136. Learning Networks

Students in many classes work in isolation to create written assignments that are shared only with their professor. Unless they’ve kept a copy of this work, it disappears once their course ends. In this episode, Gardner Campbell joins us to discuss how student motivation, engagement, and learning might change if students instead become active contributors to public knowledge sharing networks.  Gardner is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Gardner  has long been a leader in the use of open pedagogy projects.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Students in many classes work in isolation to create written assignments that are shared only with their professor. Unless they’ve kept a copy of this work, it disappears once their course ends. In this episode, we examine how student motivation, engagement, and learning might change if students instead become active contributors to public knowledge sharing networks.

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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. Gardner Campbell. Gardner is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Gardner has long been a leader in the use of open pedagogy projects, and we’ll be talking about that and a few other things today. Welcome, Gardner.

Gardner: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca. It’s great to be here.

John: It’s good to talk to you again. You were on our campus when I first took over as the teaching center director here, you lead a symposium and then a workshop for faculty on web 2.0 tools about 12 years ago, I think it was.

Gardner: It’s hard to believe it was that long ago, but I remember my time on the campus very fondly and had a great time. So, if 12 years ago that would put it what ‘08? Yeah, that’s interesting. Wow, that doesn’t seem like that long ago.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are.

John: Are you drinking tea?

Gardner: I am not. Should I be drinking tea?

John: Well, it’s the title of the podcast… So, Rebecca makes us do that.

Gardner: Am I underdressed? Oh dear. No, I’m actually not drinking anything, though I see that it’s soon going to be five o’clock. So, that could change.

John: I’m drinking honey green iced tea today.

Gardner: Oh, nice.

John: Most of my tees are up at the office in a safe, secure location. [LAUGHTER]

Gardner: John’s tea is at an undisclosed location somewhere in a bunker underneath the White House.

Rebecca: Luckily, I have a nice stockpile. Today I have glazed lemon loaf.

Gardner: Hmm, interesting. What is a lemon loaf?

Rebecca: I think it’s like breakfast bread that you might have at like a Starbucks or something. And it does smell a lot like it… it doesn’t taste a lot like it. but it smells a lot like it.

John: So, are there crumbs in it or something? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: No, but it smells like crumbs.

Gardner: See, we’re getting virtual already. I’m all about it. Let’s get to metaphor and I’ll be right at home.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about some of the open pedagogy projects you’ve done with your students. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got started with these projects?

Gardner: Well, a long long time ago, I got very interested in the capacity for network communications to kind of erase the compartmentalization of learning on a college campus or in a college community generally… the idea that well, you went to this class from 9:30 to 10:45, you went on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you went to this class from 1:00 to 2:00 Monday, Wednesday, Friday… things never really connected. You never had a sense that it was something more than just one thing after another. And to my way of thinking it had become increasingly difficult, even in the 1990s, to get to this idea of the life of the mind, which sounds kind of highfalutin, but really, for me, it means that you’re never not thinking about things. And you’re always kind of putting things through the tumble in your head to figure out “Huh, well, I learned this in my economics class, and I learned this my Milton class, but Milton was in the government. And so he was familiar with some of the stuff that was going on with finance, and he actually wrote about currency at one point in Paradise Lost.” Those things need to connect, it seems to me, especially in a liberal arts education setting, so one of the things I always felt like I was fighting was the walls of the classroom, including the temporal walls when you were in a particular place for a particular time. When I saw the birth of high-speed internet connectivity in the mid 90s, at Mary Washington, where I was at the time, I saw an opportunity to try to get students interested in various kinds of asynchronous communication that would keep the thread going, would keep the conversation going, would keep that life of the mind present to them in a way. And the first thing I used was email and had it backed up on a listserv server. Back in those days, students would get their first email accounts when they came to campus. And now they don’t have email accounts, because that’s for old people. It’s taken about 25 years to make that change, which is pretty rapid. But, what I found was there was an interesting way, that even though that wasn’t what I would later do with big open project, there was a way in which I was finding what they call a third space, like a coffee house, or a cafe or a diner or a place that wasn’t a formal institutional place and it wasn’t just a home place. But, it was this third space where people were informal, but they also had an idea that they were with other people and they couldn’t just slouch around in their jammies and slippers, they really did need to metaphorically kind of be present in a social setting, but it wasn’t a formal or scripted setting. So I got really interested in that. And then when the web came along, just about a year or so after I started the stuff with email… it was already there, but we were really getting into it in a big way at Mary Washington… I saw an opportunity for students to build things that would be out in the open, that would give them the opportunity to create something that would last beyond just the semester, and that would have an audience besides just the professor or even each other in the class, and that that would present certain interesting challenges to students. That is, they would have to do something that would represent their own growing expertise, but would also be potentially of interest to someone who hadn’t been at the class. When I first started doing that with a first year writing class, and it’s the kind of long tail effect about two years after the first time I did that with a partner in crime named Bill Kemp, who passed away recently, but was a really close colleague and a wonderful mentor and friend at Mary Washington. There was a moment when I got an email (because we had asked that people contact either me or Bill, not the student directly because we were trying to protect the students contact information and privacy) and a student from Africa, wrote in and said, “I just read what one of your students wrote about Tupac Shakur, and he speaks for me, would you please just let him know?” Now, I didn’t have WordPress, I didn’t have any way for people to leave comments on these web publications, but as soon as I got in touch with the fellow who had written that essay, he was just flabbergasted: “You’re kidding me? Something I did for a first-year writing class has now touched somebody halfway around the world two years later.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s part of what the promise of the web is, that these things that we do for ourselves in particular contexts, will find affinity groups, will find people we had not anticipated, making use of what we’ve created and learning with us in ways that we hadn’t anticipated.” So, those two things together: the way in which the class could be in communication with itself without simply being in the same physical space, and know themselves as a learning community; and then this other idea that by being open and sharing what we have done with the world, we could have these unanticipated, these serendipitous, encounters with the way in which this work might matter outside of a school setting, those two things really did, I think, lead to everything I was trying to do with open pedagogy from thereafter. And then you’ve already mentioned the advent of web 2.0. And that was the next big turning point for me, when it suddenly became clear to me that, for very little money, I could set up my own domain, I could set up my own blog, I could run all sorts of discussion forums on my own domain, which I continue to do, that that would be an opportunity for me to kind of set up shop on the web in a way that would be persistent and would make my work more visible. And then I said, “Well, now, hmmm… what if I ask my staff to do that? And hmmm… what if I asked my students to do that and what if I did AAC&U projects using that idea of the open platform and opportunities for connection that had not been anticipated or scripted, but would arrive serendipitously with some intentionality as we reached out to our various networks. I just got completely hooked on that. And I guess the high point of all of that, for me was a moment in 2015, in which I was still on senior staff, I was a Vice Provost at VCU at the time, and there was a lot of conversation about what were we going to do with the World Championship bicycle race that was going to be coming to Richmond, and of course, “What are we gonna do with it? We’re gonna watch it. Are you kidding? This is once in a lifetime.” But the concern was that because the bicycle race would be going around the main Arts and Sciences Campus, that we wouldn’t be able to get faculty in regularly or efficiently. We wouldn’t be able to ensure people could leave at a particular time. And so we couldn’t even be sure the dining services would be able to stay open. We’ll just have to send everybody home. But, there were a number of us who said “Hmm, why would we send people home when part of the way that we recruit them to VCU is to promise them Richmond and the urban setting, and here’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.” So, to make a long story short, there was a project that I was very privileged to lead. But I had some really great collaborators who came up with really wonderful ideas and fed into the project people from the community engagement Vice Provost Office, people from communications, people from web services, just, you know, the Dean’s office, etc. And we had a curricular event during that week, in which we offered about 26 different courses, one credit each, at a special price that would have a kind of in place component related to the bicycle race, but would be conducted primarily online or in perhaps smaller groups that wouldn’t be at any risk of not having facilities they would need during that time, and first-year students would be able to stay on campus, and that was called the Great VCU bike race book. The promise was that what students did would all be syndicated upwards into WordPress sites. These 26 classes were massively across the disciplines, everything from the psychology or in the motivation of exercise to gender and bicycling to bicycling and film to the physics of bicycling. And the student works syndicated up into the WordPress sites would then be curated by the faculty, and would then become a permanent part of the scholarly depository in the library, which made students go “Wait a minute, really, I’m going to be doing something that will be permanently stored in the library as part of the scholarly activity at VCU.” And the answer was “yes.” And while we want you to be very aware of the potential for copyright violation and be a good copyright citizen, when we talk to you about fair use, we’re also talking to you about fair use of your products, the things that you are making that reflect the work you are doing. And everyone I guess, except 2 of the 350 students or so who signed up gave their permission, and their work is now in the scholarly depository at VCU. Jimmy Ghapery, who’s in charge of the digital part of the library’s operations, was good enough to work with me, work with the academic learning transformation laboratory to digitize these student websites and to make them part of the permanent cultural record that was documented during this event at VCU. That was massively open. But it was interesting. I, of course, tracked the MOOC mania very carefully when it was coming out 2011… 2012 all the predictions about “Well, soon we’ll have 10 universities, and they’ll simply offer 10 million courses and it will all scale up and all the rest of that,” I was highly skeptical, though I recognize there’s a little bit of a conflict of interest since I make my livelihood this way. But, what I’ve been working at is not so much these massively open online designs, though I remain interested in them. I think there is some value there. But what happens if you scale up smaller learning communities into larger networks, that is to say you can actually have… wait for it… a network of networks, like the internet On the internet, we’re not all logging into one gigantic computer that AT&T operates on our behalf. There was a time when that was the model that people had in their minds. What we have instead are all these individual computers, these personal computers, that can hook up freely with either other computers in a smaller network, or do things that then become amplified up through greater and greater networks through the web. And that’s really, for me, been the focus of most of my work in open pedagogy. It’s been trying to figure out ways to generate healthy, medium-sized networks and then network the networks. I’ve had some success with that, and at the same time, I can’t tell you that people know more about the web now than they knew in the 2000s, they probably know a little bit less, the smartphone has made a huge difference along those lines, and not just in a good way. I mean, I love my smartphone. But, there’s been a way in which we’ve all kind of retreated into this closed system, and one that’s built on apps and I think that some of the deep knowledge of the way the web operations has eroded over time. But I’m still in there and still getting my students to blog and putting them onto old school PHP, BB forums, because they still have more functionality than anything that the learning management systems have provided. And I guess that’s my story. And I’m sticking to it.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a lot about the scope and some of the possibilities of networks to connect and people to connect from different communities and around the world. Can you talk a little bit about some of the learning gains the students get from working on these larger scale projects?

Gardner: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I think the first thing that students get is a kind of ambient awareness of what out there in the environment they could connect to. So, for example, when my students are blogging on WordPress, the first thing they start to figure out is, “oh, I can embed a video,” “oh, well, if I can embed a video or whatever, I could make a video” or” Oh, I wonder if I could put screenshots in here to illustrate the kinds of things I’m talking about.” Now, these are things that students typically are pretty capable of doing. It is true that students are not necessarily very sophisticated about the web. I think URLs puzzle a lot of my students, they don’t understand how they’re constructed or what they signify. But they’re doing screenshots all the time. They use their smartphones, that stuff is built in, their tablets have screenshots built in. Well, what if you use the thing that you’re on a day-to-day basis to communicate with your friends, and you use it to illustrate a point you’re making? Could you do that, and typically, that kind of thing starts to happen pretty organically. There’ll be a student in the class who either gets it very quickly or has already done something in multiple modalities, maybe in a composition class or something like that. And they’ll break the ice. And then this ambient awareness starts to emerge as, what I think of it as an enormous learning game. What could I bring to bear on this thing I’m writing that would make it more persuasive, that would illustrate it in a more interesting way, and that by doing so, would draw me into the project in a more interesting way. So, the first learning gain, I think, is that ambient awareness… just what is possible, and I’m an academic, so I do a lot of stuff with academic writing… scholarly publishing. I think it’s fair to say that you don’t always get an enormous amount of ambient awareness of how you connect to the wider world in the scholarly literature. It’s in some ways, I guess, it has a different purpose. But that’s what students are told to do: go get peer-reviewed articles. Nothing wrong with that… a lot that’s good about that. But the other side of that is students get locked into a kind of an imitation rhetoric, that is to say they’re trying to do the thing that the professor seems to recognize as a thing that can be done and the examples of that are in the scholarly articles, and they miss out on some of the ways that they could begin to experiment with multiple modalities and kind of rethink even what an argumentative paper might be. So that’s one of the things I think is a gain. The other gain is when they begin to realize that there are other people in the environment doing similar work and they have an opportunity to connect. Now this is where the school begins to acquire a much bigger role in the student’s life than just the set of classes they’re taking, they start to become aware in a deeper way of what it means to be spending time in a learning community that it’s not simply going from door number one to door number two, that you’re in an environment and that the environment is kind of greater than sum of its parts. This happened just in a blog post that the student published in my senior seminar just today, the senior seminar is on a filmmaker and a writer named Errol Morris. And one of the things that the student began to do was to be curious to see if there were any traces of her classmates in other classes working on Errol Morris. Now, already, this is an interesting kind of ambient awareness that takes the knowledge of other communication channels and the experience of other communication channels, and you get the feeling that “I wonder if anybody is out there in another network.” Typically, learning management systems shut down the network of a class at the end of the semester, because they’re not even thinking of a class as a network and they’re thinking of the learning management system as a kind of a document delivery platform. But,as it happens, this student was in a communications class that used Slack. So she’s using WordPress, as well as we’re doing a Wikipedia project in the senior seminar that kind of goes along with the research project they’re doing for the seminar. And we’ve been spending a lot of time in these other platforms like Zoom, making these kinds of connections and bringing the buffet of what’s available in. So, she went to her Slack channel, which had preserved the chit chat from her class and saw that there was somebody in there this semester, who was also working on Errol Morris. And she thought, “Well, now, that’s interesting.” And then she continued to do this exploration. And she said that the thing she found was that there were more people at VCU working on Errol Morris than she had ever dreamed, and that it was a real surprise because she had never heard of Errol Morris until she came into the senior seminar. And this is a sophisticated student. This is someone who’s not just keeping blinders on and not aware of anything thing that’s going on in the world. But, nobody knows everything. She took the senior seminar and now she’s kind of finding out, “Huh, this is kind of all over the place, including in various places in school itself.” And I think without an open pedagogical approach, in this case, it’s the Wikipedia project and blogging that my students are doing, there’s a way in which it just never rises into their consciousness to even ask the question::are there other people around me doing this?” And of course, if those other channels don’t exist, if everything is locked away in an LMS, it wouldn’t matter if you did ask the question. Which brings me to a part of the question that you’ve asked that I think is also very important, it informed a lot of my work when I was doing this as an administrator for about 13 years. I always knew that the more of my colleagues who were adopting aspects of this approach… and not everything has to be open, closed things need to be a part of what we’re doing… there needs to be a sweet spot between the things that what’s said in the senior seminar stays in the senior seminar and what you’re able to do as a more public self, those are useful skills. But I always thought the more my colleagues who began to adopt these approaches, it wasn’t just about the increased value of the pedagogy in their classrooms, which I firmly believe would happen, but the more open classes we have the more chances for these classes to discover each other. And again, it’s this idea that each class has a network, but then the networks start to network. And the big learning gain, if you’re able to do that is that you’re able to start to understand how connections scale in the world. And I think it makes you a better citizen in a democracy. I think it makes you more effective as a professional, really any activity that you’re in, you start to understand how smaller units like families exist within a community; how communities exist within larger units, like states; how states exist within larger units, like nations; and so forth. So, those are just a few of the learning gains that happened and then maybe two years later someone reads your blog and they say “Wow, you speak for me” and you get a nice little surprise as a comment on something you’ve written.

John: Going back to Rebecca’s question a little bit. I remember when you were here and you gave a keynote address at our teaching symposium, one of the things you mentioned was that students had been writing on a blog, and they continued writing even after the class ended. And that was something I think that people still talk about, how these open pedagogy projects if they get them started, and they continue to provide students with motivation that they might not typically have in their regular assignments.

Gardner: Oh, that’s right. David Wiley, who’s been working with open education for decades now has this great phrase for the opposite of what you’re talking about. He calls them disposable assignments. And I think what you’re saying is absolutely right. The things that students contribute to the world through open pedagogical practices and putting their artifacts up where other people can see them helps students understand that the work they’re doing is not disposable. It’s something that not only can persist but can be the first stage in an expanding kind of public presence as a writer, as a thinker, and as a student. This is a particular challenge… and first of all, I should say that there are not many students who will be motivated to keep on with this in any kind of formal way after the class is done, but some of them are, and if you get any of them, I think that’s a great advantage. But, even for the students who don’t go on as bloggers, or don’t go on to doing podcasts, or whatever. the seed is planted, there’s a way in which sometimes these things may take 10 or even 20 years, and then suddenly, the student will be in a particular context again, and go, “Ah, oh, that’s interesting,” and something will come out of that. It’s just the way it is with any kind of teaching. You can see certain things happening right away. Other things, you just hope you can live long enough to see the day when suddenly there’s an idea and it comes back at you. You recognize it’s what a student has built out that started at a particular moment back in the day, but yeah, I think disposable assignments… it just gets back to this thing that john Dewey said he said, you know, “education is not preparation for life, Education is the process of living.” And there’s a corollary to that, which is hard for my students to understand. But I think it’s valuable. When I tell them blog, they say, “Well, what am I going to blog about?” And I say, “Well, you must tell the story of your learning.” And for a number of them, this is the first time they thought of their learning as a kind of a narrative, that this is a set of experiences, they are living through a set of cognitive events that make a difference in the way they’re going to be approaching the world afterwards. And so you might as well keep a diary, and you’re not going to be wrong. It’s your story. It’s your learning. But it does mean that you think about your learning in a different way,

John: Which builds in a nice metacognitive component where students can learn more by reflecting on what they’ve learned. And that’s something I think you’ve written about a little bit in some of your writings recently.

Gardner: I have tried to do that. I’ve tried to emphasize that when students understand that this metacognition, which for me, of course, I’m always doing that, but for many students either they’ve never thought that that is something they need to do with school, because school for them has just been a series of tasks, or they think of their own metacognitive ideas out in the wild as somehow not being worth other people’s time. And lately I’ve been doing some work with memoirists and one of them is Patricia Hampl. And she has this really great way of talking about her own reluctance to write a memoir at first because she thought it was the most narcissistic thing you could possibly do. And then found out, as I think many of us do, over the course of our lives, that if you write something honest and searching about your own experience, people will connect with that… the first person is a way to get to the first person plural. And it’s kind of a mystery in a way how that works. But I want my students to have that idea. And there have been so many times when students have essentially said to me, “Well, who cares what I think about something,” and I say, “Well, it is true, you’re not an expert. It is true that we got plenty of opinions floating around. In the world, and maybe we don’t need another op ed, but nobody else is going to be able to tell the story of your learning. And if you tell the story of your learning, you’re also telling it to yourself.” And that kind of metacognition expands in all sorts of directions. And when it happens, it’s pretty extraordinary. It’s a wonderful thing to see.

Rebecca: So one of the things that I hear coming up and all the learning that we’re talking about is moving beyond being consumers of tech and consumers of knowledge to creators, and being scholars and students thinking of themselves as scholars, which I think is really interesting because it gives them agency in a way that they might not understand that they have agency. And so when they see themselves as agents, in communities, there’s a lot of power there. And maybe they’re not always able to act on that power initially, but I think that’s what you’re pointing out, Garfner is like, later on, down the road, they realize that they have that power and that they are able to act on that agency… that maybe they didn’t choose to act on earlier. And so I think that’s really powerful and not seeing school as a silo, but part of this bigger part of their lives. And that this agency crosses between a lot of different domains that they exist in.

Gardner: I think that’s exactly right and very well put. It also has the bonus that they begin to understand some deep truths about the scholarly life, which are, for me, that scholarship is about creation. It’s about a certain kind of rigor and responsibility with regard to the material you’re working with. And it’s also about a conversation. So, for many of them, and I’ve seen this happen with the Wikipedia assignment very recently in a poetry class, and I’ve seen it happen with blogging a good deal, for them books on the shelf in the library, or even more so the e-stuff that they get through JSTOR or whatever, it just all looks, again, to use your word, like silos, like these bound volumes, these discrete units. What they can’t imagine is that when you walk into a library, either physically or when you’re surrounded by these electronic resources online, what you’re hearing is a conversation, what you’re hearing our voices over many years, and within each of those articles within each of those books, there’s a network of all the things that the author has brought to bear on his or her argument. And once you kind of get away from this idea that books are inert, articles are just book reports that these things are simply there, like pebbles, or like little capsules. And you start to think, no, this is a kind of time lapse photograph of a flower blooming. This is something that has a rich temporal dimension. And then to the next part of your point, I can be one of those voices too. I need to be a responsible voice. I can’t just run into the conversation and blurt out whatever’s on the top of my head. That’s kind of a rude way to get into a conversation, and nobody’s likely to listen to you. They’ll just be annoyed. But you may come in and find that you have something to say that is rich, that’s authentic, and may surprise the other people in the conversation. This is something that I learned a long time ago from one of the scholars in residence at Baylor University, that if people are sufficiently observant and responsible and responsive to their environment, there’s always a chance that they’re going to see something nobody else has ever seen. And I really do try very hard to work that into my own pedagogy. And if I’m working on, I don’t know, Citizen Kane, a movie I’ve seen 60 times, I always try to tell my students the story of moments when students saw things that I had never seen, because you just need to be alert, you need to be awake. And so that agency that you’re discussing, which is a sense of responsibility, but also a sense of why it’s worth discovering your agency, I just think that’s so crucial. And it can be very, very difficult to convey that in a way that gets those students in the sweet spot where they’re not just kind of popping off without thinking at all, but they’re also not clamming up because what can they offer? They’re not the expert. There’s that middle ground. And in some ways, the open pedagogical framework, that third space idea is the ideal place for them to start spreading their wings and finding that agency.

John: You mentioned that you’ve used blogging for quite a while and you’ve been having students do some wikipedia assignments. And also I believe you have your students work with hypothes.is as well. Could you tell us a little bit about the details of how all these things fit together in your courses?

Gardner: Happy to do that. I know there are a lot of moving parts and some of my students are not happy with all the moving parts, I think because they like the regimented approach. I think we’ve all found that if we try to do some things that are a little more open, or a little more freewheeling, that often students will resist that because that’s not the way they’ve been managing their presence or their activity within school. But, for the students who thrive, here’s what I hope it offers. I always describe this in terms of zooming out and zooming in, or sometimes the microcosm and the macrocosm. And I actually use those as kind of tropes as I’m talking about it with students. There’s no great mystery there. I’m just trying to give them a framework for thinking about it. The blog, it seems to me, is a place for synthesis. It’s a place to take a step back as you tell the story of your learning. You’re making In these connections. You’re knitting things together. You’re trying to make something larger out of more discrete encounters, let’s say with a text, but with hypothes.is, which is a platform for online annotation, now you’re zooming in. Now you’re doing close reading in a social reading environment, in which, in my case, it’s usually a PDF, but it can also be a web page, all the students are reading the same thing and they are highlighting places that strike them as puzzling or interesting or insightful. I actually asked them to use those words as tags, and they highlight those bits. And then in the margin, they leave a comment, they leave a note or they respond to another comment or another note. And hypothes.is, as a platform, has been super because it starts to encourage students to read things more carefully, read things more closely, and to consider again, how the shape of an argument can unfold because they’ll leave a comment at the beginning or a question in the beginning, and then by the end, they see the authors anticipated that question or maybe has complicated that observation even more, and they also become, and this is a great bonus for me as an English professor, they become very attuned to ways in which writers can word things in insightful or beautiful ways. And the tags I’m talking about in the hypothesis environment have to do with making students aware of what Paul Silvia calls knowledge emotions, which he categorizes as confusion, awe, surprise, and interest generally (that also includes curiosity), and for Sylvia, it’s all about balancing certainty and uncertainty in a framework that encourages students to respond but not simply to sum things up… to respond in a way that would record at a particular moment, a cognitive and affective response without simply delivering a summary judgment with a bow on it, which we know can happen. You can think that your whole job as a student is to deliver a set of pat conclusions, but hypothes.is, and using these knowledge emotion tags of “interesting” or “puzzling” or “insightful,” that encourages something that’s a little more open ended and also very attentive to the particulars of a text, it tends to work against paraphrasing. And then often what I’ll do is I’ll say, “Okay, folks, now I want you to blog about your experience of using hypothes.is.” And then they begin to back up again, and synthesize some of the more granular and specific things they were doing with a particular text, also with the dimension of how the interaction with students went, their classmates. So the zooming out, the zooming in, and then connecting that to the work with Wikipedia, you’ve got opportunities to do very granular work with particular facts, with particular sources, to step back a little bit and start to think about the information design of the Wikipedia page. And then to learn how to interact with the other Wikipedia editors in the wild and interesting world of the culture of Wikipedia. Michael Nielsen says “my favorite thing about Wikipedia,” he says “it’s not an encyclopedia, it’s a city whose main export to the world is an encyclopedia.” And in his book on network science, he talks about ways in which the culture of Wikipedia manifests itself throughout Wikipedia. And by the time we are moving in that direction, ideally, if the hypothes.is work and the blogging work have achieved that kind of synergy, students are going to be ready for the detailed work and the cultural work and the synthesis work that comes with contributing to a big public resource like Wikipedia. In that effort. I have, of course, enormous partnership help from various organizations: hypothes.is, the learning resources there, the way they have set up Jeremy Dean as a Director of Education who was able to work with individual faculty and with students to help them make the most of this platform and then Wikipedia opened up to me by means of an organization called Wiki Education, which is a fantastic group of folks, may they live forever. They are devoted to setting up environments in which faculty can very easily, and in ways that are very straightforward with the students, set up a series of training encounters for the students… ways in which the students are able to think at a much deeper level about how to be a responsible contributor to Wikipedia, can begin to grapple with issues of copyright, issues of how do you deal with sensitive things like health pages, or pages describing mental illness. Now, my students aren’t doing a lot with that, but those training opportunities are there for people who are running a class in biology or running a class in psychology and they want to contribute to these articles. And it’s a way to, again, to emphasize to students that we have this enormous privilege of being in this very high-level learning community. Let’s give back. This is a kind of experiential learning in which we’re actually contributing what we have been able to be in contact with and to learn in ways that will benefit the world. And that’s no idle promise either. There’s ample documentation of all of these communities for whom Wikipedia is a primary means of learning about the world and, I would add, a primary means of learning about the dangers and the promise of the internet. I think that my students work in blogging in hypothes.is And in Wikipedia, in particular, make them into better digital citizens, people who understand, I think, at much greater depth, what they can contribute, and what kinds of privileges and pitfalls accompany these platforms. So, ideally, what I’m describing is a kind of synergy. I always want these positive feedback loops in which what you do in one environment makes your work stronger, richer, and brings you more surprises with connections when you move into another environment or when you’re working at a big level what happens when you start to work at a more focused and granular level. This is all interactive. It’s another network and my hope is that it creates a network inside students’ heads. At its best, I think, the kind of, I guess, open ecology and the hypothes.is tends to be open, that tends to be in a small, closed group for the classroom. But what they do there, they can bring in weblinks, they can bring in things from the outside. But my hope is that that kind of ecology begins to create, again, the sense of possibility within the students and they begin to see that, really any class, if you look at it’s design carefully, if it’s been put together thoughtfully doing things that should be mutually reinforcing, and not just one thing after another,

John: What do you do with those students who are reluctant to have their work shared publicly, at least under their name? How do you address the students who prefer to keep their work private?

Gardner: Well, the first thing is, they don’t have to do it under their name. One of the nice things about the platform that we’re using, which is WordPress multisite platform, and I’ve done this on my own web-hosted accounts, but we have the big one at school called Ram Pages, they can choose a pseudonym, so they can be pseudonymous to each other. They can be pseudonymous to the world and I talked to them a great deal about the difference between personal and private. I say, you know, you want a good sense of who you are as a person out there. It’s part of your voice and you need to know how to do that in a public setting. But, at the same time, you don’t want to disclose private details. You really don’t want to do that. Because it’s unpredictable how that will promulgate once it’s out on the web. I think the idea that, you know, once you publish something to a blog, it’s there forever, it’s part of your permanent record, is a little overblown. There is that security through obscurity, you’re not going to be found right away. There’s a little bit of space there. That happened to me once. A student blogged about using a roommate’s key to get into the room. And of course, that was an honor offense, you weren’t supposed to do that ,you weren’t supposed to use somebody else’s ID and I had a talk with a student I said, you need to take that blog post down because “ain’t no big thang, but you really don’t want to be talking about that stuff out on the open web.” So, there’s a way I frame it so that I try to anticipate some of the reluctance that students might have and answer questions ahead of time before they even start writing on their blogs. The other thing I do is I always, always, always talk about it in terms of how this is going to be a part of their learning. And I compare it to classes that would have a public performance aspect, a music class, or an art class or a theater class. And I’ll say now we’re doing early modern literature. It’s not necessarily a performance class, but it can have a performance aspect to it that I think is pedagogically valuable. And here is why. If you have a particular objection, then please come to me and we will talk about that. I will try to make you as comfortable as possible and give you what you need to be able to work successfully in an open medium. If at the end of the day, you just can’t bear it, then we’ll have that conversation. What’s interesting to me is, I can’t think of any student who’s ever said, “I’m just not going to do that. I am just not going to do that.” If they don’t do it, it’s usually not because they’re reluctant to put themselves out on the open web. It’s because it doesn’t fit into their normal view of schooling and they just neglect to do it. And that’s the part that always saddens me, because there really is nothing sadder than seeing a student write a tremendous blog post and you think, “Wow, this blogging thing is really bringing out a voice and agency I wouldn’t see otherwise.” But then the student just gets preoccupied or just kind of checks out a little bit and you don’t hear anything from them again. Typically, those students are not going to be attending regularly. They’re not kind of all in to the class. And it’s often been said, and I think it’s true, that one of the things about using these online means is that there’s really no back of the classroom. You’re either there or you’re not. And it’s pretty obvious whether you’re there or not. And some students are just kind of used to being on the margins and being on the periphery. And this is kind of a challenge to them not to do that and they just kind of drift. They’re not terribly interested. But, the idea that people would go, “oh my goodness, if I do this, I’m compromising my inner self and I will be haunted by this for the rest of my life.” First of all, that’s not what we do when we blog in a class. I make that very clear. And second, very few of them say anything about that even after I’ve talked about that as a common apprehension. So, I really do try to make their consent, informed consent. And so far, knock on wood, that certainly seems to have been the case. Every now and then I’ll have a student reach out to me, this happened about 10 years ago, and say, “I just want to make sure that you’ve taken my posts down.” But, that really only happened once, and that was a very special circumstance. Of course, to the best of my ability, I took it down right away. I would like the blog post to have a truly global audience, but a semester is not really a lot of time to build up any kind of a big audience, but the potential is always there. And I think that’s what excites students about work that prepares them to be citizens in a public sphere in ways that maybe they weren’t able to imagine before.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a lot about ways to frame projects like this as a faculty member to make sure that students are safe and responsible and doing what they need to do, and maybe should do, in thinking about their agency. Can we shift gears a little bit and think about what faculty might do to get started on a project and introduce these to students? Where do they start? You know, obviously, there’s the framing, which I think we’ve covered. But, what tools or techniques or kinds of projects would be a good small step in this direction to get started without going full in with three platforms?

