image that I don’t think is in the book, but I will always remember seeing this and talking with the faculty member about it, where a student was in a class, computers were being used. There’s lots of stuff in the room. But this one student had laid very carefully on the table next to the computer a white food service uniform that was clearly needing to stay clean and crisp and pressed probably for the job that the student was going to go to after class. And that student was also engaged in the class, but clearly juggling a tremendous amount of life and work. And that’s all there in that image for that faculty member to reflect on and understand.

Martin: We could go on for a really long time. I want to mention two other photographs that stood out to me. So there’s one of a faculty member conducting office hours. And in the office, she’s really intently working with a student. And then you can see the student is really struggling to get it, like physically, the hands on the head. And then outside down the hall, you can see a line of students sitting on the floor waiting for their opportunity in the office hour. I think to me that just sums up what office hours should be and what they are. And it’s a thing that people don’t understand. If you’re not faculty you’ve never taught before, you’re outside of higher education, you don’t understand that that’s a part of faculty work. You can see that same struggle lined up in the hall many times more for that faculty member. And then one more photograph that I want to mention, because it’s funny, and both Cassandra and I laughed hysterically about it. So I photographed a large exam happening. This is one of those exams where it’s proctored by a graduate assistant and it’s timed, it’s very, you got to do everything by the book. This one student in the front row taking this exam is in a panda suit, like a panda costume [LAUGHTER], and it’s just a beautiful moment.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] These things do happen. I wanted to pick up on one more thread that you had mentioned at the top of the conversation, which is the power of… and you’ve hinted at some of these examples… the power of these photographs to instigate change. Change, perhaps for that faculty member, and I’m pretty sure I heard both of you imply that it could happen beyond the faculty member too, and I’d love to hear a little bit more about that.

Cassandra: Yeah, I could start this one off. And Martin, please feel free to jump in, of course. Some of the ways in which campuses were, first of all, initiating a project to capture photographs, and then really creatively engaging their communities with the photographs were pretty striking. So one example comes from the University of Michigan, and we’ve discussed this and have some wonderful reflections from colleagues there in the final chapter of the book. Looking at the largest courses on campus, this initiative was really trying to understand what was happening in them, what students were experiencing, what faculty were experiencing. And so that set of photos served as both a kind of baseline for the project, and an interactive tool to engage with those communities about how to change those courses, how to make them better, how to consider what would be most important. In other cases, campuses, and we did this actually on my own campus, created exhibits of photographs in museum spaces, but also in other kinds of spaces in a Center for Teaching and Learning, in an important office on campus. We’re hearing of more places that are also doing similar things now. Some temporary exhibits really brought presidents, and provosts, and deans, and chairs together with faculty teaching the courses, with these large-scale photographs that sparked new kinds of conversations, conversations across disciplines, across administrative and faculty, potentially, sometimes what’s perceived as barriers or misunderstandings. And in some cases, we heard stories about people walking off with the photographs because they wanted them for their own offices for their own.

Martin: They were told they could leave with their photographs at that one event.

Cassandra: That’s good.

Martin: They didn’t steal them.

John: One of the things you mentioned, Martin, was faculty being surprised by what was happening in various corners of the room. And that’s an issue that I think might be really enlightening information for people teaching large classes if they don’t normally walk around their classroom. Because nothing you said there seems surprising to me, I’ve been teaching classes of three or 400 students, and I generally get in often 3 or 4 thousand steps during an hour and 20 minute class because I’m as likely to be teaching from the back of the room or working with small groups of students as I am to be up at the podium. Or at least that was true until very recently. I’m hobbling around a little bit right now, and that actually is a concern I have going into this semester, that I’m going to be a little bit less mobile for the first few weeks. I had a bit of an accident a while back that broke my leg in a few places. So I’m very concerned about not being able to be out there with students for at least part of the semester. But I think it does illustrate the importance of being out there amongst the students. And we’ve often heard people talk about teaching by walking around, and it’s a really effective technique, and having these photos can encourage that in cases where faculty members are skeptical about what you observe in portions of the class.

Martin: Yeah, I don’t want to make it sound like that was the only large lecture situation that I found. I did photograph quite a few large lecture courses where the instructor was up and down the stairs, constantly making the rounds around the room all the time with a Bluetooth headset, rather than being behind the podium. You’re right, you talk about effective teaching methods, and that’s definitely one for those large lecture courses. Not only having the instructor in there, but also having TAs, graduate assistants wandering around constantly, and using the time and the space to conduct group work because you do get around the room.

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

Martin: One thing that we’ve been able to do since the book has come out is engage more communities. I’m still asking myself what’s happening. What is my life right now? Because soon after the book came out, we gave two book talks to a contingent of educational developers in Asia. It’s this organized two events for people who wanted us to talk about the book with them. And just due to the reach of the book, and what Elon has been able to do, promoting it in that way, it’s so exciting to be engaging more and more communities of folks about the work. Also, we have institutions that are inviting us back, and mounting exhibitions of the work. So one example is St. Louis University, this fall in their museum of art is mounting an exhibition of the work that I made there. I’ll be going back there to make more photographs this fall, as well as Brown University. And I guess the third thing I want to mention for next things is we’re just hoping to build on models from the book, and conducting more educational development and teaching related professional development.

Cassandra: I’ll just add, we’re really excited to observe how communities pick this up and run with it, we’ve talked a little bit about those supplementary resources. So it’s really an approach that campuses can adopt, adapt, and run with. So for example, in one of the recent discussions with the SOTL Asia network, one faculty member was very excited to start to work with students on them documenting and sharing their own experiences as a way for them to reflect on their post-secondary experience, and really be able to communicate it in a different way. Others were immediately thinking about all kinds of contexts that they realized had never been shared about their own learning contexts, their own classes, sort of specific forms of special kinds of classes or environments that they realized were really important and should be shown and should be captured, those kind of hallmarks of the institution or the program or the community. So we’re finding that often just this idea of communicating with images brings to mind the images that haven’t yet been made and the engagements that haven’t yet happened about those representations, those forms of teaching and learning. And we’re hoping to have more of those conversations and to engage with more folks around the work that they’d like to do.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much for sharing your work. It’s really interesting, exciting, and really something we haven’t seen before, and so we’re looking forward to sharing it and spreading the word.

Martin: And on that note, I’ll say one more thing about what’s next. We just talked about this the other day. So now we have this visual baseline of what teaching looks like, and we can refer back to it maybe in 10 years and see how teaching has changed visually.

Cassandra: It’s been wonderful speaking with you. Thanks so much for having us on Tea for Teaching.

Martin: Yes, thank you.

John: Thank you both for joining us.


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.


252. Thriving in Academia

Graduate programs focus on preparing students to become researchers and practitioners in their disciplines, but generally offer little support for those choosing to pursue teaching careers. In this episode, Pamela Ansburg, Mark Basham, and Regan Gurung join us to discuss some strategies that new faculty can use to support a transition to a career at a teaching-focused institution.

Pamela is a professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Mark is a behavioral neuroscientist at Regis University, and Regan is the Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and a Professor of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. They are the co-authors of Thriving in Academia: Building a Career at a Teaching-Focused Institution, which was published earlier this year by the American Psychological Association.

Show Notes


John: Graduate programs focus on preparing students to become researchers and practitioners in their disciplines, but generally offer little support for those choosing to pursue teaching careers. In this episode, we discuss some strategies that new faculty can use to support a transition to a career at a teaching-focused institution.


