182. Gender and Groups

When we sort students into cooperative learning groups, we often attempt to create balanced groups that reflect the diversity of the students in our classes. In this episode Olga Stoddard joins us to discuss her recent research that suggests that this approach can be harmful for female students in classes in which a majority of the students are male.

Olga is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Brigham Young University, a Research Fellow at IZA (the Institute of Labor Economics), and the Research Director at the Science of Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, and the Co-Director of the Gender and Civic Engagement lab at BYU.

Show Notes

  • Stoddard, Olga B.; Karpowitz, Christopher F.; Preece, Jessica (2020) Strength in Numbers: Field Experiment in Gender, Influence, and Group Dynamics, IZA Discussion Papers, No. 13741, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA), Bonn
  • Zölitz, Ulf and Jan Feld (2018), “The effect of peer gender on major choice.” University of Zurich, Department of Economics, Working Paper.
  • Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. Random House.

Transcript

John: When we sort students into cooperative learning groups, we often attempt to create balanced groups that reflect the diversity of the students in our classes. In this episode we discuss recent research that suggests that this approach can be harmful for female students in classes in which a majority of the students are male.

[MUSIC]

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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Olga Stoddard. Olga is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Brigham Young University, a Research Fellow at IZA (the Institute of Labor Economics), and the Research Director at the Science of Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, and the Co-Director of the Gender and Civic Engagement lab at BYU. Welcome, Olga.

Olga: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

John: …really pleased to have you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Olga: I was going to be prepared and I have my mug, but unfortunately, it’s only filled with water because I ran out of time to heat it. [LAUGHTER] So, water for me today.

John: Tea is mostly water. We’re recording this in mid February when there’s a bit of a nationwide snow covering. And I’m drinking spring cherry green tea to set a better mood for the future.

Rebecca: I think that seems like a good plan. And for a change, I’m drinking Chai.

John: Wow. Okay, I don’t think I’ve seen you drink that on here before.

Rebecca: It’s not a common one for me. But it’s nice to mix it up occasionally. Of course my Chai doesn’t have dairy in it. So it’s just the tea part of the Chai

Olga: Is it flavored Rebecca?

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s nicely spiced.

Olga: Nice.

John: We do normally in our office have a variety of flavored Chai teas, but they’re safely locked up in our building. We haven’t visited in a long while. We’ve invited you here today to discuss your research with Chris Karpowitz and Jessica Preece concerning how the gender composition of teams affects women’s participation and role in team activities. Could you tell us a little bit about the study?

Olga: Yeah, absolutely. So this study was a collaboration with a top 10 accounting program in the US. We partnered with them to randomly assign different gender compositions of teams in this program. So, like many programs in the US, especially business programs, like MBA programs, this particular program relies on a pedagogical group-based approach in which students are assigned into teams, in this case, teams of five. And they work together quite intensively throughout the semester. So throughout the four months that’s their first semester in the program, they work on assignments together, they meet socially outside of the classroom, they even do some of the exams as a group. And so there’s a lot of interaction between those students within those seats. for that period of four months. Normally, because this program has a really small percentage of women, so about 25% of the students in the program are women, the way that these groups had been formed in the past is to assign one woman per group, so as to sort of dilute the women, to have men have experience in an academic and professional setting interacting with women. There is some prior research in the laboratory that has shown that this really is detrimental for women’s ability to be influential, for their willingness to participate, to be engaged. And so what we wanted to do is we wanted to test whether that laboratory evidence plays out in a similar way in the, so to speak, real world setting, more naturally occurring kind of environment. So we partnered with the program and randomly assigned some women to be in the condition where they were the only woman in the group. So the status quo, this is how things have been done. One woman and four men in a five person group, and then other women were randomly assigned to be in a condition where they were in the majority. So there were three women and two men in a five person group. We then tracked these students for the following two years. We had them complete monthly surveys and peer evaluations of their group members. We had them come into the laboratory twice a semester, where we had them work on a team-building exercise, and we watched who’s participating. These exercises were recorded, so we could see who’s speaking, who is interrupting, with speaking for how long. so that we could precisely measure women’s participation, but also measure their level of influence. Because on these tasks, the way that we designed them, women could exert more or less influence depending on certain decisions they make. So we had different ways to measure their level of influence, their participation, and whether others perceive them to be influential, and sort of more like leaders in the group. And so we did that for the following two years. We had two cohorts of students participate in the study. And what we found is that women who were randomly assigned to be the lone woman in the group were perceived to be significantly less influential, and were actually exerting a lot less influence in the group than the equally qualified women who had been assigned to be in the majority in their group. And so we saw really striking differences across those two conditions. Again, these are equally qualified, very well prepared academically women. This program is very competitive. They have prior leadership experience. And yet we find these huge differences across the two conditions in our case, depending on whether women were in the minority or the majority, they were seen significantly less influential by their peers.

Rebecca: Was the perception of the women in the groups different from the start of the study or the beginning of the group formation versus the end of the group formation? Or was it kind of consistent?

Olga: Yeah, that’s a good question. So one advantage of our study is that we can track these students over a relatively long period of time. Most laboratory studies up to date have relied on sort of these one-shot types of interactions, where strangers meet for a period of an hour or so and never interact again. One thing we wanted to know is do these patterns that had been observed in the lab to date, exacerbate over time, or do things get better as team members get to know each other, they get to experience women’s authority or their expertise. And what we found is that it’s mixed evidence on this. So in these surveys, these are monthly surveys that students have to fill out about each other… we call them peer evaluations… and in these peer evaluations, we ask them “Who is the most influential member of your group?” And they state who is the most but also who’s the least influential. What we found that over time, over the course of those four months that these students work together as a group, there is an improvement for the lone women, that their peers perceive them to be more influential over time. For the women in the majority, there seems to be no change. And so we do see the gap closing by the end of the semester, relative to the large gap in the beginning of the semester, but only in the survey data. Once we actually look at the data from the lab, where we observe students interacting in teams, where we can measure who is exerting influence on a task, we see no difference over time. So it seems that there is some improvement for the lone women in these sort of general assessments of influence in these monthly “Who was the most influential member of your group over the course of the month?” But when you actually get down to the specific tasks, we don’t see any improvement for women over time.

John: I know you were looking at this in a very broad context, in terms of teams and organizations and firms and so forth. But in terms of classroom groups of the sort that you were actually experimenting with, a growing number of classes in pretty much all disciplines now rely on group activities. What does the study suggest about how we form these groups in terms of the gender composition of groups, so that everyone can have an active role in the group?

Olga: Like you said, both in the workplace and in many academic settings, group work is crucial. And many faculty members rely on group- based activities. Understandably, they prefer collaborative thinking and develop the skills that students will need as they go on in workplaces where increasingly there’s reliance on group work. And so certainly the implications from our study are that assigning groups in which women are the lone woman or in the minority is going to have costs for women, costs in terms of participation, in terms of influence, in terms of whether they’re seen as authoritative, as leaders in the group. Those are the types of questions we ask and things that we can measure. And so certainly, if at all possible, groups that are gender balanced, or groups in which women are in the majority, are going to be significantly better for women in terms of these types of outcomes. Now, I would add a couple of caveats here. One is that in our study, we can track the grades. We can see what students actually get at the end of the semester. And we find no penalty for women, as far as grades can tell, when they’re in the minority. The women who are in the minority receive about the same grades as women who are in the majority. However, the grades in this program are largely group based. So it may not be surprising, because so much of the grade is based on the group work that we’re not finding those differences. Moreover, we don’t know how women get to those grades. It’s possible that because of these influence gaps, they’re having to work extra hard to get the same grade, or to be seen as sufficiently expert in that particular class. And so those are the two caveats that, even though we don’t observe differences in grades in our study, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t underlying differences in how hard students are having to work or how much effort they’re having to exert. I would also note that, regardless of the gender composition, there were no differences in man’s perception. So the man, whether they were in the minority, or in the majority, saw no deficit in influence, they were equally likely to be seen as a leader, they were seen equally influential. And so, if one thinks well, putting men In the minority is going to all of a sudden hurt the men in the group. That’s not what we’re finding. And there is in fact quite a bit of literature now confirming that. There are laboratory studies and studies in different settings, like nursing school, where men are in the minority, and in fact are not incurring any kind of deficit as far as influence or participation or authority that the women are incurring in these kinds of settings in which they’re a minority. I would also mention one study, it’s a working paper by a PhD student at University of Zurich, and it’s a really great working paper. She’s looking at a setting in which women are a minority… economics… a setting we’re familiar with. And in that setting, she’s using some data from, I believe it’s University of Zurich, it might be another university in Europe, but at that university, they also created different study groups, just like in our study, except these are larger study groups. These are sections of about 50 to 60 students, and they also randomly assigned gender compositions of these study groups. And what she shows is that, over time, the women that are assigned to be in a group in which they’re a minority, are much more likely to drop out of the study group altogether; that they not only incur these potential influence deficits, which we document in our study, but there are, in fact, very serious consequences to their ability to thrive in that class, or to thrive in that environment in which there are a minority. So that’s closely related, of course, to our study, and confirms really similar patterns.

John: We’ll share a link to both studies in the show notes. You mentioned that in disciplines like economics, and more generally, in STEM fields, women are often underrepresented as students, but they’re also underrepresented in faculty. It’s likely that these types of issues will carry over into group meetings and team meetings and department meetings and so forth on campuses. What can women and departments do to address this problem?

Olga: Yeah, that’s a very good question. Certainly, the setting in which we study these topics is student groups. But we are more than confident that these kinds of patterns replicate in a variety of settings, including professional settings, whether you’re a faculty or a student, being in the minority as a woman entails these costs to your level of influence, to your ability to exert influence, to your ability to be heard and taken seriously. And certainly there are other studies that have found very similar patterns in other kinds of settings. So I would not be surprised that if we ran this study in a professional setting or a workplace, we would find very similar patterns among women at all levels, including leadership. Certainly, some studies have confirmed similar patterns among the board of directors, female directors. The question of what can women do to sort of fix this is a really complicated one. And I say that because, what we find in our particular study, for example, is that women can’t just overcome that deficit by working extra hard. One thing that we observe is their levels of participation, how much time they put into coursework, and things like that. And we find that to be the same, regardless of the condition in which they’re in. They’re working extra hard already. Another thing that we observe is their talk time. In this laboratory setting, we can measure how long each person talks. And so you might say, well, maybe women, they’re just not leaning in, maybe they’re not participating enough in these group discussions, and so of course, they’re not seem as influential. Well, we find that’s not the case. These women are in fact leaning in. They’re speaking just as much regardless of the condition in which they’re in. The women and the minorities are going out of their way to try to get their opinions heard. They’re speaking just as much, as far as we can tell, based on the speaking turns and speaking time that we can observe. And so the failure to lean in can’t explain this gap in influence. So the common sort of Sheryl Sandberg “lean in” approach is that women just need to participate more and become equal participants in the process. That doesn’t seem to be supported by our research. Even when they try to do that, that doesn’t help them overcome this gap in influence. And so that’s kind of a depressing thing to discuss, that there isn’t much women actually can do to change those kinds of outcomes when they find themselves in these settings where they’re underrepresented. That it’s really men’s attitudes and men’s behavior that seems to be changing when women are in the minority versus women in the majority. So in our study, it’s men that are evaluating women as more influential when they are randomly assigned to be in a group with more women relative to when they’re in the group with just one woman. But of course, these underlying causes are really structural. So if you were to ask me, you know, what can organizations do to avoid those kinds of consequences for them, and I would say, “Well, number one is they need to hire more women.” Creating an environment in which women are no longer in the minority is certainly the direct implication of our research. However, that might be the more longer term goal. If organizations, say a tech firm, says over time, “We’re trying to hire more women, but we just don’t even have enough qualified women in the pipeline. What can we do now? How can we fix this given that women are still going to be in the minority for a while…” Then thinking about the structures of the teams and how they’re assigned, but also the norms within those teams? So for example, my co-author Chris Karpowitz has done some research in the past about the norms of deliberation and whether teams make decisions by majority rule, or whether teams make decision unanimously. That seems to be really important to women’s ability to contribute in environments in which they’re underrepresented. So maybe restructuring some of the team norms so that decisions have to be made unanimously, such that women’s voices are heard and they’re able to contribute even when they’re in the minority.

John: One thing I’ve been thinking when I read your paper and during our discussion is that there’s a similar cultural issue that affects teaching evaluations. And there’s at least some research that suggests that the negative bias that students may have in evaluating female professors can be overcome somewhat when students are made aware of the existence of this. And one nice thing about studies like yours is that it is making people more aware of this. But it would be interesting to see if students were given information about this at the start of their group formation, if that may affect the way in which group behavior is formed.

Olga: I am aware of those studies and I like them very much, because they show us one way, an easy nudge, which can change behavior, in this case, in the context of student evaluations of teaching. So in our study, of course, we try to keep the framing about students’ participation in this research, very neutral. We didn’t want them to be primed that this was a study about gender dynamics in groups and things like that. But I can envision future work thinking about the next step, which is what can be done to reduce this gender gap, what can be done to improve outcomes for women when they do find themselves in the minority, and one of those could be making students aware then making these patterns a lot more salient. Because honestly, if you probably ask a lot of the students whether they think that women in these groups are incurring any kind of penalty, they would probably say, “No.” The majority of the male students would probably not think that these things are happening. They’re happening in a subconscious basis, not through explicit discriminatory practices. It’s certainly possible that some male students are explicitly discriminating. But one measure that we have of that is how satisfied students are with their groups. And what we find is actually, regardless of the condition in which women are in, they report very high levels of satisfaction with their group. So even when they’re in the minority, and we can see that they’re incurring this really strong cost or deficit of influence, they still report being equally satisfied with their groups, and as happy with the group interactions as the women in the majority. So it seems that even the women themselves are not often recognizing that these deficits are occurring, let alone the male students in the group.

Rebecca: They’ve experienced it forever, it doesn’t seem different, right? [LAUGHTER]

Olga: That’s right, and this is not the first setting in which they’re experienced in this. There’s research showing that these kinds of patterns exist as early as school levels, where difference in competition is found as early as kindergarten, basically. And so the socialization that takes place even prior to college is probably conditioning women to feel that that is a normal kind of environment.

Rebecca: Your study reminds me a lot of conversations around all girls schools in K-12 and some of the benefits of that for women and also thinking about compositions of committees and things that might exist in professional environments where they’re trying to diversify, and they diversify by having token representation. And we often see that that can be problematic, but this is demonstrating other ways in which it can be problematic, which I think is a lot of interesting food for thought.

Olga: Yeah, absolutely. That was one of the biggest motivation… thinking about this is when you look at these policies, both private and public initiatives that are aiming to diversify these settings, like school boards or corporate boards, political assemblies, often, like you said, the solution is let’s just add one or two token women or minorities to the setting to help us be more diverse, and certainly we wanted to know what impact is that having on the women that are added, the women that become those token or lone members of the group and it’s not looking great. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s a cultural issue and cultural changes tend to be slow. And as you said before, the only real solution is to have more balanced representation in all groups.

Olga: Absolutely. Yeah. And often, of course, what you hear, especially in the private sector is, “Well, it’s a meritocracy. Everybody can apply for these jobs, and we’re just not finding enough qualified women. And you know that certainly could be a valid concern in some stages of application process, but it is an important hurdle to overcome and think about how do we get more women into the funnel? How do we make sure that our women persist through the application process and actually make it into these jobs, because there are barriers at different levels, at different stages of that process that lead to these gender disparities in the share of women that go into these occupations, it’s not all choice. Choices are made, not in a vacuum, they’re made based on the constraints and information that people have. And so making these environments more appealing, more welcoming to women, should be an important objective of any organization that is struggling to increase diversity, gender diversity, in their rank and file.

Rebecca: As someone who teaches when an area of design that is also not balanced, [LAUGHTER] I teach in a more tech heavy side, it’s much more male dominated, because there’s more code and stuff involved and so historically, there’s less women, I’m thinking about all the group work that I do in my own classes, in the context of your research, and thinking about how productive and exciting it’s been to see some groups of all women, and what that looks like and what that feels like. But also having that little voice in the back of your mind saying maybe we need diverse teams that represent different kinds of people, because we’re designing for different kinds of people. And that, for the benefit of males in the class of interacting with women, maybe it benefits them, but they already have a benefit. And so that’s a really interesting consideration that I don’t think we often think about… not in a systematic way… or thinking about groups. I thought about majors and all kinds of things when I was formulating my groups, but I didn’t necessarily think about this.

Olga: Yeah, and I think that’s very common, especially in environments where there are serious binding constraints, you only have a few women. So I’m at BYU, and we have our share of women in the majors only about 20%. So any faculty trying to form group is going to be faced with these really serious constraints. One thing I would say is, in addition to this quantitative evidence that has been generated over the years showing how harmful it may be for women to be in the minority, there’s also, in our study, some qualitative evidence that we find. And since we’ve presented this study in different places, it’s been such an interesting experience, because you get these women just nodding their heads and saying, “I know exactly how this feels having been in the minority, and having compared my experience as a woman in the majority, just how much more heard and influential I feel in those kinds of settings.” So I think compiling qualitative evidence, pointing to the fact that it is significantly more difficult for women in the minority in these group settings to exert their influence and to get their voices heard.

John: Are you thinking of extending this research to other areas in terms of say race or other categories in which there may be similar effects?

Olga: Yeah, absolutely. So the original study certainly can only speak to gender, we have very few non-white students in the sample and can’t say very much since they weren’t randomly assigned across the group composition. But our goal long term is to look at whether these patterns extend beyond the gender domain. My guess is that we’re going to find very similar patterns for racial minorities, for example, who find themselves being underrepresented in many kinds of similar settings. They may even be exacerbated relative to the gaps that we find for women. And so we’re very interested, we’re in conversations with one firm and another institution trying to design a study that might work but this is a work in progress. And I hope it happens, because certainly we want to know whether other kinds of minorities find themselves in similar predicaments when they are underrepresented.

Rebecca: It also seems like it would be interesting to know whether or not, if you have multiple people from different underrepresented groups, if that somehow starts treating that more as a majority of underrepresented people, or if it’s just specific to a particular group at any given time.

Olga: Yeah, that’s a good point. One thing that we are doing is we do have a study in the field that is sort of following up from their original study, which includes the groups in which women are still in the minority, but they’re not the only woman. In our original setting there’s either one woman and four men, or three women and two men. So it’s not a symmetric kind of setting. And that’s by design, because there’s so few women in that program that if we created two women groups we wouldn’t have enough sample size to confidently say whether these results are statistically significant. But in the follow up study that we have been doing in the field, actually, for the last year and a half, we do have groups with two women and groups with two men. So we can compare sort of more symmetric, does it help to have another woman in a team? Or does it not make a difference, because you’re still in the minority. Some preliminary findings that we have, are that, unfortunately, it’s not tipping the scale… that unless women are in the majority, they’re still going to incur those deficits in terms of influence. And that’s supported by some of the prior laboratory research. But this is still ongoing… so, unfortunately, not the full findings yet. Another interesting extension of this work that we have started implementing, sort of by accident, or by necessity, rather, when COVID head and a lot of the group interactions have moved online… our entire lives have moved on to virtual settings… we wondered whether these same patterns would be exacerbated in virtual settings. There’s some anecdotal evidence that it’s even harder for him to get their voices heard in these kinds of settings. And so the study that we had been running in person has been turned into a study using Zoom as a platform. So we can now, at the end of this semester and next semester, say something about whether these patterns are different in online settings versus actual face-to-face settings, and what kinds of additional burdens may fall on the women when they’re having to influence outcomes or participate in the deliberative process in an online setting.

Rebecca: …sounds fascinating.

John: It’s a great natural experiment. …let me rephrase that… [LAUGHTER] we should probably not refer to the pandemic as a great experiment…

Olga: I know.

John: …but it does provide an interesting source of data on that issue, and virtual work is likely to become much more common in the future anyway.

Olga: Absolutely. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to go away. Even if the pandemic ended today, people are getting used to these kinds of interactions. There are advantages to them in terms of flexibility and the kinds of geographical constraints that no longer seem to apply. But they may also have these unintended hidden costs that I think are important to be able to quantify, particularly as it relates to these gender and racial disparities that already exist in a lot of these settings and workplaces.

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

Olga: So this study has really led us to think carefully about these gender disparities, and to try to understand what kinds of interventions can help improve the outcomes for women. So the next step is certainly for us to try to test and evaluate the effectiveness of some of these interventions. So for example, I mentioned we’re doing a study in the field using Zoom as a platform for team meetings, we’re playing around and designing different kinds of changes in group norms, which operates through Zoom on, for example, who gets to start the conversation, or timing each participant in the group, so they know how long they’ve been speaking for… things that have been possible through technology, and trying to see whether those kinds of interventions will help improve the outcomes for women when they’re in the minority. So that’s one direction in which we are continuing this research agenda. And then another one, of course, is looking at other kinds of minority status. So particularly looking at race, we’re very interested in collaborating either with firms or other institutions that have ethnic or racial minorities, and are interested to know what implications do these settings have on their minority employees or students?

Rebecca: Looks like a lot of great work coming down the pike. I’m excited to hear what you find.

Olga: Thanks, Rebecca, thank you so much.

John: You’re doing some wonderful work, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it in the future.

Olga: I really appreciate it. Thank you guys. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much.

Rebecca: Thank you.

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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.

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179. It’s Been a Year

A year ago, our campus announced that it was shutting down for a two-week pause so that the COVID-19 pandemic could be brought under control. To help faculty prepare for remote instruction, we released our first episode of many on March 19, 2020, with Flower Darby. We thought this would be a good moment to pause and reflect on this journey.

Show Notes

  • Flower Darby (2020). “Pandemic Related Remote Learning.” Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 126. March 19.
  • Todd, E. M., Watts, L. L., Mulhearn, T. J., Torrence, B. S., Turner, M. R., Connelly, S., & Mumford, M. D. (2017). A meta-analytic comparison of face-to-face and online delivery in ethics instruction: the case for a hybrid approach. Science and Engineering Ethics, 23(6), 1719-1754.
  • Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies.
  • Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do about It. Basic Books.
  • Linda Nilson (2019). “Specifications Grading.” Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 86. August 21.
  • Susan Blum (2020). “Peagogies of Care: Upgrading.” Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 145.  July 22.

Transcript

Rebecca: A year ago, our campus announced that it was shutting down for a two-week pause so that the COVID-19 pandemic could be brought under control. To help faculty prepare for remote instruction, we released our first episode of many on March 19, 2020, with Flower Darby We thought this would be a good moment to pause and reflect on this journey.

[MUSIC]

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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Our teas today are:

Rebecca: I’m drinking English Afternoon for the first time in about a year. Because I’ve been home, and working from home, I’ve been drinking pots of loose leaf tea instead of bag teas. And so I’m bringing back the comfort of a year ago.

John: And we still have in the office several boxes of English A fternoon tea, but they are wrapped in plastic. So I’m hoping they’ll still be in good shape when we finally get back there …once this two week pause that we started about a year ago, ends.

Rebecca: Yeah, when we recorded that Flower Darby episode was the last time we saw each other in person.

John: Well, there was one other time…

Rebecca: Oh, when you dropped off equipment.

John: I dropped off a microphone and a mixer for you so that we could continue with this podcast. Actually, I think we saw each other from a distance because I left it on the porch because I had just come back from Long Island where infection rates were very high.

Rebecca: Are you drinking tea, John?

John: …and I am drinking Tea Forte black currant tea today.

Rebecca: A good favorite. So John, can you talk a little bit about where you were at mentally and just even conceptually, in terms of online teaching and things,when the pandemic started a year ago,

John: We were starting to hear about some school closings in other countries and in some cities in the US where COVID infection rates were starting to pick up and it started to look more and more likely that we’d be moving into a shutdown, in the week before we were to go to spring break. I was teaching at the time one fully asynchronous online class and two face-to-face classes. When it was looking more and more like we’d shut down I talked to my face-to-face classes about what options we’d have should we go online for some period of time. And I shared with them how we could use Zoom for this. And we had already used Zoom a few times for student presentations when students were out sick or had car trouble and couldn’t make it into class. Because they were actively using computers or mobile devices every day in class, anyway, they all had either computers or smartphones with them. And I had them download Zoom and test it out, asking them to mute their mics. And very quickly, they learned why I asked them to do that. I wasn’t very concerned because we’ve been doing workshops at our teaching center for many years now with remote participants. And we’ve been using Zoom for at least five years or so now. So I wasn’t really that concerned about the possibilities for this. And I thought the online class would go very much like it had and the face-to-face classes would work in a very similar way… for the short period that we were expecting to be shut down. I think even at the time, many of us thought that this would be somewhat longer, but I wasn’t terribly concerned at the time, because infection rates were still pretty low. And I think we were all hopeful that this would be a short-run experience.

Rebecca: And also maybe the fact that you’ve taught online before didn’t hurt.

John: Yeah, I’ve been teaching online since 1997, I believe. And so I was pretty comfortable with that and I wasn’t concerned at all about the fully online class, I was a little more concerned about the students who were used to the face-to-face experience adapting to a Zoom environment.

Rebecca: I had a really different experience because I was on sabbatical in the spring working on some research projects related to accessibility. Because of that, I was able to quickly adapt and be able to help some communities that I’m a part of, related to professional development. So I stepped in and helped a little bit with our center and did a couple workshops and helped on a couple of days with that. And I also helped with our SUNY-wide training too, and offered some workshops related to accessibility and inclusive teaching at that time. And the professional association for design locally, we had a couple of little support groups for design faculty.

John: I wasn’t too concerned about my classes, but I was a little bit more concerned about all the faculty that we had who had never taught online. And so, as you just said, we put together a series of workshops for about a week and a half over our spring break helping faculty to get ready for the transition to what we’re now calling remote instruction.

Rebecca: At that time, too. I had no experience teaching online, I’d used Blackboard and things like that before, but not to fully teach online. So for me, it was a really different experience. And I was helping and coaching faculty through some of those transitions too, not really having had much experience myself. So I had the benefit, perhaps, of seeing where people stumbled before I had to teach in the fall. But I also didn’t get any practice prior to fall like some people did with some forgiveness factors built into the emergency nature of the spring.

John: I think for most faculty, it was a very rapid learning process in the spring and instruction wasn’t quite at the level I think anyone was used to, but I think institutions throughout the country were encouraging faculty to do the best that they could, knowing that this was an emergency situation, and I’m amazed at how quickly faculty adapted to this environment overall.

Rebecca: One of the things that I thought was gonna be really interesting to ask you about today, John, was about online instruction, because you have such a rich history teaching online, and there are so many new faculty teaching online, although in a different format than perhaps online education research talks about. Many people taught asynchronously for the first time, but there’s also a lot of faculty teaching online in a synchronous fashion. There’s a lot less research around that. How do you see this experience impacting online education long term.

John: I don’t think this is going to have much of a dramatic impact on asynchronous online instruction in the long term. Online instruction is not new, it’s been going on for several decades now. There’s a very large body of literature on what works effectively in online instruction. And under normal circumstances, when students are online and faculty are online because they choose to be, online instruction works really well. And there’s a lot of research that suggests that when asynchronous courses are well designed, building on what we know about effective online teaching strategies, they’re just as effective as well designed face-to-face classes. However, a lot of people are trying to draw lessons from what we’re observing today. And what we’re observing today, for the most part, does not resemble what online education normally is, primarily because the students who are there, and many faculty who are there, are there not by choice, but by necessity. And one of the things that has come up in some recent Twitter conversations, as well as conversations that we’ve had earlier, is that many online students in asynchronous classes have been asking for synchronous meetings. In several decades of teaching online, I’ve never seen that happen before, and now it’s very routine. And I think a lot of the issue there is that, in the past, most online students were there for very specific reasons. So they may have had work schedules that would not allow them to sign up for synchronous classes. Some of them are in shift work, some of them were on rotating shifts where they couldn’t have fixed times of availability. Some of them would have large distances to commute and it just wasn’t feasible, or they were taking care of family members who were ill, or as part of their job, they were required to travel. In most of the online classes I’ve had in the past, there were some students who were out of state or out of the country. I had students during the Gulf War who were on a ship, the only time they missed a deadline was when their ship went on radio silence before some of the attacks down there. They simply would not have been able to participate in synchronous instruction in any way. And I think a lot of the people who are now taking asynchronous classes, strongly prefer a synchronous modality and are disappointed that they’re not in that. And I think a lot of what we’re seeing is a response to that and I think we shouldn’t ignore all the research that has come out about effective online techniques in light of the current pandemic, because this is not how online instruction normally has occurred. And people are in very different circumstances now in terms of their physical wellbeing in terms of their emotional well being and just general stress.

Rebecca: Yeah, during the pandemic, many more people are in isolation, and might really be craving some of that social interaction that they might not expect out of an online class traditionally, especially if it’s an asynchronous class. But if you’re just alone, and you’re not going out of your house, there might be more of a desire during this one moment of time …this one really long moment of time. [LAUGHTER]

John: During this two-week pause? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. One other thing, I guess, is important to note as we’re talking about research and what evidence shows is that hybrid can be really effective with the combination of in-person instruction complementing some asynchronous online instruction. And of course, in that traditional research, hybrid really means this in- person and then asynchronous online, this synchronous online thing wasn’t really a thing prior to the pandemic. [LAUGHTER]

John: Right. And we can’t really draw too many conclusions about this giant worldwide experiment that’s being done in less than optimal conditions without really having a control of normal instruction to compare it to. And yeah, several meta-analyses have found that while face-to-face and asynchronous online instruction are equally effective, hybrid instruction often has come out ahead in terms of the learning gains that students have experienced. Certainly, we know a lot about hybrid instruction, face-to-face instruction, and asynchronous online, but not the modality that larger of our students are in. One other factor is that when people signed up for online classes before, they did it knowing that they had solid internet connections, they knew they had computers that were capable of supporting online instructional environments. They had good bandwidth and so forth. That’s not the situation In which many of our students and faculty are working right now, because faculty and students often do not have any of those things. And they’re often working in suboptimal environments that are crowded, where there’s other people in the household sharing the same space. And it makes it really difficult to engage in remote asynchronous or synchronous work as they might have when they chose to be in that modality.

Rebecca: I do think that, during this time, though, into kind of forced online instruction, although there are certainly people who don’t like that they’ve been forced to be online, and they prefer to be synchronous or in person, I think there’s a cohort of people who thought online education wasn’t for them, both faculty and students, who have discovered that it actually really does work for them. And even me, although I teach web design and do things online, you’d think online education would seem obvious to me. But in the past, it hadn’t really occurred to me. Our education tends to be in person, and you tend to replicate what you’ve experienced. [LAUGHTER] And although I have taken some online courses related to design and technology and coding in the past, it hadn’t really occurred to me to consider some options. And I think what we’ve discovered is some of our courses work well in this modality and some don’t. Some of our courses are better positioned to be potentially online or work well in that format, and could help with some collaboration pieces, or some other things that we might be doing. It might support the work that we were already trying to do in person.

John: And I think now, all faculty have gotten much more comfortable with a wider variety of teaching techniques and teaching tools than they would have experienced before. For many faculty, just having dropboxes in the learning management system was something new, moving away from paper assignments was something very new. And suddenly, faculty were asked to use a wide variety of instructional tools that they had been very careful to avoid doing in the past. And one of the things that struck me is how many of the people in our workshops who’ve said that they were perfectly comfortable teaching in a face-to-face environment, and they just didn’t see the need for, or they didn’t think that online instruction could work for them. And now that they’ve tried all these new tools and these new approaches, they’re never going to go back to the traditional way in which they were teaching. So I think there are going to be a lot of things that people have learned during this that they’ll take back into their future instruction, even if it is primarily in a face-to-face environment.

Rebecca: It may also be some changes in technology policies in the classroom as well related to just seeing how helpful technology can be for learning, but also where it can be distracting. So I think there’s some reconsideration of what that might mean.

John: While there haven’t been so many things that I’ve enjoyed during the pandemic, one of them is that this whole issue of technology bans have pretty much fallen to the wayside. I’m not hearing faculty complaining about students using computers during their class time now. And that’s a nice feature, and perhaps faculty can appreciate how mobile devices can be an effective learning tool. And yes, there will have to be more discussions such as one we’re having in our reading group this semester, where we’re reading Jim Lang’s Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What We Can Do About It. There’s a lot of discussion about when technology is appropriate, and when it’s not in those meetings. But I think faculty have come to recognize how ed tech can be useful in some ways, at least in their instruction, whether it’s in person or whether it’s remote.

Rebecca: I think it’s also important to note that how some of the synchronous technology, video conferencing technology like Zoom, has some advantages, even if our class is not synchronous online. It could just be an in person class in the future. We’ve seen the power of being able to bring guests in easily without having to deal with logistics of traveling and the scheduling considerations that are often involved with that. We don’t have the disruptions and education related to snow days and illness, both on the faculty and student side. Obviously, that depends on how severe the illness is, right? [LAUGHTER] Professional development has worked out really well online, although we’ve done online or had a Zoom component where you can kind of Zoom and being all on the same platform at the same time has been really great, being able to take advantage of breakout rooms and things like that. We’ve seen record numbers attend, and then also with advisement and office hours. It can be really intimidating to have to find an advisor’s or a faculty member’s office and you have to physically go there. And then it’s kind of intimidating. What if the door’s shut? What if they’re look like they’re busy? [LAUGHTER] There’s all these things that can get in the way that online or Zoom calls can just remove some of those barriers and also allow for more flexibility because now you don’t have to plan for walking across campus which might take some time. Or you might be able to squeeze in something at a time you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

John: And a lot of our commuting students are commuting from 30 to 60 miles away, and it was not terribly convenient for them to have to drive up to campus at a time that was convenient for their professors just for the chance of sitting there and talking to them for a few minutes. So, the access is much easier using Zoom or other remote tools.

Rebecca: We should also get real. Zoom fatigue is a real, real, thing. It’s about 4:30 right now that we’re recording. We’ve both been on Zoom calls since early this morning. And kind of constant. Our students have been as well. There’s no let up, there’s no breaks. We don’t get the little stroll across campus to the next meeting. [LAUGHTER] There’s none of that. One of the things that I am experiencing, as someone who’s definitely introverted, is this performative nature of being on camera all the time. And I know our students are too. And John and I were talking about this a little earlier today, that, in the fall, I had tons of students participating with their cameras on and their microphones on, and even in the beginning of the spring, but there’s something about the dead of winter in Oswego, that kind of Doomsday nature of it, it’s gray here. And then the black boxes just kind of emphasize it further. And they’re not as visible as they had been before. And I think it’s partly because it’s so performative, and you’re being watched all the time. And it’s not necessarily not wanting to participate or feel like you’re present. But really, it’s just a little much.

John: And neither of us pressure our students to turn their cameras on. We welcome that, we invite them to do that, but we know there are some really sound reasons not to, because people are often working in environments that they don’t want to share with their classmates or with their faculty members. And they may have bandwidth issues and so forth. But it is really tedious to be talking to those black boxes. And as Rebecca and I talked about earlier, both of us are also creating videos. So, we get to talk to our web cameras a lot, and then we go to class, and we talk to our students. Most of our students, I think, turn their microphones on. So we get to hear them one at a time. But it’s challenging to be talking to people you can’t see all day long.

Rebecca: I think it’s particularly challenging for faculty, because there’s more of an expectation for faculty to have their cameras on both in class and in meetings than students. So I think there’s an extra level of fatigue that’s happening with faculty and staff, because it’s more performance more of the time. Some days, I really feel like I wish I could be a student and I could just turn my camera off.

John: I have a night class that meets for about three hours. And typically when we met face-to-face, we’d take a 7 to 10 minute break in the middle of that. I asked the students if they wanted to do that the first two weeks, and each time they said “No.” I said, “Well, if you need to get up, use a restroom, or walk around, please do it. But what I wasn’t considering is the fact that, while they were doing that, I was still here interacting with them the whole time. And that three-hour session can be a bit challenging by the end of it, particularly if you’ve been drinking a lot of tea.

Rebecca: That’s actually important to note that, kind of unusually, John and I are both teaching three-hour classes, that’s probably not the norm for most faculty. I’m teaching studio classes. So for one class, it’s three hours of time, two times a week, and you’re teaching a seminar class, right, John, that’s three hours?

John: Yes, that meets once a week.