Gardner: Well, you know, I feel like if you’re going to take the medicine take the whole dose, because then you’ll conclude, oh, penicillin doesn’t work. And how much did you take? Well, really half a tab every other day. Ah, you didn’t get it up to the therapeutic dose. But, I’ll back down from that. I actually have an answer for your excellent question. I think the first thing that would be helpful for faculty is to run a fairly unscripted, unprompted, discussion forum. And that can even be inside the learning management system. Because one of the first things that faculty need to get comfortable with in my experience is this idea that the student participation doesn’t need to be led by them. I mean, certainly in the classroom, it can be in the assignments, but if there’s a space, a little clubhouse, where students are told they need to be doing things that are interesting, substantive, and relevant to the course, but the teacher is not supplying the prompt. The teacher is not saying it’s going to be 250 words, the teacher is not doing the things that a teacher would often do to try to ensure that students would do interesting, substantive, relevant work. There’s nothing wrong with stipulating certain kinds of ways in which you imagine substantive work would be or interesting work would be and you can talk about that. And I still tell my students, this paper needs to be 10 to 12 pages long, because that’s a way of signifying how much I want them to be invested in a kind of breadth and depth as they approach the topic. But the big step is to say, here’s the forum, I want you to do work that’s interesting, substantive and relevant. I want you to post on three different days and three times a week. In other words, set up the platform so they’re not phoning it in, so that they’re not just kind of doing a big “Oh, I’ll do my three posts on Sunday night” and ”oh, now I’ve got that done.” So that there are maximum chances for the students to work in a constructive way and a couple of guardrails to try to keep them from just driving out of the lane all together. But then don’t prompt it, don’t make the topic yourself, see what happens. And sometimes, of course, you’re going to be disappointed. Other times, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised. And one of the surprises is likely to be the way in which the students who are most committed begin to serve as kind of examples and inspirations for other students, and it belongs to them. I’ve run the discussion forum in my intro film classes for a long, long time. And the platform I use is not hard. It doesn’t seem hard to me, but it’s probably not as, I guess, click here as something that Blackboard or even Canvas would have. I think it’s a lot better. But the key is really not going to be the platform right away. I think I’ve got a platform that encourages kinds of rich interaction that maybe Blackboard wouldn’t, but even if you do it on Blackboard, when the students sense that this is a place in which they are going to need to steer the conversation… within these guidelines: interesting, substantive, and relevant, I tend to use adjectives and talk about qualities in ways that don’t get reduced right away to “How long does it have to be?” and “Do you have a rubric?” Like,” Yeah, my rubric is interesting, substantive, and relevant.” And then if you have questions about those things, let’s talk about that. What does substantive mean? What do you think it means and we have a conversation. If you can habituate yourself to that, then I think you become braver about other kinds of open platforms where you are going to have to give up a little bit of control unless you want the student’s blog to be a kind of term paper published to WordPress, which is a disaster. Just don’t bother. That’s not what a blog is. WordPress can certainly be a place to share the work you do in a term project. You can put your research paper up on WordPress, but that shouldn’t be the only thing you do. There needs to be these opportunities for students to have an idea of what the fruitful directions will be, but not a script, and not a map. And when you get to be able to do those things… And I would say just start small, you know, maybe even start with two weeks in a particular discussion forum just to see what happens and then talk to your students about what happened or what didn’t happen. It becomes a way to reflect on your own instructional design and for them to start to reflect on some of their own contribution or lack of them, and then you just start to build up over time. Now, if you wanted to do something really interesting and a little braver than that, but with plenty of help, I would definitely go to Wiki Education. Wiki education will be a wonderful set of scaffolding for you and your students. It does require some commitment, it requires a little more than running a discussion forum in an unscripted mode for a couple of weeks… that you really do need to think of it as a fairly substantial component of the course, I think, because otherwise it’s just too much work for too little reward for the students. But, if you can do that, you’ll find that you’ve got an army of helpers on Wiki Education. You’ve got a liaison for the students. You’ve got a liaison for the faculty member. You’ve got a dashboard you can look at to be able to see at a glance where students are in working on their articles. You can also pitch the articles they’re working on as making substantive contributions to things that are not well represented in Wikipedia. Women computer scientists, people who are in marginalized groups of any kind… the work that they have done to contribute to any field, or information that’s really important but kind of scant on Wikipedia, having to do with any sphere of interest or something that you’re passionate about that you want to see represented more fully on Wikipedia and the scaffolding you get to help you get the community become part of through the wiki education people, which is simply wikiedu.org is just staggering to me. And did I mention it doesn’t cost anything? There’s that too. So, those are some ways I would say to get started.

Rebecca: I think one thing that’s really interesting to observe as we’ve become distributed teachers and learners with COVID-19… everybody’s remote… is how many of these informal spaces are getting formed by students and faculty alike. I’ve heard examples of students forming their own slack channels to collaborate on work unprompted and just doing that. At Oswego, we’ve had a faculty member who created an Oz hangout group on Facebook that’s actually been really active. So, beyond the formal structure that we generally have for professional development, it’s a space that people have come to and are helping each other out. So, we can observe these things and see how they naturally happen to get an idea of how we can help facilitate that to happen a little bit too.

Gardner: Well, I certainly hope so. And I have to say, though, no one would wish to live through this kind of time. No one would sign up to say, “Gee, I wonder if I could be part of a pandemic.” It is true, necessity is the mother of invention. It is true. Hello. I’m waving to the toddler in the background. And this is another thing that’s so nice about some of these moments, to connect your family and your home with your professional life in a way that everybody is just going to tolerate because my dogs barking in the background and all these things are happening. It helps us embrace the mess and maybe not have the illusion that we can walk around in our uniforms and just keep everything all pristine. So, to your point in particular, it’s always a question of whether the motivation and the sense of urgency and opportunity that you feel during a crisis can actually carry over into business as usual. And I’ve always thought that higher education is the place that is uniquely suited to being able to maintain a sense of urgency and adventure, even if the world isn’t on fire. I can’t say that always happens in higher ed.[LAUGHTER] We have our ruts too, but I remain hopeful and I think your point is exactly right.

John: We’re only in the first week of this ,we’ll be releasing as a few weeks later. But, in my own class, using Zoom for meetings, students start coming in a bit early, and they’ve been likely to stay later. And it’s broken down a lot of the barriers where students might have where they stay a little more distant. We’re seeing them in their natural habitats in their homes. There’s dogs wandering by and so forth. And there also before and after class, and sometimes during class talking about their fears and their concerns.

Gardner: It was such a poignant moment to me when I did my first Zoom session with the senior seminar, when at the end of talking about the unknown known, which was the Errol Morris movie we’re discussing that day, one of the students just said, just almost blurted it out, “I’m so glad for this contact today. You people are the first people I’ve talked to outside of my home all day.” And as the crisis wears on, it’s an opportunity as the uncertainties mount, your dad gets laid off, you find out that somebody in your family is sick, or you’re just kind of increasingly worried, the chance to be together, kind of get your mind off it by doing another kind of learning, but also at the same time to be present to each other with these intimate little portals, which work pretty well now. This is a lot better than CU-See-Me was in 1997. I can tell you that. That’s pretty rich. I think it increases that ambient awareness I was talking about, and frankly, it’s a chance to bond with each other a little more.

Rebecca: I’ve heard some really interesting examples of students from different schools trying to connect as well. I know that’s something in the design area that we’re talking about helping to facilitate a little bit through our professional organizations. Our senior design students, for example, are used to having exhibitions in galleries and can’t, because they can’t have it in physical space. So we’ve talked about ways that they might actually interact with each other and their work in a way that they wouldn’t normally.

Gardner: That’s terrific. Now, that’s magnificent. And you have the impetus to do it quickly. not let the great be the enemy of the good. And then there’s this openness to discovery. That just sounds like a great project. Are you blogging about it? Can I follow you? You’re on leave, That’s right.

Rebecca: We’re discussing how we might be able to help facilitate that to happen and provide a little structure so that the students don’t have to provide the structure, but I’m pretty confident that something will happen.

Gardner: That’s terrific. That’s wonderful.

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

Gardner: Wow, that’s a great question. What is next? I’m not sure. I’m going to keep on keeping on. I continue to be interested in harnessing Wikipedia in ever more intense ways. I’ve use Wikipedia a long time I had been an editor inside of Wikipedia, since I don’t know, I guess I got my first account in the early 2000s, not long after it became Wikipedia. But, it’s one of those things that the farther in you go, the farther in there is to go. And you start to become aware of things that I’m always telling my students and then finding out to my own surprise, it’s true. I was watching a movie called Festival, which is a documentary about the Newport Folk Festival from I think 63 through 67, something like that, and found an artist in there, Horton Barker, I just was fascinated by a blind singer. It turns out he lived in southwest Virginia, knew something like 2000 songs, and had actually performed at the White House at one point. So, I started getting interested in that and decided I would go find more about him on Wikipedia. There was no Wikipedia article on Horton Barker, but because I had been doing this with my students, I knew a lot more about how to start an article up from nothing, what sorts of things might happen. If I didn’t pitch it the right way, it would be marked for deletion, somebody would be on me for this or that because sometimes Wikipedia are kind of persnickety about this wonderful thing that they’ve helped to create, which is perfectly understandable. And the first thing I knew I was creating this Horton Barker article, the next thing I knew, there was an article about the Library of Congress releasing all these folk song recordings in their archive. And Horton Barker was one of the people that they were mentioning, and it was a hyperlink and it linked back to the Wikipedia article I had started and while I was doing it all I met another Wikipedian named Julie Farman, who was one of the people kind of watching new articles about music. She’d never heard of Horton Barker, she gave me some encouragement for the article. and said she was going to spend the rest of her morning listening to Horton Barker, who did put out a long playing record in the early 60s. So the next thing for me is going to be, in terms of my own teaching, is going to be thinking about ways I can be a scholar-practitioner and model that more intensely for my students. They already know I’m on Twitter, they know that I have a blog. But if I ramp up my own involvement in some of these things, I’m interested in in Wikipedia, that gives me another way to create a feedback loop. So I can bring in not just what I’m seeing in articles that they’re doing, but, here’s my Horton Barker article or other things. I just made my 500th edit in Wikipedia, which is nothing, 500 just barely gets you in the door, but it felt like a lot. And so I was at 499, and I said, I’m gonna make my 500th edit in the article on John Milton. And that was my 500th edit. So, that was good. In terms of my own scholarship, I’ve got a project I’m very excited about, which has also been something I’ve worked on in a networked way, which is a book that I’m writing on the story behind Doug Englebart’s authorship of the 1962 Manifesto, which was a research report called Augmenting Human Intellect: a Conceptual Framework. And one of the things I’ve tried to do, in a networked setting, I actually had a big open project on this involving hypothes.is and video interviews over Zoom, just February, I guess about this time a year ago, to try to bring in voices from many different sectors, students, teachers, people who knew Doug and worked with him, people who have used his work in their own work in subsequent years, and try to create a network of conversations to raise awareness of this document, this 1962 monograph, really it is, that was written by an electrical engineer pretty much just off to himself the way a humanities prof would write a monograph. It represented about two year’s sabbatical that he finally had gotten funding for from the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. So it’s a massive multidisciplinary effort, and it’s a conceptual framework that has never been as widely known as it needs to be. My thesis, one of them anyway, is that without a conceptual framework, we’re just kind of out here on the internet willy nilly, not able to fend off the problems or realize the promise in any kind of rich and ultimately beneficial way. So, let’s go back to 1962. What was this Doug Engelbart guy doing when he was doing the research in everything from linguistics to magnetic core memory that would lead to this document Augmenting Human Intellect: a Conceptual Framework. It’s really a kind of philosophy of networks, a philosophy of computing. And it turns out that there’s a very rich archive at Stanford University of rough drafts of this document, of correspondence with the people who are helping to fund his research from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, various stages of presenting parts of the argument to various people along the way. And the early days of what would become Doug Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Center at SRI. They were the second node on the internet. UCLA was the first the Augmentation Research Center was a place out of which came the mouse, out of which came this idea of a very close coupling between the psychomotor things that the user was doing and the environment in which the user was working. There was even this idea that the operating system, which was called the online system, at the Augmentation Research Center would be a kind of a blueprint for the way in which the internet could keep on providing opportunities for people to innovate applications as they wanted. So there’s a kind of almost a worldwide web built in, even though this was the big mother of all demos that kind of showed a lot of the startling technology to the world, was 1968. So, many decades before the World Wide Web, and many years after Doug had put together really the intellectual and philosophical visionary document, this 1962 manifesto that I want to do a deep dive into to help to try to explain what I think are some of its deepest implications, to tell the story of how it came to be, and to talk about some of the things that it might have to offer for us today, as we try to think about where we’ve gotten to and maybe what direction we should go in. So, that’s my book project. And as you can tell, I’m kind of jazzed about it.

John: It sounds like a fascinating project. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you again, and it’s good to see you.

Gardner: Good to see you too. And thanks for a fine conversation. We have a good little network here and it’s a privilege to be part of it today. 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. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.

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132. Pandemic Pivoting

The unexpected shift to remote instruction during the spring 2020 semester in response to a global pandemic disrupted established teaching patterns, forcing many faculty to rapidly learn new tools and techniques of engaging their students. In this episode, Dr. Betsy Barre joins us to discuss what we’ve learned from this sudden shift to remote instruction and how we can better prepare for the uncertainties of the fall semester.

Betsy is the Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University. In 2017 she won, with Justin Esarey, the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education’s Innovation Award for their Course Workload Estimator.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The unexpected shift to remote instruction during the spring 2020 semester in response to a global pandemic disrupted established teaching patterns, forcing many faculty to rapidly learn new tools and techniques of engaging their students. In this episode, we discuss what we’ve learned from this sudden shift to remote instruction and how we can better prepare for the uncertainties of the fall semester.

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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 Dr. Betsy Barre, the Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University. In 2017 she won, with Justin Esarey, the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education’s Innovation Award for their Course Workload Estimator. Welcome, Betsy.

Betsy: Thanks, I’m happy to be here.

John: Today’s teas are:

Betsy: I am not having tea, but I am having a raspberry lime Spindrift. I actually would love to have tea, but I just didn’t get downstairs in time, so I have my Spindrift here.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I have an English breakfast.

John: And I have oolong tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, you’re switching it up a little.

Betsy: Sounds exciting.

John: Amazon helps. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Betsy, we invited you here today to talk a little bit about the work that you’ve been doing at Wake Forest to help faculty prepare for pandemic teaching. Can you talk a little bit about what the Center for Advancement of Teaching’s approach has been and what it will look like leading into summer and fall courses?

Betsy: Sure, I can talk more about what we’ve done, sort of what we’re planning for the future is still in process, as I’m sure it is for many institutions. One of the great things about Wake Forest is that our Center for the Advancement of Teaching is not the only office that has been working with faculty and faculty development and digital technology issues, academic technology, etc. So one of the first things that we did when we knew we were transitioning to online, or transitioning to remote teaching, let’s be specific there, is that we pulled together the offices that were adjacent to our office. So we pulled together the Office of Online Education, the Office of Academic Technology, which is an Information Systems RIT wing at Wake Forest, and also we had a number of librarians who did work on digital pedagogy. So we pulled all of us together and created a kind of super team that would support faculty, and that was really helpful to do that really quickly because it expanded our reach, the numbers of folks who could work with faculty and integrated it, so faculty didn’t have to go to a million different places, there was one place that they could go. We had about 850 faculty or so that were teaching that we had to work with and there were about 10 of us on our team. So, it’s a better ratio than some schools, but it’s still a pretty not ideal ratio, and so we tried to streamline things as quickly as possible. So, like many schools, we created a keep teaching website that had resources, but we also created a blog that had daily updates. So every day, they could subscribe to an email and get it in their inbox every morning that would have daily updates, but also resources, tips, things we’d heard from faculty, etc. That turned out to be really helpful and we’re still keeping that going, and it’s been helpful as they’ve been teaching. We also, though, really wanted to encourage them to share their expertise with each other. So, that week that we had off to help our faculty prepare, we did a series of open labs, where we were there to answer questions, but they could also share with each other what they were doing. And then sort of unexpectedly, a few things that we did that have gone really well is that those of us that are on social media saw some faculty talking on Facebook about this, we thought, “Hey, let’s just create a Facebook group,” and that group has been incredibly active. We have like over 300 faculty that are in that group now and some of our professional staff and it’s been a way of communicating. We’ve tried to communicate it outside of Facebook for those who don’t like Facebook, but certainly it’s been a wonderful way of building community that I think will live on after this, and so that has been nice. And then of course, our one-on-one consultations that we’ve always done, but we set up a easier streamlined system for requesting a consultation, and it would cycle through all 10 of us and sync up with our calendars, and so we found that to be really successful, and as successful as we could be in this trying situation. Summer and fall, a much more interesting wrinkle, that we’ve been working on. Once we got faculty up and ready to go, we now could transition to thinking about how are we going to support faculty in the summer and fall. And one of the things we’ve been saying all along, many institutions have, is that what we did in the spring where we had one week to transition is not really robust online teaching. At the same time, we don’t necessarily have the staff and resources to transition all of our courses online for the summer in a robust way, but we have more than a week. So we’re trying to hit some sort of middle sweet spot where it’s not exactly what we would ideally do with online education at Wake Forest, but it’s better and more intentional and takes more time than what we did for remote teaching. So currently, we’re planning for those who have volunteered to teach in the summer to run a three-week course for them to take asynchronously online to learn more about teaching online, and then we’re also gonna offer all 10 of us to do one-on-one consultations and some minimal instructional design work with them. Fall is still up in the air and we’re not really sure what’s gonna happen with the fall, but I think we’ll probably know in the next few weeks what we’re planning.

John: It’s interesting to see how similar the approaches of various institutions have become and a lot of it, I think, is social media made it easy to share some of those thoughts. We also have a Facebook group, we’ve also done lots of meetings and we’ve had a number of people working with us from our campus technology services in providing support and workshops, and it’s been nice to see everyone come together to help so many faculty make this surprise transition that they never expected and didn’t always entirely welcome, but they’ve been really positive in terms of how people have approached it.

Betsy: I agree.

Rebecca: One of the things that I saw you guys doing that I thought was really interesting was “Ask the CAT,” can you talk a little bit about that program and how it works?

Betsy: The name of our center is the Center for the Advancement of Teaching. We still haven’t decided at Wake Forest if we want to do cat or CAT, but we often joke a cat would be funny because then we could have all these funny cat jokes associated with that. But outside of the blog, we started getting some really simple questions that we realized would be helpful for everyone to hear the answer to. And so early on, a few people asked some questions, and we said, “Can we turn this into a sort of Dear Abby letter that we can then publish responses to, really quick responses on our blog?” and they were happy to do that, and then we turned it into a formal themed series in the blog where people can submit online, ask the CAT questions, and they can do it with a pseudonym, so there’s no stupid questions, any sort of challenges they have, and it’s gone pretty well. And we hope to continue to do that because I think we’ve seen on the Facebook pages, I’m sure you all have as well, is that often there are many similar questions, and so when they see us answering another question, faculty get ideas and say, “Oh, I could do that, now that makes sense.”

Rebecca: It seems like the ability to have a little bit of anonymity there in asking the question might allow for some questions that really need to be asked actually be asked.

Betsy: Yeah, sometimes they’ll just ask a simple tech question and we try to expand it a little bit beyond that to say “Okay, that’s great. Here, I’m going to give you your answer, but before I do, let’s talk a little bit about pedagogy and how you might think about universal design,” or something unrelated to the specific tech question.

John: Rebecca mentioned that you had won an award for your work on Rice’s Course Workload Estimator, which is something we recommend to our faculty regularly and people find it really helpful. How would you recommend people interact with that tool during situations like the pandemic, especially for people who are adjusting very rapidly from one mode of instruction to another?

Betsy: Yeah, so one of the things I shared with Rebecca before we started is this actually is really great timing for you to ask about this, because Justin Esarey is the co-author, co-creator with me and I… he’s my husband actually, we did it together… one of the things we’re thinking about doing in the next couple of weeks is actually revising it in a number of ways. We’ve had a long standing interest in doing it, just haven’t had occasion to do that, and there are some changes we’re going to make that aren’t specifically about online, but one of the changes we’re hoping to do is to actually create some categories that are related to traditional online assignments. And again, these are going to be guesstimates. I always tell people, this is an estimator, it’s not perfect. It’s just our best guesses. But to create some estimates of “How long would it take to have a discussion board if they have two posts, 500 words,” sort of things that we’re used to assigning in online education to hopefully help in that regard. But one of the things that I think is a reason this estimator is important is one of the things we’ve seen, and I’m sure you all have seen as well, after about the second week of remote teaching is that some students started to complain about workload, how much work these new remote courses were. And I think part of that is because faculty were incorporating more accountability measures into their courses, so they may have been expecting that work, but never were really holding the students to account to do that work. And so now students actually have to do and show their work, and so whereas before they might have been able to just show up in a lecture, study on their own time, or not study as the case may be, not do the reading as the case may be. Now, if they’re having weekly reading reflections, they actually have to do the reading and that significantly shifts how much work they feel they have to do. So that’s putting it on the students, but it’s certainly the case, and part of the reason we made the estimator, is that as faculty, we’re not really good at estimating how much time our work takes. And that’s true in a traditional setting, it’s true for me, that’s why I created the estimator. I am a humanist, and so I assign a lot of reading and I never really knew, like, how much time it would take them to read, and so that’s what motivated me to investigate the research on that. I think it’s particularly true that we’re not good at estimating how much time things will take when it’s a new assignment or activity that we’ve never assigned, and that’s what we see in this scenario, many faculty are introducing completely new activities and assignments that they’ve never done before. And they often might think, “Oh, yeah, I should give them discussions in a discussion board,” without taking into account how much time that will take, or “Oh, I really want them to make sure that they connect with me each week, in this way,” or “I need to make sure we have these office hours and they need to watch these videos, but since they’re watching the videos, now, we can have some discussion in class because the videos are no longer part of the class time.” And so we think we’re pretty good at sort of keeping track of that, but it turns out one of the things we found with our estimator is that when we asked faculty to play around with it, that we were often very wrong. Faculty were often very wrong about even their own estimates about how much time they thought they were expecting of students. So, I think it can be a valuable check. It’s not perfect, it’s not exact, but it can be a valuable check on our intuitions about how much time we’re expecting of students, particularly with some of these unique activities that we’re asking them to do online, and I also think there’s some really creative strategies by our friends in online education to help us think about a traditional assignment and how to make it a little bit more efficient, discussion board a little bit less time intensive, that we can talk to faculty about as well.

John: With the pandemic, I would think, some of those calculations based on online classes where people intentionally were in online classes might be a somewhat different situation when people are in households where there’s more people in the room perhaps, or where they’re sharing network access, or where there’s more distractions and noise than the people who had intentionally chosen the online environment.

Betsy: Yeah, I think that’s a really thoughtful insight. Absolutely. I think we’ll hopefully get to talk about this later in our conversation today, is that there are a variety of changes that take place here that are not just about the modality, but thinking about our students’ situation, how long it takes to learn the technology if they’ve never learned it as well. Like, “How do I upload this? How do I take an exam?” And so if we give them a certain amount of time for an exam, recognizing that they didn’t choose to do it, they also don’t know the technology as well, and so how do we account for those adjustments as well, for sure.

Rebecca: Yeah, I agree. I think all of those little extra things that now students have to do, including learning the technology or just getting used to a new system or a new rhythm, they all take time. In a semester, we think that’s what the first couple of weeks of the semester are, but then like this semester, we had two sets of those.

Betsy: Absolutely. And I mean, the fact that we are still sending out posts giving suggestions, means that some faculty are still changing things, they’re still adding new things, because they want to try something new or something didn’t work, and normally, we encourage that, but in this scenario, it’s particularly challenging for our students if new things keep getting piled on over five courses or four courses that they’re taking.

Rebecca: If we’re thinking in a traditional context where there’s in class and out of class work, and now everything is remote, how do we think about dividing up that time or what kind of time they should be spending on what kind of activities?

Betsy: I think this is a really good question. And again, my colleagues in online education who think about this question a lot have more subtle distinctions to make about this, but I actually was just having a conversation last week about what accreditors require and how to think about, quote unquote, contact hours in an online environment, and incidentally, one of the things we found actually, unexpectedly with our Course Workload Estimator… again, the motivation was for me as a humanist to basically answer the faculty question of “How much reading should I assign?” was a very narrow purpose, how much reading should I assign? But what we found is that the biggest usage were people who were instructional designers in online programs, who were interested in this question of “How much time is faculty contact hours, is it actually comparable to the face-to-face courses?” So it is connected, and so I’ve been talking about this a lot, and one of the things that, at least the federal guidance suggests, is that one credit hour is about 45 hours of work for students. So over 15 weeks, one credit hour, you do two hours out of class for every hour in class over 15 weeks, and so it’s about 45 hours. They don’t really enforce it, it’s a complicated question or a comparable amount of work, but that’s an easy way of thinking about it. It’s about 45 hours of work for a single credit hour and then 15 of that is expected to be in the presence of the professor. So traditionally, that would mean 15 of that you go to class, 30 of it’s at home. That’s the traditional model that we think of, but in online, of course, it’s different because everything is at home. So one thing, you could just say, “Well, everything’s at home. So then professor never needs to be engaged,” like, you can just say, “I’m going to record all my lectures, put them all up, and then I’ll grade your exam at the end.” Of course, we know that that’s not good pedagogy, online or otherwise. And so I think the way to think about this is, of the 45 hours of work your students are doing, are at least 15 of those hours, somehow engaging with the faculty member? But that could be, for example, a discussion board where the faculty member is in the discussion board engaging and providing feedback. It could be one-on-one sessions where you work on a paper together with the student in an office hour. There are a lot of ways you can imagine faculty presence and engagement that don’t have to be “Let’s have a synchronous video conference session.” But there are some good reasons for that too, particularly in the remote environment where students want some continuity to what they’ve already done. But I think that there should be more flexibility and I think there often is in good online program about what counts as those contact hours, but without just saying, “Oh, as long as we have a video, that counts as a contact hour.”

Rebecca: Along these lines, do you have any advice about designing learning activities and assessments when we have no idea what the modality might be in the fall?

Betsy: That’s a good question. I’m sure that many other people have been asking that question, I myself am teaching this semester, so it has been interesting in helping all the faculty but also teaching myself and figuring out what’s working and what’s not. And I think Derek Bruff at Vanderbilt had a, I actually liked this language that he shared initially about creating pivotable courses. He ended up changing it, he didn’t like that one as much, but I actually like that, like your course could easily pivot. And I think for me, one of the things that I saw was that my course, even though it was a face-to-face course, heavy discussion course seminar course, I had built in already some asynchronous activity outside of class, they were already annotating the text via Hypothesis, which is a really wonderful tool for those of you that don’t know about that in the humanities or any text heavy discipline, Hypothesis is wonderful and in that sense they were already used to and had learned how to annotate their text digitally in the face-to-face course. When we transitioned, it was easy. Okay, we’re going to be doing that. And that was already built into the course. I also think getting all of our courses so far as possible into a digital environment, whether that’s an LMS, or Google or whatever you prefer, can be an easy way too, because a lot of the time we spent with faculty was just getting them to like, “Oh, how do you collect assignments? Okay, let’s get you into the LMS. Here’s how you collect assignments. Here’s a way that you can think about sending a message to students that’s not just through email.” And so at the very least, if we all get in our LMS, or another digital environment, if you don’t like the LMS, and then think of some activities and engagement that our students can engage in at home with each other, or perhaps with you that’s outside of the regularly scheduled class time, you’re already making it easier to shift. But I also think one thing, and we may come to this when we talk about grading, one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is I had to scrap one of my activities in my course when we transitioned to remote and I’ve been thinking about the particularly challenging situation for those faculty who had a semester-long assignment. So luckily, my assignment was at the second part and so they haven’t started it yet, we can just do something else, because that would be difficult. But if you have many semester-long assignments, that disruption can be really difficult, but if you could organize your course another way to make it pivotable is to organize it in modules, like really intentionally, not just in Canvas, but actually say, “Okay, we’re going to work on this unit as a self-contained assignment that will be done in two weeks. So that way, if we have to take off in week three, you’re already finished with that assignment in that module.” And then there’s one module that’s remote and then if we come back, hey, we get to start another module that might be face-to-face, and so it gives you some flexibility. If you design your course in a more modular way to prepare for disruptions rather than thinking about it as multiple whole semester-long assignments.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that you say that, Betsy, because I’m not teaching this semester, but I’m planning for my fall class, and I teach web design primarily and I was thinking about teaching agile design. So I decided that I would teach it in an agile fashion, which is really what you’re describing. [LAUGHTER]

Betsy: Yeah, that’s smart.

Rebecca: So, I started mapping out what that would look like in these little sprints to work on a larger project, and we would do maybe two projects, one that was collaborative and one that was individual, but in sprints that would rotate between the two projects. So I’ve been mapping out what that might look like, and my real reasoning for that was, specifically if something was going to be disrupted or if it was going to be online, I thought it would be a little easier to help students through the project if it had these clear checkpoints and finishes to things before starting something new.