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 Pamela Ansburg, Mark Basham, and Regan Gurung. Pamela is a professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Mark is a behavioral neuroscientist at Regis University, and Regan is the Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and a Professor of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. They are the co-authors of Thriving in Academia: Building a Career at a Teaching-Focused Institution, which was published earlier this year by the American Psychological Association. Welcome, Pamela and Mark, and welcome back. Regan.

Mark: It’s great to be here.

Regan: Thank you, John and Rebecca.

Pam: Thank you.

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

Pam: Earl Grey, because I like a classic.[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, Mark?

Mark: Well, we’re in Colorado, which is home of Celestial Seasonings. So when I’m drinking tea, I’m always drinking a Celestial Seasonings tea, usually Sleepy Time, even during the day.

Regan: Are they sponsoring this podcast or something, Mark?[LAUGHTER]…

Rebecca: …Right. Yeah…

MARK’: …I’m in the Pacific Northwest, hours behind all of you. So I’m actually still on my morning cup of coffee.

Rebecca: Alright, that’s fair.

John: And I am drinking ginger tea.

Rebecca: Nice. I have some Jasmine green tea now.

John: Oh, very nice…

Mark: Nice.

Rebecca: And for John’s benefit, It’s been like an evolution over the day of what kind of tea I’m having. [LAUGHTER]

John: Rebecca is at home. I’m sitting in this control room for this old recording studio. So I’ve got this tea… and this tea…. And this tea.

Rebecca: He had to pack them all this morning [LAUGHTER]…

John: …and this tea. And, two of them were insulated, so they’re still warm. [LAUGHTER] We’ve invited you here today to discuss Thriving in Academia. PhD programs generally provide fairly solid training for grad students planning for a research-focused career, but most PhD students don’t end up in research institutions, they end up in teaching-focused institutions, and your book is designed to ease this transition. How did this book project come about?

Pam: It came about from a conference presentation. We were at a conference, the three of us met up and started catching up and talking with one another, and thinking about where our careers had led us. Regan and I have been friends and colleagues for, I don’t know, 25 years or so. And even though we were never in the same physical location, we had a long history. Mark, and I are married, and so when we all got together, we’re kind of talking about where the time had taken us and what we wanted to do, and what are the things that we were learning about, and basically, our interactions with our junior colleagues and the questions that they were asking. And we started to realize that we had some knowledge that we thought would be helpful for people going on this career path.

Mark: One of the things I think we all talked about that first dinner was we were all in positions where we were mentoring younger faculty or newer faculty, and we were seeing them have the same challenges and make some of the same mistakes that we had made, that we had seen early career faculty make over and over and over again. And we thought, well, there should be some resource. There needs to be a book. Certainly, there must be a book out there. And it turns out there wasn’t. And so then we were like, well, we should write it, a guide to having the career out a teaching-focused institution, instead of how to do research.

Regan: Yeah. And I think just an important thing for me to add is, picking up on what Pam said about we met at a conference, it was a teaching conference. And I think that’s important. It was a teaching conference, and it really made us realize how often it was only at teaching conferences that people felt like they could out themselves as being passionate teachers. And I think all three of us have had the occasion of being at a non- teaching conference, a conference in our field and going to a session that was on teaching. And then especially having grad students come up and say, “Oh, I’m so glad I can talk about teaching here, because I can’t do that at my research institution, or with my mentor or anywhere else.” And I think that really fueled our fire to say, we need to sort of unpack that hidden agenda about how it is at a teaching-focused institution where service and research is still important, but the fact is teaching is primary, and what does that do to your psyche, by things like that. So that’s why it’s sort of neat that it happened at a teaching conference, because we looked around at all these people who really didn’t have another home to really talk about teaching and share what the additional challenges of teaching does when you’re in higher education.

John: We were so impressed by the book here that our Provost is buying copies of the book for all of our new faculty and we’re going to have a reading group this fall with them working through it through the semester…

Pam: …Oh, thank you,…

John: …we were very pleased by this…

Pam: …we really appreciate it. And, we hope it will be very useful. I think it will be.

Rebecca: You’ve talked about this already a little bit. But can you talk about who the primary audience for the book is? And is it while they’re in school? Is it right when they’re looking for a job? Like, when’s the best time to engage with this book?

Mark: We really tried to write it for all of those audiences. So certainly, the book starts with just a finding: what is a teaching-focused institution, how do you know one when you see one? How do you find one? We talk about how do you find the jobs that are there? How do you prepare yourself for those jobs? But we also talk a lot about what does that job look like? As John said, during the intro, most PhD programs don’t train you to teach, certainly, and they definitely don’t teach you about advising. They don’t teach you about how to be a good committee member, how to do mentoring, all of those sorts of things.

Pam: And you also don’t have those role models. When you’re in a PhD program, your advisors are researchers. And so that’s who you get to model yourself after. So that was another reason why we thought this book was useful.

Mark: And then as we started writing it we started to realize, well, what about people that are in the middle of their career? There are some unique challenges to that at a teaching-focused institution. So then we said, well, we should include that. So that’s another potential audience. There’s a whole chapter on mid and late career, how do you stay invigorated? How do you handle a transition into being a chair or a dean or a provost? How do you handle potentially switching institutions? So we really think the audience is anybody who is in a teaching-focused career or contemplating a teaching-focused career.

Regan: And I think one particular fun part is by virtue of the fact that we’re all and maybe I should put my co authors on the spot here. What are you guys? Are you mid career? [LAUGHTER] What do you call yourself? Yeah, don’t let the gray hair or lack thereof fool you. I mean, the reality is, all of us have been around for some time. And the neat thing of that is we not only reflected on folks where we are, and a few years ahead of us, but… and this is the part of the book I loved in particular… was it’s packed with our stories of different points in our career. So we’ve got stories in there from when we were grad students, from when we were junior assistant faculty and associate faculty. And so in that way, I think you can really see yourself no matter where you are in your career. And there are three of us, we all read each other’s chapters, that was one of the most fun parts for me was to read Mark’s and Pam’s stories, because each chapter ends with a personal story. And each of us took turns writing that and it was a lot of fun to get the first look at Pam’s story or Mark’s story. Because there were things that even though we’ve known each other for some time we haven’t talked about, but it immediately, I think, invites the reader into the different stages of careers.

Pam: And I think depending on where you’re at in your career, parts of the book will resonate differently with you. So when you’re just beginning, if you’re in graduate school, you really are just trying to understand what the job is, once you take on the decision to become a professor at a teaching-focused institution, then it gets real. And you really have to figure out what do I need to do here. And then, even if you’ve been in the role for a little while, we have some, I think, neat tips about efficiencies and ways to take and model your career and make choices to help you really feel fulfilled as you go through.

Regan: I just want to add one more thing, I think educators or especially grad students, but even educators in general, forget often that there are close to 4300 colleges and universities in the US itself… 4300. Yet, when we’re in grad school, so many of us are so often just thinking about that small number of research schools. And what’s neat about this was it was the recognition of the fact that there are so many varieties of institutions…. 4300 out there… that’s a lot of variants. And I think all three of us have realized in our careers, in the work that we do, that the absolute bulk of faculty and instructors at those 4300 institutions never get the chance to talk about teaching or talk to peers about the challenges of being at a teaching-focused institution. And I think that’s the eyes in which we set out to write this book is to say, if you’ve never had the chance to be to a teaching conference, or to have that support structure or have your teaching champion, join us and read this book, and it’s really written with that voice. And I mean, it’s not your dry book, the three of us let ourselves and the publishers let us, be more conversational in places, which I think really invites you into that conversation.