Rebecca: These longer sessions, we can break up by physically moving around the classroom and things when we’re in person, it becomes more of a challenge online. And I know that I’ve been thinking more about the orchestra of it all and changing it up in my classes. So we might do something in small groups then may do something as a big group, we participate in a whiteboard activity, then we might do something else, then we take a break, then we try to do something that’s off screen for a little bit and then come back. And so I’ve tried to build in some opportunities for myself as well to be able to turn my camera off at least for a few minutes during that three-hour time or take a little bit of that time during breakout sessions or whatever, because I need a break too. Our good friend Jessamyn Neuhaus has mentioned this to us many times before, that we’re not superheroes, and we should stop trying to be superheroes. And this seems like a good moment to remind ourselves of this as well. I know for me, it’s like I need a snack, I need to go to the bathroom, I need a drink. I would do that in a physical class. I take breaks then. So I’ve been making sure we build it in, and actually even padding it a little bit and giving people longer breaks than I would in person.

John: And our campus, recognizing the challenges that faculty faced with this last fall, put in two wellness days where no classes were held, and people were encouraged to engage in activities to give them that sort of break. I’m not sure about you, but I ended up spending about seven and a half hours of that day in meetings that were scheduled by various people on campus.

Rebecca: Yeah, and students also said that they ended up really needing that time to just catch up, because the workload in terms of student work hasn’t reduced, but being on screen has increased for most people, and you just need some time away. So, it ends up taking more hours of the day, just in terms of logistics, if you actually going to give your eyes a break and things. I did a little survey of my classes and they said they spent a lot of that time kind of catching up, although maybe the pace of the day was a little slower.

John: Going back to the issue of cameras being on, one of our colleagues on campus did a survey of the students in her class asking why they chose not to have their cameras on. And the response seemed to indicate that a lot of it was peer pressure, that as more and more students turn the cameras off, they became odd to leave them on. So I think many of us have experienced the gradual darkening of our screens from the fall to the spring,

Rebecca: I found that there’s some strategies to help with that as well. One of the things I did last week was invite students to participate in a whiteboard activity online indicating what they expected their peers to do so that they felt like they were engaged or part of a community. What should they do in a breakout? And what does participation look like in an online synchronous class? And they want all the things we wanted them too. They said, like, “Oh, I want people to engage.” And we talked about what that means, that it might mean participating in chat, it might mean having the cameras on, and things like that. And that day, right after that conversation, so many people during that conversation turn their cameras on. So in part, it’s about reminding, or just pointing out that it’s not very welcoming to have not even a picture up.

John: And this is something you’ve suggested in previous podcasts to that, while we’re not going to ask students to leave their cameras on to create a more inclusive environment, you could encourage students to put pictures up.

Rebecca: Yeah, we feel as humans more connected when we see human faces. So we feel much more connected than looking at black boxes. [LAUGHTER] So I’ve definitely encouraged my students. On the first day, I gave instructions to all the students about how to do that. And then when we had our conversation the other day, when I was starting to feel the darkening of the classroom and more cameras came on, I also just invited and encouraged everyone else. If you can’t have your camera on, or you have a tendency not to be able to put your camera on, that’s not a problem, but we would really welcome seeing your face or some representation of you as an image.

John: What are some of the positive takeaways faculty will take from this into the future?

Rebecca: It’s been interesting, because we’ve had far more faculty participating in professional development opportunities, initially out of complete necessity, like “I don’t know how to use Blackboard” and starting with digital tools and technologies, and then asking bigger and more complicated questions about quality instruction online as they gained some confidence in the technical skills. So there’s some competency there that I think is really great. And that’s leading to faculty wanting to use some of these tools in classes, it might mean just using Blackboard so that the assignments are there, and the due dates are more present, and just kind of some logistical things to help students keep organized. But also, there’s a lot of really great tools that, as we mentioned earlier, that faculty have discovered that they want to use in their classes. So maybe it’s polling and doing low-stakes testing in their classes during the class. I’ve discovered using these virtual whiteboards, which actually logistically work better than physical whiteboards in a lot of cases in the things that we’re doing, because everyone can see what their collaborators are doing better. So there’s a lot of tools that I think faculty are going to incorporate throughout the work that they’re doing. But also they’ve learned a lot more evidence-based practices. And maybe you want to talk a little bit about that, John,

John: At the start of the pandemic, the initial workshops, were mostly “How do I use Zoom?” But very quickly, even back in March, we also talked a little bit about how we can use evidence-based practices that build on what we know about teaching and learning. In the spring, there wasn’t much faculty could do in the last couple of months to change their courses. But we did encourage them to move from high-stakes exams to lower-stakes assessments to encourage students to engage more regularly with material, to space out their practice, and so forth. And at the start of the summer, we put together a mini workshop for faculty on how to redesign their courses for whatever was going to happen in the fall. And it was basically a course redevelopment workshop, where we focused primarily on what research shows about how we learn and how we can build our courses in ways that would foster an environment where students might learn more effectively. Our morning sessions were based primarily on pedagogy and then in the afternoon, we’d go over some sessions on how you can implement that in a remote or an asynchronous environment, giving people a choice of different ways of implementing it. By the start of the summer, people were starting to think about doing things like polling, about doing low-stakes testing, or mastery learning quizzing, and so forth. And people started to implement that in the fall. And then we had another series of workshops in January. We normally have really good participation, but we had, I believe, over 2000 attendees at sessions during our January sessions. And during those sessions, we had faculty presenting on all the things that they’d learned and how they were able to implement new teaching techniques. And it was one of the most productive set of workshops we’ve ever had here, I believe. And what really struck me is how smoothly faculty had transitioned to a remote environment. At the start of the pandemic and during spring break, we were encouraging people to attend remotely and yet faculty mostly wanted to sit in the classroom with us, and we wanted to stay as far away from those people as we could. But about half the people attended virtually. Butwhat’s been happening as people were getting more and more comfortable attending remotely and we’ve been offering the option of people attending virtually since I took over as the Director of the teaching center back in 2008, I believe. However, we rarely had more than a few people attending remotely. And it was always a challenge for people to be participating fully when they were remote while other people were in the same room, which gave us some concerns about how this was going to work in the reduced capacity classrooms that many colleges, including ours, were going to implement in the fall. And we knew we didn’t really have the microphones in the rooms that would allow remote participants to hear everyone in the room and vice versa. Once we switched entirely online, where all the participants in the workshops were in Zoom, it’s been much more effective to have everyone attending in the same way, so that we didn’t have some people participating in the classroom and others attending remotely. And I think that, combined with faculty becoming more comfortable with using Zoom, has allowed us to reach more faculty more effectively.

Rebecca: One of the things that I saw so powerful this January, in our experience on our campus, was all of the faculty who volunteered to do sessions and talk about their experiences and support other faculty experimenting with things. And I think it was just this jolt that caused us all to have to try something new, that was really, really powerful. We all get stuck. Even those of us that know evidence-based techniques, we get stuck in our routines, and sometimes just allow inertia to move us forward and replicate what we’ve done before because it’s easier, it saves time, and we have a lot on our plates. And it’s really about being efficient, because we just have too much to do. So it was nice, in a weird way, to have that jolt to try some new things. I heard some great things from faculty that I’ve never heard from before I learned some things from some other faculty. And it was really exciting. And the personal place in my heart that I get most excited about, of course, is how many faculty got really excited about things related to inclusive pedagogy, and equity, and accessibility. We offered, on our campus a 10-day accessibility challenge that we opened up to faculty, staff, and students as part of our winter conference sessions. And we had record accessibility attendance… never seen so many people interested in accessibility before. But that came out of the experience of the spring and the fall, and people really seeing equity issues and experiencing it with their students. They witnessed it in a way that it was easy to ignore previously. And so I think that faculty, throughout this whole time, have cared about the experience that students have and want students to have equity. They just didn’t realize the disparity that existed amongst our students. And the students saw the disparity that existed amongst students, which was a really powerful moment, really disturbing for some students who had to share that moment with other people, but also a really useful experience for faculty to really buy into some of these practices about building community, about making sure their materials were accessible. And all of that has resulted in a much higher quality education for our students.

John: It was really easy for faculty to ignore a lot of these inequities before, because the computer labs, the Wi Fi, the food services, and library services, and lending of equipment provided by institutions, compensated for a lot of those issues, so that disparities in income and wealth were somewhat hidden in the classroom. But once people moved home, many of those supports disappeared, despite the best efforts of campuses in providing students with WiFi access with hotspots or providing them with loaner computers. And those issues just became so much more visible. It’s going to be very hard for faculty to ignore those issues, I think, in the future, because it has impacted our ability to reach a lot of our students. And it has affected the ability of many of our students to fully participate in a remote environment. But going back to that point about people sharing, I also was really amazed by how willing people were to volunteer and share what they’ve learned in their experiences. Typically, when we put our January workshop schedule together, we call for workshop proposals from people. And we typically get 5 to 12 of those, and they’re often from our technical support people on campus. And it’s rare that we get faculty to volunteer. And normally we have to spend a few months getting faculty to volunteer so that we get maybe 20 or 30 faculty to talk about their experiences. We had about 50 people just volunteer without anything other than an initial request, and then a few more with a little nudging, so that we ended up with 107 workshops that were all very well attended. And there were some really great discussions there because, as you said, people were put in an environment where the old ways of doing things just didn’t work anymore, and it opened people up to change. We’ve been encouraging active learning and we’ve been encouraging changes in teaching practices. But this pretty much has reached just about everybody this time in ways that it would have been really difficult to reach all of our faculty before.

Rebecca: It’s easy during a time like a pandemic to just feel like the world’s tumbling down. And there’s no doubt about that. But it’s a time where I’ve also been really grateful to have such great colleagues. Because not only have we seen faculty supporting each other and using new technology, the advocacy that they’ve demonstrated on behalf of students who really had needs has been incredible. Likewise, for faculty, we’ve witnessed some really interesting conversations amongst faculty about ways to reduce their own repetitive stress injuries and other accessibility issues that faculty are also experiencing, equity issues that faculty are experiencing, caregiving responsibilities that are making things really challenging for faculty. But there’s a really strong network of support amongst each other to help everyone through and there’s no word to describe what that means other than being grateful for it, because people have been so supportive of each other. And that, to me, is pretty amazing.

John: Faculty have often existed in the silos of their departments. But this transition has broken down those silos. It’s built a sense of community in a lot of ways that we generally didn’t see extending as far beyond the department borders. There were always a lot of people who supported each other, but the extent to that is so much greater.

Rebecca: So we’ve been talking a lot about this faculty support. John, can you give a couple of examples of things that faculty have shared that have worked really well in their classes that they weren’t doing before?

John: One of the things that more and more faculty have been doing is introducing active learning activities and more group activities within their classes in either a synchronous or asynchronous environment. And that’s something that’s really helpful. And as we’ve encouraged faculty to move away from high-stakes assessment, and many faculty have worked much more carefully about scaffolding their assignments, so that large projects are broken up into smaller chunks that are more manageable, and students are getting more feedback regularly. Faculty, in general, I think, have been providing students with more support, because when in a classroom, you were just expecting students to ask any questions about something they didn’t understand. And sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. But I think faculty realize that in a remote environment, all those instructions have to be there for students. So in general, I think faculty are providing students with more support, more detailed instructions, and often creating videos to help explain some of the more challenging parts that they might normally have expected students to ask about during a face-to-face class meeting.

Rebecca: I think previously, although faculty want to be supportive, they may not have been aware of some of the mental and emotional health challenges that students face generally, but have been amplified during the pandemic. Students who might experience anxiety or depression and how that impacts their ability to focus, their ability to organize themselves and organize their time, all of those things have become much more visible, just like those equity issues. And so I think that faculty are becoming more aware of that emotional piece of education and making sure that people feel supported so that they can be successful. And even just that kind of warm language piece of it, and being welcoming, and just indicating, like, “Hey, how are you doing? I really do care about what’s going on with you.” And having those chit chat moments sometimes even in a synchronous online class, open up that discussion and help students feel like they’re part of the community and really help address some of those issues that students are facing.

John: And I think a lot of the discussion is how can we build this class community when we move away from a physical classroom. So there have been many discussions, and many productive discussions, on ways of building this class community and helping to maintain instructor presence in asynchronous classes, as well as helping to maintain human connections when we’re all distanced, somehow.

Rebecca: I think that also points out the nature of some of our in-person classes and the assumptions that we made, that there were human connections being made in class when maybe they weren’t, or maybe there wasn’t really a community being built, because students may also not know each other there. So I think some of the lessons of feeling isolated maybe themselves, or seeing their students feel isolated, has led faculty to develop and take the time to do more community-building activities. So that there is that support network in place sp that students are able to learn, the more supported they feel, the more confident they feel, the more willing or open they’re going to be to learning and having that growth mindset.

John: And we’re hoping that all these new skills that faculty have acquired, will transition very nicely when we move to a more traditional face-to-face environment in the fall.

Rebecca: …or sometime ever… [LAUGHTER]

John: At some point, yes. [LAUGHTER] But one thing we probably should talk about is something I know we both have experienced is the impact on faculty workloads.

Rebecca: It’s maybe grown just a little, John, I don’t know about you, but there’s some of it that has to do with just working in a different modality than you’re used to. So there’s some startup costs of just learning new techniques. Then there’s also the implementation of using certain kinds of technology that are a little more time consuming to set up than in person. So, the example I was giving to someone the other day was, I might do a whiteboard activity in person that requires me to grab some markers and some sticky notes. That’s my setup. But in an online environment, I need to have that organized and have designated areas for small groups. And I need to have prompts put up. And there’s a lot of structural things that need to be in place for that same activity to happen online, it can happen very seamlessly online, but there’s some time required to set it up. So there’s that. We’ve also all learned how low-stakes is so great, and how scaffolding is so great, but now there’s more grading. And somehow, I think there’s more meetings.

John: Yes, but in terms of that scaffolding, we’re assessing student work more regularly, we’re providing them with more feedback. And also going back to the issue of support materials, many of us are creating new videos. And when I first started teaching, it was very much the norm for people to lecture. And basically, my preparation was going into the cabinet and grabbing a couple of pieces of chalk and going down to the classroom and just discussing the topic, trying to keep it interactive by asking students questions, giving them problems on the board, having them work on them in groups. But I didn’t have to spend a lot of time creating graphs with all the images on my computer. I didn’t have to create these detailed videos and these transcripts and so forth, that I’d share with all my students now. And there’s a lot of fixed costs of moving to this environment, however, we’re doing it. That has taken its toll, I think, on all of us, as well as the emotional stress that we’re all going through during a pandemic.

Rebecca: I know one of the things that I’m concerned about is the ongoing expectation of time commitments that are not sustainable… period.

John: It’s one thing to deal with this during an emergency crisis. But this has been a really long emergency crisis.

Rebecca: And I think we’ve all seen the gains that students have had or felt like it’s worth the time and effort to support students. But it’s also time to think about how to support faculty and staff who have been doing all of that supporting and we need a reprieve… like, winter break wasn’t a break, summer break wasn’t a break, there isn’t a spring break, wellness days weren’t a break. Everybody just needs a vacation.

John: Yeah, I feel like I haven’t had a day off now since the middle of March of 2020.

Rebecca: I think one of the next things we need to be thinking about is: we created a lot of things that we could probably recycle and reuse in our classes, and so there were some costs over the course of the year. But perhaps they’re not costs in the future because we’ve learned some things. There may also be some strategizing that we need to do about when we give feedback or how detailed that feedback is with these scaffolded and smaller assignments so that we can be more efficient with grading. We’ve talked in the past on the podcast about specifications grading and some other strategies and ungrading. So maybe it’s time to think a little more or more deeply about some of these things now that we have them in place. How can we be more efficient with our time and work together to brainstorm ways to save ourselves time and effort and energy and still provide a really good learning environment?

John: Specifications grading is one way of doing it. But having students provide more peer feedback to each other is another really effective way of doing that. We’ve talked about that in several past podcasts, but that is one way of helping to leverage some of that feedback in a way that also enhances student learning. So it’s not just shifting the burden of assessing work to students, it’s actually providing them with really rich learning opportunities that tend to deepen their learning.

Rebecca: I know one strategy that I’ve implemented this semester, that definitely has saved time, although I just need to get more comfortable with my setup, but just I need to practice it, is doing light grading and the idea of having a shortlist of criteria. And then that criteria is either met, its approached or it doesn’t meet. And it’s a simple check box. And essentially, the basic rubric is what it looks like to meet it. And either you’ve met it or you haven’t. And that’s a much more efficient way of…

John:…either you’ve met it, you’ve almost met it, or you haven’t…

Rebecca: Yeah. And so that’s worked pretty well for me this semester. And I think it’s helping me be a little more efficient. And then I say like, “Okay, and ‘A’ is if you have met all of the criteria, ‘B’ is if you’ve met a certain percentage of the criteria, and approach the rest,” that kind of thing. The biggest thing for me is just getting used to my new rubrics and not having to like “Wait, what was that again?” when you go to grade it. But, I think, with practice, next time I go to use them, it’s gonna be a lot faster.

John: Going back to the point you made before, a lot of people have developed a whole series of videos that can be used to support their classes. Those can be used to support a flipped face-to-face class just as nicely as they do in a synchronous course, or a remote synchronous course. So a lot of the materials that faculty have developed, I think, while it won’t lighten the workload of faculty, can provide more support for students in the future without increasing f aculty workload as much as it has, during the sudden transition when people are switching all their classes at once to this new environment we’re facing. I know in the past, when I’ve normally done a major revision of my class, it’s normally one class that I’m doing a major revision on. And then the others will get major revisions at a later semester or a year. But when you try to dramatically change your instruction in all of your classes at once, it’s a tremendous amount of work.

Rebecca: I think another place where we’ve seen a lot of workload increase is also an advisement. There’s a lot of students that are struggling, many more students have questions about what to do if they’re close to failing, whether or not they could withdraw. what it means to leave school or come back to school, we’ve had the pass/fail option. So that raises a lot of questions. There’s a lot of those conversations that certainly we have, but they’re just more of them right now. And I would hope that as the pandemic eventually goes away, then some of that additional advisement will also start to fade away as well. We’re just drained. We imagine that you’re all drained too.

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

Rebecca: God, I hope there’s a vacation involved. Our household is dreaming about places we can go, even if it’s just to a different town nearby, as things start to lighten up, just to feel like we’re doing something… anything.

John: The vaccines look promising, and the rollout is accelerating. And we’re hoping that continues. And let’s hope that a year from now we can talk about all the things we’ve learned that has improved our instruction in a more traditional face-to-face environment.

Rebecca: The last thing I want to say is I hope everyone has, at some point, a restful moment in the summer, and we find the next academic year a little more revitalizing.

John: I think we could all use a restful and revitalizing summer to come back refreshed and energized for the fall semester.

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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.

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172. Advancing Online Learning

We’ve focused a lot on faculty switching modalities during the pandemic, but even experienced online instructors have faced new challenges redesigning their courses to work for students with limited computer technology, network access, and quiet study environments. In this episode, Kevin Kelly and Todd Zakrajsek join us to discuss how universal design principles can be used to provide learning equity and human connections in our online classes.

Kevin works with colleges and universities as an educational consultant and teaches as a faculty member in Education at San Francisco State University. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Todd is also co-author of Dynamic Lecturing that we’ve discussed on earlier podcast episode. Kevin and Todd are the authors of Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments, recently published by Stylus publishing.

Show Notes

The Excellent Teacher Series

Resources and tools

 References

  • Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285.
  • Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.
  • The psychology of progress bars. Spindogs. Samuel Merritt University.
  • Baker, R., Dee, T., Evans, B., & John, J. (2018). Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment. CEPA Working Paper No. 18-03. Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Transcript

John: We’ve focused a lot on faculty switching modalities during the pandemic, but even experienced online instructors have faced new challenges redesigning their courses to work for students with limited computer technology, network access, and quiet study environments. In this episode, we discuss how universal design principles can be used to provide learning equity and human connections in our online classes.

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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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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Rebecca: Our guests today are Kevin Kelly and Todd Zakrajsek. Kevin works with colleges and universities as an educational consultant and teaches as a faculty member in Education at San Francisco State University. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Todd is also co-author of Dynamic Lecturing that we’ve discussed on earlier podcast episode. Kevin and Todd are the authors of Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments, recently published by Stylus publishing. Welcome, Todd and Kevin.

Todd: Thank you, Rebecca.

Kevin: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are:

Kevin: I’m drinking Irish breakfast tea with honey from our backyard beehive.

Rebecca: …can’t get any more fresh than that.

Kevin: Nope.

Todd: Well, I just finished hibiscus tea. But now I have my big old bottle of water to get me to the next round.

Rebecca: Excellent. And I have Christmas tea.

John: And I have ginger tea. We’ve invited you here today to discuss Advancing Online Teaching. Could you tell us a little bit about how this very timely book came about?

Kevin: Well, Todd and I have known each other for years and years. And it just so happened that one day he was telling me about a series of books that he’s created. And he invited me to work with him on a book about online teaching. And we’ll get into more about how that evolved, but Todd maybe can fill in the gaps in my memory there.

Todd: No, this is perfect. And you know, I take credit where credit is due. Sometimes you just get really, really lucky, and Kevin and I this round got really lucky in a way. I wanted to mention the fact that we’ve actually been working on this book for about two years. This isn’t a situation where suddenly everything went to emergency remote teaching and we threw a book together. We started about two years ago working on this, we’re both massively busy folks. And so kind of kept picking away at it and running back and forth with edits and kind of kept working on and working on it. And then it was about December of last year, we talked about it and said, let’s just get this thing done, put some time aside and just crank away at it. And it was about six weeks later that everything started to go sideways on teaching. And so then we talked it over and really focused hard. And within about three months, I guess, got it done, because it takes about six months in production. What I mean by lucky is we had enough of it as a framework, that had been years of work, that we could then dump it into something that we could get out very quickly. And at a time that I think is going to be real helpful.

John: One of the things I really like about your book is it’s focused from the ground up on inclusion, equity, and the use of universal design for learning. Could you talk about why you chose those as the foundation of course design?

Kevin: We wanted this book to be different in a few ways. Many of the books out there about online teaching focus either on the technology side (what buttons do you click to make a discussion forum take shape or what have you), and some of them will focus on the student side (how do you actually facilitate those discussions?). But with work that both Todd and I have been doing in different circles, we decided that we wanted there to be an underpinning, if you will, of these different concepts so that they would be infused in everything people do, not just a tack-on at the end, the way you might find in a college of education: “Oh, here’s a class on how to make your courses more multicultural,” Instead of infusing that into every aspect of every course. We kind of viewed it like when you go to the eye doctor, and they put one lens down and say “Are you clear or fuzzier now?” And now we have these three lenses, you characterize it as inclusion, learning, equity and universal design for learning. But we frame it as universal design for learning, learning equity, and human connection, which is a little bit broader than inclusion. But it was really important for us to really think about: “Hey, there’s a human at the other end of that internet connection when you’re having a teaching and learning experience.” And we don’t want to lose sight of that. What do you think, Todd?

Todd: I think that’s a really good point. And I think the biggest one still is that concept of coming back over and over again to remember the human in the exchange. It’s really easy to post things out there and open quizzes and do all those things, and forget the fact that when you open the quiz the student who might be taking the quiz may be in a car in a McDonald’s parking lot, because it’s the only place they can get internet. So we really wanted to hit that over and over again,

Rebecca: I really appreciated too, the extensive coverage on accessibility and things as well as part of that discussion, which sometimes gets overlooked, which is really unfortunate,

Kevin: Right, and we also wanted to make sure that accessibility wasn’t the only frame through which to view Universal Design for Learning. Often many people think about it that way, but we think about, “Hey, these are accommodations for students with busy lives. These are accommodations for students who may speak English as a non-native speaker. These are accommodations for people who are parents and juggling one device amongst themselves and other people in the house just trying to get work done and survive.”

Todd: And that’s how we did a lot of the themes, and it comes up over and over again. You don’t design something so that you provide an opportunity for a person who has some kind of challenge, you design so that that challenge doesn’t matter anymore. So if a person does take a little bit more time to cognitively process, you could certainly make extra time for that person. Or you create an exam with no time limit, and then it’s no longer an issue. And so Kevin was phenomenal at finding a lot of different ways of, again, constructing the learning environment, in an online situation, so that challenges don’t matter anymore, to the greatest extent possible.

John: Many of the earlier books focused on an ideal condition where students working remotely were students who had good equipment, good connections, and plenty of time to arrange for this. But that’s not the student body, I think, that we’re generally seeing. Even without the pandemic, we see increasing diversity in the students and the time commitments and the challenges they’re facing while they’re enrolled in college. So, I think that focus is really good.

Todd: I think that’s a really, really important point, because is in the past, students who are in online classes chose to be in online classes. And there are certain types of students, my daughter is one of them, she does much better in an online course than she does a face-to-face course. She’s got a lot of learning challenges, and it just works better for her. But what we found with emergency remote teaching about 9-10 months ago, is that everybody, faculty and students who had no interest in being in online environments, were all there, which means there was a tremendous mismatch. So the other things we’re really working on with the book is if you find yourself in that mismatch, how can you match it up a little better?

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about ways to overcome some of the racial and ethnic achievement gaps that we see online and some of these other maybe economic issues or just experience differences between students who have a lot of experience online versus students who are new to online?

Kevin: Sure, and I would characterize the equity-based gaps that we see…and often we hear them referred to in reports as achievement gaps… but the literature now encourages us to use words like education debt, so it’s not on the doorstep of the student. But, are we making student-ready colleges as opposed to college-ready students. And so, one of the groups I mentioned in the book Peralta Community College District, I’ve got six years of data, I’ve been looking at their work with students of all varieties, and the only data you can really get in a disaggregated form is for ethnicity, because it’s in the student information system, the database that has characteristics about the students, but the fields for first-generation student, the fields for veterans, the fields for students with disabilities, sometimes aren’t filled in at all. So you won’t be able to tell, to the same extent, that there are either biases, assumptions, or institutional barriers that negatively impact students’ motivation, opportunities, or achievement. So when we get to different things that work for different groups of people, Universal Design for Learning really helps because it allows us to construct multiple pathways for people to succeed. And those multiple pathways may need to take into account that some students are interdependent learners, as opposed to independent learners. They grew up in a culture where everybody’s sitting around the table, and they’re learning as a group, as opposed to individually off on your own reading a piece of text and answering questions about it later. And so to create opportunities for students to learn interdependently with small-group projects or discussions, gives those students who come from, whether it be their family or their identity, their culture, gives them opportunities to succeed in ways that we may be not fostering with highly independent, self-directed learning activities that we commonly see in online courses.

Todd: I want to mention the fact that what Kevin just pointed out is phenomenal in terms of making sure that we’re kind of helping create good learning opportunities for students. But a lot of times people will make that mistake of thinking what we’re talking about here is meshing in learning styles. And you have to be very careful because the literature is very clear on learning styles… it’s one of the trickiest things to debunk out there. We’re not talking about teaching to a given learning style, we’re talking about a situation that if a student is in an environment, for instance, where they’re low bandwidth, and you know, watching videos is going to be really hard… text based material will be a lot better. If you’ve got a student who’s an incredible writer, but they’re extremely shy, then asking them to create a video might be really hard for that person, but creating a paper is not. So, it’s helping to match the types of preferences and abilities students have, not teaching to that learning style. So I just want to make sure there was no misunderstanding there.

Kevin: What you said, Todd, just made me think of some of the research that we’ve been looking at to build the Peralta Equity Rubric. I’ll come back to that in a second. But there’s research that shows that African-American and black students, if they don’t see themselves in the course materials, are less motivated. So back to Rebecca’s earlier question about what can we do? We can make sure that the images and media that we use to represent the content and topics in our courses are also reflective of the students in our classroom, whether that classroom be face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online. And so those types of strategies extend beyond just “What is the content?” but how are we presenting it, as well.

John: One thing that struck me with Todd’s comment is that it may be the case of someone in an environment where writing is easier for them or more natural while video might not be, but for a student who is interacting with a course primarily Through a smartphone, it’s quite possible that the video may be the easier form of representing their knowledge rather than trying to type a paper on a smartphone.

Kevin: Correct. And one strategy that I’ve started using in my own class is for students who may not have access to a device, I had a student who first made me aware of this challenge who was living in his car. And so he didn’t have access to a computer on a regular basis unless he went to the 24/7 lab. So he started using Google Docs and then I told him about Dragon apps so that he could do voice to text. And then I got smart enough, somebody told me about Google Voice, which is a free phone number that students can leave a voicemail message. And so now that student can just write with a pen and paper, not worry about typing it at all, and then read it as a voicemail message just like a book on tape, I can still grade it with the same rubric, but that student has fewer barriers to reach the particular goal with respect to that assignment.

John: You mentioned the equity rubric that you developed at Peralta colleges. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Kevin: The short version of the story is that they were moving from one learning management system to another, from Moodle to Canvas. And at the same time, they decided they were going to write their first ever distance education plan. And based on some data that one of the team members had identified during her sabbatical, when you look at the average between all students in face-to-face courses and online courses, that average of retention and success kept shrinking so that students in online courses were catching up. But when you disaggregate that data by ethnicity, you see that Asian students and white students are well above the average and black African-American students, LatinX, Hispanic students, were below. And so we saw that we couldn’t just think about this in one way. And we decided in that distance education plan they wrote for the district, that they wanted the two core values driving the plan to be the learners themselves and equity. And so we didn’t want it to just to be a document sitting on a shelf collecting dust. And so we started looking at how do you operationalize helping faculty members infuse learning equity into their courses. We went out on the web and couldn’t find anything, the closest thing we could find was the University of Southern California has the Center for Urban Education, and they have five principles about equity by design. But that wasn’t very practical for a teacher learning how to infuse equity. So we just went out, looked at all the research that either showed an equity-based gap that negatively impacted student’s performance or an equity-based intervention that positively impacted student’s performance. And those research efforts led to eight criteria that we wove into this rubric. And now we’ve been using it to train faculty. I’m using it in my own course. And it’s been exciting to see how the whole district is responding. It’s gone from an equity rubric to an equity initiative over time,

John: Is that something you share publicly?

Kevin: It is. Yes, if you go to the Peralta website, and we’ll make sure you have the link for your show notes. But the rubric itself is a creative commons document. The training, which is on a new version we’re going to launch in just a couple weeks, we’re putting in the Canvas Commons for free. There’s a bibliography that’s quasi-annotated, that shows the literature pertaining to each rubric criterion, and document that explains some of the core concepts. And some of my work involves taking that rubric and turning it into a framework. And I like to see it,if you’re familiar with Photoshop, or any tool where you have layers on top of layers. The Universal Design for Learning matrix is a grid three by three that helps you identify the checkpoints for integrating UDL principles into your course. And so I thought it would be a nice add-on, it’s not the same as, it’s a new set of ideas for faculty to start weaving in equity principles. So for example, in Universal Design for Learning, we think about different ways of presenting content based on the format, audio and text, or video and text. And then with learning equity, you think about “How do we present multiple perspectives on that, so that we have different ages and ethnicities and backgrounds and cultures and identities, carrying their ideas on the same topic?” And from there, we’ve taken it forward and built it out into a core part of the book.

Rebecca: It’s a much needed thing… grateful that you guys worked on that. I know it’s something that in doing a lot of accessibility related work and UDL work with our faculty and trying to bring in equity more holistically, it’s challenging, because it’s all these disparate resources and trying to make all the connections, it’s nice to have them all in one place.

Kevin: Well, I have to say one of the things that led to the success of this project was the fact that we had such a diverse group working on it. We had people from all walks of life: students, staff, faculty, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of is the work I’ve been doing with that Community College District

John: Changing the topic just a little bit, you advocate a backwards-design process, as many people do, but you also emphasize the importance of creating learning objectives at the level of course modules as well as at the level of the course and also making those explicit, not just in the syllabus, but also in the course module. Could you talk a little bit about why that’s important?

Kevin: I constantly refer back to what I call the psychology of the progress bar. And so if you’re familiar with progress bars, we as humans are not satisfied or motivated until it’s 75 to 80% complete. So when you have, for every course that you’re taking, and imagine a student with a normal load is taking four or five courses, let’s say you have an average five to 10 learning outcomes at the course level, that’s potentially 40 to 50 learning outcomes, or progress bars, that you’re trying to measure your progress over the course of the 17 weeks. So that means you’re waiting until week 12 of any semester to know how you feel about how you’re doing in a course. So that idea behind having module level learning outcomes means that you’re breaking things into small chunks, students can see that they’ve reached those outcomes right away. They dovetail or fall under the umbrella of those larger course-level outcomes, but provide checkpoints along the way for students to tell how they’re doing and stay motivated. Again, that motivation for persistence and success are key factors in helping our students in these online courses. And then, obviously, Todd brought a whole lot to that conversation, because he knew, just on the back of his head, the entire history of the term “learning outcome,” and why we use that instead of the word objective in the book, Todd, what do you think?

Todd: I’ll just mention this quickly, as I think it’s important for the book, because it seems like folks just love to argue about whether you’re really looking at outcomes or objectives… and goals, we totally get, everybody sees those as being separate… but outcomes versus objectives. So we kind of outline in the book, the different ways that people have actually defined those terms. But one of the cool things about this is that it was back around 1962, that a book was written about objectives, it goes back to the 1800s. But in 62, there was a specific book that was written that says, looking very, very carefully, what is the behavior that’s being done? How’s it being done? What’s the criteria for success, and we should be able to document those things so that we can objectively look at whether or not a person has achieved this. Then in about the late 80s, early 90s, the outcome-based education came along. And the big push was from objectives to outcomes. With the idea being that we’re going to define the outcomes of something we should be able to identify what is the behavior? What’s the criteria for success and how they go about doing it? And then they cited the same research from the 1960s. So we have two or three pages in the book of the folks who say, “Oh, no, no, it’s not objectives, it’s outcomes.” We say, Where do you think that came from? So at this level, and we’re not trying to be rude about it, but it really doesn’t matter. If you’re not writing a thesis on this, what’s important is that you can write a statement that says, “By the end of this unit, by the end of this class, by the end of this whole section, a student should be able to, or will be able to…”, and so that’s what we really went for, but kind of waiting for the feedback. The book’s brand new… out right now …of waiting for the hardcore education folks to kind of explain that we had outcomes and objectives wrong.

John: I gave a workshop on this topic in June for people preparing courses for the fall. And that was something that people from our education faculty were raising, saying, “Well, are these really objectives? Or are they outcomes?” And my point was, it doesn’t really matter. These are the things we want students to be able to do. And let’s just work on helping them get to that point, because both terms are used generally interchangeably, from what I’ve seen.

Todd: Yeah, totally.

John: And in describing them, you do use the SMART acronym. One issue I’ve run into is that there’s many different variants of that acronym, but you adopt one that actually pretty much the same one we had used here on our campus. Could you describe that SMART acronym?

Todd: It’s kind of going to come back to the same thing you were talking about for outcomes versus objectives. For a smart outcome, it is very important for It to be specific, that it’d be measurable, achievable, realistic, time bound, sometimes people change realistic for reachable. And so these words will bounce around a little bit. But I think what’s important, it’s almost… in drawing this analogy to Bloom’s taxonomy, people get so hung up on Bloom’s Taxonomy to say, is this knowledge or is this understanding? You know, it’s foundational. If it’s foundational, I’m good with that. There’s a difference between knowledge and understanding versus application versus synthesis. On a SMART outcome, there’s a difference between writing an outcome that’s just not reachable, it’s not timely, it’s not measurable, those are problems. So again, as far as I’m concerned, as long as you got something that’s specific and measurable, and probably reasonable, those are the big ones. But, that’s what we’re really after.

Rebecca: I love the emphasis on chunking things into small pieces to manage cognitive load, not only of our students, but also of the faculty member teaching the class… because just like students who may have those 50 outcomes they’re trying to head for, faculty are also trying to manage that and keep track of that for their students as well. So I like the idea of the cognitive load management for everybody involved in the learning process and really keeping it organized, which is a key thing for any sort of learning design, to make sure that people know how to move forward.