Betsy: One of the things that made me start thinking this way, and this goes back to the question of how we’re preparing for fall and all the scenarios that all the institutions are thinking about, Beloit college just decided that they were going to actually teach their fall semester in two seven and a half week sessions, essentially. So basically, students will take two courses for the first seven and a half weeks, and then two courses for the second seven and a half weeks. Certainly it’s a lot of work on the part of faculty to transition their 15 week course to a seven and a half week course, but it also is creative because it means that we have to start late, only two classes are disrupted rather than all four and if you have to leave in the middle, only two classes are disrupted. So, there is a way in which it allows for some flexibility. You can even be as dramatic and radical as going to a block schedule like they have at Colorado College or other schools where they have one course at a time. That would be more work for our faculty and may not work as well, but I did like the idea of thinking, “Okay, let’s just prepare for our face-to-face courses to be seven and a half weeks as an institution.” And then it’s the opportunity to experiment with that kind of pedagogy anyway, because some schools have May terms and other things. And so we are not, at Wake Forest, certainly planning that, but it is an interesting fun thought experiment to think about.

John: One issue that we’re talking about on our campus is how faculty should administer final exams, and grading and assessment, and there’s a lot of concern over people trying to give timed exams and put other limits on students. What are your thoughts on how we should deal with assessing students as we move towards the end of the semester?

Betsy: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, there are a number of issues at work here. One is the challenges the students have at home and thinking about good universal design principles of giving students as much time as possible if it’s not one of your outcomes. If doing things quickly is not one of your outcomes, that’s an important thing to think about. Often, also, what’s in the mind of people, though, is academic integrity. And so part of the concern of a number of faculty is: “Well, I’m usually proctoring it in person. So, how do I give an exam in a way where I’m not going to be there in person?” And then that raises all sorts of interesting challenges associated with technology and the privacy concerns with those online proctoring systems, and so certainly we’ve been thinking a lot about this too, and how to give advice. One of the first easy answers that anybody who’s in pedagogy is going to say, is come up with different designs for your assessments. And I think, absolutely, we should start there. I don’t need to give a timed exam in my course, there are ways I can write the question where I’m not worried about academic integrity issues. So, there are certainly ways in which that’s possible, but I do want to be mindful of my colleagues in intro languages, or my colleagues in intro math, where there are some recall outcomes that are really important for them. And so I think I always want to just be careful to not say, like, “Oh, how dare you have any recall outcomes because that’s just not good pedagogy.” I don’t think that’s necessarily true, so for those colleagues who have recall outcomes, it becomes a more interesting question. On our blog, we have a post on this that we could share, if you’re interested, where my colleague, Anita McCauley, who’s amazing, posted a flowchart of ways of thinking about, “Okay, if you have an exam, what are ways that you can think through how to do something differently?” And one of the first parts of that flowchart that I really like is, if you’ve already assessed it before, you may not need to assess it again, and so particularly for my colleagues in Spanish and other intro languages, maybe they’ve already assessed their ability to conjugate verbs. Do you need to have it on the final in a cumulative way? That was just something that often has not been on the table and talked about and I think it’s worth saying. But, beyond that, they might be somewhat different outcomes where they have to recall but then explain why the verb was conjugated in that way, and so there are ways you can see whether they know it or not, that they can’t just get on the internet. And so being mindful of the challenges there but also saying that “Let’s try as hard as we can to come up with alternative assessments.” Then the questions of how much time to give them, again, always come back to say, like, “Is speed one of your outcomes?” and almost always it’s not; almost always the reason there are timed exams is because they’re in the timeframe of the class. So there’s 75 minutes for them to sit in the class and take the exam and that’s why there’s a limit. It’s not because speed is actually an outcome. So now they actually have some more flexibility where they could give them more time and the technological tools allow them to give them more time, and you can extend it as far as you want. I will often say, instead of giving accommodations to a student to get extra time, give the whole class extra time, especially as they’re learning new technology. If folks are still committed to traditional recall exam and worried about proctoring…. we, for example, at Wake Forest,have not bought proctoring software… and we’re not using it for a variety of reasons, and so one of the things I recommend is if you absolutely are still committed to that, then you can do a synchronous session just like you would normally where they’re taking the exam, and it’s you, not some outside vendor or AI etc, as you would in the classroom.

John: I’m not sure if the problem though, is just due to recall type exams because I can speak from my own experience. Last week I gave a test which were all applications in econometrics and copies of the questions (where there were many different variants for one problem, there were seven variants), most of those problems ended up on Chegg within about 15 minutes of the release of that, and answers were posted. Many of them were really bad answers, which helped make it really easy to find these things…

Betsy: [LAUGHTER] Yes, yes.

John: …within less than an hour of the time the exam was released. So even when people are doing some problems, there are some issues, or even when they’re asked to write essays, there are people out there who are willing to provide those responses for them.

Betsy: Oh, yes. And actually, that will be true in face-to-face classes, too, if you’re not doing in class essays. That’s the one level of academic integrity that you just are never going to be able to catch if you pay somebody to write your essays for you or take your online exam. My background, incidentally, is as an ethicist, so I think a lot about questions of academic integrity. I always get mad at my students when I give this lecture like, “This is an ethics class, you need to take this seriously.” But it is true that the empirical research on student behavior in this regard is not heartening. Let’s put it that way. So I really appreciate all the literature about “We need to trust our students,” and there’s a certain framework of what happens when we come into a course where we don’t trust our students, but the empirical literature about what students admit to have done is really not heartening, and so I do think it’s okay for us to think about these questions that you’re thinking about, John, which is, “Okay, we’re creating conditions where they’re tempted,” and that’s something also we don’t want to do either is to create the conditions where students might be tempted, particularly for students who do have academic integrity, because then they’re at a disadvantage if they choose not to engage in that kind of sharing of resources. What did you do, John, how did you address this?

John: I’m just dealing with it now, I was just grading those today.

Betsy: Yeah, it’s tough.

John: So right now I’m trying to identify the students and I’ll be having conversations with them. Because there were so many varieties of questions out there, it’s going to be pretty easy to identify which student did which. One interesting thing is, someone took one of the answers and ran it through a paraphrasing tool so that the “error terms” in the equation became “blunder terms” in the equation, which was a pretty obvious paraphrase. It was interesting.

Betsy: One of the things I’ve appreciated about this moment and having conversations like you and I are having right now is that it’s encouraged some faculty to think in different ways about assessment. They have a standard way of assessing “This is the kind of thing that I’ve done for years,” and now I have to think, “Oh, what could I possibly do differently?” So one thing I just keep coming back to, when I think about my own courses… there are challenges with this… there are problems with this, because it can be stressful for students… but I think oral exams are often some of the most effective ways to see whether a student knows something is that you, face-to-face, come to my office hour, and let’s talk about it. Tell me, and I’ll ask follow-up questions. That’s a way to really tell whether a student knows something, and so you can still do that virtually. Now that takes more time, especially if you have a big class, but thinking sort of outside of the box in that way of “How can I verify?” is important. I have a couple colleagues that are ethicists too, who have devoted their life to this issue of academic integrity and it consumes them. In some ways, I understand that, because it’s a real violation of trust, and it harms other students. But at the same time, too, I worry sometimes that it becomes so consuming for us that we lose track of all the other things that we should be thinking about with teaching, and so, in this scenario, where it’s as crazy as it is, this is why I think the pass-fail designation that many of our schools have done have made things easier, because we also know empirically that students are less likely to cheat when it’s a pass-fail environment. I think the fact that many of our schools did optional pass-fail means that we’re still in this wrinkle space where many of our students still want to get the good grade, and so they’re taking it for a grade and there’s still temptations. But thinking of ways to make it less high stakes can be another way as well to reduce the likelihood of academic integrity, but it is going to be a challenge that there’s no quick and easy solution for. I don’t have your solution, John.

John: Well, I don’t either, right now.

Betsy: Maybe somebody will… that they can tell us too, who listens to this podcast.

John: One thing I am also doing is I have scaffolded assignments where they have to develop things from the very beginning up to their final projects, and there it’s much more difficult for academic integrity problems to show up because they’ve been guided and getting feedback all the way through and that tends to reduce it, but when you’re trying to test some other things that they’re not using in their projects, but might need to know in the future, there are challenges there.

Rebecca: I think another question that’s come up quite a bit is how to grade fairly just over the course of the semester, either this semester or a future semester when there might be potential for another outbreak or something, when students are not in optimal work conditions, there’s distractions, they might be sick, they might be dealing with family members who are sick. So what do we do to make sure we’re fair?

Betsy: Again, coming back to me as an ethicist, I think a lot about academic integrity, but also about grades and what it means to be fair, and there’s some people who would make the argument that there’s certain notions of fairness… that it’s impossible to grade fairly, even in normal situations, especially if we’re taking into account differences in student background, etc., that they’re always going to be disadvantaged students in our classes. And so thinking about what a grade is, is really important. And again, I’ve been heartened by the fact that these challenges have led so many of our faculty to start thinking in new ways about “What the heck is a grade and how do I want to think about my grades?” And I do think that one way of thinking about fair grades is actually not the model of “Well, we need to take account of all these challenges the students have,” one way of thinking about their grades is that all the grade is, is a measure of their performance. Now, you could say that that’s unjust for other reasons, but that it’s at least I’m treating all the students the same. So this is maybe the difference between equality and equity. So like we’re treating them all equally, that’s a measure of performance and mastery, so it’s ensuring the integrity of the grade. But what’s interesting is that most of us don’t actually grade that way. Most of us have all sorts of other things in our grading scheme that are about behavior, rather than about outcomes. So like, “You have to show up, you have to turn these in by this due date, you have to make sure you participate in class,” and I have those in my typical grading scheme as well, and those we’ll refer to as behavioral grades. And there are some educational theorists, as you two probably know, that would argue that you should never grade on behavior, you should never have behavioral grades. I think we could have a much longer discussion about this. I sort of think there are some good reasons for doing it in the context of higher ed at least. But I think in this scenario, this is if there’s any scenario and this is what I wrote about in one of our first blog posts, if there’s any scenario where that would be unfair, the kind of behavioral grading, it would be this scenario because some of our students did not choose this, they’re in different time zones, they can’t make it to our class, they have to deal with things at home. They were already in the midst of the course too, so it’s not as if we say, “Well, wait a year and come back to us when you’re ready to take the class fully,” because they were ready, and we kicked them off campus. So there is all sorts of other complications here to the traditional model of like, “Well, wait until you’re ready to take a class.” They can’t, they were already enrolled, they already paid, we’re not giving them refunds. So in this context, being as accommodating as possible, and making our courses as accessible as possible, is really important. And some people have even argued, this is why we should give them all A’s like some people have argued, not just pass-fail, but actually all A’s would be a better approach. Because to say like, “Look, you’ve done some work this semester, let’s move on and give you all A’s,” of course that creates challenges for some of our colleagues, who are going to say “What about the integrity of the grades for future courses? Is that fair to students who take it a different time and don’t get the A?” So what I have argued for, but it’s again, not a perfect solution, is really dropping any behavioral grades that you have in these scenarios, at least for this context, and then really focusing on your mastery outcomes, but also being reasonable about the number of outcomes students can master in this scenario. So I actually dropped two outcomes from my course completely, completely dropped them. Now, that’s easier for me to do in an intro religion class than it is in an intro calc class where they’re prepared for the next course. So I always want to be mindful of the differences of my colleagues in different disciplines. But, if you are able to drop outcomes, you can drop them and still be rigorous with the outcomes you still have and being a little bit more compassionate and sensitive to your students. But doing mastery based grading also can be helpful in the sense that, for me, students get multiple shots at showing mastery, and so this would be like specifications grading if you want to read more for the fall, so they have multiple opportunities to show. So, if they have a bad week or an assignment doesn’t work well, they can try again, and as long as by the end of the semester they showed mastery, that’s enough. It’s not about averaging over the course of the semester, and so I already had a mastery based grading system in my course before I began this semester, so I wasn’t recommending to people in this transition, “Oh, completely revise your grading scheme,” that would be not helpful. But if people are thinking about the fall, you know, it might be worth considering thinking about that. There are downsides to mastery based grading too, so I don’t want to act as if it’s this, like, solution to everything, but it might be worth investigating a little bit and maybe incorporating some aspects of mastery based grading into your teaching.

John: And we did have an earlier podcast episode on specifications grading with Linda Nilson.

Betsy: Oh, wonderful.

John: So we can refer people back to that in our show notes as well.

Betsy: Yeah, it’s wonderful.

John: One of the issues with equity, as you mentioned, is that that problem became, I think, much more severe when students were suddenly sent home. On campuses, at least there’s some attempt to equalize that, that everyone gets access to high- speed internet. There’s computer labs in most campuses spread out across campus, and we also don’t have as much of an issue with food insecurity, at least for our on-campus students while they’re there. Suddenly when students are sent home, all those things disappear and the issues of inequity, I think, become a whole lot more severe and it’s something, as you said, we need to be much more mindful of.

Betsy: Yeah, one of the things that I really appreciated from Tom Tobin’s book on universal design, he has a distinction. I don’t actually know if it’s his… it might be his or it might just be generally in the literature on universal design… is distinguishing between access skills and target skills that you want your students to learn versus things they have to know or be able to do to access your material. What I really appreciate, as it helps us think about something as simple as like having a good internet connection, that should not influence their grade, because it’s not one of our target skills. That’s not what we want the grade to be reflecting, whether they had good internet connection. What we want the grade to be reflecting are the target skills that we’re interested in. So I think the way to think about equity here is to focus on any place where things that are irrelevant to your course outcomes are getting in the way of students being able to learn and demonstrate their mastery. That’s where you want to be lenient, that’s where you want to come up with solutions. So for example, in my first-year writing courses in English as a second language, if the thing that you’re assessing is not grammar, if the thing you’re assessing is the way they develop their ideas, the grammar can be a barrier. So there are ways in which you don’t want to grade on that, because your target skills are really about developing ideas. And so that’s a sort of inclusive teaching practice that’s really important in this scenario. What are the things that make it difficult for the students to show up in our Zoom session? And how am I going to create alternatives for them? One thing that we have suggested to our faculty is if you’re doing Zoom sessions, of course, they should be optional. But we also suggested recording it. So the students who couldn’t be there could watch it setting aside the problems with privacy, of course. We can talk about that too. But there’s another wrinkle there too, which is that then that means some students get the interactive, quote, unquote, face-to-face engagement, but the other students only get to watch recordings the whole time. So, one of the things we’ve also said is for equity is also to think of other ways you can engage with those students who can’t come to the Zoom sessions in a way that’s asynchronous or that perhaps at a separate time without overly burdening the faculty member as well.

John: One of the things I’ve done is I’ve shared my cell phone number because all the students have cell phones. [LAUGHTER] I’ve only done that once or twice before in senior-level classes. But this time I’ve done it with all my classes. I did get a phone call coming in right at the beginning when we started recording, and I sent back a text saying I’ll contact you later. But, that has helped because some students do have issues with being able to use Zoom.

Rebecca: And there are certainly tools that you can use to allow you to provide a number that’s not your actual cell phone number that students can still use your phone or texting to communicate.

John: You could use Google phone or you…

Betsy: There’s another one, though, that I’ve used in the past maybe five or six years ago, it’s used in K through 12 environments. Oh, Remind… Remind is the one. Yeah, so I actually used that when I started to realize my students weren’t checking email anymore. I was like, “Oh, this isn’t gonna work, emails not going to work anymore. So I need to find some other way to connect.” But that’s great to be as accessible as possible to your students, but recognizing also that equity issues for us, as faculty. Some of my colleagues can do that more easily than other colleagues who have three kids at home that they’re homeschooling. And so that’s a part of the challenge of this scenario as well, it’s not just what we know is good teaching practice, but also the labor implications for faculty too… that are significant.

Rebecca: Following up on that, that’s a really important consideration is the balance of fairness between both faculty and students because it’s certainly not a situation that any of us signed up for, but we’re all trying to manage. And it’s really possible that we might be in a similar situation in the fall, maybe not exactly the same in that we’ll have a little warning, but it still could happen. So, how do we think about balancing the ability to pivot and make sure that we’re thinking about the ability of teaching remotely without getting too much burden on faculty, but still have really good learning opportunities for students?

Betsy: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think part of it is trying to think about efficient ways of development. So I was, and you, too, may feel the same way, that that week that we had to transition, I have never seen so much learning happening in a week and so much effort and work and those of us in faculty development probably would never have dreamed. I mean, I don’t know, maybe we would have dreamed that that would happen, but it was a really remarkable thing to see that faculty teaching other faculty can accelerate this in a way that often the model of one instructional designer with one faculty member for six months, that model like that’s how much we need, well, maybe not, now. Maybe we see that if you have to get it done, we’ll get it done, and we can have one-to-many trainings, we can have faculty training each other, we can accelerate that, in some ways, I think is important. But support is also important. So, making sure that we’re supporting faculty as they’re learning what things they can do, and also what we often do in faculty development is talk about efficiencies. So, it’s not just “We’re going to give you a million new pedagogies that we know work, but we’re going to give you a pedagogy that’s actually going to save you time,” and that is really powerful with our faculty and I think we can do the same thing here. So, if we know that there’s a faculty member who has children and has had a hard time with this transition, because they can’t do synchronous Zoom sessions, maybe we talk with them about other alternatives that might be easier for them that they can prep in advance, that will make that transition easier without having to show up at a set time for those synchronous sessions with their children at home. So, it doesn’t solve it, but I do think we should work really hard to come up with the most efficient ways of making the best outcomes possible given the resources that we have. And I think adjusting resources… so we’ve talked about at Wake Forest, outside of teaching and learning, some of our staff, their jobs are no longer really needed, so let’s transition them to other places where we need support. I think you could do the same thing with faculty as well. So, maybe those who have the capability of teaching more or have taught online before, maybe they do more in the fall, but then they get a leave in the spring. There are ways in which you can move things around. Again, I’m not a Dean making these decisions, but being creative about making sure to share the load equally. One question that has come up here, which is really interesting, is that for our faculty who teach more as part of their load, in some ways, this is certainly harder on them than those who have a more balanced teaching and research pipeline, because most of the effort here is in revising courses. Of course, if you have a lab that you have to shut down, certainly that’s a lot of effort. But, making sure we’re mindful of the differential impacts of this transition on our faculty and figuring out ways, not that we’re going to pay them for it, but figuring out ways that we might be able to balance the load moving forward once things go back to quote unquote normal, if they ever do go back to normal [KNOCKING SOUND] …knock on wood here.

Rebecca: I know one thing that I’m thinking about, having small children, is that I’m thinking about all the things that require a little less cognitive load that I’m doing right now while I have a toddler at home, and then when I think I’m going to have daycare again, I’m going to take advantage and do the things that actually require a lot more cognition. And I’m planning to do those at those times, including things like recordings or things like that, that I know I might need to do just to have it in the wings just in case something happens in the fall.

Betsy: I think this is an opportunity for all of us in higher ed to think creatively about how we distribute workload and how we think about the semester and timelines. So, even before this happened, our team read the book Deep Work, and we were just talking about how to create space in our daily work to do intensive deep work, and one of the stories he tells in the book is about a faculty member who stacked his courses so that they were all in one semester. So you know, you have a two-two load or three-three load and he decided to do six in one semester, and then none in the next which normally that sounds crazy, but there’s a way in which that could be really helpful in certain contexts and I think this is an opportunity to think about that. So, those who are doing really intensive work, building online courses, maybe they do a number of them, because it scales, economies of scale, like they do a number of them in the fall and then in the spring, they don’t have to teach… you know, ways of thinking about how to balance this, and then it also would allow us as faculty developers to work with a smaller cohort of faculty, rather than having to work with every single faculty member. Now, I don’t imagine we’ll do that, but it is an opportunity to think of these creative ways of making the workload more equitable as well.

John: And faculty, as human beings, tend to keep doing things the same way as they’ve always done them until there’s some sort of disruption. This certainly has been a fairly substantial disruption, and I think a lot of people, as you said, have learned how to use new tools and at least from what I’ve been hearing, many people now having discovered using Kahoot for quizzing, for example, or using Hypothesis. I’ve been giving workshops on Hypothesis for a while on campus, but not many people adopted it. All of a sudden, I’m getting all these questions about using Hypothesis where people are using it for peer review of documents, where they’re using it in the LMS or more broadly, and I’m hoping that this will continue in the fall. What sort of reactions have you been getting from faculty who are trying some new tools?

Betsy: Yeah, I mean, there’s so many who have said, “Oh, wow, I can totally use this in my face-to-face classes,” and that’s really exciting to hear, that they’re gonna keep it, they’re gonna keep the strategies in their face-to-face courses, or if it needs to go remote, of course, as well. As well as, “Oh, now I know how to use Canvas, so I’ll actually use the gradebook.” Things that are going to be nice for our students as well. Students have been asking for to have a place where they can see all their courses together. I think there was a kind of fear about these technologies in some ways and now that they were forced to do that, “Ah, it’s not so hard.” Now some things are difficult, some things are challenging associated with developing a really well designed online course, but some of these little tools that they have to use in this environment can be helpful in what they’re traditionally doing in their face-to-face courses and I’ve seen many of them say they’re going to do that which is such a wonderful thing to hear as well as pedagogical decisions they’ve had to make about assessment, about universal design, about academic integrity, grading, all the things they’re learning there can also translate back to their courses too, even if we don’t go remote.

Rebecca: And I think all those like crossover areas are ways that faculty can be more nimble. The word pivoting has been used a lot, but I think also being nimble, “I’m using this tool or method and it works both online and in person, so it doesn’t matter which modality I’m using” is something to think about. I did want to just ask one last question related to grading and evaluation, and that’s about motivating students to achieve our learning outcomes when there are so many other things in the world right now that we might be thinking about.

Betsy: Yeah, that’s a great question. I often like to quote the former Secretary of Education that said, “There’s only three things that matter in education; motivation, motivation, and motivation.” [LAUGHTER] So motivation is super, super important when we think about how students learn. We can design the coolest evidence-informed course and design, but if students aren’t motivated, it doesn’t matter. So thinking about our student contexts, and their motivation is really central to their learning, let alone how we’re going to grade them. And so there are a number of things we know that lead to motivation. Sort of important is the students have a choice and that they have some agency or ownership over what’s happening, and so I know a lot of my colleagues at Wake Forest did this and I did as well, is when we made this transition is to ask the students, “So what’s going on with you? What’s your preferences for how we restructure the course? How would you like to learn moving forward?” and to keep being in conversation with our students. And what I did, for example is, now again, I had the flexibility to do this in a religious studies course, but I basically threw out that project at the end of my semester, and so instead had time to say, “What do you want to read about? What things about religion do you want to know about?” And so we’ve been reading about religion in violence, religion in COVID-19, just things that they’re interested in, and that has allowed me to help a little bit with motivation is to just engage with the students a little bit more, but it’s tough. Typically, I think a lot of times we think of there’s carrots and sticks related to motivation, so you can certainly use sticks if you wanted to with grades, but that often has unintended negative consequences. So the more you can do carrots, which would mean thinking about what do they want to learn. I also think that my students, at least at Wake Forest, really miss each other. It’s a really communal place and they really miss each other, so creating opportunities for them to engage with each other, even if I’m not there. There are lots of little interesting activities I’ve seen people suggest where they get together and have video chats in groups, and then record them for the professor. Creating opportunities for them to spend time with one another… They will just want to spend time with each other, whether it’s about learning or not, but if you sneak in the learning, that can be something that will motivate them too, but the reality is some of our students, there are too many other more important things on their plate and we need to acknowledge that, and so I’ve tried to make my students feel that it’s okay to say that, that I’m not disappointed in them if they don’t do as well or if they choose to take it pass-fail that like, “Look, this is just a religious studies class. It’s one class among many. There are many other more important things happening right now. Yes, we want to help you learn if you want to learn, if you want to complete the course and get the credits you get, but we all know that there are other things that are taking our attention away right now, and that’s understandable,” and being sympathetic about that, I think, can also be motivating because they’re not demoralized if they don’t do well. “That’s okay. She understands. I’ll give it a try next week.”

Rebecca: I think that humanity piece is key, both for students and for faculty, and it makes people feel like they have a sense of belonging but also that belonging is often motivating.

John: We always end with the question. What’s next? Which is a question on everyone’s mind right now.

Betsy: I think for me, and maybe this is unique to me or my colleagues who are in teaching and learning centers and in faculty development. What’s next is I want to have some time to reflect back on what I’ve learned about faculty from this transition, and what I’ve learned about faculty development from this transition, and we talked a little bit about this in our earlier conversation, but I was really struck by what I saw on that week off that we had to learn how to improve. I mean, again, I need to spend more time thinking about this and what we’ve learned, but one of the things that was really striking to me was how important having a dedicated time to talk about teaching was, like, “This is a week where you’re going to work on your classes, faculty,” and often we talk about “How do we motivate faculty to do professional development?” We think about funding, we think about course releases or making it enticing in other ways, but my hypothesis that we learned through this transition is that time and dedicated time and a sort of cultural commitment to saying we’re going to take two days to focus on our teaching. What if we did that every year, and there are some schools that have a faculty development day, but what if we took three days every year where everybody got together and talked about their teaching. And I think that’s just one example of something that I would like to reflect on, but I think there are many other things that have happened in the past three weeks that can help inform the way we think about faculty development and I’m really excited to think about that as we, as a center, think about how we work with faculty going forward.

John: Things like that Facebook group that you mentioned, and we have a similar one, has been really helpful in building more of a community than I’ve ever seen before.

Betsy: Absolutely. Yep, I completely agree.

John: Well, thank you. This has been fascinating, and we wish you luck.

Betsy: Thanks for inviting me. It was great to talk with you all.

Rebecca: Yeah. 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. Editing assistance provided by Savannah Norton.

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130. Radical Hope

Faculty enter teaching careers with the hope of shaping a better future for our students and our society. In this episode, Dr. Kevin Gannon joins us discuss what faculty can do to build a positive and inclusive learning community that empowers and motivates students. Kevin, also known as the Tattooed Professor, is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which has recently been released by West Virginia University Press.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Faculty enter teaching careers with the hope of shaping a better future for our students and our society. In this episode, we discuss what faculty can do to build a positive and inclusive learning community that empowers and motivates students.

While this podcast was recorded before the global pandemic resulted in a shift to remote instruction, the message seems especially timely.

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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. Kevin Gannon, also known as the Tattooed Professor. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which has recently been released by West Virginia University Press. Welcome, Kevin.

Kevin: Thanks. Great to be here with you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Kevin: I am actually drinking water right now, but I am brewing up some Japanese green tea as we speak.

Rebecca: Excellent.

John: And I am drinking a peppermint, spearmint, and tarragon blend.

Rebecca: I have now resorted back to my English afternoon. I’m like about three or four cups in today, so I’m back to my old habits. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: So you’re ready to go, then, is what you’re saying.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m ready to go. [LAUGHTER]

John: We recorded one earlier today and she was off on a different tea, so.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about Radical Hope. Could you talk a little bit about the origin of this project?

Kevin: Sure. So the book actually started as a blog post I wrote back in the summer of 2016, back when we all had so much hope and optimism, right? [LAUGHTER] So it took me a lot longer to write it into a book than I thought it would. The first draft of the manuscript was actually really angry. [LAUGHTER] And as Jim Lang, my editor, pointed out, we’re not titling the book Radical Anger. We’re titling it Radical Hope. [LAUGHTER] So people would ask me, “So what’s it like to be writing a book on hope?” And I’d say, “Well, it’s interesting,” and “How’s the book coming?” …and… “Well, it’s interesting,” but that’s where it got its origin, and the blog post was written, I started the blog I think in 2014, even, I was trying to jump start my own writing practice. So, I figured having a platform to kind of put stuff out there in a less formal sort of way and try to develop ideas and if one or two people read them great, but it was mostly for me. And this post came after a particularly interesting semester, and interesting euphemistically speaking, where I was really trying to kind of make sense of some struggles that I had personally in the classroom with my students, but also just kind of the higher ed landscape in general, and I really felt like writing some, kind of clarifying my values and my approach, would be a really useful reflective exercise, and so that’s what the post came out of. And it seemed to resonate with a lot of folks, and Jim invited me to turn it into a book and longer than expected later, here we are.

John: Even though we’re in fairly challenging times right now, teaching, as you note, is an act of radical hope. Could you elaborate on that concept just a little bit?

Kevin: Absolutely, so I’m using the word radical in its sort of literal sense, like root level, fundamental, pervasive. It’s an ethic, I think, that informs or can inform, and I would argue, should inform every sort of nook and cranny of our practice. So if you really think about it, what we’re doing on the everyday basis, the seemingly routine choices we make, “Here are the textbooks I will select, here’s how I’m going to run this particular class on this particular day.” Putting the work and the effort into doing those things is an assertion of hope, because otherwise we wouldn’t be doing those things, or we’d be doing them very poorly, or we’d be doing them and bitching and moaning about it the whole time too… which you see… but I would suggest the acknowledging that we are taking a stance with our teaching practices, whether we realize it or not. And I think it’s a lot more useful to realize that, to acknowledge it, to own it, and to be proud of the stance that we’re taking.

John: We’ve all seen those faculty who are often posting on Twitter, who are often posting comments on Facebook dealing with students, but they’re still in the classroom, and they’re still trying to make a difference, even if they don’t always display that hope. I think most of us have that hope. But one of the things you talk about in your book in the chapter on “Classrooms of Death” is the inspiration you found from the work of a 19th century Danish philosopher. Could you tell us a little bit about his critique of the educational system in Europe during that time?

Kevin: Sure. It’s Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig who I had no idea about, even as a historian of the 19th century, until I started working here at Grand View, which was founded by Danish Lutherans and we are the sole remaining Danish Lutheran college in the country, so there’s your niche higher ed market for the day. [LAUGHTER] It’s interesting that ethics suffuses a lot of the identity, I think, here in terms of access, in terms of looking at things democratically and what Grundtvig basically argued is he looked at the classical model of elite centered higher education in 19th century Europe that was built along the lines that we see in places like Harvard in the United States, so it was sort of a finishing school for the gentlemen of society, where you would learn things like Latin, and rhetoric and ranks would be assigned and all those sorts of things. And so that’s what Grundtvig called, in his sort of characteristically blunt way, Schools of Death. So I adopted the title from that for the chapter, even though it’s perhaps the most heavy metal chapter title ever, which I’m proud of. [LAUGHTER] It was like “You wrote a book on hope, but chapter one is called Classrooms of Death,” and I was like, “Well read the chapter, you’ll understand.” And so what Grundtvig does is he posits what he calls a life affirming vision of education, which is what we now know as the Danish folk school model, and it’s a mind-body-spirit model, it’s holistic, but what it really does is Grundtvig sees education as something that should enliven and awaken, as opposed to just sort of stultify and further ossify structures, in particular sort of this elite structure that was already in place. So that really appeals to me, and I think that if we’re looking for an ethic to think about our own institutions and the purpose of higher ed, we could do a lot worse than that.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting when you’re talking about the idea of awakening students or awakening the community of learning, that a lot of faculty talk about trying to be neutral in the way they deliver content.

