Professors are generally represented in popular culture as white male experts who dispense knowledge to their students through lectures. Young female professors are often encouraged to portray themselves as authoritative figures, even when this role does not reflect their personalities and their educational philosophies. In this episode, Rebecca Scott joins us to discuss how she has rejected this stereotype by sharing vulnerability and building classes that rely on the co-creation of knowledge.
- Panda Riot
- Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
- Scott, Rebecca (2020). “Why I Use Dungeons and Dragons to Teach Ethics.” Aesthetics for Birds blog. August 3.
- World Anvil
- Ann Cahill (Elon University)
- Cahill, Ann (2019). Teaching Discussion Skills: A Metacognitive Approach (YouTube video describing her approach to building metacognitive and critical thinking skills)
- Medina, J. (2012). The epistemology of resistance: Gender and racial oppression, epistemic injustice, and resistant imaginations. Oxford University Press.
- Planet Money (2022). How the burrito became a sandwich. May 18.
- Judith Butler (Berkeley page)
John: Professors are generally represented in popular culture as white male experts who dispense knowledge to their students through lectures. Young female professors are often encouraged to portray themselves as authoritative figures, even when this role does not reflect their personalities and their educational philosophies. In this episode, we discuss how one professor has rejected this stereotype by sharing vulnerability and building classes that rely on the co-creation of knowledge.
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 Rebecca Scott. Rebecca is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Harper College, and also a guitarist and vocalist in the band Panda Riot, which just released their fourth album. She’s also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by our friend Jessamyn Neuhaus from SUNY Plattsburgh. Welcome, Rebecca.
Rebecca S.: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Rebecca, are you drinking tea?
Rebecca S.: I’m drinking coffee.
Rebecca: Oh, a coffee drinker….
John: Well, we drink coffee too, once in a while.
Rebecca: Very occasionally, but not on this podcast. [LAUGHTER]
John: I am drinking Irish Breakfast tea this morning.
Rebecca: Oh, it sounds like a good theme. John. I have English breakfast this morning.
John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your chapter on “Reframing Academic Expertise through Vulnerability and Metacognition” in Picture a Professor and some of the other work that you’re doing. But before we discuss this, could you talk a little bit about your institution, and the courses that you teach?
Rebecca S.: Harper College is a two-year college, or community college, in the suburbs of Chicago. And, because we’re a community college all my classes really are introductory classes or don’t have any prerequisites anyway. So I mostly teach Intro to Philosophy, Critical Thinking, and Ethics, then I occasionally get to teach Biomedical Ethics and the occasional honors class. And in the fall, we have a new program that’s a social justice studies distinction. So I’m going to be teaching an Intro to Philosophy class that’s specifically for that Social Justice Studies program at our college.
Rebecca: Your chapter title is really intriguing in Picture a Professor. Can you talk a little bit about or give us a little teaser on how you reframe academic expertise through vulnerability and metacognition?
Rebecca S.: In that chapter, when I was approaching this question of how do we address these kinds of biases against professors who come from marginalized identities, the way that I came to this question is, when I was first starting out, people would give me a lot of advice about, “Oh, you know, you’re young, and you look young, and you’re a woman, and you have to be really careful.” And I feel like a lot of the advice I got was that I needed to be like, strict and I needed to be like, hard, and I needed to take on this authoritative stance so that people would give me credibility. And it just felt really not who I was. It just wasn’t me. And it works for some people, I think, and that’s great. I’m not in any way saying that people shouldn’t necessarily do those things. But for me, it really just was not the way that I wanted to teach. And so I’m always trying to figure out how can I have authority and credibility in a way that feels authentic to who I am. And so this got me thinking about the ways that part of the problem with the sort of stereotypical image of the professor is not necessarily that we don’t have enough different kinds of people occupying the role of the professor, but that the whole concept of the professor is part of the problem. And so in my chapter, I’m thinking about how can we think about not just having different kinds of bodies and people occupying this social role, but what ways do we need to actually change the social role in the first place? And so I think that the kind of epistemic authority that a professor has is often this individualistic, like knowledge is a kind of property that is sort of won through this genius and hard work or whatever, and not thinking about the ways in which knowledge is constructed and maintained in communities. In my chapter, I’m thinking about how do we teach in a way that presents academic or professorial or epistemic expertise in a way that acknowledges the ways in which knowledge comes about in and through communities. And so the vulnerability and metacognition are sort of like two strategies. So for me, like kind of leaning into the vulnerability and modeling epistemic humility when you don’t know things and being engaged in the process of coming to know rather than seeing knowledge is something that you arrive at, like “Now I’m a professor, so I know all the thing and you are the students and you don’t know the things and let me figure out a way for you to have the knowledge that I have,” …because even in, I think, constructivist or collaborative models of education, I think there still tends to be this like, individualized aspect. And there isn’t always like a true sense in which the space of the classroom is co-created, co-constructed by the community that we are all a part of… the professor and the students. That’s the sort of overall approach that I took to the challenge of the question.