John: The faculty that grad students are working with see the reputation of their institution being partly reflected by how many of their grad students end up in top universities within their discipline. And there’s generally not a lot of discussion of other options or, if there is, it’s often a discouragement of that, that maybe people should apply at teaching colleges as a backup rather than as their primary market. Yet, that’s not why all grad students chose to go to grad school, many people would like a career in a teaching-focused institution. What advice do you provide in the book for students who are looking at alternatives, who are trying to choose between a research-focused institution or a teaching-focused institutions? What sort of guidance do you suggest? What factors should they consider?

Mark: Before I actually answer your question, or let one of my co-authors answer your question, I think you hit upon one of the real driving forces about this book, which is that as a grad student, as Pam mentioned, your mentors are researchers typically, but the whole incentive structure… You’re right, at a big research university, the things that are prioritized, that are incentivized are doing research, and then making sure that your students do research and contribute. And so once you go to a teaching-focused institution, even though you’re still going to do research, you’re still gonna do scholarship, you’’re still gonna do all the parts, but the incentive structure is much different. And that’s a big change from being a grad student. But as far as the advice, it seems sort of obvious, but one of our main pieces of advice is get experience teaching. The more experience you can get, the better. And we have a lot of sort of suggestions about how to go beyond just being a TA as a grad student, but how do you connect with maybe community colleges or teaching-focused institutions that are nearby so that you can become an instructor of record for a course or two, because really, that’s the only way to know which way you want to go. You’re trying to research, you’re doing that, as a grad student, you really need to try your hand at the teaching part and see how that feels.

Pam: And I would also add that reaching out to find somebody who is at a teaching-focused institution in your field and, send an email and just explain who you are… you’re a graduate student, you’re exploring this as a potential career path… and would they be willing to give you 15 minutes of time just to explain what their daily life is like? Because I think as a graduate student in a PhD program, you don’t really have a good window on what the daily activities of a professor at a teaching-focused institution is. And so just hearing somebody talk about what do they do on a daily basis and what are the challenges and what are the advantages and why they made the decision to go into a teaching-focused track is another strategy.

Regan: Yeah, this is why I love having two co-authors because we all come at things from such different directions. When I heard your question, John, I immediately thought of the importance of mentoring. And we had a really good time writing about mentoring: both how to find a good mentor, but then also how it’s important to be a good mentor. And that’s where I first went to, which is many times our mentors are very well meaning and looking out for us and looking out for the best, but it’s often the best according to them. And I think I was very fortunate that I had some mentors who, even though they were really training me to be Research I University people, when I said I really wanted to teach, they said, “Okay, I respect that and let me help you.” And I know that’s not the case with many mentors who you may even shudder to mention the fact that you are looking at a small liberal arts college, or that’s where you’d like to go. Full disclosure, Mark and I both went to Carleton College, a small liberal arts college where teaching was a big deal. And the faculty were passionate about teaching. And I know I took that with me through my grad schools. And I was a postdoc at UCLA. I was in grad school at the University of Washington, both big Research I schools, but thankfully, my exposure to a liberal arts school where faculty loved to teach, I knew it was possible. I knew it was possible. I always hung on to that. And I always think about those grad students who didn’t have that kind of exposure to passionate teachers who only have a Research I exposure but who still want to teach, how do we let them know that teaching is an option and that’s where I think Pam’s advice is so good. Find somebody who is passionate about teaching, either at one of those teaching schools, or I will add, elsewhere in your discipline, but find your champion who is willing to say I will support you in going to a teaching-focused institution.

John: One other thing I think that is becoming much more common is, even in research institutions, there are more people hired as professors of the practice or some similar name, where there are some people who specialize in effective teaching. So there may be people in more and more departments now who could serve in that mentoring role without even having to leave the institution. That was very uncommon when I was a grad student, but it is becoming a bit more common now.

Rebecca: Thanks for sharing your story, Regan. One of the things that you made me think about is how lucky I was to have some of the mentors I had in graduate school because I got to teach a special topics class as a graduate student and write my own class and try it out my last semester. And it was a really great experience for me. And I also wanted to just note here, we’ve been talking a lot about PhD programs, but the same thing also happens in programs like MFA programs that are also terminal degrees, but might have a slightly different context. But there are those that are really focused on the creative practice and being in a research institution versus teaching as well. So that does kind of span across those kinds of programs as well.

Mark: Regan, I think is more tenacious than I am. I remember sitting in that Carleton classroom, looking at my professors and thinking, hey, this is what I want to do. But then I also know that as I went on, and got a master’s degree and PhD program, and then as a postdoctoral researcher, I kind of forgot that, I forgot that dream. It was easy to get indoctrinated into the “I’m going to be a researcher, I’m going to strive for the Nobel Prize, I’m going to do this.” And it wasn’t until I almost accidentally ended up teaching my first class, which I did only because my first child was born and I needed the extra money. And I sort of surreptitiously, without my PI and my postdoc knowing, signed up to teach a class. And then when I got in front of a classroom full of students, it sparked that memory of like, “Oh, I remember why I started this journey, I started this journey, because I wanted to be like those passionate professors that I had as an undergrad.” And I had forgotten that along the way. And then I’m one of those people who had to sort of do a pivot without a lot of support, where I had conversations… I adore my advisors and the PIs I’ve had over the years, and they were wonderful mentors in many ways, but they were lukewarm at best in supporting that transition to a teaching-focused institution. So I’m one of those people who had to sort of swim upstream to get to where I am.

Regan: I love that story, Mark, because my undergrad experience actually was the opposite. And when I sat in class as an undergrad, although I respected the passion, teaching was the last thing I thought I would do, I had absolutely no idea. I was brought up in the classic Indian tradition of, “Hey, go be a doctor, go be a lawyer.” And I’m grateful to my parents to saying: “Psychology, sure, give it a shot.” But I was completely PhD research. That was all I could think about. And I mention this, because there will be many people listening or reading, who likewise may have come to teaching out of the blue. Through my grad program, we didn’t have to teach. So Rebecca, when you said you got a chance to teach, wow, that’s great. There are many folks out there who never get the chance to teach because it’s not part of the plan. In grad school, I did not have a chance to teach. But a friend invited me to do a guest lecture in their class. And that one hour changed the trajectory of my life, because the highs that I got from that 50 minutes, of the reactions, of the feedback of what it felt like, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. But, and this is what I was gonna say Rebecca, in response to your story, but then it was hard work. People be prepared. If you want teaching experience, sometimes you’re gonna have to work very hard to do it. And that’s why, I think, Mark, you mentioned going and looking at if there’s a course at a community college that you can teach, that’s what I had to do at a postdoc. I was a postdoc at UCLA, fully funded, and I wanted to teach. So I went and taught at a college an hour away, because that was the only place that had an opening for a course. So, be prepared to really fuel that teaching passion. It may take time and effort as part of the whole deal.