Todd: Well, yeah, I’m going to say that I think probably one of the most important aspects of creating any kind of learning environment for your students is it comes down to cognitive load. I mean, it really is, because at any given moment, if you have too much to do. For anybody out there who doesn’t know what cognitive load is, think about, like, the expressway. And so you got information coming in, if I’m looking over and I see somebody walking by, and I just watch him for a minute and see what their outfit looks like, that’s one thing I can do. If a friend is talking to me, I can listen to the friend. if they’re talking to me in the car while the radio is on, and then it starts to sleet outside, I’m thinking, you know what? …trying to keep the car on the road, listen to somebody talking, and having the radio is too much. And so it’s just too much material coming through at once. And it’s kind of like when the expressway has too many cars coming in at once, and everything comes to a grinding halt. So what we have to be really careful of is that the more you do something, the easier it becomes. And the more you have frameworks for doing things, the more easily you can do it. So as we build these kind of structures, students can process a lot more information. But that’s the cognitive load. And everybody has that feeling of sitting down to read something and getting about two paragraphs in and saying, “Yeah, not now, I just can’t do this right now.” That’s cognitive load. And we do it all the time. The most important thing to keep in mind is, if you’re an expert at something, the process is very easy, because it’s repetitious, but your students are novice, so they’re going to face a lot higher cognitive load. So the thing that you think, “Oh, this is easy…” they’re holding on by their fingertips. So be mindful of that cognitive load, I think, is really important, from the work of Sweller in the 1980s.

Kevin: And just to build on that and to go back to Rebecca’s concept about the chunking and how important that is, it also serves today’s students. So recently, I was a moderator of a student panel at a conference. And we had in the same panel, a working mother. She was a single mother of two kids and in her 30s. And she said, “Sometimes I’m just trying to get the work done. I’m not aiming for the A, even though I would love an A, I’m just trying to get through this credential so I can get a degree and get upward mobility socially and socioeconomically.” And so thinking about chunking as a universal design for learning concept, where students can track their progress when they’re having to bounce between different priorities, academics, worklife, family obligations, this makes a streamlined pathway. Using Todd’s expressway, we’re creating a carpool lane for busy people.

John: And it also matches with your discussion earlier of the checklist type idea, that when students are given a project, say “write a paper by the last day of the term,” it’s really easy to procrastinate. And then quite often, when people did that, it became overwhelming, and it just never got done. By breaking it up into smaller chunks, you’re keeping the cognitive load lower on each chunk, but you’re also dealing with those human tendencies to procrastination and so forth, to make it easier for people to keep the work manageable to stay on track and not to put things off, because they’ve got many other things that at the moment seem more pressing than something due a month later, or two months later.

Todd: Yeah. And John, you brought up something that’s hugely important there, that so much of this stuff is interwoven. And I think it’s hard for a lot of folks to see all of the different connections that are out there. But if you do a project, just like you just said, that’s due at the end of the semester, students wait till the last minute because they will. As a faculty member, I’ve had reports for Provost that I’ve waited until the last minute to do, but that creates the high pressure. Cognitive load goes up, You start thinking “I can’t do it.” Once I started thinking I can’t do it, now I’ve got to pass this class. And so I started looking out online, maybe there’s a paper I could just buy. So suddenly it becomes an integrity issue. And so a lot of times when you look at the research on students who will do unethical things, or cheating in the classroom, it’s almost always based on pressure. People don’t cheat on things that they don’t feel pressure about. So when you have all these checklists, that Kevin pointed out, through the semester, you keep the cognitive load down, you keep the pressure down, then the need to cheat, so to speak, you take that away. So there are really things that we can do to create a better environment for the students that don’t entice them into these unethical behaviors.

Kevin: Well, and one strategy that we put in the book is to not only provide the due dates, but provide start dates. And when you break up a project into chunks, you can have a first draft, you’re gonna have feedback from a peer, and have those all lined up so that students see it’s not just one thing at the end of the term, and they’ll just wait until the last day. But instead, “Oh, I need to start my draft because I need to turn that in. Even if you’re not going to do a whole lot with it as the instructor, but you’re going to provide opportunities for students to interact with one another to get feedback about their work before they turn it in. All those things are important. I’ve gone to the extent where I have students take a snapshot either digitally on their computer, or with a phone picture if they have a paper-based calendar and show that they have allotted the correct amount of time each week for my class. And I give them, if they want, the ability to download or use an online to-do list that basically sends them reminders to start and finish things up.

John: And that feedback that they’re receiving all the way through also reduces the ability to engage in academic dishonesty and it reduces the benefits of it because none of the tasks are unmanageable. It works a lot of ways.

Rebecca: I really appreciated all of the equity framework built into your book, but I have to admit the chapter I went to first was “managing your workload when teaching online and I think maybe a lot of faculty might switch to that immediately right now, in this moment in time. Can you talk a little bit about some of the strategies to reduce workload for faculty as well?

Kevin: Sure, I’ll start, but I know Todd has lots of ideas to jump in. So a couple things, one, and we’ve referred to this before, and not in this interview. But, Tom Tobin has a book with Kirsten Behling about universal design for learning, and in it they propose this “plus one” strategy, just think about one thing that you can do. So while we present a lot of ideas in the book, it’s chock full of ideas, we recognize that, unless you’re going to do a full course redesign over a summer or something like that, you re lly are going to find that the maximum strategy that will help the most students at that particular time. And so when you’re talking about workload, part of it is parsing out the work of modifying your course. The other is thinking about strategies that will help you maybe be more equitable in how you reply to students in a discussion forum. There’s research that shows it, and that particular study by Stanford 94% of the instructors replied first, and sometimes only, to names that look like white male names. So a strategy might be to create a spreadsheet showing that you have responded to all the students equally throughout the semester, just tracking your own progress. Until they have tools like that in the learning management system, we have to do it ourselves. That increases the workload in some respects, but also decreases the workload in terms of, “Well, I know that I’ve talked to Todd three times already this semester, but I haven’t answered Rebecca once.” If I’m worried about whether or not Rebecca is going to stay in the class, the way to demotivate a student is to give them no feedback whatsoever. So that increases our workload when we get those administrative calls from our department chairs or Associate Deans saying, “Hey, your DFW rates really high.” So just thinking about different things that you can do over time, and also ways of working with colleagues. If you’re teaching a class that has more than one section, you might be able to strategize who’s going to do what this week. The ability to leverage open educational resources, so you don’t have to create something from scratch, but maybe modify it to meet your needs. There’s all these different ways that you could manage your workload in the online course development, and also the course facilitation.

Todd: The other thing I would add to that is… I think it’s really important, everybody’s in firefighter mode, especially right now. You’re just trying to get… tomorrow is all you’re trying to do. But I can remember being a faculty member about 35 years ago, I was kind of in that same framework, too. I know that now is tremendously just pressure for everybody. But you know, last year wasn’t just easy, and three years ago wasn’t simple. So we’re always in this field where, because there’s an unlimited number of things we can do, and if we care about our students and we’re pretty bright, and keep trying to do new things, we’re always kind of overworked. So I think this is no different than a lot of other times, you got to take stock of where you’re at and what you can do. And I think budgeting a little bit of time, even every week just for 20, 30 minutes, and specifically say to yourself, low-hanging fruit stuff… What could I do that would actually cut down some of unnecessary work that I’m doing right now, and not decrease the learning for my students? I could take a thing out here, and they’re still going to learn just as much. Or what’s something that I could add that, after a very short period of time, the cognitive load wouldn’t be bad, because it might take me a couple times to figure it out. But once I got it figured out, then I can do something that takes very little time and has a lot more growth for my students. And so just taking stock once in a while, because I will tell you that I remember when EXCEL came out. So when Excel came out, a friend of mine said, you got to get your gradebook into Excel. And for anybody who’s listening that’s old enough to remember carrying around the green book… the little green book that we all wrote up all our notes with. I had five exams where I dropped the lowest exam. And I was doing my class with 600 students in those green books. And it took me two years before I finally tried Excel, because I was too busy to try it. So my framework now is to say, “What if I had budgeted 30 minutes to try that?” I think in the end, it only took me about 30 minutes to an hour to actually run it in Excel. But I never took the time. So what we’re advocating for is, as busy as you are, take just a few minutes to just say if I jump off the treadmill, what could I do that would take less time?

John: This is going to date me a little bit, but I only used one of those little green books back in 1980 and 81. And then I picked up a Timex Sinclair computer, one of those early things, and I wrote a grade book program and I was using that up until the time I got a spreadsheet. I think Lotus 123 was the first one I used and then Excel after that, and then the gradebook in the LMS. I hated doing all that by hand. So I’ve always tried to automate it.

Todd: Before we move on. You know, I do want to point out, just for nostalgia, that there was nothing in society more powerful than that little green grade book because anybody in higher education had seen that book before. And I can remember my sister got in a car accident and these surgeons would come in, different people come in, and they were very dismissive of us, almost all of us. But, I was grading one time and one of them came in and saw that book and stopped and says, “What do you teach?” And then we got into this really nice conversation and it suddenly occurred to me, even the physicians fear the green book.

John: One of the things you emphasize throughout your book is building human connections in online courses. Could you talk a little bit about some strategies that we can use to do that effectively?

Kevin: So first is being aware of opportunities where students can interact with one another or interact with you, the instructor. And so that awareness then extends to “Okay, we’re going to build it into an assignment but in a way that helps students understand that that’s part of what you want to achieve.” And so we often look at instructions for, let’s say, a discussion forum where it’s maybe a paragraph maybe two of how they should respond to your original prompt, and then please reply to two other students. And so giving them some feedback about what do you want to happen in those replies? Do you want them to extend what the other person did by finding resources that would be helpful for the argument they’re making? Is it to probe or clarify when that student’s not making enough points to really make it clear what they’re trying to say? And so giving them some ideas, and then when we pull in the equity angle, on top of human connection, we can say, “How does your connection to this and your background and your identity map to what you’re experiencing with your student classmate?” And so getting them to start interacting with one another at different levels, also increases that sense of human connection because they know each other better? A lot of instructors I know, especially in fields, maybe like STEM, they’re worried about adding things to the class that would take away time from other important activities. And so it’s finding those ways to do both. I’m a big fan of both/and as opposed to either/or. So, if you’re going to have a discussion, then maybe “How does this physics concept apply to your background? How is it useful in your life?” And so there’s still thinking about the physics concept, instead of just a chance to socialize with your classmates. And then moving on from there.

Todd: I love the way Kevin just covered the one aspect. Another thing we’ve talked a lot about in terms of this human connection is there’s an old phrase that “we teach the way we were taught.” And it’s actually a way to excuse folks for lecturing because like, “Well, I was lectured to, so I lecture.” I don’t actually believe you teach the way you were taught. I think that… in fact I know, back when I was an undergraduate, and we’re talking about back in the late 70s, early 80s, there were faculty members doing service learning, there was small groups, we did problem based learning, we had a lot of different things. I loved this one guy who did storytelling lectures. I don’t teach the way I was taught, I teach the way I best learned. And that makes a lot of sense, because if we really don’t stop and take into consideration other people, every one of us has a way we learn. And we think, “Oh, you know how students will learn best is you do it like this.” And it’s the way you learned. And so what I think the thing is, is we got to break away from this concept of teaching the way we best learned. And by the way, as evidence of this too, you’ll have some students who will do phenomenally well in your class. If you sit down and talk to them, they tend to learn just like you did. And that’s why the class is going so well for them. So I think, for me, what I try to do is to say “Who in the classroom….no matter how I’m teaching, who in the classroom is struggling right now?” And so if I’m teaching something where people raise their hands and just shout and answer quickly, I’m actually teaching to the fast thinking, low concerned extroverts… the people who don’t mind making mistakes. And if I stop and think for just a second, who is that not benefiting? Well, somebody who needs to take a few more minutes to think, a person is a little bit more introverted, or an individual who’s really self conscious about making mistakes. So that’s a part of trying to find that human connection to of getting away from just assuming everybody out there like us

Rebecca: As a slow thinker, I really appreciate that.

Todd: And you know, it’s funny, I just want to say is, I think that’s really, really important. Because people will make jokes about that all the time. It’s like, “Well, you know, we introverts…” They’re all learners. And this is one thing I just loved working with Kevin on. He’s one of the kindest, most human oriented people I’ve ever been around. But constantly be thinking, if somebody makes a joke to me and says, “Well, you know, I’m kind of introverted. So I don’t know if I’ll fit in here.” I’ll say, “Well, wait a minute, how can we make that work? And it’s not a joke. Let’s talk that through.” Because education is by and large, built for fast-talking risk-taking extroverts. That’s just who education had been built for. And online learning actually changes that game, which is why some students dislike it, and others love it. But they’re all humans out there. So we do have some students who are really struggling now with online learning, who wouldn’t be doing much better in the classroom right along with the people again, who are doing much better because we’re online.

John: And we should try to design our courses to work for all sets of students.

Todd: Yeah.

Kevin: There you go.

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

Kevin: Well, I would say, Todd described how this book evolved over the course of a couple of years. And during that couple year period, this thing called a pandemic happened. So obviously, there’s more that we could be doing. And so I know, for myself, in conference presentations and workshops that I conduct at colleges and universities, I’ve been trying to fill in different gaps to help people with immediate needs that we may not have been able to get to to the book, otherwise it would have been an encyclopedia. We packed that thing full of ideas, but I think Todd just constructed a website. I’d love to find ways to engage the community around the equity challenges that they’re facing and help folks identify what this really looks like in a course. When you’re talking about learning equity or Universal Design for Learning or human connection. These can seem like abstract concepts. And so when you’re saying, “But I’m designing an online course, I need something that I can see.” So getting examples of that, not just by the ones that Todd and I put in the book, but by others. Stories that students tell about things that helped them, those are the things I think would really bolster this book and make it achievable for people who are busy and just trying to help their students. What do you think, Todd?

Todd: I think that’s great, Kevin, and I guess that’s, for me, the same type of thing. We’ve written the book, I think it’s an amazing material, quite frankly, and I’m in awe of it at the end. And I’m not saying that just because I’m the co-author of the book. It’s got so much information packed into it. And so we did set up a website, theexcellentteacherseries.com, because this is part of that series. And it’s going to have information on it. So I think what’s next is what Kevin was just talking about, just continuing to put tips and different suggestions on this so it can be a living project, as opposed to a static book. The book itself kind of launches you and then we have this living project that people come back to and contribute with.

John: Thank you. I really enjoyed reading your book. And I’ll strongly recommend it to our faculty here. And we very much appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.

Todd: Thank you.

Kevin: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for joining us and sharing all of your rich information.

Todd: Appreciate that. Thanks for the opportunity.

Kevin: Yeah, and the chance to have some tea.

Todd: Oh, yeah. Gotta love the tea.

Rebecca: Tea is very important.

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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.

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169. Statistical Simulations

Abstract concepts can be really difficult for students to grasp. In this episode, Matt Anderson joins us to discuss how simulations can be used to make statistical concepts more tangible. Matt is a lecturer in the psychological sciences department at Northern Arizona University. He was a recipient of the 2020 College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ Teacher of the Year award at NAU.

Show Notes

Additional simulation resources:

Transcript

John: Abstract concepts can be really difficult for students to grasp. In this episode, we look at how simulations can be used to make statistical concepts more tangible.

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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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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John: Our guest today is Matt Anderson. Matt is a lecturer in the psychological sciences department at Northern Arizona University. He was a recipient of the 2020 College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ Teacher of the Year award at NAU. Welcome, Matt.

Matt: Thanks very much, John. It’s a pleasure to be here. And I’m really excited to be talking about the use of simulations in introductory statistics classes.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Matt: Today’s tea is lemon ginger.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.

Matt: Yeah, that’s a fave.

Rebecca: How ‘bout you, John?

John: I have Christmas tea…

Rebecca: Aha.

John: …with a cinnamon stick.

Rebecca: That’s only because I was drinking it last time.

John: You inspired me to buy some Christmas tea, which I’ve been drinking for the last couple of weeks.

Rebecca: I almost sent you some. And I have a Scottish afternoon tea today.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about how you’ve been using simulations in your courses. But first, could you tell us a little bit about what courses you normally teach?

Matt: Absolutely. My main mission is to teach the labs for the undergraduate statistics courses, the introductory statistics courses that are taught within the Department of Psychological Sciences. And so I teach about six to eight of those a semester. And I think it might be useful to just contextualize the labs. They’re one-credit labs, and they’re embedded in four-credit, introductory statistics classes. And all of our faculty use the same schedule, and we use the same textbook, and so there’s a lot of coherence among the sections that we have. So, the thing I love about the lab the most is that, because I’m getting all the psychological sciences majors, I have a chance to meet almost all of them. And I have a chance to do that early in their academic trajectories. And that provides an opportunity to get things on their radar for those who are going on to graduate education such as the graduate record exam and things like that. We have a little bit of a focus on SPSS in our lab, in addition to the normal course content that we would see aligned with the textbook. In addition to the course faculty teaching the lecture portions, and I’m teaching the labs, we’ve got some wonderful tutors, and those tutors come from our Academic Success Center. And we’ve also got a tutor who’s a second year graduate student in our Master of Arts in Psychological Sciences program who adds a lot to the course delivery. So it’s a really wonderful place for me to be teaching. I feel very well supported, and I love the mission, even though I understand that statistics may be, to be contemporary, not everybody’s cup of tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: So how many students are there in these classes? And what level are they? You mentioned they’re fairly early in their career, are they mostly sophomores?

Matt: Well, it’s a mix. Yeah, I think that the tendency is that we’ve got sophomores and juniors, we do have first-year students, and we also have seniors, but most students are sophomores, or juniors. And in each section, I’ve got maybe 30 students. So you can see when I’m teaching eight of those, that’s a lot of folks. And that’s complicated a little bit by the online delivery that we’re using right now as well. I also teach a thing called an undergraduate teaching apprentice class. And in this very small class, I’ve got students who are interested in learning more about the science of teaching and learning. And we focus on statistics, and they have applied assignments where they might help me with our learning management system. I think I’ve been inspired by all of the great simulations out there, and I’m going to add an assignment related to those as well. And then I also teach a fully online statistics lab for undergraduate students who are transfer students, who might not have had a lab experience when they took their lecture. And so this uses the same materials that we use in the face-to-face labs or the labs that we use for our basic introductory classes.

Rebecca: So, you participated in a redesign of your introductory statistics classes, can you talk a little bit about this redesign, maybe where it started, and now where it’s ended up?

Matt: The redesign that I was involved with had to do with the lab portion of the class. And it started around 2013, when I was hired to teach the labs for these courses, and also for our research methods in psychology classes. And up to that time, the labs were taught quite capably by graduate students, but there was variability in content and delivery and things like that. And so it was in the interest of the department to consolidate those into a single uniform experience. And that’s what I had the pleasure of putting together. And so what I started doing was building these what I called lab modules, and they would be used in each of the classes. And when I first started doing those, the version I used on Thursday was much different than the version I used on Tuesday. And there’s a lot of evolution that took place. And teaching eight of these labs a week, it was nice to have some development take place that was meaningful over the course of a single semester. And right now that lab manual is still being used. It’s fortunately not something I have to stand at the copier and print, but it comes in a bound book through our NAU bookstore. And it’s got modules that are aligned with each of the chapters in the textbook that we use, as well as very specific freestanding modules related to things like SPSS assignments and power analysis, and a little bit of Excel that’s built in there as well. And the fun thing about putting this thing together, I just loved the creative process. And I benefited enormously from the input from instructional designers at NAU. We’ve got some just phenomenal folks there who had some really important insights to provide that we put into the lab manual. So, it’s got QR codes, for example, in it. And so if a person gets to a particular part in an SPSS assignment and can’t remember how to do this, they can just use the QR code to see a very short little tutorial on how to do that. And I think being able to build those kinds of resources in something like this, make it interactive, I think is useful for the students and for me. It’s a really fun part of the creative process.

John: When you started working with constructing these labs, did you start using simulations right away? Or was that something you’ve gradually been adding since then?

Matt: Well, I started adding them soon after I started building them. But it wasn’t until maybe a year later that I started embedding simulations in as assignments. I was one of those students who really struggled, I probably shouldn’t say this out loud. My first stats class, it was very abstract. It was early in the morning, which complicated things for me. But, what I found was that I really benefited from seeing things to help marry these abstract concepts to real data. And about the time that I started teaching, there was a series of videos that were put out one was called “The dance of the P values.” It was by Dr. Geoff Cumming and it had a beautiful simulation attached to it. And so I was just starting to learn R at the time. And so I started seeing if I could replicate his findings using R and was able to, and that gave me a little bit of encouragement about building them. And at the same time, in 2014, our mathematics and statistics department helped host a International Conference on the Teaching of Statistics here in Flagstaff. It’s a huge international event. And it brought people together who were just marvelous at explaining and had these beautiful simulations. And they also talked about how to teach courses using R. And I just found that whole thing inspirational, in addition to having the pleasure of meeting some of my colleagues in the math department that I might not have met otherwise. And so that opened a whole new window into what simulations are out there, created by these really incredibly bright and capable and devoted teachers to the introduction of statistics and psychology,

John: I have to ask, what does “The Dancing P values” do as a simulation?

Matt: Well, they don’t actually dance. They do move. This is very similar to the way that I dance I suppose. But what it shows was that with small sample sizes, the P values just really were not consistent. And that was a message that was really central to what he was trying to put across. And the way that it was articulated and illustrated, I thought, was really compelling.

Rebecca: And who can argue with that title. That’s the hook. You have a good stimulation with a good hook, you got your attention.

Matt: It is a hook, right? Yeah, even if you didn’t have an interest in statistics, there might be dancing involved. Yeah.

John: And p-values is a concept that students often have trouble with. So, having that practical application, I would think would be helpful.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar. Can you describe what R is?

Matt: Yes, R is a statistical software package that was built from the ground up to do stats and represents statistical graphics. It’s incredibly powerful. It’s free. And it’s also open source in the respect that people build these things called packages for them, which extend their capabilities quite a bit. And so if you can think of almost any esoteric statistical procedure that you would like to implement in your own lab, for example, there’s probably a package out there to do that. And the thing that I liked about it was that it was able to be paired with a thing called Rstudio, which I thought was a nice integrated development environment, which has some additions that allows you to take some of the things that you do on your local machine and put them on the web. So it was really a nice match between what I wanted to do in the lab and what I wanted to put out on the web for people to be able to see.

John: How do your simulations use R.

Matt: That’s a great question. They basically are simulations that I’ve built in R in this add on called Shiny. And so the students don’t see any R code at all. That said, in the labs themselves, I do think it’s useful for them to be able to interpret statistical output from different software packages. So I do give them some R output and ask them to make meaning out of it. But I don’t ask them to do any coding at all.

Rebecca: Can you talk about the difference in students experiencing simulations versus different kinds of exercises you might have had them complete prior to introducing the simulations into your course.

Matt: Maybe right now, I should just define what I think a simulation is. And so this is a very wide net. And I think it’s basically any visualization that allows you to “What if?” questions, to explore and demonstrate connections between abstract concepts and real data. Some of the simulations that I’ll talk about allow you to do statistical inferences as well… so, incredibly powerful. So I think these simulations and the use of the simulations exist across a continuum. I think there are some environments, such as the one in which I am operating, where we use simulations to try to reinforce critical points. So, Central Limit Theorem comes to mind. But there are also some courses where they build the entire semester around the use of simulations, they start them very, very early in the course, leveraging people’s natural inquisitiveness and their desire to see patterns and use that over the course of the semester to develop this deep understanding, not only of the details regarding statistics, but the big picture, how these things are all wired together.

John: Going back to Rebecca’s question, how have students responded to the use of the simulations compared to what you’ve done earlier in some of these lab assignments.

Matt: One of the simulations is one that’s done by the Rice virtual statistics lab. And it’s one that has to do with sampling distributions, which for me, when I was learning it and teaching it and for students still, a difficult concept. Imagine, if you will, just this normal population at the top of your screen, and then three boxes below, and the box immediate below, you have the mean of a sample that’s drawn. And then below that, it gets pushed into what emerges as a sampling distribution based on that sample size. And then the fourth box, the one at the bottom, would allow you to do a different sampling distribution. So you can do two at once, if you will. But this is visually really appealing, because it allows you to see the random sample being taken and where that winds up being put and how those samples aggregate to develop the sampling distribution. So that’s one that I built an entire assignment around, because you can predict some of the values of the sample distributions based on the math. And so it was nice to be able to put all those things together, I think, and the added beauty of this is that you can take that normal parent population, and you can make it one that’s non-normal. And you’ll see when you rerun the sampling distribution that you wind up with, in most cases, a very normal looking sampling distribution that allows you to run those inferential statistics. So it helps connect some of the dots that might not be connected otherwise. And so, while I don’t have any p-values myself to evidence how successful this has been, I have heard a lot of “a-has” when I’m talking to students about this, which to me is the Holy Grail. And they seem to get it with these simulations. As I researched simulations in preparation for this particular conversation, that was something that was echoed in all of the presentations was just the students really getting it and being able to leverage previous knowledge and being able to put all these things together so they can anticipate what happens in the future, when they do other simulations.

Rebecca: There’s something really powerful about being able to observe something and make that rule for yourself rather than just being told the rule that you have to follow. Otherwise, it seems really arbitrary.

Matt: Rebecca, that’s absolutely true. And it’s kind of fun to see these things played out with real world data that is much more compelling to students.

John: Inferential learning about inferential statistics.

Matt: [LAUGHTER] Absolutely, yeah.

John: But those are things, again, that students do have trouble with. They have trouble understanding that the estimators themselves have distributions. And this should make it a whole lot easier for them to see it. I’m getting a lot of ideas here, because I’m teaching an econometrics class this spring, and many of the things you’ve mentioned are things that my students have trouble with.

Rebecca: As someone who just learned some statistics this January, I’m thinking this could have been really helpful. [LAUGHTER]

Matt: Yeah, and so when I look at what I’m doing, I’m really happy to be using simulations. But as I look at the universe of simulations that are out there, I can see that there’s more that I can do, and that I’m really motivated to do after seeing some of these wonderful things. I shouldn’t get too far without talking about some of the wonderful things that are being done on a grand scale with simulations in introductory statistics courses. There are actually textbooks out there, which are built around these. And what they’ll do is they’ll start off early in a semester using simulations, and without giving names to things like sampling distributions and confidence intervals and P values. But they’ll take some real world data. And then they’ll say, what’s the model that you would use to best describe these data and then run some randomization samples to collect data. And then ask, “How likely is it that the original data were from that distribution?” And so that’s a powerful thing because a person doesn’t need to know any statistics coming into that class and being able to make meaning out of a lot of those things. There are multiple textbooks that use this simulation-based inference testing process to great effect and in the links that are going to be associated with this podcast, you’ll be able to go and find those, and just see the rich resources that they have supporting those texts, which actually can be used independently as well for reinforcing specific points that a person might have about their own statistics class or econometrics class. Another thing that I think is useful to point out is the fact that there’s a document that helps guide all of this. And the American Statistical Association has got the Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education. This is called the GAISE guidelines. And they were revised in 2016. And they provide some very implementable recommendations for improving introductory statistics classes. And some of them are very consistent with what we’re talking about today, increasing the use of technology and the use of simulations, and decreasing that distance between abstract concepts and these students’ real worlds.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how to get started in implementing these sorts of things into your classes? So if you’ve never used simulations before, how do you start?

Matt: Well, I think, for me, the best thing to do would be to reach out to colleagues who might be doing that. So, for example, here at NAU, colleagues in the mathematics and statistics department are using these. So I would go to them. And I would say, “What have you found most useful, and how might I implement that in the class, given the context I have?” But, you can also do some wonderful internet searches. And I think I’ve curated a few really good starting places for you, in the resources attached to this podcast, I would recommend, for example, just seeing what’s out there by looking at these lists of applets that exists to teach this and to teach this and to teach this. And if you are thinking about something that’s on a grander scale, listen to the video by Nathan Tintall and Beth Chance, about how they implement this simulation-based inference testing in their classes and the rewards they have from doing that. I think getting a real broad sense of what’s available early can be really helpful in figuring out how you might want to do this. But I think that the nice thing is that you don’t have to do it on a grand scale, to start. You can use a single applet to reinforce a point that you might find your students struggling with. There are some other resources. There are journals on teaching statistics that are very, very useful. And I think this cross-pollenization between mathematics and the psych stats classes, is really useful. So I think it’s helpful to get this strong situational awareness of what others are doing to help inform how you might do what you’re doing better.

Rebecca: I think this idea of “one small step” is always a great approach to trying something new, and it seems very manageable. So I can try one simulation and see how it goes, and then feel confident to implement more and more. But that kind of iterative approach seems really helpful. Of course, not everyone has eight sections that they can iterate through all at once. [LAUGHTER]

Matt: Yeah, even if you’re doing it once. I mean, think about the environment that you have. You’re explaining these findings that are very visual in nature, and how all these things are wired together. And I think one of the most important things the faculty contribute to students’ education is not just the facts, but how these things are all linked, and being able to hear from a seasoned faculty member can help develop student’s ability to think these things through in a more expert way, rather than just memorizing simple facts. So I think that not only do we get some sense of accomplishment in putting those things out there for students to use, but the students do as well, because they want to get this too, and they’re much more enthusiastic about content when they think they’re really getting it, or they know they’re really getting it.

John: I think anyone who has been teaching for any length of time knows where some of the pinch points are, the things that students always have trouble grasping. And those would be a good place to start, not just in statistics, but more broadly, in any discipline, where there’s some concepts that students don’t always make the connection between theory and practice or practical application. So those would be the places I would think where people should get started… thinking back on where students are having trouble making connections, because it’s generally the same areas year after year after year. And that information could be used to help us improve our instruction by using tools that make it easier for students to see those connections.

Matt: Those are all good points. And you know, one of the things that was evident when I was looking into this more deeply was the frequency of which these simulations are being used in AP statistics and earlier. And so it’s much more likely now that we’re gonna see students coming into our classes who are somewhat familiar with this way of presenting information. And so they’re going to get it pretty quickly. And so a nice way to make them feel more at home might be to put these things in and, again, to leverage their learning, give them this feeling of self efficacy, that’s going to be really helpful to them as they get into more difficult concepts.

Rebecca: How have you adapted your instructional approach during COVID-19 and teaching remotely?

Matt: That is a great question. And one of the things that helped was that this online stats lab that we’ve put together over the years really made it so that these labs were kind of ready to go. So, in that respect, the materials had been developed as had many that people had put together at the end of the spring 2020 semester. Those were just in the bank and ready to be used in the fall and are even stronger now. There are lots of models being used throughout the country, for dealing with COVID-19 and instruction. So maybe I’ll just drag the one that we’re using so that listeners can get a better sense of how it all fits together. We’re using a modification of the HyFlex system, which is called NAUFlex. And we started using that really in the fall of 2020. As is the case, I think, for many, after spring break of 2020, people went into mostly completely online mode. And so the NAUFlex system starts off with teaching being done completely online. And that allows students to get on campus and be tested and all of the things that build that strong safe infrastructure. And then somewhat later, students are able to opt in if they choose to participate in in-person classes. Now, the online classes that are held are synchronous, so there’s an expectation that students will be there for those. And then we also have COVID adjusted room capacities. And so what that means for some classes, is that they have two groups or three groups of students who can come in, so that we can maintain that distancing. My experience has been that most students have opted to stay online, which means that they show up for the lectures or the labs in either Zoom, or what I use is BB Collaborate, which is built into our learning management system BB Learn. And so that’s how it works for us. And kind of the unsung heroes in this whole evolution have been the instructional designers who helped make this work, and also the folks from Information Technology Services who found hardware that works, that allows us to both interact with our students in the classroom and push it out there to students who may be in places that have varying degrees of connectivity. What I’ve done to modify my instruction, somewhat based on feedback I’ve gotten from students from the spring and fall semesters: what they liked, what they didn’t, how it worked for them, and try to really bring to the lab, this sense of organization and consistency and safety. One of the things, as educators, we’re used to doing is walking into a classroom and being able to gauge energy levels and look around the room and be able to tell who’s got that faraway look, and maybe we need to go back and regroup and cover some material. And some of those cues aren’t there anymore. And so what I’ve found is that I’m much more elaborate in my explanations so that I don’t leave anybody behind. And I tried to foster an environment which makes everybody feel comfortable asking questions when they want. And it’s very rewarding for me when they do. And I know that, in a class of 30, if a student asks a question, there are several others who probably have the same one. So the other thing that I think, and I know that this is something shared by your listeners too, is just that the notion of teaching with compassion, these students are really out of their academic element, if you will, of the in-person classes and going from one place to another. That sequencing is no longer there. And so it’s a much different world in which they need to learn. And some of them learn very well in an online environment and some don’t, but they’re forced into that anyway. And so I tried to have lots of compassion for what the students are going through and try to extend that in my syllabi for late assignments and things like that. And I think I’m a little more careful with humor, because I don’t know the backgrounds of all the students. I have not had that experience with them in the classroom. And so I’m really careful about how I express things so that everybody can get it, and it’ll be something that everybody can accept and understand. The nice thing about the labs is that we have all of these resources that we can use. And so it’s designed to be delivered in an online environment completely. And so students have interactive tutorials they can go to that help them master the content, complete the assignments. As an aside, one of the things that I found helpful in this communication, is that I wear a clear face mask when I’m teaching. Part of it is because I appreciate that myself. I’ve got some hearing loss. And so I’m a little bit reliant on reading lips. And in the classroom, students need cues that “this is important,” or “I’m trying to be funny here.” And I think that it helps the students understand the content and my commitment to their success when they can see my face better. That’s a little thing, but I thought I’d put it out there. I’ve gotten feedback from students that they found that helpful. And the other thing is that having taught this lab so many times, you mentioned pinch points before, I’ve got an idea of where those are going to occur. And so when we’re coming up on one of those, I can be more explanatory, give them a much better foundation for getting past those. So those are the things that I’ve changed.

John: One nice thing that may come out of this whole difficult teaching experience this past fall, is that I think all faculty have learned to be much more inclusive in their teaching approaches for all the reasons that you mentioned. And I’m hoping that that’s something that will continue as we move past the pandemic.

Matt: I agree with that completely. I think that there are really important initiatives to promote that in every classroom. But I do think that the situation which we find ourselves in now does encourage us or motivate us to do a better job with that. And so that’s one of the things that I would throw out as well is this whole idea of universal design for learning, something that I think is really important, and simulations play into that nicely, don’t they? …in that they provide this other way of representing information, content that students can get, particularly those that the students can work on themselves time after time after time until they feel like they really get it. And so I think that this universal design for learning thing is something that we should probably keep in the forefront as well. And some systems really do a nice job with making that easy for us. So for example, there’s an add on to BB learn that takes PDF files, for example, and creates those in alternative formats.

John: Ally.

Matt: And so you’re familiar with that. And for some students, it’s the only way to get that content. For others, it’s a convenient way to listen to content while they might be on the bus or in the car. And so I just think with these simulations, it just feeds nicely into what I think is a mandate to try to make things available in as many ways as possible, so they can really resonate with students.

Rebecca: Do you have any other tips related to simulations that you want to share with folks who might be teaching similar kinds of courses?

Matt: Well, that’s a great question. And while I’ve talked about simulations, one of the things that might be on the border of that, but I think is very useful for incorporating into classes, are some games. And in the face-to-face labs, I used to really enjoy doing like Stats Jeopardy and things like that. It’s a little bit more difficult to do in an online environment. But one of the things that I’ve done in the correlation module is to use a system put together by John Marden. He’s a Professor Emeritus at the Department of Statistics at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. And he’s got this nice little system where he provides students with panels: four scatter plots and four correlation coefficients, and they need to match those. And so what I’ve done in previous semesters, and look forward to doing again, is having a competition across all the sections to see who has the longest sequence of correct panels, the winner of that gets a copy of a book by Tyler Vigan called Spurious Correlations, which if you haven’t seen it, his definitely worth a look. And there’s a website online as well, which is kind of fun. And one of the things that I’ve noticed with this particular gamified module is that students really work hard to get it. And at the end, they do, there are heroic efforts to win that book. And at the end, they really do know how to look at a scatterplot and get an idea of what the correlation coefficient might be.

John: For people who might want to go a little beyond using simulations in class, do you have any suggestions on where they might go to learn how to use, say, Shiny in R in order to create their own simulations? Is there a good reference out there?

Matt: I think there are some good references out there. They’re not, I think, specific to building simulations for teaching psychology. Although I have to say that one of the links that I’ll provide following the podcast will take you to an array of Shiny apps that were built specifically for teaching introductory statistics. And here’s the thing, they were built by undergraduate and graduate students for that express purpose. So this is a beautiful selection that were student built. But I think people who start working in R will look at some of the blogs that are out there and start being able to put these together themselves. But again, I think with all of these things, it would be starting off simple and going from there. Some of the ones that you’ll see out there are incredibly elaborate, and I know that they’re not in my skill set to build at the moment. So I would start with simple and go from there. But in the meantime, take a look at some of the other ones that are out there either to implement directly or try to emulate.

John: We always end by asking what’s next?