John: How do you sell this to students? Because that’s an approach that they may not be familiar with based on their past educational experience.
Rebecca S.: Yeah, this is always, I think, a really big challenge, especially when you’re trying to do something that’s sort of radically different, and you want to do it in 16 weeks, and they’ve had years and years of education going against it. I also do things with games and play and game-based learning. And I actually have found that cultivating an attitude of playfulness can go a really long way towards breaking down some of the ways of being that students have been sort of trained to be in in the classroom. And so I think that there’s a way in which, if I can open students up to laughing and having fun, and just getting in a different kind of physical and mental space, then can sort of start to chip away at some of that. And I don’t think it’s possible to do in one semester. This is another thing about the problems with stereotypes. There’s not some magic pedagogy that’s going to eliminate racism, you have to accept the limits of what we can do in one class as one instructor for one semester. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I really like some of the work that you’ve been doing related to games in the classroom. And we’re hoping that you might expand upon that a bit. And one of the things that struck me about… I think it was a blog post that you wrote about Dungeons and Dragons in the classroom… that you talked about how the people participating in the game, create the world and create the experience together, and that the knowledge of the space is created together. And it seems really tied to the work that you have posed in Picture a Professor. Can you tell us a little bit about how you’re using Dungeons and Dragons to teach ethics?
Rebecca S.: For me, when I first played Dungeons and Dragons, I was in my 30s already. I’m not one of these like lifers forever with DnD, but I realized how many parallels there were with the players and the Dungeon Master and the teachers and the student, because the Dungeon Master has a particular role to play, or the Game Master in a role-playing game. And it’s an importantly different role than the role that the players have. And I think the same is true, it’s not that the teacher and the student are the same in the classroom. But what’s really exciting about role-playing games, or at least tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, is that what the game is about, like what the values are… Is this going to be a game where we mostly focus on strategy and try to get as much money as possible to buy all the cool weapons or whatever? …like, that’s one way the game could go? Or is this like going to be a funny game where we’re just like joking around and getting into high jinks and whatever, are we going to explore some really serious things with identity and characters, like all of those things can be a Dungeons and Dragons game or a role-playing game. And it’s not something that can be dictated from the Game Master. It’s something that comes together through the creative, collaborative storytelling of the game itself. And so I think that there’s just so many parallels with teaching, where the teacher does know more things, and does have a responsibility to make sure that everyone’s involved, everyone’s included, everyone’s enjoying, everyone’s achieving the goals. There’s a certain responsibility of the teacher or the Game Master. And there’s a certain kind of knowledge and a certain kind of expertise. But what the game is, is fundamentally co-created,
John: Do you use that directly or indirectly to help share your teaching philosophy with students?
Rebecca S.: I do always try to share with students why we’re doing what we’re doing. And I’m trying to be intentional about making transparent, especially when we’re doing something weird.you knowe… I’m like, okay, alright, come on, like, you guys, humor me, we’re gonna try this thing. It may totally fail, but we’re gonna try it. So I’ll often talk to students about my teaching philosophy. I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually made that particular idea explicit, and maybe I should. So I think it’s more implicit. But now you’ve made me think that I probably ought to make it explicit.