Pam: I’ll just tag on to Regan. I had the same experience as Regan, I was research all the way, no interest in teaching whatsoever. In fact, when I got into my PhD program, I was really upset because there was no research assistant positions, and I had to have a TA position. And I fought, I went to see the chair and I said, “I really don’t want this. I really want to be a researcher.” And he said, “Well, do you want money? Do you want the TA? and I thought, “Okay, I guess I’ll be a TA” and I just was like, “This is gonna be horrible. I’m gonna hate it, but I’ll do it for the money, fine.” And the same experience, Regan, I had to run review sessions for an introductory psychology class. I walked into the class with the worst attitude you could have ever imagined, and within two minutes, I was in love. A total turnaround. It was a really amazing experience. And so I would say like, sometimes you don’t know where you’re headed, and the advice I give to my students is: “Be open.” I wasn’t particularly open. I got forced into a situation and then it changed my whole life.

John: Which comes back to that advice that you talked about earlier of trying to teach your class just to see what it’s like, because it would be very easy for many people to go through grad school without realizing that that’s something that they really do have a passion for, or that may be something that they just never want to do. So,[LAUGHTER] having that experience is really essential. I was in a position where I was planning on going into research until one of the professors left very suddenly. And with a couple of days, notice, I was teaching a course. And I decided from that point, that’s what I wanted to do. I was on a fellowship, I didn’t have to do any teaching. But once I did, it pretty much determined the path of my career.

Mark: It was one of the fun things about writing this book was, we would write two thirds of the chapter, and then we would read it and we would email each other and say, “Man, we’re making the sound like a terrible job. We’re making this sound like it’s really hard.” And then we would say we need to add in, what’s the reward? Why do we do that? And I think the final product does a good job both sort of addressing how difficult it is, how much time it’s going to take, what is this job really like? But then also, why do we do it? Because it’s not for the money. We all do it for the joy you get from doing all of these things. And even not just the teaching. But we talked about the satisfaction of service done well, the satisfaction of involving students, particularly undergraduate students, in your scholarship and your research. And so I think, as Regan was saying earlier, it’s a very accessible book, because it does talk about the difficulties, but it also talks about the joys and rewards from doing this job..

Rebecca: It’s funny, Mark, that you mentioned that you had initially taught for the money. So did I. I didn’t do it, because I wanted to teach, necessarily, but then we stay because of other things.[LAUGHTER] So one of the things that you talked about is thinking about some of the challenges and surprises and maybe positive things of working at a teaching institution. What are some of the things that are different at a teaching institution than at a research institution that people should think about?

Mark: There’s so much. [LAUGHTER]

Regan: I have actually a number because when we first talked about this book, talked about it, even the idea for it, I was at one institution, which is a very teaching-focused institution, and then very recently moved to a Research I institution. Now, that said, I sit in the Center for Teaching and Learning, so I am surrounding myself with teaching and learning. But it really opened my eyes to some of those really big differences that I do see out there. And I think the biggest difference, is in the fabric of a teaching-focused institution, our constant conversations about teaching, where I know that next to every day, I would get coffee with a colleague at my teaching-focused institution, the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, and we talk about teaching, or we’d pop out of our office, and we’d talk about teaching, or we’d walk to somebody else’s office and we’d say, “Hey, I’m playing with this assignment. What do you think about teaching?” …and that doesn’t happen with the same frequency at Research I schools. I think, what does happen though, here and this goes back to Pam’s comment that I’m going to take up a notch, Pam said, “Hey, find somebody at a teaching-focused institution.” I’m going to modify that a little bit to say, even at Research I schools, if you’re interested in teaching, find somebody who’s interested in teaching, because just a couple of weeks ago, I had lunch with a colleague here at Oregon State. And he said a very interesting thing to me at lunch, where he said, “I don’t get to talk about teaching a lot. But I wondered what you thought about this.” And it was this great conversation about student attendance and recording lectures or not, but the way he tentatively put it forward as the “I never get a chance to talk about this. But here, was what I want to talk about.” That was so neat and in stark contrast to when I was at a teaching-focused institution, we had chances to talk about it all the time. In fact, for me, at a teaching-focused institution, I needed to create opportunities to talk about research, because our default was to talk about teaching. So that was one big difference.

Pam: I would also add that service is a much bigger expectation at a teaching-focused institution than at a research-focused one. So not only are you balancing the demands of teaching, and having all the pleasure of talking about teaching and experimenting with teaching, and keeping your scholarship reasonably productive, you’re also really expected to contribute quite a bit to your institution or your department through service. And sometimes that can get a little bit out of control if you don’t make smart decisions about where you’re going to spend your time in terms of doing service. So I would say that that that is one of the things that is really never really explored very much, but really is a large part of the job at a teaching-focused institution, is service.

Mark: And since Regan and Pam talked about teaching and serving, I guess I could talk a little bit about advising, because I think that’s another big difference. When I was in grad school, when I was a postdoc, when I looked at the people that were at the research institutions, they never talked about advising. If they did, it was sort of obligatory, get it done as quickly as possible. Whereas at most teaching-focused institutions, although there are some that have professional advisors that are doing that, but oftentimes, it’s the faculty that are advising students and doing that academic advising, the career discernment advising, and I think that’s a big difference, too. And I think that’s one of those things that isn’t obvious at first, when people think about a teaching focused institution, they obviously think about teaching, they know that they’re probably going to do some scholarship. But many people, until they have the job, don’t realize how much time you’re going to spend, both formally and informally, advising students, …and especially that informal advising can take up a lot of time at a teaching-focused institution.

Pam: So to tie it back to the question about applying and being prepared for an academic position, these are things that would be helpful to be at least conversant in: “How would you approach your service commitments? Where do you see spending your time? Be able to speak about your advising philosophy as well as teaching and your research.” I think that would make a competitive applicant.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the advice that you offer related to balancing things like academic advising, teaching, research, and service, and all the other things that we didn’t even talk about? [LAUGHTER]

Mark: Well, this is the big challenge. We talk a lot in the book about trying to do two things at the same time. So can you integrate some of the research into the classroom? Can you combine those so that the research becomes part of the teaching? Can you involve your students in part of the research process, both as part of the research lab, but also as part of the classroom experience? We talk about being really intentional about service, not saying yes to everything. There’s great pressure, especially on early in the career faculty, to say yes to service requests, particularly when they come from a chair or a dean, how can you possibly say no? And we discuss in the book that you actually can say no, and sometimes you should say no. And how do you do that gracefully? How are you intentional about those service activities, so they don’t take over everything. And then I tell this story in the book about my early advising, I got no training in how to do academic advising. I was handed a sheet that had the degree requirements and told, “Hey, meet with these students.” And I memorized the sheet, and I got pretty good at getting students registered for classes. And I could get students in and out of an advising session in 20 minutes. And I was looking at all my colleagues who were spending an hour or more with every student, and I thought “You guys are crazy, get the student in, tell them what classes to take, get them out of your office, sign the form, so that I had time that I could do research.’ I didn’t want to be spending time advising them. it took me several years to realize I was actually missing the point, the point of academic advising at teaching-focused institutions, and particularly the institution I was at, was not just get the students registered for the next semester, it was to help them figure out career discernment, help them figure out how they were going to navigate the difficult courses, how they were going to balance the courses, to get to know them, so that I could write letters of recommendation for them. And with several years of experience then suddenly, I became one of those people that spending an hour or more with every student. But it takes a while to figure out that balance.