Kevin: So I’m trained as a historian, right? And so we, in our field, talk about this a lot. We have to be objective. Well, what is objectivity? That’s not a neutral term. In fact, Thomas Haskell, a social and cultural historian who wrote a great book called Objectivity is Not Neutrality that gets at this concept too, but this idea that there’s some sort of objective set of things out there, and if I present them objectively enough that all of my students will learn them thoroughly. Again, every choice we make, whether we realize we’re making it or not, is still a choice. And in that sense, education is eminently political, and if we try to ignore that and disregard it, we actually, I think, do more damage to it because then we make unthinking decisions. We don’t think about, necessarily, the consequences of the long-term effects of the decisions that we make. I think it’s much better to sort of acknowledge that, yes, we are on eminently political terrain, it is shaped by politics and identity and difference, and our students are not coming to us from a vacuum. They are coming to us from structures of inequality from a larger society, where all of these things are embedded. So we can’t pretend that our classrooms, whether they’re fully on ground or online, or whatever learning space it is, we can’t pretend that they’re somehow hermetically sealed from the rest of our students’ experiences. I don’t think it serves any of us well, them or us.

Rebecca: Wait, do you think we’re all people then and have emotions? [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Yeah, I know that sounds like a radical concept, but one of the phrases that I heard of originally from Jelani Cobb was this idea that we are full and complicated human beings, and I just love the way that that’s phrased, full and complicated. It’s messy. We are complicated people. We are the products of an intersection of a kaleidoscope of experiences and identities, and that shapes the way we teach, that shapes the way that students learn, that shapes the spaces that we’re in, and I think we miss a real opportunity if we choose to not think about that as we create learning spaces and practice within them.

John: So when faculty try to be neutral and try to present content to students, what are they missing in terms of dealing with the actual students in the room rather than the ones they imagine to be in the room?

Rebecca: Or perhaps themselves. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Right.

John: …which are usually little clones of their own past.

Kevin: One of the things that I tell colleagues a lot is, and I struggled with this earlier in my career, is when I was a young history major undergrad, I loved my history classes. I was in front, I was taking notes, I thought the lectures were witty and erudite, but now I am teaching classes with all of those students who were sitting behind me in those undergraduate classes who felt a little differently. So how am I teaching those students, they are not learning history, and they are not connecting necessarily in the same ways that resonated with my experience. And so in thinking about that, we know that students learn better and that learning is more effective and meaningful when there is that connection, there is that relevance to the student experience. And so we want students to be motivated, and a big part of that is avoiding demotivation, and I know that sounds like an obvious point, but there are things that can happen that will immediately turn off that switch for students. So I’ll give you one example of a way that the sort of aspect of neutrality could actually really damage the learning experience. At my institution, recently, a student came to me, an African-American male student, one of two African-American men in the class, 27 people in the class total, so the rest of the students were white. We are in Iowa, which you may have heard is a white state predominantly, and a discussion about the Confederate flag came up. And actually there’s a house about two blocks from our campus that flies the Confederate flag on a 20-foot tall metal flagpole in the front yard. So it’s something that our students see and notice, and this discussion came up and it turned into, very quickly, some white students say, “Well, it’s just a symbol of history. It’s a symbol of heritage. Basically, you can separate it from the defense of slavery, why don’t people get over that?” And these two Black students in the class were like, “Y’all really need to understand that this means something different to us,” and the instructor, in that case, completely unplugged, disengaged, let the students argue it out for themselves, and I think what that thought process was is, “Well, here is the marketplace of ideas. We’ll throw all the ideas out there and the best one will win.” And what it turned into was here are two Black students at a predominantly white institution being forced to basically argue for their basic humanity in a class of 25 white students and do that work by themselves. And so while the idea may have been that the instructor is not going to be an arbiter or shift things one way or the other, what you really have in that situation was something extraordinarily damaging, so when the student came to see me right after that class, they were in a place that it pains me that any student enrolled in one of our colleges or universities would be at the emotional place where that student was after that class.

Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting example, I had a situation one time when I was teaching, I teach art and design classes, and I had a critique class for graduate students with an international student that was using the Confederate flag as a symbol, but really didn’t understand the history. I pushed against that, “You really need to understand the history of the symbol and what it means and there’s a lot of different interpretations,” and the white students in the class just like “Ah, free speech, free speech.”

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: So I think it’s worth addressing that part of those kinds of conversations too, when a faculty member is trying to facilitate something and point out different identities and different perspectives, pushing against the dominant messaging that’s happening in the room when people are piling on, and that’s, I think, exactly why faculty try to move to the neutral zone, right, like, I don’t want to be here.

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: It’s certainly not comfortable.

Kevin: Yeah, it’s very much an avoidance mechanism. In conversations like that, I think it’s a natural reaction. If an off- ramp appears, I’m going to take it, but that’s not our job. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, boy, did I want to disappear. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Yeah, and I get it, as a historian, again, of the Civil War Era. I’ve been in the class where the one white student will say, “Well, why don’t Black people just get over slavery, it was 150 years ago for crying out loud,” and then feeling all the oxygen immediately sucked out of the room as we all look at this sort of figurative hand grenade that’s been rolled into the middle of the class. At that point, I was certainly reconsidering my choice of locations for the day. But I think it’s a really important thing for, in particular, our white students to learn that free speech doesn’t mean that basic humanity, dignity, and civil rights are open to debate, right, just as I would not hire a flat earther to teach a geography class. There are certain things that are not part of that discourse, because an idea that there is, for example, biologically distinct categories of race, of which some are inferior and some are superior, that’s not true. And so I’m not bringing a flat earther to teach geography and I’m not going to re-litigate racist pseudoscience in a history classroom, and I think that we have to get over this idea that if I retreat into some sort of clinical objectivity, that that’s going to fix everything, because it doesn’t, and our students see that. We say that we want our classrooms to include all our students, for all of our students to feel like they belong. We want our students to take risks. We want our students to not be afraid to fail, that if we haven’t created a space where every student genuinely feels that we mean what we say with that, then that’s a real problem.

Rebecca: I think it also means that we need to be willing to do all the things that we ask our students to do, too.

Kevin: Yeah, what a radical concept.

Rebecca: I know, there’s so much radicalness happening in this conversation.

Kevin: Very on brand, yes.

Rebecca: I think many faculty try not to take risks because you don’t want a mutiny in your class, it takes a little bit of bravery to do that, but I think if we’re not modeling that, and modeling failure, and modeling the ability to learn from that failure, then I don’t know how we can possibly ask our students to take those same risks.

Kevin: Yeah, especially if they see us actively avoiding taking those risks. I think students have a pretty finely calibrated BS detector, and so if we say that our values are one thing, and then when we have the chance to put those into action, and we decline to take that opportunity, that gets noticed. You’re absolutely right, that I can’t ask my students to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself in the classroom. And so what are some of the ways that we could model that effectively for our students, and of course, that’s going to look different. As a tenured white male professor, that’s going to look different for me to model failure than it would be foran early career faculty of color, for example, but I think that there are ways that we could do that in ways that are appropriate for our own context and for our individual class and student contexts, where we could model that yes, not everything goes perfectly the first time, learning is messy, learning is complicated. We’re going to struggle with some things, we’re going to problematize students’ prior assumptions that we have to create a sort of net underneath that when they feel that precarity for the first time, so it’s a structured discomfort rather than a throw ‘em to the wolves kind of discomfort. That’s really important, I think.

John: One of the things you suggest is that faculty should work to building equity rather than equality into their instruction. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Absolutely. Yeah, so equity and equality are related concepts, but they’re not complete synonyms. And I think sometimes we get so focused on the equality part in terms of “I am going to be fair, so here are the expectations that I have of all of my students and here’s my attendance policy for all of my students,” and etc, etc and I don’t think that we’re flexible enough if we stick to that approach. What equity means is that every student has an equal opportunity. An equitable space is one where students can learn and succeed, and I will help them connect to or provide the resources with which they can do so, and of course that’s going to look different for students depending upon their prior academic experience, depending on their experience with the subject, all those sorts of variables that go in, and we don’t treat students equally now anyway, even if we say we do. Some students come to office hours and some don’t. Some students we work a little bit harder with outside of class and some we don’t, depending upon needs. We try to engineer discussions all the time. If there’s that one student who’s always raising their hand, sometimes we look somewhere else first. So we do this sort of engineering already. I think what’s useful is to acknowledge the fact that equity involves us thinking in a lot more nuanced and flexible way than just laying down a consistent policy in the name of fairness and then handcuffing ourselves to that.

John: And students come in with really diverse needs, but you suggest as part of this work towards equity, we have to be careful to avoid a deficit model. Could you talk a little bit about that and why that could be damaging?

Kevin: Yeah, so this is one of the things that I personally struggle with the most, I work with at risk students here at my institution, I teach some college success courses and some credit recovery courses, and even the label “at-risk,” like all of a sudden, what I am now doing is I’m categorizing students in terms of something they’re missing, and so when we work with students and think about things like developmental level courses, for example, what we’ve done is we tell the story really well of what our students can’t do. They can’t read, they can’t write, they can’t… And it’s very easy to sort of tell ourselves the story of “Well, this is how they are and this is the hand I’ve been dealt.” We don’t really talk all the time about what our students can do, even the ones that we would say are academically unprepared or that come from under resourced school districts. What are the strengths that they bring to class? Some of our students have had to navigate really difficult academic terrain, and now they’re in our classrooms. That ability to navigate difficult terrain is a real asset. So how can we make use of that instead of talking about whether all of their writing is grammatically and mechanically correct, but I really struggled because it is very easy to type. We want to help students, some students are going to need more assistance than others, how do I not see those students solely through the lens of what they’re lacking? Social workers would call this a strengths-based approach. I have colleagues in our social work department who really helped me think of this in some interesting and, I think, productive ways. So thinking about in terms like that, because if you think about it pervades a lot of our discours as faculty. Don’t we always say like, “Oh, today’s students can’t do this, like the previous, you know….” And we’ve been doing this for every generation of students, like “They’re always on their smartphones, so they can’t read a book, they don’t have the attention.” So it’s very easy for us to fall into these narratives. We’ve already told ourselves a story about our students before we’ve even actually worked with them.

John: You tell a really interesting story, a really moving story, about a student who stopped showing up for class after starting in class doing really well. Could you share that?

Kevin: Yeah, it’s one of the more obviously memorable things that’s happened. This was actually very early in my teaching career while I was doing my doctorate. I did my PhD at South Carolina, but I was living in Texas at the time, and I was a lecturer, an adjunct faculty member at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. So this is just a couple of years into teaching anything more than just one class a semester, and so I’ve tried to find my way and figure all this out and I’m teaching this survey course, it’s got about 45 students in it, and again, yeah, there’s a student who’s a little bit older, her friends were taking it together, the kind of mid 20s working students, but were taking classes to finish up a degree, started out really strongly and then just kind of disappeared and missed the first exam, didn’t come back for another week, and then it was two weeks, and so I’m asking her friend, like, “Where is so and so, she’s really in danger of failing the class, I need to connect with her so we can talk about what she could do to catch up.” And her friend was very vague, said “Well, she’s been going through some stuff, but she’s going to call you, she’s going to email you.” And that didn’t happen again for another little bit, and so I at that point, I just said, “Well, you know, so she’s gonna fail the class,” that narrative that goes through my head, like “I’ve given her all these chances, and she hasn’t taken me up on any of these opportunities, and hey, you know, that’s on her. Sometimes decisions have consequences.” And so I’ve told myself the story, that she’s just sort of blowing off the class and blowing me off and making these poor choices. Well early the next week, she does come to my office before class. And as I talk about in the book, I remember the scene so vividly because she looked awful, not just sick, but just, like, awful. And what she told me was that she’s coming off a heroin addiction, and she goes to the methadone clinic and the only times the clinic is open are the same mornings that we have this class, and sometimes she comes out of the clinic and feels so physically awful that she literally cannot come to campus or class. And so at that point, I’m sitting there and as soon as she started talking, I knew like, “Okay, my assumptions are about to be proven completely incorrect, right?” And then the story, I didn’t know what to say at first, and I was just kind of stunned. What happened was, we did have a conversation about “Okay, what could work for you? How could we work around this if you want to stay in the class,” and she was in a program that had very tight sequencing, so this class this semester was really important. So we came up with some ways that she could make up the work but also continue on so she didn’t fall further behind. We did a little supplemental instruction and she got a “B” in the class. She stayed in school, she ended up graduating, I think, a year and a half or so later. And what that really taught me was, again, this power of narratives, because we’ve all had students who kind of ghost us. It’s really frustrating, and then we start thinking about “These students have made really poor choices, and they can’t do this. Maybe college isn’t for them right now.” But here I have, you know, a student coming off a heroin addiction, which I have not done that personally, but I understand is really, really difficult physically, mentally, emotionally. I have some experience in other areas of substance abuse, but not that and needs the opportunity. And if I had shut down before she had the chance to visit, what would have happened at that point, like if I just said no, and that this was a required core class for her curriculum, what path happens after that, so who am I to say no, you have to stop when you are willing to make the effort. This whole myth of the entitled student, well here was a student that was literally at the lowest point in her life, probably, still trying to do this thing academically, and to me that was amazing. So who am I to not provide that opportunity and resources and that process that semester was an eye opener for me then, but I think really has shaped the way that I approach those sorts of “life happens” kind of moments with students ever since.

John: But you already created an environment where she felt comfortable talking to you. Not all faculty would have done that.

Kevin: Yeah, and I don’t know exactly what I did to do that, but I’m very mindful of trying to do that now for exactly that reason.

Rebecca: I think we all have students who have, not that narrative, but narratives that are powerful like that, that demonstrate they were making really good life choices, actually, at the moment, even though we were judging and thinking that perhaps they weren’t great life choices.

Kevin: Yeah, exactly. The proper choice for that student at that point was not to make History 1321 her first priority, so, yeah.

Rebecca: That was a good choice.

Kevin: Exactly.

Rebecca: I’m really involved in accessibility and universal design for learning and spaces like that and inclusive pedagogy. And we’ve been really, as a team on campus, been thinking about ways to set up our classes so that it actually predicts that those kinds of things will happen, that we are setting our classes up from the start to accommodate those students.

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely.

Rebecca: And make them successful. Can you offer some tips about strategies that we can use, just so our classes are structured from the beginning without having to make exceptions, that it’s actually just open in that way?

Kevin: Yeah, it’s this idea of universal design for learning, that some of the things that we do think of them in terms of accommodations for a student with a documented disability. In this West Virginia series that I’m in, Tom Tobin and Kirsten Behling’s book, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone, is a fantastic overview of this idea of universal design. I think the best place to get started, and the way that I’ve really been able to think about this, is looking at the accommodations requests that we’ve gotten from a disability service office and the student brings in the form and “I need time and a half on an exam.” The first question to ask is, “Would this be an accommodation that would benefit learning for everybody, not just this particular student?” And so we get beyond this idea of one accommodation for one student at one time, and then we start thinking about, as you say, “How can I create a space that minimizes the need for those accommodations?” Because it’s already baked into the cake. In my experience, an accommodation request for time and a half on an exam got me thinking about “Why am I offering exams? Why do I have them as time limits? What am I really trying to assess here? And how might that shape the format of my exams?” And so now my exams are take-home, and there’s a different set of criteria and a process that we use, and they’re still summative assessments, but now, no one needs to make an accommodation request for time and a half or a different classroom. And so that’s, I think, one sort of practical example that people can use is when you get a request, ask yourself, “Is this something that would work for everybody?” And most likely, the answer will be yes, and then it’s “Okay, how do I operationalize that?”

Rebecca: I was talking to a group of faculty too about big groups of students being absent with the flu or COVID-19, or whatever it might be at anytime, and also just making it so that if a student has to miss a class because we don’t want them in our class if they’re sick, I don’t want to get sick. Everyone else in the room doesn’t want to get sick, how can we make sure that they can get that content or that experience in a different way?

Kevin: Exactly. So one of the other requests for accommodations that I would get a lot was students who wanted to record lectures, or discussions, or whatever happened to be going on in class. And of course, my thought was, “Well, this might be something that benefits everybody.” So when we do that we put it on our LMS, we have the audio file, you can stream it. And in my city, we don’t do public transit really well, it takes you an hour and a half to get anywhere on the bus, and so if you’re riding the bus from across town, maybe you want to listen to what you missed in class. We have a lot of student athletes who travel, well here’s a way to catch up on actually what happened in class rather than just a recap of it. So we’ve got tools at our disposal and some practices that we’re already doing individually. A lot of this is just thinking about how might we scale that out to work best for all of our students.

John: I’ve recorded nearly all of my classes for about five or six years now, and one of the things that surprised me was how students who had English as a second language would play back things multiple times and also slow down the pace so that they were more comfortable, until they get up to speed so that they got used to the technical terms in the class, and that was something I hadn’t really considered when I started doing that.

Kevin: Yeah, that’s a great point. Yeah.

John: You talk in your book a little bit about creating an inclusive environment in the classroom. Could you talk a little bit about what general strategies faculty should focus on to start towards a more inclusive environment?

Kevin: Well, I think it starts with this idea of universal design. How are we making learning the most accessible for all of our students even before we’ve met them, right? So what learning spaces are we creating? And again, back to this larger idea of thinking about the choices that we’re making. So at my institution, when I started here at Grand View in 2004, our student body was something like 92% white. Now we are 65% white, so in terms of race and ethnicity, my campus is diversified in its student body extraordinarily. And so how am I thinking about that when I’m choosing course materials, when I’m framing assignments, so sometimes it’s simply, “Who are the authors of my textbooks? What do they look like? Where do they come from? What’s their story?” Students who are taking my course, if I tell them that “When you take a history course you are a historian, right? We are involved in doing history. You can create knowledge in this field.” If I’m telling students that they can be knowledge creators in my field, do they see examples of people like them who are knowledge creators in the field? Because otherwise, my words don’t rain quite as true. So creating inclusive spaces in many ways a product of design, and then how do we put that design into practice? So being mindful, we know from the research that male students get called on in discussions much more than female students, male students interrupt more. So how am I framing? How am I having a conversation with students about expectations for when we’re working together in discussion in that seminar setting? How do we think about what people need in the classroom in terms of supportive materials, whether it’s recording or whether taking notes in a certain medium or not? How’s that going to work best for everybody? I think inviting students into that process early on, having them be collaborators and co-creating some elements of the learning space in a way that it’s not just the class discussion, but maybe have them do some writing and reflection about what has worked for them in terms of their learning in their academic career, and what are the things that have gotten in the way of their learning, and then looking through those results, and then coming back and debriefing the class the next time, like, “Here’s what you all told me, here are some of the things that I heard a lot, here are some of the things that maybe we should put on our radar screens for this discussion and then go from there.” So paying attention to the space we’re creating, whether it’s an on ground or an online course, the decisions we’re making about what’s going to furnish that space in terms of course materials, and then bringing student voices in and setting that idea of collaboration and all of our responsibility for making sure that that learning space is inclusive throughout the duration of the course.

Rebecca: When you’re talking about collaboration, I know you’re not just talking about students collaborating with each other, but also students collaborating with the faculty and thinking about the group as allies rather than adversaries. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Yeah. So that’s my mantra, that so often we see students as adversaries, and they should be seen as our allies. And I think a lot of that is it is difficult to be a practitioner in higher ed right now, and especially if you’re a precariously employed faculty member and you’re teaching at three different campuses, and it’s eight courses and you’re stressed through the roof, who do you see the most? Your students. So for us, a lot of times students become the target of convenience, or the free floating stress and anxiety that we have rests there first, because that’s the easiest landing spot. I think it’s really easy for us to get into that place, and I think we need to be super mindful not to do so because the students are the ones that are in these spaces with us. So thinking about “What are the stories that we’re telling ourselves about students? What are the stories that students have been told about themselves?” So we know math anxiety is a thing. So many of our students have been told “You can’t do math,” that total fixed mindset, and that does a lot of damage, in my colleagues in the math and computer science department here, is true across the country. You know, that’s a big problem in terms of a barrier to learning. I think one of the most powerful ways to address it is to get students to see themselves as active participants in creating their knowledge. So how can we do things where we collaborate with them maybe to create course expectations or how are discussions going to work? How are we going to work if it’s an online class? What are the expectations we’re going to hold each other to in these interactions? Thinking about maybe assignment choice, I’ve got particular learning outcomes, can I let the students fashion a way in which they’ll demonstrate those outcomes? Maybe it doesn’t have to be a traditional research paper, it could be a number of other things. I talk in the book about un-essays, which I think is a really interesting and fun concept and has being used really well in history, for example. Students collaborating means students taking ownership of their learning as well, and that’s what we all say we want, so I think we need to be able to create spaces for our students to do that. Now, it’ll look different in a larger survey-level class than it might an upper=level seminar, but I think there’s the space to do that no matter what the class context, and I think it’s a really important thing to have student voices help shape the environment in which after all, they’re going to be learning in.

Rebecca: As a designer, a topic that comes up often is designing for people without including them.

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: So we want to design with, and not for, and so…

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: …you’re essentially describing that exact process, where you’re inviting students in to help design the experience..

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …rather than just designing it for them by making a lot of assumptions about them.

Kevin: Yeah, and sometimes I use the metaphor of a house. But if we take a learning space, of course, I’ve built this house, do I have to furnish it and put in the carpets and paint the walls and do all that before anybody else comes in, or is that a process we can all do together? And maybe we decide we want to knock out a wall and add on something. Are there ways that we could do that? Because again, if this is the structure, in which we’re all going to be occupying throughout the duration of the course, is it a structure that works for everybody, that promotes rather than puts barriers in front of learning?

John: One of the things you talk about in terms of this collaborative approach is how to deal with issues such as distractions in the classroom from laptops and mobile devices. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Yeah, the great laptop debates. As I’m sure everybody’s aware, this has been something that sort of lights social media on fire among educators about every six months or so. And my position is, as I titled a post on it, “Let’s Ban the Technology Ban.” Again, back to this idea of you know, are we handcuffing ourselves to overly rigid policies that aren’t going to work for all of our students? I don’t have a “no-laptop, no-cell phone” policy. That said, if a student is on doing their fantasy baseball team, that’s a problem. I invite students to collaborate when we set up class expectations, like “What’s going to help you learn? What do we want to hold each other accountable for in this class?” And it’s funny, because I’ll ask if they don’t bring it up, like “Okay, what about cell phones and laptops?” A lot of them share prior experiences like, “Oh, I didn’t know we were allowed to have those in class.” So it’s like, well, we have this thing called the internet, which could be a really useful resource at times, so why would we cut ourselves off from it, but then I show a quick summary of some of the research that talks about how technology use that’s not on task actually distracts people around that individual student just as much as it does the original student, and that reframes the conversation completely. Because now it’s not this “Well if I want to check out and go on ESPN or whatever, that’s a choice I make and I’ll suffer the consequences.” It’s “No, now you’re stealing time from classmates around you who didn’t get to make that choice,” and so if we’re going to be accountable to one another, what does that do in terms of thinking about about what we’re going to do and not do and what kind of environment are we going to create? The conversation that comes out of that is really interesting. So it’s this idea of laptops and phones, but not doing off-task stuff when we’re supposed to be doing on- n task stuff, and respecting other people’s attention. Because when you have conversations like this, and you ask students, “What are the things that we want to do to create this space?” The first thing that comes to their mind is respect. Well, what does that mean? So a part of this is we’re not going to steal somebody else’s time and attention, the resources that they have to bear for learning. So then when, and it’s not if but when, somebody’s doing their fantasy baseball team, I don’t have to be the cop. I’m not the bad guy. I just remind them of something that we all committed to earlier in the semester. And so it takes a lot of the kind of drama and distraction out of those reminders, and it becomes a nudge rather than cell phone cop and I’m much more comfortable with that because then it doesn’t create this sort of dramatic power imbalance in a classroom where we’re trying to flatten things out.

John: And you also say it could be used by the instructor, I believe, as a signal of when students are losing focus. When you have an activity that may not be so engaging, if you notice many of your students are distracted, something’s not working.

Kevin: Exactly, right? So you hear people complain, like “All of my students are on Facebook during class.” My first response, it sounds snarky, but it was like, “Doesn’t that sound like a you problem? Why are they all on Facebook?” It’s not that we need to be up there, one man or one woman entertainment, but it’s like, if I look out and see all of that, the first question I’m gonna ask is, “Alright, what’s the common denominator in all of this?” And then, “Where are we going to go to fix it?”

Rebecca: And it’s funny, a lot of times, especially if you’re doing group work or something, it’s because the students need a little more structure. They’re not sure what to do nex. Often, they might need just a little more instruction, because maybe they’ve never done a task before, or they’re intimidated by it, or they’re not really sure where to start, or they’re stuck and they don’t know how to move forward.

Kevin: Yeah, I totally agree. I think group work gets such a bad rap because it so often sucks, but I think a lot of that is due to the fact that we sort of assume that students know how to do group work, and I’ve been on enough faculty committees to know that not a lot of us know how to do effective group work, much less our students. So what kind of structure are we providing? I’m a big fan of Mary-Ann Winkelmes and the TILT framework, the Transparency in Learning and Teaching that asks us to be really explicit about not just the goals, but the actual tangible steps that need to be done, and then, what does excellence look like in this task? How are you going to know if you’re doing this right? And that’s really reshaped my approach to group work in terms of providing that next step. Once you do this, here are some of the things to think about, once you answer this question, here are some of the ways that you might think about representing the knowledge or reporting this back out to the class, because otherwise, “Let’s get into groups. Let’s work on this.” Well what does that mean, right? And so after a few minutes, you’ll start to see that drift. So in this case, I think structure and not handcuffing people to anything, but providing steps and options and some sort of direction for students to take their efforts is, I think, really useful.

John: And building in these expectations, one of the places where we all should start with our course is the syllabus, and you have a chapter on “Building a Syllabus Worth Reading.” Could you talk a little bit about some of the key things to put in a syllabus to make it worth reading?

Kevin: I am a syllabus dork, syllabi fascinate me. I love to look at what people are doing, how they’re thinking about and conceiving of their class, their field. I mean, I’ve sought counseling for it, but yeah, I am an unabashed syllabus dork and I think a lot about syllabi. And we certainly all had our share, in our own academic career, of syllabi that we got and just sort of disappeared into the ether. It was something that I would never use for the rest of the semester. So I think we’d lose an opportunity when we approach the syllabus. The common metaphor is that the syllabus is a contract, and there’s this urban legend that there are actually court cases and judicial precedent that has defined it as such, and that’s not true. That’s not true at all. The syllabus has never been interpreted legally as the same way that one would interpret a business contract, for example. I think if we approach syllabi as, in many ways, this might be the first at least formal interaction the student has with us or our course. So what’s that first impression going to be like? Is it going to be like reading the rider to an insurance contract for my car, or is it going to be an invitation? Ken Bain talks a lot about the promising syllabus, which I think is a really useful way to think about it, because with any course we’re promising our students something, “You will be different as a result of this course. When you get to point B, you’re going to look back at point A, and say I am different in these ways.” So my syllabus should be able to answer the question, “Well, how am I going to be different? What’s that going to look like, and how am I going to get there?” And there are a number of ways to do that, where you can actually say things in interesting ways as opposed to legalese, it’s okay to use first person rather than the “instructor will” and the “students will” it’s “I will” and “y’all will” or “you will” if you don’t want to as colloquial as “y’all,” it’s okay to put in some pictures. It’s okay to think about design a little bit. It’s okay to have it to be just visually appealing. One of the things we really struggle with is of course, institutional bloat in terms of policies, right? …like, “Here are six pages of stuff that you got to put into your syllabus.” Well, are there ways you can offload that? Put it in your LMS and then put a link in the syllabus. “Hey, there’s other stuff that you should read too. Here it is, but I’m not putting six pages of “Thou shalt not” in a syllabus that’s supposed to promise you what the great parts about this learning experience would be.” What is our syllabus saying to our students? What are we telling them? The syllabus tells our students, “Here’s what I think about you, and here’s what I think about this class.” And so if we have two pages about what academic dishonesty is, and what plagiarism is, and what horrible fate will await you if you do it, heaven forbid if you do it again, what I’m telling my students, right there is, I am spending so much time on this because I expect you to cheat. Is that what I really want to tell my students? In my case, the answer is no, and so, there are other ways to get at that sort of academic integrity thing talking about collaborative expectations and accountability, and we’ll talk about this together, why these things are important, and then I’m not giving them a litany of things, “Do this and you will have X consequences,” and the syllabus should provide what the students need. “How am I going to know if I’m doing well in this class? What’s important to you in this class? What’s important to the instructor, and when am I going to be expected to do things?” I mean, we ought to have a calendar in there and it ought to be pretty clear. We ask our students to plan ahead for a whole semester, we should too, even if things change, and we should note that like, “Hey, things will probably change, but here’s how I’m going to communicate that if they do.” …so taking the steps and paying attention to those details, so our students know I have put thought and care into this initial go at a learning space for us.

Rebecca: We’ve been talking a lot about what to have in the syllabi, but if students’ expectations have been that it’s just a disposable document, because that’s what their experience has been in the past, how do we convince them that the one that we’ve created, that we’ve taken so much care to set the tone for, is worth the effort to engage with?

Kevin: That’s a great question. The first answer to that is, what is the first impression of this? Is it a visually compelling document to look at? And again, that doesn’t mean we all have to be graphic designers, but is this a photocopy of a photocopy? Am I just copying and pasting it from last semester and I forgot to change a couple of the dates? Students will put as much effort into the syllabus as I put into the syllabus. There are some tips and tricks, you can hide easter eggs in there. “Hey, if you’re reading this section, send me an email with a picture of a dinosaur,” or something like that. Some people do syllabus quizzes. An interesting thing that I have some colleagues who do is the first day of class, they divide students up into a group and each of them tackles a part of the syllabus and comes up with if there’s any further questions from having gone through that section. And so it’s sort of a way to assess as well as having students in the syllabus. And it’s also something that should live throughout the semester, we should be referring to it frequently. There should be links to materials in there, are there other course materials that we might embed in the syllabus? Is it a place where, if students lose a paper copy, that they can go into the LMS and get a copy of it, for example. Having a calendar, a good course calendar in there, keeps them reiterating back into it as well. And I think too, again, the first day of class is a real opportunity. We have a tradition here, the students call it syllabus day, where “I come to class, the instructor hands out the syllabus, we’re out after 10 minutes.” And so I had a student come in once, like, “Are you gonna keep us the whole class?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, that’s kind of the plan,” and the look of disappointment on their faces. [LAUGHTER]

John: I get that all the time.