John: Or maybe have them think about it and make the connections themselves.
Rebecca: Can you talk about how Dungeons and Dragons has unfolded in your ethics class, and what that assignment or activity actually look like?
Rebecca S.: So the way that I’ve constructed it now is that it’s the last four weeks or so of the semester. So it’s after we’ve covered a bunch of material. My dream is to figure out a way to make it the whole semester, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. So we have several units and we study different philosophers, different ethical theories. So we do Aristotle and we do Mozi, an ancient Chinese philosopher, we do have Simone de Beauvoir and existentialists, they see a bunch of different ethical theories. And then for the last four weeks of the class, in groups, they create a character based on one of the philosophers that we’ve studied or one of the theoretical frameworks that we’ve studied. And so they have to come up with a backstory, like what kinds of experiences would someone have that would lead them to have an existentialist ethics or like, what kind of a person would be a Kantian and they have to pick a class. So they’re like, would Beauvoir be a wizard or a Paladin or whatever. And so they have to pick a class. And then they create their character. And in Dungeons and Dragons, there’s an alignment system. I have my own kind of alignment system, so they have to say whether they’re more focused on contextual factors or universal principles, that they have to pick their alignment for their character. And then we play the game. So I describe a scenario and then they have to say what choices their characters would make in a given situation. So I’m like, okay, you’ve all been called here by the Queen whose son has been kidnapped, and she sends you off to go rescue her son. So they’re all like, “Yes.” But then as they’re leaving the towns, and people say, “Actually, we don’t like the queen, we don’t want a monarchy.” And then they have to decide like, “Okay, do we save the queen’s son, which we made a promise to do, but that’s going to perpetuate the monarchy or do we help these rebels who want to bring in democracy.” And so there’s different decision points along the way, and they have to decide what their characters would do. And then they write reflections at the end of each day of the game, where they say, what decisions they thought fit well with the ethical theories and which ones they think could have been better and why. So they do some post-game reflection.
Rebecca: How have students responded to this kind of an experience?
Rebecca S.: So I’ve done some surveys and things just to ask students, and I don’t think I’ve really gotten anything really negative, everyone seems to think it’s fun. They say that it’s really helpful as a review and as application of the ideas. Some of the students get super into it. So that’s always fun. And I think that’s true with any activity you do. Like, you’re always going to have those students that are just like, “This is my thing” and run with it. So that’s really fun. And those students are not always the students that are necessarily the most engaged in the other parts of the class. And I think that’s really a benefit too of doing these kinds of different sorts of activities, because you have a student that maybe hasn’t had positive experiences with academics so far, but they hear Dungeons and Dragons and they’re just ready to go. And then even the students that are not as familiar with it, they have fun with it, too. And some of them kind of get into it unexpectedly. I also don’t force anyone to play. So one representative from each group plays each day, but I always make sure everybody has the chance to play, but they have the option if they just want to observe and do the reflections, that’s fine. So I think that helps with some of the potential discomfort that some students might have. But what I find overall is that the humor of it is really interesting, and really solidifying of both knowledge and community. So for example… I think I talked about this in the blog post, because this is just my favorite example… but I had a student who was playing a character inspired by Kant, and one of Kant’s principles is you’re never allowed to lie. And so they were sneaking into this goblin cave and the Kant characters, like, “I can’t sneak, it’s a lie, it’s deceptive.” So he goes in and announces that they have arrived at the goblin cave, and everybody laughs because everybody’s in on the joke, because everyone knows that Kant says, “You’re not allowed to lie.” And so there’s this kind of inside humor that is possible. That really is like, “Oh, we learned something this semester, we all now get this Kant joke that, at the beginning of the semester, no one would have understood.” It creates this sort of in-group thing, but not in a negative way. But like a positive way, like we’ve all learned this together. And we have this shared humor now. That I think is really fun.