Regan: To add to that is the notion that how you balance is going to vary and what you balance is going to really vary at where you are in your career. And I think going back to your earlier question, Rebecca, was “Who’s this book for?” …and our very neat response, which is “everybody along the spectrum,” …something we really tried to address in all over the book is remember, this will be different for you depending on where you are. And so we have parts where we’re like, “Hey, if you’re a grad student, remember this, if you’re a tenured faculty member, remember this.” So I think that how to balance varies on where you are in your career. Now that said, that’s not answering your question on tips to balance, it’s just kicking the can down a little bit. So I will address how to balance. I think at the end of the day, there are just so many different productivity tips and tools. And I think our best suggestion is, remember that there’s no one planner or app that works for everybody. And in fact, I’ll go so far as to say for many of us, an app is not the way to go. Go old school. Something we did in our household yesterday is my spouse pulled out a sheet of paper, a ruler, and a felt pen, and drew out the month of July so we could write on what our two kids would be doing during the week so they could plan and balance their summer. And I think sometimes, in this world of apps and technology, we keep looking for an app to help us balance where sometimes it’s going old school and writing it out or drawing it out in a journal or a calendar and going that route. The key suggestion here is: find a way that’s good for you. Don’t stick with something that’s not working. I think that’s a really key part that we wanted to share over the years is… I don’t know about Pam and Mark, but I know I have tried different things and have settled on what works really well for me in terms of creating balance.

Mark: And one of the things I learned from writing the book with Regan, is this idea that sometimes you have to be creative about thinking about how you’re going to get scholarship done. I was in this mindset that I needed to be able to block off big chunks of time to research. And so I was constantly trying to find six hours on three consecutive days so that I can do this. And then in reading Regan’s, what he wrote for this book and talking to Regan, I had this realization that well, I can reconceptualize how I do that and maybe it is work on scholarship for just long enough until it loses efficiency, and then switch to something else. And do that until I lose efficiency, and then switch to a third thing, and then come back. And this sort of not trying to say, “Well, I have to have these huge blocks of time, but say I’m gonna do something as long as it’s productive. And as soon as that stopped being productive, I switch to the next thing,

Pam: Both Mark and Regan offered very practical, down-to-earth, advice and mine’s going to be a little bit more abstract, philosophical. It’s important for me to always know: What am I doing this for? Why am I doing whatever the thing is that I’m doing? And is it important to who I am as a professional? Does it match my goals? And my goals may be determined sometimes. If I’m not tenured yet, it may be determined by other people, but always sort of looking at it from a strategic holistic viewpoint so that you can make the decisions about what kind of research do you want to do? How do you want to integrate that with teaching? What about service? How can you come up with a coherent, connected professional life? And for me, that has always been really important, and it’s really helped me balance because I can have a sense of what I’m trying to do and who I’m trying to become as a professional. And then when opportunities are available, I can always match that against “Does this fit what I want to do and how I want to proceed as a professional?” Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do and things that don’t fit exactly. But for the most part, there’s so much to be done. You really do have a lot of control about what specific things you do. It’s just important to know who you are and where you want to be heading.

John: One of the things you address in the book is mentoring and finding support for your work. Many campuses, maybe most campuses, will provide formal mentors, but that doesn’t always work as well as institutions hope. Could you give some suggestions on how new faculty can develop mentoring support in their new positions?

Pam: I think one of the best things to do is to look around your institution and identify people that you admire. Who has the career that you’d like to have? Who is involved in the things that you’d like to be involved in? …and then reach out to them. So I think that’s a quick short answer. But you can do that relatively easily. Just being around in any university, you’ll start to notice people who are doing different things, and you’ll start to develop admiration, reach out to those people.

Mark: And I agree with that and the only thing I would add is it doesn’t have to be at your own institution. Look around, look at your professional societies. Look at the people that you’re collaborating with, find the people, like Pam said, who have the career you want. Reach out to those people. Most people are flattered to be approached and say “Hey, can you give me advice? Can you informally mentor me?” Most people are happy and eager to do that if they’re approached..

Regan: And something that relates to both of those, especially at your university, you will see some usual suspects, the people who are always showing up at the things that you’re showing up at, those are great people to grab some coffee with or another beverage with…

Rebecca: tea…

Regan: tea… exactly…

Rebecca: always tea. [LAUGHTER]

Regan: Kombucha. This is Oregon, go for some Kombucha… [LAUGHTER] and just chat some more. So be on the lookout for those people you see often because there is actually something to connecting with somebody in a different discipline at your university. There are many, many benefits to that and we talk about that a fair amount. But I’m going to take what Mark said and some folks may say “Oh, I’d never do that.” So here’s something that I would actually underscore. You’d be amazed at what you will hear if you reach out to somebody else and say “You know what, I’ve either read some of your work or I’ve seen you at conferences or whatever, would you mind touching base every so often?” And I say this because this happened to me, where somebody out of the blue, who I did not know just reached out and we’ve been meeting every month for close to a year now. And this was somebody out of the blue. And I think there are many of us out there who would be happy to do those kinds of things, especially if your discipline doesn’t have a built in mentoring connector kind of thing. And for all of you out there who are psychologists, the Society for the Teaching of Psychology has a mentoring site where you can find mentors for you. So not every discipline has that, but do not poopoo the possibility that just reaching out will get you a connection. Now mind you, just like anything else in higher education, reaching out may get you nothing, and the person may not even respond, but like I tell my students in this day and age of things going into your junk folder, don’t give up after one email, give up after three, because who knows where email messages go nowadays.

Rebecca: One of the things that you address in the book is about preparing for all different roles in all different stages of the career. And I know that when I was applying for jobs, I was peeking around the corner of what tenure might look like. And then after I was tenured, I was peeking my head around wondering what it’s like to be a full professor. And now I am peeking my head around wondering what’s next. [LAUGHTER] So what advice do you have, as folks are moving through their continuum of their career and peeking around corners? It’s often a mystery what happens next.

Pam: I think seeking a mentor who is at that next stage is a great way to get a better view of what that looks like. And maybe more than one because my experience is that as you progress in your career in academia, there are lots of different paths you can take, lots of different ways people can go. So I know that Regan’s definitely in the administration and of things, Mark is heading there, I’ve popped in and out of administrative roles, but I keep coming back to faculty roles. I think there’s a lot of ways you can design your career as you go, and so having multiple mentors and multiple models is a good way to get that look ahead.

Mark: My answer, Rebecca, to your question was: “Well, that’s the reason we wrote the book is so that you could get a better peek around those corners.” And I would add also to what Pam just alluded to, there’s a reason that this is a three-author book, that it’s not just a single person story. And sort of serendipitously, the three of us have had very sort of different careers within this umbrella of teaching-focused institutions, and so you get those multiple perspectives. And so peeking around the corner, looking at my transition from pre-tenure to post-tenure looks different than peeking around the corner and looking at how Pam did it or how Regan did it. But in our book, you get all three of those. And so you really do get more information that way.

Regan: Yeah, and Rebecca, going back to your situation, I’m going to say something I think somewhat controversial in that I don’t think everybody needs to go through the same rung of higher education and climb one rung after the other. We talked about balance a little earlier, let me say this bluntly, you may be able to get a lot more balance if you’re not a full professor. You may be able to get a lot more balanced just once you get tenure without needing to then push yourself to that next level. There’s more responsibility with more levels. And I think to get a little Pam and philosophical here, it’s a state of mind. What are you comfortable with? And I like to say: Are you being challenged? Do you look forward to going into school? Or do you look forward to your work? If it is, do you need that rank? Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a whole separate story about the tenure track versus the fixed term. That’s a separate issue. But especially in the traditional tenure-track moves, and also in ranking more for fixed term. And really ask yourself, are you happy where you are? Are you happy with the challenges? And that’s when you look around the corners and look around different corners? Because as Pam alluded to, maybe you look around into the administrative corner and you go, “No, I don’t want to go that route.” But by the same token, you may look around that corner and go, “Wow, I love the challenges there.” But it’s totally okay, if you don’t. You’re not a lesser person if you decide not to go up for full, if you decide not to go into administration. And the last thing I’ll say that is a little pragmatic, is this is why volunteering for committees is wonderful, because then you get a taste for those different corners and whether you want to go those routes or not.