Rebecca: Yeah, me too.

Kevin: What have we conditioned them to do?

John: I wouldn’t want to cheat you out of this discussion, this is where we’re inviting you to this class, yeah.

Kevin: Right, exactly, and it’s such an opportunity, and so a way to squander that opportunity is to read the syllabus for 20 minutes for the first part of that class. So how are we using the first day of class to pique interest in the course, and maybe looking at the syllabus doesn’t come until the second day, or later in the first day, like “I want to highlight a couple of things, and then next session, we’re going to talk about these couple of things, so be ready for that.” If we treat it as sort of a routine, “Okay, here’s a syllabus,” then they’re going to treat it that way, too.

John: We should note that you have some wonderful examples of syllabi on your blog, and we’ll share a link to those in the show notes.

Kevin: Oh, thank you.

John: We should also note that you’re wearing a T-shirt that says “Decolonize your Syllabus.”

Kevin: That’s right, yes. Today, and that is courtesy of Yvette DeChavez who directs a writing center at a university in Austin, Texas, and I bought it off her website and I can send you the link if you want to include it in show notes. She does a lot of great work, she was the one who introduced me to this concept of decolonize your syllabus and again, thinking about the choices we make, and what those say to students, I find it really important and fascinating work. And it’s a great t-shirt too, so everybody wins.

John: So we always end with a question, what are you doing next? [LAUGHTER] What’s the next blog post that’ll evolve into a book?

Kevin: I need to update the blog, so that’s a good nudge in that direction. Actually, my current book project is I’m working on a textbook for the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction Era, and the textbook was conceived as “I really don’t like any of the textbooks in the field, so I’m going to write my own, dammit,” and it took me about 10 years to get to that point. So it’s actually going to be a textbook framed through a continental history approach, which in the Civil War is often missing, and it’s going to be framed through settler colonial theory. And one of the things I’m doing with it, that so far the editor is okay with, is putting all the cards on the table up front. A lot of textbooks are based in a theoretical approach. Very few of them will tell you about it, I’m going to tell you about it right here. So, inviting the students in to those choices right away and talking about “Well, what is settler colonial theory? How does it provide a really powerful explanatory lens for what we’re going to be looking at?” and sort of demystifying that process. I’m excited, and I think it’ll be a little bit of a different textbook, it’ll certainly approach the period differently, if it turns out the way that I hope, maybe it’ll start some interesting conversations and help instructors who, like me, were frustrated with some of the extant stuff out there for teaching a course that’s offered across most colleges and universities.

Rebecca: Sounds like an exciting adventure, but the writing process is never done. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Right? What’s the old joke? I like writing, but even more I like having written. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, it’s always so much easier in retrospect.

Kevin: Right? I do want to make sure that I really take the time to enjoy this book being out and the conversations that are surrounding it. I’m fortunate to have been invited to several places to talk about things in the book, to explore a lot of these things differently. I love going to other campuses and doing that. So, that’s the immediate next steps, are to continue the conversations that hopefully the book has started and see how they resonate with various people in different institutional contexts. I’m really excited for that.

John: I really enjoyed reading this. I read the PDF version because my print copy is not coming until later today.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a really fun conversation.

Kevin: Thanks, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for having me with you, I appreciate it.

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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. Editing assistance provided by Savannah Norton.

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124. The Missing Course

Graduate programs provide very strong training in how to be an effective researcher, but generally provide grad students with little preparation for teaching careers. In this episode, Dr. David Gooblar joins us to discuss what all faculty should know to enable us to create a productive learning environment for all of our students.

David is the Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Temple University, a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the creator of Pedagogy Unbound. He is also the author of The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You about College Teaching.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Graduate programs provide very strong training in how to be an effective researcher, but generally provide grad students with little preparation for teaching careers. In this episode, we explore what all faculty should know to enable us to create a productive learning environment 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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Fiona: My name is Fiona Coll. I teach in the Department of English and Creative Writing here at SUNY Oswego and this is my turn to sit in as a guest host.

John: Our guest today is Dr. David Gooblar. David is the Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Temple University, a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the creator of Pedagogy Unbound. He is also the author of The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You about College Teaching.

John: Welcome.

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

Fiona: Today’s teas are…

David: I’m drinking green tea.

Fiona: That sounds delicious. I have a cup of wild orange something that’s quite delicious, but not as memorably titled as one might hope.

John: And I have a pumpkin spice Chai today.

David: Wow. Okay.

John: A little out of season but I wanted to try it. We invited you here to talk about The Missing Course. This book is intended for those of us that never received formal training on how to teach, which applies to most college faculty, and maybe we could start with this question of why don’t faculty receive more formal training while they’re in grad school, since most people do end up in teaching careers?

David: It’s a great question. And one that’s not that easy to answer, I think. To me, our graduate programs, almost across the board, almost across all disciplines, still sort of operate with an outdated model of the industry that they’re training students for. And I’m not sure that the model was ever actually something that applied to all graduate students, or even most, but there’s this idea of an academic career as being a tenure-track career where you teach two courses a semester, and the rest of your time is for research, and you are evaluated on your research and scholarship. And so our graduate programs still, for the most part, train students for that career. And what is clearer and clearer to more and more people is that that career is for a very slim minority of people who get PhDs. And as you mentioned, the job for most PhDs if they managed to stay in academia is, for the most part, teacher. And so I do think as well, there’s this notion that teaching is something that content knowledge is enough preparation for, so that if you know something really well, obviously, you’ll be able to teach it, that is not something that needs training in and of itself, that it can be a sort of byproduct of scholarship. And really, anyone who’s had a teacher [LAUGHTER] should be able to see the holes in that logic, that there are better teachers and worse teachers, and that doesn’t depend on how well they know their subject, that depends on how well they know how to teach. So this struck me as a big hole in our education system, and something that I thought would be, at the very least, a good frame for a book about teaching.

Fiona: That hole you describe, the missing part of graduate education, is something that produces a phenomenon you describe early in the book, which is your sense of surprise at discovering a community, a community of people interested in teaching as itself an intellectual and technique oriented discipline, I suppose. And it’s an amazing feeling to happen upon a group of people who are thinking the way you are. And I do wonder if you could maybe expand on what you talk about early in The Missing Course, which is a discussion of how your own view of teaching evolved from that initial focus on content coverage that you’ve just described. Could you tell us about your own transformation in that respect?

David: Sure. I don’t think unlike most people, in that I wasn’t trained to teach at all, I was thrown into the classroom. And to some extent, that’s not the worst way to begin to learn something, is to be thrown into it. But I of course did what most people do, which is that I sort of mimicked what my professors had done. And so my background’s in English, I’m not sure I would have been conscious of this, but my idea of what an English professor does in the classroom is to go and be brilliant about books in front of students… to go talk really smartly about the book in question. And I guess the idea is that you’re modeling interpretation, but you’re not really showing students how you arrived at your interpretation, you’re just showing them the fruits of it. So I would prepare, I was a very devoted teacher as a grad student. All my preparation went to uncovering smart things to say about texts. And what the students would be doing never entered my mind at all, for sure. And so this is kind of how I taught and it seemed to be successful. I don’t know how I was measuring success, but it seemed to go okay. Until I, as an adjunct at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, was given (as adjuncts are often given), a course in which there was no real content to teach. It was a skills-based course, the course was called Rhetoric in the Liberal Arts. And I was meant to teach students how to write academic papers, how to critically read, critical thinking was a big part of it. I was supposed to promote an understanding of the value of the liberal arts sort of broadly. And there were a couple of essays that I was given to teach, but for the most part, there wasn’t really a central text to teach. And so my old method of being brilliant about texts really quickly showed itself to be insufficient. I really scrambled. I had no idea what I was doing. I remember that semester so clearly, because I worked very hard to figure out day to day, there was such panic, “How am I going to fill the class period?” And I guess what I came upon is that it was the students that were my material, rather than material that I needed to explicate for students. Actually, it was these human beings in the room that I was tasked with improving, or helping to develop, or helping them to see things. And that’s just a completely different idea of what teaching is… and it changed my life. It changed how I see the job and the job became increasingly important to me. Because, and you’ll forgive me for rambling, but if the job is saying something interesting about books, well, that’s something that I think can be mastered pretty easily. If the job is help a new set of human beings to reach their potential or grow in ways that they didn’t think were possible, that’s an endlessly fascinating, endlessly challenging, and mostly difficult task. And that, to me, is something worth devoting yourself to. So that really, really sort of turned me on to teaching as a discipline in itself.

John: When you started to change your focus to students, what were some of the first things you did to focus on the students you had, instead of your earlier approach?

David: I think a lot of it comes down to, maybe strangely, trying to find out more about the students themselves. And I often tell faculty now in my role at Temple that the beginning of the semester is really a time to learn about the students in your room and to win their trust. If you’re going to be asking them to do things during the semester, you can’t assume that they’re going to trust that you’re doing it for the right reasons, you’re doing it in their best interest. So, forging that relationship is really the most important thing we can do at the beginning of a semester. So that starts, I think, by turning the tables a little bit. Usually students come into a class and they know the deal, which is that they’re there to find out the professor’s rules. They’re there to read the syllabus, “What’s this class going to be all about?” And the professor sets the course… and the students, if they’re good students, they sort of follow. And so I really like to advise faculty to try to switch that around, and from the very beginning, try to signal at every turn that the course is for the students’ benefit, and this should be their course. And therefore the opening weeks should be about finding out about them, and what they want to get out of it, and why they’re taking this course. And even if the answer to that is “it was required,” that’s good knowledge for you to have too. So, sort of going from there, from trying to find out who these people are, what their goals are, what challenges they foresee, how they want you to help them. That to me is the starting point and signals to them and to you that the point is the students, not the stuff you came up with beforehand.

John: Are you doing that through class discussions, or are there specific activities that you use to try to elicit information from the students?

David: Yes, certainly, I like to do a lot of class discussion and that’s going to depend upon your class size, for sure. A lot of class discussion. I also like to do a sort of initial, no- stakes writing assignment where I ask students for their goals for the course. And this helps me, of course, see more individually, and in a way that doesn’t make them say things out loud, which can be a problem for shy students or for students who maybe need a little more time to formulate an answer. To see what they’re going for, I ask them sort of what things have helped them in the past, you know, what their best teachers have been like, what challenges they foresee. I have to teach writing, it also helps me see their writing level really early on, so I can see where to sort of aim my writing instruction, what kinds of things they might need help with. So, a sort of diagnostic, low- or no-stakes writing assignment can help. But, a lot of it is trying to just be human in the classroom, and be actually curious about these people, and make that a subject of the early class periods in a way that, I hope at least, that the students will get to know each other as well. Is that gonna help as well with motivation down the line?

Fiona: You focus on teaching as this drawing out process from students as opposed to the fill the cup model, which is perhaps the older lecture-based content delivery model… but you do, you focus on this drawing out and you pay some attention to the verb “elicit.”

David: Yes, I do love that verb.

Fiona: It’s a very good verb. But part of the way you use that verb is to turn your attention towards active learning techniques…

David: Yes.

Fiona: … in the classroom. And could you give a brief sense of what you feel are the most important evidence based nuggets to know about active learning as a technique?

David: Sure. I’m increasingly convinced that more than any particular strategy or technique, the most important thing for teachers is to have a solid understanding of how people learn. And what we know about how people learn is that it doesn’t work by pouring knowledge into people’s heads. You don’t learn by someone giving you knowledge. We learn by actively revising our preconceptions. And so even just to have that as your starting point, that students aren’t blank slates to be filled up. But students come in with all sorts of ideas, usually wrong ideas, but all sorts of ideas about our subjects. The job is then to help them hold those conceptions up to the light, see that they’re lacking in some way, and revise them. So I try to let that guide whatever strategies I use in the classroom, so active learning strategies is a really vague term to refer to anything you do in the class where students are doing stuff. So, there’s nothing wrong with lecture per se, but lecture that assumes that just telling students information is enough is going to fail. So if we lecture we want to lecture in a way that elicits… there’s that word… that elicits students’ attention, that intrigues them, that sort of draws them in, that can work really great. We’ve all had really good lecturers in the past. And usually they’re the ones that get our attention, that present us with a puzzle that we try to solve. It’s us, as students, who do the learning, we, we can’t do the work of learning for our students, students have to do it. So, if that’s our guide, then that can sort of help us chart class periods. Active learning strategies are often a combination of trying to get students to see what their intuition is, get to see that the intuition is in some way insufficient, and try to solve that problem. If what I initially thought was wrong, how can I be right? That’s often what I’m trying to do with an active learning strategy is help students do that, if that makes sense.

Fiona: Most definitely. And one of my absolute favorite parts of The Missing Course is the sheer number of practical, applicable ideas for this nurturing, motivating, eliciting process you describe. It’s wonderful just as a resource for ideas, the book is fantastic. Do you currently have a strategy you’re trying or that you’re feeling very excited about? Do you have an anecdote from your recent teaching to put something into focus a little?

David: One thing that I really love that I’m kind of endlessly fascinated by is this idea of naive tasks. I do mention that in the book, but it’s something that I often talk with faculty about. It’s particularly helpful if you do need to lecture if you have large classes, or if you teach in a discipline that is very content heavy, and you have a lot that you need to tell students. The idea of a naive task is you give students a puzzle, or a challenge, or a question that they’re not yet equipped to solve. And you give that to them before you give them the information that would equip them to solve it. The example that I always use comes from a guy named Donald Finkel who wrote a great book called Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, and he writes of a physics professor who gives his students before a lecture, this challenge, which is that he wants them to picture a canary in a very large sealed jar. And the jar with the canary inside is on a scale. And the problem is this “if inside the jar, the canary takes flight inside the sealed jar, does the reading on the scale change?” So, I put the challenge to you two, what do you think? Does the reading on the scale change if the canary takes flight?

Fiona: I’m feeling very elicited at the moment.

David: Yeah.

John: I read that, and I wondered that, because I don’t think you answer the question in your book, do you?

David: Oh, good. I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t remember. You got to make the reader do the work. So, what’s your intuition? Does the weight change when the canary is flying in the air inside a sealed jar?

John: My intuition would be no.

David: The weight stays the same, there’s still a bird in a jar, even if it’s in the air?

JOHN and Fiona: Yeah.

David: And does your intuition change if the jar is open, does that change things?

John: My intuition would change, then, I would say no in that case.

David: That the scale would change?

John: My intuition was that the scale would change if the bird took flight.

David: Okay, that is correct. In a sealed jar, the amount of force pushed down by the bird’s wings is exactly equal to the weight of the bird. That’s how flight works.

Fiona: Of course, right?

David: And so that would keep the reading on the scale the same. If the jar is open, the air can escape.

Fiona: Yeah, right.

David: So, this is a great example of a naive task for students who have not yet learned the laws of weight and mass and force. They have to struggle with this, and it’s kind of an intriguing puzzle. It’s a challenge. And in trying to answer it, and of course, you can sort of prod them along and help them consider the various factors, they’re engaging with the material in a way that they’ll want to know how this works after working on the subject. You’re priming them for your lecture. So I often like to work with faculty and I give them this example. This is always my example, because it’s one I remember. I actually don’t know very much about physics, but I can tell you this. And then I ask them to try to come up with naive tasks for their own discipline. And that’s sort of like “What’s a puzzle? What’s something intriguing that you can give students that they won’t be able to do yet, they won’t be able to solve yet or you think they might not be sure about?” and try to give that to them before you give them the information that would help. So I do like that idea of that the timing of when we give students activities can matter, and can make it more effective when we do tell them things. That’s been something that increasingly I talk to faculty about.

John: And the nice thing about that, too, is not only does it make them curious and want to know the answer, activating that curiosity, it’s also forcing them to activate whatever prior knowledge…

David: That’s right.

John:…whether it’s actually correct knowledge or any misconceptions they may have, but it makes them consciously aware of what they know and what they don’t know. So, they’re not only primed to find out more, but they’re also ready to make more connections and try to integrate the materials.

David: Yeah, ideally, it will leave them in a place of sort of dissatisfaction with their current model of how things work, which is where you want them.

Fiona: You do describe the learning process as a process of revision… revising, exactly as you’ve described, preconceived notions or prior knowledge, updating it, expanding it, refining it. But, as you suggest, this doesn’t feel easy to students. There’s a lot of pushing of comfort zones…

David: Right.

Fiona: …There’s a lot of truly difficult risks sometimes involved for students.

David: Yes.

Fiona: And so how do you approach that piece, the effective piece, or the willingness of students to maybe trust your methods or to actually engage in these essentially revising oriented activities? What do you do about student motivation?

David: It’s a very important factor. I mean, what we know about student motivation and a lot of this I take from the great book How Learning Works from a lot of folks at Carnegie Mellon that came out maybe 10,12 years ago. Their chapter on motivation sketched three main factors from the literature that govern motivation in educational context. And the first two are probably maybe the more apparent. One is value. The more students value a goal, the more they’ll be motivated to pursue it. That seems obvious. The second is efficacy. If students feel like they’ll succeed, they’re more likely to be motivated to pursue something. That makes sense to me too. The third one, which is maybe less obvious, is the extent to which students perceive that their environment is supportive. It’s a very important factor. If, as you say, we’re asking students to take risks and significant learning does involve taking risks, they’ll be more motivated to pursue those risks if they feel like they’ll be supported if and when they fail. We want them to be comfortable with failure. We want to give them the sense that they’ll be supported. So, how do we do that? That to me is again, part of this opening weeks of a semester trying to cultivate trust. And part of that is through signaling to them at every turn that your intentions are for their benefit to help them, not because of your agenda. But part of that, I think, is also trying to cultivate a supportive community between students, among students, kind of apart from you. I mentioned in the book a number of times research by the sociologist Polly Fassinger who tried to sort of pin down what are the most important factors that govern why students participate in class. And what she found, maybe surprisingly, is that more important than anything that the professor does is the students’ sense of their peers as being a supportive group. And that makes sense to me, that students wouldn’t feel comfortable opening their mouths if they felt like they might be the object of fun or they felt like maybe they weren’t in the mainstream of the class. Again, a lot of this work is best done early in a semester. Cultivate community. Often that means trying to encourage students to bring in informal parts of their lives to class, get them to share bits of themselves, get them to, if not become friends, become comfortable with each other as people they can talk to and share an experience with. If I’ve got that, if I’ve got a class that seems to genuinely like each other, respects each other, wants to find out what other people are thinking might want to learn from each other, that makes my job so much easier. And I think most professors can think back to classes they’ve had where the students really gelled. And those to me are the best classes, and not just because it’s pleasant, but it seems to magnify the possibilities for learning if students want to be there, and usually what makes students want to be there is not that they like you so much, but that they like each other.

Fiona: Could you give us an example of a relatively community building activity you can do early in a semester?

David: Yeah, what I really like to do, and it does take a little bit of time, but I think it’s worth it. This is an idea that came from a colleague and friend of mine at the University of Iowa, Ben Hassman, he calls it question roll, and it’s a way to take attendance at the beginning of each class. And it’s certainly easier with a smaller class, but you can do it with larger classes with a little bit of finagling. Instead of just calling out people’s names, you ask a question, and you go around the room and everyone has to answer the question as their way to signal that they’re there. And the best way to do it is for these questions to be absolutely easy to answer. They should be like “What is your favorite movie?” or “What’s something that your parents cooked for you when you were a kid that you have fond memories of?” And so they’re often informal. I like to make them have nothing to do with class content. You can, of course, make them be lead-ins to discussion, but I like to give students an opportunity to speak up that is so easy that they’ll speak up. Basically, I think there’s something that happens after someone speaks up for the first time in a class period that makes it more easy for subsequent times. So, that’s one reason to do it. The other thing is that if you do it regularly, students get to know each other, they remember that so and so likes spaghetti. They remember that so and so likes comic book movies. And so that’s a kind of easy ritual that helps students bring a little bit of their outside lives into the class. And again, signals to them that this class might actually matter to those outside lives, class might be something that they want to do not just because they have to, but because it’s something central to their goals and ambitions.

Fiona: And I’d imagine that’s an approach that also includes you in that learning community, right? You learn?

David: Of course, I have to answer the question.

Fiona: One of the chapters in your book is devoted to what you call teaching the students in the room. Could you give us a little bit of an overview of that approach?

David: Sure. I do think that if there’s anything that teaching is about, it’s about helping particular people develop and learn. And so that is going to change. This is what I was talking about earlier, that’s going to change depending on the human beings in the room. And so I do think that as much as most professors are preparers and were good students themselves and like to do lots of preparation to make sure that they have every “T” crossed and “I” dotted before entering the classroom, there’s a limit to what you can do without meeting and understanding the people you’re going to teach. And again, it’s that idea of thinking of the students as the material rather than the course content or the text. So I do think it’s important that we do more than just tweak our teaching, depending on who’s in the room, but we try to leave a lot to the particular people we have in our classes.

John: One of the things you described is something I’ve been doing recently which is starting with a shell of a syllabus and letting the students pick some of the content on that. And I’ve done that to a varying degree, but I found a dramatic increase in the amount of student engagement when they have some say over the course concepts. Could you talk about some examples where you’ve used or heard good examples of that type of tactic?

David: Yeah, I do love that tactic as well. I recommend to faculty to make a list of things that they absolutely have to have in their courses that are non-negotiable that have to be in their classes, and things that aren’t on that list give to students to decide. This is, again, a way to get as you say, greater engagement, have students have a sense of ownership in the class. I’ve had real success when I taught a survey of American Literature. And I gave students as the assigned text one of these big Norton Anthologies of American literature, these huge 1200 page, very thin paged, big books of poems, and short stories, and excerpts from novels. And what I did was I left slots throughout the semester, throughout the calendar for poems, but I didn’t choose any poems, and I had each student assigned to a slot on the calendar and I said “On your slot, we are going to read the poem you choose. You’re going to introduce it for the class, talk maybe five minutes about it, but then we’re going to talk about it, you’re going to put it on the calendar.” You can do this with bigger classes through voting, through putting them in groups to choose, there are ways to do it. And then I had as the first writing assignment, the first essay for students to justify why they chose the poem. “Why should your classmates read this poem? What’s so good about it?” And the reason I loved how this worked in that particular class was one, of course, that it had that engagement that students owned part of the class, they had their little patch of land, but it also made them read the book. They had to look through this anthology that otherwise they would have just flipped to what I assigned, this made them browse and look for a poem that they could pick and I think it made them think about, “Well, what makes a good poem? What kinds of poems do I like?” Certainly, some students just picked very, very short poems, and we were grateful for that too. But I think students surprised themselves. They discovered things they wouldn’t have found otherwise. And they thought a little bit about, “Well, what’s my taste in poetry?” which is a wonderful thing to encourage, at least in my students. I’ve also had success, I do this all the time now, with letting students determine policies for the class. I do it all the time with technology policy, using technology in class. This is easy for me to give to students because I don’t care at all about what students do with their phones or laptops. I’m not a stickler, other professors feel differently, and that’s fine, of course. But that was an easy thing for me to offload to students because I don’t care. And what I found is that inevitably, students come up with a technology policy that is more strict than anything I would have come up with. I asked them to think about what really annoys them about people using phones in class and come up with regulations, and they tend to regulate pretty heavily when left to their own devices. And it works better if the rules are coming from them than from me. I just don’t like to play policeman, that’s not a role I’m suited for. So policy is a good thing to give to students, whether that’s a technology policy or late policies some professors do, they leave it to students to come up with. And that’s another thing where you’d be surprised that students are not that laissez faire. Some tend to be quite strict when they suggest late policies. But sort of going through your syllabus and looking for “What can I give to students to come up with?” And I think that you’ll see that there are sort of outsized effects from letting students decide. Student ownership is, I think, a really helpful concept for professors.

Fiona: And a totally practical question. So is this an activity you do on the first day, first week kind of thing? And then do you codify it in a formalized syllabus in some way?

David: Yes. So, usually, if I do a technology policy activity, it’ll be on the second day, it’ll be sometime in the first class periods. And what I usually do is I put them into small groups and have them brainstorm possible challenges with using technology in class and possible rules that they want. And I tell them I want them to think about their experiences as students, that they are veteran students, they’ll know probably better than I what comes up from a student’s point of view. And then I open up a document on the screen and I say, “Call out your suggestions.” And I type them as they call them out on their transcriber. And sometimes I have them vote if there are some things that are different, but often they kind of find consensus. I sort of try to guide a discussion, we find consensus. It’s a sort of constitutional document that I add to our learning management system. It lives there for everyone to see and I almost never need to refer to it. But there have been times where I do refer to and I say, “Let’s remember the rules we put in place.” And again, it helps that they’re not my rules. It helps enforcement if I can say “This is what you came up with, do we want to revise them? Maybe this doesn’t work anymore, that’s fine.” I would much rather be their learning coach, for lack of a better term, than to be Nurse Ratched in enforcing rules.

John: The only problem I’ve ever had with this strategy is the secretary keeps nagging me for a copy of the syllabus a week or two before the semester and I say “We won’t have a syllabus until after we meet” and I just open up a document which has the learning objectives and broad categories, and then we spend that first class period just working it all out.

David: I tend to make a distinction between the syllabus I give to the people upstairs and the sort of living document that governs what we do in the classroom. Some people make appendices to their syllabus. I think there’s things that the college needs to know, and I think that’s appropriate. And there’s things that the college doesn’t necessarily need to know.

Fiona: I wonder if I might turn the direction of our conversation towards the way that you talk about faculty and teachers themselves in this book, because many of the ideas: that learning is a process of revision, of challenging your preconceived notions about how something might work, you actually suggest that teachers themselves do the same sorts of processes in terms of their own experience as learners of teaching.

David: Yeah.

Fiona: Could you talk a little bit about how you ask people to revise their teaching?

David: Sure. I think you’re right that how I think about students learning influences how I think about giving advice to faculty on improving their teaching. And I think it’s important to remember that most of us did not have a rich education on how to teach. And so we sort of have to teach ourselves as we go, which does mean that it’s a process of revision. It’s also the nature of teaching that it’s such a complex pursuit. The product in question, the thing that is produced by our teaching, is spread out over a whole semester and diffused by how many students we have. And it’s very difficult to assess how well we did. And you can come out of a classroom thinking “That was a great class, I did wonderfully.” And you can come out of a class period thinking “Oh, that didn’t work well,” and equally have no idea why it worked or it didn’t. So, I do think it’s important for faculty to know that it’s a difficult process and to give attention to trying to assess, trying to evaluate, trying to stay on top of what they do that’s healthy and works, and what they do that doesn’t work. So, I do try to encourage what we might think of as good writing advice for teaching. And that’s thinking of a drafting process when coming up with a lesson plan, just as I tell my writing students to write a really bad draft as their first draft just to get something down, knowing that you’ll come back to it. I do the same thing with teachers I work with, I say, “First just fill the class period. Come up with a class period and then try to be critical in looking at what you came up with. Does that meet your goals? Does that do what you think students should be doing? Does that engage students?” And keep going back to and going back to it. The other thing that I think is really important is after a class period, or after a unit, or certainly after a semester, writing down how you think it went before you forget. I find that, especially in August for a fall semester, but even in January, if I’m teaching something I taught before, I am always kicking myself for not having taken good notes on how I changed things from what I wrote down, because our lesson plans don’t often survive a class period intact. And so trying to keep good notes, trying to see teaching as a sort of career long pursuit that you’ll benefit from having an archive of notes to self. Just sort of developing those habits I think are really important. I try to be aware of this whenever I talk teaching, but certainly when I was writing the book, that most faculty members are, without a doubt, overworked and underpaid, and almost without exception, not given enough credit or time for their teaching. And so I think it’s all the more important that we try to come up with strategies that help us to be better teachers that don’t keep us up all night grading, and that don’t add to our considerable anxiety and stress. I think we need to sort of navigate within what’s still a pretty unfair system for most faculty members when giving advice. So I really try to be aware of that.

John: Talking about that issue of the effort required for grading, you do recommend giving students the right kind of feedback. Could you talk a little bit about how we can do that? We know that students benefit from having feedback. But the more feedback we give students, the more time it requires. What type of feedback would be most helpful for students without overburdening faculty with the work of grading?

David: That’s a really good question. I think the most effective feedback comes at a time when students can still use it. So, too often I think we give students feedback after the fact, we give students feedback on their essays or on their assignments when we give them their grade, and then we’re already moving on to another unit. Often, because of time constraints, it might take us a month to grade a paper. And we’ve already moved on for a month to another unit when we’re giving them feedback on something they did last month. And so that can tell them a little bit. But most students, it doesn’t help them that much to find out that a month ago, they made an error with a too long paragraph or something. So I really try to give students feedback while they’re still working on something. And so the way to do this without doubling your work is to give them much less feedback after the fact. So I think it’s entirely appropriate to give just a grade and very minimal feedback at the end, if you give lots of feedback in the middle. So when I teach writing, I have all of my students, for their essays, they have to turn in a rough draft, and this is after a number of checkpoints where they’re working on components, but they turn in a rough draft at a midway point. And I meet with them one-on-one. Again, this is something that can be adjusted for bigger classes. But I try to give them feedback at that point, like really extensive feedback. That’s where they hear from me the most. And why that’s effective is, well one, because they still haven’t gotten a grade, there’s still something they can do with the feedback, but two, it allows me to be much more of a coach rather than evaluator. And that’s where, at least personally, where my strengths as a teacher lie. I’m much worse at justifying a grade than I am at giving advice on how to improve work. So I never answer in those conferences, questions like “What grade do you think this will be?” Or if they ask me that, I say, “Well, it’s not done yet. This is a draft, I don’t grade rough drafts. Here’s what I think you need to do for this to be better.” I try to sort of strenuously resist being evaluator there. But I do think looking for ways that you can shift when you give feedback to earlier in the process can help you keep that feedback formative. I think it’s useful to have this distinction between formative feedback, which is feedback designed to teach, designed to help students grow and learn, and summative feedback, which is feedback designed to deliver a verdict on their performance. Summative feedback is important. Certainly an engaged student will want to know whether their work met the grade. Certainly we have institutional pressures that want us to give them a summative grade at the end of the semester. But to me, formative feedback is so much more valuable, it is teaching rather than just grading. And so looking for ways whenever possible to make our grading formative, I think, is good practice.