John: In one of your tweets, you mentioned that you were planning a course that would involve some world building, could you tell us a little bit about that?
Rebecca S.: So I agreed to do some pedagogy through world building for this book that’s going to be coming out. It’s for a case study for the book. And it may or may not actually even be included in the book, but a bunch of faculty are doing some world building and writing about it, and then we’ll see what happens with the book project. So I agreed to do that. And then I’m also doing this class for the Social Justice Studies program. So I was like, “How can I match these up?” And so I was thinking about how to teach with world building, and the first thing that came to my mind is Plato’s Republic. So Plato’s Republic is a dialogue by Plato where he is exploring the concept of justice and he imagines this ideal city that ends up not being ideal in the end, but he’s trying to envision what would justice look like in this city and so he creates this world with its own myths, and with its own laws and rules and education system and marital practices. So I was thinking that it would be fun if we started with Plato, and then had students create their own just world where we think about what is justice? And what would justice look like in all these ways. This is the plan so far… there’s a site called World Anvil that is a world building site that people use for making role playing games, but also novels and things like that. And it’s kind of like a wiki. So essentially, the students are going to be creating a wiki of their world. And so we’ll have to decide what we want to focus on, because obviously, we can’t do everything. So we’ll have to think like, do they want to talk about education systems, do they want to talk about criminal justice systems, do they want to talk about religion? So they could come up with their pantheon of deities, if they want. What would religion look like in a just society? Would everyone have the same religion? Would there be no religion? The topics will be student led, I’m going to have a list that they can pick from, then the readings will be determined by like, we decided to do religion, and I’ll give them some readings, and then the assignment will be to build that part of the wiki, the religion part. And recently, I just started thinking, we’re not going to get very far in one semester. So what if this was like a project that the next time I teach this class, they take up, and we keep building the world. So, it may end up being a long project where each class picks up where the last class left off, which I think would be really cool. This is still in the planning stage,… the next couple of months to really nail it down. But that’s where I’m at so far. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I really love the idea because it involves students in a lot of decision making, and really contemplating the ideas about social justice. So they would need to have some background knowledge, and then have discussions and co-create and co-decide on things and so it seems like a much more active way of engaging with the material, then maybe a traditional paper or other kinds of activities, like quizzes and stuff might have.
Rebecca S.: Yeah, and I think having this project, it’s kind of problem-based learning, in a sense, I guess. It’s a little bit different. But having that sort of shared project, I think, also hopefully will create a different kind of engagement and motivation.
John: It sounds fascinating. Can we go back, though, to your chapter in Picture a Professor? You’ve talked a little bit about vulnerability and how you share that. But could you talk a little bit about how you build metacognition into your classes.
Rebecca S.: So philosophy classes in general focus a lot on class discussions. And I think sometimes students think, “Well, what do I really learn from a discussion?” So going back to this idea of the professor is the one that has the knowledge, like, “Well, I’m here to learn from the professor and not from my classmates…” or they think that a discussion is just saying things, just whatever comes up, and I promise this is going to get to metacognition. And so what I focused on a lot is thinking about how to improve class discussions and how to help students think about what they’re learning from class discussions, by thinking about conversations in terms of academic moves. I didn’t invent this idea, but I’ve really tried to take it and develop it. So this idea that when you contribute to a discussion, you’re not just saying something, you’re asking a clarification question, or you’re posing a hypothetical, or you’re disagreeing with someone, or you’re agreeing with someone and saying why, or you’re connecting to your own experience, right? So there’s these specific things that you’re doing. You’re not just saying things, you’re doing things in a conversation. And from a social justice perspective, you can also do things like welcome someone into the conversation with a question or exclude someone or silence someone. So the idea that saying things does things is, I think, one of the most important ideas I want students to come away with. So I do a lot of work with having students identify what moves they’re making in a conversation and thinking about and reflecting on what kinds of moves are most productive, or are there any moves that we don’t want to make, like fallacy or ad hominem, like illegal move. But having students reflect specifically on what sort of contributions they’re making or how they’re moving a conversation forward. And this is not just for conversations, but also for writing, or you can also identify moves that people are making when you’re reading a text. And this is also a way of recognizing the communal nature of knowledge because one of the move can be to thank someone for helping you see something in a new way. Like that’s a move too, like showing gratitude to someone else, or acknowledging someone’s contribution or summarizing what someone else said or asking them to clarify. So there’s a lot of different activities that might be involved, but they’re all about sort of metacognitively reflecting on academic discourse, whether that’s written or spoken, and specifically identifying the ways in which we see through that, that this is us together creating a community rather than each individual person gaining knowledge on their own.
