255. Thriving Through Behavioral Science

Many students pursue learning strategies that are not aligned with their long-term objectives. In this episode, Erik Simmons joins us to discuss how principles of social and behavioral sciences can be used to help students achieve their objectives. Erik is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Boston College School of Social Work. He is the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor project edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Research Program on Children and Adversity – Boston College School of Social Work
  • Michie, S., Van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation science, 6(1), 1-12.
  • Michie, S., Hyder, N., Walia, A., & West, R. (2011). Development of a taxonomy of behaviour change techniques used in individual behavioural support for smoking cessation. Addictive behaviors, 36(4), 315-319.
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.


John: Many students pursue learning strategies that are not aligned with their long-term objectives. In this episode, we discuss how principles of social and behavioral sciences can be used to help students achieve their objectives.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Erik Simmons. Erik is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Boston College School of Social Work. He is the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor project edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Erik!

Erik: Thank you, Rebecca. Thank you, John, for having me.

John: We’re very happy to have you here. Today’s teas are:… Erik, are you drinking tea?

Erik: I am drinking tea. I have a Tower of London house blend. It’s a black tea with a little honey infusion. And it has been keeping me going. So I just finished the full pack today. So this is very timely to be asking what I’m drinking. I’m gonna have to remember this one.

Rebecca: Awesome. Finally, a tea drinker, John. [LAUGHTER] We get a lot of coffee drinkers around here.

Erik: Do people usually slot in their coffee selection?

Rebecca: Sometimes? Yeah, sometimes… or the water. There’s a lot of water.

Erik: Okay, well, it’s good for you.

John: And Diet Coke.

Erik: Diet Coke also can keep you going.

Rebecca: I have a Scottish afternoon tea today.

John: And I have a wild blueberry black tea.

Erik: Oh, wow, that sounds delicious.

John: It really is.

Erik: Quite tasty.

Rebecca: Before we discuss your chapter in the Picture a Professor project, can you tell us a little bit about your dissertation research on behavioral change in low resource coastal communities that rely on marine ecosystems in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Erik: I’d love to talk about that, because it’s a project that’s very near and dear to my heart. And I found it very innovative in that we were taking our lab-based research on psychological and behavioral sciences and taking them to the field to help improve the lives and well being of families and children in Southeast Asia. And really what we had identified was one core facet that undercuts almost every wicked problem that we experience that implicates human behavior. And that’s the need for behavioral sciences. So we saw in these projects that, if we could take evidence-based programs, adapt them to the problem at hand to make sure they’re culturally sensitive, and make sure they’re acceptable by the communities, you can change a whole range of different problems and different behaviors that can help improve wellbeing and, in this case, improve the environmental sustainability of these communities as well, who are very reliant on their aquaculture and on the natural resources around them. What we were seeing in that project especially, was that, hey, if you take a whole bunch of people, and if you can provide them with programs that are meant to engage with their behaviors, their social systems and beyond, you can improve not only their lives, their health and wellbeing, their family functioning, but also things like the environment. So that’s where we were going for. And it was not only an exciting process, it was fun. But it puts us on the front line of working with people, which is something that I’ve always had a passion for.

John: Now, this is a little bit aside from the general focus of the podcast, but what type of behavioral interventions did you work with there?

Erik: What we tend to do in my work and the work of the many seminal, prestigious, esteemed professors I’ve worked with in the past is we take these blended complex interventions that target a couple of different pillars within your life. So we’ll have a little bit from an intervention that focus specifically on your parenting capabilities, per se. We’ll have a little bit on the ability or psychosocial capabilities or capacities for you to self regulate and to goal set. We’ll have a little bit on your emotional regulation. We’ll have a little bit on your social behaviors to help recalibrate social norms within your communities, there’s social dynamics, and we throw all those together, we workshop them with the communities, it’s always a co-building process in the work that I do. And what you end up with is something that can target internal factors, external factors, social norms, and social dynamics within their communities. And of course, as we were working there, certain environmental modifications around behaviors such as recycling, engagement with fishing behaviors. So we take these homunculus type of behavioral interventions that all have evidence bases, but we cut them up, we chop them a little bit, we combine them with each other to get a fit for purpose intervention, because we never go with a one size fits all.

John: You’re currently working as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Research Program on Children and Adversity. Could you tell us a little bit about that program?

Erik: Yes, absolutely. It’s another global project, as you guys will get a sense for here, I really like going about helping communities all around the world. And what we’re currently working on is a home visiting intervention. And all that means is you essentially have an active coach who’s an interventionist, they’re a lay worker within the community, currently, I’m working in Rwanda, and they will go to a home and help a family with young children. And now these are the families, John and Rebecca, here that are the most vulnerable in Rwanda, families that really need a lot of assistance. And they have someone who will flexibly schedule with them, come to their home, help them with the initial years, I believe it’s zero to 36 months, or the first three years, assessing similarly once again, parenting capabilities, family dynamics, and then interactions with your child in those first three years, because what we know is that the lifespan development trajectory has a wide range of potential, but as we grow the range of this trajectory slowly, slowly shrinks. So starting early is really important to making sure that individuals have the highest promising potential for their lifespan development. And that’s what we’re really aiming for. So we have active coaches coming into homes to help families with the early years for their children. And we focus on everything from, once again, parenting capabilities to anthropometrics like child growth, to make sure their children are getting a lot of cognitive development, physical stimulation to help them grow appropriately, language interaction, and a lot of play. Plays a big part of the intervention. So that’s currently what we’re working on in Rwanda. We also work in Sierra Leone, we’re currently trying to work with Afghan families who are seeking refuge in America right now.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a little bit about wanting to work directly with people and, of course, teaching is always [LAUGHTER] working directly with people.

Erik: Absolutely.

Rebecca: So your chapter in Picture a Professor is entitled: “Black Man in a Strange Land: Using Principles of Psychology and Behavior Science to Thrive in the Classroom.” Can you tell us a little bit about how you’re using principles of psychology and behavior science to thrive in the classroom?

Erik: Yeah, I sure can. I’d love to open this up for a conversation as well. And you guys can kind of tell me how crazy I am here. When I saw this call for proposals, I thought this was perfect, because to my knowledge, at least to my social and collegial circles, I had never met anyone who was a young black American man teaching in an Australian classroom. And I thought immediately, I have to share my experience because it was just so unique, at least to me, and I don’t know, maybe there are others out there. And if they are, you know, please feel free to reach out to me, I’m sure we can have some great conversations about being in a different country looking different than a traditional… or let’s not say traditional I don’t think that’s quite the right phrasing here… but maybe just what might be considered stereotypical or typical is a common sense of an educator, and trying to connect with students. And the one thing that was really helping carry me through a lot of my experiences, and helping me connect with my students, was my expertise in social and behavioral sciences. Because I knew if we could take some of the principles of evidence-based behavior change techniques, social norms, social identity, and social dynamics, as well as being able to build an empathetic space where we were using humanistic psychology frames or frameworks to understand each other, we could get a lot done together. And the big premise, or the big proposition of the chapter, I’m not going to remove all the intrigue for me to say is that if we treat people like people, and if we take a very humanistic, very compassionate, and very understanding approach to connecting with our students, our pedagogy is going to improve, student outcomes are going to improve all across the board. So the main proposition, the main premise, of what I’m trying to say is, despite maybe not having a lot of similar ground, or similar background, historical context with your students, if you can find certain areas to connect on a psychological or behavioral basis to them, you can improve the experience not only for the students, but also for yourself as an educator.

John: What are some specific techniques that you’ve implemented that rely on behavioral science.

Erik: So, one of my favorites immediately is having a sense of, and it’s a strange word here, but it comes from social identity theory and social identity leadership, that’s called we-ness. And it’s WE hyphenated to N-E-S-S. And it’s the idea of using social identity theory to immediately set group norms and social dynamics that reflect you as being a member of the group and you being able to associate yourself in some way with your students. I think oftentimes, in educational spaces, we almost feel, as educators, we need to separate ourselves, we need to be different, we need to be in charge, we need to be the leaders who can take a distinct role in that classroom, whereas social identity theory says no, you should go in their first day, and you should say, “Well look at all the ways that we’re more alike than different.” And that’s a strong way, not only to make connections with your students, but to open up the floor for your students to be more comfortable coming to you and your students being more comfortable with expressing their needs. And as I mentioned, in my initial work, having that conversation of co-design space, and then being able to identify you as not only a competent leader, but also someone who is going to defend their process and their progress. So that’s absolutely one of my favorite techniques to use right off the bat when you’re starting a semester to say, “Hey, we’re all more alike, we’re all in the same classroom together, we’re all going to be probably very similar in at least our interests. So there’s more things here that connect us than separate us.” I think it’s a powerful lesson for education as a whole.

Rebecca: Do you usually apply this concept as an activity? as a conversation? What does it actually look like in the classroom?

Erik: So there’s a few ways that you can do it and depending on size, I think those massive lecture halls… this can be a little bit difficult, but I think in the small capstone classrooms where you have 20 to 30 students, absolutely, going around and just having a conversation or putting up slides or having an activity where you’re drawing certain topics out of a hat and you have themes of saying “Okay, we’re gonna go talk to three of your classmates for a little while, and educator included, about your family for a little bit or maybe about a certain activity you like and you can use this to start to develop and design a little hierarchy or infrastructure. You’re going to come up with similar themes in almost every classroom, I’d be surprised if these few topics didn’t come up. People have passions and activities outside of the classroom, people have friends and family that they like talking about. And sometimes just having a couple of prompt questions that you can talk about together with your class, if time allows it and if classrooms are small enough to help you have those discussions. It’s just an extremely powerful tool, asking the questions and opening up for your students to share, whether that be slides, whether that be a list of things that you might want to talk about, whether it be asking students what they’d like to learn about and seeing, you know, where you guys kind of connect on that front are things I do first semester. I always give all of myself in that first little lecture of saying, here’s who I am as a person, now, who are you? I like to know who you are too, and whatever students are comfortable with sharing, that’s what you go with. I do those activities as a start always before I get into any topic matter, a sharing not only what I do, but who I am. And then we go from there as developing that sense of we-ness and shared culture right away.

John: Do you encourage students to use commitment devices to help meet their learning objectives for the course?

Erik: Absolutely. So the work of Susan Michie has been very seminal on me. One thing she developed a little while ago, she does a lot of work with trying to codify, categorize, and help us define the different types of behavior change that we can use to help people reach their goals, to help people change their behavior. One thing she developed is called the behavior change technique taxonomy. And I love this thing, because it’s just a list of 83 different devices that you can use to help people develop versions of themselves. And that’s what I’d start with is saying everything I try to do, I try to encourage students to… if they’re not self defining it, at least it has to be halfway have them bring their commitment to the table, because one thing we know about the difference between early childhood development and early child learning and adult learning is the self-directed nature of it and if you’re not taking that self-directed approach, then you’re bound to purge whatever changes or information you’ve just acquired throughout a semester across coursework. So things like social commitment devices and social commitment tools are incredibly useful in helping students help reach their goals. Now, I would provide a caveat here in who they’re making the social commitment to makes a huge difference. And we call this referent groups in social psychology here. And it’s important to know for social identity, it’s important to know for different social norms, if we can talk about a little bit as well, and it’s important to know for social commitment, is who are you making a referent group to, and who you’re making that commitment to? So making the commitment to me, making the commitment to the person you’ve just met, might not actually be the best way to go about it. But saying, hey, for your first assignment, why don’t you go make the social commitment to your best friend, close family member, your partner, and then trying your best to stick to that, is really important. And there are lots of tools you can use with other people externally, to help students reach their goals. And I think the social commitment is a big one. And there’s lots that we can look at into the science of goal setting to help students achieve things and keep themselves on track. Because temporally, it’s really hard. We’re captivated by so many things, currently, especially students, from technology, social media, the race for attention has never been as breakneck as it is now. So thinking about how you can use commitment devices, goal-setting devices, and different types of activities along that front help students stay on track with their goals is crucial to the process of helping students achieve and get to where they want to be. Because at the end of the day, it’s what it’s all about. It’s not about what we need them to get out of lesson plans, it’s about them being able to attain what they’re looking at getting out of their education.

Rebecca: Can you share an example of how you’ve helped students goal set and meet their goals using some of these devices?

Erik: Absolutely. So I think even setting aside time, whether it be assignment time or in-class time, and some of these things seems so simple, but they’re so powerful. I’m sure you’ve heard of things like the SMART goals, or the different types of things. And listen, there’s a whole lot of goal setting typologies and frameworks out there, they all have very similar underlying principles, they’ve just been designed by different people at different stages. And that is their attainable, they’re measurable, they have some degree of specificity intheir time constraints to that regard. The SMART one is the one I tend to use. Now I use two different types of advices. You guys gonna have to bear with me here because it’s actually very powerful in the goal setting space. Now, lots of times we think when we’re setting a goal is visualize, visualize where you want to be in a year and a couple of months and 10 years, what have you. And what the research kind of tells us is those big nebulous goals or the goals that are really far off, they’re really, really great at starting us down a path. So they might be really helpful in helping us choose a major or choose a direction. But one thing they’re not great at is motivating us in the interim, so day to day. So one thing I tend to do with students and I never pushed them on this problem for goal setting, especially… especially across the semester, is actually visualizing what it looks like if we don’t do the day-to-day activity to reach our goal is way more powerful than saying “Okay, well what do I need to do to get to that goal?” And I’ll give you an example here. So sometimes when my students come in I’ll say, “Let’s take five minutes, I’m just gonna give you a quick reflection activity.” Sometimes it’s writing, sometimes it’s just, “I want you to think about it.” And I’ll say, “Let’s think for a little bit what it looks like, if I don’t do what I need to do today to reach my goal, what does my life look like if I don’t take the steps to attain where I want to go?” And I say, “You don’t need to think of absolute doom and gloom or tragedy if you don’t reach here, but using almost a kernel of ‘Oh, no, I really do want that, I do want to do this today because I do want to achieve my goals…’” is a powerful, short term motivator than saying, “Just think of where you want to be in a couple of years, and do you want to do this thing today?” and I was a coach for a long time. I still am, I guess it’s a part of my personality, my identity. And one thing that was always really hard for me is going to practice. And that was kind of like going to class, kind of like showing up to class. And one thing I noticed was when I thought of, “Oh well, you know, if I don’t go to the gym, today, my coach will be disappointed, I’ll miss out on seeing my friends, I might not do as well, later on in my career as an athlete or whatever,” was a lot more motivating for me to go to class every day, or to go and get in that extra workout than me saying, “Oh, I want to be the best in the world at some stage in my life.” So beyond the initial setting of the goals, using any given SMART framework or a couple of step, couple thread framework, having students do very short term, small reflections on things that might help them keep going or maintain without absolutely inducing a sense of dread in them, I find to be really helpful for students. And I haven’t had anyone completely lose it on me yet and say, “You gave me anxiety this semester, having to think about all these things so frequently.” So that’s been helpful.

John: What are some other specific techniques that you’ve used in your classes that are based on behavioral science?