John: Do you recommend giving some sort of light grading though, even just “They completed this or not” just to provide incentives for those who may not be as intrinsically motivated?

David: For sure. 34:21 Yeah, I think that can help. I think that it’s worth considering the ways that our grading policy, like how much weight we give to each element of the course itself, is a rhetorical signal that tells students what we value and so I think, unless you’re able to do away with grades altogether, and most of us are not because of our institutions, it’s worth looking for ways to use that to help us teach, for sure. And extrinsic motivation is not worthless, even as most people, I think depend on it too much. But if you’ve got the grades yeah, I try to use them strategically.

Fiona: Could I ask about the chapter which you’ve entitled Teaching in Tumultuous Times, which in many ways pulls together all of the threads we’ve been discussing. What it means to meet students where they are, what it means to work as a learning coach in order to develop long-term, perhaps civic oriented ways of being in the world, but also opens up into issues of inclusivity in teaching and what it might mean for teaching to be a space in which we can actively address some of the more alarming directions that the world is tending at the moment. Could you talk about teaching in tumultuous times?

David: Yes, I believe very strongly that teaching matters. And I believe that because of my experience in the classroom. I really think that the transformations that can happen through working closely with young people are real, and they are incredibly meaningful to me. And once I realized that teaching is the pursuit of helping people develop, or change, or learn, it then became inevitable that I’d have to be committed to helping every single student develop, or change, or learn. And I recognize that I am not going to be successful in reaching every single student, but my practice needs to be committed to helping every single student. So what that means on the one hand is student centered teaching, as we’ve been talking about what that means, on the other hand, is looking closely at our status quo of teaching and realizing that it doesn’t serve every student equally well. I think it is decidedly the case that our normal way of teaching rewards students who can navigate the school environment, it rewards students who have better preparation, it rewards students who are mentally healthy. It rewards students who are physically capable and we want to ask ourselves, “Is this what we want to promote in our classrooms?” It’s not what I want to promote. And so that sort of led me into thinking about inclusive teaching practices, which I talk about not nearly long enough in that chapter, but as part of that chapter. I do think if we’re committed to helping every student learn, we need to think about making our classrooms more accessible. We need to think about practices that unwittingly, unwittingly, privileged students who have had better schooling, we need to think about ways that we are reproducing inequality. The other part of that chapter, or one other part of that chapter, has to deal with talking about politics in the classroom. And to me these things go together in a sense, because they are, as you implied with your question, they’re kind of about taking responsibility, or seeing that teaching does produce changes in our students and trying to be responsible for creating citizens. And I think that’s kind of a difficult pill for some professors to swallow, who say, “Well I teach chemistry. I don’t produce political thinkers,” but I do think that we have more influence than we know. And it’s worth thinking about what kinds of thinking we’re encouraging in our students. For those times when politics do come up, and they do come up more frequently than you think, it’s worth thinking through what we’re trying to achieve and what we’re trying to avoid. What really helped me in writing about politics in the classroom, and you’ll know this if you’ve read the book, is coming across some material from philosophy of education on the concept of indoctrination. And I really like this because indoctrination is one thing that everyone can agree we don’t want to do. And so it helped me to clarify my thinking to get clear on what we’re trying to avoid. So there are a number of philosophers who have worked to define more closely this concept of indoctrination, and what they’ve come up with is that indoctrination requires us to use our authority to inculcate an uncritically adopted belief. And so keeping that in mind that we have authority that can be used for ill, and that we want to avoid as students adopting beliefs without examining evidence without being critical. That helps me think about how I do want to talk about politics. So I want to privilege open mindedness rather than closed mindedness. I want to foster students to have more control rather than me having the control, I want to work against the authority that I might have. So things like that, I think, came out in that chapter. It’s a chapter that I get asked about probably most of all, I think these are subjects that are on a lot of teachers minds. And I think for good reason.

Fiona: The other piece of this puzzle is, of course, how the authority you just described that inheres in the figure of the teacher in some way in the classroom is itself not evenly distributed. So different sorts of teachers do and don’t match students’ ideas of what an authority figure is, what a professor looks like, what a teacher looks like.

David: Absolutely. Right.

Fiona: And so I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how these techniques you suggest also are risky?

David: Yes.

Fiona: For professors or for teachers who are already themselves in some way at risk just by trying to be in a classroom in the role that we call teacher.

David: Yeah, I think that there’s a real problem in advice given to teachers that ignores the many kinds of teachers that there are and ignores the, the huge differences in power that belong to different kinds of teachers. I learned this very vividly when I worked with grad instructors, all novice instructors, particularly young women struggle with authority in the classroom with students not respecting them, with students openly challenging them. And it’s something that I think we need to take very seriously. So it’s worth remembering that there’s no one size fits all teaching advice. You need to take a teaching approach that works for you particularly as a teacher. But it’s also worth remembering that no matter how powerless any one faculty member feels, institutional realities ensure that students have less power, at least within the institution. There are many other kinds of power, and those are real as well. But as long as we have the power to grade students and the power to fail students, we have to remember that giving students more control, giving students more power where we can, is almost always going to benefit us, no matter our position. And so that’s a difficult thing to get across, particularly for me as a white man, relatively healthy, relatively young, though that’s less and less each day. So I do try to be aware of that, that what works for me is not going to work for every teacher. And that’s pretty clear to me. And so no teaching approach is going to work if it makes the faculty member uncomfortable, if it makes the faculty member feel like they’re going to lose the room, as it were. So this is things that anyone who gives advice, which I guess it’s something that I’m doing professionally now needs to keep in mind, for sure.

Fiona: It also points to the importance of collaboration and community building among teachers, which is something that all of your work points towards, and your suggestion that we take co-teaching opportunities if they come along, or at the very least sit in on each other’s classes.

David: Yes.

Fiona: Which is something that I don’t think we think about as an actual pedagogical strategy.

David: Yes.

Fiona: But which seems so, so important, both in terms of what you described, which is seeing the classroom from the students’ perspective, but also seeing another teacher…

David: Absolutely.

Fiona:… In their environment dealing with what they’re dealing.

David: Yeah, I often think that so many of the problems that afflict teaching as a profession, so many of the reasons why teaching isn’t taken seriously as a discipline. So many of the reasons why students and learning is not understood as well as it should be, has to do with how private connectivity teaching is, how thick our classroom walls are. And actually the traditional independence of tenured faculty, which tells everyone else to stay away and “don’t tell me how to teach.” I do think that we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t pay attention to community, where we don’t try to learn from other people who are doing the same thing we do. Almost every other profession tries to take advantage of this. And so it’s a really strange and terrible tradition that we don’t get in the habit of seeing other teachers. It’s really amazing actually that you can go your whole career as a professional teacher and never, unless you’ve been required to evaluate someone for promotion, never see the inside of someone else’s classroom.

John: We’re starting to introduce an activity this semester where faculty will sit in on other people’s classes and then get together informally, and I think more and more colleges are doing that, but it is a relatively recent phenomenon. And I think it’s one we can all benefit from. One of the things you suggest, and we just talked about a little bit, is breaking down some of the barriers caused by that authority figure in the room. One of the ways you recommend doing that is by letting people know that you don’t know things.

David: Yes.

John: Could you talk a little bit about that strategy?

David: Yeah. And this is something that I often get pushback from faculty of color, from women faculty, but I get a lot of mileage out of self deprecation as a teacher. And again, this isn’t gonna work for everybody. But I do think that in that pursuit of students feeling like they own the class, part of that has to be me, giving up some of my ownership. It doesn’t need to mean inviting disrespect, but it does, to me at least, mean showing students one that I don’t know everything, which is pretty easy, for me at least, but two, that learning is a process and that you’re never done. And it’s not just that I’m not so smart, but that anyone, no matter how much they’ve learned, they’ve got more to go, and they’re going to make mistakes, and they want to keep learning. So I’m trying to encourage this to my students. A lot of it comes from being a parent actually and trying to encourage this in my children, this idea that I can always learn more and that curiosity is the best engine. So I do try to model uncertainty. This is quite common advice, but I do tell faculty all the time that it’s very powerful to tell students “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” When students ask something, to not feel the need to pretend like you know everything, I think, is really powerful and can take away, in fact, some of that anxiety that young instructors have about being found out, which is something I certainly felt very strongly when I was starting out. If you take away from your concept of teacher this idea that you have to be the supreme authority, it can actually, maybe paradoxically, increase your authority a little bit because you’re no longer aiming so high. You don’t need to know quite so much. You can be a sort of fellow searcher with your students. And that’s a great place to be, where you’re part of that community of looking for answers of learning. You can model along the way for them.

John: And you could also work with them perhaps in trying to explore how you would find an answer to model that more explicitly and get them involved in finding the answers themselves.

Fiona: That sounds great.

John: One of the problems we had in preparing for this is in reading through the book, there were just so many wonderful things that we wanted to discuss that it could have taken days to go through all of this.

David: That is wonderful to hear. Thanks for saying so.

Fiona: We do end by asking “What’s next?”

David: I’m very excited about what I’ve been working on. I’m working on what I see as my next book. We’ll see if it gets there. But I’ve been thinking more and more about what I think of as one of the most important and most persistent problems in higher education, which is inequality of outcomes. We still have quite shocking completion rates in America. These numbers can vary depending on how you measure or what you’re looking at. But typically 70% of all White students in universities graduate within six years. That number for Black students is 40%, which is shockingly low, I think. For Hispanic students it’s at 50%. We see similar gaps for first generation students, we see similar gaps for students with disabilities. We see similar gaps for academic achievement for women in STEM still, we see similar gaps for low income students. So it’s something that I’m looking at in my research. Most universities are aware of this problem and are tackling it, or trying to tackle it, in one way or another with diversity and inclusion initiatives. And what’s really interesting to me is that for the most part, these initiatives don’t tackle teaching. They very often target students support networks. There are financial incentives, of course, but they don’t really tackle teaching. And I guess my intuition is that there’s a lot we can do in the classroom to affect these outcomes. My initial research so far has borne that out, that actually there’s been quite a lot of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning in the past decade on narrowing academic achievement gaps within particular classes. And I guess my running thesis is that by changing teaching approaches, we can do something about these broader completion gaps. So that’s the big picture project. I do think it’ll take a number of years to turn into a book, but that’s where I’m working right now. And I’m finding it very exciting, I think it’s something that’s really important.

Fiona: Your work is exciting and inspiring to us, we look forward to hearing about the developments in this newest direction.

David: Right, thanks 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. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.

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119. Faculty Incentives

If faculty were paid more when their students learned more, would student learning increase? In this episode, Sally Sadoff and Andy Brownback join us to discuss their recent study that provides some interesting results on this issue. Sally is an Associate Professor of Economics and Strategic Management in the Rady School of Management at the University of California at San Diego. Andy’s an Assistant Professor of Economics in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: If faculty were paid more when their students learned more, would student learning increase? In this episode, we discuss a recent study that provides some interesting results on this issue.

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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, 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 Sally Sadoff and Andy Brownback. Sally is an Associate Professor of Economics and Strategic Management in the Rady School of Management at the University of California at San Diego. Andy’s an Assistant Professor of Economics in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Welcome.

Andy: Thank you.

Sally: Thanks. Great to be here.

John: Our teas today are:

Andy: I wanted to represent Fayetteville, so I went to the tea shop and I got what I have been told is the world’s greatest cup of Earl Grey tea. [LAUGHTER] It’s an award winning cup. They promised me this. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Does it taste award winning?

Andy: I haven’t had enough of it yet. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Reserve judgment?

Andy: I don’t give these awards out lightly.

Rebecca: And a nice lineup of mugs on your desk too.

Andy: Yes, many, too many. So this is just a way I avoid doing dishes. [LAUGHTER]

John: And Sally?

Sally: I’m drinking coffee but I’m on California time, so I’m excused.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking Spice of Life today, a white tea, John.

John: Pretty good.

Rebecca: Unusual, right?

John: And I’m drinking Oolong tea

Rebecca: You’re drinking nothing cause you forgot the cup of tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: . If I remember where I put it, I think I may have left it in the office before I came over here. But I did make a cup of Oolong tea and I did have a sip of it before and I will have it right after this.

Rebecca: I intended to drink tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: We invited you here to talk about your forthcoming article on improving college instruction through incentives. Could you start by giving us a general overview of this study?

Andy: Our study, we partnered with a large community college in Indiana called Ivy Tech. And what Ivy Tech wanted to do was incentivize instructors based on student performance. At the same time, they were rolling out a new set of large end-of-semester comprehensive, and importantly, objective exams. And so we were able to partner with them to use those exams to incentivize instructors based on the outcomes of students. So, that’s kind of the high level overview of what we were doing. I know we’ll get into more detail in a bit.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what motivated the study in the first place?

Andy: Yeah, absolutely. So, community colleges are obviously really important. It’s thought of as a sort of pathway to the middle class. At the same time, the rates of success at the community college level have been relatively low. And so if we think of community colleges as a particularly good tool for upward mobility, then it needs to be the case that they achieve better outcomes. And with the low current rates of success, it also leads to long times of accruing debt without receiving the benefits of these higher incomes from having that college education. So, there’s a whole host of factors that are kind of coming into play to make these both important and potentially underachieving tools for upward mobility. And then the other side of the equation is also that the faculty at community colleges are predominantly or at least, there’s a large percentage of adjunct faculty with really low pay and sort of what could be seen as an unsustainable business model where you’re relying on people to work in short-term, non-guaranteed contracts regularly and teach these classes. So, we wanted to address both sides, both the student achievement side, as well as the sort of personnel side of the community college setting.

John: And in terms of student success, specifically, I think you’re referring to the proportion of students that move through to a four-year degree program as being lower than what students intended. Is that the primary metric?

Andy: Yes, that’s one of the primary metrics. You can think of the community colleges as having two goals: one being graduating students with associate degrees and another being transferring students to four-year degrees. Now, Sally will know the exact number, but a large percentage of students attending community colleges, I forget what the number is, but their ultimate goal is to eventually transfer and graduate from a four year-college with a bachelor’s degree. So, there’s kind of two ultimate goals. In the process of achieving those goals there’s also gains from simply taking additional classes or receiving accreditation in certain skills, and that’s something that a lot of people go to community college to do. But, our primary long-term concerns are graduation rates and transfer rates.

Sally: Yeah, I think it’s really fascinating. Most of my work up until now has been at the K-12 level. And I think most economists, if you look at education economists, there’s a lot of focus on the K-12 level and looking at teacher quality at the K-12 level and how can we improve teacher quality at the K-12 level? When we came to the college level, there’s been work showing how important it is who your instructor is. Instructor quality matters a lot. But we couldn’t find any work looking at how can we improve instructor quality at the college level? I think it’s really interesting because community colleges are getting a lot of attention from policymakers because they’re low cost, they expand access to underrepresented populations that normally don’t have as much access to college: minority students, students who are first generation college goers, students who are working and so they can’t travel necessarily to go to a college. And so we think that community colleges provide amazing opportunities to students, but as Andy was saying, they really struggle with success rates. And so 80% of students entering a community college say they intend to transfer to a four-year school and fewer than 30% end up doing so. Fewer than 40% of students graduate with any kind of degree within six years. And so these colleges, and we see this working with Ivy Tech, they are incredibly dedicated. The administrators and the teachers there are incredibly dedicated, but they’re working with students who are struggling, nd so there’s a lot of room for improvement. And what we found actually that’s interesting, I think, at community colleges, is that there’s actually more room to think about how to structure employment contracts than there is at the K-12 level. Because often, the instructors aren’t unionized, as Andy was saying they work under these short-term, flexible contracts. And so there’s a lot of flexibility. And really, people haven’t thought much about how to structure these contracts in a way that can improve performance and motivate both instructors and students.

John: It’s a fascinating study. For those of our listeners who aren’t familiar with field experiments, could you tell us a little bit about what a field experiment is?

Andy: Yeah, absolutely. So a field experiment is, in our case, a test of policy. And the way it’s experimentally designed is through what would be known as a randomized controlled trial, meaning that you take a sample of people from a population and you split that sample into a treatment and a control group, and you do this randomly… and that’s the really important part. Because if you test a policy with an assignment that’s anything but random, then you can’t guarantee that these two groups are otherwise equal. But in our case, we’re going to randomly assign people to be in the treatment group or the control group. So, the treatment group will receive the policy, the control group will continue in the current status quo. And then what we will do is look at outcomes and how they differ between the two groups. Now, since the assignment to the two groups is random, again, there’s no mechanical correlation between treatment assignment and any of the characteristics of the groups themselves. Then we can know that any differences subsequent to the assignment are results of the treatment itself and not any sort of spurious correlations or selection biases.

Sally: Yes, I think listeners are probably familiar with this kind of experiment when you think about testing a drug or a vaccine, those kinds of clinical trials. And more and more economists have brought those models in for testing policies. And I think they gained a lot of attention recently because of the recent Nobel Prize, which highlighted how powerful these experiments can be for evaluating policies. And so I think that they gained a lot of attention from economists, they’re growing in their use, and it’s really thanks to partners like Ivy Tech that are willing to let us come in and test things in this way. Because, I think although people are very comfortable with the idea of testing a drug in a clinical trial, sometimes there’s discomfort with testing policies in this randomized way. And so we’re really grateful when we have partners who are willing to let us come in and try these new policies and implement them in this randomized way where some instructors receive incentives and some won’t.

John: And in a sense, we’re always testing things. It’s just, we don’t always measure the effect of it. When you something new in your class, you are doing an experiment. But unless you have a control group to compare it to, you can’t really assess whether the gain is due to that particular intervention or something else that was happening.

Sally: That’s exactly right and we really try to emphasize to people exactly that, that you’re always trying things, rolling out new policies or stopping one thing and doing it differently. And if you’re going to be making these changes, do it in a way where you can learn from them instead of just trying something, trying to step back and try to understand whether it worked or not. How do you know whether something is working or not unless you can compare it to a proper control group?

Andy: And just to emphasize the importance of this methodology, there’s a lot of policy that gets rolled out based on bad data and bad evidence. And so if you’re using a poorly designed experiment, or simply looking at correlational data and rolling out policy, what you could be doing might not be effective, it might be actively detrimental to students. But once you have this clear causal evidence, we can be really confident in the policies we roll out and understand the cost-benefit analysis of the policies prior to implementation.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the policy that you were testing in this particular experiment?

Andy: Yeah, so as we talked about, we wanted to roll out incentives for instructors based on student performance. And we base these incentives on objective, comprehensive exams for a variety of courses in a variety of departments. The exams are designed outside of the classroom in the sense that it was designed by deans and department heads and represented the types of material that they wanted the students to master by the end of the semester. So, those form the basis of our incentives that we would be giving to instructors. Now, we didn’t just want to offer incentives based on outcomes. We wanted these to be potentially as powerful as possible. So, we leveraged an approach that Sally’s researched in the past in a paper with Roland Fryer, John List, and Steve Levitt, where they looked at loss contracts.

Our incentives were actually such that every instructor would receive $50 for every student who passed the exam, and passing the exam is defined as receiving a 70% or higher on the exam.
So, we framed these as losses. And we delivered incentives at the beginning of the semester, as if half of the students in an instructor’s course had passed the exam. Now, this established it as sort of a target, but it also allowed us to leverage this idea of loss aversion, that instructors would value keeping money potentially more than they value gaining an equivalent amount of money. So, as the students progressed through the semester, at the end of the semester they would take this exam, we would have these objective evaluations for how many students passed the exam, and then we calculate their final payments. If their final payments exceeded this initial payment, they would receive additional payments. If their final payment was less than this initial payment, we would clawback some of that payment. And this was all explained at the outset of the experiment. And again, this sort of loss framing is leveraging a long line of research in behavioral economics, about how much more motivating it can be to face potential losses than equivalent gains.

Sally: Yeah, so just to give an example, if you have 20 students, and you get $50 per student who passes, half of your students passing, that would be $500. So we would send you a check for $500 at the beginning of the year, the beginning of the semester. At the end of the semester, if fewer than 10 of your students pass the exam, say only eight students pass the exam, you have to write us a check back for $100. If more than 10 of your students pass the exam, say 12 of your students pass the exam, then we send you a check for an additional hundred dollars. And we found in previous work that having this money in your bank account and knowing that you potentially could lose it if your students don’t pass the exam can be very motivating, compared with rewards that you only receive at the end of the semester.

Andy: Yeah. And one point about the logistics real quick is that these initial targets were based on enrollment as of what they call the census date. It’s not the drop deadline in the sense that you can’t drop afterwards, but it’s the deadline at which point dropping a course is no longer costless. All the students at this point in the course are enrolled sort of formally, and instructors will receive the upfront incentives based on that number of students. So, there’s multiple margins at which the instructors can influence student outcomes.

John: One thing I think that’s probably worth noting is that one advantage of doing it in a community college is that it’s much easier to have that standardized testing. I know in a lot of four-year colleges, faculty would object to having to assign an externally designrf exam at the end of the term, while in community colleges that type of standardization is much more common, which makes it a bit easier to design a study like this, I would think.

Sally: Yeah, that may be the case. Interestingly, I think, even for accreditation, for example, often you need to show that the test has certain questions on it. I know in large classes with many sections, they often write the exam together. The goal at Ivy Tech was to sort of create this bank of questions that every year tests would be drawn from, and I think moving classes over to that model is interesting. And there’s more openness to it than I thought. So, for example, when we started this study, I thought, “Oh, the only courses we’re going to get in this study are going to be math and maybe some science courses.” And what’s really interesting to me about this study, is unlike at the K-12 level, where it’s primarily focused on math and reading, we have a really wide range of courses. We have anatomy and physiology, art history, nursing, psychology, criminology, sociology, psychology. And so what it showed to me was that you can really get a wide range of courses into this kind of framework. And it doesn’t cover every element of the course. But, for example, in the English courses, one thing they were moving toward was evaluating the essays in a more objective way where you’d have two readers that would both rate the essays and compare ratings. And as colleges move toward those models, I think that this kind of framework will be more and more implementable.

John: It’s certainly good for assessment, and it’s certainly good for evaluating the effectiveness of innovations in instruction. There’s a lot to be said for it. I’m just thinking, at my college I know in many departments there’d be some objections to this. We used to have a standardized common final in the economics department where I teach and people objected to that for a long time, and we eventually moved away from it, but we are talking about doing something similar with at least some subset of questions that would be standard, for that sort of purpose.

Sally: Right. And I think always a concern about these kinds of studies is if the incentive is based on the objective part of the exam that can be tested and assessed in that way, does it take away from the other parts of the course that are more qualitative or more specific to each instructor? And so one thing we were really careful about in this study was to look at not just performance on the test, but how did students do in the class overall, how did they do on the other courses they were taking at the same time? How did they do in future coursework? And I think that’s really important that it’s not just all about teaching to this one assessment that’s going to be used for the incentive.

John: Given the strong findings on loss aversion in terms of how people find losses much more painful than gains of equivalent value, how did faculty react to that incentive structure? I believe you surveyed them on that early on, and then again later.

Andy: Yes, at the outset or at the baseline, the faculty did not like the idea of these incentives. This is both evidence-based where we have survey information and people were willing to sacrifice a rather large amount of money to have these contracts converted into contracts that were gain-based contracts that wouldn’t be paid out until the end of the semester. Anecdotally, this fits with my experiences, I went to explain these contracts. There was quite a bit of pushback in asking why these were framed in this way, and some people potentially wanting to approach them differently. Interestingly, this was very heterogeneous across departments. The accountants were like, Okay, well, I know what to do with this, [LAUGHTER] and put it away, and the psychologists were particularly upset because they knew exactly what we were doing. But, the data show that with experience, our treatment group, on average, has no preference between a loss contract and a gain contract, meaning that a large amount of this distrust of the contract could be attributable to just a lack of experience with this style of contract. And that as instructors gained more experience, they also gained a comfort level with the contracts as well.

John: I still wouldn’t rule out loss aversion as being a factor, but it is interesting that it gets reduced after they’ve experienced it.

Andy: Oh, absolutely. So, that’s not to say that loss aversion isn’t still a factor. But, as you gain experience with these contracts, maybe you start to appreciate the motivating qualities of loss aversion. So, maybe you understand that although these contracts cause you to work harder, or cause you to exert more effort around a certain goal, that by increasing that effort, you’re actually achieving greater outcomes for yourself. And if that’s the case, then they’re still motivating you through loss aversion, but you may not be as averse to the contracts as you were ex ante.

Sally: Yeah, so it may be that people are using them as a type of commitment contract where they know that yes, it will be painful while I’m in the contract, but it’s a way to motivate me to work harder, and I’ll walk home with more money than I would otherwise.

John: Just a couple of months ago, we did a podcast on commitment devices with Dean Karlan…

Sally: Oh nice.

John: …and we talked a little bit about that, and StickK.com, the site he created for that. Now, we’ve talked a little bit about the incentives for faculty, but you also introduce an incentive for students. Could you talk a little bit about that as well?

Andy: Yeah. So, on the student side, this was only in the spring semester. We rolled it out in the fall semester, where we had a pure control group and instructor incentives only. As we moved to the spring, we then cross randomized those two groups with student incentives. The students were incentivized with the following possibility. If they pass the exam, that is receive a 70% or higher, they would get a voucher for free tuition for a summer course. And this could be worth up to about $400 worth of tuition. So, now students are incentivized alongside the faculty. And we wanted to test whether 1. student incentives were effective and 2. if they made the instructor incentives even more effective.

Sally: Yes, we were interested in whether there’s complementarities between student incentives and instructor incentives. We knew from prior work that offering student incentives alone has, at best, modest effects. But, we thought that maybe if we put them in combination with instructor incentives, we could imagine the instructor saying to the students, “Look, guys, you guys have something at stake here too…” and it could create this positive cycle.

Rebecca: So can you tell us a little bit about the results?

Andy: That’s on page 22. [LAUGHTER] We found that the instructor incentives were really effective. They increased student outcomes by about 0.2 standard deviations on those exams. It’s a really nice effect in this literature. What’s also exciting is, suppose you don’t believe our tests or don’t like our tests, they also reduce course dropouts by 3.7 percentage points, which is about a 17% decline in the course dropout rate. They raised grades in the course by over a 10th of a standard deviation. And that’s even if you take out the effect of the exam itself, the course grades still go up by about a 10th of a standard deviation. And these positive results spill over into other courses. They complete other courses at higher rates, they accumulate more credits, and they even go on to transfer at higher rates. So, that’s in the faculty incentives or the instructor incentives branch of the study. When we look at the student incentives by themselves, we see essentially no effects on any key outcomes that we care about. When we look at them in combination, they actually don’t improve the impact of instructor incentives. If anything, we see a pretty small negative effect that wouldn’t be any significant difference at all. But, there simply doesn’t seem to be any impact of the student incentives. Now, this could be attributable to our specific student incentives. But, you’d have to believe essentially that they have either no value or very limited value to say that it’s just the fact that we’re incentivizing students in a very specific way.

John: When you first were talking about it, one of the things that struck me as… I think it was W.C. Fields who was talking about a contest where he said the first prize was a week in Philadelphia. Second prize was two weeks in Philadelphia. [LAUGHTER]

Sally: So, Andy and I are doing a separate study on summer school. And we do find that students do not want to attend school in the summer. But, interestingly, if we can get them to attend school in the summer, it has a really big impact on helping them graduate sooner. So, we’re really fascinated with understanding how we can address this aversion to summer school. But, that may be for another podcast. But,we agree that, I think that the incentive for students may not have been very motivating. I think just to return to the results about the instructor incentives, I think there’s some really interesting results there. First, something that’s unique to the college setting that you don’t find in the K-12 setting, is this really large problem with students enrolling in a course, paying for the course, and then not completing the course. So, about a quarter of students fail to complete courses that they’ve enrolled in and paid for. And this is a big struggle at community colleges. So, just increasing these rates of persistence in the course we think has a really large impact. And what it seems like is happening is instructor incentives get students to keep coming to their course, and so students go to their other classes as well. And so it has this really positive reinforcement effect on students completing all of their courses that they’re taking that semester. I think another really exciting result is that a year after our program ends, when we’ve stopped giving anybody incentives, you see these really large impacts on transfers to four-year schools… about a 20% increase in the rate of transferring into a four-year school, which we think is really exciting, which is the primary goal… as we talked about the primary goal of community college is to get these students to transfer to four-year schools. They really struggle with that. And so we see that this could have a really large impact.

John: And education is costly. And if we get more people finishing, the private and social returns, both go up significantly. And the cost of doing this is relatively low. It’s substantially less costly than the student intervention.

Sally: Yeah, it’s incredibly low, about $25 per student. One thing that’s interesting, again, about community colleges, because adjunct faculty are not paid very well, you can offer relatively cheap incentives that represent a significant bonus. So for these adjunct instructors, the average bonus represented a 20% increase on their baseline salary. Our adjuncts are making about $1,700 for a 16-week course. So, you can get a lot of bang for your buck with adjunct instructors, and we see the largest impact among adjunct instructors. Those are the instructors that really responded to the incentives. And adjunct instructors are increasingly becoming the model for schools, not just community colleges, but four-year schools as well. So, they represent about 50 to 80% of instructors at four-year and two-year schools, respectively. And that’s on the rise. So we expect that to increase in the future.

John: And that’s another topic we actually address in a podcast that was released on December 18.

Andy: So, I think the adjunct effect is also one that’s worth emphasizing, just because of the model of using adjunct faculty or increasingly using adjunct faculty is unsustainable at the current pay rates. So, if we think about these contracts as being more flexible as these adjunct instructors are more used to working on temporary contracts, if it turns out to be the case that you can’t continue to pay people such small amounts for so much work, then how do you design contracts in the future that can maximize student outcomes? So, if we’re in a world where we know we have to redesign these contracts, what we wanted to be able to do with this study is say, “This is a way you can redesign the contracts and achieve the outcomes that you hope to achieve.”

John: That works well, when the test is administered or designed externally. There would be some incentive issues, though, if the instructors had more control over the test or that assessment of how well their students did, I would think.