John: So how do you implement that specifically in terms of students reflecting on that? Do you have them engage in a conversation and then reflect back on their participation? Or are there other techniques that you use?
Rebecca S.: Yeah, I’ve tried a bunch of different things. So I’ve tried a game version, where it have the different moves on cards. And it’s an idea I got from Ann Cahill at Elon University. So she actually had a deck of these cards. And then I’ve tried that where I deal out the cards, and then they have to look for an opportunity to play their specific move. And that works kind of okay, but I haven’t had complete success with that, because students often find it difficult to find the moment for their card, or they want to say something and they don’t have the card for it or whatever. So I think that’s fun as a way of introducing it and practicing it, but it can interrupt the flow of the conversation some. What I did recently in an online class this past semester, is I actually divided the moves into different levels. So things like “connect your own experience,” most students can do that relatively right away. Whereas “identifying unstated assumption” like that’s a really hard move that takes a lot of work and practice. So for their first paper, I use Perusall, and so they comment on the text and respond to each other. But in their responses to one another, they have to identify the move that they’re making. So they’re responding to a classmate and they’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to agree and give a new reason. I’m going to disagree and explain why or I’m going to propose a hypothetical or whatever.” So I have them actually, in their discussion posts, identify the move that they’re making before they make the move. So that’s one way I’ve done it. And then I’ve also just done some things where I have them just write reflections on the discussion and identify moves that have been made or moves that haven’t been made, and why haven’t those moves been made? So things like that, also.
John: Do you have them use tags in Perusall for the types of moves that they make?
Rebecca S.: That’s a good idea, I have not, I only a very basic Perusall user. I was using Discord for awhile. And this is really fun, I actually had to make custom emojis for the different moves. So that was a fun activity at the beginning where they had to come up with an image to associate with the moves, it didn’t really play out fully in terms of the way that I envisioned it. But I think there’s still promise with that approach as well, I just need to pursue it more.
Rebecca: I like the idea of actively having to be conscious of what kind of move you’re making while you’re making it. That does seem like it may work a little bit better in an asynchronous environment where people have time to think about what move [LAUGHTER] they’re making, rather than in a synchronous context. When you were talking about conversations, it was reminding me of a really interesting conversation that we had, on our campus, with our workgroup on accessibility practices, with some students with disabilities, who identified that conversation, like classes that focused on discussion, felt really inaccessible to them or were hard to follow because they were having a hard time pulling out what to take away from the conversation. So you led this little segment about that. So it made me start thinking about how could we slow things down a little bit to be a little more cognizant of what we’re doing and maybe give time to digest what’s happening rather than the rapid fire and not being able to keep up. Although it maybe isn’t a natural flow of conversation, it does make you think more about what it is that you’re doing before you’re acting.
Rebecca S.: Yeah, that’s a really great point. Now that you mention it, I do think that it is often more successful in asynchronous classes. And in the synchronous classes, it’s often more of a after-the-fact reflection, but I think that it could be useful to have students plan out their moves in advance of the class. It’s like in preparation for the synchronous discussion and then, see then maybe not just like, here’s your card, make your move. And everyone’s like, “I don’t know, you have to pose a hypothetical right now?” But if everyone knew the moves that they were supposed to make in the class that day in advance, I think that would actually work really well. So I’m going to steal that and do that. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Yeah, that might be interesting. I think one really good accessibility practice for any kind of presentation or activity is for people to know what’s going to be expected of them in advance so that they do have time to think so I’d be interested to hear, whether or not if you do that, how that plays out. So I know inclusivity is important to you. Can you talk a little bit about how some of the practices that we’ve been discussing today promote inclusivity? Or the ways that you think about setting up activities to make sure that people feel included?