Mark: And one thing I would add, we’re talking a lot about tenure and, more and more, there are institutions that are not tenure institutions. In my institution right now we have two different types of faculty, some who are on a tenure-track tenure system and some who don’t have a tenure system. The title of the book is Thriving in Academia, and we do talk about: “Can you be thriving in academia as an affiliate faculty for your entire career?” I think that’s very possible. I know people who’ve done that, so it doesn’t have to be that traditional route of a tenure-track position and then tenure and then department chair. We really want people to thrive, whatever works for them. And if that means that you’re at an institution where you’re just on multi-year contracts for your whole career, that’s great. How do you make that work? If you are in a position where you want to be an affiliate faculty member and teach classes at multiple different institutions? Can you build a thriving career out of that? Yes, absolutely, certainly you can. All of that is part of the book.

Regan: Mark’s commenting about the different tenure-track versus fixed term and contracts… To push that a little further, I think the constitution of higher education and how it’s done is looking very different. Something that we didn’t touch on at all in the book, because it was written mostly prior to the pandemic was remote learning. There are things coming down the pike, how do you deal with different teaching modalities? How do you deal with remote work? These are two major ways that higher education is changing. And you’ve got to hope that folks at your institution are looking ahead and not just rushing to get back to normal, where normal wasn’t the best place to be.

John: So maybe another book on How to Continue to Thrive in Academia, when the world’s falling apart?

Regan: There you go. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’ll look forward to reading that when you guys are done with that. I’ll be the first purchase. [LAUGHTER]

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

Mark: For me lunch, lunch is what’s next. [LAUGHTER]

Regan: With the message being: don’t forget about your physical needs to thrive in academia. [LAUGHTER]

Pam: Exactly, exactly. [LAUGHTER]

Regan: That was the subtle subtext over there.

Mark: ….self care, Regan.

Regan: Actually, I was mostly jesting, but I just finished a project writing about how to help students study. And the last chapter is self care. So, sleeping and eating and family time and social support, and we don’t talk about that enough. I think something I have seen over the last year is a lot more of us on social media and in these places, being more direct about “Look, people take time for yourself.” And I think, honestly, my big answer to the “what’s next?” is how do we give each other the permission to do that. And I don’t think we in higher education are very good at that yet.

Mark: I had a colleague one time that was from Europe. And he was just appalled at what happened at our institution, which was that everybody ate lunch in their office at their desk working. And he just thought this was crazy, that you wouldn’t stop working, go somewhere, have lunch as a separate event. And I often think about that when I’m sitting in my office having lunch and thinking this is ridiculous, I should be able to take the time that it takes for me to have lunch away from work, not trying to eat and answer emails, I should be able to go somewhere, have a mug of tea, have my lunch, and have that time. And that’s just a small example, I think, of what Regan’s talking about. We need to set up a system…

Rebecca: Well, you all had me at lunch….

Mark: At my university, I was instrumental a couple years ago in just getting a faculty lounge so that we had a place that faculty could go that wasn’t in their office, that wasn’t open to students, so that we could spend a little bit of time not doing the job for a moment.

John: There was recently a podcast sometime in the last month or so, I think it was Rough Translation, where they talked about someone who went from the US to France, and that person wanted to have lunch at her desk, but there was a tremendous amount of peer pressure to get her outside, to leave the office, even if it was raining or cold, there was pressure on her to get out of there. And it was a bit of a transition for her.

Mark: I think one of the next steps that I think we’re all interested in and hoping for is really just continuing to share this information. So the book is out there now. There are starting to be conferences that are in person. We are starting to do presentations at conferences about parts of the book. And I know, talking to Pam, we’re very excited about being able to go to conferences and talk about: How do you be intentional about your service? How do you deal with feeling burnt out as a mid-career faculty member. …These workshops and conferences and, as Regan alluded to very early on in this conversation, talking to each other, about teaching, about teaching-focused institutions. For me, that’s the thing I’m really looking forward to is getting back to where we can gather as a community and have those conversations and share each other’s knowledge.

Pam: And I think hearing feedback from readers also will be really helpful because, as Regan said, we conceived of the book before the pandemic, finished writing a little bit of it during the height of the pandemic, and we’d like to hear from readers about how things are different for them now and how we can address some of those challenges that they might be facing that we didn’t anticipate in the book?

Regan: Yeah. And I think, definitely striding into next steps, I can’t help but think how we… and I mean the three of us… can better leverage psychological science, because this book was about teaching and teaching-focused institutions and the three legs of the stool of teaching, research, and service. But especially when you try to address the bulk of the questions, whether it’s balancing, whether it’s productivity, the reality is the psychological knowledge out there that can help you do it better. And what I haven’t seen yet is how do you really explicitly leverage what we know about stress and coping and planning and judgment and decision making, and all these psychological topics to help the teaching enterprise. So if you were to say, “Hey, what’s a potential fun next project that builds on this?” That’s definitely something that comes to mind where we unabashedly say here’s how you can do these things. Because I think it’s the pragmatics of how to do things that are important. We have a lot of pragmatics in the book, but especially and I love the reader feedback element, Pam, especially with reader feedback. I know people go: “Give me an example. Give me another example. Give me another example.” So pragmatics and leveraging some of those theoretical things that we know about aS psychologists, I think, really good scope for that.

Pam: I think about maybe adding a workbook component to this sort of thing where there are really practice exercises and practical, even though I do like the philosophical. But, as teachers, we do know that people need concrete examples. They need to work through things. They need to try to problem solve, not in the situation where they’re doing the problem solving for real. And so adding some piece like that, I think, would be valuable. And some of that is figuring out how to do your balance. I’ll admit I’m not very good at that. I eat at my desk all the time.

Mark: I’m happy to say that I have become somewhat notorious on my campus for skateboarding during lunch. I do a little laps around the campus on my longboard and everybody laughs at the old guy trying to be cool, but at least gets me out of my office.

Regan: Mark, we need a Tik Tok of you skateboarding with the book. Viral… That’s gonna go viral.

John: …holding the book.

Regan: That will go viral. That’s gonna go viral.

Rebecca: I think so. Well, thank you all for joining us and sharing all your insights in this book. We’re happy to share the book and share this episode with our listeners.

Pam: Thank you and we’d love feedback from the book once you run your sessions. We’d love to hear what people have to say.


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.


247. Picture a Professor

What does a professor look like? In popular culture the professor is white and male—a sage on the stage. In this episode Jessamyn Neuhaus joins us to discuss the role context, employment status, and embodied identity play in our teaching realities and experiences.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. West Virginia University Press.
  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Harlow, R. (2003). ” Race doesn’t matter, but…”: The effect of race on professors’ experiences and emotion management in the undergraduate college classroom. Social psychology quarterly, 348-363.
  • Garcia, Nichole M. (2018). “You Don’t Look Like a Professor.” Diverse Education. March 29.
  • Jessamyn Neuhaus twitter: https://twitter.com/GeekyPedagogy
  • Pittman, C., & Tobin, T. J. (2022). “Academe Has a Lot to Learn About How Inclusive Teaching Affects Instructors.The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 7.
  • Mejia, Donna (2021).  Explaining Fumble Forward. YouTube video/ April 19
  • Pictureaprofessor.com
  • Hogan, Kelly A. and Viji Sathy (2022). Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.