Erik: Oh, there’s a wealth of women, I can go on and on. But some of my favorites have to do with metacognition, and thinking about the higher-order cognitive processes necessary for students to find the justifications they need for motivation. So motivation has always been a really big part of my research, and motivation comes from a lot of different things. So when we’re thinking about reward systems within your brain, I don’t want to say we all know, because I’m sure we’re talking to a very diverse audience. There’s specific reward systems in your brain that offer you certain neural correlates or hormonal biomarkers that are going to reward certain things and start to… we’re not going to say punished for that, I think it’s a weird word. I don’t know why psychology use that… but diminish the activity of other activities. And by reward, it just means it’s reinforcing that behavior so you’re going to do it a little bit more. And so one thing I always like doing is helping students use a metacognitive infrastructure to help self regulate, which sits within the goal setting literature as well, to say, “Well, what do we need to help reward you further in your progression?” For some students, it is strictly grades. But I find that to be a very poor long-term motivator, and you end up the students just kind of being very anxious and very set on just scoring well, which to me never set right as the purpose of learning, of the purpose of turning up to the classroom. So thinking about what positive reinforcement will be necessary for a student to continue going, and you’re never going to be able to define that for a student. But one thing I like to tell everyone who is unfamiliar with the psychological and behavioral sciences is that the carrot is always a way more powerful tool than the stick. The stick is just always more readily available, it’s the easiest to get to, but the carrot is easily the best. If you can find it, it’s a lot more powerful than going to that stick. So I think putting the work in initially is saying, hey, if let’s take the most simple of example of… this probably hasn’t worked on anyone since year two, or year three, but saying, if it takes a pizza party for you guys to really want to be here, if that’s the extrinsic reinforcement I can provide you, I’ll absolutely do it. And for students as they grow older, it usually isn’t that, it has to be something necessarily useful. But finding whatever metacognitive unlocking we need to do for students to think about their own thinking and say, “Why am I here? What is it that I actually want out of this?” And then we can retrofit that and create a little engineering process for each student in or at least small groups of students to say, “Okay, well, maybe it’s not scores this semester, maybe we’ll judge you based on your progress on this particular metric and evaluation,” which I think shifts as well to more… and this is this private bias speaking here…, but psychometrically informed evaluation of students progress than just saying retention of information, knowledge, or learning.

John: How do you encourage students to engage in this metacognitive reflection?

Erik: So there’s an ample amount of literature here from cognitive behavioral techniques and what started as cognitive behavioral therapy not too long ago, but I especially like give a shout out to my former advisor, Professor Matthew Sanders, who said, “Why are we only using cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT for neuroses or things that are going wrong in us? Why can’t we use this to make our lives better and enhance positive outcomes just as much.” So there’s lots of different things we can use, such as reframing of cognition that can help us to unlock or take that next step into the metacognitive space. So let me give you an example that I think will resonate for all of us here, is lots of times people get really nervous about presenting. Presenting is a big one for cognitive restructuring that a lot of people have, because they have a lot of apprehensions or anxieties about presenting. Being able to think about presenting on two fronts here can drastically improve not only your experience with presenting, but your own ability to reflect and improve on how you approach presenting and that’s saying, the anxiety you feel before presentation is the same energy, it’s the same physiological system of excitement for an activity you might have doing something else. So when you can get students to take different perspectives, cognitively, of how they approach things, how they feel when they do certain things, and then have slight cognitive reframes, you are bound or you’re at least on the first step of the path to also behavioral reframing and behavioral restructuring. So perspective shifting, having activities that allow students… it’s something that you gain very early on in your life… but to habit or perspective shift. Allow them to start to play with these cognitive different realms and to start to interrogate their own cognitive biases, their own cognitive perspectives, some of which have been held for, I’m sure, all years of their lives, their whole existence, but being able to exercise that cognitive muscle and perspective taking, cognitive reframing, cognitive restructuring, is the first step to the metacognitive level, where you’re always stopping and saying, “Wait a second, I need to introspect on this a little bit. Am I here because my parents want me to be here, am I here because I want to be here? How does this align with my identity, values.” And in my particular space, we try not to get too reductionistic as to, we don’t need to get specifically to certain brain areas. But being able to have that introspective process of self and how it interacts with the social ecology around you and your historical past is, in my first step you need for metacognitive capability.

John: So specifically, though, do you have them do blogging? Do you have them write journals, or something similar to engage in that? Because left to themselves, students may not always engage in that metacognitive reflection.

Erik: You cannot, [LAUGHTER] absolutely, just leave students, not only students, educators, all of us to our own devices, a big area of my study is on executive functions, which kind of allow us to interact with these metacognitive skills here. And one thing we know about executive functions is it’s the tasks, skills and activities you do in the day to day that really improve them, rather than just saying,” if you think really hard every day, it’ll eventually get there, you’ll break through that ceiling and you’ll be at the highest level of really interacting with your thoughts as you possibly can.” So there’s multiple ways you can do that. One thing I think has been missing… of course, as we know, in the classroom, we do a lot of reading and writing… but even just very simple, and I mean, simple in that, I mean engaging, engaging in fun problem solving within the classroom of coming in and saying, “Hey, this is a difficult thing going on in the world right now or maybe this is a simple thing going on in the world right now… here’s a problem, how would you go about solving it and being able to exercise sub skills of executive functioning, your planning, your monitoring ability, your cognitive temperance, or your ability to restrain or engage based on your own desires and your own will, having activities that help you practice this is really the way to develop your metacognitive ability.” So I think you’re right there, John, in that having students blog regularly, writing is such a powerful tool, and having students just have the conversations, having students trying to inhabit a different experience, it’s kind of seems almost like a mediated pathway to get to higher metacognitive skill. But it’s the only pathway, because there is no direct “Hey, if you just do this task a lot. It’s not quite like coding or like anything else that has a very technical basis, where if you just do the practicing, you’ll get there.” And these are what we call developing expertise by the work of Daniel Kahneman. And so these are softer or a little bit harsher learning environments rather than the very strict ones where if you just go and practice you will eventually improve. So yes, you need a range of different activities that may seem a bit creatively informed to get you to your main goal or your main outcome. But yeah, this is what you can definitely do with students to improve their metacognition. And the metacognition as well as the executive functions tend to be generalizable to other things they’ll do in their lives. So it’s not just what they’re going to be learning in your class, but it will be learning in other classes and then beyond.

Rebecca: One of the things that we talk a lot about on Tea for Teaching is how many faculty aren’t actually prepared in their programs to become teachers. They might not have training as teachers, and then they’re teaching. So if you were to think about this population who maybe doesn’t have a background in behavioral science, in addition to what you’ve already talked about, what are the couple of things that you think all faculty should know about so that they can better support their students and thrive in the classroom.

Erik: This is something that once again really inspired me when I saw this call for proposals is, I completely agree, and I know there’s a lot of demand on us as faculty. There’s so many responsibilities from these days to project management to admin to well beyond just your teaching, but it hurts my soul a little bit here that we end up in these spaces where we’re throwing first-time teachers into the deep end with very minimal assistance of knowing how students learn, how certain underlying principles might be the things that are really driving the retention of knowledge or the acquisition of skills. And what do we know? One of the biggest things I’ve always relied back on when I’ve talked to people about developing skills, especially in the space of teaching and pedagogy is that you’re likely just to role model whatever you imagine initially as being an adequate or maybe above average teacher. So it’s the same thing we see with parents and children, it’s the same thing we see in our social networks, is that we model after the things that we like, that we desire. So I think having a lot of exposure is the first thing we need to know as faculty, to different pedagogical practices and teaching styles because that’s going to give us the most to pick and choose from, and to be able to develop the most evidence-based practices in teaching. Now, the second thing I think I say here always is understanding of fundamental attribution error for your students is a must have across everything. And the fundamental attribution error… sorry, for anyone who is unfamiliar, is your insight, or your cognitive process to look at someone external to you and say, “they are that way, because a personal quality or the way they are, a character disposition,” and say “You’re behaving in a certain way and it might be due to your environmental factors.” And the best way this is described in many literature is, is anyone who’s driving in a car has had that moment where someone cuts them off, or someone does something that looks a little bit silly, and they say: “That person is a terrible driver, I can’t believe they’re doing that.”….where we have no idea where that person was going, we have no idea what state that person might be in, but it’s always a terrible driver. But if we’re to make the same mistake, it’s “I didn’t get enough coffee this morning, I’m just a little bit tired. It was my mistake. But this isn’t reflective of me.” And the same goes for students. When we look at our cohort of students every year, I think this is importantly true in the pandemic, is being able to say there is always a confluence of multiple factors that are cascading and colliding at one time to give you that student in a classroom every day. And you need to take that student as they are rather than expect things that are unrealistic, or are going to be unreliable in the long run, because we demand a lot of our students. So understanding our students where they are and where they’re at on any given day is an important thing we can take from psychological and behavioral sciences. It’s going to improve our experiences and improve our students, rather than demanding or expecting a perfect student out there. And noting that our students operate many different roles, they are pluralities of many different things. So knowing that about our students, I think, is really important in your expectations with how you design your coursework, you go about your class, I think that fundamental attribution error is really important. And then I close out with a third thing here that I think is absolutely crucial. And I think that is shared charter, shared mission, and shared values, which kind of ties us back to our social identity theory here a little bit in saying initially, it’s really important to start a shared charter, shared mission with your students and saying, once again, co-designing and participatory approaches of what do we need out of this? Not what do I need, not what do you need, but having that dialogue with your students is an important part of behavioral design that can help us improve the way we go about our teaching pedagogy. And it’s a really helpful way too if we feel like we don’t have a good understanding of human learning, a good understanding of human behavior. It’s asking students what they want, it’s a great place to start, maybe they don’t know either, but at least we’re getting that feedback from them. And then there’s that investment into the shared mission together. So I think it’s important for a lot of faculty to know who just feel as if they’ve been thrown into open water, and you have this group of people look back at you and relying on you, but you’re not quite sure what’s going to be best for them for the retention of their knowledge and the progression of their careers in education.

John: Would you suggest doing that right at the beginning of the term, and perhaps even jointly shaping the syllabus for the course if that’s possible in your institution?

Erik: It’s a lot of work. That’s a lot of work. But yes, absolutely. And not only that, but I think the monitoring reflection, it’s an important part of all behavioral and psychological sciences, and especially behavioral change is having at least whatever the increment might be. Sometimes it might be pre- to post- to the semester, sometimes it might be every week, but having instances where you touch back in and say, “Hey, is this still working for us?” …and if it’s not, having the ability to make amendments, and being able to encourage new strategies that students can use to help them reorient or re-navigate towards the new goal, because one thing we know we do really, really poorly is make projections about what we want, what we need, in our personal space. So one of my favorite psychological exercises, we ask people, “How different are you going to be in 10 years?” And they go, “Oh, well, I won’t be that different. How much can I change? I know who I am.” But then you ask them, “Are you the same person you were 10 years ago?” and they say, “Oh, no I’m an entirely different person”. And somehow those two things never seem to align. So in that sense, it’s really important that we at least have little markers or flagpoles there that we can stop at and say, “Hey, is this still what we want? I know, we said this in the beginning, but it’s always alright, to make a change, it’s only too late to make a change once the semester is over.” So having the small incremental things, good, but having the baseline start and doing that initially, that’s where the bulk of the legwork should do. And if you can co-create a syllabus, please co-create a syllabus,

Rebecca: I think co-creation is such a wonderful way of existing, but also our institutions are often set up in a way that does not encourage such behavior by requesting syllabi ahead of time, sharing it out, because we want students to know what to expect. There’s all these things that are in place, also with students in mind, but often deters the behavior of co-creation. And some folks may not be at the liberty or feel like they have the ability to do that co-creation work. But I think there’s sometimes ways that we can do this in smaller ways than just a syllabus.

Erik: Smaller ways, absolutely. But Rebecca, you bring up an incredibly crucial point. And I really would like to touch on this because it does underpin and drive it. It’s almost the engine to all the work that I do. We’ve been talking a lot about individual change strategies and things we can encourage students to do. And I have a list of those that is nearly inexhaustible. But the one thing that I think comes to be missing in a lot of this is our focus on systems and the institutional things that sit around us, the foundations that sit around us, that sometimes provide barriers to us as you were saying, Rebecca, being able to make these changes in the way we like to approach our classes. And that’s one thing that in a lot of my work now and in the future I’d like to bring into this space of making changes is: lots of times when it comes to systems change, it’s really about removing obstacles for educators and for students rather than providing new solutions, or “Hey, add this to your syllabus or add that in and it will make your life easier.” Sometimes it’s just about removing the obstacles that make things really difficult for you to make specific changes. And that goes for students and educators alike, when you’re looking at co-creating a syllabi, or being able to engage your students more in the process. I think a lot of times the institutional perspective, or the institutional opinion, is that students, they’re not ready for that, they’re not able to do that. And you’re right, Rebecca, you know, they need to know what to expect. And I think students are way more capable and adept at these things than we think they are, as are faculty, and just saying, “Hey, let’s think about how we can look at the institutional rules that govern and reinforce or impede on certain behaviors, and how might we change these…” because that’s always going to be the best way you can catalyze change, is making changes to your institutional rules, your systems that exists at the higher level or higher order that might be, than actually looking at individuals within that system. Because sometimes you can say, “Hey, we really want this, we really want that.” But if your institutional rules are going to, once again, provide obstacles there, you’re not going to see a lot of changes. And I’ve seen this in everything from my environmental work to helping families out is, without the actual adjustment to the system as you’re trying to make adjustments to households, the classrooms, you’re just not going to see it happen. So these things have to be done in tandem. And I’m so happy you brought up that point.

John: One of our guests on a past podcast, and I’m not sure which one… I can think of three or four who might have said this… [LAUGHTER] is that they do have the official syllabus which is shared with the department, administration, and so forth. But then there’s the actual syllabus which is shared with the students and updated as they go. And that might be a good compromise, where there’s a core of content or a core of learning objectives and so forth that are in the official syllabus. But then you may have something that’s a bit more flexible and adaptable to the students that are actually in your class.

Rebecca: I mean, I submitted a syllabus that reflects a moment in time, it’s got a date on it, and then it’s a Google doc, a living document. Things change. Disasters happen. We get confused about something we need more time on it.

Erik: Sure. And I think having that space to make those changes and saying it doesn’t have to be a perfect syllabus is ideal. And one thing I talk a lot about in my work is behavioral inertia, where we’re going is kind of how the ball continues to roll. And it’s always really hard to knock us off of that behavioral inertia of what we’re currently doing. And we have stuff like this in our life. Maybe we have a certain policy or a plan or something and we see a better policy and a better plan, but we’ve had this policy and plan for 10 years. How much work would it be to actually change it? How much will it actually save me? And the same goes for our syllabi or our students in that we can get stuck in our ways. But as you’re both saying here, having the small compromises and just making incremental change, you don’t have to go scorched earth every time and say, let’s throw out every syllabus and just start from scratch every semester. But hey, this has been working okay. And having that living document you can make small adjustments to, this works for a semester three years ago, but it’s not working now. So let’s make a change to this particular section, for this particular activity and changes stuff. So just having those little things where our goals feel attainable, and we’re taking them in small enough… it’s called goal slicing… small enough slices that we can actually achieve them rather than trying to make it feel like a monumental have to move the heavens to get this done. I think it’s really, really important. So I’m glad you both brought that up, kind of looking for the solutions here that I think are really important and incredibly vital for us slowly making progress toward where we want to go.