Rebecca S.: Yeah, so I’ve been thinking a lot about inclusivity and creativity and vulnerability and playfulness. And I think it’s always tricky, because I think that sometimes we have this idea that there’s some sort of ideally accessible and inclusive class, that if we just keep opening and opening and opening and opening that somehow eventually it will include everyone equally. And I don’t think that that’s possible, because I think that when you really get into the concrete details of things, something that works really well for one student might be more difficult for another student, and how do you balance and weigh these kinds of complicated decisions? Nothing is ever just straightforwardly more accessible or more inclusive, I don’t think. So, I think it’s much more complicated than that. So the way I’ve been thinking about it is actually through a philosopher that I mentioned in a Chapter, Jose Medina, his book is called Epistemology of Resistance. And he talks about the need for epistemic friction. He talks a lot about the ways in which people who have a lot of privilege don’t encounter enough epistemic friction. So there’s this way in which things are too smooth and too easy, and you’re not challenged enough. There’s not enough resistance that you face if you have a lot of privilege. And he talks about the kinds of… I don’t want to say benefits, because that’s not quite right… but, the ways in which having a marginalized or oppressed identity can create the opportunity for developing certain virtues, certain epistemic virtues, not to say that it’s a good thing, like, obviously, it’s a bad thing. But what he does is he kind of flips things on its head where he says, we often think about privilege as benefiting people who have privilege. But there’s also ways in which privilege isolate you and prevent you from being able to know things or learn things or develop certain skills. So to get back to inclusivity, I’ve been thinking about being a teacher is about managing epistemic friction. So the idea that at certain times, certain students in certain contexts actually need a little more friction, and certain students need a little less friction. And so rather than thinking about creating some ideally open space, it’s about managing the kinds of friction that students run into. So some kinds of friction are unjust and should not exist. They’re not even friction, they’re just obstacles. But some kinds of things that are difficult or uncomfortable or challenging can be really good and beneficial for learning. But it’s really tricky to know which students need what and you always have to be very careful about presuming that you know what students need, of course, but I’ve been thinking about designing classes in terms of eliminating unjust epistemic friction, but creating opportunities for certain other kinds of friction, and thinking about accessibility in terms of that, like, is this a productive kind of challenge? Or is this an unfair or unjust kind of challenge? Because it’s not about whether it’s difficult or not. Learning is difficult. It’s like, is it the right kind of difficulty? Is it the right kind of challenge? Is it fair and just and promoting of the learning rather than the opposite of that, if that makes sense.
Rebecca: I like the word choice that used of obstacle versus a challenge. An obstacle is something that it shouldn’t be there… [LAUGHTER] versus a challenge is something that we would hope students actually do experience as students, because challenges can help us learn.
John: How do you set students up for this, because some of those discussions could be somewhat challenging for people who don’t want to have their beliefs challenged, who have really deep beliefs, and are resistant to learning new things, [LAUGHTER] or new experiences.