Andy: Yeah, absolutely. And that was at the front of our minds while we were designing the study was, “Are we not simply motivating people to either teach to the test, or to lie to us outright,” and based on the way the exams were designed, these are both objective and for the most part, externally graded. So, it’s still possible, for example, for a teacher to just erase answers and write in the correct answer if they wanted. But, there’s a certain point at which you have to start trusting your subjects, that they’re not attempting to deceive you. And so we kept that sort of in mind as we were thinking about how to design the study.

Rebecca: Did you have any feedback from faculty at the end of the study, when they discovered that your incentive worked, for example?

Andy: So, we have been in touch with our partner in the administration, we haven’t been in touch with the faculty themselves with our working paper or now the forthcoming paper. So, we hadn’t gotten feedback at that point. We did get feedback in the process of the study that is like at the end of the fall semester, and at the end of the spring semester, and just like the preferences for these contracts, the feedback was, of course, not universally positive. But for the most part, the majority of people appreciated the extra money. And I guess this is something that we haven’t emphasized yet, but we didn’t really change anyone’s contract, they were still operating under the existing contracts. And these served as a bonus on top of those contracts. So, there was very little room to think of these as sort of a really detrimental change toward your contract. Because the worst-case scenario is that you were under the exact same contract as you were previously.

John: If everybody failed, or if everybody came in below the threshold.

Andy: If literally zero percent of your students were able to pass this exam, you were in the same world you were previously.

Sally: We had high rates of sign up in the fall, and then even in the spring semester, there were people in the fall who hadn’t signed up that chose to sign up when they had a chance again, and all but one instructor continued the study from the fall to the spring. So, I think that instructors did like participating and we generally got positive feedback.

John: So, you got really strong results for the incentives for instructors with larger results for the lower-paid instructors… for adjuncts. Was there any evidence of the mechanism by which this affected student outcomes?

Andy: So, we look into mechanisms in two ways. One, we look at self reports of time use. And we really don’t see any significant differences between the treatment and control groups. So nothing that would clearly identify a change in behavior. Now we have one caveat to this, and that’s that when we put the time-use survey out, we limited each activity to 16 hours, not thinking how many of our instructors might spend more than 16 hours on a given activity. And that was made pretty obvious with the outside-work option. And so it is possible that we are top coded there and unable to differentiate between the two. And we also look at student evaluations, and we don’t see any significant differences between the way students evaluate instructors that were in the treatment versus the control group. So, we don’t really see a specific mechanism that’s driving these differences in student outcomes. And if we really wanted to try to isolate these things, we would need to maybe have some better or more objective data about instructor practices or a more fine-grained approach to looking at time use, I think.

John: That could be an interesting follow-up study.

Sally: Yeah, I think now that we’ve shown that these incentives work and can be very powerful, getting inside the black box of the mechanisms is our next step. And we’re currently working with an online university where everything instructors do and everything students do is passively recorded because they’re interacting online. And we think that will give us more fine-grained data. If you think about it… If I asked you last week, “How many hours did you spend on email? How many hours did you spend prepping your course?” It’s really hard to recall that without a lot of noise in there. And I think the other thing we discovered after presenting the results, talking to instructors, talking to administrators, talking to other people who work in this area, is that a lot of it might not be captured by time spent. Some of it might be… you learn the names of the students in your class… when you saw a student in your class who was on their phone, instead of letting them be on their phone, you said, “Please put your phone away, please close your laptop.” And so it might be much more subtle practices that we need to either observe classrooms or do focus groups or really get more qualitative data. And that’s something we’re really interested in doing.

John: Because it could be motivational, it could be that instructors who know that they’re going to get paid more might put a little more effort into those things that may not be captured by those measures. One hypothesis I was thinking is that it could also be that the existence of the incentives might perhaps encourage people to develop a growth mindset. And there’s a lot of evidence that faculty that have a growth mindset tend to have students that do better, or at least that have narrower performance gaps.

Sally: That would be really interesting, I think, for evaluating. We’re already surveying instructors at baseline and throughout and so we could see if the characteristics of the instructors change or their attitudes. We do ask them their attitudes about teaching and their view of students. For instance, questions like “most of my students achievement is determined by background” or “I’m able, with enough effort, to change how my students achieve.” And so we can look more closely at those questions. We use them mainly as baseline questions to characterize teachers about their attitudes. I don’t think we’ve looked to see whether their attitudes change. So that might be an interesting approach, we should take a look at those data.

Andy: One other mechanism that’s opened up by our incentives is that what we’re doing is essentially giving people a big influx of cash at the beginning of the semester. And so this could also just open up resources or capacity constraints that they had without these incentives. So for example, you could imagine someone who’s also working part time, who now gets a check at the beginning of the semester based on all of these potential student gains and doesn’t have to spend as much time working in their other job. Things like that could be potential mechanisms and could also explain why adjunct faculty have this really large differential effect. But again, we don’t have that hard data. And so it’s something that’s really interesting to us. But, unfortunately, not cleanly identified by our data.

Sally: One thing that we received is an unsolicited text message exchange between an instructor and their student, which I thought was interesting, because my students don’t have my cell phone number. But, things like that, giving out your number, exchanging text messages, the sort of individual support that I think, especially for community college students who may be less connected to campus, less connected to the community, could be really important. And so we want to think more about that sort of sense of connection to the community, to your instructor, to your fellow students.

Rebecca: I’m really excited to find out what your next round of studies reveals, because you have interesting directions that you can go in right now. And then really valuable information that you’ve already discovered.

Sally: Yeah, I think another interesting direction that we’re very interested in… is Andy’s talked about this model of being sustainable, especially as schools move more and more over to this adjunct model. So, another thing we want to understand is if a school offers these kinds of incentives, what kinds of people do you attract? Are you better able to retain your high quality instructors? Do you recruit higher quality instructors? So, that’s another question we’d really like to answer in future studies.

John: Because you’re offering higher pay to the faculty that are more effective, which could have an interesting self-selection effect on the faculty composition.

Sally: Exactly.

Andy: Yeah. And if anything, our results suggest that it takes a little bit of experience with these contracts to really appreciate them. So, moving to a model where you have these types of contracts, there might be a transition period where it was challenging before it became something that people understood as beneficial to themselves.

Rebecca: And not just to themselves, to the bigger educational community. Yeah.
So, we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Andy: I can talk about a project Sally and I are working on right now, as we talked about earlier, summer enrollment was seen as this potential mechanism to drive student success. And so we did a really simple experiment where we just randomly assigned people to receive a free summer course and then tracked their outcomes for the two years subsequent to that summer course. So, we’re wrapping up a working paper on that. And it looks like summer has this really nice long-term effect that would be kind of hidden in the short-term data because of the fact that you don’t see impacts on retention between spring and fall. But, you do see these impacts on credit accumulation in the short run and then graduation and transfers over these shorter windows as well.

Sally: So, I think as behavioral economists, something that Andy and I are really interested in is the intersection between preferences for contracts, preferences to attend in the summer, and the impact of those kinds of contracts on your future outcome. For example, we find that instructors don’t really like these loss contracts, but they perform really well under them. We find that students don’t really want a summer scholarship, but it has a really big impact on their future outcomes. And so trying to understand this intersection of your preferences for the here and now, and how these things may or may not translate into your future outcomes, is something that I think will be really interesting for future research.

John: This is a topic we keep coming back to in other contexts, that in terms of student metacognition, that the approaches that we know are most effective for learning are the things that students tend to value the least, and tend to perceive as being less important. So this is a pretty general problem, I think.

Andy: And isn’t there data showing how students give worse evaluations to teachers that cause greater amounts of learning?

John: There was that Harvard study a few months ago in a physics program there, where they found that students believed active learning to be less effective in terms of their learning. And yet the students who were exposed to active learning techniques ended up with larger learning gains. And that was also a randomized control trial.

Andy: Yeah.

Rebecca: People just don’t know what’s good for them.

Sally: But it’s hard, because I was trained at the University of Chicago. I am a behavioral economist, but I’m also a University of Chicago economist. And I believe in respecting people’s preferences and their choices. And so we have to be very careful about how to sort of take these complex and think about how to translate them into policy.

John: In terms of gentle nudges that work well.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much for joining us, it’s been really interesting.

John: It’s always better when there’s economists on.

Rebecca: I’m always outnumbered.

John: This has been fascinating, thank you.

Andy: Thank you.

Sally: Thank you so much 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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110. Fostering a Growth Mindset

Some students with fixed mindsets enter our classes expecting to be unsuccessful while others believe that they have a natural talent in the discipline. In either case, these students often get discouraged when they experience challenging tasks. In this episode, Sarah Hanusch and John Myers join us to discuss how they have revised their classes and used metacognitive exercises to help students develop a growth mindset and to recognize the benefit of learning from mistakes. Sarah and John are both Assistant Professors in the Department of Mathematics at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

Transcript

John K.: Some students with fixed mindsets enter our classes expecting to be unsuccessful while others believe that they have a natural talent in the discipline. In either case, these students often get discouraged when they experience challenging tasks. In this episode, we examine how two faculty members have revised their classes and used metacognitive exercises to help students develop a growth mindset and to recognize the benefit of learning from mistakes.

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John K.: 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 K.: …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]

Rebecca: Our guests today are Sarah Hanusch and John Myers. Sarah and John are both Assistant Professors in the Department of Mathematics at SUNY-Oswego. Welcome, John and welcome back, Sarah.

Sarah: Thank you.

John M.: Thank you.

John K.: Our teas today are?

Sarah: None today

John M.: Yeah, imaginary tea. No tea for me.

Rebecca: The imaginary tea…that’s what my daughter likes to drink. That kind.

John M.: Yeah, I’m in good company there&hellp;

Rebecca: I have English afternoon.

John K.: And I have a ginger tea.

Rebecca: We invited you here today to talk a little bit about how you’ve introduced a project on metacognition in some of your mathematics courses. Can you tell us a little bit about the project?

John M.: Sure, this began, I believe, in the spring of 2018 in a Calculus I course. And the idea was that, Calculus I is known across, basically the entire country…every school in the country…as being a very difficult course. So, you have a lot of students who are coming in, especially in the spring semester, who had bad experiences with calculus in the past. And in particular, I’ve been told by some colleagues that there’s going to be some students in there that more support than I suppose you would imagine. The situation was that on the very first day of class, I had students coming in who have had bad experiences with it in the past. And then at the same time, I have the students that are typically high performing. And they have difficult times also with perfection, you know, being obsessed with 4.0s and grades and that type of stuff. So the idea was that I wanted to simultaneously address failure with the students and perfection at the same time. And I was sort of led to think about this metacognition project, actually, funnily enough, on a flight back from San Diego. I was at what are called the joint meetings for mathematicians, and a lot of progressive newer teaching techniques are talked about at this conference. And I’m flying back from the conference on the airplane and I’m getting really introspective and I’m thinking like, I really need to do something to talk to my kids about failure and perfection. And then it occurred to me that there was this blog post that I had just read a couple weeks before by a mathematician by the name of Matt Boelkins at Grand Valley State University. And he had this idea for a metacognitive project that addressed all sorts of things like growth mindset, fixed mindset, productive failure, and all these different things. And I decided about a week before classes started that this is what I was going to do.

Rebecca: That’s when all the best ideas happen.

John M.: I know…right before class and on an airplane. I get really introspective when I’m on airplanes and staring out the window and thinking of all the big things in life and stuff.

Sarah: And essentially, John came to me and said, “I’m thinking about doing this project.” And I said “Well, that sounds cool. And let’s see if we can measure if it has any positive effect or not.” So, I sort of came in on the research side of it…of “let’s see if this is effective for changing attitudes towards mathematics.” And since then, I’ve stolen the project to use in my own classes. But, it really started as I came in sort of more on the research side of things

John M.: I think stolen might have been a strong word, but…

Sarah: I didn’t ask…I just took it. [LAUGHTER]

John K.: For the research project did you do pre- and post-tests on attitudes?

Sarah: We did a pre- and post-test, we use an assessment called MAPS which is the Mathematics Attitudes and Perceptions Survey. It’s a 31-item survey. It assesses, I think, it’s seven different dimensions. Some of them are growth mindset. Do they view mathematics as being answer focused or process focused? The categories were growth mindset, the applicability of mathematics to the real world, their confidence in mathematics, their interest in mathematics, their persistence in mathematics, their ability to make sense of mathematics, and do they view mathematics as being answer focused or process focused?

John K.: Sounds like a good instrument. Before we talk about the results, let’s talk a little bit more about how you implemented it. How was the project structured in terms of what activities did the students do during the class?

John M.: So the idea was that over the entire semester, they would have a selection of articles online to read, they would have a selection of YouTube videos to watch and it was essentially experts that are addressing these various topics. So, like for example, there is a clip by Carol Dweck, one of the originators of the theory of growth and fixed mindsets, and they were to watch these clips and read these articles across the semester. And then I think it was probably with two weeks or three weeks left in the semester, they’d have to write a reflective essay. It was an attempt to sort of shift the culture in the classroom towards viewing mistakes and failure as productive and as opportunities for learning. Because I think in wider culture, everybody believes that math is just about the right answer. And that if you can’t get the right answer, then there’s no worth in whatever effort it was that you put in to get to that point. And I wanted to provide sort of a counterpoint to that, so a counter narrative. Being honest about how many times per day mathematicians actually do fail, you know, that type of thing. So yeah, the main component was this essay that was reflecting on the stuff that they read and watched over the semester, and then there was sort of like daily conversations.

John K.: Were the conversations online or were they in class conversations?

John M.: In class…in office hours, just kind of whenever they popped up. I remember a couple conversations that happened after I gave back exams, for example, or rather right before I gave back exams. So for example, I would say, you know, I’m about to hand back exams. And I want you when you see the score, when you put the paper over and see your score, I want you to immediately think how are you going to frame this result in your mind. Are you going to look at that score and be happy with it and chalk it up to just your natural talents? Or are you going to say, “Oh, this is a result of hard work?” And then if you’re not happy with your score, are you going to put it away and never look at again, or are you going to engage with your mistakes and make them productive mistakes? It was sort of intervention through conversation that happened on an almost daily basis.

Rebecca: Did you notice a difference in the kinds of conversations you were having in class because they were doing these readings and watching these videos, maybe conversations you hadn’t experienced before in the classroom?

John M.: Yes. In particular, I had students come into office hours and they were relentless with trying to understand the material because they knew that they were going to have another shot to get it right. And I had never experienced that before. In fact, in one of my student’s essays, I had a student tell me that when she’s not done well on exams in the past, she would just take the exam and stuff it into her book bag and never look at it again. And she told me that just because of because of how I was structuring the course that she doesn’t do that anymore. She actually pulls it out and engages with the mistakes and the comments that I put on the exam and comes and talks to me about the exam and everything. So I did see a change in the students.

John K.: Was some of it based on the reflections or was it also partly based on a restructuring of a course to give students more opportunities to redo things or to try things again?

John M.: I believe the latter had something to do with it. Because the idea was that I could say these things out loud to them. But I wanted to actually build components into the course in addition to the essay that sort of reflect the themes that I’m trying to communicate to them.

John K.: Telling them that they can learn from mistakes, if you don’t give them the opportunity…

John M.: Right.

John K.: …to learn from mistakes might not be as productive. I think both components are really valuable. I just want to make sure we were clear on that, too.

John M.: I think that you risk sounding like a cliche motivational poster, if you don’t actually put some meat on the bones with it.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some ways that you actually built that into the course?

John M.: I did test corrections. I don’t remember exactly, I think it was get back half the credit they missed or something like that. So, the idea was that they had to engage with the mistakes on their exams and correct them. And it had to be perfect. So they had a week to turn in their test corrections, and then I would re-grade them. This was very time consuming, as you might imagine, but the students I believe, really responded to it. It really sort of hooked in with the theme that I was trying to send.

Sarah: And since then, we’ve both moved to more mastery based grading. John before I did, but a system where students keep trying things until they get it right. And that really helps sort of drive that “learn from your mistakes” message home.

John K.: Are you able to do some of that in an automated way? Or is this all involving more grading on your part?

Sarah: The way I’m doing it, unfortunately, it’s more grading on my part. Although I will say this semester I’m doing these mastery based quizzes, but I’m not collecting homework. So, it’s kind of a toss up in terms of how much…it isn’t really extra grading. I’m just grading more things in another category.

John M.: Right, I would not do test corrections again. Not only was it a lot of time to grade, but then I had issues with academic honesty. The mastery based thing I have found is, I believe, much more effective.

John K.: Another thing you may want to consider that we’ve talked about in a couple of past podcasts is having a two-stage exam, where in the first stage, they do it themselves. And then you have them break up into groups and do either all the questions or a subset of those as a group. So, you’ve got some peer instruction going on as well…and that way it’s done right in class and it can be done, if the exam is short enough or the class period is long enough you can do both of it. A common practice is to do two-thirds say individual and then one-third for the group activity, which has many of the same things. They don’t know what they’ve gotten wrong, but when they’re sharing with their peers, they’re talking it over and it means you only have to grade the group exams on the second stage, which makes it a whole lot easier than individual ones.

John M.: Right. Yeah, I have a friend I believe he has done that stuff like that. So yeah,

John K.: The Carl Wieman Science Education Institute, I believe, has a lot of information on that. I’ve been doing it the last couple of years, and it’s been working really well. Doug Mckee was a guest on an earlier podcast, we talked about that as well. Are there other things we want to talk about in terms of what you’ve done in the courses?

Sarah: One thing that we’ve both done since this initial project is we’ve taken some of the ideas of this project, but interspersed it more throughout the course. One thing I know at the time that John observed was that he felt like a lot of the students started the projects in the last week, right? And so what I’ve done instead of doing a big project of these topics is I’ve taken these articles and done the second week of class, you have to read one of them and respond on it. And then the fourth week, you have to do another one, and so on. So it’s a little bit of it throughout the whole course instead of all loaded at the end. I think it helps having some of those conversations with the students as well because they’re not just seeing the ideas in the conversations. They’re not just seeing the ideas in the paper. They’re kind of seeing both and it just helps intersperse it a little bit throughout the semester. I know I’ve done that a couple times now. I think you’ve done that since as well.

John M.: I did a pre-semester sort of essay and then I did a post-semester essay. But it was in response to the first time we did that, which is referred into the paper, and one of my students actually told me in their essay, he was like, ‘Hey, I wish I had this at the beginning of the semester.” So yeah, it’s definitely like a “duh” moment. Like, I probably should have done something earlier in the semester, instead of waiting all until the end. But, you learn as you do these things, so. But the essays that the students wrote… I provided them with prompts just to alleviate any sort of writer’s block that they may have. But, the students who basically ignored my prompts and told me their personal stories were the essays essentially that I still remember. I had students that were straight A students that were telling me exactly what I thought was going to happen: that they’ve been the smart person their entire life, and they kind of feel trapped by being a smart person. They don’t want to take any risks because if they risk something and fail, then that’s their identity as a smart person, right? They’re not smart anymore. I’ve had students from the other end of the grading spectrum who basically told me that the first day they walked into the class before I even said anything, they were already convinced that they were going to fail the class. I had students tell me about mental health problems. I had adult learners talking about balancing life and school issues. I mean, it’s just absolutely amazing what they told me, they opened up basically. That made a big impression on me.

John K.: Tying into an earlier podcast, Judie Littlejohn and I had introduced something really similar where we have weekly discussion forums. And I also noticed the same sort of thing, that I got to know the students much better because when they were talking about some of the barriers or the issues they face, they were sharing a lot of details about their life. And you get to know them better and they also seem to form a little bit more of a tighter classroom community because they also got to know each other a little bit more.

Rebecca: It is kind of interesting how when students are talking about their process or who they are as learners, is very different than talking about the subject matter. And it does get them to open up and may be engaged with faculty in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise.

John M.: And I have found being honest about my own failures in the past has been a catalyst for conversation, right? Because they view us as professors, they view us as the authority figures, the experts in that we never fail. And basically telling them how many times I fail on a daily basis in my own mathematical research. It goes a long way, I think… finding common ground with them. And acknowledging how difficult the subject material is. I mean, there’s a reason that calculus has a high failure rate because it’s a hard course, among other reasons. Yeah, just having the humility with the students and kind of stepping down off of the pedestal in front of them, I think that it helps.

Rebecca: So do you want to share some of the results that you got from your study?

Sarah: We saw some very significant quantitative results. I mentioned the MAPS instrument is what we use. It’s a 31-point scale. Its reliability and validity has been established pretty well, especially in calculus classes. One of the things that they did was they looked to see if the items were consistent with expert consensus…. So, with how mathematicians view it and all of the items were valid with the attitudes of mathematicians except some of the growth mindset scales. Research says that that’s an important scale as well. And on this 31-point scale, we saw an almost 4-point improvement from pre-test to post-test…of the students becoming more aligned with the expert opinions, which is a really significant amount…I mean, almost 10% improvement, which is even more remarkable, because when this assessment was first validated, they found that there was usually a negative result from taking a Calculus I class. So, the attitudes get worse pre-post in a calculus class and ours had statistically significant improvement. In addition, we saw statistically significant improvement among all of the sub scales. Now some of them were better than others. Some were just barely below .05 in terms of significance and others were much more significant. I mean, we really saw that over the course of this semester, they really did change their attitudes. We also had some evidence, as John’s already talked about, from their essays…where they said how they started to view mistakes as productive, and they started to feel like there was value in making mistakes and learning from them.

John K.: You mentioned alignment with an expert scale, can you explain that for our listeners?

Sarah: Essentially, what the original authors and it was Code et. al. that did this paper and develop this instrument. They gave this survey to students and they gave it to mathematicians and looked for alignment. Particularly they were looking for whether or not the mathematicians agreed on the items. And the idea was our goal is to get math students to have attitudes more like mathematicians, because that’s our goal, right? …is to develop future mathematicians. And so we would like those attitudes to get closer to how mathematicians view mathematics. They had high agreement among the mathematicians on every item, like I said, except one or two of the growth mindset questions. So, in other words, this survey reflects how mathematicians view mathematics. And that was how they determined the right answers on the survey, whether a particular item is something you should agree with or something you should disagree with. They went with the expert consensus.

John K.: So now, I may be misconstruing this, but are you suggesting that perhaps a lot of mathematicians had adopted a fixed mindset? So, there was a bit more variance there on that?

Sarah: I will say that was what the results of their validation showed.

John K.: Okay.

Sarah: And leave it at that. [LAUGHTER]

John K.: It does remind me of that study a few months ago, that found that when instructors had a growth mindset, the achievement gap narrowed and the drop-fail-withdrawal rate was much lower in courses, then for those instructors who had a fixed mindset. I think that maybe even more of an issue in the STEM fields than it is in humanities and social sciences, but I think it’s not uncommon everywhere.

Rebecca: I say it’s a common problem everywhere.

John M.: I’ll say it…mathematicians suffer from fixed mindsets. I’ll just say it, right? [LAUGHTER]

John K.: Many academics do.

Sarah: Yeah.

John M.: Yes, of course.

Sarah: I mean, the people who choose to become academics are often the people that were successful in school and they decide to continue with it. I mean, it is less likely that people who felt unsuccessful decide to keep going and to go into academia.

John K.: Selectivity bias there and that reinforces a belief in a fixed mindset, perhaps.

Sarah: Precisely.

Rebecca: What kind of response have you seen from students from…I mean, it sounds to me like this one study lead to good results, and then that changed many classes in that you’ve taught or the way that you’re teaching, how have students responded?

Sarah: Generally positively. I think doing the projects at the end of the semester wasn’t the best idea because they just feel so overwhelmed at the end of the semester with exams and projects and everything coming due. So, I did get some responses of “W hy do I have to do this now.” But generally, I think they appreciated learning about learning.

John M.: I think that given the opportunity to talk about their past experiences, I think they appreciated that. For the most part, I’ll agree with Sarah. I think that the message landed with an awful lot of students like I wanted it to. Some of my favorite essays were students who told me that they thought I was crazy on the first day. I mean, you go into a math class to learn math, you don’t go into a math class to study metacognition, or whatever it may be. I had one student the first time around, who basically told me it was all a load of crap, like why this is not working at all. And I had a student the last time that I did this, she was very skeptical towards the end even. Basically, aliken it to just some cheesy self-help stuff. I think that most students responded positively.

Rebecca: Have you seen the response impact other faculty in your area? For example, if they really liked having those techniques and things introduced in your class, have they asked other math faculty to do that in future classes or are you finding that its not many math students who were actually in that particular class?

Sarah: We haven’t done any tracking, so I don’t know where his students have gone. I mean, I’m sure some of them went on to Calc II…I’m sure some of them did not. Right. I mean, I guess most of them would have had Jess the following semester, right? Did she say anything?

John M.: No, she didn’t say anything. I’m teaching Calc III right now, and I have some of my former calculus students that were in this and they’re doing well.[LAUGHTER] Small sample size, but yeah, they’re doing well.

John K.: That could be an interesting follow up though to see how successful they were in the subsequent classes.

Sarah: Yeah.

Rebecca: Sometimes we’ve heard anecdotes, of departments and things when there’s been change that if students really respond well to whatever the techniques are, that they will demand it of other faculty members, and John’s talked about this before in economics.

John K.: Yeah, when you can show results…

Rebecca: Yeah.

John K.: …that there’s been some gain, and especially if it comes from students at the same time, it often puts pressure on other people in the department because if you’re able to show people that your technique has been successful and students are coming in and saying, “G ee, I wish you would consider doing this. I did this in my intro classes, and it was really helpful.” That sometimes helps make change much easier.

Sarah: Yeah, so one of the things that we did look at was we compared the final exam scores of John’s sections to the other sections of calculus that semester. Now, there was some other issues that clouded that data a little bit. His scores were a little bit lower than the other instructors. But what was really surprising, essentially, if you look at, I don’t remember if it were just the final exams or the semester grades. The DF rates were the same among the sections, but the withdrawal rates were significantly different. And that almost no one withdrew from John’s sections. I think there were two if I remember the data correctly, whereas there was like five or six on average from the other sections. And so the DFW rates were different, but the DF rates weren’t. So I just thought that was an unusual circumstance. So, it seems like the students were sticking with his class… and pushing through.

John K.: And if there is a larger portion of students staying with the class, then perhaps a slightly lower average grade is not necessarily a bad sign…

Sarah: Exactly.

John K.: …because student success is partly measured for persistence to completing the course.

Sarah: Exactly. I think because there were more students who stuck it through to the final exam, then his final exam scores ended up being a little bit lower. But again, if you looked at like overall course grades, they ended up being pretty consistent, other than the W rates. I wanted to make sure that there weren’t significant differences in the rates and I think it was just shy of being statistically significant. Like, if you had one more student that would’ve been significant. But just to make sure that, especially like adding the test corrections in wasn’t substantially making the class too easy, right? Because that’s often a critique that, you know, “Well you make these changes, but is that just making the class too easy and people who aren’t really prepared, are they passing?” And so I just did this analysis of the, like I said, it was really just a t-test analysis, but just to see whether or not it was significantly lower and it wasn’t significant. It was lower, right, just not significantly. And then like I said, I looked at retention rates just more as an explanation for why the average was lower.

John K.: In a lot of studies of interventions, the dependent variable is the drop-fail-withdrawal rates, because that’s a measure of success in completing the course. That by itself could be an interesting focus of a study. I’ve been running this metacognitive cafe in my online classes for a while and I did have a student in the class who wrote a few times about the metacognitive development that was introduced in one of your classes. They didn’t specify who but they said, we’re also doing some work on metacognition in the math class, and they said it was really useful and it was nice to see it in two classes.

Sarah: Yay!!

John M.: Good.

John K.: So there’s at least one positive data point there or one additional data point there. So are you going to continue this in the future? And if so, what might you do differently?

Sarah: Well, I think we’ve mentioned already that we’ve worked on including some of the ideas at the beginning of the semester and throughout the semester, rather than one project at the end. For the reason that it really benefits them most at the beginning of the semester when things are getting started. I think we’ve also both changed different things about our grading systems to incorporate more opportunities for growth.

John M.: The last time I did this, I introduced some articles that were a little bit more rigorous with the data and the science, because I sort of wanted to counter that kind of criticism that all this “Oh this is just a bunch of TED Talks…” that kind of thing. So, I really wanted the students to see some of the science behind it, the science of learning, because I really wanted to send that message that “No, this is not me just standing up here saying, ‘Oh, this is going to help you or anything, right?’ This is actually stuff that researchers have thought about before.”

John K.: I had a very similar response the first time I did this. I had a video I posted which was a TED talk by a cognitive scientist who talked about research that showed that learning styles were a myth. And some students had come to believe in the existence of learning styles because they’ve heard of them and often been tested, multiple times in multiple years, on their learning styles. Sometimes even through college and that’s rather troubling. The students said, “Well, this is just one researcher, I’m sure there’s lots of other studies. I don’t believe it because it’s not consistent with what I’ve always been told or what I’ve heard.” So I decided to modify it then and I added to that discussion, five or six research studies. In case you don’t believe this TED talk by someone who’s done a lot of research on this, here’s a number of studies, including some meta analyses of several hundred studies of this issue, and that has cut much of that discussion. They’re less likely to argue against it when it’s not just a talking head or not just a video when they can actually see a study even if they don’t understand all the aspects of it.

Sarah: Yeah. So I think that’s one thing we’ve tweaked what articles and what videos are we showing. I know the semester I gave my students a article that had just come out this September, that students perceive active learning as being less efficient, even when they’re learning more. In some physics classes at Harvard, they gave two weeks at each thing… two weeks of active and two weeks of lecture, and then they had them switch. And the students learned more with the active learning, but felt they learned less. And my students have been feeling frustrated because they feel like they’re not learning enough and that I’m not telling them what to do.

Rebecca: You’re not “teaching” them.

Sarah: I’m not teaching them. And we spend the class period, letting them vent. So all their feelings were out in the open. But, then I sort of countered with this article saying, “Look, I promise you really are learning things. You just don’t feel like you are. But you really, really are. And you’re actually learning it better than if I were using a different style.” So, that’s one way that we’re tweaking the articles because sometimes the research comes out that’s pertinent.

John K.: We refer to that Harvard study in a few past podcasts. We touched on it in a podcast that will release on October 9th. I haven’t shared it with my class yet, but I’ve been tempted to.

Rebecca: What was the discussion like talking about that particular article? Given that they were frustrated?