Rebecca: What does a professor look like? In popular culture the professor is white and male—a sage on the stage. In this episode we discuss the role context, employment status, and embodied identity play in our teaching realities and 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&hellip

John: &hellipand Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer&hellip

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


John: Our guest today is Jessamyn Neuhaus. Jessamyn is the director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence, and the editor of Teaching History: a Journal of Methods. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. And Jessamyn is the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning, which will be released by West Virginia University Press this fall. Welcome back, Jessamyn.

Jessamyn: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are&hellip Jessamyn, are you drinking tea?

Jessamyn: I’m drinking coffee. I need to mainline that caffeine as much as possible. And I’m drinking Green Mountain Coffee Island Coconut,

John: &hellipand I am drinking English breakfast tea this morning.

Rebecca: Ah, we match today, John. [LAUGHTER] But mine’s decaf.

John: Since we’re recording five podcasts today, I have six cups of tea in various thermoses here with me, because I’m not going to be leaving this room for quite a while. We’ve invited you here today to discuss Picture a Professor. Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of this project?

Jessamyn: Sure, I’d be glad to. I think it really started when I was doing the research for Geeky Pedagogy. And the first chapter in Geeky Pedagogy is about awareness. And it has four kinds of realities that all instructors need to be aware of and cultivate awareness of: identity matters, learning is hard, who our students are, and who we are. And when I was researching that chapter, I read a 2003 article by Roxana Harlow, a psychologist, it’s a 2003 article in Social Psychology Quarterly. And she used the phrase “disparate teaching realities.” And that really stuck with me because of the way it foregrounded: this is a reality&hellip that people’s teaching context shapes their labor as an educator, and that they are not equal, that they are disparate, they’re not the same, that we do not have the same kind of teaching workload, depending on all kinds of circumstances in our individual contexts. Employment status really matters. Embodied identity really matters. Department culture, student population and discipline, all those things really matter. I think too, one of the origins of this project was my background in popular culture, and studying popular culture, and the way that the primary representation of college professors in popular culture is very, very limited. And also, not coincidentally, kind of opposite of myself, the professor we see most of the time in movies and television is the white guy. And he is usually, if he’s being depicted as a good educator, he’s super dynamic and performative. And students are sitting entranced as he lectures and they magically learn, just because he’s such a wonderful classroom performer. So as an introvert, and someone who’s never going to be a kind of super dynamic, high energy, always entertaining performer, that stereotype was lodged in my head, and writing Geeky Pedagogy was a way that I was trying to address and dismantle that super professor stereotype. So as my scholarship of teaching and learning continued, I increasingly became aware of all the intersecting aspects of our identity that might play a role in our teaching work.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the title: Picture a Professor?

Jessamyn: Sure, an early version of this project, a working title or phrase that kept coming up was “you don’t look like a professor.” Hearing that phrase is a common experience, as explained very well in an article in Diverse Education by Nicole Margarita Garcia. She wrote an article by that same name, “You Don’t Look Like a Professor” and she points out, very compellingly, that no matter what the intention of that statement, the result is the negation of one’s expertise and authority. It’s an undermining of the knowledge and abilities that someone has in their role as an educator. Again, it’s not necessarily the intention of the random stranger or the student or the colleague who says, “You don’t look like a professor.” That might not be their intention, but that is the function. You don’t look like a professor, so someone else does. But as the collection started to come together, and I was working with the authors, and I was talking to the contributors about a title, it started to take, I guess, what I would think of as a more positive direction. So at first, the whole collection acknowledges that reality, that those stereotypes are there, and that that disempowering and disrespectful response happens. But then what? What are you going to do with that? How are we going to respond to that? And every contributor to this volume, while acknowledging that reality, also believes in the ability of students and our world to rethink and remake that stereotype&hellip to challenge it and to re-imagine it&hellip remake the role of the professor, even more than just diversifying the image that might be on our TV screens or movie screens. These authors are arguing for really reimagining our roles and redistributing power. They believe in the transformative power of education. So, Picture a Professor really is the nod to the strategies that are being explored in this volume, and that we can, collectively in higher education and as a culture and society, we can picture a professor as anybody, in any body, moving past the gendered and racialized and other kinds of embodied aspects of that stereotype to reimagine what’s possible.

John: You collected a very interesting and diverse group of authors in this collection. How did you find all these authors? How did you select them?

Jessamyn: I put out a call for papers on Twitter. And that really was probably the most important way. I also utilized some of my own networking and connections to reach out to potential contributors. But a big percentage of the people in this selection found me and found the call for papers through my Twitter account. And I think we may have talked before about this, I was really late to social media. Twitter was my first foray in 2019. Because I had just written Geeky Pedagogy and so wanted people to read it, that I was willing to do the unthinkable, [LAUGHTER] which was go on social media to try to get people connected with that book. But it turned out, to my surprise, that it’s been a really great way to connect with a lot of different people in academia and higher education in a way that hasn’t been possible for me working at a small, rural, very isolated, really small state university, and also just being kind of naturally adverse to conferencing and networking anyway. Twitter’s really been my most important personal pedagogical learning network since 2019, and of course, the pandemic just upped that a thousandfold. When I was even more isolated here in Plattsburgh, New York, it was a way to connect with all kinds of people that I wouldn’t just happen to meet otherwise. And that helped me get a lot of interest in the book. I had way more submissions than I had room for. And that was not easy. I’ve been on the receiving end of that email saying, “I’m sorry, this isn’t going to be&hellip” &hellipmany, many times. So I knew exactly how discouraging that could be. So it was a good problem to have, but that was a process, letting people know that there wasn’t gonna be room in the volume for their piece. So I had the luxury of really choosing a highly diverse group of authors and I mean, diverse, not just in issues of identity, but in academic disciplines, in stages of their career. This volume has authors in all stages of their careers, and geographically, so I guess I’m really proud of that.

Rebecca: I love that. In some ways, this book may function as a really key piece of activism so that when they pick it up, and it says picture this is a professor&hellip Like, we have a whole new version. You kind of describe that a bit when you’re talking about the title. But I love that when you open the volume, it’s everything counter to this stereotype. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re hoping that this project will achieve?