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

Erik: Yeah, what’s next? I think this is a great question, I see a field where I say there’s so much to be done. I have always been absolutely engrossed by an understanding of pedagogy. I’ve always really desired to know how I can improve performance as an educator. And the one thing I think that’s really important right now is looking at how we can infuse different practices for mentorship and coaching sciences into our ability for faculty and teaching professionals here. And so that’s where I see us going next. I always like having focus on students because students are why we do what we do. But I think to improve the students, once again, we’re going to talk about a little bit of a mediated pathway here, is going from a focus on what do the students need to do to what do we need to do as teaching professionals and faculty to make sure we’re adequately and sufficiently prepared to enter that classroom. So what I’d really like to improve on is use the same mechanisms of social psychological behavioral sciences to help improve your pedagogical ability, teaching professionals, and this is kind of what I’ve said in a lot of the parenting work I’ve worked on in the past is if we want better outcomes for the kids, we probably shouldn’t be going to the kids directly, because they don’t have a lot of control over what’s happening, especially when they’re really little. We really need to be going to the parents and improving the parents. And same thing goes here, as we can use evidence-based behavior change principles, techniques, and tactics, complex interventions, to help improve our ability as faculty members and teaching professionals. So we’re not just throwing educators off the deep end and say, “Hey, you’ve never taught before, but here you go.” So that’s what I see as being the next step in evolution to improving pedagogy as us in education as a whole.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us, Erik, and sharing some science with us today, as well as some nice teases for your chapter in Picture a Professor.

Erik: Thank you both. That was a lot of fun.

John: 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.


254. Teaching Up

Creating an environment where members of the learning community can be taken seriously as their own authentic selves requires planning. In this episode, Celeste Atkins joins us to discuss how shifts in context, like reframing an assignment, can impact the way people engage with each other and the content.

Show Notes


John: Creating an environment where members of the learning community can be taken seriously as their own authentic selves requires planning. In this episode we discuss how shifts in context like reframing an assignment can impact the way people engage with each other and the content.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Celeste Atkins. Celeste is a Sociologist, the Assistant Director of Faculty Mentoring Initiatives, and a Lecturer in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona. She is also the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor collection, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Celeste.

Celeste: Thank you.

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

Celeste: I am an iced coffee person. So I actually drink Jot and I make my own vanilla lattes every day.

Rebecca: Wow, that sounds fancy.

Celeste: It’s really easy. Jot is a coffee concentrate, you use a tablespoon full of it and then I use a tablespoon full of vanilla sugar and eight ounces of milk. And it’s delicious and easy and quick.

Rebecca: and caffeinated. [LAUGHTER] I have Jasmine black tea today.

John: And I have ginger tea today.

Rebecca: The title of your chapter in Picture a Professor is “Teaching Up: Bringing my Blackness into the Classroom.” In addition to your chapter in Picture a Professor, you’ve also published other chapters that grew out of your dissertation: Teaching Up: Developing an Intersectional Andragogy. Can you tell us a bit about your dissertation research?

Celeste: Well, I have a background in sociology, but my PhD is in higher education. And so I spent close to a decade teaching at the community college level. And my dissertation grew out of my own experiences as a Black woman in a conservative Arizona town teaching about racial privilege, heterosexual privilege, and those types of things. So what I wanted to do was take an intersectional approach, because there’s literature on faculty of color, there’s literature on women, there’s literature on queer faculty, but not much takes an intersectional approach to see what we have in common and what we don’t. And so I interviewed, I believe, 18 sociology faculty from across the nation at different levels, in different types of institutions, about their experiences as part of a traditionally marginalized group teaching up, so teaching about privilege when they themselves are oppressed in some area. And so we had women, we had queer faculty, we had a couple of faculty who identified as disabled, and quite a few faculty of color.

John: On your website, you note that the chapter in Picture a Professor is based on some unexpected findings from the research in your dissertation. Could you tell us a little bit about the unexpected findings that you talked about in this chapter?

Celeste: Sure. So actually, this chapter is about the part of my dissertation that spoke the most to me, but surprised me the most, which is, when I started to look at differences intersectionally, I found that Black women, in particular, focused on bringing their authentic selves to the classroom. And for some of them it was after they got tenure, for some of them, it was after they felt they had sort of sold their soul in a way. And for me, what I found in my teaching, and why this resonated with me was: I started teaching, I got a lot of feedback, “you’re too aggressive,” “you’re too assertive,” “you’re too scary,” blah, blah, blah. And so then I tried to be like a Disney princess and be really, you know, flowers and butterflies, and very welcoming and soft, and it was fake. And my students didn’t like it, because it wasn’t me. And they could tell it wasn’t authentically me. So after a year or two of that not going well, I decided to just be me. I found a different book that was more intersectional and I started talking about what it’s like being a fluffy Black woman and how it affects how I live in the world. And I would make jokes about it, and I would address it. And then students really responded to it because it was who I am, and my authentic self. And so what these other sociology faculty were doing that’s so important, is modeling different ways of being professional. Because one of the things that’s so hard about hegemonic academia is it’s very heteronormative, it’s very white, it’s very male, it’s very middle class. And so a lot of us do a lot of code switching. And I used to joke about my best friend in college, she worked for a talent agency and I worked in HR and so we would call each other and like, “Good afternoon, may I speak with Michelle, please?” And she’d go, “Who’s calling?” And I’d go, “This is Celeste. What’s up girl? Hey, what are we gonna do this weekend?” As soon as we knew it was each other on the phone, then we would be our authentic self. And a lot of us spend time code switching. But what that does is reinforce the idea that our authentic selves is not okay in academia. And so this chapter about bringing our Blackness to the classroom is about when we show our true selves not only do we find different ways to connect to our students, but we also expand for many their ideas about what faculty are, about what professional is, about what an academic does. I can be an academic and not talk in $5 words, I can be an academic and be very gesture-y and very outspoken and out there and still do quality academic work, and in some ways, reach students that a lot of others who are so concerned at fitting in this rigid box of what is considered proper academia miss.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of classes that you teach that we can start talking about what that looks like for you and how your chapter addresses being in those classes?

Celeste: Well, I’ve gone through a lot of changes during my dissertation journey. And I actually have another chapter coming out about how I felt like I was kind of pushed out of teaching. It is very challenging to be a woman of color, the only Black woman faculty at my institution for part of my tenure, and teaching about these topics in a place that not everyone agrees with. And so I have actually transitioned out of full-time teaching, but I spent my career teaching intro to sociology, human sexuality (which is very fun), race, and gender. And now for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, I teach a diversity class. It’s fully online, but what I’ve done, based on what I’ve learned from my teaching experiences, is I’ve created it in a totally different way. So there’s no book, and it is the closest I could get to a series of guest lectures. So it’s based completely on YouTube videos and I give a little introductory video explaining the concepts. And then I find people who are either experts in the field, or who are personally oppressed in that way to share their stories. Because what I learned is, it’s one thing to hear about the concept, it’s another thing to humanize the people who are going through it. And so we’re actually doing some research on that to see if that approach is more effective. And so that’s currently what I’m working on.

John: And there’s a lot of research that shows the power of narrative. And when they’re personal stories, it has much more resonance with people than when they read about something in a book that seems a bit more distant. So, that sounds like a wonderful approach.

Celeste: I really found that especially when I was teaching human sexuality, I would bring in queer folks, I would bring in trans* folks, I would bring in polyamorous folks. And it went from “Ooh, that weird stuff”or “all those ‘those’ people” to “Wow, they remind me of…” and “They’re just like…,” and that I found was so important in breaking down stereotypes and really making a change.

Rebecca: You talked a little bit about negotiating your identity in the classroom at the beginning and making adjustments and not feeling authentic. How do you feel like you’ve been able to really be your authentic self [LAUGHTER] now? How are you able to arrive at that moment? And what does that look like?

Celeste: Well, when I was teaching face to face, what I would do is literally address the elephant in the room, we would do those, you know, the things that students love so much: come up and talk about yourself. But I would say “Look, I’m a big Black lady. And we’re gonna talk about stereotypes and those types of things”. But people say that I’m intimidating and people say these things, but my students who know me know that I’m here to help you. I’m not here for the money. If you knew what I made, you’d know that. And so I use a lot of humor. I make a point to break stereotypes, especially with my images. And then I make a point to be humorous about the images. So we’ll be talking about deviance, and I’ll say “So not holding a knife to a white lady’s throat is that… what kind of deviance [LAUGHTER] is that?” But I’m also very careful to never show single mothers that are Black. I’m also very careful when I do gangs. I have memes that I use and one is this white guy with a really long beard, riding a pink bike talking about biker gangs, or I have one meme of Sesame Street when I talk about gangs. And so I’m really, really careful to break stereotypes. And I also make sure that when I’m choosing my test questions, I’m choosing the ones that, again, reinforce breaking those stereotypes.

John: So you’ve talked a little bit about bringing your own identity into the classroom and how that evolved over time. How do you help students express their identities in class?

Celeste: I’m really, really careful about how I do examples. I very deliberately find diversity for my images. And again, I try to find things that people don’t think about. So when I’m doing, let’s say, relationships, I’ll show like an older lesbian couple, nobody thinks about old people still being in love [LAUGHTER] oftentimes, when you’re talking to young students. And another thing that I do is I bring in stories of my friends who are very diverse, and the people that I’ve known. And I feel like if you create a safe learning environment, and I do a lot of steps to do that in the beginning, that then students will feel safe sharing. One time, we were talking about border patrol, and we were talking about racial profiling. And I was trying to get across to one student who was either in border patrol or headed to be in border patrol that if you only focus on Latinos, then yes, you will only find drugs on Latinos. If you’re not stopping white people. If you’re not stopping Black people, then you’re not going to find drugs on them. And the argument was, “Well, it’s the cartels. And it’s this, and it’s that.” And finally, another student of mine, who is Latino, and whose father is Latino, but a border patrol officer, talked about being stopped, talked about being afraid, talked about this dynamic of “Yes, there are good officers who aren’t, and yet still, this happened to me, even though my dad is.” And so I tried to create that kind of space where students can shift each other’s ideas by sharing their own narratives.

Rebecca: You mentioned just a moment ago about setting yourself up to be able to have that space for students. Can you talk about some of the steps that you do take to create that environment?

Celeste: Yes, when I was teaching face to face, it was basically the first week, and usually these were two day a week classes, were centered upon creating a safe learning environment. So we would talk about community agreements, and then I would take it further. And I use some things that I learned at WRITCHE and don’t ask me what that acronym is for, but it was something about teaching about sexuality. And so what we did when we went to that workshop was we anonymously answered all of these questions on a survey. And so what I did was I create a survey about: Have you ever had or helped create an unwanted pregnancy? Have you ever used a food bank? Have you or anyone you know ever been to prison? Or Is anyone you know, undocumented? We lived on the border. And so what I would do is I would have my students take this, and I would go to great pains to make it truly anonymous. So I made everybody do a checkmark and not a big X and not a square, and everybody used pencil, and then we would go outside, and we would shuffle all the papers and pass them out. And then we would step in, step out to show who did it. So how many people have been part of an unwanted pregnancy? And we’d have… so I’d say then when we’re talking about reproductive rights, remember, it’s not those people, it’s people in this class. How many people have a family member who’s undocumented? Okay, when we’re talking about this, you need to keep it in mind. So it makes it really personal without outing people that, in this classroom, there are queer people. In this classroom, there are parents. In this classroom, there are people who have been to prison. And so we do that. And then I did a version of the opportunity walk. I know that there are mixed responses to the opportunity walk, but the version that I use starts with basically what we call ascribed statuses in sociology, so the things you can’t control. And so when they get to a certain point, I say “Now stop, look around, these are the things you had no control over.” And I talk about, as a Black woman, I’d be kind of back there in the back as well. And then we talk about the things that they have control over: education, those types of things, speaking up, being an ally, that’s an important one, because that starts to push you back again. And so we look at that. And we end that, and I say, “I want you to think about, again, where you were, it has nothing to do with you. So therefore, when we’re talking about privilege, it’s not about you, you didn’t tell the stork, ‘please bring me down to a rich white family,’ we have no control over any of these social categories that we’re born into. And so when we’re talking about that, then we’re trying to understand.” And then later on in class, I do another exercise called the “oops exercise,” again, talking about intersectionality. And pointing out that even if you’ve got privilege, if you’re white, male, heterosexual, well educated, at some point you were young, and therefore you were oppressed by age, and we like you enough that we want you to live long enough to be oppressed again by age, right? So even the most privileged people experience oppression in at least one category. And so those are the ways that I tried to make it a space where both we can share our own stories, and where we understand that privilege. While it’s challenging, and while we want to think the world is fair, it really isn’t. And we have to look at how we have privilege without it being a personal failing.

John: What other suggestions do you have for creating a more inclusive classroom environment where everyone is part of the class and where everyone’s voice is taken seriously and is heard by the class?

Celeste: I think it’s a balancing act. And I think it depends a lot on the identities or the perceptions of the faculty person themselves. So as a Black person, as a big Black woman, I find it necessary (and luckily, it’s part of my typical approach anyway) to use a lot of humor to make myself seem approachable. And it’s very frustrating because I used to co-teach with a guy who called himself my token old white guy, and he was an English professor. And I would say something about sociologically sound principles that are from my discipline that are scientifically proven, and students would go “well, I don’t …:.” and then he would say the same thing as a frickin English professor, and they would go “Yes, you’re right.” And it’s frustrating. But [LAUGHTER] the reality is, that’s the way it works. So sometimes I do that, sometimes I use my colleagues that way. And sometimes I’m that way, as a cisgender, straight woman, then I provide that added, “It’s not the chip on my shoulder” when I’m talking about issues affecting the queer community. So I think that’s important. I also think it’s really important to listen to your students. I have yet to find a school that has student surveys that address what I want to learn. So I create my own. And then I have students give them back, I have them give them back on the last day of school where I like to be done. So their grades are done on the last day of school. And so this won’t affect your grades. I’m going to give you your grades in a minute. And you can be completely honest, and what would make this class more comfortable for you? And I change my classes based on that feedback. And when you work for a while in one institution, then students tell them and so the feedback at my former institution, students either loved me or hated me. And the ones that loved me were like, “She’s awesome. She’s funny. She does really cool stuff. But she don’t take no crap. So don’t go in there and try to BS her and don’t be late, because she won’t take it.” And then the other ones are like, “Oh, she’s so hard.” Yeah, because I don’t take late work, because I’m trying to also prepare you for real life.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways that you design assignments to make them more personally relevant to students?