Matt: Well, for me, what’s next is a nice organized, gradual wind down of 2020. I think all of us are looking forward to 2021. I mentioned how grateful I am to have the opportunity to talk with you today. In preparation for this, I did lots of looking at things that are out there and I’m just really re-inspired to find simulations to put into my lab wherever I can. And also, as I’ve mentioned, planning on maybe building some assignments into my undergraduate teaching apprentice class about how they can use this. But I think I’m missing the contact with students in the online environment and in the lab, and I’m looking forward to being back in the classroom and using some of these things. But, I think, immediately what’s next, maybe another cup of lemon ginger tea.

Rebecca: Sounds like a good way to spend an afternoon.

John: This has been fascinating, and I’m looking forward to doing more of this during the spring myself. Thank you.

Matt: You’re very welcome. Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca. It’s a real pleasure to be here today.

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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.

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167. Supporting Persistence

Some students thrive in online courses and some students struggle. In this episode, Dr. Becky Cottrell joins us discuss the impact of student characteristics and circumstances on their success in online courses. We also discuss strategies that we can employ in our online classes to help all of our students be more successful. Becky is the online and hybrid course development analyst in the social work department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Show Notes

  • Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599–623.

Transcript

John: Some students thrive in online courses and some students struggle. In this episode, we discuss the impact of student characteristics and circumstances on their success in online courses. We also examine strategies that we can employ in our online classes to help all of our students be more successful.

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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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Becky Cottrell. Becky is the online and hybrid course development analyst in the social work department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Welcome, Becky.

Becky: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Becky: I’m drinking water today.

John: And I am drinking ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: And I’ve gotten seasonal with my Christmas tea today.

John: I’ve got to bring that back. I’ve got a lot of it up in the office, along with some cinnamon sticks.

Rebecca: I beat you, John, I beat you this time. [LAUGHTER]

John: I saw your presentation at the OLC Accelerate conference, where you were talking about the research you’ve done on student outcomes in online and face-to-face classes at an Hispanic serving institution. Could you give us an overview of what prompted your interest in the topic, first?

Becky: Absolutely. I have been teaching online for more than six years. And I started working with a number of colleagues who really didn’t think that you could teach Spanish online. And I took that as a challenge and really wanted to teach a really great online Spanish class. And from there, it got me wondering who is taking online classes? I noticed a really big difference between my face-to-face students and my online students. And I wanted to know more about who they were and how they were doing in those classes. And combining that with the fact that we have seen an increase in student enrollments in online classes at our institution and around the country over the last many years, even before COVID, it really seemed important to me to know how students are doing in their online classes and what their grades are and what their outcomes were.

John: And that research becomes even more important when we put it in the context of COVID with the rapid shift online. Many people who were avoiding online instruction like the plague, have suddenly been forced to change their teaching modality.

Rebecca: …due to the plague. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, we can no longer say “avoiding it like the plague” anymore.

Becky: And students are complaining now and you hear students who don’t want to pay Harvard tuition rates for a substandard educational experience in an online class. But, are those experiences really substandard? I really want to know that.

Rebecca: That’s definitely a great question and a really relevant one right now.

John: So, this was your dissertation research?

Becky: It was. So, I just finished my PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. So I did a lot of research about what are student outcomes and what do they look like with different types of curriculum?

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about where your study was done?

Becky: Absolutely. So we use a pseudonym for the site. So, Russell University. It’s an urban university in the Mountain West and a very non-traditional population. So, lots of older students, lots of first generation students, veterans, working students, more students who are married… helping raise families. So, not your typical just-out-of-high-school students. It’s an Hispanic serving institution, and has been for the last few years.

John: How large was the sample that you worked with?

Becky: I started looking at every class that had online and face-to-face enrollments over two academic years, and at a large institution that ended up with 156,000 total course enrollments. But the statistical method that I was using doesn’t let one student be in the treatment group and the control group. So we had to aggregate students. And so I aggregated them down. There ended up being 28,000 students in the study. And from there, I just wanted to look at the ones who were taking mostly online classes, or mostly face-to-face classes. So those who were in that top 25% or bottom 25%, in terms of online enrollment, ended up being 7765 students over the course of two years.

John: That’s a nice sized sample. In many institutions, you have some students who are only online students, some students are only face-to-face. It sounds like there was a bit of a continuum there.

Becky: Certainly there were some who were all online or all face-to-face. It wasn’t something that I specifically looked at in my study, so I can’t pull out specific numbers of that. But yes, we definitely had students in the study who were entirely online and entirely face-to-face.

John: In terms of the online classes, were they developed with the assistance of instructional designers?

Becky: That’s a really interesting question. And the answer basically, is I have no idea. It wasn’t one of the things that I looked at in the study, I was looking more at student characteristics than course characteristics. That said, Russell University has a really robust online offering. Over the last 20 years, they have increased their online course offerings a great deal, and particularly in the last five years have really ramped up their efforts to develop courses and have really excellent quality matters certified courses at the university. That doesn’t mean that all of our courses meet that standard. But it has been an institutional goal and one of the things that they’ve worked on. but I was just looking at student demographics when I was looking at the study. Partly that’s hard because we have students who are taking maybe 20 different classes, and so they could have had one or two that were developed through an instructional designer, but the others may not have been. So, no real way of knowing.

John: The outcome you were looking at specifically was student success in the course?

Becky: Yes, so I measured student success in two different ways. The first way was looking at student grades, which we measured by course GPAs that was aggregated based on their course enrollments. And the other one was withdrawal rate. So, what was their percentage of withdrawals during the courses that they were taking during the two-year sample?

John: One of the things I found really interesting about your study is that you use a methodology that took into account sample selection in a way that so many education studies don’t. And you suggested the reason for that, I think, when you said that your online students were quite a bit different than your face-to-face students. Could we talk a little bit about that issue of sample selection in studies of this nature?

Becky: Absolutely. This is a really common problem in educational research, that you have something called selection bias. And I think that those of us who teach are aware that our students who enroll in 8 am classes are really different than the students who enroll in 2 pm classes. And we see some of those similar things with online classes versus face-to-face classes. It’s just a really different group and personality of those students. And what happens is students get to sign up for their own classes. There’s nobody randomly controlling them into different classes. They pick the ones that they want with the teachers that they want at the times that they want and in the course modality that they want. And we don’t know why. So that’s part of what I wanted to look at in this research is: what students are enrolling in online classes and what students are enrolling in face-to-face and why? Is there a balance between the groups? Are they really similar? Or are they really different? And so what I found was that there are different students who are enrolling in online classes versus face-to-face classes, which is not unexpected. As an example here, we found that students who are working full time were more likely to take online classes, which makes sense, they need to take the online classes because it fits better with their schedule and has greater flexibility to match their work schedule. But at the same time, what impact does that have on course outcomes? Does it mean that they are really motivated because they have a full-time job, so they’re going to get better course grades? Or does it mean that they are working full time and they’re managing a family and if something comes up, they’re going to put their schoolwork to the side because other things are more important. So selection bias, and the way that students self selected to classes, really changes how they might perform in those classes. Which brings us to that question of are those student course outcomes based on the online course modality? Or are they based on the characteristics that made students choose the online course modality?

John: When you didn’t control for student characteristics, what did you find in terms of comparing the outcomes in online classes with face-to-face classes?

Becky: One of the things that was really interesting here is that those students who were taking 75%, or more online classes actually had significantly better grades in their online classes than they did in face-to-face classes. So the online course GPA for those students taking 75% or more online classes was 2.55. And for those taking face-to-face classes was only 2.34. So definitely a significant difference and higher grades in online classes, which is not what I was expecting. Then, with regard to withdrawal rates, we had totally different results, which is that there was no significant difference in withdrawal rates among the two groups before balancing for those 15 different student characteristics.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what those 15 characteristics were and how you chose those?

Becky: Absolutely. I used Tinto’s student integration model to look at what characteristics he felt contributed to student success and persistence in the institution. So, I ended up with 15, different personal characteristics related to students. So, a lot of demographic characteristics: age, race, gender, those sorts of issues. We tried to get academic performance through GPA, transfer status, transfer GPA, ACT scores, SAT scores, those sorts of things. We also tried to determine institutional commitment through if they had a declared major. And the one area that we would have liked to have more, but wasn’t available in an institutional data set, was something related to like computer literacy and other skills that were related to performance in an online class, but it just wasn’t something that was available. So 15 different characteristics, including those demographics, academics, and just connection to the institution.

John: So you were using a nearest neighbor matching with, I believe, a two-to-one ratio?

Becky: Yeah.

John: Could you describe that, perhaps, for our listeners?

Becky: Absolutely.

Rebecca: …for people like me that have no idea what that even means? [LAUGHTER]

Becky: So the methodology that I used was kind of an interesting statistical method called the propensity score analysis. And basically what a propensity score analysis does is matches people who are in the treatment group with people who are in the control group. So it creates kind of an artificial match to say this is now one person and what would have happened if they’d been in treatment or if they’d been in control. So it takes all of those characteristics and assigns them a score, and from there can divvy them up and say they are likely to be in treatment or control and it recreates those groups. And that matching allows them to determine the probability of them being in treatment or control groups, which essentially controls for the characteristics that you’ve loaded into the model.

John: To simplify it a bit, you’re comparing people who are similar in characteristics and examining the outcomes when adjusting for those characteristics.?

Becky: That is a great explanation… very concise. And the idea of the nearest neighbor two-to-one matching is basically that for each person who’s in the online class, we found two matching people in the control group. So we tried to keep as many students as possible in the final outcome.

John: And there have been at least some studies that are found one-to-one or two-to-one gives you the best estimates with the least amount of bias from that procedure..

Becky: Absolutely, yes. When there’s a one-to-one match, you get a lot better balance, because you can obviously find a matching student in the online or the face-to-face class that is the best fit. But when you start matching more students, it’s not quite as good of a fit, so you don’t deal with balance quite as well. And speaking of balance, I’m going to jump in and tell you about this right now, just because I think that’s interesting, and one of the great parts about propensity scores is this idea that the first thing that a propensity score model does is say, “Are these groups the same? Are your online groups the same as the face-to-face group?” And what we found out is that they aren’t. And I thought this was a really interesting piece of my research. So they were totally different, different enrollment patterns. and there were about eight characteristics that were significantly different. And this is where I think it’s so fascinating. So we had more part-time students in the online classes… not surprising… but they had higher ACT scores, more transfer students, more credits taken, they were more experienced students, they had higher GPAs, they were more likely to have a declared major and they were all older. So the better students were taking online classes, which is so fascinating to me, and explains ultimately, why we had higher course grades in our baseline data. Students who are better students were taking online classes, where those beginning students who were younger, who had less experience, were taking the face-to-face classes. So I just thought that was fascinating, that it was imbalanced. But it really gave a good picture as to why we were getting the outcomes we were at the institution.

Rebecca: It’ll be interesting to have some follow up studies related to COVID-19 around those ideas, because just anecdotally, students who are newer to being online, or just newer college students, have struggled quite a bit with online learning or complained about it, or just don’t know how to manage their time and those kinds of things. And it seems related to the kinds of findings that you’ve had.

Becky: Absolutely. And I think across the country, we’re seeing that those upperclassmen stay enrolled and are succeeding through these COVID transition. But it’s the underclassmen who are taking a gap year or who are failing out of classes. So I think that these results speak to that, that those students maybe aren’t prepared for an online class,

John: What happened to your results in terms of student success, when you corrected for the sample selection?

Becky: This is so fascinating. After controlling for that balance, we had originally had, in our baseline data, better scores, better course grades in online classes, and after controlling for those characteristics, there was no significant difference in course grades between online and face-to-face courses, which is awesome, it’s really exciting to know that maybe we’re doing something right. And so that was really exciting. But, at the same time, our baseline data had said that there was a non-significant difference in withdrawal rates. But after controlling, we found that there was a significant increase in withdrawal rates, and online classes had higher withdrawal rates, by about 2%, than face-to-face classes.

John: I think that’s a fairly common result, that online students often have much higher withdrawal rates than face-to-face classes.

Becky: Right. The grades are really promising. And I’m glad to know that those course outcomes are doing well. But when we start looking at withdrawal rates, it brings up some really interesting questions about how are we engaging students and why do we have bigger withdrawal rates in those online classes.

Rebecca: I was just going to ask if your research led you to believe anything about those results? If it was this particular characteristic or a teaching method? Or are those just new questions that we need to continue asking? [LAUGHTER]

Becky: I think they are mostly new questions that we need to continue asking. But there are some implications in the literature that I think lead us to some possibilities here. One of the big ones is that sense of community and connection in online classes, students really want to feel that, and if they don’t, they’re more likely to drop out from those classes. And so it’s definitely a consideration as we’re looking at more online classes is how are we building community? And how are we engaging with our students in that online space to make sure that they’re able to connect with their instructor and connect with other students in the class? I think that another factor that we see is who are taking these online classes: so students who are more engaged with families, they’re older, they’re working full time, therefore taking fewer classes. I think that those factors can contribute to their persistence or not in these online spaces. So, definitely some of those issues are there and we know what some of those reasons are. And I would love to do some future follow up research on what really is happening at this particular institution.

Rebecca: I know you had also mentioned high-impact practices and trying to incorporate more of those, like inviting students to do research and things. I’m wondering if we have any data on how prevalent that might actually be in online learning compared to face-to-face learning. How often are those opportunities actually there?

Becky: I totally agree. It would be so interesting to look at what are those impacts? And what is the prevalence of those high-impact practices? I think there’s a lot of research about what we can do to do better. And I think that even from this research that for my dissertation was almost obsolete by the time I defended my dissertation, because COVID happened, but one of the things that we can be doing better, and I think we have started is providing greater access to student services in those online spaces that students maybe before didn’t have access to advising, registration… they didn’t have a good way to connect with people who are on campus. And I think so many of our institutions have had to move towards a much better practice with that. When we went online for months, they had to figure out how to do that. And I think that we’ll keep that around and providing better services to students. And that will definitely help keep them enrolled in classes and keep them from stopping out and persisting at the institution.

Rebecca: Nothing like a pandemic to really force some innovation, right? [LAUGHTER]

Becky: It’s true, but it’s been so much fun. I love seeing that innovation and how we’re benefiting our students. I also love seeing a little more attention towards online teaching, We were the ugly stepchild before and now everyone is excited to learn about this new thing and how they can do it better.

John: It’s gone from being an ugly stepchild to a savior in some way.

Becky: Yeah, absolutely. Think about the last pandemic with the Spanish flu. What happened to their education at that point? We didn’t have online learning. Did they have distance education? What even happened with that?

John: If this has happened 20 years ago, it would have been a completely different experience with a lot of colleges just completely shutting down or moving to some type of correspondence class instruction.

Rebecca: Which I don’t think would have gone well. [LAUGHTER]

John: Which would not have gone very well.

Becky: No, definitely 20 years ago, I think that right now we can say we have similar course outcomes in online and face-to-face classes. But 20 years ago, I would have been one of those students who was protesting at Harvard about paying tuition for a substandard educational experience, [LAUGHTER]

John: What are some of the things that you would recommend doing to help build class community?

Becky: I’m so glad that you asked about this, because this is one of the other personal interests that I have. I’ve been working with a faculty learning community for the last two and a half years around developing instructor presence in an online class. And so I love talking about this, I think that there are a lot of ways that we can really develop connections among instructors and students, and also among students. So one of the best practices that I’ve seen is making sure that teachers have an opportunity to connect one-on-one with their students, whether that’s sending out an email a time or two during the semester, or requiring students to meet with them, at the beginning of the semester or at midterms, throughout the semester, to be able to develop that one-on-one Zoom connection to just be able to have a little bit of face time with students. But I think that works really well. So making sure that there is an opportunity to connect on a human level. When we teach online, we tend to be really text heavy and dry. And taking that human element that we love in a face-to-face class and pulling it out in an online space is so valuable for students, and really helps them to connect with each other and with their instructor. It’s one of those inclusive teaching practices that we do really well face-to-face, but is a little bit harder to do online, and if we’re intentional about it, it can happen. In terms of developing community among students, I think that as much as there’s resistance towards group work, I think that you can intentionally use it to develop community in your classes. And this isn’t just a “Hey, you should write a paper together and divide up the work,” it’s intentionally using that as a community building opportunity. And letting students know that that’s your intention is you want that to be community building. So one of the things I’ve always done in my Spanish classes is have students meet in small conversation groups once a week to have conversation practice with each other. And there’s always a little bit of resistance, and students aren’t so sure that they want to do it. But I have them fill out a survey to let me know what time they’re available. And it’s just a group of three students. They meet every week, and they have a great time talking with each other and get that oral communication practice they need. It also ends up being one of their favorite parts of the class. They develop connections with other students. And I hear all the time about students who actually meet in person and go out for coffee. I had one student who was taking a class from Florida and another student who was in Denver, and the Denver student had to go to Florida for something and stopped and went to go visit the Florida student in person, they went and hung out together. So I think there are just really interesting human personal connections that can be made. And leaving space for that to happen is so important. I think we get too focused on academics and lose those moments at the beginning or the end of a class where we spend a few minutes talking about nothing or the weather or the football game last weekend. And leaving that space in an online class and making sure that you have some space for that, really helps to develop those connections.

Rebecca: I definitely have experienced that this semester with my students who have had persistent groups all semester. They have said multiple times how helpful that has been for them, and they just did a reflection activity and almost every single student said “Oh, being in those groups was the best part…” which we never hear about group work, right? [LAUGHTER]. But they got to know each other and they had support through the class and used that as a way to help each other out with the course material.

Becky: Absolutely. I love that. It’s so amazing when students can get that connection and really work together.

John: I had a similar experience in my online class where I had students work on podcasts. And the first time they met, generally, is when they met in small groups to have these conversations and recorded them using Zoom. And they were supposed to be 5- to 10-minute podcasts, but many of them ended up being dramatically longer because, essentially, they were getting to know each other. It was kind of nice to see that sort of engagement and that interaction where they were getting to form this community. It would have been nice if they had recorded just a shorter segment of it. But I did get to listen in on some of those initial meetings. And it was an interesting experience.

Becky: And I agree, I signed my students to only speak for 30 minutes, and they only had to record 15 minutes of that. But the timer would tell me how long they’d been in and many of them would be in there for 45 minutes to an hour, sometimes an hour and a half… that they would just spend that time together, practicing and talking. And it was great. It was just fun to see that connection, that they went above and beyond what we’d asked them to do.

Rebecca: So drop out rates for something that you mentioned that your research pointed to this was one of the biggest issues that we needed to be thinking about in terms of online education. So in addition to instructor presence and helping students formulate community, do you have any other recommendations for faculty or instructors to help mitigate that or get students to stay? …to retain students?

Becky: Absolutely. So we’ve talked about access to student support services, building a community, some of those high-impact practices that we don’t always think about in online spaces is making sure that students have the ability to collaborate with faculty, like on a research project, especially at a Hispanic serving institution. It’s a culture where those connections are really important. And making sure to provide those to students so that there’s an opportunity to connect with faculty on working on something meaningful is really important. So as faculty, we can make sure that we’re selecting students, when we’re thinking about TAs, research assistants, make sure that we’re thinking about some of our online students as well and see if that might be a good fit for them. And one of the things that I also think about in terms of improving retention is this connection and relationship between the faculty and the student is so important. But in order to do that, we know our faculty are overworked and underpaid, and to make sure that there’s institutional support for faculty, is really important. And so making sure that there’s access to instructional design and pedagogical training through some of the resources available at the institution is a big deal, making sure that there is a collaborative opportunity for faculty to work together and share best practices and generally just supporting faculty. As we hold on to faculty, it gives them more bandwidth to hold on to their students. So institutional support is a really big deal to benefit our students as well.

Rebecca: And one that we can’t underscore enough when faculty are feeling really strained. [LAUGHTER]

Becky: No, absolutely not, not in 2020. And here we are. I don’t know about other institutions, but we’re being furloughed. And so we’re asked to do more and have fewer resources.

John: …while being at further risk in terms of employment risk, as well as all the health risks out there.

Becky: Oh, there’s so much going on.

John: You mentioned forming connections between faculty and students, and one way of certainly selecting students to be TAs, and so forth. But, what are some of the things instructors can do in their courses to help form those connections within online classes,

Becky: One of the things that we’ve really found that is helpful is moving away from a really static discussion board. We see a lot of classes where instructors say, ‘Tell me three things that you learned from this reading,” or “What are three of the five methods that are used to do whatever it is”. And those are really boring discussion boards and do not foster community, but asking questions that really encourage students to engage in a debate, in a conversation, and teaching them how to engage with each other appropriately and respectfully in an online space is really important. So asking them to solve problems together, asking them to work together, not shying away from difficult conversations. This election year has had a lot of challenges, and engaging with those in a student class in a way that allows them to bring in their own unique perspectives helps them to connect. Some of that might be through a discussion board. Some of it might be through a tool like Flipgrid that allows you to have students have a video discussion where they get to record a short video and then reply to each other. That really fosters that sense of connection and community in an online space. So allowing for that to happen is really important. We can move away from a boring discussion board to either a better discussion board or some of these other tools that foster community.

John: Flipgrid or VoiceThread or other similar tools offer a lot more possibilities for connection and hearing each other’s voices and hearing their instructor’s voice I think should help to create that sense of community more so than just reading text on a screen.

Becky: …and videos also. That, if we are recording videos, we can see the instructor, we can see the other students… having a face to put to a name. And having just a little bit of personal information… knowing that I smile and laugh, and I am an engaging person, I think, helps to connect with the course.

John: Humanizing the instructor is a phrase that’s often used, letting them hear you, hear your voice and your sense of humor, letting people know you as a person rather than just as the author of these words that show up on the screen all over the place is helpful.

Rebecca: …and humanizing the other students in the class. If it’s just a name, it’s really easy to not really think of that name as a person, the more you see and hear, not only as an instructor, but also fellow students, I think, can be really beneficial. So I think that students eat up the media when it’s available to them.

Becky: Absolutely.

John: And helping them make connections to their own life in their discussion. If they’re going to have discussion boards, one way of doing it effectively might be to have them make connections, where they draw on what they’re learning and make connections from their own life and experiences and share them, which also is a nice way of forming that sense of human presence in the classroom.

Becky: Absolutely. With a PhD in curriculum, I feel like I hold in my two hands two different things. So on the one hand, I have the curriculum and the course objectives and the aligned assessments and all of those things, and I think they’re so important. In my other hand, I’m holding on to the importance of people like bell hooks and Paulo Freire, and that reminder that we need to be transgressing some of these lines of our existing education and decolonizing our educational experience and humanizing it to make sure that we’re making real personal connections with the content, with the instructor. And so those are the two things that I carry with me as I’m working in my own classes in this and I’m helping faculty develop their courses is, “How do you balance those two things?” That is so hard, and I think in online classes, we do really well with the alignment and the course objectives and the assessments. And sometimes that humanizing part feels like it falls by the wayside.

John: But they’re not necessarily substitutes, they could be complementary. If you design assignments well, where they’re engaging in these authentic interactions, while achieving the learning objectives, it’s more work trying to design that, but there are some things you can do that can work fairly well.

Becky: I think there are wonderful faculty out there who are doing really great things, those are just the two things I try to always carry with me to make sure that I don’t leave one of them behind.

Rebecca: I think it’s really important to think about those two. So, it’s a nice reminder. And I think actually a nice way to wrap up the conversation, because it’s the two things to keep in mind as you move forward. Having those little takeaways at the end is always helpful. So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Becky: For me, I am really excited to dig into some of this qualitative side of things that we’ve talked about today. As I said, I love that hard quantitative research, but I’m also really interested in the humanizing element of it and that instructor presence. So I’ve been working with this faculty learning community for the last two and a half years, and we have developed an online instructor presence self-evaluation tool that we are presenting at OLC in the spring. So we’re really excited to be able to share that with some other people about how you connect with people and how we engage in our classes. So we’re excited to move forward with some of that. And just see what is happening with COVID? How has that changed things? And how might we rethink how we’re teaching online?

John: It’s just something that people would be using on a longitudinal basis to track how their classes evolved? Or is it just used in general as an instrument to share with faculty?

Becky: What we’ve intended it as is a way for people to self assess. So we didn’t want it to be a rubric. We don’t want it to be point based. We wanted it to be conversational, and a way to go in and reflect on your own teaching and consider ways that you could improve. And so absolutely, the way that we’ve designed the tool is it has a “What are my strengths? and ”What could be improved?” area on each of it. And so it would be really interesting to come back and say, you know, I did this last semester, what does that look like this semester? What am I changing? How am I improving? S o I think it absolutely could be used longitudinally.

Rebecca: That tool that you’re talking about sounds really great. So I hope we can have you back so we can talk about that in the future.

Becky: I would love to… only if I can invite a part of our faculty learning community

Rebecca: Of course.

Becky: It was a group effort. It’s one of those things that we couldn’t have done it without each other. We’ve just been in each other’s support system. And when we first found out that our institution was going online, we had a meeting scheduled for that Friday, and we talked about canceling and everyone’s like, “No, these are the people that I need.” And so we all met that Friday that we were moving online, and we haven’t seen each other since in person, but we were just that group. We’re like, “No, I need my support group.” So, I would come back and talk about it, but only if I can bring my FLC with me.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] It sounds important to do so. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a great conversation and we look forward to hearing more research from you, Becky.

Becky: Well, awesome. Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure to visit with both of you.

John: Thanks for joining us. We’re looking forward to talking to you again.

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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.

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165. Educational Pipeline

A college degree, especially in one of the STEM fields, can provide students with higher incomes, more stable employment prospects, and more pleasant working conditions. Many  students who could benefit from a college degree face a variety of barriers that prevent them from successfully completing their degree. In this episode, Jill Lansing joins us to discuss what colleges and universities can do to help smooth the educational journey from Pre-K to college and to careers for all of our students. Jill is an Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Education Pipeline Initiatives at the State University of New York. Before moving to this position in 2009, she had been the Coordinator of P-16 Strategic Planning for the New York State Department of Education.

Transcript

John: A college degree, especially in one of the STEM fields, can provide students with higher incomes, more stable employment prospects, and more pleasant working conditions. Many students who could benefit from a college degree face a variety of barriers that prevent them from successfully completing their degree. In this episode, we discuss what colleges and universities can do to help smooth the educational journey from Pre-K to college and to careers for all of our students.

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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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Jill Lansing. She is an Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Education Pipeline Initiatives at the State University of New York. Before moving to this position in 2009, Jill had been the Coordinator of P-16 Strategic Planning for the New York State Department of Education. Welcome, Jill.

John: Welcome, Jill.

Jill: Thanks so much for having me today. It’s really truly an honor and a privilege to be here. And

John: Today’s teas are:

Jill: I’m drinking iced tea because of the podcast, and some water.

Rebecca: It’s a little cold outside for me to have iced tea today, but I have Big Red Sun again. And as you can see, I am drinking my way through one whole canister of the same tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: I am drinking Tea Forte’s Earl Grey today.

Rebecca: So Jill, we’ve invited you here today to talk a little bit about your work on educational pathways. Can you tell us a little bit about your role?

Jill: About 10 years ago, almost 11 years ago now, I started at the State University of New York in this role to really try to help to strengthen the alignment between K through 12 education and higher education and adult education, also encouraging adults to return to college. And it has been such an amazing opportunity, I have to say. It’s amazing, It’s been 10 years already, 11 years to think about this pathway. But, I think the idea was, many of the faculty that are listening today have been doing it forever. So they know what works and what doesn’t work. What we did when we started this work about 10 years ago was to really try to create more opportunities to bring resources to the table for faculty at our colleges. So the idea was really, and I’ve been lucky in this regard, was really to figure out what grant opportunities we could apply for, what pathways were available that we could actually say: “This works. This doesn’t” …to try to avoid places where people have had difficulties in the past. So, I spend a lot of my time actually learning from the faculty at SUNY about what does work, and then also try to bring resources to those things that are successful. Before my role at SUNY, I was working as the coordinator of P-16 strategic planning for the State Education Department. And I worked in many different capacities there, one of the places that I worked, that I loved the most, was working in the Office of the Professions and Higher Education. And in the professions, I was so new, I was a graduate student when I started and I got the opportunity to be in the role of the public management internship program at the time, which was to really try to create opportunities for new people to have the opportunity to learn about the government and learn about public administration. And so the idea was to create a public information campaign around career opportunities in the professions like architecture, dentistry, engineering, nursing. And so I was able to learn about so many opportunities there, there are nearly 45 licensed professionals in New York State, all opportunities for students to have career opportunities in. And also from there, I was able to work in the Office of Higher Education, and also the Office of at the time, it was Elementary, Secondary and Continuing Education. And so I really did get to see all of the amazing work that goes on in the State Education Department to support students, and also the pathways that are available for student success. So it really gave me an idea of what we could do at SUNY to really support students beginning at the very early age of pre-kindergarten all the way through elementary school, secondary school, and then into college. So lots of good experience that led to, hopefully, better outcomes for students,

John: What are some of the barriers or the challenges that students face as they move along their educational pathways in the state.

Jill: So I always like to start with opportunities. [LAUGHTER] But I think that barriers are real. In fact, they very much are real. So last year, I had the great opportunity to work with the National Center for Education Statistics as part of the Data Institute team to kind of look at the data and to find out some of those barriers. So, we did some regression analyses, and one of the things that we knew were true, but it really became evident in the numbers, is that economics and race matter. My dissertation was around college choice. And it’s amazing to me that, when the odds are stacked against you when you’re looking for college, that puts you in an unbelievable place where you’re really trying to figure out how to go about college choice, how to go about succeeding in college. So we really do try to look at that in the beginning. But barriers are, you know, your a risk for college. The Education Trust has been an enormous resource for us. They were looking at things like student suspensions in high school. It’s a demoralizer, it also really places students behind where they could be if they didn’t have to experience those kinds of challenges in their high school. So, I would say that the barriers are real, and we’re trying, through our programming, to really address those barriers. I also think another barrier is, and I know a lot of our faculty are interested in this, it has to do with the growth mindset and to what extent is students believe they have the ability to succeed and I think that pervades all economic lines and it’s really an important thing to keep in mind because, as faculty are thinking about how do we work with new students, and they’ve given me so much advice, as we look for money and programming, how do you really try to build a student up and help to empower them as they try to be successful in college? So, I think the barriers are real. And we really need to think about that. And it’s good to have this opportunity to talk about what we can do to really make a difference.

John: What does the data suggest is effective in helping students overcome some of these challenges?

Jill: That’s a great question. And there are so many data points that help to think about what the challenges are, and how to create change around the barriers. So one of the things we’ve been working on right now in collaboration with the Community College Resource Consortium, and also Jobs for the Future is the idea of Guided Pathways. For a long time, students would come into college, particularly in community colleges, and take courses that they were interested in, but didn’t necessarily count toward their major. So, they would take some courses, they weren’t sure what major they were interested in studying, and then they would take some courses, and then they may or may not add up to the total number of credits they need to graduate. So, we’ve been trying to really focus in on college completion and graduation. And that consortium has led us to become part of something called Strong Start to Finish, which is a national initiative to try to get students to complete gateway courses in their first year of college. So, really try to focus in on what matters, also try to avoid remediation through co-requisite coursework, and also opportunities where students don’t have to kind of get behind in their classes and can really kind of get up to speed on what they need to complete their gateway courses. So, that’s been very helpful. And also the Guided Pathways Initiative. If you talk to college presidents across the state, they are head over heels about Guided Pathways. So students enroll in college, they enroll in a meta major, instead of necessarily a particular major, and really try to take the courses in the very beginning of their curriculum that would lead to success in the health sciences professions, Hospitality and Culinary Institute, business professions. So, it’s not we’re asking high school students to make a decision right away about their major, but kind of “tell us what you’re interested in, and then we can connect you with the courses that would actually add up to success.” Because, I think, where the Community College Research Consortium has found many students fall away from college is when it’s not adding up to their degree program or to their area of interest. So, that’s been very powerful. Another area is our P-Tech and Smart Scholars programs that have been guided by faculty, and I’ll say the Faculty Council of Community Colleges, in the very beginning of any early High School initiatives, put in place standards for what quality looks like. And one of the things I was going to talk about later, but I’ll say it now, because it’s so critical, is that rigor matters. So, when faculty put rigorous standards in place, it inspires students to succeed. And I think that they feel a different benchmark about where they’re supposed to be in their collegiate life. So I think rigor matters, and I applaud all those faculty who do this day in and day out, because it’s hard. It is hard in times of COVID-19, it’s hard every day, but just to keep the rigorous standards in place, and then support students on that pathway really matters. So, those are some opportunities, many more. We were able to, a couple of years ago, win a grant from the National Science Foundation, and also from Battelle Institute to help our graduate students work with middle school students to be, in their words, deputized as scientists beginning fourth, fifth and sixth grade in high need school districts. And having the connection between the graduate students and the middle school students was powerful, and all this was under the direction of faculty in our colleges. So, we had our scientists, across SUNY, overseeing this effort. And their ability to really create opportunities for these middle school students, who otherwise would never have had the chance to become scientists in laboratories at our SUNY Colleges, was huge. So I think that there are so many examples that I could share with you, but the ones where I think faculty, graduate students, aspiring faculty, put their passion and their heart into it, as well as their intellect and rigor, those are the ones that really matter for our students.

Rebecca: I wanted to follow up on the picking a major piece a little bit, because I think that is a real struggle for students when they head into colleges with an expectation of like, “Well, what are you going to do when you grow up? What are you going to study?” And the names of majors are so abstract to students, and there’s many careers that students have no idea even exist, and if you’re already in academia, you might have a clearer vision of what those things can lead to, but our students just don’t, and there’s no reason for them to know that

Jill: Exactly. When I was an undergraduate student, physical therapy and occupational therapy were big majors in my school and I didn’t know what they were at all. So the idea of helping students to come into a major in health sciences really will allow them to understand what opportunities are available to them. Another resource I should talk about is a resource called the Empire State STEM Learning Network. And in my career, one of the things that I’ve learned is that often when grants are distributed to an organization, the project period ends when the grant period ends. And one of the lucky things that I’ve been a part of, thanks to the regional leadership across the state, is something called the Empire State STEM Learning Network. And the idea for the STEM Learning Network was to bring together educators and business leaders in regions across the state to really focus on the educational pathway that leads to jobs in healthcare, in manufacturing, in Information Sciences, and architecture, and so many other fields. And I will say that one of the things that made the Empire State STEM Learning Network successful was the commitment regionally to develop partnerships to help lead students into careers. Because, you’re right, students don’t really know what they want, necessarily, in the very beginning of their life. But once they have the experience to be exposed to these opportunities, then all of a sudden, that could open the door for them and really spark an interest in them that we hadn’t thought about before. And even if they don’t go into architecture, maybe they would be interested in something related in engineering, or in teaching architecture. So I think the spark matters. And you’re absolutely right, Rebecca, it’s a really good question, because how would you know what the opportunities are for you? But really trying to create a level of interest with the students and also a level of “I can do it, this is real for me,” that really does matter. And I think our faculty, I mean, I’m talking to our faculty, and I’m so honored, because our faculty are often the drivers of everything that we do, and you know what drives students, what motivates them, and how to really think about what their needs are. And I think young high school students, I am always amazed at what they can do when they see exemplars of success, and also when they understand rigor. But also, I would say, in the way of how to be successful, I think we need to meet students where they are. One of the things that we learned from our colleagues at the Community College Research Consortium was that remediation can be very detrimental to students… the word remediation, the idea behind “I need to still catch up.” But, instead, trying to help to develop the skills that the student is interested in. So astrophysics is a big dream. But really, if you start, piece by piece, level by level, it can be a possibility, or another career option in that same field or discipline could also be possible for students. So really trying to motivate the students to success, I would say, but you’re right, students figure out what they want right off the bat when they’re coming to college is really a challenge.

John: What types of approaches have been effective in overcoming gaps in prior education? Because one of the main issues is that there’s quite a bit of disparity in the amount of training that students receive in their high schools, and that’s tied to a whole host of issues related to funding and housing segregation and other issues. While remedial work can be discouraging, or just even the term “remediation” is discouraging, what strategies have you seen that have been effective in helping students bridge any gaps in their background, to help them get to speed more quickly without being faced with a whole sequence of courses needed to enter, say, the STEM fields?

