Graduate students often receive little or no training before their first teaching experiences. In this episode, Aeron Haynie and Stephanie Spong join us to discuss the need to support graduate students as they transition into their roles as teachers. Aeron is the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of New Mexico. And Stephanie is the Director of the Center for Digital Learning, also at the University of New Mexico. They are the co-authors of Teaching Matters: A Guide for Graduate Students. We are also joined today by Jesamyn Neuhaus, who is filling in once again as a guest host.
- Spong, S., & Haynie, A. (2022). Teaching Matters: A Guide for Graduate Students. West Virginia University Press.
- Hrach, S. (2021). Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning. West Virginia University Press.
- Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed https://ptoweb.org/gatherings/conference/
- Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. West Virginia University Press.
- Boice, B. (1996). Classroom Incivilities. Research in Higher Education, 37(4), 453-486.
- Bessette, L. S. (2020). Affective Labor: The Need for, and Cost of, Workplace Equanimity. EDUCAUSE Review. March 26.
John: Graduate students often receive little or no training before their first teaching experiences. In this episode, we discuss strategies and resources we can use to support graduate students as they transition into their roles as teachers.
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 Aeron Haynie and Stephanie Spong. Aeron is the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of New Mexico. And Stephanie is the Director of the Center for Digital Learning, also at the University of New Mexico. They are the co-authors of Teaching Matters: A Guide for Graduate Students. We are also joined today by Jesamyn Neuhaus, who is filling in once again as a guest host.
Jessamyn: Hi, everybody.
John: Welcome, Stephanie. And welcome back, Aeron.
Aeron: Thank you.
Stephanie: Thank you.
John: Our teas today are… Are any of you drinking tea today?
Stephanie: Yes. I was telling Aeron, I was most excited about this question because I drink tea every day. But yeah, I’ve got a really nice lavender chamomile today.
John: Very nice.
Jessamyn: Just hearing about that sounds soothing and calming: lavender and chamomile. [LAUGHTER]
Aeron: And I usually drink Earl Grey tea. But this afternoon because I’m having a little issue with my teenager, I’m drinking some mint tea. [LAUGHTER]
John: Which can also be calming.
Jessamyn: Yeah, that’s the theme. I’m drinking plain water. John, how about you?
John: And I am drinking Twinings Irish breakfast tea. So we’ve invited you here to discuss Teaching Matters. Could you tell us a little bit about how this book project came about?
Stephanie: Yeah, I think that this really is a testament to some of Aeron’s really wonderful mentorship of me when I was a graduate student. So we met when Aeron came to the University of New Mexico. I was finishing up my PhD there, and we had the opportunity to work together. And we had a lot of really great conversations about what it meant to teach as a graduate student, how often we were both told to put our teaching last, and really focus on our research. And Aeron was one of the first folks I met who really wanted to have serious conversations about teaching with graduate students. And so I think that that was the real kernel of where this book came from. And Aeron, I don’t know if you want to add to that.
Aeron: Thank you, Stephanie. Yeah, as part of a graduate teaching certificate that I helped develop at the University of New Mexico in cooperation with grad studies, I realized that although there’s some books out there that are specifically for grad students, and then some really nice new books that are coming out that are about teaching in general, that I was really having trouble finding a text that I felt really spoke to graduate students as complex intellectual people who could really think about teaching with the same intellectual excitement as they’re thinking about their research projects. And so we batted around the idea of: Why don’t we write a book ourselves? And that’s how the project started. And we, really, it took years for us to find time to work on it. But oddly, we finished it during the pandemic. So there you go.
Jessamyn: Following up on that, can you say more about that intended audience? Who do you imagine reading and using this book?
Aeron: Yeah, this is definitely a book that is written with graduate students in mind, but I think can still be very useful for new and actually established faculty and part-time instructors who didn’t get pedagogical training or who got some and would like a little bit more. But in terms of the writing of the book and the audience, we also really wanted to acknowledge the very particular positionality of graduate students, the competing demands that graduate students have, to be sometimes new instructors at the same time as they are learning to do important research in their fields. And we also found that we wanted to include as well one of the things that will be, I think, somewhat surprising in this book is that we really wanted to prioritize graduate students as human beings, not just as “brains on sticks,” Jessamyn. [LAUGHTER] That we wanted to think about them and really encourage them to address their own well-being, both mental and physical and social well-being, at the same time as they develop as teachers. We found that when that doesn’t happen, there can be a lot of oppression flowing downward. When grad students feel bullied or not supported by their graduate faculty, then what we sometimes see is a lack of empathy for the students that they’re teaching. So we thought it was very important in our book to really look at wellness and self care, as well as developing solid teaching practices.