Celeste: Oh, yes. One of the things that was really interesting when I started graduate school was I started a minor in a certificate for college teaching. And I was like, “Oh, this will be an easy minor. I’ve been teaching college for quite a while now, so I’m good.” But part that really helped me was designing effective writing assignments. And I saw such a difference when I stopped having students write a paper and started having them do things like write a letter. So in my race class, I would have students, instead of writing a paper explaining to me privilege and intersectionality, I would have them write a letter explaining to someone in their lives, privilege and intersectionality. And if you looked at my website, some of my students did some amazing, amazing letters. And they were students that I wasn’t, in some cases, expecting that type of understanding. But when they’re explaining it, using their experiences is very different than how I explained it. But not only are they showing their understanding, they are teaching me other ways to reach other students. And so I found that very, very helpful. And part of what I do is I build reflection into all of my written assignments. So, what did you learn? How will it help you? Because my argument to students is that sociology is something that they can use no matter what their end goal is in life, you can always interact with people better. And so how will this help you in your civic life? So those are some of the ways that I try to make it more relevant to students.

Rebecca: It’s amazing how a small shift in the frame of a writing assignment can make all the difference, that content is really not any different. It’s just framed in a different way.

Celeste: Yeah. Because when you say it’s not a paper, and you say it’s a letter, then they start to write from their own, instead of trying to regurgitate what I said. When I say it’s a paper, they think I want to hear me, and I hear me talk enough. [LAUGHTER] So I really want them to show me their perception. So, to me, that was the most powerful change I’ve ever made.

Rebecca: Audience matters, for sure.

Celeste: Oh, yes.

John: Much of your work now is in faculty mentoring and faculty development. Could you tell us a little bit about your roles there?

Celeste: Sure. So once I started to feel that I was losing my empathy for students [LAUGHTER] and getting very frustrated in teaching… especially, it’s hard to teach online about race and hot topics, because they don’t really see you as a human being. And they feel really empowered to say things that they wouldn’t say, especially to my face, but they wouldn’t say in a class. And in a classroom setting, first of all, students will call each other out. So I don’t always have to be that person. And second of all, I can revert to: “Hello, we’re going to treat each other with respect, we agreed to this, we wrote a contract about it, we have community agreement.” It’s much more challenging to do that online. And so I began to feel like it was taking too much out of me to try to teach about these in a fully remote setting as I was during the pandemic. At the same time, I was working as a graduate assistant, paying for my tuition, and I happened to land a job in the Office of Instruction and Assessment. And I started to learn about faculty development as a career, which I really didn’t even know existed. And I began to think that is something that I can do. I’d been department chair, I’d been mentoring new faculty, I had done a lot of workshops on time management and classroom management. And so I began to shift my ideas into that was what I wanted to do. At the same time, I was working full time, working at least two jobs, because I was also a graduate assistant, sometimes three or four, and a single mom to a four year old when I started graduate school, and having some challenges with a cohort of students that were half my age who had very different ideas about social justice than I did, like we both wanted the same end result, but had very different ideas about how to go about it and was feeling very isolated and made a friend. And after a couple of years, where both of us sort of mentored each other, we both ended up in assistant director positions. And we started to think about the power of our relationship and how we could help people find that in a less organic way. Because it just happened to be magic. It just happened to be she worked in the office, she had really cool artwork, I walked in and asked about it. And when you see us together, you see this big Black lady and this little… she looks 12, but she’s not… and she’s got blue hair, and people are like, “How are y’all friends?” But at the core, we’re both about helping people. We’re both about social justice. We’re both about making the systems better. And so we bonded in a lot of ways, and we help each other in a lot of ways. And we actually complement each other in a lot of ways. For example, I hate rewriting and I would have not published all those chapters if it weren’t for the fact that she loves editing. So I would write it, she would edit it, and then I would fix it. And that’s how I got through. And we collaborated on a lot of things. And so we had been sort of building out this framework around peer mentoring, and how can we create, systemically, an environment where people could find their sort of match. And during that time, they were also, in the Office of the Provost, hearing that mentoring needed to be focused on and talking about creating a mentoring Institute. So she encouraged me to apply for this position, it’s a brand new position. And so I, in November, received this position, which is Assistant Director of Faculty Mentoring initiatives. And my main goal is to facilitate the creation of the MENTOR Institute. And I like acronyms. So MENTOR is actually an acronym for Mentorship through Effective Networks, Transformational Opportunities, and Research. And that’s really what we want to create. We want to create a place where we share social justice minded inclusive best practices about mentoring, and where both faculty and students and hopefully, eventually staff, will be able to do training and expand their knowledge and do research about mentoring best practices.

Rebecca: Sounds like a really great opportunity to start something new, but something that’s so needed in so many institutions. The mentorship piece is crucial for people, but also it’s so not facilitated. [LAUGHTER]

Celeste: Well, what we found is it’s just very different. In a huge R1 Institution, each college does things their own way. And so what we want to do is synergize and illuminate the great work that’s already been done. We have pockets of really excellent mentoring, and then to help facilitate for those who are going: “Yes, we need to institutionalize this, but we don’t know where to start.” And so it’s been really interesting. It’s been fun. It’s been a lot of work. [LAUGHTER] I’m currently working on our first workshop that’s going to premiere in fall, when everyone comes back, on mentoring practices. And I’m also conducting focus groups with graduate students to sort of understand what’s going well, and where we can fill in those gaps.

Rebecca: Sounds like really important and exciting work, but definitely work nonetheless. [LAUGHTER]

John: Do you have any other reflections on your work on the Picture a Professor project,

Celeste: I just want to say a couple of things. One is that I really hope that people will take the time to look at this book, because I think that part of what’s needed for the culture shift in academia is a shift in how we picture a professor, what a professor is. I spend a lot of time with people going, “where’s the professor?” It’s me. Hello, I’m the professor. And I also want to encourage people who are in graduate school to look for these types of publishing opportunities. I’m still working on my first sort of solo first-author publication in a peer-reviewed journal. I was part of the task force for the American Sociological Association, where we focused on contingent faculty. And as that I earned a first-author credit just because my last name starts with “A,” but I found it really challenging in any other ways to publish in peer-reviewed articles. However, I published three or four chapters of my dissertation by looking for edited anthologies that were coming out in the area that I was publishing. It’s still peer reviewed. It may not carry as much weight, but for me, it was a little bit more of a user friendly way to learn how to publish, to learn how to do rewrites, to learn how to do those multiple versions of wait a minute I thought I was done with this… [LAUGHTER] until it gets accepted, and it builds your CV. So I wish someone had told me that. I just happened to luck into it. And once I got my first chapter, then I started looking for other chapters. So that’s some advice that I wish someone had given me.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for all that you’ve shared with us. We always wrap up by asking, what is next?

Celeste: Well, I’m gonna be 100% honest, because I found bringing my authentic self was the only way to do it. And literally what is next for me is an epic road trip with my daughter.

Rebecca: That sounds awesome.

Celeste: She’s been a trooper for four years while I was in graduate school. She’s been a trooper for two years of a pandemic. And my little extrovert [LAUGHTER], who was stuck at home with just me and her. And I’m pretty much an introvert. So we are going to go on a road trip for two and a half weeks across seven states. And we are going to work on my bucket list, which is I want her to see all 50 states with me before she goes to college. So we’re working on breaking that down. And then professionally, it’s our first workshop. And we also facilitate faculty development communities for promotion. And we are looking into creating some sort of grad student communities in the fall as well. So, that’s what’s next for me.

Rebecca: That sounds like lots on the horizon. Have a wonderful road trip. That sounds wonderful.

John: It does. And thank you for joining us. It’s been great talking to you and we’re looking forward to sharing this episode with our listeners.

Celeste: 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.


253. Designing for Trauma

 Universal Design for Learning principles were developed to make our courses more accessible for all students. In this episode, Andrea Nikischer joins us to discuss how universal design principles can be expanded to address the trauma that can adversely impact student learning. Andrea is an Associate Professor and Program Coordinator for the Adult Education Program in the Social and Psychological Foundations of Education Department at SUNY Buffalo State.

Show Notes

  • Nikischer, A. B. (2021). Universal Design for Trauma.
  • Nikischer, A. (2018). Life after# MeToo: Understanding the impact of adolescent sexual assault on education and career. International Journal of Learning, Teaching and Educational Research, 17(10), 86-98.
  • Horsman, J. (2013). Too scared to learn: Women, violence, and education. Routledge.
  • Horsman, Jenny (2006). “Who will hear? Who will see? The Impact of Violence on Learning: A Historical Journey.” Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme. Ending Woman Abuse, Vol. 25 No. 1.
  • Horsman, Jenny (2005). Moving Beyond “Stupid”: Taking Account of the Impact of Violence on Women’s Learning The International Journal of Educational Development, Gender Equality in Adult Education, Vol. 26, Issue 2.
  • Nikischer, A. (2019). Vicarious trauma inside the academe: Understanding the impact of teaching, researching and writing violence. Higher Education, 77(5), 905-916.


John: Universal Design for Learning principles were developed to make our courses more accessible for all students. In this episode, we examine how universal design principles can be expanded to address the trauma that can adversely impact student learning.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Andrea Nikischer. Andrea is an Associate Professor and Program Coordinator for the Adult Education Program in the Social and Psychological Foundations of Education Department at SUNY Buffalo State. Welcome, Andrea.

Andrea: Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s great to be here.

John: Right before this. We were talking a little bit about this, and you were a student here. So welcome back.

Andrea: Thank you. I loved my time at Oswego State, and I still have my mug and my sweatshirt in my office at Buffalo State. So it’s great to continue being part of the SUNY family.

Rebecca: It’s so great to have you here. Today’s teas are:… Andrea, are you drinking tea?

Andrea: I am. I actually love tea. And today….

Rebecca: Yay!

Andrea: …I’m drinking my regular afternoon tea, which is a double green matcha from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: Nice. And I noted like a really beautiful mug.

Andrea: I am an avid tea drinker since I was in my teens. So it’s wonderful to be able to talk about tea… one of my favorite subjects.

Rebecca: it looks like a mint colored mug with, is it butterflies?

Andrea: They are birds, birds of peace, I think is the theme of the mug.

Rebecca: Awesome.

John: And I am drinking a ginger tea.

Rebecca: And I have English breakfast today.

John: And next time you’re on campus, stop by the CELT office where we have over 100 teas available.

Andrea: Oh, I’d love to.

Rebecca: …always welcoming tea drinkers.

John: We invited you here to talk about the presentation that you gave at the SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology. Rebecca was able to attend that… I wasn’t able to because I had to be in another session at the time. So this is a chance for me to catch up a little bit on that and so that we can share this more broadly. Your presentation was titled Universal Design for Trauma. Maybe we should start by talking about how prevalent trauma is.

Andrea: That is a really great and, I think, complicated question. I actually have been working with trauma since really right out of my undergraduate degree at Oswego. And I started work at a rape crisis center. And I worked in the sex offense squad of a police department as a victim’s advocate. And my interest, when I moved into education, was in studying the impact of trauma on educational outcomes and what I call the life pipeline or career and life trajectories. But when I wrote this paper, it was 2019 in the fall, before COVID, before we knew what was coming. And at the time, we were really looking at statistics, around 70% of adults in the US will have experienced trauma at some point in their life. Obviously, depending on what age group we’re talking about, the statistics will be different, but over the course of the life around 70%. Now, today, post COVID with the extreme increase in gun violence and mass shootings, with a televised violent attack on the US Capitol, with a war, climate disasters, and crisis, I think it’s really difficult to measure what the true number is, and that, indeed, the best response is to assume that close to 100% of the population has dealt with some form of trauma in their life, and certainly through the global pandemic and more recent crises. As I’m sure you know, here in Buffalo, we had a white supremacist mass shooting, towards the end of the semester. Our students live and work in that community. And so for us in returning to school in the fall, we will certainly be treating the situation as if every student has a history of trauma.

Rebecca: You and others have investigated the impact of trauma on academic outcomes. Can you talk a little bit about this research?

Andrea: Absolutely. There’s a fairly large body of quantitative research in Europe, as well as some studies here in the US, showing a clear, significant negative relationship between trauma and academic outcomes. Trauma is interrupting the academic process leading to lowered academic success or achievement, as well as lowered career status or career achievement. And really, some of the research can show that over the course of a lifetime, we’re seeing actually a significant reduction in earnings. So you’re seeing the sort of interruption points when trauma is experienced during youth and adolescence that is interrupting the educational outcomes. So if we’re seeing that trauma before age 16, some of the studies before age 18, or 21, we’re seeing that interruption during adolescence, during emerging adulthood, that really important period between 18 and whenever you become an adult, which, you know, can vary based on who you are, but usually we’re looking at 18 to 29 and beyond. That’s the most important sort of period for setting up your future career and earnings. So when we see trauma happening before or during that period, we’re seeing the most significant impact on educational outcomes, career outcomes, and again, lifetime earnings. I conduct qualitative research. And so I’m building on the work of Jenny Horsman from Canada and other researchers who’ve studied, through qualitative methods, the direct impact on education. She has really terrific work, “Too Scared to Learn,” and my research validates and extends her previous work showing that, specifically sexual violence, makes it extremely difficult to learn, work, complete assignments, engage in the educational experience during adolescence or emerging adult. And, so my participants were raped or sexually assaulted as a child or as a teenager. And we really went through how that process impacted their educational trajectory. And the results are just very significant in terms of how they describe the change in their relationship with schooling after the sexual assault. So you have students who are honor students, all As, dropping to Cs, Ds, Fs, and really nobody asking about trauma. What is going on here? Lots of questions, but nobody getting the key question of was there a trauma? …and specifically was there a sexual assault or sexual violence? The last piece of that point is that, for my participants, we are talking about a significant change to their engagement with schooling. And one of the most famous, or I should say, one of the most moving quotes from my research, which has been published in a few different areas. One of my participants said, “I go to school, and they want me to know about the first, second, third President, but I don’t care about the first, second and third President, I’m thinking about going home to slit my wrists, schooling just doesn’t have importance anymore.” And so I had participants who spoke about having commitment to schooling, wanting to go to Ivy League schools, wanting to have really significant career aspirations. And then after the sexual assault, just completely focusing on an eating disorder. Schooling was replaced by this unhealthy mechanism for dealing with trauma. So, right now, trauma is widespread. And we don’t know yet what the long-term impacts will be for the students of the COVID pandemic, for the students dealing with widespread school shootings and fear of mass shootings. But we have a clue from the previous research that there are serious risks to long-term educational outcomes and career achievement and earnings.

Rebecca: There’s been a lot of conversation during the pandemic about digital accessibility and universal design for learning to address students with disabilities and mental health has certainly come more into that conversation. And you’ve proposed a universal design for trauma. Can you talk a little bit about what that framework looks like? And how that relates to Universal Design for Learning?