Jill: Precisely. So, good question. I would say to look at the following programs for good benchmarks and good outcomes data, Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the EOC, the Liberty Partnerships Program, also very powerful. STEP and CSTEP have been incredible about meeting students where they are and getting the students where they need to be P-Tech has been amazing. And I think the best P-Tech programs and the best early college programs, the best programs that we have across the board, are those that are led by faculty who are determined to help students succeed. For example, in our community colleges, which are open access, and many students come to as the first opportunity they have to enroll in higher education, where there are collaborative opportunities for the students to participate in STEM research opportunities, that is so powerful, it almost closes the gap in the way of letting students have the opportunity to become scientists. I was talking earlier about programs where we worked in our middle schools to help our graduate students come to the middle school students and talk about “Here are opportunities for you to become a deputized scientist.” So, then when that student actually comes to community college, and they’re saying, “Oh, I’m gonna research climate change with my faculty member,” or whatever the research opportunity may be, it becomes a way for the student to see themselves in that career. And then they understand the pathway to the career. So I can’t say enough about the hard work of faculty in this effort, because (and this is my own experience as well), is that faculty in my life have taught me how to think. And I often tell students in high school that college is a place where they can learn to think. And they think that they’re behind the eight ball in some ways, and that they feel like they have to tell the professor about how much they know. And, instead, if you listen to faculty, and I’ve worked with both of you, and you’ve been teaching me about, like, how to think about this, how to think about talking to people, how to think about getting a message out, and I think often new college students feel that they have to prove themselves versus they can learn something, and you’re actually willing to help them. [LAUGHTER] So, I wanted to share an example. A couple years ago, I was interested in the process of statistical process controls as a way of thinking about, “Well, if we are trying to achieve student success at scale, how can we look at numbers and data to help us do that?” So, I was thinking that statistical process control could be helpful in higher education, about seeing trends over time, seeing when there are differences, and why there are differences. Maybe, perhaps, that the spring semester wasn’t working out for students because of X, Y and Z. And the faculty, again, provide such leadership, maybe we could learn from one another. So anyway, I went to this course on statistical process control that was offered by SUNY Polytechnic Institute. And there with me, were three Community College faculty. And they were interested in statistical process control, because they wanted to be able to integrate that curriculum into their coursework. They said, “So many students are coming to us, and they’re interested in manufacturing and machining. And they keep talking about statistical process control.” So they were seeing how can we integrate those into our work, so that the learning opportunities are more aligned with their goals, professionally and personally. And so I thought it was really amazing that these faculties sought out these professional development opportunities to really try to make learning matter for the students and make it something that they were interested in that they could actually apply to their jobs. And I think we talk a lot about workforce, we also are talking about educating a citizenry, and especially with the political climate change, I think we really have an opportunity. We’ve learned a lot in 2020, about COVID-19, about our responsibilities to citizens in this country, African-American citizens in particular. We focus a lot about Black Lives Matter. And after the passing of George Floyd and so many other unfortunate events this year, we’ve learned a lot about why we really have to be focused in on those liberal arts opportunities, and also about governance, and religion. And we need to have active citizens in this country. And I think that is equally important. Often, we talk a lot about STEM and job opportunities, but we have to think about the big picture. And I think that our faculty are leaders in that work. And so, to the extent that we can learn from them, and, again, create opportunities that help to advance our agenda. is really powerful.

John: A couple of times you mentioned P-Tech, for those listeners who may not be familiar with that, could you describe that program and how it works.

Jill: So the P-Tech program has been a program that is being led by IBM, and they’ve been really a front runner in this work. And they’ve put a lot of thought into how to connect high school faculty, high school programs with our colleges, and then also with workforce opportunities in high need fields. And I think that it’s been an awesome opportunity for our students. They are able to enroll in the P-Tech program as high school students, free of charge to students and their families. And I would also add, at this point too, that one of the big assets of SUNY is affordability. And so there are often times where students can actually earn SUNY degrees free of charge. And that is really incredible to graduate debt free. That also reduces a lot of the burdens that we talked about in the very beginning, around economic burdens, challenges around race, all of these opportunities are now readily available to students. So that’s been very powerful through the P-Tech program. And I think the P-Tech program is something that we can model across the board. And we have tried to do that in collaboration with regional BOCES, regional K-12 leaders, to actually develop a scope and sequence of courses beginning in grade 12, that continues on to higher education and then into the workforce. So, what happens is K-12 leaders, community college faculty (also many of our technical colleges also have P-Tech programs), and our business leaders come around the table together. And they think about what would a student need in order to be successful in life and in business in the long term. And I think what it develops is a real true camaraderie that allows successful programming development to happen. What is fortunate about the P-Tech is that it is enabled by grants from the State Education Department. So it does provide opportunities for faculty at K-12, faculty at higher education, business leaders to come together. But that seems to be very powerful when college faculty can also work with K-12 faculty to find out what the needs are, where the gaps are, and how they can work together to try to mitigate those gaps. So, often what I heard when I interview faculty in our community colleges in our technical colleges is that often they are unaware of some of the challenges that K-12 faculty face and then K-12 faculty are so eager to learn more about all of the expertise that community college and our technical colleges and also even graduate programs have to offer. So, when they have the opportunity to speak to one another, then all of a sudden, they’re all on board on changing curriculum and helping students to succeed. So I think the magic in the P-Tech is about this collaborative experience. I often find that regional collaborations are really also very powerful in that our faculty in our regions know what kind of high school students are coming from. And then when they talk to faculty and they can identify, you know, maybe the student didn’t have a fourth year math course in high school, or maybe there are some skills that for some reason the student wasn’t able to develop, and especially this important in COVID-19, because we’re hearing students that are struggling. So I think the connection between high school and college and then regional workforce leaders are very important. And we talk a lot, too, in our work, about regional economic development, and helping to really strengthen New York as a whole through our regional workforce capital. So we’re looking at that. And again, I would say, to create and develop good citizens of the state and of the nation, I think it’s very important. So, I feel like the opportunity for faculty at the K-12 level to connect with our faculty at SUNY, and then also with our workforce and industry leaders (many of whom are SUNY alumni), is a very powerful connection.

John: What are some examples of good collaborations between colleges and P-12 programs? What has worked in terms of helping to bridge the gap in terms of creating an environment of good communication? You mentioned P-tech. Are there any other models that have worked well?

Jill: I can name so many examples of what has been successful. I’m thinking about also the gaps between community colleges and our baccalaureate degree granting programs and our graduate programs. I was thinking offhand about Binghamton University and its collaboration with Broome Community College, really trying to help students who perhaps in the beginning didn’t meet the admission requirements for Binghamton, but had a lot of promise and a lot of opportunity for skill development in STEM. And so they entered into a collaboration with SUNY Broome to help those students to develop the skills at SUNY Broome that would make them eligible for upper-level credits at Binghamton University. So there’s so many examples like that. Our early college high school programs, in addition to our P-Techs are also powerful for making the connection between high school and college. We’ve also done a lot of work with our teacher education programs. We’re really very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the deans of all of our SUNY teacher education programs, to help them to develop more practical experiences for their teachers to work with the students and try to bridge the gap between high school and college. And I think that that has been so successful, our teacher education programs. And the faculty there have really led the way in terms of helping us to better understand K-12 experiences and create clinical opportunities for prospective teachers. So that has been huge because educator preparation is so essential to really helping to bridge the gap between K-12 and college and they’ve come back to us with so many ideas and opportunities, things that we’ve been able to win grants for and bring resources into the classroom about. So I’ve mentioned the Empire State STEM network before and they have just been amazing. So our colleges will frequently partner with our K-12 leaders to do things like in Buffalo, there’s something called the hands-in-hand program where the students were able to use 3D printing to develop hands for other students internationally, who actually need hands or limbs for some reason in their life. And they’ve been able to actually generate that through 3D printing. The other thing is computer science, cyber security. Our students right now in the P-Tech program are working with SUNY-Orange to develop skills in cybersecurity. So P-Tech is one example. But there are so many, and again, the graduate students that are working across the state with our K-12 students in STEM is also pretty awesome.

Rebecca: The ingredients of successful programs seem to include some collaboration between faculty at different levels to develop curriculum and mentorship, with either faculty at the college level with students, or college students with high school students. Are there other ingredients that we should focus on or highlight as being important to the success of these kinds of programs?

Jill: I think you said it so well, that it’s mostly customized opportunities for students and the places where we find success. And I was just reading the Journal of Higher Education this month, and it was talking about STEM student success and STEM student success at the community college level. And it was really focused around this idea of faculty in the very first year creating an experience for students that gets them engaged in their learning experience across the curriculum… and I think that idea of faculty engagement at the very beginning of learning experiences that are aligned to the student’s personal and professional goals. And again, it comes back to rigor. The students are so inspired by rigor, the students are so inspired by the benchmark is high, and these are the things that I can learn to be successful and to be like faculty. And so I just think faculty role modeling, faculty advising, academic success is so important. We also have the great benefit of SUNY of so many amazing student affairs professionals who also provide coaching and leadership and just a really well rounded approach to student development. Like I’ve mentioned before, the EOP programs are so successful because of this. So I think you’re right, Rebecca, the magic ingredient is collaboration. It’s also about rigor. It’s also about looking at the research and data and talking about what programs can actually generate data to improve success. I also think I’ve learned a lot from faculty about the idea of sort of an interdisciplinary approach to learning I often find that for me in education, if I go and look at that economics literature or the anthropology literature, or the political science literature, I can also learn a lot about how to help to bring these other resources to the table to really think about what success looks like. I recently had the opportunity to work with some medical professionals around the development of guidelines and the rigor to which they looked at guidelines and looked at evidence in the field to make judgments about what they should do, and the way of supporting medical advancements was so powerful that I thought we need to benchmark this in education. So I think looking at what the data tells us, and we’ve had our colleagues, like I mentioned before, at the Community College Research Consortium, at Jobs for the Future, at Achieving the Dream, and so many more places looked at the data for us. But I think that we need to be focused on the long term. And we need to think about what is the data telling us and how that can continue to improve our practice. And then I often think about the importance of qualitative data, what the faculty are telling us in the different disciplines. So that’s why it’s such a great opportunity in this position, because I’m working with faculty, often from economics, from English literature, from science, from political science, from public administration, so many different perspectives. But they all really come to bear when we talk about student success. So that’s been really tremendous for us here at SUNY,

John: Many of the programs you talked about have been at the community college level. And these don’t seem to be quite as common yet at comprehensive institutions. What can traditional liberal arts colleges do to reach out in the ways that community college have been doing for decades? What else should four-year colleges do to emulate the success that many community colleges have had in bridging some of these gaps?

Jill: I really think that you do it well. And I think this is where the SUNY advantage comes in. Because the quality and the dedication of faculty at the four-year colleges and the comprehensive colleges and the University Centers are amazing.

John: What can faculty at four year institutions or University Centers do to reach out to students in high schools to help them see the potential that’s available to them.

Jill: When they have an opportunity to listen to podcasts from faculty or actually engage in their research, it becomes really powerful to these students. And I think part of the challenge with faculty is really in finding a way to kind of create an inroad with these students. And so that’s why I was talking earlier about research opportunities, or really introducing students. I think you also have to help the students learn more about your expertise and try to again meet them where they are, trying to contextualize learning so that the expertise that you have at the comprehensive level and the university center level really can be matched to something that they might see an interest in long term. I’ve worked with an organization called the Army Education Opportunity Program. And this was through an opportunity that we had with Battelle. And the army is trying to recruit the future researchers, scientists, engineers. And what they encourage students to do was to work in groups with a faculty member and a science mentor to address challenges in their own local community. So, what kind of STEM challenges would they need to accomplish in their community? So, they look at things like recycling or safety and parks or child safety. But when the student can see how your expertise at the faculty level applies to their lives, then they are so engaged and faculty will tell me that they’re often outperforming them… that we have students in Long Island, for example, that are applying for patents on downloading data from their computer to a flash drive in instantaneous time, because they actually were listening to a faculty saying, “Ah, this takes so long to download that I actually need some help with this.” So they figured out the magnetic structure behind the thumb drive, and they actually created something that would help them to expedite the time in which they could download data. It was a big win-win, because the faculty was overjoyed. And also the student was able to learn the fundamentals from the faculty member to actually create innovation and to create change. So I think you have it, I was going to talk a little bit about the college choice process, which is so interesting to me, because students in high school have so many options, so many choices, there are 270 plus colleges and universities in New York State alone. And so when you think about the whole universe, and how students go about selecting a place where they can see their baccalaureate success dreams come true or their associate dreams come true. And think about graduate studies, what are they looking for? And based on the literature, after they go through the first predisposition phase, and then the search phase, they actually always talk about student culture in terms of why they make a decision about one college over another. And I also have seen literature that suggests that retention rates are impacted by the choice process around how much the student believes that they fit in. And so it’s hard for faculty at that point to connect with students. But I think that, to the extent that they could appreciate students’ development process and understand that their professional and personal goals and really try to connect them with their own research interests or their own academic interest, I think that can be very powerful in and of itself to really connect the student with the college culture, and with the rigor and academic excellence expectations that faculty have. I think it’s powerful. The other thing I think, is that Chancellor Malatras has been very committed to faculty diversity, because I also really believe that students need to see themselves in their faculty and see themselves in their mentoring experiences. So faculty diversity is also very critical. Our graduate students have been helpful with that as well, to try to make the connection between the faculty ranks and also with our colleges. The Education Trust has some amazing data around faculty diversity at the college level and also at the K-12 level. Because I really do think we need to do more in both arenas to really achieve change for our students, because our students are changing. And the other thing that drives success, and the main thing that drives success is student voices, because we have to hear from our students. And the more that I work with students and work within the framework of student success, I keep going back to the literature to find out what it is that motivates students of various backgrounds, how to really hear their voices, and how to integrate their voices into our activities to really strengthen the outcomes of students in our colleges. So student voices are fundamental to this work.

Rebecca: I think you’ve given a good view of how much has already been done, but also how much there is still to do. So. we usually wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER]

Jill: So, so much exciting things are next, I think. In our office, we have an opportunity that was made available to us through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation around trying to strengthen communications, advocacy and success tools for students. So the idea would be: how do we really make students understand the value added of SUNY, the value added of the work that we’re doing to try to improve college completion rates, and student success Initiatives. So I would welcome faculty feedback on this. As I said before, faculty have always driven the work that we’ve been leading in our office. And so ideas around how we can better communicate these opportunities that are available to our students and to our parents, also to our guidance counselors, and then policymakers and government leaders about what is the SUNY advantage and about how they can have a part in this, I will say that if you look at SUNY, affordability matters, affordability is huge. The student debt crisis is alarming. And that’s where SUNY has the value and the added advantage. Also, the graduation rates of SUNY often surpass the national average, and are very amazing in terms of what the experience is that post grad and into careers that we’ve been able to achieve for students. And the alumni networks are so strong. And so someone asked me the other day that the SUNY Community College Trustees have been very powerful, great advocates, and they asked, “Can you provide an example of what it looks like to be student of Guided Pathways? So, what is the outcome? And how is it different than it was before? So I guess if faculty could share with us their ideas on first of all, how to continue to improve outcomes around student success, and also how to improve communications, because often faculty are doing this in our classrooms, but they’re saying how do we get the word out that this is so good, that we’re really making a difference, like this student came to us not knowing all the opportunities, and now is head of the class or now is really making huge changes in their field? What are those things that we can highlight, also transfer opportunities, students that might come to community college and then go to our baccalaureate degree institution, or I’m always interested in those that go on to graduate studies, our business and industry partners have been trying to create programs that meet students at the high school or community college level, and then drive them all the way to be our future engineers and scientists and researchers and physicians and faculty and all of the great career opportunities are available students. So what are those pathways look like from your perspective? And I think with this funding, and with this opportunity to really try to communicate these outcomes, we could really have some power that would drive us into the future. So I appreciate the question. And we certainly welcome your input and opportunities.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much, Jill, for sharing your experiences with us.

Jill: Well, thank you for the opportunity. And I would just say again, our faculty at SUNY are top notch, number one, and really have driven student success as we’ve started this work where we really put an anchor into the ground to try to help to strengthen the alignment between K-12, higher education and workforce, and citizenry. And I would just keep encouraging your great ideas, and we hope to continue to work with you into the future. So thanks for the opportunity to talk to you today. And it’s really an open door. So please keep your ideas coming.

John: Thank you. And we will share your contact information if anyone has any ideas that they’d like to sharee. Thank you very much.

Jill: Thank you so much.

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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.

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160. Inclusive Communication

Communication in academia has hidden and unwritten rules that present barriers for students. In this episode, Kristina Ruiz-Mesa joins us to discuss inclusive communication strategies we can use as teachers and mentors to help students feel like they belong in the academy.

Kristina is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University – Los Angeles. Kristina previously worked in diversity, equity and inclusion research at Villanova University, and as a communication and diversity consultant. Her research on these topics has been published in a variety of academic journals and in book chapters. Her forthcoming textbook Inclusive Public Speaking: Communicating in a Diverse World will be available in late 2020 through Fountainhead Press.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Communication in academia has hidden and unwritten rules that present barriers for students. In this episode, we explore inclusive communication strategies we can use as teachers and mentors to help students feel like they belong in the academy.

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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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Kristina Ruiz-Mesa. She is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University – Los Angeles. Kristina previously worked in diversity, equity and inclusion research at Villanova University, and as a communication and diversity consultant. Her research on these topics has been published in a variety of academic journals and in book chapters. Her forthcoming textbook Inclusive Public Speaking: Communicating in a Diverse World will be available in late 2020 through Fountainhead Press.

John: We can also note that we just saw you recently in ACUE’s webinar on Preparing an Inclusive Online Course, which was released in early October and is available online. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: Welcome, Kristina.

John: Welcome, Kristina.

Kristina: Thank you so much for having me.

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

Kristina: I am drinking carbonated water.

Rebecca: …out of a tea cup I might note.

Kristina: I thought it was appropriate. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s a beautiful tea cup.

Kristina: Thank you.

John: That’s close enough. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking Scottish afternoon tea.

John: And I’m drinking a mix of peppermint and spearmint tea.

Kristina: Lovely.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your work on inclusive communication. First, though, could you tell us how you became interested in this area of research?

Kristina: Absolutely. So, the research actually started in my own life, a little more than 30 years ago. And so I grew up in southern New Jersey, in a really diverse town in a Caribbean family. And so my dad’s Cuban, my mom’s Puerto Rican, and lived in this really diverse place. And I went to an inner city Catholic School, where I was one of a few students of color and started noticing differences, differences between how our families communicated, how our teachers communicated with our families. And that sparked an interest in me in saying, “Eell, communication seems to not be one-size-fits-all, we all have different ways of communicating.” And yet, when I was studying communication, and when I was in learning, it was like a one-size-fits-all, like “if you do these communicative practices, you will get the same response.” And that was not the case. I didn’t find that to be the case. And so I wanted to know, how culture, how identities, how intersectional experiences impact the ways that we communicate, the ways that we construct messages, the ways that we analyze our audiences, and think about ways that we can train students to most effectively communicate. So, how they can most effectively communicate in different audiences in different places to achieve their personal and professional goals.

Rebecca: Colleges and Universities have become increasingly diverse, and the composition of faculty, though, not so much so… What sort of challenges does this present for communication between faculty and students?

Kristina: I think this is such an important issue, and one that we are feeling as faculty as well, as in “How can we best serve the needs of all of our students, and recognizing that representation matters in the classroom, and that communication matters in the classroom?” And so when I think about how do we address mentoring? how do we address teaching? And how do we address the practices that we are using in the classroom? What do our materials look like? And so we can’t change our racial identities, we can’t change who our students are, and we wouldn’t want to, right? And so how can we make sure that we are teaching all of the students and so one of the things that I always stress is your course materials. Regardless of subject, you have examples, and you have data sets that you use or readings that you’re using. And so, how are you incorporating more voices, more experiences more identities into the course. And so that can be a way to really show your students’ representation. If you feel like you are not representing all of the identities of your students, which none of us are, no matter what our identities are, we can never fully represent all of our students. So how can we bring in this idea of polyvocality? Lots of different voices, lots of different experiences. And sometimes that means thinking about the datasets that you’re using. Are they representative? Who are they speaking about? Who are they speaking to? Who are the scholars that we’re bringing into conversations? And so I think these are all ways that we can help address diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom, and make sure that our students see themselves in the course and see themselves in the materials. And obviously, yes, increasing faculty diversity, staff diversity, making sure that our students feel their experiences and their identities are a part of academia and a part of their institutions. Absolutely. And, there are things that we can do immediately in each of our classrooms to make sure that we are making our classrooms as inclusive as possible.

Rebecca: I like how you’re emphasizing our role or our ability to curate, and not just kind of be everything to everybody, but we can curate experiences that include many points of view.

Kristina: I love that you said curate. So, I always, when I teach my graduate students, I say we have like the coolest museum in the world, right? We get to pick all of these scholars and authors and examples and bring them together into one exhibit, whether that exhibit’s in a face-to-face classroom, in a virtual classroom space, we get to showcase different voices experiences, theories, and applications.

John: That can enrich the conversation by bringing in a diversity of examples and leveraging that diversity in the classroom to provide a richer learning experience.

Kristina: Absolutely. My mantra for teaching and thinking about teaching and what my course materials are, we always start by planning backwards. What do we want our students to know at the end of this course? What do we want them to remember? And I always think about how can I challenge the canon? So the canon that we all learned in graduate school, that we have been reading for decades, some for centuries this material has been going on. How do we challenge and think about ways to expand that knowledge, ways that we can incorporate new voices? And I think that that’s so important.

Rebecca: One of the things that I found really wonderful, and I feel like it’s actually happening more right now because we’re trying extra hard to include students in conversations and make them feel included in a virtual environment to allow them to co-curate with us and to pick sources and to share materials. And my reading list got really long this semester… [LAUGHTER] … ‘cause based on all the things that students have brought to the table, podcasts that they’ve introduced me to, videos that they’ve introduced me to, I have a long list of homework to do.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I love that right. I love that idea of “Okay, we’re co-learners here.” And there’s such a reach. And Rebecca, I love that you say that with podcasts. And my students have introduced me to so many artists and performers and theorists that I was like, “Okay, yes.” And they’re seeing it in social media. They’re seeing up and coming scholars whose work perhaps hasn’t come out and those big journals yet, but that they are releasing blogs, they’re doing podcasts, and I love the perspectives and identities and experiences and new knowledge that’s being incorporated through these venues and avenues.

John: Let’s go back to the mismatch between the diversity of the faculty and the more diverse student body that we’re finally getting in most colleges and universities, now. What’s the impact of that, say, on persistence rates for first-gen students and students from underrepresented groups?

Kristina: Absolutely. So, the research has consistently shown us that mentoring and inclusive pedagogical practices matter. I teach in East Los Angeles. And so, as a Latina scholar teaching a predominately Latino student population, as the only tenured or tenure-track faculty who is Latino, who is Spanish speaking, who can connect with families at graduation and at different ceremonies, I find that I have a very easy time connecting with my students and their experiences, even though our families are from different Latin American countries. I grew up on the East Coast, not the West Coast, I’m Caribbean. And so like all of these differences are still under this umbrella of, I think about, like, cultural norms. And I think about cultural values. And one of them that I stress in my teaching is this idea of familismo, this cultural commitment to family and the family role. And I think about how that influences student persistence. And we’re seeing it very clearly now on our campus. So, my role at Cal State LA is that I’m an associate professor, but I’m also the Director of Oral Communication in Communication, which means we have 4000 students taking a standardized general education oral communication course. And so my instructors see 4000 incoming freshmen every year, and we are hearing consistently this semester that workloads combined with having your classroom now be your living space with your families, how do we negotiate and how do we navigate these spaces? And that is absolutely going to impact persistence and graduation rates. And so I think, for faculty, understanding not only how your students are coming in, what knowledge they are coming in with, but understanding the cultural context in which they’re living, and how that may be impacting the learning experience, the needs of the students in terms of… I always think about applied skills, I teach communication, and so when I came into Cal State, LA, one of the first things I did was say, “How can we get an interview assignment into oral communication?” It’s not part of the general education requirements of the state. And so I went to the chancellor’s office, and I said, here’s my pitch. 80% of our students are first gen. We know that interviewing skills, so much of it is based on these unwritten rules and laws that you learn kind of through family, through friends. But, if you’re your first person in your family who’s gone to college, you might not get those experiences kind of organically. And so we needed to embed it into the general education requirement so that all students benefit from it. And again, the universal design we’re talking about, no one’s going to be disadvantaged from learning interviewing skills and practicing interviewing. And so, I think, thinking about persistence in really applied ways and material realities matter. How are we going to get students to get those internships to get those jobs? And so thinking about how our skills can be taught in a way that is problem posing, and that can be applied to students lives as soon as possible.

Rebecca: What I like about what you’re talking about in terms of the oral communication piece is that it’s such a big part of being professional in every discipline, but we often teach public speaking classes as if it’s a very separate activity. [LAUGHTER] Like, I want to stand up and give speeches. I don’t stand up and give speeches, and most people don’t, the kind of communication you do is different. So, putting it in context like that, and providing a clear application of how those skills can be used somewhere, I think is really helpful, especially for students that don’t have that kind of context to build from.

Kristina: I totally agree.

John: And you mentioned some of the challenges associated with students interacting with families in their homes. One of the issues that faculty keep raising is “Our students won’t turn on their cameras.” And we address that regularly with faculty. But, it’s an issue where faculty are used to seeing faces on the screen. And they’re really upset when people choose not to. How do you respond to that?

Kristina: This is something that I have been hearing in my circles as well. And well meaning faculty are frustrated, because we know that a large percentage of our communication is nonverbal. So, if we are missing those nonverbal cues of understanding, of confusion, it is limiting our ability to be able to connect with our students that way. I get that. And the hard truth is that it’s not about us. And so that’s one of those tough kind of answers. Because, right now, it’s about our students and their success, and whatever we need to do whatever practices that we need to kind of adapt to, it’s about them and about their learning. And so one of the things that I have done is incorporate more of the thumbs up, thumbs down, type in the chat. So you can do a popcorn response by giving an emoji. So offering students various ways of interacting, I think is huge. Also, normalizing the ways that we communicate. So, for a speech, for example, we do want to see them in terms of their nonverbals, we want to see your gesturing, we want to see the ways that you’re connecting. And so we normalized giving speeches in bathtubs, giving them from parking lots, giving them in cars, doing our own mini lectures from like, on the floor in the bathroom, because if we’re doing it, then you can do it. And so kind of modeling, that it’s okay, and that we don’t all have these perfect offices that look like they came off of HGTV, and that there might be a dog barking in the background or someone crying. And that’s okay, this is a global pandemic, there are more important things than whether you can hear a baby crying, or a dog barking, or someone in the background. And so I think also being realistic about our expectations, and as empathetic as we can. And one of the things that I often think about is that many of us teaching at the college level, we’re in the top 5%, top 2% of higher education attainment, how we learned and our experiences and how we are now… We have to remember. We have to remember, what was it like to be an undergrad? And for many of us, that meant “Where are we studying? How could we study, if you don’t have the privilege of going to a library right now or a quiet space?” …then being empathetic enough to know that you don’t understand all of the experiences and lives of your students and give them the benefit of the doubt. that they are trying their best. and they’re doing the best we can… all of us.

John: One of the things I asked my students was to share some of their challenges in a low-stakes discussion forum. And I’ve been amazed at how many students talk about just how difficult it is to find time that’s quiet. They may have a spouse or a partner who’s playing live video games, or more typically, they may have small children or they may have siblings in the rooms or in the dwellings with them. And that makes it very challenging where some of them are saying “I wake up at six in the morning, just so I can find some quiet time in order to do my work.” Or, “I have to wait until everyone’s asleep after midnight or at one in the morning.” And it’s something I think we do need to be a little more cognizant of… even just asking them what sort of challenges they face, perhaps, can help faculty adjust to this somewhat challenging environment we’re all in.

Rebecca: Are you sure those are students talking? Because I feel like you just describe what I’m doing. [LAUGHTER]

John: Faculty have had very similar challenges since last March.

Rebecca: I do think, actually, the struggles that faculty are having with family and things being in the same space as them has actually really, really helped start to connect to some of the real challenges that students face regularly, and not just during a pandemic.

Kristina: Absolutely. And then we compound that with housing insecurity, food insecurity, and the things that our students are experiencing. Just every time my students come into my class, I thank them. That’s the first thing I do. Thank you all so much for being here. I’m excited to have our conversation. And I think that goes a long way. And at the end of every class, acknowledging that, and say, “I know that you’ve got a lot going on, and I am really proud of you.” And I think that that transparency of saying, “This is why I need you to do this assignment. This is why I gave you three readings instead of two.” And I think really explaining the “why” is going even further than it has in the past. And so thinking about the ways that we can make our assignments and our assessments as practical and applied as possible… really helpful right now… as well as checking in with students. I’ve been doing the first kind of 10 minutes of class checking in. Now, I know that’s not possible for all classes, and for all students and for every class, but when it is and when we can or a discussion post, tell me the best thing that’s going on in your week. Just connecting, and having this connection in the classroom, I think, is really important now for maintaining not only community and engagement, but also persistence.

John: Ggiven the challenges you’ve mentioned with communications between faculty and students, one of the issues that may come up is microaggressions. And I know you’ve done some research on that. Could you tell us a little bit about your research on microaggressions in the classroom?

Kristina: Sure. I did a study on microaggressions at a predominantly white institution of higher education and looking at racial microaggressions that students of color were experiencing on campus. And so, just as a quick recap, Wing Sue defines microaggressions as kind of brief commonplace verbal behavior, or environmental indignities. And they can be intentional or unintentional, and they communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults. But microaggressions can be about sexuality, about social class, about gender. So, they can be across identities. And my research showed that African-American males and Latino males experienced microaggressions at the highest rates of any students. And the experiences oftentimes lead to what we’d call student misbehaviors in the classroom. If students are feeling disrespected by an instructor or by other peers, there was a few paths they would take. One is they would act out in the class. So, they might say things, they might be seemingly disrespectful about the material about the course. They would drop out, and you would never hear from them again. You wouldn’t know why they weren’t engaging the class, they were just gone. And we also saw psychological stressors. So, higher instances of isolation feelings, that they didn’t belong on campus. And again, this was a predominately white institution, and so students of color have these feelings of belonging, questioning of belonging. And so when they experienced microaggressions, these feelings were exacerbated, and they increased experiences of anxiety, depression and social isolation. What my research found was that, if we could inoculate against microaggressions by offering micro-practices and services on campus, that was where we were able to support students in building academic habits that would help support their success. And so this inoculation came in the form of having Diversity, Equity and Inclusion centers, having counseling resources, having safe spaces and inclusive and brave spaces where students could share their experiences. So that it wasn’t just one person saying,”It must be me. It’s something I’m doing.” But, recognizing that these were structural and systemic, and these were problems that were permeating throughout the campus. And so that was something that we found in the research was that primarily African-American males and Latino males were experiencing this more often on campus, and that the ways to minimize the academic impact was to offer services early and often, having male mentoring groups on campus was helpful and having spaces where students could share their counter-narratives and counter-experiences on campus. All were beneficial.

John: And that’s a useful form of remediation, but what can be done, perhaps, in the classroom to address those as they occur?

Kristina: Absolutely, that is my number one piece of advice for faculty is when you see something, when your, like, hairs on the back of your neck are standing up, you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t good,” you need to say something. And that is something that is scary. And for many of us, particularly folks who are not tenured, who are contingent faculty who are hired by the quarter or semester, that can be really scary, because we know that student evaluations matter. Having grievances can affect your job. And so that, and I’m in a privileged position, I’m a tenured state university professor. So I recognize that. And I think that it’s important that if we are going to have inclusive conversations, inclusive learning environments, we have to intervene. Now, knowing how to intervene takes practice, and knowing that you’re not going to get it right every time is humbling, and knowing that we’re always learning and that’s one of the things that I always stress to faculty is that we are literally trained for this we are trained to learn. That is our job, our job is to learn as much as we can, figure out new, innovative, cool ways to apply it, explain it, expand it, that’s the gig. And so this is another area of knowledge that we need to learn, that we need to just say, “Okay, I needed to learn a new computer system, I needed to learn how to teach online, I need to learn what my students are experiencing, so that I can be a better teacher. So that I can learn what has already worked, what practices are embedded.” And so one of the things that I’ve done in the last few years, and that I found to be helpful is to write down what are the specific practices? …not just saying “You need to be an inclusive educator.” Cool. What does that mean? And what does that look like in my classroom. And so, one of my most cited articles is this quick, best practices piece that I can share the link with. It’s a free download. And it’s 10 Best Practices for Facilitating Difficult Dialogues. And it’s tips, for example, like we disagree with ideas, not people. So we focus on the idea not the person, the other is maintaining immediacy, so making sure that we’re talking at the end of class, you don’t leave conversations undone or unsaid. So keeping track of time and recognizing that you might need two or three minutes at the end of class to do relationship repair, to do community check-ins, to do that repair… really important. Also making sure our language is inclusive. So, thinking about the ways that we, from day one, are establishing inclusive language. Are we getting rid of kind of gender binaries and making assumptions about student genders? Are we asking students: “What is your name?” I never read out of rosters. I always have students introduce themselves. Tell me your name. Share your pronouns with me, and modeling that for students. I also include a pronunciation guide because much like we want our students’ names to be honored, we want our names to be honored and said correctly. So, offering tools and resources and normalizing this in communication, whether you’re teaching comm, psychology, math, chemistry, normalizing that this is how effective communication works. And I think that’s really helpful in the classroom. And of course, setting the ground rules, setting the tone, the things that we know as faculty that we ought to do. But those are some of the big ones. And also, the “oops,” and the “ouch” rule is something that we use a lot and saying that, again, in a single 50 minute, hour and 15 minute class, I’m going to say thousands of words. The chances that one or two of them are wrong, or came out too quickly. Or I didn’t mean to say that? Likely. So, recognizing and having the humility to say, “Okay, if I’m going to say an oops, that was my bad. Let’s start over. Let’s take that again.” And, recognizing that if I miss something, having a mechanism in place with the “Ouch,” to say “That was hurtful, I didn’t appreciate that. Can we talk about that for a second?” And pausing and saying, “I’m sorry. How was that hurtful? I’m sorry.” And acknowledging the moment. And I think these are practical things that can feel super awkward if we don’t establish them on day one. But, if it’s just how things are, the beauty of being a college professor, is that every 10 weeks, 16 weeks, quarter semester, we get to start over. And so, re-establish the norms, re-establish how we communicate and how we want to communicate for an inclusive environment.

Rebecca: If you think of it that way, we get so many do overs.

Kristina: Exactly.

John: Eventually, we’ll get things right. I’m still waiting.

Rebecca: That’s empowering. Yeah, I really love the idea of the oops, and the ouch, and really establishing the idea and reminding ourselves that we’re learners too. And we make mistakes, and it does take practice. But just like we want our students to take that first try, we have to do it too. Boy, we should listen to ourselves sometimes,

Kristina: Right, once in a while. [LAUGHTER]

John: Would you recommend that, perhaps, when you have those rules, you give students some say in discussing them and establishing the ground rules?

Kristina: Absolutely. I usually have a few rules that I propose. And then I ask students to add to them, and we do a Google Doc in class, and they can add them in real time. And then I also say from now until next week, review them. If something doesn’t feel right, if you want further explanation, let’s write it out, and let’s talk about it and see how we can come to this together.

Rebecca: One of the things that I really recognize teaching more online than in person is how much more time there really should be to do some of those things at the beginning of the semester, in any semester. But I took the time this semester, and it was really helpful.

Kristina: Love that, that is one of the benefits of teaching online is that I feel like if I miss something, I can make a video, there’s time to kind of fix it. Whereas in face to face, I can send an email, but it’s not the same. Whereas, if everything is built into my learning management system, it’s another opportunity.

Rebecca: So, we talked a little bit about privilege, and how that might impact the kind of experiences you have access to. And one thing that I think we don’t always consider is how our own race, gender, social status and ability status, impact our own social norms. And we don’t necessarily recognize them as being social norms, or that somehow we learned these behaviors, what are some things that we could think about as faculty to better understand what those practices are? And to undo some of them maybe, or at least recognize that there are norms and invite students in to understand that?