Jessamyn: And just to give a shout out to the source there, that wonderful quote, “brains on sticks,” is from Susan Hrach’s book, Minding Bodies, also WVU press.
John: So this discussion of people as human beings might get us banned in Florida, [LAUGHTER] but other than that, I think is a really valuable approach. I thought it might be helpful if maybe we could all talk a little bit about our own experience in grad school in terms of preparation for a career in teaching. A very large share of the people in PhD programs end up in teaching colleges and yet tend to receive very little preparation in teaching. And I think the fact that there were no other books in this category is an indication that that’s an issue that has not been very well addressed in general in pretty much all disciplines. So what was your experience in grad school in terms of being prepared? Stephanie has mentioned a little bit about hers.
Stephanie: Yeah, actually, I think that I was really lucky. In the English department at the University of New Mexico, we got quite a deal of preparation in terms of writing pedagogy. So there was a two-week practicum. And then the culture of the department, when I was there, at least, was really focused on sharing, sharing with one another. So people shared materials, they shared syllabi, sequences, all sorts of things, people were really open to that. And then there was also a real welcoming atmosphere for graduate students to participate in different large assessment projects. So I feel like that was, even though not necessarily directly pedagogical training, it really was for me to really think about… How do people conceptualize learning outcomes? And what makes a good learning outcome? And what happens when you don’t have good learning outcomes? And we also, in the English department, did have a practicum for teaching literature. It was a semester long, but it was much more focused on creating a syllabus, thinking about how to select text. And it really wasn’t as focused on… What do you do in the classroom or online? What do you do when you’re interacting with your students? And what do you do when things don’t go the way that you had planned? I do think that I’m really lucky, though, in the amount of pedagogical training that I received. I think that’s a little bit rare.
Aeron: Yeah, and I’ll add to that. I’m a bit older than Stephanie, and so I had some training, but it was more minimal. But like Stephanie, I learned from my fellow graduate students. Also, I was really fascinated with pedagogy early on. And the one place that I found a community was going to the Pedagogy of the Oppressed Conference that is based on the work of Paulo Freire, and that was wonderful for helping think about early anti-racist pedagogy. But it was very theoretical at the time that I attended it. And what I wanted was… Yes! This is great, this is why I care about teaching. This is why it matters for issues of equity. But how do I actually do it? And how do I do it in my area of expertise, which is also literature? So I’m excited that there are so many more great books, including Jessamyn’s, and other books that are published by West Virginia University Press.
Jessamyn: I got zero training. I do think it’s changing a little bit, increasingly graduate programs include some attention to teaching. But why do you think it’s still a neglected area? Why does teaching get the short end of the stick when it comes to graduate programs?
Aeron: Yeah, I think that one of the tension points is that PhD programs are at research universities. And faculty at research universities are really brilliant and really good at getting jobs at research universities. And so they’re able to help mentor their graduate students toward those types of jobs. And for some of the graduate students who want a research-oriented job, and who are lucky enough to beat the odds, that works out very well. But I think, as we’ve mentioned earlier, that the majority of jobs, if you’re lucky enough to get a full-time job with benefits, it’s probably going to really emphasize teaching. So I think that that’s part of that disconnect, that faculty often are training their graduate students for jobs like the jobs that they have. I also think, and when we were developing the teaching certificate at the University of New Mexico, one of the things that I realized is that there’s a hesitancy to tell different disciplines how to teach because there’s such a difference in disciplinary teaching. So there’s a difference between having a teaching assistant who is grading for a faculty member, having a teaching assistant who runs a lab, having a teaching assistant in a large sociology class versus having a teaching assistant teaching undergraduates how to write. So because there’s such a difference in what we’re asking graduate students to do, I think that generally folks want to leave it to the disciplinary departments. And I think that that would be great, that would be ideal. As I joke, in Haynie University, when I finally am able to endow a private college in northern New Mexico with my younger brother’s music monies, then I think that ideally, we would have a faculty member who is an expert on pedagogy and an expert on training grad students embedded within each department. But until that happy day, I think that there needs to be a general orientation to the fundamentals of college teaching across modalities, and I think really importantly, that really focuses on equity and inclusion, and the costs when we do not try to teach to the students we have.