Andrea: Oh, yes, I’d be happy to. Let me start by saying I’m building off the amazing work done with universal design, starting with construction accessibility questions and moving into learning. And in fact, many scholars had previously tied trauma and mental health directly to accessibility concerns. I’m certainly not the first to make that connection. But I think I was in a great position having the experience working in trauma as a rape crisis counselor, and then moving into education, teaching 100% online for the last 10 years, having that sort of perspective, both worlds. For me, universal design is all about making sure that all of our students can fairly and successfully participate in learning. And so we’ve done a lot of work thinking about accessibility in a variety of different settings, but not much had been done in terms of asking questions about trauma. For my work as a rape crisis counselor, and through my research with survivors of trauma often was discussed that students would struggle in particular scenarios in their education. So a universal design builds on this great previous work of Universal Design for Learning, and focuses specifically on addressing the needs of students with a trauma history. Like all forms of universal design, this benefits everyone. So even if you don’t have a trauma history, sometimes you may experience distress if content is presented in a way that is not thoughtful, and that content has the ability to cause distress among the students. So trauma triggers are something we talk a lot about in the trauma field, and certainly is a major issue of concern in educating students with a history of trauma. Trauma triggers are really very personal typically. So it might be a site, a smell, a song, something that brings you back to that trauma. But there are some content areas that are universally considered universal triggers or universally triggering: content on war, content on sexual assault, sexual violence, content on suicide. These content areas can even cause distress in students without a trauma history. So universal design is certainly focused on students with a trauma history, but has the ability to make the learning environment more successful for everyone, healthier for every student.

Rebecca: In your framework, you lay out five principles for universal design for trauma. Can you give us a little insight into those five principles?

Andrea: Yes, I can. So these are the five things that I focus on in my work. So there are certainly other things that I think can and should be brought into the conversation. But for me, the five things that I really focus on when building a course, address what I think are some of the most important concerns for students. So I should say, I teach courses on sexual assault and family violence and other areas that are potentially universally distressing. And so I started building this concept of universal design, probably 10 years ago, in what I call “teaching sensitive topics online.” I did a lot of presentations and writing and professional development about teaching sensitive topics. But universal design goes beyond that to say that every class has the potential for triggering past trauma. So it’s not just those courses teaching sensitive topics, but all courses. And one of the reasons I moved into a more universal focus was because a lot of my students in my courses who were not being taught anything potentially distressing, were disclosing violence to me in personal journals, and other assignments, in large part because they knew my professional history and research area, but also because trauma can be triggered outside of those universals. But let me talk a little bit about those pieces that I’ve included in a universal design for trauma. And the first one is strategic content planning. So the first question educators must ask themselves: is this trauma content central to the learning objectives of the course or program? So when we are teaching a course, truly any course, the first thing we want to do is scan that course to see if there is any potentially distressing content included. And again, we’re looking for those universal trauma triggers: war, violence, violent imagery, sexual assault, police violence, etc. So the first step is really to say, is there anything in this course that could trigger trauma? And the next step is to say, if it’s here, does it need to be here? I’m very concerned about the what I call gratuitous inclusion of trauma content. I am a dedicated proponent of academic freedom. I never want to tell any faculty member what they should teach or what they can teach, but I do encourage faculty to take a close look at all materials they use that have the potential to be distressing and/or trigger past trauma and to ask themselves, is this content necessary in this course? Is it directly linked to the student learning outcomes? Is it the best possible resource to use in this course? I teach courses on family violence. The entire course is potentially triggering, I cannot remove that material, nor should I. It is directly linked to the student learning outcomes. So it’s going to stay in the course. But I’ve had other courses where I’ve wanted to include something. One example would be my diversity course, where I’ve had materials included and I’ve had to go back and reconsider if it is the right way to approach the material we’re covering in the course. Even if the materials linked to the student learning outcomes, it’s asking, Do I need to include this potentially distressing, potentially triggering, content in the course, that’s step one. And then if we do need to include it, we move on to another step, or how to deal with that. But I’m very concerned about just including a story about incest in a certain community, because we like the story, and then not really thinking about how the trauma of that story may impact the learning in the course, because we don’t want our students learning to be stifled because they have been triggered or are experiencing distress. So it’s really about the thoughtful process of selecting materials that are directly linked to our student learning outcomes, and not including any gratuitous.

Rebecca: So for folks that aren’t typically teaching topics that would be universally triggering, this first step is the key one for them to focus on?

Andrea: Well, yes, I mean, it’s the beginning. I think they’re all key in their own way [LAUGHTER]. But this one is most closely linked to our step on content and trigger warnings, which is an important part of the process. But I do think this is one that opens a lot of faculty’s minds to what is going on in their own course. A lot of faculty members, if they are not explicitly teaching a course on a sensitive topic may not be doing the thoughtful review of content to sort of find where there may be the potential for trauma or stress. So this is definitely a universal step that applies to all faculty members teaching all courses, both those with trauma content, and those that do not focus on a trauma topic.

John: A while ago, I ran into a situation where I had a reading in my introductory microeconomics class that looked at the marginal cost and marginal benefits of trying to improve safety on airlines by adding additional exit doors and such things. What I didn’t realize was that I had a student in the class whose father had just been shut down in the Gulf War, just a week or so before that. And ever since then, I’ve been much more careful in selecting material that might have that sort of an impact, because it was something I had not considered and it had not been an issue before, until it was.

Andrea: That is such a great point. And even I, who have been working in this issue of teaching sensitive topics for so long and thinking about trauma, have found that in the courses that don’t focus on a sensitive topic, I’m more likely to not be as thoughtful about the potential impact of materials. Thank you for sharing that example. Very relevant.

Rebecca: So I think the second principle in your framework is trigger and content warnings.

Andrea: Yes, and step two, the second principle is really connected, obviously to the first step or principle in that, if we have identified content that has the potential to trigger past trauma or cause distress, then we need to include the trigger and/or content warning. I actually did a project on trigger warnings, a research project around 2018. And you may remember 2015-16, there was a lot of heated debate about trigger warnings: Are we coddling students? Are we dumbing down the curriculum? Are we violating academic freedom? And where I landed on that in this research project was that this in no way requires a faculty member not to teach something. It simply is a matter of accessibility for their students. By telling your students in advance that something potentially triggering or distressing is coming, you give them the opportunity to prepare for that learning. When a trigger comes out of the blue, when you’re not expecting it, that is one of the most high risk times for having a negative reaction or a negative trauma response. So it doesn’t require faculty to change what they’re teaching or to eliminate rigor in any way. It simply allows students to know in advance that the content may be challenging to them in some way. So it was great that I was able to do that research project before this. And in fact, several scholars who were on the… it really was a debate… many of the papers were written as a debate. Many of the scholars on the side of the pro-trigger warning debate linked it directly to accessibility. And so I was able to sort of build from their wonderful work and from the arguments they made in that 2015-16-17 trigger warning debate. So what is a trigger warning? What is a content warning? it does not need to be complicated. I train the medical students at the University at Buffalo in family violence identification and reporting. And my number one takeaway is do not overcomplicate, it does not need to be complicated. All you need to do is say, we are going to be talking about, reading about, watching a film on, whatever the activity is, a topic that could be distressing to some students, please know that this content is coming. And then I always refer them back to the resources on campus and in the community. It can be one sentence, a simple heads up to let students know this may be distressing content. And if you’re on YouTube, or Twitter or Tik Tok, you’ll see actually a lot of these videos and imagery is now labeled with those really quick trigger and content warnings. Just a sentence is fine. Again, you’re just letting the student know: it’s coming, I don’t want to catch you off guard.

John: The next point in your framework for universal design for trauma is what to do about those situations where there may be some content that will be triggering for people. And what do you suggest in those cases?

Andrea: So my next step, or principle, whatever we want to call it, is alternative readings and assignments. So I always encourage faculty who are teaching particularly courses that are focused on sensitive material, but even those that include some unit or smaller section, with potentially distressing or triggering material to set up, where possible, alternative readings and assignments. So I’ll give you some examples of what I do. In my course on family violence, the whole course is potentially triggering. I cannot remove every reading and assignment. But I am very thoughtful about how I approach the work in that course. For example, we read a autobiography, which describes the experience of a sexual assault during college and the long-term impact on that woman’s life, including drug addiction, recovery, and moving on through the phases of her life. I like this book, because it shows the long-term impact in a narrative way. As a qualitative researcher, i love those narrative data. But there is one chapter in the text, which is an extremely graphic description of the stranger rape. And so I label this reading ahead of time, I tell students before the course begins, before they have bought their books, on the reading calendar, and in several locations. You do not need to read this chapter. This chapter is distressing, it is potentially triggering, and you don’t need to read it to get the value of the text. It is a chapter you can eliminate without any repercussion to your learning about this topic. So, in that case, we’re still reading the book, but we’re taking out the most distressing part of the text and I always make it optional. And a key point of any alternative reading or alternative assignment is that it has to be universal. You cannot ask a student to come to you to seek an accommodation. We do not want to force a trauma survivor to come to us to disclose their trauma, to seek an alternative reading or assignment. Please don’t do that. It needs to be built in… that universal design, right? That is the whole concept of universal design, is it is built in for everyone. So that optional chapter is optional for everyone, it does not matter what their trauma history is. And in that same course for the final assessment, which is really the big culminating assessment for the course, I allow the student to choose from five different options: a research paper, a book review, a lesson plan, a community service experience, or creating a domestic violence workplace protocol. I do this because it gives students choice and agency over how they will engage in a very time consuming way with content that is potentially triggering. So if one of my students is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, they may be very comfortable creating a domestic violence workplace protocol, that material may not be triggering to them in the same way that forcing them to write a paper about childhood sexual abuse would be. Perhaps they want to write a paper on elder abuse… also fine. We’re allowing them to decide, for them, what is the best, healthiest way for me to engage with this content? And how will I be most successful. And I can tell you as a faculty member that grades many, many graduate papers, having a variety of different projects come in every semester is a benefit for me too. It makes that grading process much more interesting. And students love it. And it is very closely linked to Universal Design for Learning which values choice for students. And in adult education, we value that self-directed learning and giving students the agency to really tie their work to what’s important to them in their career or personal life.

Rebecca: You mentioned earlier about providing access to campus and community resources as one of your key steps. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Andrea: Absolutely, and that is step or principle four. I am extremely focused on this. And I really tell faculty everywhere I go, I tell faculty, I do this and ask them to do this. And I show them my Blackboard course site. And in all of those Brightspace meetings, I’m asking where can I put my campus and community resources. I build campus resources and community resources. It has to be both. Some students will never see assistance on campus. Many students who’ve experienced trauma do not want to relive that trauma where they go to school, where they work, and they would rather seek services off campus. You have to provide both campus and community resources so the student can select what is best for their needs. But I build in those campus and community resources on my syllabus, of course, but also right on my Blackboard course page, soon to be Brightspace. I put them in the left-hand navigation bar at the top, they are front and center in every single course that I teach. And in the post COVID world, not post-COVID, but world after COVID came, students really need these resources. We’re finding at Buffalo State, as I’m sure you are at Oswego, that the student needs for crisis intervention and mental health counseling and support are extensive. So it’s been very well received by my students. And I just build it in, make it a priority. Every time you log on, you can see that there is help for you should you need it. This is also important for me because I have worked in the field as a crisis counselor doing crisis intervention, doing street outreach and advocacy. But I am not a counselor at Buffalo State. And I cannot counsel my students at Buffalo State, it would be unethical for me to try to take on that role. So I want to make sure my students can go to someone that can provide those services to them. And so before they try to come to me to seek those services, which I cannot ethically provide, I’ve made sure they know where they can go. And if they come to me, I listen and refer, listen and refer. That is my role as a faculty member. F aculty cannot and should not be providing counseling,

Rebecca: Such good reminders. I think often when faculty are thinking about trauma, they’re thinking this is not a thing I can take on. I’m not qualified. I don’t have this expertise. But the reminders that the job here is to refer and to provide those resources is a really helpful one.

Andrea: Yes, absolutely. It can be scary to think about opening the can of worms and that’s the phrasing the survivors in my research study used particularly related regarding their K through 12 teachers thinking maybe they didn’t want to ask me questions about if I was a survivor because they didn’t want to open that can of worms. They didn’t know how to deal with it. But a faculty member’s role is to listen and refer. We are not counselors, and even though I am qualified, it would be unethical for me to attempt to do that in that role.

Rebecca: I remember from your presentation that you also talked about having students reflect on a self- care plan to make sure that they have actions that they can take in case they did become distressed. Can you talk a little bit about that? And does that relate to this step?

Andrea: Yes, it does, thank you.

Rebecca: I took good notes. [LAUGHTER]

Andrea: Thank you so much. Yes, a self care plan is critical. All of my students do a lot of work with personal journals. As an online instructor, I find that journaling is a great way for me to have a one-on-one conversation with my students in a safe and private space. And so the first journal entry in every course every semester is setting your goals and objectives for the course. What do you hope to learn? How will you know you’ve learned it? What do you need from me to be successful in this course? And then I include the question: please create a self-care plan for the semester. How will you take care of yourself if you encounter distressing content, or distressing situations in this course, and in that personal journal, the students can begin to build that self-care plan. I can comment on that plan, remind them of those campus and community resources and be sure that they have thought in advance about what they will do if they experience distress or trauma.

Rebecca: Is that something that you recommend for courses that might not be those sensitive topics?

Andrea: Yes, many semesters, I have more disclosures in courses with no focus on trauma content, but perhaps we are talking about K-12 schooling and a student is brought back to an incident of bullying. And they’ve been triggered by content that was not directly related to bullying, or a potentially triggering topic, but they were brought back in time, and in so doing, they experienced dis stress. I do it in every course. I recommend everyone do it in every course universally, because it is an easy step. And again, our students, particularly right now, are experiencing so much in the world that a self-care plan is, I think, extremely valuable for everyone in every course.

John: And the last principle you list is instructor protections. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Andrea: Absolutely. This is one of my passion projects is thinking about and talking about the impact of teaching, researching, and writing trauma on a faculty member. So I’ve written about my own experience with vicarious and secondary trauma in an article “Vicarious Trauma Inside the Academe” published in the journal Higher Education. It’s an autoethnography that really goes through a process of discovering I was experiencing secondary traumatic stress, and learning how to deal with that in my various roles, certainly starting with my work as a rape crisis counselor, but then experiencing it again when I was interviewing and transcribing those long and painful qualitative interviews from survivors of sexual assault, and dealing with them. My role on campus as an expert and being asked to watch a film and comment on what to do. I often found myself in a situation where it was assumed that I would be fine just because of the role I have on campus or as a researcher, as a writer, whatever it may be, but a faculty member is not immune to the distress from the content they are teaching and from student disclosure, even in courses where I am not teaching trauma content, students disclose to me, they find me on campus, they come up to me at poster sessions, they seek me out because they know what I’ve done and what I do with my research. And so that has had an impact on me and I have tried to speak about it and advocate for faculty members taking care of themselves. In my scholarship, I really put it at a higher level. I think our campuses need to take care of their faculty members a little bit better than perhaps they have in the past. The world is changing. We are dealing with students with high levels of stress, distress. We are dealing with mass shootings in our community, with political instability, with a range of illnesses and viruses and global pandemics. It is not an easy time to be a faculty member. And it is not helpful to pretend that we are immune to feelings because we are not. And so I always talk to faculty about taking care of themselves. What is your self-care plan? Because for me, when I experienced that secondary traumatic stress, I couldn’t write. These journal articles took a lot longer than I wanted them to, because I just couldn’t go back to the material to repeat it again. It is difficult to do the work well, if you are not healthy, if you are dealing with stress, distress, or potentially vicarious or secondary trauma. And so, for me, that’s a big piece. This is, I would say, an exploding area of research. So, there is just myriad scholarship right now coming out around faculty members, instructors and teachers and their own experiences with trauma, secondary trauma and secondary traumatic stress. So there are many wonderful articles available for those faculty members who’d like to read more, and I am always available. If anyone ever wants to have a chat about teaching sensitive topics or about universal design for trauma or just dealing with trauma in our students and in the world, they are welcome to email me and I am always available to my friends in SUNY and beyond.