Rebecca S.: This is where I think that modeling some epistemic vulnerability is really important and humility. And so, for instance, I teach critical thinking, and I had this activity all designed, and I was excited about it and I thought it was gonna be great. And it was terrible. And I said to the students, at the end, I was like, “Well, that didn’t work at all. Like that was a disaster.” And then I’m like, “okay,” then it was like, “You guys, I have another class in 15 minutes. I have another section.” I’m like, “Quick, what do I do? How do I make this better? How do I save the next class from this terrible disaster?” It wasn’t that terrible, but it was just awkward and didn’t really work. And then they were like, “Oh, well, the problem is that you thought that we wanted to talk about these things. But we actually don’t care about these issues that you think we care about. We want to talk about these other things like ‘Do aliens exist?’ or whatever.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” So in the next class, they ended up debating whether a hot dog was a sandwich. And I thought, this is so silly. Why are we talking about this? But they got really into it. And I told the next class, by the way, the last class sucked, and I changed everything. So here we go on the fly. And so I let them know that I made a mistake or I was wrong. I miscalculated how things would go and I made a change. And now we’re going to try it. And at the end of that class, there was this student and he had changed his mind about whether a hot dog was a sandwich. And he was really resisting admitting that he changed his mind. And so it was just like, I’ll call him John. John. His name’s not John. So I’m like, “John, you were wrong about whether a hot dog was a sandwich. He was like, “No.” John, you were wrong, right? And then everyone’s like, he wouldn’t say it, and I’m like, “Can you say ‘I was wrong?’” …but it’s really funny at this point, everybody’s laughing. And then finally he stands up. And he says, “I was wrong about whether a hot dog was a sandwich.” And everybody laughed and laughed. And I feel like it’s a really tiny way to admit that you’re wrong. But for me to admit times when I’m wrong, and then to celebrate students when they are willing to change their mind, even about something silly, it’s not going to get people to be totally open to changing their mind about controversial topics by the end of 16 weeks, or whatever. But it’s like, a little opening into practicing that habit of being willing to say, “Yeah, I was wrong about that.”
John: That reminds me of a podcast I listened to recently, I think it was Planet Money, or Planet Money Indicator, where one of the issues they were discussing is whether a burrito is a sandwich or not, because in New York State that affects its taxable status. So, it was actually a major political issue.
Rebecca S.: That’s so funny. I’m actually having my critical thinking students debate whether hot dogs are sandwiches right now in my asynchronous class, and actually, there’s not enough friction at the moment. They’re all like, “Yes, the hot dog is a sandwich, because it’s meat between two pieces of bread.” And I’m like, “No, the whole point is for us to practice disagreeing with each other.” So maybe I can throw in the podcast, or I can find some article.
John: I’ll include a link to that in the show notes. You discuss vulnerability a few times, might that be a little bit risky for a younger female professor in terms of the known biases that exists in terms of student course evaluations?
Rebecca S.: I think it’s really important for me to say that, yeah, I’m marginalized in the sense that I’m young-ish, female, professor in philosophy in particular, where there’s not a lot of women. There’s also things that I can do that other faculty can’t do. I have a lot of privileges as well. And I’m white and certain personality things, I think I can, like, get away with things. Everybody’s different. I don’t think there’s any wrong way necessarily, I’m not saying everybody should do what I do at all. I don’t think that that’s true. But at the beginning I was talking about what felt authentic to me. I think I needed to find a way to be able to be myself in the classroom. And so I don’t think that I can give some sort of universal prescription that will work for everyone. And I do think it’s risky. But I also think that the risks are unavoidable. I was saying before, that we’re not going to eliminate sexism or racism, oppression in the classroom, because our classes are part of the world. And those things exist in the world. So while I think it’s risky, I also think that it’s just risky to exist, [LAUGHTER] and that we are vulnerable, whether or not we want to admit it. This actually comes from Judith Butler, but there’s not really like whether we are or aren’t vulnerable. It’s just how do we manage our vulnerability. And so I think it’s not even necessarily about being more vulnerable. It’s just a different way of managing the inevitable vulnerability of being human. And being a teacher is super vulnerable. Being students also, humans are vulnerable, and that’s beautiful and scary. And so I probably framed it in terms of more or less, but when I think about it, I don’t actually think it’s about more or less vulnerability. It’s like, how do we manage it? Do we acknowledge it? Do we not acknowledge it? And I don’t think necessarily that we need to acknowledge it all the time. And different people are going to have different ways of thinking about it. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge epistemic vulnerability to a certain extent, because I think that it’s true that no one knows everything. And I think it’s harmful to perpetuate an idea that there is some sort of place you’re going to get to where you don’t need to continue learning. So I do think that epistemic vulnerability is important to acknowledge; other kinds of vulnerability, I think, may or may not be, it depends on the person.