John: In my own experience heading our search committee on my department, we normally get a couple of hundred applicants. And typically out of that group, there’s usually three or four who have had some background in teaching or something beyond a one- or two-hour session designed for teaching assistants at some point. And I think part of the problem is exactly as you said, that the people who are selected to teach in graduate programs are selected on the basis of their ability to publish in top journals, and that tends not to favor people who are spending more time improving their teaching and learning. The exceptions tend to be when the people who are in our department, at least in the field of economics, actually work in the scholarship of teaching and learning as their area of expertise. And there’s a few departments that do provide really strong training. And those are the people who tend to move right up to the top of our list when we’re going through a search. Because when we look at the teaching philosophies, for example, that people share… in economics, it probably is worse than in many disciplines… where it says, “Well, I use PowerPoint instead of the Blackboard.” [LAUGHTER] Or, “I try to leave room for students to ask some questions at the end of classes,” or, “I try to bring in the news once in a while into the lectures.” And most of them don’t really go much further than that. So it’s a scenario where I think graduate students would have a bit of an edge in many academic markets if they did have this sort of training. But there’s a shortage of supply given the emphasis on training within the disciplines. So this book is a nice step towards that. And I think one of the things included is that you include a section on writing a teaching philosophy. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Stephanie: Yeah, yeah, we can. It’s so funny that you all asked this question, just about a week and a half ago, a grad student that I’ve worked with before reached out to me and said, “Hey, a group of my colleagues and I are trying to write teaching statements, and we don’t know how. And can you bring up your personal experiences? Should we talk about things that we’re doing in classes?” And it was so nice and handy to just say, “Actually, I have this appendix, let me just send it to her.” And we try to give graduate students a really clear guide, like, “Hey, here’s what you want to do in the first paragraph, here’s what you want to do in the second paragraph.” And try to help them leverage the different kinds of experiences that they have. As Aeron mentioned earlier, you might get a TA for a course and only get to head up one or two sessions or just the lab session. So you’re going to want to think about how to leverage those experiences a little bit differently than say, if you’re the instructor of record for the whole semester. So that is something that I think is really valuable. And in that appendix, we also give graduate students a sense of, you know…If you’re doing a teaching demo on campus, here’s what to bring, here’s how to plan for it. Teaching demos vary wildly across hiring processes, so we try to prepare students for the range of things that they might be asked to do to make them really successful in that job hunt. And I think that one of the things that’s really helpful in the way that we describe, specifically, the teaching philosophy is this notion that you don’t have to be perfect, that the hiring committees really want to know… What are the interesting things that you’re doing? How can you really talk to a group of gen ed students and make this subject come alive? And then also, where are you going from here? You are not expected to be the expert in teaching this field yet. So what are you going to do to learn and grow? And specifically, what are you going to do for this student population to learn and grow and to serve their unique needs?
Jessamyn: I love that point about being perfect. I think everywhere we can chip away at this myth of the super teacher, that professor that we see in all the movies and TV shows, lecturing effortlessly, no notes, and students learn magically, just by listening to this incredibly entertaining person talk. Anywhere we can chip away that, hurray. [LAUGHTER] And actually, speaking of falling flat on your face when you’re teaching, I’m especially interested in chapter five, it’s called “Navigating Classroom Challenges.” I think there’s way too many books about college teaching that don’t adequately empower readers for when things go wrong. And something always goes wrong, one way or the other, at least once. So can you give us an example of a classroom challenge that you discuss and a navigation strategy that you describe?