Kristina: One of the kind of keys for me is when I hear the word “ought,” like “it ought to be this way,” or “it ought to be…” and I’m like, “Hmm, says who? A really important part of being a good teacher is recognizing that we cannot be all things to all people, and that we have to be critically self reflexive. I read a lot of Bell Hooks work and think about the ways that Hooks asks us to be kind of these self-actualized beings. How do we model the vulnerability and the space? And again, I recognize, I teach communication, I’m humanities professor, I have kind of more flexibility than my spouse who teaches chemistry. And so this idea that it’s going to look different in different classrooms. Absolutely. And, thinking about the ways that we come up with examples, I think, is a way that reflects our own identities. And so one of the ways that I think about that is psychological noise. And so, am I giving an example that is helping students move along in their understanding of a concept? Or have I just put up a giant roadblock because I used an example that’s not clear. And now they’re thinking about the example and they’ve forgotten the concept. So recognizing which examples are from a privileged experience… If you’re giving an example in your like, “So, let’s say you’re in Paris eating a croissant,” and you’re like, “Cool, I saw Emily in Paris, does that count? That was a good show.” And now they’re starting to think about a tangent, that they forgot what you’re teaching. And so, thinking about the ways that our examples can demonstrate our own privileges, and recognizing that talking about more privileged experiences, like, I was thinking about this the other day, when students were talking about having to go to the grocery store, and I was thinking about how many people in my circle were like “Groceries have been delivered since March” and the privilege that that reflects about saying, “Oh, no, I’ve been perfect. I have not had to leave my house.” That’s a privilege. And recognizing that we have paid positions, we still have jobs. And so recognizing that how our examples are privileged, I think, is really important for all of us. And I find the longer that I’m teaching, the more I have to kind of check myself, the more I have to say, “Is this a universal or pretty broad experience? Is this the example resonating?” Is this, as my students would say, “Is that just really boojie?” Like, is this just a really privileged expensive thing, and I’m like, “You caught me.” And I think being humble enough to recognize what our own racial financial gendered positions are, and how our experiences may be tied to those identities and experiences and how that may differ from our students. So, I think that’s something. Examples are one way that I think are really something we can all work on. The other is the ways that we make assumptions about what students ought to know. I’m big on saying that we don’t have underprepared students, we have underprepared teachers, because our students are who our students are on day one. And that’s where we teach them from. What they know is what we know and we’ll build. And I’m very big on understanding that it is my obligation in these 16 weeks to teach them as much as I can. But I have to start where they are. And that’s my job. And if it means that I have to go back in week one, and stay up till midnight, redoing my course schedule, so be it. That’s my job, to make sure that my students are learning and recognizing that where I think they ought to be doesn’t matter. It’s where they are that matters. And that’s our starting place.

Rebecca: So, the way we prevent too much workload at the beginning is we just don’t plan the like last five weeks of the semester, so that if you need to add stuff in the beginning, you can just shift everything.

Kristina: Well, I have my syllabus, and it has the first five weeks, and I always say tentative at the top, and I say this is going to serve the needs of our students and we’ll adjust. And, I think, Rebecca, you hit the nail on the head. Yes, being flexible and adapting and saying, “If we need to take two weeks on this, but you learn it, that’s more important to me than just kind of checking off my boxes, like, Oh, good, we’re in week eight now or week nine.” Absolutely.

Rebecca: I had a conversation with my students this week about projects that they were working on, and they were getting frustrated because they weren’t being as productive as maybe they would be in a non-pandemic situation. Imagine that.

Kristina: Right?

Rebecca: And so they’re like, “But I don’t know how I’m gonna get it done.” It’s like, well, because you’re being unreasonable. Let’s take that back a couple notches, the thing you’re talking about, that’s your next revision. That’s next time. That’s not this time. And I think having those conversations with students about kind of a reality check of what’s even reasonable right now is helpful, because there are these norms of what maybe a normal semester is like, that’s just unrealistic. And maybe it’s unrealistic all the time.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I think for ourselves, too, as faculty, I mean, I have found myself, I don’t know about you all, but I’m working seven days a week. And I’m like, this is not healthy. This is not sustainable. And I’m telling my students, and I’m really open with them. I teach mostly graduate students, but I’m really open with them saying, “Please do as I say, not as I do, because I’m still learning, and I’m still a work in progress, and I’m still trying.” But, I don’t want them to fall into the same patterns that I’m falling into where it’s midnight, and we’re still working. And it’s all the time. And I think that that leads to burnout. And. I know I have been meeting with many more students than in a typical semester. And it’s more one-on-one meetings. And I appreciate that, and I value our time together. And I also am recognizing that I’m making appointments, like from seven, eight in the morning, all the way until late at night. And so our days are kind of blending. And I think that that’s really stressful. And my colleagues who have young children, I feel for them, because they are just working nonstop. And I think we have to be kind to ourselves, we have to show ourselves and our students and our colleagues grace. And to say, Rebecca, I think as you say, this is a pandemic world. So let’s all chill with our expectations, here. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: And I think along those lines, emphasizing still how much learning is actually happening.

Kristina: Yes.

Rebecca: …because, what I’ve discovered, is not that students are learning any less. They might be producing less work, but the quality is actually quite good.

Kristina: Absolutely.

Rebecca: And they’re demonstrating that they’re meeting the learning objectives. It’s just maybe there’s some things there that didn’t need to be there.

Kristina: And I don’t know if you all are seeing this, but I’m finding there’s like a decentering of faculty because I’m not lecturing for three hours in a graduate class. I’m, again, curating materials, making mini-lectures, and then using our time together when we have synchronous time, for discussion. And so I’m finding it to be really enriching. Our conversations are great. The chat… students who I have not heard from in previous semesters are now super engaged and participating because they feel more comfortable. Perhaps there’s communication apprehension, and they didn’t want to speak up in front of everyone, but they can chat and they can type in the chat, and that is another avenue. So, I think we’re also seeing opportunities for further engagement and students really taking on the ownership of saying, “I need to do the reading, because I’m not going to get a three-hour lecture, and so I can’t depend on that. I have to depend on myself.” And I think we’re going to see on the other end of this, perhaps, stronger practices of self efficacy and engagement.

Rebecca: I had a whole class of people who read their stuff today. It was amazing.

Kristina: Amazing. [LAUGHTER] Love that. Love it.

John: I haven’t quite gotten there with everyone. But I have somewhat larger classes, too. But yeah, some of the things that we’ve been doing in terms of having people have the chat capability as a backchannel has been really enriching. And I’m hoping that that becomes more widely adopted later. And also, the move to online discussion forums also gives more students a voice than would occur with synchronous communications, because there’s always some people who want to think and process things a little bit more before they jump out there and say something. And I think in that way, at least, we’ve moved to somewhat more inclusive environments. In many ways we haven’t, but at least that’s one area that I think can be useful moving forward.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I think that, John, exactly to your point, I think that we are creating some more opportunities for engagement. And I see the big barrier is getting folks in the classes and making sure they have the WiFi making sure they have a device. I think that’s the big challenge at the beginning of the semester. And so thinking about planning for next semester, for many of us who already know that we are going to stay remote, is thinking about how those first two weeks can be really flexible, because it might take students a while to get access after the holidays and after the New Year. Depending what happens with the election and different things that are happening, they might need a little bit more time to get their financial aid checks. And so thinking about how those first few weeks can be caught u, I think is gonna be really important for the spring

Rebecca: I think that’s a nice lead into how we normally wrap up, which is: What’s next? {LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Who knows? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s it, that’s all there is.

Kristina: Who knows? What’s interesting to me is when I think about the possibilities for higher education, I think this is really exciting. So, when I think about the different, you know, 1636 and Harvard’s founding, we have seen really slow change in higher education. And all of the slow change was laughed at in March when they’re like: “Guess what? We are going from moving the battleship to like a jet ski right now. We are going fast, and we are hoping for the best.” And so I think we’re gonna see some rapid and lasting changes in US higher education that would have taken decades had there not been a pandemic. And so my hope is that we are going to increase hybrid offerings, we’re going to increase our capabilities of serving more students by offering more online options. And my hope is that institutions will respond by creating tenured and tenure-track lines or online, totally online, programs and teachings. And we’ve got more than 3000 institutions of higher education in this country, that we can really create more access and engagement and higher education achievement in this country. That’s my hope for what’s next.

Rebecca: I think ending on a hopeful note is a good thing. [LAUGHTER] It’s a time when we need a lot of hope.

John: Certainly.

Kristina: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Thank you so much, Kristina. You’ve given us lots to think about and actions to actually take.

Kristina: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity. This was super fun. I enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed our conversation

John: We have too and we hope we’ll be talking to you again in the future.

Kristina: Anytime. Thank you.

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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.

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155. Remote Proctoring

Faculty who rely on high-stakes proctored exams in their classrooms often attempt to replicate this approach in online instruction by using remote proctoring services. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus and John Locke join us to discuss some of the issues associated with the use of remote video proctoring and suggest some effective and less problematic alternative methods of assessing student learning.

Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessmyn is the recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She is also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. John is the Coordinator of Technology Enhanced Learning and an adjunct instructor in Communication Studies, also at SUNY Plattsburgh. He recently received his doctorate in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in humanities and culture, and is currently working on a second historical novel.

Show Notes

Additional Resources/References

Transcript

John: Faculty who rely on high-stakes proctored exams in their classrooms often attempt to replicate this approach in online instruction by using remote proctoring services. In this episode, we discuss some of the issues associated with the use of remote video proctoring and suggest some effective and less problematic alternative methods of assessing student learning.

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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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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Rebecca: Our guests today are Jessamyn Neuhaus and John Locke. Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessmyn is the recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She is also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. John is the Coordinator of Technology Enhanced Learning and an adjunct instructor in Communication Studies, also at SUNY Plattsburgh. He recently received his doctorate in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in humanities and culture, and is currently working on a second historical novel. Welcome, John, and welcome back, Jessamyn.

Jessamyn: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

John L.: Yeah, thanks.

John: Today’s teas are:

Jessamyn: Just plain water for me. Gotta stay hydrated.

John L.: Grande decaf from Starbucks.

John K.: That’s an interesting tea.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] I have a Scottish afternoon tea

John K.: …and I have ginger peach green tea.

We’ve invited you both here to talk about online proctoring services. As a result of the global pandemic, a lot of people suddenly had to shift from face-to-face instruction to remote instruction or online instruction. And many people who relied on proctored classroom exams are concerned about how to offer tests, and many faculty have been investigating the possibility of using remote proctoring services. What are some of the concerns associated with using online proctoring services?

John L.: Well, to start with, we are all trying to deal with the digital divide. And when you get into online proctored exams, that becomes a pretty big issue in that not all students have the equipment or the bandwidth to be able to participate. It helps to know what the process is. And basically, what we’re dealing with is a test that’s happening while the student is being recorded, both audio and visually being recorded. Usually, it starts out with a little intro section where you have to show an ID to prove who you are, show your space so that everybody can see that you don’t have crib notes on your desk, or there isn’t Albert Einstein in the corner of the room [LAUGHTER] telling you the answers to what you’re working on. And assuming all that goes well, then, of course, you’re taking the tests, usually an online test with a lockdown browser so that you can’t surf for answers anywhere else. It’s a lot of moving parts to make it work in the first place. And the big assumption is, number one, the student has the equipment necessary, and the student has the environment necessary to take a quiz like that. For instance, if you happen to be a student who lives in a very small apartment with a family, and you have brothers and sisters running through the room where you’re taking the test, because you’re at the dining room table, there are so many issues that come into play, not to mention just the fact that you may be embarrassed by your surroundings and don’t feel comfortable showing those surroundings to other people. So for me, that’s probably the first and most critical reason why I always talk to faculty and ask them to think about it before they actually devote themselves to that process. Other issues are, try as you may, there are always ways to get around these sorts of safeguards. And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that somebody who plans to be dishonest will figure out a way to be dishonest. Again, I try to get instructors to be a little more thoughtful with how they’re going to assess that learning is taken place in the first place. And that’s really where my friend Jessamyn has opened my eyes to many of the alternative ways.

Jessamyn: Yeah, there’s a lot of great resources that have been proliferating since the emergency pivot in response to this very question and suggestions, building on research that was already there, for how to assess student learning and in authentic and, as John was mentioning, equitable as possible way. I guess, just what I would add to that in terms of looking at it as a scholar of pedagogy, and taking messages like from James Lang’s book, Cheating Lessons, what do you want to foreground in your message to students in the class climate you’re creating, in the rapport that you’re building with them? The ordeal of the kind of proctoring software that John was describing, and that we were increasingly seeing problems with… the very first message you’re sending to students is: I assume students cheat, I assume students are going to be dishonest. I assume students don’t care about their education enough to try to express their learning as honestly and authentically as possible. And I guess what we, as what John and I both, were inviting faculty to consider when we were doing workshops this summer on this topic is: are there alternatives to this that send a more positive message and create a more productive class client and help you connect to students? Let’s not forget, at a time when everybody is anxious and overextended and fearful, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. So, what do you want to prioritize as an educator?

John L.: Yeah, and exams are stressful enough as it is. So you add COVID on top of that, and then you add a technology that students aren’t used to. And it’s so much easier to choke under that environment.

Jessamyn: Yeah, an anxious brain is not a brain that can clearly and, to its best ability, express what it knows and show what it knows. All the information about trauma-informed teaching just reminds us that if every chemical and message in your brain is saying, “Run away from the tiger that’s hiding in the jungle,” there’s no room to: “Okay, move your webcam to show behind your ears that you don’t have an earpiece. Now take your laptop over to the door and show that it’s closed.” How is that not creating a prey state of mind with the predator waiting to pounce on you?

John K.: Each of the issues that you both talked about also have a very differential effect in terms of creating an inclusive classroom environment. People from high-income households are more likely to have some nice quiet space, are likely to be able to afford equipment that will work with proctoring software, while Chromebooks and most mobile devices will not work well with proctoring services. And also issues of anxiety and concern about being successful are also probably more likely to be experienced by students who are first- gen students who don’t necessarily have the same expectations of being successful based on their family environment and their social networks. One of the things that concerns me about all this is that the impact would be differentially imposed on students who are already at a disadvantage in terms of the quality of their prior schooling and their resources and their support networks.

John L.: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I’m not sure what to add to that, John. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: I can jump in though. I had a thought. I’ve been reflecting… I can’t get it out of my head from a webinar this week that the Chronicle of Higher Education did a panel about the human element in online learning. And one of the panelists, Viji Sathy, mentioned that this crisis has really brought home to a huge new number of educators that we are teaching whole students… that taking into account all aspects of students experiences, their work experiences, family experiences, and these equity issues. So, it’s not that academic inequality is brand new to 2020. But, the awareness of it has really increased and the attention to it has really increased. And I think it’s being highlighted in ways that it’s just impossible to look away from. So this specific issue is touching on, I think, a bigger kind of reckoning that faculty are having on an individual basis, and as institutions. I see a lot more individual instructors really asking, “Wait, am I being inclusive?” The question is way more in people’s minds than I think it’s ever been, in my experience.

Rebecca: Related to that is the idea of accessibility too. With so much delivery in digital formats, the topic of digital accessibility is becoming much more prevalent in the forefront of faculty’s minds, whether they want it to be or not, it becomes something that everyone’s becoming more aware of. This same kind of software also imposes a lot of accessibility issues and barriers for students with disabilities, because a lot of them are not compatible with assistive technology and aren’t built to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, essentially.

Jessamyn: And related to that, students with anxiety issues, who are struggling with mental health issues… the high-stress, high-stakes examination, in any format, is a challenge. But add to that the technology aspect of it, you are looking at assessment mechanisms that really isn’t being accessible and inclusive, it would not allow all your students to show you what they know.

John K.: One concern that I have about proctoring services is that faculty may see it as a simple solution that will allow them to use tests that they’ve created in the past. Many people have created very elaborate test banks in Blackboard and other places and then they expect that those questions can now be used, if they’re used in a proctored environment, not realizing that most of those questions have already been distributed to multiple sites out there and students would often have access to them, anyway. So I think that proctored systems can provide instructors with a false sense of security and as John mentioned earlier, they can be pretty easily defeated as long as students have devices that will allow them, for example, to do screen shares in the background underneath the proctoring service or perhaps have multiple devices where they can be looking up answers or using some other mechanism that won’t always be easily detected by the proctoring service.

Jessamyn: That’s a good point, and I know John Locke has addressed that issue. I mean, you don’t drill in on it, but when you’re talking to faculty, you often say, “And by the way, this is not a magic bullet, even if you go through all the trouble of setting it up.”

John L.: The idea that somehow having someone else proctor your exam is going to save you time…. That’s not how it works. These proctoring systems just flag potential incidents. You still have to go through and you decide whether or not those are warranted as cheating or if they’re just someone sneezed. So, between setting up the exam and then reviewing the flags, looking for false flags, I don’t know if it saves anybody any time.

Rebecca: I’m team workload reduction.

Jessamyn: Yes.

John L.: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So, what do we say to faculty who ask about replicating those high-stakes testing environments in their online environments.

John L.: I say: “Why?” I think that what would be more appropriate is to simulate the environment that somebody needs to perform in where they’ve acquired the knowledge in order to accomplish that performance. For instance, I taught a computer applications course years ago, and for the final exam…. I did have a final exam… but, I told them, “What I hope you get out of this class is to learn how to learn how to use software. So if you haven’t already learned how to learn to use software, now’s your chance. And when you’re out in the real world, you will have the software manual, you will have the person in the cubicle next to you, the only thing you won’t have is me. So, unless you have a question about a specific question on the test, don’t talk to me, as far as anything else that gets you to accomplish the goal, go for it.” If you’re studying to be an ER doctor, perhaps you do need to have the pharmaceutical manuals memorized page by page. [LAUGHTER] But most of us aren’t working in that kind of stressful environment. So, there are better ways, maybe project-oriented ways, to assess that that learning has taken place, that those skills have been received or learned and received.

Jessamyn: I try to assume best intentions on the part of all faculty. And I know that many of my colleagues who expressed that sentiment exactly, like “How can I make sure they’re not cheating?” …they’re not saying that because they’re evil, like “Mwah, hah hah hah, those bad students…” No, they really are concerned about student learning. So, what John and I did was really to frame this as an invitation to faculty, an invitation to think creatively about assessment, authentic assessment, to really be able to measure student learning, but maybe also rethink what you thought and assumed about assessment. And here’s a big bonus, maybe grading it could be less painful. If you are trying something new, something that’s a little bit more creative, that might help you as well in your end. So, that’s been how we’ve been addressing it here at Plattsburgh.

Rebecca: What are some ways to do that assessment, maybe in a class that doesn’t work well for project-based learning. Maybe it’s a bigger section class, or maybe it’s more foundational information that doesn’t lend itself as easily to project-based learning. What are some alternatives?

Jessamyn: There’s always small, lower stakes, regular quizzes. So instead of one big, huge exam, having smaller quizzes along the way. That’s just one off the top of my head… an easy one. John?

John L.: Yeah, well, especially in this environment, discussion forums are really, I think, underutilized. There’s no reason that you can’t build a rubric around a discussion forum and spell out your expectations to students and then hold them to them and grade according to those. Again, it’s taking the student higher up that Bloom’s taxonomy ladder than just memorizing and regurgitating information. It’s causing them to react to other people’s comments within the discussion forum, to assimilate the knowledge that they’ve already accumulated, and to create new and different responses based on that immediate situation. And, the advantage to that for slow thinkers like me, [LAUGHTER] is that you don’t have to be quick on your feet. You’re not the student in the back of the room with his hand up saying, “Well, never mind, you covered that five minutes ago.” It’s kind of an equalizer. I wouldn’t say “Have a discussion forum as a final exam,” but it’s another part of the scaffold to assess that learning is taking place throughout the semester.

Jessamyn: I think there’s a lot of potential for open-book exams as well. In fact, I have used open-book exams for a long time. And, in large part, that is because I really wanted my students to learn, and I wanted to be able to grade an exam very rigorously. So saying, here’s a question you can answer with an open book, and, yeah, you might even talk to someone else about it. But then the final product is an essay question, or it could be a presentation, it could be a sort of annotated bibliography. There’s lots of ways it could go as an open-book exam. But then when I go to assess it, I know that you have the material in front of you. So, I am going to really drill down here, like, “Do you really understand this concept? Can you show me that you understand it?” Because I know you can look at the basic definition in the book that’s open in front of you. So, now you have to show me that you really, really get it, you have to use it, you have to apply it, whatever it is.

Rebecca: What about STEM-oriented examples? A lot of the things that we’ve talked about work really well in the humanities and the arts. How about some things that work well in math and science and other STEM fields?

Jessamyn: So, I’ve been trying to do a little reading in this area. I’ve been hearing from some faculty in this area. So, in an online lab setting, being able to complete the experiment in the correct way, in the scientific-y way… [LAUGHTER] …that could be one way to assess learning… doing something like a fact sheet. So the final product is how you’re assessing the student learning. But again, you could be measuring the application, the correct way to do XYZ in a kind of fact sheet format or a PowerPoint slide or a poster presentation.

John K.: One type of thing we sometimes recommend for people in the STEM fields is that, if they are going to use multiple choice, one way of dealing with this is to use some algorithmically generated questions so that each student gets their own version of the question. Now, the solution procedure may be the same, but for at least low-level skills, that can help to deter some academic integrity issues.

Jessamyn: Student-generated exam questions could be another way to go. If you really understand the material, you’re not just regurgitating memorized material, but if you really understand it, then you should be able to help someone else understand it. And one way you could assess that would be “What are the 10 best exam questions?” …something like that.

Rebecca: Another idea that I’ve heard from people more in the STEM areas is the idea of creating some sort of resource that explains a topic to a non expert audience. So, maybe it’s an experiment or something that you can do with kids, or just kind of generally to someone who’s not in the discipline and get them to grasp whatever it is that you’re trying to assess.

Jessamyn: Yeah.

John L.: This might be going out on a limb for a STEM environment, maybe we could call it STEAM, because there is an artistic bent to it. But, for instance, in an accounting course, if there’s a particular accounting procedure or process that students have to prove that they understand it, they could write a short story, “a day in the life of the accountant to the New York Yankees” or something… and totally fictional, but covering each step in the process that has to be accomplished. And as an instructor, I would love to read something like that rather than checking off right or wrong on a test sheet.

Jessamyn: I’m thinking too about something like following up Rebecca’s suggestion, and increasing accessibility, you could even have students creating resources like that in a variety of formats. It could be a poster, could be a podcast, could be a video, could be a live presentation… You could do something like an oral exam… something like that.

John K.: One of the things I’m doing in my small class of 60 students is having students create podcasts. Unfortunately, that doesn’t scale as well, in my class that’s closer to 300 students. So, I’d really like to do more open pedagogy projects. It’s just, in large intro classes, that’s a bit of a challenge.

Rebecca: John, you have some experience using algorithmic questions, too, as a way of assessment, right?

John K.: Algorithmic questions can work very effectively, in at least making sure that students can use the formulas appropriately, which is a basic skill in many STEM classes.

Jessamyn: What I would like to see is more faculty really having these discussions and swapping these ideas, like on a national scale. I think that the learning curve has been so high for so many instructors in so many ways. Like, not just, “I’ve never even visited the learning management system, and now I have to use it.” Not just that. But, coming to terms with the emotional aspects of teaching and trauma-informed teaching in the midst of, possibly, “I’m at home and I’m supposed to be overseeing my children’s education” or simple childcare issues. All these things are overwhelming so many instructors just day-to-day life. And then on top of that, “Oh, rethink something you’ve used forever. The thing that you relied on from day one, and that you did so well in graduate school… hey, that’s not gonna work.” That’s hard. That’s tough. So, the more sharing of ideas we have, and the more spreading of good possibilities for assessment, the better. And I sent you a list of some of those resources I’ve been providing. They are starting to be generated, especially at university teaching centers and in people’s blogs and essays and such. But, I think the more it just becomes a broad conversation about “What can we do? How can we, in this situation, assess student learning in new ways and recognizing it’s new for us, too.”

Rebecca: Bill Goffe, in our episode 154, Sharing Disciplinary Pedagogies, also offered a way to get people to collaborate across institutions on some of these kinds of things using a simple Google Sheet. So, we’re all kind of forced to be on line in some capacities now, maybe more than before, but maybe that’s also opening some doors for collaboration that haven’t been there before, either.

Jessamyn: I hope so. I mean, John Locke and I, both of our centers had not been collaborating in the past. So, spring of 2020, was like this kind of completely perfect context for us to send a message to the university, the Center for Teaching Excellence, and Technology Enhanced Learning, we work together, and because people needed us both. So, in that sense, I won’t say silver lining, there’s no such thing right now, but it was a unique opportunity for these two very small centers on campus to collaborate.

John L.: Yeah, in fact, I’ve accidentally come up with a tagline that is starting to appear at the bottom of my emails to faculty. And that is, “you are not alone.” They never were, but it’s much more important for them to realize. In fact, I was working with a professor last night who was having some difficulty in the learning management system. And about 10 o’clock, I sent him what I thought was probably the solution. And I didn’t hear back. So, this morning, I sent him an email and said, you know, “How did it work out?” And his response was, “I’m sorry, I haven’t even gotten to it yet. I’m sorry.” And I said, “No, you don’t have to apologize to me, I just want you to know that you’re not alone, that I’m trying to help you. And I’m not going to let go until I know your problem is solved.” And that sort of community approach to learning in general, and what we’re all going through, I think is helpful. If you know that I know I’m struggling with this I’ll bet someone else is too and, maybe between us, we can figure it out. If more people can adopt that thought and not feel that they’re infringing on someone else’s time, I think we’ll all get through this to whatever the other end looks like.

Jessamyn: That was one of the first things that John Locke has said to faculty who wanted to use this remote proctoring system is “Don’t make your life harder than it has to be.” All the student issues aside, and equity and trust and accessibility, but it’s such a pain in the ass. It really is hard to use. And I’m not just talking to the student end is terrible, but from the instructor end. It’s such a pain to set up and he shared with me, sometimes someone will approach him, “Can I set this up,” he said “Okay, but you have to do bla bla bla bla bla, then this and this…” and they’re like, “uh, maybe I’ll rethink this.” LAUGHTER] I mean, let’s try to make our teaching a little bit more joyful, if we can. Let’s try to make it a little bit more creative, for our sake, if nothing else,

John K.: It can be a lot more fun listening to podcasts students create, listening to their videos that they create, looking at documents they create, or infographics and other things, than it is reading a pile of exams, or writing up multiple choice exams.

Jessamyn: For students, too. Conveying their knowledge in a different way. It’s so good for their brain. That’s why I’m always reassuring students, when I’m asking them to do non- traditional assessments, which I mostly use (even before all this). Our students are very traditional in many ways, and they get really nervous when I say, “Okay, so you’re gonna write a short story, you’re gonna do a poster.” And they say: “Wait, what? I’ve never done that before.” Or “ I don’t know, I don’t know if I can do that successfully.” And I’m constantly telling them, “This is you conveying your learning, your skills, your knowledge in a new way, and it feels challenging, but you could do it and it’s great for your brain. It’s like calisthenics for your brain. You’re presenting what you know, just like you would in a traditional research paper or a traditional exam, but it’s in a different format, and that’s great for your thinking in all ways.”

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

John L.: What’s next? I’m waiting for that chip to be implanted in my head so that I won’t have to show you my assessment, you’ll just be able to download it. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: John, what is your next book project?

John L.: My next book project… I’m writing a novel that’s called “Defending Eldorado” and it takes place in South America, about 50 years after Columbus, where a bunch of colonial powers are trying to find Eldorado and the native South, Central and North Americans are doing their best to make sure they don’t find it. And since we never did, obviously, they were successful. Spoiler alert. [LAUGHTER]

John K.: You mentioned that you had just completed a book. What was your most recent book about?

John L.: Ah, my most recent book was actually the prequel to the current book, a nd that was about a group of disillusioned European scholars who left the Academy. They were humanists, they left the academy because it was being run by scholastics. And they decided to find Thomas More’s Utopia, which leads them to the New World, and hilarity ensues. Not really, but… [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, Jessamyn?

Jessamyn: I’m headed, coming up, very shortly, I think everybody here is familiar with it, the SUNY Faculty Developers Conference, it’s going to be online and I’m doing a poster there about a series of events that John Locke and I hosted over the spring for faculty. So, that’s coming up next month. I’ve got some speaking things coming up. I’m really excited to be speaking at the Lilly Online Conference in November, and I am reading chapter submissions for an anthology project that’s contracted with West Virginia University Press in their Teaching and Learning Series. It is an anthology of insights into effective teaching and learning from women, marginalized, and underrepresented faculty. I have some fantastic submissions… so many good ones. So, that’s been a really great thing I’ve been working on right now. It’s fun.

Rebecca: Well, thank you both for joining us…

Jessamyn: Thank you.

Rebecca: …and we look forward to your future work, for sure.

John L.: All right, thank you.

John: It’s great talking to both of you.

Jessamyn: Nice to see you both. Hang in there, SUNY Oswego.

[MUSIC]

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. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.

[MUSIC]

153. Structured for Inclusion

Learning spaces that are effective for all students require careful planning and design. In this episode, Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan join us to discuss ways to promote inclusion in the way we structure our courses, activities, and feedback. Viji is a Teaching Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC – Chapel Hill and Kelly is an Associate Dean of Instructional Innovation, Quality Enhancement Plan Director, and Teaching Professor of Biology, also at UNC – Chapel Hill.

Show Notes

  • Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2017). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work?. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453-468.
  • Poll Everywhere
  • Hogan, K.A. and Sathy, V. (forthcoming, 2021). Embracing Diversity: A Guide to Teaching Inclusively. WVU Press.
  • Hogan, Kelly A, and Sathy, Viji (2020). “Optimizing Student Learning and Inclusion in Quantitative Courses.” in Rodgers, Joseph Lee, ed. (2020). Teaching Statistics and Quantitative Methods in the 21st Century. Routledge.
  • Panter, A.T.,; Sathy, Viji; and Hogan, Kelly A (2020). “8 Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching.” Chronicle of Higher Education. April 7.

Transcript

John: Learning spaces that are effective for all students require careful planning and design.
In this episode, we discuss ways to promote inclusion in the way we structure our courses, activities, and feedback.

[MUSIC]

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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guests today are Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan. Viji is a Teaching Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC – Chapel Hill and Kelly is an Associate Dean of Instructional Innovation, Quality Enhancement Plan Director, and Teaching Professor of Biology, also at UNC – Chapel Hill. Welcome.

Kelly: Thank you.

Viji: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Kelly: I’m drinking LaCroix… seltzer.

Viji: Yes, me too. I’ve got my sparkling water right next to me.

Rebecca: That’s my second favorite thing to drink, over tea. [LAUGHTER]

Viji: In our writing last summer, we would get together, when we could get together. We would get together and write, and we often had a nice cold sparkling can of LaCroix with us, and one time we tweeted about it and LaCroix contacted me and sent me some water. So…

Rebecca: Nice…

Viji: …it’s become our official working drink.[ LAUGHTER]

John: Somehow tea has for us, as well. I have blueberry green tea today.

Rebecca: I have “Special” English Breakfast tea.

Kelly: What makes it special?

Rebecca: The package? [LAUGHTER]

John: The label? [LAUGHTER] Okay, and where did that come from?

Rebecca: It’s a Harney’s and Sons tea.

John: You’ve both been working together for quite a while now on inclusive teaching practices and have done a really good job in providing lots of workshops and lots of materials for people who would like to improve their teaching practices. What prompted your interest in this area? And how did you start working together on this?

Kelly: For me, I think I started getting really interested in what it means to be a good teacher based on data. So I had seen some data in my own course. And I saw some pretty large discrepancies based on race and ethnicity. And I thought a lot about what it means to be effective. And it really got me thinking about: are there ways that I could narrow and reduce those achievement gaps in my own class? And not long after that, I was in a faculty learning community for teaching large classes, and that’s where I met Viji. So, we were both in this faculty learning community together, paired up in a group, and we quickly recognized ourselves in each other. So, just our style of teaching, our personalities are on the more introverted side, we recognized that we really enjoyed learning how students learned, but weren’t always going to be the most charismatic and funny people. And we felt really strongly that funny didn’t equate to good teaching, and so we really built a friendship and collegiality around really learning, with each other, what good teaching looks like.

Viji: Yeah, and I’ll add that we had the opportunity, in that faculty learning community, to watch each other teach. And up to that point, the only time I had been observed was really for what I deemed sort of high-stakes purposes, like for renewal of my contract or something like that. So this is the first time we got invited to just sit in a classroom for no other reason than to just see how another instructor operates in that classroom and it was very eye-opening experience, because not only was it a chance to do this without sort of a weight around it, but also that it wasn’t a topic that I didn’t know anything about. So, it became a really fun activity to sit in the classroom and just be a student and see it from a student’s perspective. And especially not knowing the content, specifically, it was not about critiquing the content or the delivery of the content, it was really just the mechanics of teaching and what that looks like. And that was a really helpful thing for me to see and experience being a student in Kelly’s classroom.

John: Is that something that was done for just people within the learning community, or more broadly throughout the institution?

Kelly: Those observations were part of the faculty learning community. We have since tried to build programming around that same idea, campus wide. And so we have a peer visits program that we help the Center for Faculty Excellence run and faculty can go into other people’s classes, they can see a menu of people that are available that they can go visit, some rubrics available. So, I think it’s spun out of that, as something really transformational for us that were involved early on.

John: We were just planning to introduce one of those beginning in late March of this year. And then it kind of fell apart because people were no longer interested in doing that when they were panicking in terms of the transition to remote teaching. But, we’re going to be meeting next week to talk about how we might be doing that here. So, it’s something that I’ve been encouraging… I’ve been trying to get some motion on for a while now. And it looks like we’re moving in that direction. And it sounds like it was a really productive experience for both of you. And for the rest of us, given your collaborations since then. Many people have been concerned about the growth in income inequality, and economists have done a lot of work showing that one of the main reasons for that is the growth in the rate of return to education over the last few decades. What we’re seeing are some very unequal outcomes, as you mentioned, in terms of success in courses, persistence, and so forth by race, and in the STEM fields, also by gender. So, it’s really nice to see people working in this area, because it’s an area where I think we need a lot of help. To what extent are they These differences that we’re seeing the result of systemic racism and sexism.

Viji: There’s a lot in that question. Well, racism, sexism, any form of discrimination… In essence, these are learned behaviors, and these are things that we grow up with without really even thinking about sometimes. And the classroom is no different from being in life. And so we have to address them in the classroom in the same way we need to address them in life. And for me, when I think about it, it’s really about sort of concrete things sometimes, like who is speaking up in a certain space? like who feels comfortable speaking up? Who feels comfortable speaking without really having much time to think about their answer? Who gets to see instructors who look like them in the classroom? We already know that, especially for our students, it can be difficult sometimes for them to identify with their instructors, to feel like they’re just a normal person. Sometimes we hear that, right? Like “You do the things we do? That seems so strange. I never would have thought a professor would do those things.” Right? So even identifying with a professor, like adding that layer of seeing somebody who looks like you in the classroom just makes it feel even more unattainable, right? So, there’s a lot in thinking about a lot of aspects of teaching that are barriers for our students. And I often, when I go to a professional conference… when I was able to go to professional conferences… I looked out into the room and what I see in my professional meetings doesn’t look like what I see in my classroom, in terms of the diversity of participation, and I asked myself why that difference exists. And my course is the first course that leads people on a path in what’s called quantitative psychology. So, if I want them to have more people, more interested people, in the field, they have to succeed in my class to then have the interest and the goal to keep going on that track. So, it starts with my class, but it actually starts way before my class and all the messages they get before they even show up at my doorstep in my course and how I can work to counteract some of the messages that tells them they don’t belong, and that there isn’t a place for them in STEM. These are things that they hear either subconsciously or consciously and we need to address that.

John: What can we do to create a more inclusive learning environment for our students that will work well for all of our students?

Kelly: Well, I think we have to recognize that these historical differences, as you said, systemic racism and sexism, that those are things that existed before we met our students, and they lead to differences in who our students are. But, we have to be careful not to blame our students for those differences. You know, diversity is a strength, and we have to find ways to feel empowered to work with the students that we have, to build on that strength that is the diversity, but also not, as I said, blame students. So, the way we like to think about this is by adding structure to everything that we do, and we like to think about it as structure in the course design as well as the facilitation in live sessions. So, a lot of times our students, especially, see teaching is just what we do sort of face to face or in this day and age our live zoom sessions, if we’re doing them… and who’s not speaking up and who’s not participating if we only use low structure, and by that, I mean, like maybe one mode where we expect volunteers all the time. But, we also have to think about course design and a low structure course design might be one that doesn’t have a lot of practice and assessment built in, where students actually learn how learning works. And so we want to think about building structure in everything we do, and asking ourselves constantly: “With what I want to do, how can I add more structure so it’s not left up to chance. Who’s going to know what to do with this? Who’s going to know how to take notes? Who’s going to know that there should be routine practice in learning? Who’s going to know that they could participate in different ways? So, that’s kind of the way in which we think about it, but I’m sure we could get into more specifics with each of our courses.