Rebecca: What are some things that you would recommend faculty think about for a self-care plan? I know this is something that’s on the minds of a lot of faculty having gone through a couple of years of teaching during a pandemic and really dealing with a lot of student disclosures.

Andrea: Absolutely a very pressing issue. I actually spoke at a professional development conference at Fredonia this winter break, which was 100% focused on self care: How do we take care of ourselves? How do we deal with this very chaotic world, very distressing world, stress and distress and trauma, when it doesn’t end, it really compounds. So if the COVID pandemic was over, we’d all be dealing with the potential distressed trauma and after effects of that, but we would be ideally moving forward and healing. It’s not over. It’s changing and growing and shifting, and we have no idea of what is coming next. That is really a dangerous situation when it comes to trauma. Because when the trauma is ongoing, we just don’t have the time to heal. So self care becomes that much more important. Things I think about: One, preparing yourself, doing a trigger warning for yourself for those weeks, months, days that you will be specifically dealing with trauma content in your course. Two, making sure you understand what your roles and responsibilities are. Many faculty members are not aware that they are a mandatory reporter on campus for sexual assault and for domestic violence. Many faculty members do not know about the campus care team or emergency response team. It is really important for faculty to educate themselves on what their roles are, their responsibilities are, and who is available to assist them. Faculty are not alone. And if they feel like they are alone, the threat of distress and trauma is much greater. But I know that when I get a disclosure, I first have to report it through the online system if it is a recent disclosure. I rarely get disclosures that are current. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had one where a student is currently experiencing sexual assault or domestic violence, though certainly, many faculty do receive these. I think it’s just a matter of teaching graduate students online. It’s a different setting, but I am prepared for those. And the first step for any disclosure, no matter when the incident was, is to report through your campus reporting system. And then I contact the care team and I often go directly to the dean of students to ask for help. What do I need to do here? Can you remind me about my legal obligation? I’ve given the student resources, what else can I offer the student? if I am at all concerned about suicidal ideation, I immediately involve the crisis response or care team to assist with that, knowing that I have a team of people behind me, that I can email the Dean of Students, and she will get right back to me is extremely helpful, because a really big threat is feeling like you are alone. So preparing for content in advance, understanding your roles, responsibilities, and who is on campus to help you, and then doing those things, which to you, are self care. Buffalo State has offered meditation courses just about one every two weeks. I have taken all of them. That’s something that is really helpful and useful to me. For other people, it may be exercise or reading a certain book or going to a friend’s home, whatever it is, that’s the personal piece. So you have the campus understanding and then the personal piece as well.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for sharing such really important content, especially as we head into the fall and faculty are nervous and anxious about what this next semester of pandemic might look like.

Andrea: Thank you for having me. And just the last thing I’ll say is that faculty should know that they are not alone, and that their distress, stress, or feelings of trauma are justified by the world that we are living in, and that no one needs to pretend they are above the humanity of the time that we’re living in. And so I hope your campus and all of the campuses across SUNY and beyond begin to really prioritize the mental and emotional health, not only of students, but of faculty and staff asd well.

John: I think that’s an issue that all of our campuses need to focus on. And it’s been a tough time out there for everyone. So thank you.

Andrea: Thank you.

John: And we always end with the question, and which is very much related, of “What’s next?”

Andrea: Well, what’s next? I’ll answer it in several ways. One, I think that we need to continue the conversation and really advocating for addressing trauma in our higher education classes. Research, every setting in higher education must become aware that trauma is here, it is in our society, it is impacting our students, it is impacting our faculty, and we cannot pretend it is not an issue of concern. So for me, I’ll be continuing to write about and advocate for trauma concerns being addressed in higher education. I am working on the online oversight committee at my campus, and I’m working with one of the instructional designers. We’ve talked a lot about creating more training opportunities for faculty members related to learning about trauma and addressing trauma in their courses and among their students. So I’m excited to continue that work as well. But ultimately, the world has changed, higher education has changed. We are never going back to the world that we had before. And so we have to adapt to those changes that have really come very quickly in the past few years. And so step one is sort of admitting that higher education isn’t going to be what it used to be, and that we are ready and willing and able to do what needs to be done to help our students be successful. Because I expect in the fall, we are going to have students with a myriad of very significant challenges. And we are going to have faculty who need to be prepared to help those students address those challenges.

John: And it is a positive sign that students are so much more willing to disclose their mental health concerns than I think they ever had been in the past that may make secondary trauma a little bit more challenging to address, but it does allow us to get support to students when it’s needed.

Andrea: Absolutely, absolutely. And again, really making sure faculty understand they don’t have to solve the students’ problems. That’s not your role. You are a teacher, your role is to listen refer and, where needed, to connect directly to those campus resources like your care team and your sexual assault response office.

Rebecca: Thank you so much.

Andrea: Thank you so much for having me. I love the opportunity to be back virtually on the Oswego campus and it was wonderful speaking with you both.


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

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


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.


251. Where’s the Professor?

Where’s the professor? Unfortunately, this is not an unfamiliar question on the first day of   class when a young-looking instructor is at the helm.  In this episode, Reba Wissner joins us to discuss ways of shifting student perceptions in order to get to the real work of learning. Reba is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the Schwob School of Music of Columbus State University. She is also the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor collection, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Brian Eno Oblique Strategies


John: Where’s the professor? Unfortunately, this is not an unfamiliar question on the first day of class when a young-looking instructor is at the helm. In this episode we discuss ways of shifting student perceptions in order to get to the real work of learning.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Reba Wissner. Reba is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the Schwob School of Music of Columbus State University. She is also the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor collection, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Reba.

Reba: Hi, thanks, nice to be here.

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

Reba: Kind of, I’m drinking a caffeinated seltzer, the Fuji apple and white tea.

Rebecca: Okay, I think this is a first, John.

John: I’ve had that actually. I got it at a Whole Foods in Durham, North Carolina. It’s very good. It’s one of my favorite iced teas.

Rebecca: How about you, John?.

John: And I am drinking a ginger tea now.

Rebecca: I have a jasmine black today, the new one that I’m trying.

John: So, we’ve invited you here to discuss the chapter you contributed to the Picture a Professor project. The title of your chapter is, “Where’s the professor? First-day active learning for navigating student’s perceptions of young professors.” Before we discuss this chapter, could you tell us a little bit about some of your initial first class day experiences as a new professor?

Reba: I remember the very first day that I started teaching. I was a second-year graduate student, and I was in an unusual position because when I was a graduate student at Brandeis, at the time, every department had to give a grad student to teach a writing section of a course. And so you were basically the instructor of record, and you’ve never taught anything, you’ve never TA’d, you just go in head first into shallow water, it can hurt real bad. But I remember the first day I was about 22 at the time, and I walk in, and I’m confronted with a bunch of college freshmen. And they are looking around and saying hello and talking to them. But they’re not really thinking much of it. And then I heard one student go, “Hey, look at the time, where’s the professor? Is she late?” And that’s when I realized, “Oh, they don’t realize that I’m the professor.” And so that’s when I had to take a step back and be like, “Hi, I am the professor.” And I thought it was a fluke. And it kept happening to me, which was really funny. And I remember the most recent time that it happened to me was about three or four years ago when I was teaching a graduate class. And one of the students in the graduate classes had had me as an undergrad, so they knew me, but the other graduate students didn’t know me. And we were sitting around the seminar table and the same thing happened.” The students just like “Where’s the professor?” and then the student who did know me started laughing. And I’m like, “Hi, I’m right here.” And [LAUGHTER] that’s where the the name of the chapter came from, where so many students just thought that I look too young to be a professor. They come in, especially as freshmen with this perception that the old guy with a white hair and the elbow pads and all of that other stuff, and maybe the pipe hanging out of their tweed jacket, and they don’t expect somebody who is in their 20s or 30s to be in front of them as the professor. And so for me, one of the things that I really had to start thinking about as it kept happening to me almost every semester for about a decade was how do I get the students to buy in? How do I get them to take me seriously? In the first semester that I taught I was 22 and they were like 18 year olds that were in front of me, and so not much of a big age difference. And like, how do I get them to realize that I’m in a position of power? …not in a bad way, but I am only about four or five years removed from you and I am the person who’s going to be teaching you and giving you grades. And I only at that point had a bachelor’s myself. And so it was a little bit of an awkward position. So that’s what got me started into thinking about what I have to do to get buy-in from my students.

John: In some ways that was similar to my own experience, you wouldn’t be able to tell that from looking at me now. But when I started teaching back in 1980, I did seem relatively young. And I was thrown into this with about maybe two weeks notice when a professor left suddenly, and I had never taught or been a TA before. And it was a bit of a shock for me and also probably for them, besides them not recognizing me as a professor at first, I was not at all prepared for this, I prepared a whole set of notes of what we were going to discuss that day. And I went through them at a speed that was just incredibly rapid with far less interaction than there should have been. But I settled in eventually. But my second time teaching was a master’s program, where I was the youngest person in the room by at least four or five years. And it was, again, a similar type of experience where they were very surprised that I was the professor.

Reba: And for me that particular first class was kind of interesting, because my degree is in music history. And the class that I was teaching was a writing section for a psychology class. I had never taken a psychology class before. And I only had about two weeks of training on writing pedagogy. And so that just made it worse in getting them to believe that I was somebody who could teach them. I had to kind of wing it, in some cases fake it, until I became more confident with that. So it just kind of compounded the situation.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s funny how many people really relate to these scenarios, being young faculty. I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years now and people will look at me and say, that’s not even possible, were you teaching when you were in kindergarten? {LAUGHTER}… I indeed have been, so I certainly relate, and I know many of our listeners do as well.

Reba: Yeah, I’ve been instructor of record for 16 years now. And I still get asked for my student ID, which is really kind of flattering, but also kind of amusing, {LAUGHTER}

Rebecca: Are some of these challenges greater for female faculty or faculty from minoritized groups, or faculty that just appear relatively young?

Reba: Absolutely, And we know from research that there’s a lot of biases that play into student perceptions of faculty. And we see this even in course evaluations, where male faculty don’t have the same comments that female faculty have, they are not ranked lower on certain things. Women are described using certain vocabulary that male faculty are not described using. And so I think getting students to take you seriously can be an issue. I think, also, and dare I say this, depending on the part of the country you’re in, it might be far, far more difficult, especially if you are faculty of color, if you are teaching, say, in the south, or somewhere in the really rural Midwest, getting someone to take you seriously. And it’s even more so if you are a female of color. Or if you are someone who doesn’t look in a particular way. So for instance, if you are non-binary, if you’re not as female presenting as your name might indicate, that might also be a barrier that students face in terms of taking you seriously. In talking with some of my colleagues who have started teaching roughly around the same age that I did, none of them had ever had a student comment on how young they look, which is really kind of interesting. So again, this notion that if you’re not playing into those expectations of what a professor should look like, that creates a little bit of an extra challenge, when you’re trying to set up expectations for an entire semester.

John: The title of your chapter mentions active learning exercises for the first day, what types of active learning exercises do you use on the first day of class?

Reba: So it depends on the particular course, the one that I discuss in the chapter is a petting zoo activity, which is a term I got from some friends of mine who do something very similar. One of the classes that I teach, and I’ve been teaching for a very long time, is the what we call Music History I, which is music history from the beginning of time. Where I am now it goes up to Mozart, when I was teaching it other places it was various different time periods, but it always included Medieval or Renaissance music. And this was also a barrier, it still is a barrier. Music History I tends to be the class that music students don’t want to take. Because they’re just like, “Why do I need to know about chant? Why do I need to know about church music? Why do I need to know about music that I don’t play? It’s just a class that I have to take, and I’m not really going to care about it.” And so that’s another level of buy-in that I have to get them to understand the importance of it. Even if you are a saxophone player, you need to know about the roots of music, and you need to know about musical style. And so usually that first class, what I do is I ask students, “Why do you need to take music history, other than the fact that you have to be here? …and I get some glazed over looks sometimes. And then some of the students are like, “Well, I need to know about issues of performance, practice, and style and things like that, but I don’t know why I need to know early music.” And so that gives me an opportunity to tell the students “Okay, we’re going to take a look at some of the objects that we’re going to look at and discuss this semester.” And so I use a really great worksheet that I think it’s the Library of Congress has provided on material objects. And I spread lots of things around the room, I have early musical instruments, I have chant books that use non-western notations. I use vellum, I use gut strings, which are not used on really any instrument now except for like harp, and lots of different objects that they probably have never seen before in their lives. And I put them around the room. And I put the students in small groups, and I say, “Okay, you’re gonna fill out one of these sheets for each of these objects. You’ve got about two to three minutes with your group to look at this object. Tell me what it is. What do you think it’s used for? How do you think it’s used? And what era do you think it was from? Give me a decade or half century or something like that.” And they go around in their groups, and you can see the amazement and the wonder in their eyes, especially when we see something that they’ve never saw before. Like they might look at an instrument that looks like a violin and they were a violinist, but they’ve never seen it before and they don’t realize that that is essentially the predecessor to their instrument and where their instrument came from. And so the best thing that happens in that is the students get very confused. And I love when they get confused because when they get confused, they start to think out of the box. And so it sets them up for the kind of out of the box thinking that I’m going to ask them to do throughout that semester. So that once the students have gone through the petting zoo, and I tell them, I encourage you to touch, feel, smell, don’t taste… probably a bad idea. [LAUGHTER] I do warn students of the materials that are made from animal products, in case there are students who are vegan who do not want to touch them, I will tell them to objects in that corner I made from animals. If you are a vegan or an animal rights activist, or just don’t feel comfortable touching animal products, you don’t have to touch it. But I want to give you the courtesy to let you know that that’s what that is. And that’s also another thing too for students is they like knowing that I care. And that even something as innocuous as “that’s made from animal skin, if you don’t want to touch it, you don’t have to” sets them up for knowing that. Once they’ve done all of that and filled out their sheets, we come back together and I ask them, “Okay, what did you all think of this object?”…and we go one by one, and we discuss what the object is. So that one, the subsequent classes, when we do active learning, they know that active learning is a part of the class. And it’s not just something I did for this fun little first day activity; two, it allows me to introduce the first day of the semester, the material that we’re working on so they get used to something that’s very, very unfamiliar; and three, it allows me to come back to those objects throughout the semester and say, remember, on the first day we looked at this chant book. So now we’re going to talk a little bit about this chant book, or remember, on the first day, we looked at this object, okay, yeah, now think about this object. This is something that is a predecessor of something else. And so it’s kind of a three-fold thing. But it also gets the students to take me seriously, because nothing says someone who knows what they’re doing, or in my case, nothing says nerd better than lots of old dusty objects.{LAUGHTER}

John: And you’re activating student curiosity and getting them engaged right from the beginning, and it sounds like a wonderful activity.