Aeron: One of the things that we do in that chapter—we also think that’s a very important chapter because everyone is going to have things go wrong or unexpected things happen—is we think it’s very important to distinguish between what we term “rude, disruptive, and hostile,” because oftentimes, we lump them together: Students do things we don’t like. And how do we deal with that? And often, too often, the response is, “Let’s just write everything into the syllabus. Every time someone does something we don’t like, let’s add it. Don’t wear bright colors, don’t drink in class, whatever.” And it becomes a long list of “thou shalt not.” And so in the category of rude, we have a really great anecdote. For this book, by the way, we interviewed many current and former graduate students from lots of different groups and in lots of different disciplines. And I think one of our really interesting anecdotes comes from an international graduate student from Egypt, who had come here, he had gotten lots of training, and he came to the University of New Mexico. And he’s brilliant and a committed teacher. And one of his first classes here on an American campus, he went in, and there were students with their feet up on the desks in front of them. And in his culture, that would be seen as a sign of horrendous disrespect. And so he didn’t say anything, and he left the class at the end. And he went to one of his mentors and said, “I can’t believe this happened. Clearly these students are really rude, and they don’t respect me.” And this mentor, a fellow international graduate student, was able to say, “That’s actually just the American classroom. In certain contexts, it’s much more informal than in some countries. And so it’s not a sign of disrespect, in fact, it means that they’re feeling very comfortable and relaxed in the class, and they feel comfortable with you.” So that I think was a really great example because it, first of all, shows the fact that when we talk about teaching in our book, we really are very much talking about within an American college classroom, and that’s important. But it also highlights the importance of establishing community guidelines, and assuming the best about your students. So spending a day or so or part of a class period, with the students constructing some sort of common guidelines so that you’re all on the same page, and that you can reduce the number of, to use Boice’s term, incivilities in the classroom. Now, there is, of course, quite a difference between a student doing something rude, which could be falling asleep, putting their feet up, doing something disruptive, which Stephanie has a really good example of, or something that could be hostile or threatening. So let’s Stephanie give a really great example of what we would call “disruptive” and how we might handle that.
Stephanie: So I have a story about a class that Aeron and I were actually co-teaching. We were using specifications grading for this particular class, we were really interested in alternative grading methods for our students. And on one particular day, one of our students was, it was at the point in the semester where she was expressing a lot of concerns about her final grade. And so we were talking about it before class started informally, and then the rest of the class kind of filled in, she’s still trying to talk to me about it, I needed to get class started, get the activities rolling. The students were starting that particular day, taking a knowledge-check reading quiz. And she was still trying to engage me in this conversation, even as other students had started doing their work. And this is what we would call kind of disruptive, right? Her actions were making it challenging for the other students to proceed. And so on that day I went over, and I sat down next to her, and I just said, “Hey, other folks are starting the reading quiz. Why don’t we talk about this after class?” And that worked out just fine, she moved forward. I don’t think that she was particularly happy with me during class. But that’s that difference between rude and disruptive, if you are in class, and you’re simply exhibiting that you’re unhappy through your facial expressions or through crossing your arms, then that’s okay, I want to check with you after class, but you’re not keeping the other folks around you from learning. We chatted about it after class. It turned out that this particular student was honestly just really stressed out at that point in the semester about all of her grades. And I think having that 45 minutes to cool off a little bit was helpful for both of us. And then I was able to go through the grading schema with her and make sure she understood what she would be accountable for, what she wasn’t accountable for. And one of the things that was really interesting to me is, I said something along the lines of, “I was really surprised to see your reaction in that way.” And she thought about it for a while, and she said, “Yeah, I’m surprised, too, that’s not really like me.” So I think just making sure that there’s a time and space to talk with students, that doesn’t escalate the situation, we could have continued having this dialogue with everyone around, and that might really escalate the student’s sense of embarrassment, my own sense of needing to preserve some sense of order in the classroom. So having a little space and time was really helpful for that particular instance.
Jessamyn: That’s such an instructive example. And I know personally, learning that I could say, “Thank you for bringing this up, let me think about it,” was transformative. And the way you can de-escalate, as you said, both people’s emotions, just by taking a little bit of time is pretty magic. And the other important point of your story, for listeners, is the reminder that non-traditional grading can meet with a lot of anxiety and resistance. And we go charging in all fired up about our revolutionary practices, [LAUGHTER] thinking, “Oh, students are going to love it.” But if they haven’t done it before, there’s going to be a lot of anxiety and being prepared for that by reading chapters like this, is so important.