John: And you’ve both done some research that have shown that there are significant effects of providing that structure in terms of encouraging student success, as well as perhaps reducing that gap, I believe.

Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. Work that I published with a colleague, Sarah Eddy years ago, we looked at my teaching in a much lower, less inclusive structure where I did a lot of talking… you could call it a pretty typical teacher-centered classroom… and then looked at three semesters of me shifting to something far more student centered, a variety of ways of interacting with my students, and basically a higher structure classroom. And even in those first few semesters where, you know, you’re just getting used to something and don’t feel proficient yet, it made a big difference. It closed an achievement gap for first-generation college students, it narrowed the achievement gap for black students, continued to see students talk about an increased feeling of community, among other things. So, it continued to get better as I got better. And I continued to see ways I could put more structure into my course. And I kept asking myself, how can I add more structure?

John: Maybe we could talk a little bit about some of the ways in which you’ve added that structure in each of your classes.

Viji: Sure, I’ll provide some examples of that. When I redesigned my course, and, like Kelly, I had landed as a study to look at how, at that time (it was about maybe 10 years ago), recording micro lectures and having students watch them before they came to class, and using class time to do more polls and some of the assignments that they were struggling with. And that was the challenge I had in my introductory statistics course was I was using the class time to explain ideas and then sending them home to do hard homework problem sets. And oftentimes, that led to a lot of frustration, because there was no one around to help with the questions that they had in real time. So, I wanted to switch the order of that so that they were watching the videos where I’d explain how you might calculate something at home, and then in class, we might practice doing some of those problems together, with peers, with graduate students, with undergraduate learning assistants. So, that’s an example of a structure that’s in place, right? …having the videos available so students can watch them before class. And what I learned was it became a really incredible resource for students to access throughout the semester. I anticipated that they would get used right before the class session where we’d be using the material. And indeed, when I look at the learning management, the site provides some statistics around that. Yes, there were the most clicks right before class, because I had a quiz in class that day on that material. But there were also clicks right before that first exam on some of those videos. There were also clicks before the final exam. There were clicks in random days in the semester when I didn’t think it had anything to do with what we were talking about. But, they went back to watch something. And what that taught me was that they need to see that material more than one time. And when I was doing it in class, it was once, it was ethereal, right? …it was once and it was gone. But, now students could rewatch, they could hit pause, they could work as slowly or quickly through the problems as they wanted to. So, it provided a resource for being able to do that. And again, that’s the example of, by providing it, not all the students need to watch it multiple times. But, it’s available to those who needed to do that or wanted to do that.

John: So they’d watch a video and then you had a quiz at the beginning of the class or was it before the class started?

Viji: The way I implemented it, and there’s lots of different ways people have this piece, how they would structure that requirement, but I wanted it to be done. And so I wanted students to have shown me that they’ve done it through a quiz at the start of class. It helps keep them accountable for doing the work. And I do a fairly good job of what we call, it’s like “the warm demander.” I’m the warm demander in the classroom, and I do a pretty good job of coaching them and asking them to do this work so that we can do hard things together in class, making the argument that it’s the most efficient way we can be together, when we’re together. And then there’s peer pressure, right? Like if they’re the only one, they look around, and everybody else came to class prepared. We’ve all been in meetings where we didn’t do our homework, whatever the homework was. So, if you build this culture, I think people really do take to it and they do learn that it is efficient. And more importantly, like in Kelly’s class, they see results, they do better on an exam because they’ve kept up with it all along. So, that’s when you know, the proof is in the pudding, when they see things that they’re pleased with and they keep going with it.

Kelly: Yeah, and that’s an important point Viji just made… that these kinds of techniques help all students, they disproportionately benefit some students, which makes a difference in terms of equity, but they definitely help all students. My own experience with structure is one that Viji alluded to with the flipped classroom, which is another way of thinking about the learning cycle, that students need to be required to do things before, during, and after class. And that adds a very high structure to what we would consider the learning cycle. So, if I ask students to do some reading before class, I don’t assume that all students know what to take away from a reading. And so for this, I give students guided reading questions and it helps them know where I’m coming from and what they should focus on, and what they might want to use as a study guide. And it helps replace the lecture so that I’m not going to talk to them the whole time that we’re together. When we are together, I want to use the time for collaboration and a variety of things. And so, I also don’t assume that students know what to take away from that. And so I provide class outlines, to make sure that, whether a student has learning differences, is multilingual, distracted, whatever, that all students leave with some basic outlines from class. So, already you’re starting to see how the structure can help all kinds of students. And then in class, I added a lot more active learning, and it quickly became apparent to me that, if I don’t put the instructions in multiple modes, so verbal and visual, that students were not going to be with me, and we were going to waste a lot of time with instruction. So, it’s something I think we don’t think about a lot. Like, if we want them to do something, then we have to be very clear about that, whether it’s in an assignment, a breakout group online, or active learning together in a classroom, providing more silence time for thinking. And then, for me, a lot of it has come down more recently to group work and equity around group work. And I kept thinking to myself, how do I add more structure to the group work because students were telling me if I just said, turn and talk to a neighbor, that certain students always were left out or they were with friends and they weren’t being pushed to really do the learning and feel the rigor of what they were being asked to do because the friends would just sort of agree and then chitchat, And so I thought about structuring groups, assigning groups, and giving people in the groups, roles. So, all of these are just different ways to think about how do I bring more structure to my classroom for all students. And it’s not going to hurt the students that already know how to take notes. And it’s not going to hurt students who know how to take notes on outlines, and all of that, but for the ones that need that, it’s going to really level the playing field for them.

Viji: Yeah. And I’d add to the idea that the technology can help us here. We have a lot of good platforms, not a single one that would do everything, but we have good platforms that help us accomplish these goals. And I’ll give the classroom response system, or polling, the example that I use… that’s something that’s something that I was using, even before I redesigned the course… and the reason I loved it so much was because I could hear from every student in a classroom, right? I didn’t have to wonder if it was just the brave one who raised their hand who understood it and looked and scanned and tried to make sense of the confusion of the faces, right? There’s no ambiguity. If I know that 97% of the people got the question right, then we can move on. That’s a pretty good response. So, thinking through what technology exists to help us help all students is really important in this work.

Kelly: I’m currently really enjoying… in our learning management system,there’s something called lesson tools. And it’s a way to build each lesson for students. And it’s such an easy way to think about building something before, during and after. And I feel like a lot of people are starting to realize that building an online class just requires so much more structure that, as that translates back into the face-to-face classroom, that structure will be built. Yes, it takes a lot of time and effort to build it, but once it’s there, you’ve got all these online homeworks and resources and videos. We’re going to have a lot more ways to say to students, you can learn this this way, or this way, or this way. And that is the basis of universal design, something I think we should all strive to do. But, we know it takes time and effort to get all those resources together.

Rebecca: These are a lot of things that are very dear to my heart too… really thinking about flexibility and making sure that we can engage students in a lot of different ways.

Viji: There are many things about this emergency transition, the change to remote instruction that I think we’re all learning that that flexibility, and the structure, is really important. And sometimes people think that they are at odds with one another, but they’re really not… that we need to think about multiple ways to have assignments be late, for example, because things are happening in life. I think for far too long. we’ve ignored the differences that our students come to the classroom with, and now it’s in our face when we see that a student doesn’t have a good internet connection, for example. So, those differences are becoming very clear in this transition. And, like Kelly, I’m optimistic that many of the things we’re designing and learning will stick beyond this transition, because we are building things that will last… hopefully they’ll last in the courses… the notes you make, the videos you make, these are all things that can be helpful to students in the future as well.

John: That was something we emphasized with our workshops for helping people prepare for the fall back at the beginning of the summer, telling them that “Yeah, this is going to be a lot more work preparing your course then many of you have ever done before, but the people who already were teaching online really didn’t have many problems because they had a lot of the things built. And if you do this, even if this pandemic is gone in a year or so, everything you’ve created can still be used as long as you create them in ways that are modular and that can be adopted for continued use in the future. I think that helped convince a lot of people that it was a good time to start devoting to those activities, because it wasn’t just for a one or two semester emergency, but it was going to be a change that could actually improve their classes indefinitely. At least, that’s what we tried to convince people… there are a lot of really panicked and worried people.

Viji: It’s an investment. It’s a heavy investment, in a short amount of time, in a very panicked way. And we’re sympathetic to my colleagues who are doing this while also caregiving and that there’s a lot… it’s not just life as normal, that we’re asking a lot of a lot of people in a short amount of time.

Kelly: And I like your use of the word modular because for me, that’s really key. I build everything by lesson objective. So, it might only take me 10 minutes to make a video, so I can pop in and out of my life, I don’t have to worry about creating this awesome video with no outtakes, right? …it’s just much quicker. And then students can also say, “Okay, I see I have six videos to watch today, but they’re all five or 10 minutes, I’ll do three now, I’ll do three later. So, I do think it fits nicely with the time we’re in, but it also helps alignment across the course, too, for students to know exactly what they need to do, and then use those modules as the basis for your assessment.

Rebecca: I agree, Kelly, I’ve been spending a lot of time making sure that the modules that I’m creating can actually act as standalone things and don’t connect [LAUGHTER] between them, so that I could mix and match them in the future, because there’s some things that, in a virtual environment, I’m doing in an order that I might do differently if we were in person. And so, I think that’s ending up working really well. I’m having to articulate what I want to articulate really concretely about a particular subject and break it down into smaller pieces. And I think you’re right that that structure is going to stick later on. I’m going to keep doing that in the future and it’s definitely causing me to think about things differently. We’ve talked a bit about the structure of classes and ways that we can be more equitable and inclusive. But what about the way that we evaluate student work and grade student work?

Kelly: One thing that we often talk about in the workshops we do at a lot of institutions is we think about the growth mindset. And the idea that it takes practice to get good at something. And we like to share with students that it takes practice for us and mistakes are part of learning and we hope all educators buy into that. But then when you ask educators, where in your syllabus in your grading policies is the growth mindset. We’ve seen so many faculty just scratch their heads and say like, “You’re right.” This is a philosophy I believe in, but it’s not built into what I actually do. Because we have hard deadlines. We count everything a zero if it’s not there. And so, Viji and I have some ways that we’ve done it, and we’re always trying to think how much more can we put into our grading and our policies that really account for that growth mindset. So, for me, an example is I allow students to drop their lowest exam. And with first-year students in a STEM course, many of them don’t do well on their first exam. And it helped me think about, “Oh, let me give them an earlier failure. Let me give them a hard quiz earlier on so it doesn’t hurt them a lot.” But, allowing them to drop an exam gives them the sense that “Okay, I didn’t do well, but I don’t have to leave the major.” And honestly, students think that… they get one low grade, and they think they’re done with that entire discipline. So, that’s one way I’ve dealt with that growth mindset.

Viji: Yeah. And that point that Kelly made about leaving the major… to some faculty, that might sound ridiculous, like we’ve certainly been knocked down a few times and picked ourselves up. But, there are some students for whom they’ve been told their whole lives, they don’t fit. And if you get that early piece of feedback that, indeed, you don’t fit, and that’s the way they interpret it. It doesn’t mean that that’s what’s actually happening. What’s actually happening is they’ve made a mistake in terms of their preparation, or maybe they didn’t have the right types of study strategies, whatever it is, but we want to convey in our courses that you can recover from that early mistake by using the right approaches. Let’s sit together and talk about what you did do and what we might do better next time around. And so having this grading structure where you drop a grade… In my course, I have a cumulative final in statistics… it’s easy to have a cumulative final, everything sort of builds on one another in terms of content. And I say that if you do better on the final, it can replace one of the earlier exam grades. So again, it builds that opportunity for being able to understand the material at some point, it’s okay, if you don’t get it by the exam date one or exam date two, we’ll get there and it’s not a race. It’s not about getting there at a certain time. It might not even happen this semester, it might take several semesters of chipping away at a certain topic, but that you give them a little bit of grace in terms of the timeline with which they might understand that material. And then again, like does it really have to be a zero if you don’t turn something in versus a 60 or 70 or 80? Right? The mathematical average of that is terrible. So, let’s think about ways in which we can assign grading such that a single late assignment doesn’t harm you greatly or a single low grade doesn’t harm you greatly and bake that into the grading scheme of our courses.

Kelly: And on a bigger scale, when we say we look out into the conferences of our disciplines, or we ask where’s the diversity in our own disciplines, it comes back to these little decisions. This is anti-racist teaching, when you think about these things. By having really hard first exams, that’s a barrier that excludes people, and if we really want diversity in our disciplines, these are the little decisions that we make that are really powerful in terms of the effect and impact they have on students.

Viji: Yeah, we’ve all heard that “Look to your left, look to your right. Some of you will not make it” and then we say as educators “Well, that’s terrible. Why would somebody say that?” But, then you look at our syllabus construction, and really, it’s just a different version of that kind of statement.

John: And I think another thing you advocate is keeping most of your assessments low stake so that way any one thing they may not do well on… besides dropping the lowest grade from a set, just keeping pretty much everything low stakes could also take some of the pressure off and reduce some of that effect.

Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. That’s another great strategy.

John: What are some of the things that faculty do in class that makes class discussions less inclusive? And what can we do to make these discussions more inclusive?

Kelly: Now this is a question near and dear to our heart because Viji and I are often at meetings together and either quietly texting each other or giving each other a look. And we know each other well enough to give a look and know exactly what it means. And a lot of meetings we’re in are just not inclusive. If you’re not the person that’s just going to raise your hand and say something potentially controversial in a room full of ranks and hierarchy. Our students feel that way too. Whether it’s actually ranks and hierarchy, there are lots of reasons why a student doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up. And so a great way to do this is to take the volunteer aspect out of it in a large classroom and put them into smaller cohorts. And many students are very comfortable talking to each other in small groups, verifying their ideas, building their confidence that what they are thinking has merit, is a great way to start building community and to have students start feeling comfortable. And once they’ve gotten that affirmation in a small group, more people are willing to represent what their group said. So like, for instance, I never call on an individual student… cold call and say, “What do you think?” I always give them a chance to talk first. And then I say, “Okay, group number 63, it looks like your numbers up, what is your group talking about? Fill me in.” And so I’m hearing a diversity of voices, but I’m also trying to make the environment a safe place where people can build their own communities as well as contribute to the larger community.

John: And people would feel more comfortable when they’re representing the group discussion than presenting their own. So that takes a lot of the pressure off, I think,

Kelly: Yeah.

Viji: Yeah, no one wants to be wrong, and especially in front of the professor and their peers, right? So, they’re simply reporting for the group and that’s the group’s discussion. And as skilled educators we all know how to turn a wrong answer into a learning opportunity in a classroom, but it still doesn’t take the sting away for that person who feels like they may not speak up again because of it. So, anything we can do to make it feel comfortable to be incorrect, because it’s still a learning opportunity or to say, “Well, that’s a common misperception. Let’s break that down a little bit and talk about it some more.” Those kinds of things really go a long way to building the confidence of the student. I remember one student, in particular, who wrote me just such a kind note at the end of the semester talking about how this is a common refrain in my course… they have not been looking forward to taking a statistics class… Shockingly, there’s not a lot of people who say that they are looking forward to it… But, in this case, she wrote to say, beyond any sort of content lessons I provided, what I provided to her was the opportunity to understand that she was right a lot of times in her group discussions, even though her peers tried to convince her she was wrong. And she began to doubt herself. And she’d pull in her answer because the group had a different answer, and then she realized originally she was right. So, she built confidence, but she also learned that she really knew what she was doing and she didn’t understand that about herself and she had more conviction after she left that course to be more forthright about her opinions in other settings. So, these are the kinds of things we can do when we add structure for giving people a chance to reflect on who they are as a learner and who they are as a person and how they can contribute in their groups and in society.

Kelly: I’d also like to add that we don’t have to have people speak up to be part of a community, that there are lots of other ways to contribute and writing, and using anonymous polling systems, these are all such great tools, and they’re the ones I certainly would have gravitated to as a student, had I ever been given the opportunity. I spent four years as an engaged high achieving student in college and never once raised my hand to participate, it just wasn’t what I was going to do.

John: Yeah, and polling gives people the same instant feedback, so they know whether they were right or wrong, but from a class’ perspective, it feels anonymous, that they’re not putting themselves out there where they risk the embarrassment of appearing to be wrong.

Rebecca: One of the things that I have certainly seen a lot of conversation about currently on Twitter, and I know that you’ve both engaged in these conversations about, is how to community build at the beginning of a class, especially in virtual environment where you have that really awkward online silence, and nobody really knows what to do with. [LAUGHTER] And you’ve offered some interesting ideas, would you mind sharing some of those?

Viji: When we are used to teaching in a classroom space like, in the same building together, I hesitate to say in person, because we’re still in person in this environment. But, when we’re together in a classroom, there’s a buzz that is at the beginning of the class time, right? …so that people are chatting with their neighbors; it feels like a warm environment, oftentimes, when you walk into it, at least the classroom where the conditions are right. You feel a warmth when you come in, that you’re going to be learning, and when you’re online, it’s really hard to simulate that kind of buzz because of the nature of the tool. So, thinking about ways you can have that kind of chitchat is really helpful. So, I use polling in this environment, as well, right? I can have a question posed on the screen and students can respond to that question either in the chat window or through Poll Everywhere. I like using Poll Everywhere because I use it anyway. The downside to using chat in some platforms is if you join late, you don’t see the previous responses. So, if you could use something where students can scroll through and see their peers responses, that’s a nice way to kind of get warmed up for the class session. It might be something about, you know, what they’re grateful for today. Or maybe they could tell you a little bit about something that they ate recently that they really enjoyed. But, just getting some small talk in before having something in place that gives a little structure. I’ve heard people talk about playing music, just any small ways you can to try to bring some sense of community in those moments before class start, I think is really helpful.

Kelly: And I would agree, Viji started teaching in the spring online with some synchronous sessions. I was doing asynchronous, so she told me to do it. I did it, and it works. It’s a nice anonymous way to have that chit chat too without owning it in the chat box. I’ve used it selfishly this semester already to find out how students are doing, if there’s something I could do better for them, just taking the pulse. So, a bit of a survey question as well. My daughter is in high school. She just started high school and, of course, it’s online high school. And I keep asking her, “Did you get into your session on time?” And she goes, “No.” And I said, “Why? Why not? [LAUGHTER]She goes, “Well, I want to be a little bit late.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to be the first one there.” She’s so afraid of like, how awkward it is that she can see on the platform there on how many people are there. [LAUGHTER] And at some number, that’s when she jumps in.

John: As long as everyone doesn’t do that, then we’d have a bit of a coordination failure. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I don’t know, as a faculty member, I don’t want to be the first one there in an awkward silence either. [LAUGHTER]

Viji: But, that’s just the point. It doesn’t have to be awkward. Why not just design it so it’s less awkward? We all know it. We all go into these things. And we’re like, “Oh, it’s another one of those starts to the meeting,” right? But let’s just make it so that we have something that we respond to, that we see on the screen, everybody can see it. It’s also awkward, I think, when you walk into a meeting, and they’ve started, and they’re talking about something, but you have no idea what they’re talking about or how to jump into that conversation. So, having a prompt on the screen is one way where everyone, even those who come late, can still see what the conversation is about.

Rebecca: I’ve had a couple of colleagues who are also using whiteboard features in video conferencing software to have like a doodle board where people can collaborate or Doodle… we teach art classes… doodle on the board, and collaborate as a way to silently do something together. That seems to be pretty effective as well.

Viji: Yeah, I love that idea.

Kelly: That’s a great idea. I’m gonna do that next time. Thank you.

John: In the chapter that you wrote for Teaching Statistics and Quantitative Methods in the 21st Century, you mentioned using polling tools to provide challenging questions to students. Do you do that in a single-stage process? Or do you have students vote first and then discuss it in smaller groups or with pairs before voting again?

Viji: That’s a great question. A lot of it has been through trial and error, understanding what was a hard question and then breaking it down to something that’s a little bit simpler. So, if it’s a multi-step problem, I’ve learned to scaffold the problem through multiple polls and then get them to the right answer. It’s very helpful in quantitative work because people do work at different pace. And so this can level that playing field by getting everybody at the same stage of the problem through the scaffolded polls. But, there are some polls that I know really work very well as a “Give me your thoughts first.” And then let’s do it now where we talk to one another, we do a bit of peer instruction, and then we re-poll. And I love showing them the results from round one to round two… I call them round…, because then I say to them, “See, you don’t actually need me here.” But the truth is they do. They need me to pose the question, they need to get in there and tease out the problem that I know that they’re going to have challenge with, but they can do the work of teaching each other the material and getting through the problem together, and on the whole getting it right. So, those are fun ones for me, because it’s also about building community and they love it. They know that like my goal for every poll is that 100% of them get it right. And so that’s another way I convey that it’s important to me that all students learn the material

John: If we’re teaching remotely, synchronously what can we do besides meeting with them at the beginning of class and just chatting with them and maybe at the end of class, what else can we do to make that environment more inclusive?

Kelly: Well, one of the things I love about this environment is everybody’s name is up on the screen, which helps me a lot as an instructor, but it helps them know each other, too. So, it can be community building. And it’s a great way for people who have names that are difficult to pronounce to put a phonetic spelling, to ask people if they would like to add a pronoun there. I think these are advantages that we just haven’t figured out quite as easily in the face-to-face classroom. I use note cards in my class for the same reason. But, I can’t tell you how many times they either refuse to take them out or forget them. So, it’s never the hundred percent I get on a Zoom screen with names. But, one thing I’ve noticed people talk about often is the back channel. So, having the chat going, and it seems to be universal that people are feeling already a little bit sad about when we lose chat, when we go back to the face to face or in the same room environment that there’s a lot of good discussion that happens in that backchannel. And I know people do use backchannels in classroom spaces too. That’s one aspect of this environment that’s unique and helps bring more voices to the table. I think another thing that is worth mentioning is, I would hope people are using their live sessions for doing those difficult things together and not talking at students because that could be better served with a video. I’m sure we all find ourselves explaining and talking at times. So, I think one thing we could do is to help our students is to say you don’t need your camera on right now, although I’d love to see you and it helps us build community, this could be a time when you could turn your camera off. I also have invited my students to use virtual backgrounds, because when I’m teaching, I’m in my bedroom, and I think it’s odd to see your professors’ bedroom, so I use one, but I think it’s a nice talking point too. If students feel more comfortable, if they are going to share their camera, then maybe they don’t want to share their surroundings. So, just not just assuming students all know that, to be very explicit and say to students, “Here are all the different ways that you can access this course. You don’t have to turn your camera on, but here are the ways that I think I would love to see you engage.”

Rebecca: You’ve both written a bit about the hidden agenda, or the hidden curriculum, of using these kinds of tools and technologies, and you have a Student Guide for using Zoom. And I took all of that to heart too, and made sure that I made some videos about the different kinds of tools we were using this semester, and actually built in the whole first week of just like, this is how we do the things. And like, let’s try them. [LAUGHTER] And then there were some ways that I was planning on using some tools, and we’ve actually already pivoted, because it didn’t quite work the way that I had hoped. And now we have something that’s working a little bit better for everyone. So, I think that’s also an important piece to point out. Can you point out some of the features maybe of the guide that you created for students?

Viji: Yeah, I mean, what you’re talking about is what we’ve been talking, about adding structure to these tools, right? So, just because it’s in front of them doesn’t mean that they know how to use it. We all saw a car before we knew how to drive, that doesn’t mean we knew how to drive it. And everybody thinks it’s very intuitive, but again, what do you do when you start a meeting? Do you turn your camera on or off? Do you mute… on or off? What does it look like to say goodbye in a Zoom meeting? There are certain things like that, that I, at least when, as Kelly mentioned, I switched to synchronously meeting because we were doing all these problem-solving sessions. I wanted to keep that as what our synchronous meetings were. And I was anticipating that some students would have questions like that. This actually started with somebody tweeting about having a dress code for showing up to a Zoom session, and I just thought, are you kidding? There’s a pandemic going on, and you’re thinking about what the student is going to wear to come to class, when they’ve been moved out of their dorm, sent home, barely have internet, there were so many things where I thought I just need to let them know that that is not on my mind. I don’t care. I’m just grateful that you’re alive and you’re continuing to learn. So, those are examples of things that I wanted to think through and Kelly helped me think through like, “What kind of questions will come up?” …and we brainstormed ways that we could just communicate it in ways that students, hopefully they find them to be just the synched answers to questions that they might be wondering and not sure how to ask or if it’s appropriate to ask and what to wear was one of those things.

Kelly: And that’s a good example of the shared brain we have some times, because I called Viji one night and I said, “You know, we should write something up about being more inclusive with Zoom.” And she goes, “I was just writing a guide for my students.” And so we just quickly put it together and had a lot of the same ideas around that. Coming back to the idea of the hidden curriculum, I think that same idea where a lot of us are new to using Zoom and these different tools, that we remember how hard it was to get on and what the rules of it were. And they’re constantly changing, the settings and all of that. So it might seem obvious to make a guide for your students about how to use Zoom. But, what are the other aspects in our teaching that we take for granted? We’re such experts, and we’re so comfortable with the college classroom, I think we always have to be asking ourselves. “What other guides should we be writing that seems so obvious to us?” We forget that we’ve been here a long time and we don’t want students to feel like there’s this culture they don’t know about.

John: I actually put a note in my syllabus telling students that while they’re invited to use their cameras, they’re not required to. and if they’d prefer, they could put up a picture of themselves or of their pet or of anything that they’d like to use as a symbol for that day, because it probably would look nicer to see images of people than those just little black boxes on the screen. And they responded pretty positively to that. I did send out a note to our faculty before classes started this semester suggesting that faculty should invite students to use cameras ift they felt comfortable, but should not require it. And the response was not quite as positive. A lot of faculty seem to believe that they need to see their students to make sure that they’re there, to make sure that they’re engaged, and to look into their eyes to measure whether they’re learning, [LAUGHTER] because apparently their eyes provide secret signals to some faculty about the amount of learning that’s taking place. It generated a lot of emails,

Viji: They have some tools that I don’t even know about. I didn’t know there was such a tool that I could use,

John: it does suggest perhaps the need for more inclusivity training for faculty.

Rebecca: I had one last question about Zoom environments and things and that’s about microaggressions. We know that we need to shut them down when they occur, but I think that faculty, if they’re not used to being in a virtual environment, whether an asynchronous online chat or discussion board, or in a Zoom session, figuring out ways of handling situations just seems different. Do you have any advice for how to handle those kinds of situations in those different types of environments?

Kelly: Well, I think you hit on it already. One thing that’s common in all of these environments is don’t ignore them. Right? If it’s asynchronous, then like, say something was put on a discussion board. I personally would feel like ‘Oh, phew, I have a minute to think about this without everybody staring at me.” Right? And so each case is going to be a little bit different in terms of how you deal with it. You also can’t pull aside the people after class who may have been impacted by that. So, we have to remember, whatever we do to deal with it, should also include really reaching out and being mindful of who those students are that might have been impacted. I would say live online is probably not that different from in a classroom. because we have to do something at that moment. And that could be saying like, “Let’s take a pause, let’s stop.” My instincts and teaching are always to turn it into a teachable moment and to turn it back on them and say like, “This is what just happened. Can we all take a moment to maybe reflect? to put into writing the impact this could have on a student?” You know, something where I personally just need a moment to think, and I’m not going to be embarrassed about that, and I think that my students will come up with a lot of things I wouldn’t have come up with in a very eloquent way of dealing with it.

Viji: Yeah. And I think the only thing I’d add to that is it feels scarier in this online environment, because oftentimes, we are recording sessions. People can snapshot even though we might set good intentions with our students about what they can and can’t share with an outside community, we can’t control it entirely. And so it can feel even scarier, I think, to feel like there’s some level of posterity around that moment or your reaction to that moment. So, I think, if anything, I mean, we’ve had a lot of discussions in the world about different kinds of discrimination and all aspects of life that are harder for some students… not ignoring it is definitely the first step. I think there’s even the step before that, which is, I might not recognize it. So, how can I support you as learners. And as peers, if you see something, I’d like to know what it is, even if I am the one who’s doing it. I want to know because I want to do better. So, really being open to that kind of criticism from students or just acknowledging that you’re a human being like all other human beings, and you’ll make mistakes and inviting them to help you become a better person by suggesting that this is going to happen. It’s inevitable that something like this will happen, but we should be models of how to deal with that situation and be productive in our conversations about it and to move forward on it, right? We don’t want to shame anybody for doing something that might not have been their intent, but the impact is no less to the people who have experienced that microaggression. So, really thinking through and planning for it happening and talking about what you’d like to do as a community of learners. But yeah, as Kelly mentioned, if it’s asynchronous, you’ve got a moment, you can gather yourself, you could talk to your peers and say, “Hey, this happened, what do you think is the best approach?” But, if it’s not asynchronous, I think it’s fine to just say, “Hey, let’s hang on a second, I need a moment to just think about what happened here, and how we might respond to it.” And it might be, we might need to come back to this at the next class session, and give yourself that time to think through it. But, I think even the students who may have felt slighted by it will appreciate that you hit pause for a second, and you’re willing to work through it and that you trust them to make the right decisions moving forward to learn from it. And I think going on what Viji said about maybe a little bit of prevention, some practical ways you can invite that feedback in an anonymous way is to use a Google form that is always open. You can set it up so that you get an email if there’s something there and students can report on anything relative to the class, but especially microaggressions that you may have performed without knowing or classmates, if they’re doing group work, you certainly can’t monitor everything, you’re not in all of those spaces. And then coming all the way back to setting up group contracts and respect and civility in whatever kind of mode and classroom you have that semester. Hopefully, you get to a place where you’re preventing some of these things, but also recognizing that they will happen.

John: You both have a book coming out from West Virginia University Press. Could you tell us a little bit about what the book will be about and when will it be available?

Kelly: Well, the book is definitely about inclusive teaching. And spoiler alert, it is definitely about structure. [LAUGHTER] And we really walk through course design, facilitation, but we’re also really thinking about all aspects of a course. So, whether it be office hours or communicating with students or bringing in undergraduate learning assistants, whatever parts of a course that enhance learning, we really want to think about structure in all of those areas.

Viji: Yeah, and one of the challenges we faced is we’ve both read a lot about good teaching, right? So, a lot of these practices are good teaching, but we wanted to apply the lens of how it promotes inclusive teaching through this book, so that, ideally, the reader would then be able to take some of these themes and see them and apply them in other areas that we didn’t explicitly talk about. So, just a way to view the world as you’re teaching and thinking about how to add more structure, and the idea that if we leave things to chance that some students will be left behind, and that’s really not acceptable.

Kelly: As far as the timeline, we’re not sure. Our first draft is in, snd that’s all we can say.

John: Excellent. So. that’s a fair amount of progress, because you just signed it not too long ago, if I remember seeing it on Twitter.

Kelly: Yeah, it was fun to write together. We definitely get in a groove with writing some sentences together. And then sometimes it was just you write this, I’ll write this, and we’ll swap. But, it’s certainly a way of knowing someone pretty deeply when you write a lot together.

Viji: Yeah. And we often talk about the benefits of diversity, right? And so doing these projects of writing, but also, when we do our workshops, we speak a lot. And when we come up with ideas about what we might do, it’s always great to be able to bounce ideas off of each other and to say, “But what if we tried this” and “we did this” and well, you get that second person really reflecting on some of the ideas, and it’s really helpful to be able to do that and you get a better product, quite frankly. No matter what it is, it’s better when more people can critique it and give you feedback about it.

Rebecca: And we’re all going to benefit from that collaboration because we’re all looking forward to your book.

Kelly: Thank you.

Viji: Thank you.

Rebecca: So, we always wrap up by asking what’s next? So, we teased you [LAUGHTER] You already said about your books. Now you have to come up with something else.

Viji: You mean what’s my next beverage after I finished this LaCroix, or…

John: It could be.

Rebecca: It could be whatever, yeah… I’m gonna go take a nap, whatever it is…

Viji: Well, literally what’s next is I’m going to get out of my seat because I’ve been in it for a long time and I’m probably going to take a walk with my son who’s home, this his home day. He is learning from home today, and then I’m sure I’ll sit back down at the computer and answer some emails and, I feel like these days, it’s one day at a time and eventually I’ll get to the point where I can look a few months ahead. But, for right now, it’s one day at a time.

Kelly: For me, I guess I’ll take a much broader view, and an optimistic point of view, that I think what’s next is, once we get through this crisis, that teaching and the way we educate our students, I think, is going to come out better for what we’ve been through, because I see people doing the best they can in this environment, but really paying attention to how learning works. And I think our students will be winners in the long run in that, however we come out of this.

John: Thank you. It’s wonderful talking to you. Thank you for all the work you’ve been doing in supporting instructors all over the world for quite a while now. We’ve appreciated it and we share a lot of the things that you’ve done with our faculty.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much. It was really wonderful hearing from all of you.

Viji: Thank you.

Kelly: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

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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.

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152. Motherhood, Poetry, and Academia

Pursuing degrees and careers without role models can be challenging, no matter what the discipline. In this episode, Camille Dungy, an academic,  mother, and poet, shares her journey as a learner, teacher, and writer.

Camille is a professor in the English Department at Colorado State University, and the author of Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. She is the author of four collections of poetry for which she has received many, many awards, including the Colorado Book Award, and the American Book Award. Her poems have been published in dozens of anthologies, many of which begin with the word “best” in the title. Camille is a recipient of a 2019  Guggenheim Fellowship, and many other awards and fellowships.

Show Notes

  • Camille Dungy
  • Dungy, C. T. (2017). Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History. WW Norton & Company.
  • Dungy, C. T. (2017). Trophic Cascade. Wesleyan University Press.
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1816). Kubla Khan. (written in 1797)
  • Baldwin, J. (2013). The fire next time. Vintage.
  • Ta-Nehisi, C. (2015). Between the world and me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
  • Joan Didion
  • Dungy, Camille (2020). This’ll hurt me more.
  • Macdonald, H. (2014). H is for Hawk. Random House.
  • Duke Lemur Center
  • Ruth Ellen Kocher
  • Cave Canem

Transcript

John: Pursuing degrees and careers without role models can be challenging, no matter what the discipline. In this episode, an academic, mother, and poet shares her journey as a learner, teacher, and writer.

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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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Camille Dungy. Camille is a professor in the English Department at Colorado State University, and the author of Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. She is the author of four collections of poetry for which she has received many, many awards, including the Colorado Book Award, and the American Book Award. Her poems have been published in dozens of anthologies, many of which begin with the word “best” in the title. Camille is a recipient of a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, and many other awards and fellowships. We’ve also worked together back at Duke when we were teaching in the TIP program for a number of years in North Carolina. Welcome, Camille.

Camille: And it’s great to be here. Hello.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Camille: It’s summertime, so I make this big concoction that I turned into an iced tea with all kinds of herbs and flowers and roots and things like that. It probably has way too many healing properties and so it goes over to being stimulating and exciting.

Rebecca: Sounds good. [LAUGHTER] It sounds exactly like what we need right now.

John: And you did talk in your book about enjoying tea rather than coffee. So, it was nice to see that as well.

Rebecca: Clearly a good reason to be a guest.

Camille: Absolutely. I am a firm believer in the power of tea.

Rebecca: How about you, John?

John: I am drinking Tea Forte Blackcurrant tea.

Rebecca: Ah, an old favorite, huh? [LAUGHTER]

John: Yes.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking Irish breakfast tea today.

John: So we’ve invited you here to talk about Guidebook to Relative Strangers and about some of the challenges we’re facing during these really challenging times. Could you tell us a little bit about your decision to transition into nonfiction for this work?

Camille: Absolutely. I’m not entirely sure that transition is the best word because I published a book of poetry within months of publishing Guidebook to Relative Strangers. So, branching might be a more accurate phrase for what it is that I was doing, or am doing when I’m writing prose; it’s just a branch of the writing process. But prose allows different kinds of depths of inquiry, it allows me to kind of stick with something for 20 pages in a way that I haven’t figured out how to do in a poem. And, in all honesty, when I was writing many of the essays in Guidebook to Relative Strangers, my daughter was very, very young, and I was trained in what I call the person from Porlock School, which is a kind of play on the Coleridge poem, Kubla Khan, where he goes into this deep reverie and he’s in this trance-like state and he writes this beautiful poem, and then the person from Porlock knocks on the door to sell him something, and it interferes with his reverie and he’s never able to return to that poem again. But, when you have a small child, you have a person from Porlock knocking on your door every five minutes, [LAUGHTER] and I needed to figure out a way I could keep writing, even through all of those interruptions and shifts and changes. And it turns out but for me writing prose, I can walk away in the middle of a word, come back some hours, days, even months later and pick up where I left off. And so it became a mode where I could stay and continue to write even as I was figuring out how to adjust my life around this new human.