Rebecca: …even sounds like a little bit of prediction going on there as well.

Reba: …which is great for them, because then it gets them to think about what they know about music. And one of the things that really confuses them the most are the books, because they’re used to reading Western notation. They may have seen chant notation if they go to church, but chances are they’ve never seen Ethiopian Orthodox chant notation or Western Orthodox chant notation, or notation used for Indian Summer Vedas. And to get them to realize that there was notation on that page is something that is really wonderful. And then we can talk about things like why does notation work the way it works? It’s not the standard thing that everyone knows, it has different functions, depending on the music. And so I love getting them to think about where the notes might actually be, when to them, it might just seem like nothing but squiggles.

Rebecca: It also sounds like it stimulates a lot of curiosity for a class that maybe they started off thinking like, “I have no interest in this nonsense.” And then all the sudden they’re like, “But what is this thing? What does it do? How did it work? What does this say? What does this mean?”

Reba: But also the other thing too, is that it dispels a misconception. When we talk about music history classes, especially early music, the first thing that students think of is “Oh, my God, church music.” And so it gets them to think, “Yeah, we are talking a little bit about church music, but we’re not just confining to Western music. We’re looking at stuff outside of the Western art music canon, we’re looking at Jewish cantillation, we’re looking at all of these different musical styles that they might not otherwise learn about. And so they see from the very first day to that one, some of them are going to be represented in the curriculum, and two, it’s not just old, dead white men, or it’s not just the standard church history. It’s lots of different things. And I bring in lots of non-western examples throughout the semester, and on the first day, they get to see that it’s not just that, it’s a curriculum that is going to be diverse, and may pique their interest in a way that they didn’t think would. I remember one of the first times I actually did this exercise, I heard my students talking as they were walking out of the room, and one of the students said, “You know, this might actually just be an interesting class.” And I was just like “mission accomplished.”

Rebecca: …one, you win, you’re winning, winning,…

Reba: Yeah.

Rebecca: …so much winning. [LAUGHTER]

John: So now that you’ve won on this first day, how do you continue this? What other types of active learning activities do you do to keep that level of engagement and interest?

Reba: Oh, there are so many. One thing that I know I’ve learned from many years of teaching is that there are two things that college students love and those are colored pencils and Legos. [LAUGHTER] And I incorporate both into my classes. So we have for instance, there’s a type of Music called a isorhythmic motet that’s constructed in a very specific way. And I hand out the sheet music for a particular piece of music, and I put them in groups and I give them colored pencils. And I tell them, you are going to identify these three different components of the music using colored pencils. Or when I’m teaching something like Renaissance notation… and I always say that the best teaching ideas are ones that are stolen… this is something that I stole from colleagues in the K to 12 classroom who’ve started teaching western music note values using Legos, and using the number of dots on top of the Lego as the number of beats. In that particular note, I adapted that for Renaissance notation, because the hardest part of Renaissance notation is actually the rhythms, not the pitches, because by the time we get to the Renaissance, we have our five-line staff so that you know where you are, it’s just the rhythms. And so I have the students create a… what I call a piece of rhythmic polyphony… where I give them a standard flat Lego plate. And then I’ve taken a Sharpie and wrote the note values on the Legos. And I tell them, “You’re going to give me a two-part, three-part, four-part piece of rhythm, you’re going to figure out how it goes together.” and Legos are great for this because it’s immutable, and so if it doesn’t fit, right, they know it. And then they have to perform the rhythm for the class. So these are the kinds of things that I get students to do. I’m very interested in having the practical applications of music in music history, I always say that music, as long as it’s on a page is not alive. If you’re making it, it lives. And so getting the students to then apply their knowledge through things like music making is really, really important to me. And then they also get a sense of ownership, and it helps with retention. I can say whatever I want about Renaissance note values, but as soon as they’re trying to futz around with Legos and move and put it in various ways, and then actually have to perform it for the class, it gives it a whole new meaning, and then they understand.

Rebecca: I can imagine that in a class like music history, it’d be similar to maybe a class like art history or some other arts where students come with the expectation that lecture’s how we’re going to do this thing. This is how I’m going to have the Professor dump this information in my brain, I’m going to learn it the best if they are really charismatic and tell us great stories about history. And it doesn’t involve doing something with our bodies, or physically moving around. So do you come up against students who had hoped to perhaps be very passive listeners as opposed to actively engaged in the material? And then how do you get them to understand the research and understanding that active learning is the best way to learn some of this information.

Reba: That’s the challenge for me, is getting them to realize that they don’t learn as much as they think they learn when somebody’s speaking at them. And sometimes what I do is I use this in my chapter and I again stole this from someone “hiding the broccoli,” they don’t know what’s good for them, if you hide it, they don’t know it’s there, but it’s there, and so sometimes what I do is, I’d like to try and create a tiered system in my teaching, which I call: listen, see, act. So I tell you a little bit about the material. Now you’re going to watch some sort of a demonstration, or you’re gonna watch a video or something like that. And then the act is the actual active learning. So going back to the Lego example, I talked to them about the beginnings of music printing, and how the music note became the way they were. I show them a video of the printing and how it actually looks on the page and how the notation works. And then the act is actually doing it. And so sometimes what I’ll do is after the “listen” part, I will do something like a Kahoot!, where I’ll ask them questions and get their answers, and then I’ll do the same one after the active learning part. And then they realize that they actually performed better after doing the active learning part than they have after just listening. Do that a few times, point that out to them, and then they’re like, “Oh, yeah, this is kind of cool. This works. It’s not just her like not wanting to do her job. It’s actually helping me learn and retain information better.”

John: And the more of us who do that in our classes, the more likely that it is that students will buy into that, because that is a bit of a problem quite often in convincing students of the benefits of active learning approaches.

Rebecca: And really, that doing the active learning is our job to like set those things up in those activities. And in that design of that work, or that activity is the job of the instructor, rather than talking at students. [LAUGHTER]

Reba: When I finished my PhD and I was teaching the early music class, I make my students learn medieval notation, too. And that’s always kind of like, “Ew,” and I’m like, “You know what, it looks harder than it is. It has four lines instead of five. The hardest part is getting your brain to not put a fifth line there. Other than that, it’s easy,” and they’re kind of like “Uh…I don;t even want to know this.” So I had one student who was really balking about it and he came back for the second semester. And he came up to me and he’s like, “Doctor Wissner,” and he’s a clarinetist. He’s like, “I never thought I would ever need to know chant. But I went to a youth church music retreat. And the priest who was running it asked if anyone knew how to read chant notation, and I told them I did. And I wound up teaching everyone else how to do it. And I never thought I’d use it as a clarinetist. And I used it. And I’m still in shock.” [LAUGHTER] And I’m like, “See…” So getting them to also realize, you may never use this again in your life, but you might, and you might use it at unexpected moments, and having the experience of actually doing it, rather than having me talk at you makes a world of difference if you’re the one that’s actually going to be eventually using it.

John: you may want to get a video recording of that student to share with future generations, because that may not happen every semester.

Reba: Yeah, it actually hasn’t happened since but it’s something that I will always remember. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That is now the opening moment of every class.[LAUGHTER]

John: Are there any strategies that you use when you come up with new active learning exercises?

Reba: I think one of the most important things about active learning activities is that you have to make them unexpected. A lot of my most successful active learning activities were using conventional objects in unconventional ways. So, for instance, I like to use picture postcards in my classes to get students to think about things like performance of gender in music, or ethnocentrism in music, or I have a game of music theory Jenga, which I used with my students, where I asked them playing a regular game of Jenga, that what is different about this is that there’s a music theory question on each block. And they have to be able to answer that to get the points. And so the added layer was “okay, now you’re going to find a piece of music that uses this device,” and it got them thinking about the music that they know, and how the music works. And so not just saying, “Okay, we’re going to use this thing, and we’re going to use it in the way that you expect, we’re going to do something different with it.” And it also gives them the idea that not everything has one function. And so this is something that really comes into play, too when I have my students in the second semester bringing their instruments. We do an entire class on chant music. And so I have them use musical dice to create a piece of music, or I have them improvise using… Brian Eno, who probably many of you know, created a set of cards called Oblique Strategy cards. And it was, fun fact, a set of cards that David Bowie used when he was writing the Heroes album, and it has all of these very random things, I kind of liken it to fortunes that you find in fortune cookies that sometimes make absolutely no sense. So it will say “operate in reverse,” or the one that I absolutely adore, because it makes zero sense, especially in any context is “if peas increased virility, pour them down your pants,” like what do you do with that? But I have them select three cards from the deck and write a piece of music using what’s on those cards. And again, if I give you something that says, “Don’t do what you usually do,” and you have to use that, to write a piece of music, like what do you do with that or “use reverse operations?”…what do you do? And it gets them thinking about the process of writing music and then performing it. And students have always said to me after that class that they got to perform on their instruments in a way that’s not really acceptable in their ensembles or their studios. And they got to play around with their instruments and make music in a way that they typically don’t get a chance to. And so even just their instruments themselves, there was one student who, with one of those cards… it said something like “use something in an abnormal way,” and he was a trombonist, and he took that to just put the mouthpiece on his trombone slide and play it. And it’s like, I would have never otherwise thought to do that, until I started thinking about what this actually means.

Rebecca: I wonder if some faculty who might be listening, think, “Hmm, these sound really interesting and exciting, but I couldn’t possibly come up with one of these ideas myself.” [LAUGHTER] Do you have advice for how to design some of these unexpected active learning exercises or activities that you’ve been describing?

Reba: For many of these, believe it or not, they are complete accidents. It might be just me sitting in my office staring into space at the wall because my brain is so tired, and I come across something. That actually happened last semester, I keep a shelf of children’s books about underrepresented composers in my office, so that when I’m teaching students about that composer, I’ll bring in the children’s book so that the music ed students can see “Okay, there’s a book about this, maybe I might want to read it to my students.” I was teaching graduate bibliography and I was teaching my students about coming up with an argument for research. And my eye went over to that shelf and I’m like, “What if I took these books, and had students read them, and come up with an argument based on what that book is doing?” And so I experimented with it, it was a great class because I only had three students. And so I did a lot of experimenting in that class in ways that I might not be able to. But the students loved it. And they said, “You know, I thought that this was going to be easy, but it was actually really hard. “And I found that using children’s books for coming up with theses and argumentation and things like that, using something like a children’s book, which is easy to absorb, doesn’t take long to read, doesn’t have a lot of heavy vocabulary, works really, really well. And so a lot of the things that I’ve done over the years have come from just impulsive thoughts, like, what if I did this? What if I use that for that? So a lot of people would be surprised to know that most of my teaching techniques are not planned very far in advance. But I find that they work and I just keep using them.

Rebecca: And it sounds like you’re not afraid to experiment and try something. And I’m sure, like all of us, we’ve tried things and they’ve failed, [LAUGHTER] and you just try something else. And you don’t keep it next time.

Reba: Exactly. And I think that one of the, if I daresay advantages, of spending nine years as an adjunct is that I knew I had no job security. And so having a fear of experimenting, like if I try it and it fails, and they don’t renew me, cool. Now that I’m on the tenure track, and I’m still untenured, but having that fear dispelled that trying new things is not a bad thing, and if it flops it flops, has been really, really valuable for me. And the other thing, too, that was really helpful is that I had a lot of the same classes at multiple universities in the same semester. And so getting to try the activity on different populations of students was also really helpful because having a student at NYU is not like a student at Ramapo College or Seton Hall or Westminster Choir College or Montclair State University. And I was teaching the same class at all of those places at once. And so seeing how I might have to adapt it for different populations of students was also really helpful for me, too.

Rebecca: You should read an article about that.

Reba: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] I actually presented a paper on that a few years ago, at the teaching music history conference, It was called “One course, four ways.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting opportunity to really look at how our audiences really do impact how we need to teach or share or just adapt generally, I love that.

John: And you’re focusing on the students in the room, rather than this generic ideal student that you might have envisioned otherwise…

Rebecca: Exactly…

John: …It sounds like a great topic for a paper…

Reba: …Yeah

John: …or a podcast

Reba: Mm hmm, yeah [LAUGHTER].

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

Reba: I’m working on a few SOTLl studies, one I’m actually excited about, I’m excited about all of my SOTL work, but this particular one I’m really excited about, because I’m collaborating with two colleagues in STEM, so one in physics and one in computer science, because we all have probably a very similar problem in our disciplines is that there tends to be a particular demographic that we have trouble retaining, for whatever reason. And so we are looking at how can we better retain students of color and female students in both science and music classes? And for me, in the spring, I’m actually teaching a course on music encoding, which is basically like music computer programming notation, which I’m looking at for my students… kind of look at the students who are in the class and see… because coding scares people… and so what can we do in terms of support and scaffolding assignments that can help retain students of color and female students. So that I’m really excited about and kind of bridging the science/arts divide kind of STEAM, if you will. And another thing that I’ve been doing a lot of work on too, is supporting first-generation students. And so I’m looking at how we can continue to do that in the classroom, especially when students don’t disclose that they’re first gen because they don’t think it matters or it’s relevant, but giving them the proper support. So that’s just a couple of the things that I’m working on right now.

Rebecca: Sounds like exciting and important work, Reba.

Reba: Thank you.

John: And they sound like fascinating classes. I wish I could take one of your classes.

Rebecca: Yeah, Sign me up. [LAUGHTER] Well, thank you so much for joining us.

Reba: Thank you for having me.

John: It’s been a great conversation and we’re looking forward to sharing this with our listeners.


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.


250. Hacking Assessment

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

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

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

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

John: And I have spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: Well, that’s good.

Starr: Those both sound delicious, really.

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

John: I haven’t had any in a while…

Rebecca: true that…

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

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

John: I think so too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starr: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starr: Yep, sure does.

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

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

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

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

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

Starr: Awesome. Thank you so much.

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

Starr: Thank you.


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

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


249. Winning the first day

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

Show Notes

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


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Sheri Wells-Jensen and

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

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

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

Emily: and Sheri.

Sheri: Hello.

Emily:: Hello.

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

Emily:, are you drinking tea?

Emily:: I’m not, I’m drinking water.

John: And Sheri?,

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

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

John: And I have English breakfast today.

Rebecca: Before we get started talking about your chapter,

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

Emily:, do you want to start?

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

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


Emily:: Thank you.

Rebecca: How about you, Sheri?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheri: Yeah, I’m gonna agree with

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sheri: Here’s hoping. [LAUGHTER]

Emily:: That’s the goal.

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

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

Rebecca: Thanks for sharing that story,

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

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

Sheri: Yeah.

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

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

Rebecca: …sounds like a healthy balance of both.

Sheri: Yeah, absolutely.


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

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

Sheri: Oh my God.

Rebecca: Bizarre.

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

Rebecca: Geez.

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


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

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

Sheri: Yeah, I agree with everything

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds really cool for both of you.

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

Sheri: Thank you so much.


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

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

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


248. Reframing Academic Expertise

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.