John: And that goes far beyond just the alternative grading system,it goes with any new technique that’s being used in the classroom that students are not used to. Because we’re all creatures of habit, and we don’t always accept change as nicely as perhaps we might like others to do.
Jessamyn: So what does your chapter say about the worst-case scenario, the real threatening or dangerous situation?
Aeron: Yeah, thank you, Jessamyn, the hostile or we could say threatening. We want to acknowledge that those exist. And that even if you do everything well, even if you start with the community guidelines, and you establish a sense of classroom community, and you talk to students about things, you can’t control for variables, particularly as we’ve seen in the last year with mask mandates and other unexpected things. So we acknowledge in that chapter that there are groups of instructors who may really feel that hostility more keenly: minoritized faculty members, younger faculty members, faculty members who have some kind of visible disability. So there’s all sorts of things to take into account. But I think that what we want to say for those folks is that, first of all, you want to think about this, [LAUGHTER] you want to think through what might you do in these situations. And then most importantly, realize that you do have the right to ask a student to leave. You do have the right to end class and have you and the other students leave. You have the right to feel safe in the classroom as an instructor. And we encourage everyone to seek out all of their campus resources, whether it be dean of students, whether there is a teaching center, campus security, etc., and really know what your rights are as an instructor. And without scaring new graduate student instructors, we want them to really be armed with that knowledge of what those resources and what their rights are.
John: It’s better to be prepared for the eventuality and to have resources available to address it than to be in that situation and not have an effective strategy to work through. Are there other things that you’d like to share with our listeners about your book?
Aeron: Yeah, I mean, I think going back to the question about our audience, our intended audience, I think, I want to say that we really see this book as being something that a graduate student could just pick up and read on their own, that we’ve written it to be not at all a textbook, but to be very conversational, as well as full of research and resources. We also see that it could be very useful in graduate seminars on pedagogy and a really nice supplement with discipline-specific texts. And sort of along the lines, though, about our intended audience that we realized that graduate TAs are often the least trained, doing the hardest job. That’s something that Stephanie’s always reminding me. And we’re asking them, also, to be in classes where student success matters keenly. Large general education classes are where students can make or break our students and particularly for first-generation college students or college students at risk. Having well trained, having supported graduate instructors is, I think, really key to student success and the health of our research institutions.
John: In my own experience, I had a fellowship, so I didn’t start as a teaching assistant. I was in my third year of graduate training when an instructor left, and they needed someone to teach an upper-level course. And so about three days before the semester, I was asked if I was willing to do that, and I agreed, but the amount of preparation was, as Jessamyn said, non-existent. [LAUGHTER] And I feel really bad for the teaching that I provided that year. And the worst thing is, I ended up with the highest teaching evaluations in the department, something that rarely happened after that. But it says something, perhaps about the emphasis on teaching in a graduate program. I think it was just my enthusiasm for doing it that got me through that. It certainly wasn’t the way in which I taught, it was very much entirely a lecture-based class with lots of exams and assignments. And it’s certainly not the way I would teach anything today. But it was not very good preparation. But you know, we still have a lot of people coming out of graduate programs without that training and arriving on campuses. Might a good audience for this book also be those people who are starting their teaching careers, having left grad school, in preparing for their first semester teaching?
Aeron: Stephanie, do you want to talk about our “Help! My Class Starts in Two Weeks?”
Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. We have this really nice appendix, that is exactly what Aeron described, “Help! My Class Starts…” I think it’s even just a week, I think that [LAUGHTER] two weeks might be too generous. But it is for exactly the case, John, that you’re describing, when you get handed an opportunity, often, right at the last minute, and you really want to take advantage of it, even though you know, you perhaps don’t have the preparation that you need. And so there is a really nice condensed, basically a checklist in the book, like figure out what you can get access to, figure out what you need to build, here’s how you can move through week by week once the semester starts. So yeah, I think that’s a really nice asset to the book. And I think that there are other ways too in which the book might be suitable for somebody who’s a brand new professor who feels like, “I didn’t really get this in grad school. And now I’m here, and now what?” Because often folks who are brand new to departments feel not quite the same, but also feel kind of betwixt and between the different power structures in a department in ways that, you know, we’ve written about specific to graduate students. But I think that brand new instructors, or faculty, or contingent faculty might also feel particularly in their own experience as well. And I wanted to add this is building off of the story that you told, John, about your first time teaching. One of the things that I do also think is really unique about our book is the number of graduate student voices in the book. And how comforting it might be for a graduate student who doesn’t have anyone else in their department to talk to about this, to hear from some other folks who also maybe had a really hard time their first class and then figured out their way. Or someone who maybe felt like they were experiencing microaggressions in their class. And what did they do to seek out help? So I think that it’s really powerful to have access to in this book is the number of graduate student voices who were really willing to share their story, because they cared so much about it, and their own teaching. So I think that that’s a real gift for readers who are graduate students or who might be new to a job.
Jessamyn: It’s really astounding what a closed-door practice college teaching is, and how it would be seen as really rude to just come into someone’s class. And you have to be really careful if you just want to observe someone else teaching just for your own edification, but it would be a whole big thing. So that’s such an important point about this book. And the way… keeping in mind too departmental cultures might be especially, so that that message, “You’re not alone in this,” is really at the heart of all the best scholarship of teaching and learning, I think, and of professional development, generally.
Aeron: Absolutely. And I think that the notion, as you pointed out, Jessamyn, that we often valorize or highlight these extraordinary teachers, who by the way, are like Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver, have heart attacks or you know, that really burnout with that kind of teaching. But what we don’t really talk about are the rough drafts of our teaching, or the false starts, or the things that we’ve done wrong, and the things that we polished, and the things that we’ve had to change and adjust. And I think that’s what we try to really focus on in this book, as well, as a kind of growth mindset on teaching, if you will.
John: We try to encourage that in our students, and it’s probably really good for us to encourage that in each other as well. I know on my campus, we’ve been doing some open classrooms, where we’ve been encouraging people to open up their classrooms and have other people visit, and to meet to talk before the class and then after. It hasn’t caught on as much as I’d like. Partly, it’s because we really got it started in March of 2020, and things seem to be a little disrupted for a bit. [LAUGHTER] And that disruption hasn’t entirely changed. But it’s been a really valuable experience for those people who have participated and the discussions that they have after it are really helpful because, as Jessamyn said, we tend to do all of this behind closed doors, and when things go wrong, we tend to blame ourselves for what’s not working. And it’s really reassuring to hear from other people that they’re experiencing exactly the same barriers and challenges. And I know in the reading groups that Jessamyn and I have done jointly in our two institutions, it really helps people to hear from other people that they’re facing exactly the same challenges and to share some solutions that either have failed miserably, or that worked really well. Because it’s much easier when we recognize that these problems are global, and they’re not local to our own classroom.
Jessamyn: And I couldn’t agree more about learning from our mistakes, having that growth mindset, we’re always learning how to be an effective teacher from our first class to our last. But the pandemic’s really taken a big chunk out of people’s energy and abilities in regards to pedagogical learning. The learning curve was so steep, I mean, really, for everybody, no matter how much you pivoted or not, we were all teaching and learning in this unprecedented time and conditions and still are. So how would you say these past… it’s two full pandemic years now, influence or shape the teaching challenges generally, including maintaining that growth mindset? And what parts of your book do you think are going to be really helpful for people right now?