Jessamyn: Especially since the pandemic, there has been increasing awareness and attention paid to what many people are terming: the need to humanize higher education&hellip which always begs the question: ”what were we doing before that?” [LAUGHTER] But that recognition of students’ diverse experiences and the really pressing vital need for inclusive teaching practices, recognizing students as individuals in unique life circumstances, framing diversity as an educational asset and increasing our pedagogical practices that maximize opportunities for everybody to succeed, and which I 100% agree with. But also, in addition, as human beings, because students are people and human beings just like us. As human beings, students bring expectations, assumptions, and stereotypes about college teaching and academic expertise into the classroom. If we’re going to talk about: “We need to humanize higher education,” that also includes recognizing and dealing with the human, gendered, racialized, and more, stereotypes about what college teaching and learning looks like. So for example, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, co-authored with one of the contributors to Picture a Professor, Dr. Chavella Pitman and Dr. Thomas Tobin&hellip they recently published an article that got a lot of buzz&hellip very rightly so&hellip in the Chronicle of Higher Education about, “Hey, if you are going to recommend inclusive teaching practices, keep in mind that embodied identity matters and teaching context matters, and how any one person might implement a teaching strategy really can be influenced by their employment status, their gender presentation, their ethnic, racial identity, their speaking voice, their discipline, their department culture.” That was a gap that I saw in the scholarship of teaching and learning and teaching advice, generally&hellip otherwise, very, very excellent advice and evidence based practices that failed to adequately acknowledge and recognize that our individual teaching context also matters. That was part of Geeky Pedagogy, too, that being an introvert, being not necessarily socially skilled, plays a role in how I’m going to do some of the things that, yes, the evidence shows this is something an effective instructor and educator does. So what does that mean for me, though? How can I make it work for me in my teaching content? So my hope for the Picture a Professor project&hellip what I hope it can do&hellip first, is empower and inspire college educators who recognize their own experiences in navigating student preconceptions and biases, and stereotypes about expertise and authority. But I also hope, and it’s certainly intended to help all readers recognize those systemic inequities in college teaching and how that shapes what can happen in individual classrooms and at the same time, gather strategies for their own classrooms as well, things that you can do right now. And this was something James Lang recommended the first time around in Geeky Pedagogy, and I resisted. But this time, I was like, “Yes, that’s a good idea.” [LAUGHTER] He recommended that each chapter have a bullet point list of teaching takeaways and Picture a Professor does that. And those teaching takeaways are insights and actionable strategies that will help anyone teach more effectively with the caveat that of course your individual context matters, and you will have to adapt and shift and change and some things may work better than others. That would go against the whole premise of the book to say everything works for everyone all the time. There’s nothing like that with college teaching. There’s no magic elixir you can swallow and then magically, this will work for everyone, every student all the time. That’s not how teaching and learning works. But those teaching takeaways really are thought provoking and insightful and should inspire anyone reading to think about how it might be adapted and used in their own classroom.

John: English breakfast tea though, is is a very nice magic elixir, but it may not solve all those problems.

Jessamyn: Caffeine is the magic elixir, yes.

John: &hellipwhich has long been used in higher ed.

Jessamyn: Yes.

John: Your book is divided into four parts: the first day, making connections, anti-racist pedagogies, and teaching with our whole selves. Could you tell us a bit about some of the topics that are addressed in each section?

Jessamyn: Yes, absolutely. Each section offers specific actionable strategies related to that title of the section. So the first section about the first day is all about the vital central importance of the first class meeting. And that’s a great way to start the collection because it takes this truth from the scholarship of teaching and learning, which is that the first day, really the first five minutes, of an in-person class and the first time a student logs into an online class. In some ways, those are the most important five minutes of the entire term. Because first impressions matter so, so much, and it’s so, so vital for students to be engaged right away. In addition, though, the first day takes on even increased importance when an instructor is navigating student expectations and presumptions and assumptions and stereotypes about “what a professor looks like,” or how a college class works. So the strategies that are explored in this section, they all take that foundational good teaching, effective teaching practice, plan extremely carefully for your first day, your first few minutes. And then, in addition to having a fantastic first day, here are ways to interrupt those biases to acknowledge and work with and help students overcome those stereotypes using things that we know work. So active learning, very careful preparation, going to your classroom and scoping it out if it’s in person before the first day so you’re very familiar with the physical space. Engaging students immediately with the content, which has this two-pronged effect. So one, you get students engaged right away&hellip it demonstrates that you care about their learning, you love the content, and you’re going to get them engaged, which is of course helpful for their learning. Also, it demonstrates your expertise, your knowledge, and it gets students right away from the first day knowing I know what I am talking about, and I love this subject, and I’m going to get you to engage with it as well. So that’s some strategies from the first day. Part two, making connections, similarly takes concepts that the scholarship of teaching and learning has shown are vital to student learning: building trust and building rapport with students and the authors take those strategies, explore for how to do them while also contending with student assumptions and expectations. So they look at things like encouraging student metacognition, collaborative rubrics, co-creating a grading rubric with students, and experiential learning&hellip all evidence-based effective teaching practices, and the authors build on those to show, and also these are ways to help students picture you as the professor. Part three digs into some specific anti-racist teaching strategies as ways we can increase student learning and at the same time, challenge stereotypes or de-center a certain limited depiction of professors from the student and instructor standpoint. So like I was saying about the purpose of the selection, humanizing higher education, anti-racist teaching strategies are important for creating inclusive classrooms for our students. They are also important for helping to chip away at the disparate teaching realities that instructors face as well. So that section it was important to me to include that for those reasons. Part four, teaching with our whole selves, gives specific teaching strategies for disrupting bias that students may bring into the classroom, while paying close attention to helping instructors be successful professionally in the classroom helping students learn. So there’s some reflective aspects to those essays, instructors reflecting on the ways they’ve been able to use classroom practices like picking a bias index, for example, in the discipline or creating classroom communities where fumbling forward&hellip that’s Donna Meija’s phrase&hellip fumbling forward is normalized as we struggled to learn, or like Dr. Pitman’s final chapter on the review process and the ways that women faculty of color can proactively get a wide range of feedback about their teaching, and include documentation and evidence from the scholarship about the different biases that women faculty of color face&hellip how to include that in your review process, working towards professional success.

Rebecca: So everyone wants to know, when exactly can we get this book?

Jessamyn: The release date that West Virginia University Press is saying is November of 2022. I’m hopeful it might be out a little bit sooner. And you can also see a lot more information about each author and a detailed table of contents at our book website, pictureaprofessor&hellip all one word&hellip pictureaprofessor.com.

John: And we will be interviewing a few of the authors in there. So there’ll be a little bit of a teaser for some of that information coming up over the next several months.

Rebecca: I know I’m really excited to read it when it comes out.

John: I’ve had it on preorder since I saw you tweet about it.

Jessamyn: And I couldn’t be happier that it’s coming out close to Viji Sathy’s and Kelly Hogan’s book: Inclusive Teaching. That book is going to be a real game changer on inclusive teaching practices to build inclusivity in the classroom. So I think the West Virginia University Press series is really addressing significant major issues and gaps in the scholarship right now.

John: It’s a wonderful series. And I think we’ve interviewed most of the authors now, actually, and we’re looking forward to seeing more coming through. And we did have a chance to meet Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan just a couple of weeks ago here at the SUNY CIT conference. And it was really nice to see them in person after reading their articles and interviewing them on the podcast a few times.

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

Jessamyn: Well, in the immediate future, there is a bonus chapter to Picture a Professor that I promised in the introduction that I wrote. I don’t actually have a chapter in the book, besides the introduction, and that was because I got so many outstanding contributions and proposals that I took out my chapter to leave more room for other people to be published. So I promised in the introduction to include my bonus chapter, which is going to be on student course evaluations and how that intersects with these stereotypes about being a professor. It’s an issue that a number of the authors mention and discuss, but not as the sole focus. So that’s the bonus chapter that will need to be done by November so I need to get going on that. [LAUGHTER]

John: So will there be a Picture More Professors coming out?

Jessamyn: I certainly hope so.

John: Well, thank you. It’s always great talking to you.

Jessamyn: Thank you for having me. I love Tea for Teaching. Everybody should listen to it all the time.

Rebecca: And we can’t wait to read the book.

Jessamyn: 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.