Show Notes


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.


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.


246. Embedding Career Competencies

Students generally enter college to advance their employment prospects. In this episode, Jessica Kruger joins us to discuss how explicitly embedding career competencies in the curriculum can engage and motivate students. Jessica is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior and is the Director of Teaching Innovation and Excellence at the University of Buffalo.


Rebecca: Students generally enter college to advance their employment prospects. In this episode, we explore how explicitly embedding career competencies in the curriculum can engage and motivate students.


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

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Jessica Kruger. Jessica is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior and is the Director of Teaching Innovation and Excellence at the University of Buffalo. Welcome back, Jessica.

Jessica: Happy to be back.

John: We just saw you at CIT.

Jessica: &hellipgreat conference.

John: It was nice seeing everyone back in person again. For me, and I think for Rebecca too, this was our first conference in person in at least a couple of years.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yes, it was. Refreshing.

John: Speaking of refreshing, our teas today are&hellip Jessica, are you drinking tea?

Jessica: Iced Tea.

Rebecca: &hellipthe best kind during the summer.

Jessica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I have some nice piping hot Ceylon tea again.

John: And I have spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: Is that a new one for you, John? Or you just haven’t had it in a while?

John: I haven’t had it in a while.

Rebecca: That sounds good&hellip

John: It is very good.

Rebecca: &hellipif you like cherries, which I don’t. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s spring cherry, it’s not just cherry, these are spring cherries.

Rebecca: &hellipthe best kind.

John: &hellipfrom the Republic of Tea&hellip actually from Harry and David. But it’s produced by the Republic of Tea for Harry and David.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your work in incorporating career readiness into the public health curriculum. Why should there be an increased focus on incorporating career readiness in our courses and degree programs?

Jessica: I like to tell people, it’s not just our job to teach students really cool things, it’s our job to help them get a job. And so ultimately, by incorporating career readiness skills, we’re equipping our students to go out into the world and get their first job. And really, in public health, there’s so much work to be done. And so if students aren’t ready to do that interview, or send out their resume, or even talk about their experiences that they’ve gained in the classroom, they’re not going to land that job.

John: Has it been hard to convince other faculty of the need to provide this career readiness for students?

Jessica: So myself and another faculty member have been incorporating the career competencies in our courses, we both teach a 200- and a 300- level public health course. And, in those, we are getting students anywhere from sophomore, juniors, or seniors. And I think it makes sense in our profession where many students go out and get jobs after their bachelor’s to have them start thinking about this early, even as early as their second year in our courses.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of careers that your students in your program pursue?

Jessica: Yes, so we have students working all over. And I’m really proud to say we have a student who’s actually working at a safe injection site in New York City, which is one of the first that has been opened. We have students working locally in health departments, working for hospital systems, and local nonprofits. And so our students are really going out there and doing what needs to be done, especially what we’ve seen over the past two years with the pandemic. We’d had so many students work in contract tracing, and also with local health departments, and it’s growing. Public health is becoming more recognized. And that’s why we need to continue to prepare our students for what’s next.

John: For those listeners who aren’t familiar with safe injection, could you talk about what that is?

Jessica: The first facility was opened in New York City. This allows for individuals who use injectable drugs to go into a place that is clean and monitored and inject safely. Someone is there to monitor them, provide them clean supplies, and even help them if there is an overdose. So this is a harm reduction technique that prevents deaths.

Rebecca: Can you talk about the ways that you have employed career readiness into your courses?

Jessica: We use the framework of the NACE Competencies and NACE stands for National Association of Colleges and Employers. And these are competencies that were set forth by actual companies, employers out there, saying what they actually want in a new graduate. So there are actually eight different areas, things from teamwork, leadership, ensuring that students are able to be critical thinkers, have career and self development, include equity and inclusion, and be proficient and technology. And so what I’ve done is incorporate first starting at the syllabus level, incorporating some verbiage saying: in this course, you’re going to learn career competencies, and we’re going to cover seven out of eight of these career competencies. Because I’m teaching a 200-level course, I’m not focusing on the skill of leadership, that’s a little bit higher level that I’m working at in this course. But in every assessment that I have in class, I have not only the objectives, why we’re doing it, but I include what competencies we’re working towards, and how they can talk about this in a job interview&hellip to a internship site. So it’s not just that you’re writing a paper, you’re working on those written communication skills, and you’re able to articulate that

John: How have students responded? I would imagine it would increase their motivation a bit when they see how directly applicable these skills will be for them.

Jessica: It all comes down to transparency, because the more transparent and applied students feel that their assessments are, the higher quality I tend to see their work. And so by telling them, you’re not just writing a paper for me to read, you’re writing a paper to practice this skill. And you’re also going to do a presentation, because in public health, you need to have excellent written and oral communication skills. And hey, you’re also going to make a poster on Canva, because you need to know how to use technology. And so by kind of stringing these competencies together, it allows students to see that what they’re doing is not just for a grade, but to help them build those skills.

Rebecca: Can you walk us through a specific example?

Jessica: Yeah, in this course, I have students do a variety of writing samples on different problems. So, in public health we’re very applied. In one of the papers, students are talking about how public health has been influenced by other areas&hellip philosophy, psychology&hellip and so they could just see it as a paper, a 1.5 page paper, or thinking about it from a career readiness standpoint, they’re learning how to write succinctly and to whatever audience&hellip so, in this case, a lay person learning about public health. And so in writing this, I include why they’re doing it. And when I’m giving the example of what I’m looking for in the assessment, I often have the students reflect on what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. I think it’s important for them to think about that, why am I writing this paper? Why are we doing this? &hellipto improve your skills, to work on that written communication. Another example that I think is probably maybe a little bit more applied here is students write a paper, they record a short pitch of this paper using Flipgrid. So they’re doing written communication, oral communication, and in that little flip grid that they’re doing, they have to dress professionally, practice that skill, and give feedback to peers. And so all of that together, which is seemingly not a too arduous of an assignment, is really hitting on a lot of those career skills.

John: Have other faculty in your department picked up on the use of expanded career readiness in their classes?

JESSICA :Yes, one other faculty member has joined me and currently we are studying the effects of this on our students. So what we have done is ask our students at the end of the semester to complete a short survey asking them about how they felt about including career readiness into their courses. And overwhelmingly, students are so appreciative that we’re thinking about this, preparing them for what’s next. And it also shows that we care, we’re not just there to be a sage on the stage. We’re there to help them get ready for that job, that grad school, or whatever else they choose.

Rebecca: Do you have other findings from your research so far? I know you’re early in this process.

Jessica: Another major takeaway from this research is students wish they had this much earlier. They wish that we started talking about it day one. And while we could have told them about the career design center on campus, they’re not forced to practice this in their courses. They’re not tying this to that NACE Competency framework. But really, when we think about it, career readiness is everyone’s job. In our University of Buffalo, we’re working to create a career ecosystem, meaning that faculty are really on the front lines of this. They’re the first people that students are going to go to for career advice. And not all faculty are equipped to have that conversation. But at least, at the very minimum, being able to direct them to the Career Design Center and other resources that are available through the Career Design Center, I think is key. One simple way that I’ve introduced students to the actual physical Career Design Center on campus is I have them go take a selfie. They have a great little selfie station, and that’s one of their first things that they do in my course. So I can start to put a face to a name. And they can also learn about why it’s important to have a professional selfie. So they can put on their digital profiles like LinkedIn.

Rebecca: I found in some of the classes that I teach, I’ve in the past done assignments where we do professional email communication related to the work that we’re doing, or reports that might be common to the discipline. And students have responded much more positively to those kinds of writing assignments, because they can see the practical application and can connect the very specific, like, I can see how I’m doing this skill, and it’s gonna result in me being able to do this other thing. We just don’t always articulate that when it maybe is a little more abstract, when it’s maybe a more traditional paper and how that might tie to the kinds of work that they might do as a professional.

Jessica: Most definitely. And I’ll say this really was not much effort, I did not change what I was doing in my courses. I really just added a sentence or two to each of my assessments, relating it back to the NACE Competencies, I also brought a little bit more awareness to what we were doing in class. When we would do group work, I’d say, “Oh, you know what? You’re working on teamwork. That’s great, because in public health, we work in teams, and this is also related to the NACE competencies.” So it doesn’t have to be like a capstone course where you’re deliberately working on resumes or other career competency. But I think weaving this in, adding to it, and really raising awareness about some of these skills can really help students go to that next level, or start thinking about what they need to do to build some more skills before they leave our universities.

John: You’ve already answered this partly by talking about teamwork and other skills that can be done in any class. But what about those instructors in a course on abstract algebra? How would you build in, say, career readiness into that, other than the types of things you’ve already mentioned?

Jessica: Well, I think teamwork and technology would be two very easy competencies to weave in to any sort of course. Also, if you’re doing advanced level math, you’re probably using critical thinking skills. And you’re probably talking about what your findings are. So you’re hitting communication, you may not have much on professionalism, or career and self-development, but still, you’re hitting five career competencies, and not having to add anything, but really just highlight what you’re already doing.

Rebecca: Were you surprised when you sat down and looked at your syllabus and your learning objectives and looked at the NACE competencies and put them side by side and how well they aligned?

Jessica: Yeah, and in fact, it’s interesting, because in public health, we have an accrediting body called CEPH. And our CEPH Competencies for preparing students at the baccalaureate level actually align perfectly with NACE. And so it made sense, once you sat it down to say, “Oh, I’m already doing a lot of this.” And yeah, it might take part of my class time the second day of class to bring in one of the career designers so they put a name to a face, but it’s not taking away any time from my instruction. And by adding the transparency in that connection. I think it’s created more of a caring environment for my students. They know I care about what happens to them after this course. And more students have come to me than ever, asking about what’s next, whether that’s grad school, or how to apply for that first job. And that’s really rewarding. Now, I know not all faculty want more meetings with students. We all have busy schedules. But it’s also great to build those connections, because those are the students who are going to continue to be connected, have mentorship and be successful.

John: And we’ve always been preparing students for their future lives and careers. But we haven’t always been that transparent about it. And it sounds like that’s a really good approach. For someone who wants to start building this into their courses, how would you suggest they get started?

Jessica: I think one of the first things is go have a conversation with someone in your career design center on campus, see what they’re offering and see how you can collaborate with them. I found that our Career Design Center at University of Buffalo has so many resources so that faculty can literally plug in modules on career development that are already created for them. It was also really enlightening to learn what it’s like to be a student, to go to the career design center. And so sitting down with someone and understanding some of the intakes that they do, some of the questions, and even some of the tools that they have, really helps give you an overview of everything that can be offered to students. So when that student comes to you and says, I’m thinking about this career in biostatistics&hellip Oh, great, I don’t actually know a lot about biostatistics, but you should go to the Career Center, because they have a great tool where you can see what your life would be like as a biostatistician. And so first learn about your career design center on campus.. Second, I think it’s important to start slow with any new thing that you’re doing in your course. It may be that you dip your toe in the water and just connect some of what you’re doing with career competencies. So when you have students work in teams, say, you know, teamwork’s important. This is actually what people care about when you get a job. And here’s how you might want to talk about your experience in teamwork, if you don’t currently do this outside of the classroom, and provide them some of those prompts. And then if you want to dive in, and really incorporate your NACE competencies, I think for most professions, in most disciplines, the alignment will be there. And it’s not a ton of effort to highlight that, especially if you start with just your assessments and maybe highlighting some of those and then moving towards other things by maybe adding some career readiness modules, or having your students go to your career design center, take a selfie, whatever they have to offer.

Rebecca: Sometimes it’s really exciting and nice to have some ideas of ways to connect with students that are just so straightforward. [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: I’ll also say, while our students have grown up in a digital age, I find that technology tends to be their weakest category when we think about the NACE competencies. And so if your field uses any technology, talking about how to be proficient in that, how to be a lifelong learner, and how sometimes it’s hard to learn something new, but you have to if you want to keep up into the field,

Rebecca: One of the things that I have been doing in my classes that students have appreciated is when there are things like free online conferences related to the discipline, assigning them as an assignment. And to do that, and to talk about what that experience is like and encourage them to connect with professionals in the field. And a lot more opportunities for that kind of an experience has been offered over the last [LAUGHTER] couple of years.

Jessica: That’s a great way to incorporate that&hellip talks, and even as you introduce a new topic, having them recognize that maybe after this class, you’re not going to be an expert, but here are ways that you can build this skill that you may need. And it might be going out and trying something new, it might be connecting with another center on campus. But recognizing there are resources there for you.

Rebecca: I think underscoring the idea that you need to continue learning in your field is something that students don’t always immediately recognize without us pointing out. They don’t recognize that one of the things they might want to ask in an interview are what the professional development opportunities are, or ways to grow as a professional in their first job.

Jessica: Most definitely, and how they want to do that and how they can identify those areas of growth. That’s something that’s not often transparent. We send them out into the world and say, “Great, you’ve got this degree.” But there may be many areas where they can become a little bit more proficient or dig a little bit deeper into a topic. I want to also highlight that I think that this is so important for our first generation and our URM students. In our undergraduate program, we have about 37% of our students being underrepresented minorities or first-generation college students. And if we don’t talk about this, no one else is going to talk about this. And by becoming someone to turn to about career readiness and about asking those questions of “What do I do for my first interview?” or “How do I prepare for this internship?” &hellipwe’re not going to be able to build that for those students because they might not have someone at home to turn to. As a first-generation college student myself, I found that no one was talking to me about this. And so I think it’s critical in higher education that we think about this as an equity and inclusion component within our curriculum.

Rebecca: That’s a really good point. I’m glad that you underscored that Jessica.

John: And one other thing that I think many people have been doing is bringing in guest speakers&hellip and you can bring in some recent graduates to talk a little bit about some of those pathways. I think we’ve all learned how easy it is to bring people in remotely to give presentations. We don’t have to physically bring them to campuses anymore.

Jessica: Yeah, I think that’s really powerful having career panels. And it’s great to connect with our graduates. I love when they say that what they’ve learned in the class actually helped prepare them for what’s next. We’re not just shooting from the hip here, we really talk to our graduates, understand where we need to focus and continue to improve our program as we continue to grow.

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

Jessica: Ah&hellip summer is upon us. And so it is my time to write up all the papers that I’ve been sitting on over the semester. One of that is the paper on incorporating these competencies into our courses. And I look forward to sharing the results when we get that out there. But I’m really interested in how we work with faculty to help them think about adding career competencies to their courses. Because I don’t think this just has to happen at the undergraduate level. I think the graduate level is also key. I teach both grad and undergrad courses. And as I’m revitalizing our graduate capstone, I really think that this is perfectly aligned, along with our competencies for our accrediting body. And so really, it’s all come together for me, and I’m really excited to see what other folks think about it as the word begins to spread.

Rebecca: Sounds like a really exciting opportunity. And I think you’re right, graduate school is a great place for some of these conversations to be happening.

John: Well, thank you. These are things I think we should all keep in mind, because even if we’re not thinking about career competency as being important for our students, students certainly are. It’s always great talking to you.

Jessica: Thank you very much.

Rebecca: Thanks, Jessica.


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.