John: And I would think it would also help to nurture a growth mindset in students when you acknowledge this epistemic vulnerability, letting them know that that’s just a normal part of learning, that there are many things they don’t know, but they can get there.
Rebecca S.: I share with them sometimes my own experiences of writing a dissertation and how difficult it is to get critical feedback. I don’t think necessarily everyone needs to do that. But I think that, for me, opening up a discussion where if I’m about to give them feedback on their writing, talking about what it’s like for me to get feedback on my writing and how that can be hard. And here’s sort of what I do when I’m about to read comments on something. Sometimes I need to take a minute. So, there’s ways of sharing that depending on your comfort level, but I do really think that acknowledging our humanity can be a really good and powerful thing.
John: We know you teach in a community college with a very high teaching load. And you mentioned you have a baby in the background there. But you also are playing with a band and you’ve released your fourth album, how do you record with a band and create music while also being a full-time faculty member with a heavy teaching load?
Rebecca S.: I’ve no idea. [LAUGHTER] No, I, you know, don’t sleep… No. Well, to be honest, and talking about, like acknowledging humanity and vulnerability, the last year has been incredibly difficult with a new baby. And it has been really, really, really hard. I have done it somehow. But I don’t actually think that the last year has been my best year of teaching, having a new baby. And I think that acknowledging that that’s okay, I’m still doing the best that I can, and things are going to get better now, both like daycare, and like, whatever, having a lot of support. I mean, you don’t do these things alone, also, I think. And so, I mean, I’m really lucky to have my husband who largely works from home. And he’s takes care of the baby a lot of the time, and he’s also in the band, and then having the ability to get a babysitter sometimes. So there’s a lot of ways in which the way that it works is the result of luck, and privilege and support. But then also, I think that if you’re doing things that you really care about, and that you love, you try to find ways to make it work and you just find ways to be more efficient. And like with teaching, one of the things I’ve realized is my impulse to want to reinvent everything all the time is not always what serves students the best. And so thinking about what I want to do, because I’m really excited about some new idea, sometimes doing the thing that I’ve done a million times that I know works is actually better for students and for me. And so thinking about that, too, like, my approach to teaching was always like, “Oh my God, every semester, I’m gonna do something wild and crazy and completely different, every single time.” And it’s unsustainable for me, but it doesn’t actually serve students. So I still do my experiments, and I think I always will, but I think being more deliberate. Okay, I’m going to take on this one project, I’m going to redesign this one class…
Rebecca: …and not like ten?
Rebecca S.: and not all of them.
John: And not redesign everything in the class, which I think Rebecca and I also have a tendency to try to do.
Rebecca: Yes, I’m trying to be more sustainable, my new approach.
Rebecca S.: And I think that oftentimes, it is better for students, I think that sometimes it might not be exciting for me, but it’s their first time experiencing it. And so I think that’s important to keep in mind.
Rebecca: Or you rotate between the things that you’ve invented, so that you stay interested, they’re still well established.
John: And the second time you do things you often have learned from past attempts at doing them, and they often result in better learning outcomes for students.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?
Rebecca S.: Yeah, so I guess I’ve already talked a little bit about what’s next in terms of like this world building class I’m working on. I’m also writing a bit about my role-playing game for ethics. I’m also working on something more about cultivating playfulness. So I’m interested in thinking more about exactly what it is about playfulness that I think is so meaningful and important and how that can be serious play. So I’m really interested in thinking more about these connections between playfulness, creativity, and inclusivity.
Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.
John: It does, and are you working on your next album?
Rebecca S.: Not yet. It just came out June 10. So we take a long time to write songs. So expect another one in like four or five years. [LAUGHTER]
John: We were doing a little bit of research on your work, and I ended up spending a lot of that time listening to music while Rebecca was actually reading your blog posts. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca S.: Nice. Awesome.
John: I enjoyed it, it was really nice. Thank you.
Rebecca S.: Thank you.
John: Well, thank you. It was really great talking to you.
Rebecca S.: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. This was awesome.
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.