John: I think Rebecca can relate to that very well right now.

Rebecca: Yeah, I was just thinking, yes, I have been transitioning and doing some other kinds of creative work currently, with the shifts and what have you of having a small child, for sure.

Camille: Absolutely.

John: Rebecca and I recently completed a faculty reading group this summer that included James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. These were both written to pass information from one generation to the next to help prepare for survival in a world characterized by systemic racism. Guidebook seems, in some ways, to be a similar message from you to your daughter. Did these authors perhaps influence work?

Camille: Baldwin is actually writing to his nephew. And that seems also important in this idea of the expanded view of who our children can be that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a child that was birthed from your loins, as it were. And in the case of influences, Baldwin always and absolutely fundamentally is one of the major writers in the English language, in my opinion. He’s just a fantastic writer. And so is always an influence and a guide and an ambition [LAUGHTER] to be able to write as saliently and sagely and attentively about person and culture and identity and community and self as Baldwin was able to write. Coates’ Between the World and Me came out well into my writing process. In fact, I think I was probably already at press by the time that that book came out. So, I’ve read it, but I don’t consider it to be an influence. You know, we’re roughly peers, I think Coates and I in terms of age and such. And so there are many similarities, I think in our perspective on what it means to be Black in America today. And having both claimed Baldwin, to different degrees and in different ways, that it becomes unsurprising thst there’s that kind of reflection. I would say that another influence of mine was, and this is more closely to having to do with being from California and being a mother would be Joan Didion. And there’s a lot of the work of Joan Didion, the way that she works as a journalist and a reporter and talks about history and enfolds history and historical commentary within a contemporary view of the world. And also the ways that she really juggled being a mother of one child, became also a model and a directive for me, as I was writing.

Rebecca: In the first chapter, you observe that Americans don’t care much about the things that concern people who aren’t like them. And when you belong, you can overlook the totality of otherness, the way that being other pervades every aspect of a person’s life. As someone who is white and had often avoided conversations of race and in trying to actively engage in them, I think you’re really capturing something that a lot of white folks experience by using words like colorblind…

Camille: um hmm

Rebecca: …and put out into the world. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Camille: Well, I mean, I can talk about it from my perspective, I actually don’t fully understand the need for that level of erasure. But, one version of it has to do with white supremacy, which we do understand. It’s this kind of power drive to dominate and eliminate the importance of others. But, I don’t think that that’s the drive that you’re talking about, and that antagonistic view of what white supremacy means. I think what you’re talking about has more to do with ease and creating a sort of placid world where everything seems simple and direct and understandable and never uncomfortable, and the moment you begin to engage identity in a way that brings in history and oppression and marginalization and isolation and any of those things, the dinner party gets uncomfortable, [LAUGHTER] and the conversation gets uncomfortable. And that is frustrating to people who are trying to make a sort of placid world. And it’s easier then to just pretend as if everybody is the same, and there’s no differences, and there’s no frustrations and there’s no systemic roots of violence and a separation and suppression…. which is easier for some people, obviously, than others [LAUGHTER] to believe and to carry on that charade. And so I feel like when I’m navigating, I’m very, very frequently navigating primarily white environments. I’m always sort of threading that needle of people wanting to be comfortable and have everything be nice and easy, and I’m sort of raising my hand and saying, “Hey, here I am in the room with all these realities that may or may not frustrate your attempts at that kind of simplicity.”

John: Could some of that be because the beneficiaries of privilege might find it easier not to contemplate that and to just wipe that whole issue aside?

Camille: Absolutely. It’s a lot simpler to wipe that whole issue aside. It’s a lot simpler not to interrogate your own complicity in institutions of systemic oppression. It’s a lot easier to see yourself as the nice person who’s having this dinner party and is inviting all these people into your home, then to understand the history of redlining that meant that you and many generations of your family were able to have homes in this neighborhood, whereas mine was only able legally to start living there in the 1970s. So, those kinds of conversations get really, really quickly uncomfortable for people, and so it seems easier to not have them. I don’t believe in that ease. I don’t believe that that ease is productive in any way towards moving us forward. But, I do think that right now, what we’re seeing in this country is that tension between the ambitions and dreams of our founding fathers and the omissions of who were included in those dreams, and what it means that those dreams were really always only written for a very small margin of people. And we’ve been pushing and pushing through the centuries to create a more inclusive reality. And as we do that, we really have to look at the history and understand what it is. And so a lot of my writing does that. I’m writing about the now. I’m writing about my own life and my own family and my own experience, and I cannot do that without then circling back to the historical precedents that got us here.

John: You describe a story that your maternal grandmother told you about why your great grandfather left Shreveport. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about that to help put this in perspective?

Camille: This story is really interesting, and as I told it in the essay, it’s a little bit confusing because, I don’t know where my grandmother was in this story. At best, she was an infant, my great-grandmother might well have been pregnant with her at the time. She tells the story as if she was there, but it’s difficult to understand, with the dates as we understand them, how that knowledge would have been there. And so this becomes one of these examples, like it’s impossible for my family to retell this story without really kind of being bodily involved in it, even though it may have happened before those people who I am familiar with were ever actually alive. The story is that my great-grandfather had a thriving metalworking business, and it was so thriving as to become a threat to the white people in the community. And so, one day he arrived in his shop and found the body of a cousin who was working with him, laid out dead on the table with a note attached, telling my great-grandfather that he had to be out of town before the sun set. And so he had to get together his entire family… If my grandmother was an infant at that time, that would have been about six children, and get all of them out of that home and into a new place, in a new state, quite literally. And so that kind of threat against a man who had a thriving business and was doing really well and therefore became a problem to the established order of things, that the threat was leveled by way of a murder, right? And the threat of more murder and more damage… that danger and challenge also [LAUGHTER] lives on in my family through that story and lore. And I know it’s part of the way that my grandmother lived her life and the way that she raised my mother and the way my mother raised me. So, that was over a century ago now, and it still lives quite as in the present in my family.

Rebecca: Earlier, I was reading one of your more recently published poems, “This’ll hurt me more,” and I was thinking about how, as you were describing the nonfiction or prose version, connecting your present with the past comes up a lot in your poetry as well. Can you talk a little bit about the use of the “switch” in that poem, and how that connects to the past and present?

Camille: In that poem, it really began with me looking out my window here in Colorado and seeing this kind of lilac bush and thinking, “Oh, that looks like the kind of thing my grandmother would have told me to go out and get a switch, if she was going to spank me.” I should say here, I actually don’t ever remember my grandmother spanking me, I just remember her threatening to spank me, and that was enough… [LAUGHTER] … like sufficient. But I was always fascinated with that word “switch” and where it came from. And it was years and years before I could ask my grandmother where, and she had no answer really, it was just that it was the word that she was raised to use for some sort of thin device that you would use to spank an unruly child. And then the poem goes into a number of situations in my own life, where people are actually punished or threatened with punishment or actually die and the danger that exists in living as a black person in America, and so it all, as much of my writing does, it braids and builds and folds and there’s multiple different stories that come into one space to come to a final cohesive statement.

John: One of the things you talk about quite a bit in your work is issues of identity. In your book, you talk a little bit about the very many names you assigned your daughter when she was young, in different circumstances, while recognizing that eventually she has to choose her own identity in our teaching, should we focus a little bit more on issues of identity? A group of faculty at the college participated in a MOOC on creating inclusive classroom environments, and one of the things that was emphasized there is having students explore their identities. Could that be an effective teaching strategy?

Camille: I use it, [LAUGHTER] always in my writing, and I try to be really pretty open about how I introduce that. So, for instance, in introductions, I will quite often ask for information about what name do want us to call you? Where are you from? And that may not mean your postal address. It may be like where’s your heart from? I now have been pretty stable for this portion of my life, but when I was in graduate school and I never really felt like I was from where my mail went. And so I always want to actually hear where my students really call home. And that seems to be an important part of identity, to understand that. And another one, we often say, you know, what’s your pronoun? And there’s very direct reasons for that question. But I feel like that question also may put people who have alternative pronouns in a unnecessary spotlight, right? When there’s one person in the room who goes by an alternative pronoun, then they become the different one. And so I offer that as a possibility, and I also say that one of the reasons that we ask for your pronouns is that we don’t want to misidentify you, right? We don’t want to misgender you or call you something that you don’t respond to. And so if there are other things that we may not be able to see about you, but are important to who you are that you don’t want to be misidentified in this way, please feel free to bring that into the space here now as well. And in that space here in Colorado, for instance, we have a lot of people of Native American descent who don’t read that way visually, but it’s an important part of their identity. And that’s a space where that can come out. And what other ways that people with invisible disabilities or who are differently abled in some kinds of ways, that’s an opportunity for them to bring that forward. Like, sometimes I may be recording things, or sometimes I may be doing something that looks kind of off to the norm. And this is my time to just tell you that this is going to happen, so it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It just becomes a space where in the very beginning of class, we can just say who we are, and say how we want to be seen and how we want to be known. And in my creative writing classes, it’s become really freeing. I’ve had a number of students who then, for the rest of the semester, are able to write into that space without a whole bunch of questions and workshop about who is this and why is this because that’s already come forward. So, yeah, I just think it allows for those kinds of questions, and those kinds of openings and opportunities… allow for community to be built, in which we actually understand people for who they believe themselves to be. That seems important.

Rebecca: I think It’s interesting that you’re bringing that up in the context of creative writing and how it can be freeing. Do you find that when people are trying to hide their identity, for whatever reason, it prevents creativity or prevents them from having a voice in the way that maybe they want to?

Camille: I don’t know. I mean, so many things prevent creativity. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Indeed.

Camille: …I think just innumerable things. And so in some senses, yes, that can be something. If you were really ignoring something at the core of you, something that’s troubling you or guiding you in some way and you can’t acknowledge it and see you, it may make honest writing harder. It may make honest revision harder as well, because people might see things and you resist that. On the other hand, you know, H is for Hawk, right, which is partially about Helen MacDonald’s own story of grieving but it’s also partly about E.B. White’s, like lifelong closeted self and the ways in which that lifelong, tortured ,closeted self also helped write some of the great books of the 20th century, because he was grappling with staying closeted in those ways, and it came out in fantastic characters. So yes, in some ways, I think, for me, it is important to be open and honest and searingly truthful, but I don’t think that, necessarily, it would be on the whole right to say that you could never write good [LAUGHTER] writing if you’re not honest in that way. For me, the reason that that’s important is… I just don’t think many of us have very much time. I think we’re all just incredibly busy all the time. Now, during the time of COVID, our busyness manifests differently, but we’re still busy. And, now there just seems to be so much more laundry. I don’t understand how there’s more laundry. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I agree. It’s like, skyrocketed, right?

Camille: It just makes no sense. So, these kinds of things… and I just feel like if you’re going to give me the time to sit down with something that I’ve written and spend 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 12 hours, reading one of my books, you should be actually reading truth, right? You should be reading an honest representation of life as I see it, and know it, and understand it. And so it’s a way of my honoring your time and your care with my time, with my book, that brings me to write with sometimes frighteningly radical honesty about my own life.

Rebecca: Thinking about time moving into fall classes and things, how are you thinking about time, and helping students think about time?

Camille: I’m trying to think about how to teach in… and we’re supposed to go back, but I just don’t believe it to be true. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think it’s really going to happen. And I don’t think it should. And so I’m trying to think about my classes in a really hybrid form that allows them to write out of their own worlds and the class to be happening kind of asynchronously for some portions of it, not all on Zoom, some audio elements, so that they can hear my lectures while they’re doing their laundry, [LAUGHTER] or out taking walks or doing these kinds of things. And some of those audio lectures would have, like pauses, where they would be given writing assignments right in the middle of their lives. I think this summer, I’ve taught a couple of online courses, the community of writers, which is a week-long course with the students and faculty have to write a poem a day, every day, and one of the things that I thought was really great about it in the virtual form (they called it the Virtual Valley this year) was that the students then had to make a space in their own homes, to create this habit, and to create this practice in the place where they live. Normally you go to California, you’re in the valley, you do this thing, and then you come home, having been somewhat transformed by this experience, but how do you translate that back into your normal life? Now, they’re in their homes, they’re in their lives, they’re telling their family, this is my hours, where this is my task to do, and, hopefully, that continues into the rest of their days, right? …that they built this sacred space. And so, that’s my hope, is that I can help my students in this more hybrid form to be able to do what I’ve always been trying to teach them to do, to build a practice. John knows me way back when I used to teach at TIP. There were these things that I would do, and our old director just thought I was a hoot, because I would have to get permission to take the kids to the Lemur Center or to take them to… Remember…, what was that place called? The Rainbow Co-Op. or something. There was that weird, like Co-Op that was off campus, and some of these kids had never been to a grocery store that wasn’t a Safeway or a Kroger [LAUGHTER] or something like the giant box store. And this was like, they had like little mini bananas that were green, or red. And they had all kinds of like the bulk bin, and I would have these kids walking up and down the aisles looking at food that was packaged really differently than what most of them had ever experienced. And that was the exercise. I didn’t really care. The poems were bad because they just had this experience. It was like not about how good your grocery store poem was, it was about how good their powers of observation became, when they were moved into a slightly different environment. And so that, to me, is always the key, right? …that’s at the base of Guidebook to Relative Strangers is all of a sudden, I’m traveling all over the country, I’m in these different environments with a new sidekick, right? [LAUGHTER] I’m traveling with my daughter, which meant that I all of a sudden have really different interactions with people than I’d have before. And as a writer, my job became chronicling that and figuring out why this felt different and what got revealed because that little schism was created that had enough difference that I was forced to look… and that, to me, as we move into the fall, and I honestly think, I’m a Doomsayer, but I honestly think the spring of 2021 also, we’re gonna have to help our students, and our colleagues, and our administrations, learn how to just accept this reality as a reality rather than trying to swivel back to what it was before. What is our new reality? What do we see? What are the advantages? and how can we build on those?

John: I think we very much agree with that. [LAUGHTER] We didn’t have any say in how instruction was being organized here, but I’m really worried about it, not just because of the health risks, but also because of the pedagogy involved.

Camille: Um hm.

John: … that teaching a group of people who are wearing masks and who are far enough apart so they can’t comfortably talk to each other, is going to be a very different, and I don’t think, a very productive environment. But, we try to support people as best we can. It’s going to be a challenge, in any case.

Camille: Absolutely.

John: One place in the book, you note that in 2013, you were one of only 12 African American female professors in your field. And that’s not uncommon in many disciplines. It’s certainly true in economics as well. What are the costs of the lack of diversity in higher ed?

Camille: Yeah. So now, I’ve kept a running tally with the women, Ruth Ellen Kocher, who was the poet with whom I started this tally and started thinking about this. Now we’re up to about 22. So, that’s actually a radical increase. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, as a percentage it is.

Camille: But it’s still a very small number. So, my husband just turned in his tenure materials, and in the process of doing so he discovered that they were 16. I’m pausing because I don’t remember what it is 14 or 16. And the reason is, for my study, it was one of those numbers and his study is the other number, right? And so not that much different for 1100 faculty members to have 14 or 16, Black tenure line faculty, and that’s male and female, and I think one transgender person in that number. So, that’s not very much. The cost of that is, at a school with 1100 faculty members, it’s very, very likely that students will never have an African-American professor, that they’ll just go through their whole education system without ever having one. I thought about when it was that I’d ever had contact with a black faculty member in my field. I had one female professor in college and one male professor who told me that I shouldn’t try and become a creative writer, because… I guess he was trying to protect me… but because it was so competitive and difficult to feel that I shouldn’t bother, and I should do something else. So, in terms of supportive faculty members, that means something, right? …to not have ever had somebody who looked like me, for whatever complicated reasons we might say, had experiences like me, who was on my side. In other ways, those three faculty members that I can think of, which is a lot… if you ask people in my age how many, to say I had three at all… they were all literature people, they weren’t Creative Writing people. But, they weren’t actually particularly similar to me. They had really, really different upbringings. They were regionally very different. They were obviously aesthetically different, because they were in literature and not creative writing. So, I actually never really had the kind of mentor that other people very frequently have, moving along the way. I had mentors, I had support. You don’t get to the position where I am in the world without having mentors and support, but I didn’t have black faculty mentors and support until I was already in a tenure-line position. I was going to become a professor. I’m a fourth-generation college professor, it was going to happen. The likelihood of this being the path that I took… my sister’s a professor, the woman I chose as my daughter’s godmother is a professor, like this is in my blood. This is who I’m going to be. But what about the people for whom that is not the case? The first-generation college students, they have no idea what this could look like. If you can’t visualize yourself in those positions. If you don’t have people who you feel that you can trust that you can go to for advice. If you have people who have unconscious or very conscious biases against African Americans and their intelligence skills and their organizational skills and their sense of comportment, or any of those, and those biases get passed down to how they treat you in the classroom. All of those things become deterrents for people’s ability to thrive in this chosen field. And I think the more that we can eliminate those kinds of obstacles by increasing the kinds of people we see who may look like a person who we believe we may become in the future, the more radically inclusive our democracy can become. I just think that that’s important. I just think that our ability to become the best of who we can possibly be is, in many ways, influenced by what we see around us as possibilities. That was a long answer,

John: …but a very good one. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. It’s an important one.

Camille: It’s a complicated question, right? It’s a really complicated question. Obviously, it’s not something that’s going to be able to happen overnight, based on the fact that the doubling of the number of black women poets in the country, it’s a doubling of that number, but it’s still only about 22. But I also think that there’s lots of small ways where this happens. And so it happens in who’s at the front of the classroom. It happens based on who’s on editorial boards for magazines, journals, book publication houses, because that decides what materials that come forward for publication appear to be relevant, necessary, interesting, right? It happens on what kinds of people are agents in the representation houses. It happens in terms of what kinds of summer opportunities people have? I know that Cave Canem, which is a home for black poets, which was founded in 1996 and has a summer workshop fellowship and also has a lot of regional workshops that they do all kinds of programming, like the kinds of programming that have come out of Cavey Canem over the last… what is that now?… we’re at 25 years… is incredible. But that was the first time that I encountered black poets at the head of the classroom. I was already a tenure-track professor. And that was the first time that I had black teachers teaching me poetry. And it changed the kinds of conversations that we had to have in the classroom, right? There were certain kinds of cultural cues that were just… we didn’t have to… let’s pretend we’re translating from another language, Like we didn’t have to italicize those Spanish words. [LAUGHTER] Because they were just moving in and out from Spanish and English is just like what huge parts of the culturism in America do. And so I italicize the Spanish words, this is a very strange kind of colonial idea of those are different than us. And many writers who work between Spanish and English have been really pushing against that marginalization of the Spanish language through italicization. So those kinds of things change our writing, and we get more teachers, we get more people publishing, we get more people writing and talking about that. I think our literature flourishes. And when our literature flourishes, our imaginations flourish. And when our imaginations flourish, our culture can thrive.

Rebecca: Yes. [LAUGHTER] …exclamation point. 32.02

John: You mentioned that there was expectations that you’d go to college. And I think also in your book, you noted that this goes back a few generations in your family, at least your grandmother’s generation, where I think you’ve said that all the siblings went to college and your grandmother’s cohort, all 12

Camille: of those children who were born between roughly 1900 and 1930. All 12 of them went to college. That’s incredible. It is.

John: When I read that, I was thinking one of my grandfathers only had a sixth-grade education, and that was not that uncommon at the time. So that gave your family quite a bit of an edge that many of our first generation students, as you noted, don’t have today. It is something we need to address. One of the things you mentioned in your book is that you would diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And I didn’t know that until I read this. So how are you doing with it now?

Camille: Many of my friends and acquaintances only five bucks, I’ll get these texts like I didn’t know I’m on page thought of that. I didn’t know that sorry. Okay, which actually circles back to that radical honesty, conversation. It’s not something I talk about. It’s not like I don’t lead in conversation with it. It’s not really part of my outward spoken identity. And yet, I didn’t feel like I could talk about the vulnerability of my body without talking about that aspect of it, and of my experience, and a lot of these essays would have been written around the time of the big Obamacare debates and in many ways, the reason that I am fine and nobody has to know this about me is that I have excellent health care because I have really good insurance through my employer. Ask stay employed because I can’t run the risk of not having medical insurance, as so many people in this country are in jeopardy because of their state of employment or not employment or the ways that their employers set up medical care. We put people’s bodies at risks, their lives at risk, their ability to live productive, non sick lives. So that was, I don’t write that directly into that essay, it’s body of evidence that there was that conversation was going on around. And so in that sense, there are a number of things about who I am in this country, being a woman of childbearing age raises my mortality risks significantly in this country above most other developed countries and being a black person obviously raises my mortality risk in this country exponentially. And then having this chronic condition means that at any moment, and you know, any morning I could wake up and everything could look different, which is the case for everybody but it But right there in my brain and in my nervous system in a way that it’s not the case for other people. And so I just felt like to write about that sense of kind of perpetual background Jeopardy that I live with. I had to include that other piece. But the long or the short answer to that is I am doing great. I’ve got a really fantastic medical team and really great treatment. And I’ve mostly don’t even notice that that is an issue.

Rebecca: Maybe one of the last things that we can add a little bit about is maintaining the career while raising a child. I don’t know it’s a particular interest to me. How old is your child, Rebecca? She’s three.

Camille: Oh, my goodness, those are good years, but wowza.

Rebecca: You’ve noted that several women writers lose essentially out on an entire book because of family. Can you talk a little bit about your experience being a mother and an academic and a writer, and then also maybe how that is playing out differently for folks during the pandemic. Well,

Camille: right, I mean, I do definitely feel like the pandemic has brought forward a lot of buried realities in this culture. And so nothing new has manifested because of the pandemic, but because of the stresses on our culture due to the economy issues. And due to the kind of peril that the virus causes. We’re seeing so many things. And for the most part, we’re seeing child caregivers who are very frequently women bearing the brunt of this situation, and not a particularly active interest in figuring out ways to accommodate this fact. Right. So plenty of people are like, well, we’ll just send the kids back to school and that’s gonna be their childcare. I’m like, Well, I don’t know. But every single one of my daughter’s teachers has children. So now, they’ve got this complicated question of like, how do they take care of their own children? Wow. Taking care of my child, my friends in France are getting paid to stay home and watch their children by the government. That’s the way that that is happening and many other first world nations, but not here. This is not your question. My answer part of it is like, there’s really no way to talk about a lot of these things without going in a lot of different directions. And so I feel sometimes my essays are really leggy, and that they’re braided essays. And they follow several different narrative threads at one time, and I hope that they tie together, but they just definitely go in a lot of directions. And that’s part of why essays could work because I can really dive in and talk about those things at great length in a way that I have not found myself to be able to do in poetry to that degree, but part of it is because I just don’t think that any of these questions have easy answers. Did they have any answers? We’d answer them already. We’d have dealt with it right? But they don’t And so we need to look at them in lots of ways. I think to be artists at a mother is an incredibly difficult thing, or a working person and a mother is an incredibly difficult thing. And I don’t think our country was designed to support that. Now I’m going to circle back to history again and say, you know, like, our country was essentially designed on slavery, and servants, right? It was built on the idea that other people would be helping the wealthy and the powerful to do all their daily things that they would be nannies in the house, that they would be House Cleaners that they would be cooks and maids, and etc. And as we mechanized and created vacuum cleaners and washing machines and other sorts of devices that would take the roles of those poor white or black or Latin x workers, then who took that over, it was the middle class women, right that they were then be put In the vacuum cleaners, they would be running the washing machine, it was like never really a system built in to figure out how the labor gets done. And the work outside the home gets done. And we just never evolved. And we’re seeing that now. And so those of us who are working parents, particularly working mothers, and then if you add to me, like, I’m an artist, I’m a professor and writer, that’s really two jobs. It’s hard to have two jobs and raise a child, I have a really great partner. And so I have the faith in the fact that my kid is not going feral in the process, and I don’t have the kind of partner who kind of tabulates like, I’ve watched the kid for eight hours. Now it’s your turn for 12. And so that really helps me that I have that. And I also have figured out just I write her in to the work, what I’m living in now is a world where I’m observing my child a lot and so those observations end up in The work rather than trying to separate those two things, but get included. And I think my other piece of advice for working parents who are sort of trying to do another thing, like being an artist is to just people talk a lot about stealing time. But I would call it more like making time just finding those little pockets of time that can accrue to become something pole. So there’s a essay at the very end of the book called differentiation, which only was able to be written because I was completely overwhelmed by I think she was three and a half or four years old at the time, and that was an incredibly time consuming era. She loves books, but she couldn’t read yet. So who was reading those books all the time, right? She loved art, but like you couldn’t leave her alone with watercolor. So you know, it’s just like full, complete involvement as a parent, so I just wrote for 20 minutes a day. That’s it. 20 minutes a day I recorded Everything that I could. And eventually that 20 minutes a day became the feed work for what was the essay, I wouldn’t have been able to write that essay without all the detailed notes that I had been taking in the 20 minutes. So those 20 minute exercises were not the essay, but the essay could not have happened without those. And so that’s the permission that I like to give to working parents is you don’t have to write for eight hours a day, like that model probably just isn’t going to work and you’re going to be frustrated trying to find it, what’s the minimum amount of time, what’s the minimum maximum that you can create for yourself, and for me, it was 20 minutes. For some people, it may be as small as five, but that just brief period to just record all you can to be that person you want to be with the knowledge that you’re preparing the soil for the time when you have time again.

John: You mentioned earlier the issue of the fragility of the body, especially black bodies. One of the things you describe in your book is the experience of being pulled over by the police in Minnesota. And you place this in the context of things happening, man, which sound remarkably like things happening now with Trayvon Martin at the time, Jason Harrison, Eric Gardner and camera rice. So could you tell us a little bit about that, and perhaps what types of things we might want to do in our classes to provide support for students when these things happen?

Camille: Ah, right, the experience of being pulled over in Minnesota, so close to where later that falando casteel death happened in the same general area after our pullover and now we have the George Floyd story. And then I also speak in the same essay about a lynching that happened in the town we visited in Duluth, Minnesota, earlier in the 20th century. And I think one of the things that’s important to me When I think about all these just ongoing brutality against black people in this country is that ongoing nature is that for some Americans when this new name or this new incident crosses the headlines, it feels like, Oh, this is today, there’s just horror that has happened just yesterday or just last month. And for many of us, we’re like, oh, again, another, right, and the names pile and the incidence pile and the terror which is what the point of it is, the terror piles up and the fear of moving around freely and a lack of belief that we can move around safely. It comes from years of systemic violence and being passed off as individual incidents. And so to me part of the importance of writing about these things in such a connected manner is to talk about the ways that these seemingly individual incidents are part of a culture fabric that needs to be reworked entirely. And part of what happens for me, I think being a writer is a way of being a teacher is that when you write these histories, you write these ways of digesting and understanding and coping with these histories. And you provide tools for your readers slash students and to be able to address them as well. But part of it again comes from honesty and openness, both on my part as the author to write the stories as accurately and in as much detail as I can and has to do with the readers to be able to absorb and be willing to really, truly acknowledge circling back to the conversation that we had earlier about discomfort to be able to sit with the discomfort and then not just push it away, but to work to try and make fundamental change. And so as teachers, one of the things that we need to do really listen to our students, when they express the kind of discomfort that you’re talking about john, I’m really understand how the institutions with which we’re affiliated are either repeating these kinds of traumas, either by ignoring or pushing them aside or trying to diminish them or just not addressing them for the students. And by truly listening into by truly trying to make systemic change within the institutions with which we have any power connection, which may just be our by your own classroom, it may just be that classroom that we’re in that we can create a space of true comfort and true seeing for people. And it’s not easy. As I said, that space for black poets that I described 20 years ago. It’s 25 years of work and effort and community engagement and growing new poets and growing new teachers and new professors that that new boom of young black poetry professors have come through that organization and have built and developed some kinds of communities. And so how can we be part of building communities, organizations, structures, classrooms spaces that create this kind of support that mean that those who have died before us don’t die in vain, but really become part of true change? So I’m heartened Yes. I’m heartened by the summer and the summers kind of large outcry towards social justice. I’m also aware of the fact that I have seen searches like this over and over and over in my own lifetime. And so I want to make sure that the momentum lasts and that the energy and the outrage remains not just for those of us who are at direct risk, but for all of us because I think all of us are at direct risk, whether it’s your body on the line, or not.

Rebecca: Definitely powerful things to be thinking about really finding ways to support students and our communities that we live in, and the communities we don’t live in.

Camille: Mm hmm. you volunteered to do a reading for us.

Rebecca: Alan heard or got volunteered.

John: I think it was

Camille: recently, the perfect word for that, which is to be voluntold.

Camille: We do a lot of that.

Camille: Yes, I will be happy to read I’m gonna read a poem from Trophic Cascade, which is the collection of poems that came out within months of Guidebook to Relative Strangers. And some of these poems were written in the same mindset or the same kind of sensibility that the FAA developed. And so this poem that I’m going to read, came out of a trip, as many of the essays and guidebook to relish show strangers come from trips. This came from a trip into the San Francisco Bay. I was living in Northern California at the time and I went into the San Francisco Bay, there’s an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, the prison An island most people are familiar with is called Alcatraz. I probably don’t need to tell you anything about Alcatraz. Except for that, you know, it was really difficult to escape from Alcatraz, there’s another island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, which is called Angel Island. And it was the closest relative in our time would be the immigrant detention centers of the day. People say that it was very similar to Ellis Island because it was this immigration stop off point. But you only ended up on Angel Island if there was an issue with your papers. And so in some senses, it was much more like a prison or detention center where you’re held for untold amount of time until you were either sent back where you came from, or allowed to go into San Francisco. So this poem is kind of doing the same thing that I’ve been talking all along about bringing in history and also my contemporary situation. And the other thing that we didn’t talk about very much and guidebook to relative strangers is my I sort of obsessive interest in ecological environmental questions. And so that also is coming into play in this poll. What I know I cannot say we sail to Angel Island, and for several hours I did not think of you. When I couldn’t stop myself Finally, from thinking of you, it was not really you, but the trees, not really the trees, but they’re strange pods blooming for a while longer. A bloom more like the fringe fan at the tip of a peacocks tail than anything I’d call a flower. And so I was thinking about flowers, and what we value in a flower more than I was thinking of the island or its trees and much more than I was thinking up you. recursive language ties us together. linguists say I am heading down this road. I am heading down this road despite the caution signs and the narrow shoulders I am heading down the curvy road despite the caution signs. And then narrow shoulders because someone I fell in love with wants to live around here, right there. That is an example of recursive language, every language. Nearly every language in the world demands recursion. Do things bring us together more than our need to spell out our intentions, which helps explain the early 20th century Chinese prisoners who scratch poems into walls on Angel Island. And why a Polish detainee wrote his mother’s name in 1922. I was here, they wanted to tell us and by here, I meant the island and they also meant the world and by the island, they meant the world they knew. And they also meant the world they laughed, and the world they wanted to believe could be there as the world they knew required passwords. Think of Angel Island immigration station is purgatory, the guide explained he told tales of paper files Others picture Brides, the fabrications of familiarity, so many lives depended on inquiries demanded consistency. Despite the complications of interpretation, an English one would ask how many windows were in your house in the village? How many ducks did you keep? What was the shape of the birthmark on your father’s left cheek? and Japanese and Cantonese, Danish, Punjabi, the other answered, then it all had to come back to English. The ocean is wide and treacherous between one home and the other is there can be no turning back. No correction once what is said is sad. Who can blame the Chinese detainees who car pawns deep into the woods on Angel islands walls? Who can blame the Salvadoran who etched his villages name? A few things tie us together more than our need to dig up the right words to justify ourselves. Travelers and students we sailed into the bay disembarked on Angel Island. I didn’t think about you, which is to say the blue gum Eucalyptus is considered a threat, though we brought it across oceans to help us desired first for its timber because it grows quickly and was expected to provide a practical fortune. And when it did not enlisted as a windbreak desired still because it is fast growing and practical. The blue gum has colonized the California Coastal forests, squeezing out native plants dominating the landscape and increasing the danger of fire. I should hate the blue gum Eucalyptus, but from the well of their longing, by which I mean to say from their paws. You know what I mean? I hope their original home from the well of their longing blooms explode like fireworks. I love them for this. Do you hear me? I absolve you You are far too beautiful and singular to blame.

Camille: I have a thought that there was another poem that might be a better tie in to everything that we said and it’s much shorter. Can I read that and then you guys can decide which one you want to use, we decided to use both. Here is the next poem. This is a poem from my collection trophic cascade, which as I said, I was writing along the same time that I was writing guidebook to relative strangers. The incident that I described in this poem happens on my daughter’s second airplane flight. The first airplane flight she ever took, we went home to meet her namesake great grandmother. And the second airplane trip she ever took was work trip with me. She was four months old, and I went to Washington DC to do some work with the National Endowment for the Arts. So you can picture this child as a very, very young child in this poem, frequently asked Question number seven. Is it difficult to get away from it all? Once you have had a child I am swaying in the galley working to appease this infant who is not fussing, but will be fussing if I don’t move. When a black steward enters the cramped space at the back of the plane, he stands by the food carts prepping his service. Then he is holding his throat, the way we hold our throats when we think we are going to die. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. He is crying. Oh, my God, what they did to us. I am swaying less my brown baby girl make a nuisance of herself. And the steward is crying, honest man tears seeing you holding your daughter like that. For the first time, I understand what they did to us, all those women sold away from their babies. he whispers. I am at a loss now, perhaps I could fabricate an image to represent this agony. But the steward has walked into the galley of history. There is nothing figurative about us.

Rebecca: so vivid, so powerful.

John: I was just going to use exactly those words so powerful,

Rebecca: and really appreciate the level of detail be in that moment.

Camille: And I think for me, it was one of those first experiences like really vivid experiences of Wow, I’m having an entirely different interaction with this person that I would have had before I had this baby in my arms and that interaction is absolutely about the present moment. And it’s just Deeply inflected by the past and a path that neither of us ever physically lived through, but which we are historically always reliving. And so the concerns in that poll essentially became the lens through which I wrote all the essays in the collection,

Rebecca: I always find it really interesting how having a child opens up conversations that maybe one wouldn’t have had otherwise, it would have been unspoken, otherwise. Mm hmm.

Camille: All kinds of conversations and with people you wouldn’t converse with. I like to tell a joke that when she was little, and she traveled with me, and we traveled a lot, and then the kid by the time she was three and a half had already accrued her own frequent flyer, award ticket, but often on flights, like Southwest are the kind of place where you could choose your seat, I will very frequently have an empty seat next to me and it’s just unconscious bias, and people just leave the seat next to the black person open, which honestly is sort of fine in those kinds of instances, right? It’s like one of the very few times where that works out. Okay, but it never worked out with the kid. And I was always like, I’ll get that MTC. And then I can put the baby in the MTC and then I wouldn’t because the unlikeliest of people would come and take that seat because they wanted to sit by a baby. And then they can’t talk to the baby, they can only talk to the baby’s keeper, right? And so like, we would end up having these conversations that I would never have had, because they would have never put themselves next to me. And it was a beautiful thing. And it seemed to be worth recording and thinking about both what had divided us and also what bridged us.

Rebecca: I think that segues kind of nicely into the way that we always wrap up our broadcast, which is asking, what’s next so many bridges to the past? And

Camille: what are the bridges to the future? I know, I think I’m doing the same thing. I’m writing poems and essays and I can toggle back and forth and it just depends on how much time I have and what my mood is and what my level of obsession is. I’m really thinking I’ve lived in Colorado for seven years now. Which is longer than I’ve lived in one home for a very long time. And so I’m finding myself really rooting down. I can’t travel right now because of COVID. And I’m so I’m looking out my window and walking around my land and thinking about where I live in deeper, more complex ways. And I’ve had the ability to do and it’s been pretty interesting on the page to see what new discoveries I’m able to make. And a lot of them are just new discoveries. I’m making, like other people know these things. And I’m just coming into their knowledge. And so that’s always fun. Well, thanks

Rebecca: for such a wonderful conversation and being so generous with your time.

Camille: Thank you.

John: Thank you. It’s great to talk to you again. It’s been far too long has

Camille: been john, it’s really good to see you and talk to you and Rebecca, thank you for your part in this conversation.

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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.

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