Stephanie: Yeah, I don’t mean to be hyperbolic in this, but I do really think every chapter and every strategy. Before Aeron and I started this book, we both took very seriously the notion that, listen, if you’re getting a teaching job, now, you’re going to have to teach some sort of hybrid online course. And this was pre-pandemic, it was just like, if you look at the growth in online learning, there’s no way to believe that even in 2019, if you were entering the workforce, that you were never going to have to teach an online course in your career. So we built in the idea of teaching across modalities across the entire book. And then the other piece that we took really seriously, was this notion of asset-based pedagogies, teaching diverse student populations, and really capturing the strength, their cultural wealth, they bring to the classroom. We teach at the University of New Mexico, which is a Hispanic-serving institution, it enrolls a high number of first-generation college students. And it also enrolls a particularly high number of our American Indian or Native college students. So we wanted other folks to get that chance to learn from whose institutions will likely look this way, if they don’t already, in the years to come, to learn from the really great things that we’ve discovered about the kind of strengths and skills and ways of knowing that our students bring to the classroom every day, if we’re able to tap into those. And so I think that those are the two things that the pandemic really uncovered for folks, people’s discomfort with teaching with technology, who hadn’t been asked to do that previously. And then also, all of a sudden, instructors were confronted in a very different way with the variety of lived experiences their students were bringing in, because they were Zooming right into whatever their living experiences were. And so I think that the book really stands through the pandemic experience in a way that can actually really enhance somebody’s experience teaching, because those two things were particularly important to us when we started writing.
Jessamyn: That sounds really empowering for people going into a classroom, those two approaches.
Aeron: We hope so.
Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely.
John: You mentioned that our students bring in many different ways of knowing. How can we adjust our teaching to better serve all of the students in our classes?
Jessamyn: And following up on John’s question, one of your chapters is called “How Can You Create a Welcoming Classroom Community?” How do those strategies empower students?
Stephanie: Absolutely. I think that one of the things… you know, Aeron mentioned earlier, this sense of starting with a community agreement. And part of that process is really getting to know the students in your classroom, and what makes them feel like they’re gonna belong in this space. And what sorts of things make them feel like they wouldn’t. What kinds of things do they need to learn successfully? So there’s a lot in that chapter about establishing a welcoming space, making sure that students know that they belong, and are part of the classroom community. There’s an instructor that we work with here at UNM, she’s in the College of Education, and she always says, “The sum of us is smarter than any one of us individually.” And I think that that’s a really powerful thing to bring into a classroom and help students internalize. John, to your question specifically, in terms of alternative ways of knowing, we had a really great example of this from one of our graduate students actually, who works with the Center for Teaching and Learning. He was sharing recently on a panel, how he teaches in architecture and planning, and he does a lot with water management. Here in New Mexico, we have a really beautiful system of acequias, which is a way to bring water from the Rio Grande into agricultural communities. And so he talked about being able to explain the importance of water management and water resources to his students. And then for them to share back with him memories of being with their parents and cleaning out the acequias or those kinds of experiences. And so there is this way in which, when you take the time to learn about the students that have come into your classrooms, those opportunities can really bubble up for you. And those can be as simple as phrasing questions about course material that allows them to speak about personal experiences in relation to it. It doesn’t have to be a massive unit or changing an entire syllabus, it could be as simple as the kinds of things you do to warm students up for the beginning of a class period, or something you do at the beginning of the semester.
John: To remind students that they’re assets in their classroom, that their prior knowledge serves as an asset that can enrich the classroom environment and discussion.
Jessamyn: But it’s such a vital point for your book, it’s so great it’s included because I think, coming out of graduate school, we all know that diversity is an educational asset. But it’s like it’s so ingrained and trained in us, I don’t think a lot of people are well equipped to help undergraduates get there as well and perceive diversity as an educational asset. So flagging it in this way in your book is so great.
Aeron: I wanted to add to what Stephanie mentioned that we also address that in our chapter on assessment and assignments. And that, if nothing else, giving your students choices in how they wish to demonstrate their mastery of the subject is quite important. Because they will surprise you, and no matter how clever you are at designing assignments, if you give them some flexibility and allow them to bring in their creativity, then they can show you what some of those connections are. And they can use the technologies that maybe they’re more familiar with even than you are, they can bring in a different approach to the assignment. So that’s something that we encourage as well, that really helps a student’s sense of belonging in that classroom, is choice and autonomy.
Jessamyn: Practically speaking for teaching, especially new teachers, offering students options like that, even if for some reason no student took any option except the very standard one, nonetheless, you have conveyed to them that you care about the diversity of ways that people might express their knowledge and learning. And that’s an important part of a teaching persona and communicating to students that you care about their success. So it works on many levels.
Aeron: Absolutely. And I think being transparent, as transparent as one can. And of course, we want to think about the positionality of graduate students, and there may be reasons why, for instance, graduate students don’t want to come in and say, “Hey, I’ve never taught this before!” I mean, that’s a kind of transparency that might not work for everyone. But as you do gain in expertise, and you do gain in experience, saying, “Hey, I’m going to be doing labor-based grading, and here’s why. Here’s why I’m doing it.” Or, “I’m going to be giving you some choices in how you want to do these assignments and show me your mastery. Here’s why I’m doing that.” I think that the students are smart, and they’re very invested in education, and they’re going to go on to be in lots of other classes. And it’s good for them to get the tools to understand some of the ways that their education can operate and should operate. And then also, I think giving them metacognitive tools as well, encouraging them to reflect on their own learning and their own learning strategies.
Jessamyn: Well, and I think the way you’re prioritizing making the classroom a welcoming, inclusive community goes such a long way. And I won’t say it’s a free pass to totally screw up your class but I also think that when you’ve established trust and communication with students, if you’ve flubbed something, it’s not the end of the world. You’ve already prioritized their success and demonstrated that you really care and hope that they do well. That’s going to cover a lot of, I think it’s Maryellen Weimer’s term, like, teaching sins. You might not be so great at XYZ, but if you’ve paid attention to the things that you’re laying out in the book that goes such a long way with students. Like you say, they know, they know, they’re smart. And when they know that somebody is putting effort into creating a welcoming classroom space, then that really goes such a long way.
Aeron: Absolutely. And I think, to sort of end on a positive note, that if nothing else, what we’ve learned in the last two years is the importance of compassion and recognizing the human, which means that instructors are human as well. And I think if they see, as you put it, Jessamyn, if they see that you are coming from a place of investment in their success, and of common decency, and personal compassion, then you’re going to see that in most cases, they’re going to extend that compassion to you. And we all know there’s going to be times when we need it.
John: Certainly, that’s been a lesson of the last few years, if there’s no other lesson that came from the pandemic. We always end with a question, What’s next?
Aeron: I’ll start and then I’ll let Stephanie add to it. So here’s my boring administrative answer. [LAUGHTER] What’s next is a reorg. We have, at the Center for Teaching and Learning, we’re actually doing away with some of the boundaries between student success, faculty success, online success, face-to-face teaching. And that’s very exciting. So we’re a very large 30-person center that helps support students in terms of student tutoring and student learning, graduate student support and online support. Stephanie and I are also part of a group of staff who are working on a culturally-responsive teaching research project, where we’ve interviewed a number of students to find out from their point of view, what’s working to help them feel a sense of belonging and inclusion in the classroom and what’s not working. Stephanie?
Stephanie: Yeah, I think overlapping with that, the only two things I want to add is, Aeron sort of glossed over this in the reorg, but I think it’s in keeping with the ethos of the book, is that one of the things we’re really focused on as a team in CTL right now is how to treat ourselves as whole humans at work. And how, I think a lot of CTLs all over the place, really took on a lot of work during the pandemic. And some of that is very visible, and some of that’s really invisible, the kind of affective labor that I feel like Lee Skallerup Bessette talks a lot about, that particularly comes to people working in centers for teaching and learning. And so we want to make sure that we’re also a place to work where you can be a whole human in this place, and where we’re also extending compassion to ourselves and taking care of ourselves. And then we’re also working on a project on literary pedagogy. So we’ve been doing some interviews with folks who teach intro to lit courses and trying to figure out… What do you really value? And how are you imparting that to your students? And it’s a project that really grew out of some early research dissertation project from Dr. Angela Zito, who is at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And she’s been partnering with us and was kind enough to let us expand upon her project.
Jessamyn: Great, all of that stuff sounds great.
John: It does. And you know, if you’d like to come back and talk to us about this on the podcast, we’d love to have you back.
Jessamyn: That’s right. [LAUGHTER]
John: So, let’s stay in touch.
Jessamyn: Thank you so much.
John: And thank you, it was really great talking to you. And I’m looking forward to seeing the book. I’ve got it on preorder, and I’m looking forward to its arrival.
Aeron: Thank you so much. Lovely speaking with both of you.
Stephanie: Yeah, thank you so much, everyone.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.