Sarah: I mostly was just trying to acknowledge that I understand their frustrations…and that, yes, the way I’m teaching this class can be frustrating. I agree. Sometimes I get frustrated about it. But I know that ultimately, they are learning things and that they are going to be stronger writers and stronger students of mathematics by using this structure. And so I kind of use it as evidence of I’m not changing.

Rebecca: So I hear you…

Sarah: Yeah.

Rebecca: …nut…

Sarah: I hear you, but…

John K.: I had this very conversation with my class today. They’re coming up for an exam very shortly. And I asked them, how did they review before an exam and the most common answer was they like to reread the material over and over again. And I mentioned some of the research on that. And I said, the best way to review is to work on problems with this. And I gave them several ways in which they could do that, that are built into the course structure. And I said, “But that doesn’t feel as effective. Why?” And one of the students said, “Well, I get things wrong.” And I said, “And when would you rather get things wrong, when you’re reviewing for an exam, or when you’re taking exams?” And I think some of them got that message. So I’m hoping we’ll see when they take the test next week.

John M.: Right? It seems like anytime you do anything that’s just not a standard straight lecture, there’s a certain amount of buy in that you need to get from the students. And sometimes that can be very difficult. There’s almost a salesmanship that you have to do throughout the semester to make sure that everybody’s on the same page and to kind of fight those feelings where the students give you a lot of pushback. Yeah, that’s the great fear is that when you innovate or you experiment that’s going to go horribly wrong. And sometimes it does, but, you know, we still keep going.

John K.: Because students are creatures of habit. They’ve learned certain things and they want to keep doing things the same way. And anything new can seem troubling, especially if they’re getting feedback along the way that says they need to work more on things…that’s not as pleasant as rereading things and having everything look familiar.

John M.: Right

Rebecca: Passively sitting in a lecture when things all seem like it makes perfect sense to you, because an expert is describing it who knows what they’re talking about, right? Always feels easier than trying to apply it yourself. And I think that students, even though the lecture might feel better, and learning is hard…over time…at the end, when they’ve seen how much they’ve accomplished, and you do have them reflect…many of them appreciate or come around. Sometimes, it’s not in that same semester, sometimes it’s emails, months or years later.

John K.: Yes.

John M.: Right. Right, right.

Sarah: If only if we could do course evals, you know, a whole year later,

John K.: Or five years later. That may not work too well in my tenure process, though.

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

Sarah: Well, the first thing is we’re hoping our article gets published. It’s been submitted. We’re waiting for reviewers. I’m going on maternity leave next semester…that’s really what’s next.

Rebecca: Sounds like a new adventure.

Sarah: It is a brand new adventure.

John M.: Wow, I don’t think that far ahead, I guess. Yeah, I guess I’m that unoriginal, huh. But, yeah, no I’m just trying to…

Sarah: We’re moving to a new building.

John M.: Yeah, moving to a new building, and getting a new department chair. Yeah, that’s right.

John K.: A new desk to go with the chair?

John M.: No. Ah… Yeah, funny, funny, funny.

Sarah: if only…

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us, this has been really interesting.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John K.: Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Kiara Montero.

109. Active Learning

Moving from a familiar instructional format such as lectures to a more active learning environment can be daunting. In this episode, Dr. Patricia Gregg joins us to discuss how she flipped her classes and embraced active learning. Trish is an Assistant Professor of Geophysics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Moving from a familiar instructional format such as lectures to a more active learning environment can be daunting. In this episode, we share the story of one faculty member who fully flipped her classes and embraced active learning.

[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: Today our guest is Dr. Patricia Gregg. Trish is an Assistant Professor of Geophysics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Welcome.

Trish: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Trish: I am drinking a peppermint decaf tea.

Rebecca: …in what looks like a very nice handmade mug.

Trish: Yes! This was made last summer at the YMCA of the Rocky Camp in Colorado.

John: My tea today is a Harney and Sons chocolate mint.

Trish: Mhmm.

Rebecca: And I have a Prince of Wales tea today.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about some of the active learning techniques that you’ve used in your class and also a little bit about how you use a flipped classroom approach. But, before that, could we talk a little bit about your own experience in science classes, and whether active learning was common while you were a student?

Trish: I was thinking about this and it’s interesting because it’s sort of a yes or no type of situation. Geosciences in general is the fun major in that we pull together a lot of different disciplines. So, you have chemistry and physics and math and computer science and you’re using those all in applied ways to understand the structure and evolution of the earth. And so our classes typically have a lecture-based meeting time and then a laboratory that’s associated with it. So, when I was matriculating, most of my classes, there would be three one-hour meetings throughout the week where we’d be lectured at, and then we’d have a three-hour laboratory class at some point during the week or a field experience that would help to apply some of the knowledge that we gained in the passive-learning setting. But, then as you get at higher levels, and things become more theoretical, it really did switch to more of this passive-learning mode. And I don’t want to age myself, but I matriculated a while ago, so I didn’t ever really experience these new active-learning techniques that have become so much more widely adopted nowadays. So, even through graduate school, most of the classes were me sitting passively scribbling furiously to try to take notes as quickly as I could, while a professor lectured and basically tried to stuff as much knowledge into my brain as possible. So, I didn’t really know a lot about the types of things that you can do to engage learners until after I was out of that student mode. But, yeah, geology is cool, though, because you still do have active portions where you get to go on field trips with your professors, and they show you things in the field and you apply that knowledge directly. But, in the classroom, it really was sort of divided, like, “This is your passive lecture that you’re going to sit and listen to, and you may never get called on through the entire semester.” And then “Here’s your lab where you will look at a microscope and look at hand samples or do other types of things that are a little more active.”

Rebecca: What motivated you to do something different in your own classroom?

Trish: As a graduate student, I really didn’t have a chance to do a teaching assistantship. I was on fellowships through most of my PhD time. So, I knew that I was woefully underprepared for entering academia and teaching my own classes. So, as a postdoc, I applied to this call that I saw out by the Center for Astronomy Education. And it was in 2011, they had this course called Improving College General Education and Earth Astronomy and Space Science through Active Engagement. And I saw the ad for this course and I thought, “Oh, this sounds great.” And then I saw that it was three days in Hawaii, and I said, “Oh, man, I must apply to this.”[LAUGHTER] And so I applied and it was mostly astronomy graduate students and postdocs, and the workshop was run by Ed Prather and Gina Brissenden out of the University of Arizona through the Center for Astronomy Education. And they had been doing all this amazing research about how to engage students in 100-level classes, mainly for the idea that they would sort of entrain new majors and new science students. But, it was just a mind blowing experience. I for the first time learned what think-pair-share was, I’d never heard of that before. We did lecture tutorials, I didn’t even know that was a thing. They did all of these, like voting and role playing and these different pedagogical things that I didn’t even know it existed. And they use them on us throughout the workshop. So, we were learning about these techniques through them actively using us as guinea pigs. And then we each had the opportunity to sort of develop a little module. They gave us specific astronomy, like 101-type things, that we would be teaching and we got to teach the other workshop participants and get feedback immediately on things that we didn’t do so well and things that we could improve on. But, it really just blew my mind. I think that was one of the most transformative experiences for me because, up to that point, all the experiences that I had, had been very research focused and how to improve as a scientist and how to improve my research approach, but I’d never had an opportunity to actually learn how to teach and how to teach effectively. So, yeah, I credit that three-day workshop in Hawaii, which was awesome… to be in Hawaii. It’s just sort of changing my entire worldview on how education can be and how I could be a better educator. Had it not been for the Center for Astronomy Education, I don’t know what I would be doing now. So, I think what I took away from it more than anything is that not every student is going to learn simply through lecture… passive engagement… type of situation. And I was fortunate that I seemed to do well in that mode, but it was amazing. I loved that workshop……. It was great.

Rebecca: It sounds really transformative. But, the one takeaway that I hear is next time we want a faculty member to change what they’re doing, we just need to woo them to Hawaii. [LAUGHTER]

Trish: Well, I have to admit that being a postdoc gave me some flexibility in that regard. So, yeah, when I saw that call, I was like, “Oh, I want to do that… three days in Hawaii.” I took my mom with me and she hung out and snorkeled during the day while I was in workshops. It was wonderful.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about some of the techniques that you’ve used in your classes?

Trish: The first semester that I taught, I was given a class that had already been developed and it was sort of easing me into that mode of becoming the head lecturer of a course. So, I didn’t really have a lot of wiggle room to change the curriculum yet, because I was still sort of learning how one gets in front of a class and does things. And so in that first term, I started to use some of the approaches that I had experienced through the Center for Astronomy Education, and sort of trickled them into my class. I use lecture tutorials and think-pair-share a lot during that term. And then I even used some small group activities and jigsawing to try to figure out ways that I could engage the students. And it was sort of a perfect situation to get my feet wet because I had the scaffolding of a well- developed course where I could put in some of my own ideas and try them out and if things weren’t working, I could get immediate feedback from the students and change my trajectory. I was also really fortunate that the students were super kind to me, it was my very first time teaching, I told them straight out. I was very communicative throughout the course. Every time I tried something new, I’d say, “okay, we’re going to try this. I don’t know if it will work, but this is why I’m doing it.” And the students were sort of brought in as collaborators in that process, so they didn’t see me as sort of this professor that was telling them “Oh, you’re going to do this, this and this and just follow along and trust me blindly.” They realized that I was trying to learn how best to teach them and so they were very helpful and when things didn’t work, they’re like, “Yeah that didn’t work.” And then when things went well, they say, “Oh, I really liked that.” And even after that semester, I’d get emails from students. They do a lot of journal reading and science reviews. And one of the students had emailed me over the summer and said “Oh, that really helped. At my first job they asked me to review some literature and I was able to use the template that you provided in class and what we did as groups to do that for my job.” So, I gained a lot of confidence through that process. And then after that first term, I started looking around campus to see if there were faculty development potential to help me to do a better job of developing my next courses. Because while that one had already been developed, I was then sort of slated to develop three new courses, which would be mine and I’d have to start from scratch and really think about how I wanted to develop my teaching as a portfolio. So, one of the things that I really wanted to try was this idea of flipping and mainly it came from a place that I didn’t enjoy lecturing. I would get bored hearing myself talk… like there would be times where I’m up there at the dry erase board writing out things and then suddenly I forget what I was saying, because mentally I’d fallen asleep at that point… like, alright, I’ve been talking so long, I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore. And I enjoyed the parts where we were actively learning as a group so much more. That was so exciting to me, where the students were doing things hands on, and I could walk around and help them to gain more insight on what they’re working on. So, I contacted the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning on campus and looked at the different things that they had available. And one of the facilities that they had advertised on their page was the Illinois iFLEX classroom. So, this is the Illinois flexible learning experience classroom. And I was able to get some training on how to use IFLEX classrooms from Dr. Eva Wolf here on campus. And that also then immediately changed my perspective of how teaching could be because these were classrooms where all of the tables were on wheels. So, you could move them around. They had monitors that students could plug in their computers or laptops, iPads or whatever too so that they could do collaborative learning. And she showed me some of the things that other faculty members were doing in these flexible spaces and it helped me to be inspired to think about what sorts of things I could do. So, as I started to develop my next class, I was like “Alright, I want to be able to use the computing facilities, I want to be able to use these flexible classroom configurations and I really want it to be flipped.” So, the first time I taught a flipped class, I recorded lectures and put them online and naively thought my students are going to watch them and they’re going to do the readings and they’re going to come to class prepared, and I did not have the assessment structured as such that the students had points awarded for doing those things. And boy did I learn quickly that students are not going to be these wonderfully motivated pupils that do all of the things on the list ahead of coming to class. So, I quickly spoke to colleagues around the department and found out about this edtech tool called PlayPosit. I don’t know have you guys had an experience with PlayPosit?

Rebecca: No.

John: That one I haven’t heard of.

Trish: So, PlayPosit is an edtech tool that you can integrate with a learning management system. We use Moodle on our campus. And you take your video lectures, and it embeds questions and prompts within your video lecture. So, students can’t fast forward and they don’t know when these questions are going to pop up. But, it’s a way to assess how they’re doing with the video… with the lecture as they’re watching it. So, sometimes I’ll use multiple-choice questions. In the upper-level classes I mostly use essay questions because I really want them to delve into the topic a little bit more. I also sprinkle in questions from the readings that they’re supposed to do because it’s another way to assess that they’re actually looking at the text or reading the papers that I’ve suggested. And then at the end, it’s great because you can put in some questions about what concepts did you not understand? What do you want to learn more about? Are there sticking points that are kind of confusing you? And this fed directly into learning about the just-in-time teaching method. So, I could have these PlayPosits that the students had to watch before class and I set them for midnight the day before. And I could come in the morning before class, assess how they did on the lecture and immediately I have a lot of information going into the classroom that day for where they’re stuck and I could modify my approach to the learning goals for that day based on how they did on their PlayPosit. And that just changed everything. That made it so much better, and I think from the students perspective, they felt more accountable because there were points that were associated to watching these lectures. And then I would come into class and the first thing I would do is sort of go through the questions and the things that they missed and talk to them about it. And it gave this really nice back and forth. And it sort of broke the ice a bit, because there’s always that little awkward start when you get into classroom, or at least there is for me, and this was an easy way for, say, “Okay, so on the lecture that you guys completed for yesterday, here are some topics that you didn’t really understand. So, let’s go through them together and maybe we can make sure that everyone’s on the same page.” And that sort of changed the game for me for the flipped classroom model.

John: Going back to the PlayPosit, you can also do the same thing with Camtasia and upload the videos as a SCORM package into Blackboard, Canvas, or other things as well.

Trish: Oh, I have to check that out.

John: Once the students arrived in class, you mentioned that you used a just-in-time teaching approach. How did you structure the class? What would your class generally consist of during the class time?

Trish: I originally taught on Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 50 minutes and realized that that was not a long enough time period for us to do what we wanted to do. So, I switched to a Tuesday-Thursday class so I could have a full hour and 20 minutes with my students twice a week. So, typically when students come to class, we have this sort of icebreaker where we go through the lecture material. And sometimes that might take 10 or 15 minutes if there’s a concept that the students really need to get for us to do our activity for the day. And then we usually go straight into a prompt for what the activity is going to be. So, for example, one of the classes that I teach… my favorite classes… junior-level class in volcanology… so, it’s just called volcanoes. And it’s a sneaky class because it’s actually a geophysics class. It’s very math and physics heavy, but I don’t tell the students that when they come, and they do not have an upper-level math requirement to take the course. And this was sort of my sneaky way to entrain students that might not realize that they can absolutely do this. So, I get a lot of diversity in that class: we’ll have communications majors, advertising, education majors, as well as the geology majors. The first time I taught the class, of the 20 students in the class only 4 were geology majors and the other 16 were just spread from throughout the campus. So, it was a really cool opportunity to empower students that “Wes, you can use math and physics and it’s not that intimidating”. So, we go straight into these activities and every exercise is quantitative. They get real geophysical data from deforming volcanoes and active volcanoes around the world, and they analyze it. And there’s a large social sciences component because I want them to think about the societal impacts of those volcanoes and potentials for eruption and how it might impact the communities that are around the volcanoes. And then also that communication thruway of how as we as scientists communicate hazards to local populations. So, they have a lot of different levels of work that they’re doing. Almost every class period is done in a jigsaw manner, where they’re broken into small groups and each small group is going to be working on some component that at the end of the class we’re going to come together and discuss. I typically start the prep of the activity, for example, “Okay, today we’re going to be looking at this type of volcano.” And maybe it’s a stratovolcano. And we’re going to look at Mount St. Helens in the US, we’re going to look at Mount Fuji in Japan, we’re going to look at Ruapehu in New Zealand. But, each group will have a different volcano. And they’re going to look at data directly from that volcano and the surrounding areas and do a small activity that helps them to understand that data set, the type of physical processing, and then at the end of class, each of the groups will come back together and present what they found to the group and then there’s some larger full-classroom group discussion questions that will go over as a class. So, it’s usually the activity I hope will take about 45 minutes, but it really depends. I try to keep them short in my mind, but then oftentimes they go a little bit long if the students get really excited about it. One of the things I think is really good about the flipped class is that I’m able to do so much more than I was able to do in sort of a classical passive learning model. And with that came a lot of grading. And so the first term I did flipped classes, I had not learned about light grading, and was buried in the amount of feedback I was trying to provide to students. So, if we had PlayPosits a couple times a week, we had these activities twice a week, they had additional outside of class things, they had midterms… so, it was unreal, the amount of grading. So, I was very fortunate to find out about light grading, and how to maybe back up the amount of feedback and time I’m spending on student papers and that really helped a lot. So, I think that one of the things that has to be said in conjunction with this particular model is: you need to do some sort of light grading, because there’s no way to stay on top of everything without losing sleep. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you adjusted your grading in specific ways?

Trish: Originally, when I did the PlayPosits, again, there are a lot of essay questions. So, I would take a lot of time to really think through the answers to the essay questions and making sure that I’d have a rubric for what I wanted, what points I wanted them to hit on each of these essay questions, and I was very detailed about when they miss things and providing feedback. And so as I shifted into a light grading model, I would do that for the first couple of weeks. And then from then on out, it would just be a quick glance, like, did they hit this? And I wouldn’t spend as much time with the subtleties of “Yes, they wrote out a great answer, and they hit all these points.” And then for just the in-class exercises, the thing I started doing too was originally I had each student turn in their own exercise, even in the groups because I wanted to see their individual contribution. But, I recognize that there was enough individual assessment through the playp osits, and through their midterms, that having that additional individual assessment through the group activity really wasn’t necessary. And it wasn’t really contributing to their success in the class. By having individual assessment on the group assignments, it wasn’t helping students who were falling behind do better. And so after that point, I started allowing the groups to just do their presentations as a Google slideshow, and then I would have their Google slideshow. So, basically, in the jigsaw puzzle, they go into their group, they work on this presentation and when we come back together, each group shows a Google slide or Google doc of what they’ve been working on, and they present it to the entire class. At that point, I just say that’s good enough and I don’t require that each student then hands in the answers to the discussion questions in their own words. So, little things like that made it a lot more tangible for me. Whereas before when I was having each student providing responses for the discussion questions, and then on top of that having the discussion in the class, it was just too much. [LAUGHTER] But, I admit that it came from a perspective that I was concerned that some students would not fully contribute to the group activity, and I wanted to try to hold people accountable, but it really was a little bit too much micromanaging. And I think that the groups ended up holding each other accountable in their own ways without needing me to sit and say, “Okay, everyone needs to answer this question.” The other thing I really like about the small groups is that I’ve noticed that it brings out a lot of discussion from students that otherwise do not participate in the larger group discussions. And one of my favorite things in those small group activities is going around the room… and I typically spend a couple minutes with each group, and I just sort of keep roving around the classroom and it helps me to get to know individual students a lot better. And it also gives them so much more confidence to talk to me. And I feel like it’s made me more approachable as an instructor because they’ve had these smaller group interactions with me where I’ve sat at their table and said, “Oh, that’s a great idea…” or “Oh, have you thought about this” and those just little micro interactions really build up and it creates a student population where they feel more comfortable in the class. And then by the end of the term, I feel like, as a class, it’s much more energetic and engaged. And even in those larger groups discussion, some of the quieter students that you would never have heard from previously are starting to speak out and oftentimes with the encouragement of their group members. That’s another thing I really like about the small group setup.

John: Could you give us some feel for the size of your classes? How large are they typically?

Trish: My typical class size is 20. I usually keep the classes up to 40 students because that’s what the flexible classroom configurations will hold. One of the interesting things about the flipped class is that the first day of class, I do tell the students, these are my expectations. This is a flipped class you’ve signed up for and we go through what that model looks like and I always have students drop after that first day. That’s kind of fascinating for me, maybe it would be nice to follow up and find out…. Did you drop because of the model that was being used in the classroom? Or did you drop because of a schedule conflict? Or were there other things going on? But, I typically end up with 20 students that end up through the entire term. I teach mostly upper-level junior-, senior-level courses. So, I’ve not had the opportunity to try these techniques in the large introductory level classes.

John: I think most of them should scale pretty nicely, except for the grading aspect of it.

Trish: Yeah, I think that were to be done in an introductory class, you probably would want to have some TAs involved as well, just to help. I recognize that other instructors do these amazing small group activities in these large format lecture classes. But, I think having the logistical setup so that you can walk around and interact with groups, maybe not every group every time, but enough so that you can hit most of the groups once in a while, would be imperative because I really think that the students greatly benefit from that almost one-on-one interactivity with the professor.

John: I teach a class typically between three and 420 students in the fall, and I do wander around and I’ve found something similar. I don’t get to sit with each group. But, the students that I do interact with become dramatically more likely to stop by and ask questions, or if they see me in the hallway, to come up and just say hello. So, those individual interactions can make a big difference in practice.

Rebecca: I think it’s just a far more efficient way to give feedback as well. You can disrupt misconceptions and reframe things for small groups. And then if you stop by a couple of groups and hear the same kinds of misconceptions, you can address those more holistically to the whole group. I found that works really well for me, too.

Trish: Yeah, absolutely. And I always get tickled when I see that. I mean, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. But, when there are lots of groups that have the same misconception, because it means that there’s something that… or a piece of information that I have not given the students or something that’s missing in how we’ve set up the activity. And that’s always kind of nice to see and it helps me to redevelop how I’m going to teach it the next time. So, I really do like that. Because otherwise, if I were just lecturing, I would never realize that there was this piece of information that nobody got until the exam comes back and at that point it’s sometimes too late.

John: That’s one of the advantages of a just-in-time teaching approach. It allows you to focus your class time on the things that students are struggling with, and to skip over the things that they already understand. So, it lets you use your class time much more efficiently.

Rebecca: At the end of one of those class periods or even during that class period, I jot down what those things are, so that if it’s a while between each semester when you teach it again you don’t forget what those are because sometimes you can lose track. So, coming up with a system to routinely to check in on those things can be really helpful.

Trish: Yeah, a journaling effort or something. Yeah.

John: And I saw you also do something called Trashcano?

Trish: [LAUGHTER] Yes, Trashcano, Trashcano is an activity that we do late in the term once the weather gets nice. In the class we talked about different styles of eruptions. And one of the styles that we get to later in the class is explosive eruptions andTrashcano is a demonstration that was developed by my colleagues at Colgate: Karen Harpp, Danny Geist, and Alison Koleszar. And they basically developed this experiment where you take a trash can and you fill it up about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way filled with water. And if you submerge a two-liter bottle with liquid nitrogen in it, that bottle represents a pressurized magma chamber and it ends up rupturing because liquid nitrogen is boiling at ambient temperature. And so the two-liter bottle ruptures in that water and creates a column that sprays into the air. So, for this activity, the students do some calculations of plume heights so they can use their iPhones to measure the angle of the trajectory of the water and they can say, “Okay, the plume went this high” and they can do some back calculations to discuss what sort of pressurization caused that amount of uplift to the water. And then we also put styrofoam balls of different sizes and shapes into the trash can. And they can make isopach maps… basically how we actually map explosive eruptions where we take the different grain sizes, and we create a map of how far the different grain sizes spread from the center of the eruption. It’s a fun day outside. This past year, we did it in the rain, which was rather interesting to see how rainfall dampens the amount of distance the styrofoam can spread. I’m not sure that we’d want to do that in the rain again, but it was an interesting experiment. Yeah, we do a lot of little things like that so that the students can take their concepts, the actual equations that we’re working on in class and apply them in a tactile, physical way.

Rebecca: Trish, do you use consistent teams throughout the semester or do you rotate how your groups are formed?

Trish: I’ve done it a couple different ways. I’ve now had the opportunity to teach my flipped classes two to three times each at this point. And some terms I do let them switch around and some terms I keep it consistent. And I’ve found that overall, it works a little better when they’re consistent teams the whole way. I feel like the students build a lot of teamwork and camaraderie with their groups. But, I don’t know… I try to take it by a term-by-term basis because I have had situations where the students are eager to switch around and meet other members of the classroom. We do this a little bit with our jigsaw discussions. So, for example, we do a role playing exercise where each group is a volcano monitoring agency. So, in your monitoring agency, you have a volcanologist, you have a seismologist, you have a geodesist you have a communication specialist, but then all the communication specialists from each group will have to get together and work as a team for one of the activities and all the geodesists will have to get together and work as a team for the activities and then bring them back to their initial group. So, they do get some chances to interact with one another through these, I don’t know, is it a jigsaw puzzle within a jigsaw puzzle? [LAUGHTER] I’m not sure how you describe it, but they do get these opportunities to move around to other groups. But, that’s something that I still am thinking a lot about. I think you had a guest on recently. Dakin Burdick. In his he talked about how sometimes he likes to let the students all which groups all the time because then they get to know everybody in the class, and then sometimes it keeps them all together. It seems like a lot of people do different things with this. I don’t have a great method yet. But, I do tend to go on a sort of term-by-term basis and get a feel for the culture of the class and how people are melding. I do find sometimes when you do the consistent groups, it can happen that the group tends to congeal really well. And then it lifts up all of the students in the group. And so people attend class more regularly, and they’re much more engaged. But, I have seen it happen where groups have sort of fallen apart because one or two members just aren’t attending regularly, and they’re really not committed or engaged. And that becomes difficult. And then you really kind of need to reshuffle a little bit.

John: We talked about that in episode in early October with Kristin Croyle when she was talking about team-based learning where there are persistent teams. And one of the things she suggested is it’s really important to form teams that are constructed to be balanced so that you don’t run into that. But, there are some advantages of having persistent teams. But, if it’s a persistent, dysfunctional team with people missing, then that could be problematic. I think a lot depends on the nature of the activities. If you’re going to have persistent activities like in team-based learning, having well defined teams may be useful, but for other types of activities that vary class to class it may not matter as much.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think there are certainly advantages to both. I’ve had experiences where we’re doing long-term projects. So, doing some preliminary shorter activities with those groups that they’re going to have for their long-term projects can be really helpful. And getting those teams gelled before it really matters. And I’ve also had experience doing persistent teams when I’ve gamified a classroom. And that actually works really well in getting people to hold each other accountable and be competitive. So, I’ve had really good luck when I’ve done that as well. You’ve also received a lot of grants for your research.

Trish: Yeah, I’m in a fortunate position that my primary position is research. So, I don’t actually teach that much. I only teach two classes a year. So, I do try to find ways to integrate all of the exciting research that my group is doing into what we do in the classroom setting, but not just my classes, the other classes in the department too. We teach a 100-level course in oceanography and a lot of my research centers around seagoing expeditions and collecting geophysical data at sea to understand submarine volcanoes. So, we try to bring that experience back into the classroom for our introductory level students. Especially in a landlocked state of Illinois, many of our students have never seen the ocean. They’ve never been to the beach, and they don’t really have a concept for why would scientists be at sea collecting data? And what are scientists doing in our marine setting? So, bringing that into our introductory classes, I think, is really critical. So, the big push there was… I was chief scientist of an expedition we’ve just wrapped up. We had two seagoing missions to the eastern Pacific, it was called the Oasis expedition. And we’re investigating a line of seamounts on the sea floor. So, these are volcanoes that have been active over the past million years, and we were using this submarine to collect data, to collect rock samples from the sea floor, and it started because I have a young daughter and I was going to be gone for about 45 days, and I wanted her to feel connected to me while I was away. We don’t really have great internet at sea, as you can imagine. So, it’s hard to continue to feel connected with loved ones at home. So, I decided with the help of my husband, to create a YouTube channel that would chronicle our life at sea and link back to my daughter’s classroom and some local schools that they could watch what scientists are doing. And then we also ended up using those videos in the introductory courses on campus at a higher level so that students could see a sort of a hands on of what we do when we’re at sea. But, yeah, it started out predominantly as me wanting to stay connected to my then six year old while I was sailing, and became a really great way to provide outreach to a broader learning ecosystem. So, lots of people throughout the community,

Rebecca: I think it might seem more obvious that students in a landlocked state don’t have experience with marine life. But, at the same time, I think that our students don’t have much experience with many professional experiences in what it’s like to be in any kind of industry or research setting. So, I think that that same methodology works in a lot of circumstances to give students exposure to what it might actually be like to be a professional in the field.

Trish: Yeah, and I really like that sort of informal blogging aspect. So, these videos were [LAUGHTER] very informal. I had a blogging camera and I basically just filmed myself doing things. And I remember at one point, my husband sent me this email that basically said, “Wow, you look really tired. Are you doing okay?” Because I just was like, “Alright, it’s 4:30 in the morning, we’re getting ready to do some scientific stuff. I’ll put my camera on me and film what we’re doing.” But, yeah, it’s an exhausting process because it’s a 24/7 operation when you’re out at sea collecting data. You have this facility. For 30, 40 days, whatever it is, and you want to use every second of it to get as much information as possible. But, I think that’s important because a lot of people don’t know like, “Oh, that’s what an ocean scientist….” well, what my particular volcanology centered ocean scientist “…does for research.” And then the other arm of my research program is very much in volcano hazard. So, that feeds directly into the volcano geophysics courses I teach because my group works on developing forecasting mechanisms and algorithms for taking volcano monitoring data and providing monitoring agencies with information about how volcanoes are evolving and we have a lot of monitoring agency partners that we’re working with to try to provide some new quantitative methods for assessing volcanic unrest. So, these are things that we’re thinking about every day, but we certainly can infuse them into classes on volcanology and volcano geophysics,

John: Having that video channel would also let you do some time shifting… where much of the work that you’re doing takes place during breaks when classes wouldn’t be in session. And it still allows you to bring this into your own classes as well. I’ve watched several of your videos, and they’re really good. We’ll share a link to those in the show notes.

Trish: Oh, great… Thanks…. [LAUGHTER] They haven’t been updated for years. But, yeah, I think the asynchronous aspect is really cool. One of the things that we struggled with when we were first doing these expeditions was we were trying to schedule, within reason, because it’s really hard to schedule your ship time because you’re working with all the other scientists that are utilizing the facility, but we’re trying to schedule them such that students could participate synchronously with what we were doing. So, while we’re out at sea we’re sending back Q&As and doing videos. But, what we found was that you could still use all of this information after the fact so students have been benefiting from these videos for the last three, four years, which is really fantastic. And I think that it’s something that a lot of fields scientists could take advantage of. For example, the Antarctic field season is when everyone’s off for holiday. But, perhaps if they’re doing these videos, that they could bring them back and create learning modules for students to see more of what is it like to be a scientist working in Antarctica during the Antarctic summer… and not in a documentary way, I felt like one of the things I really wanted to do was provide that informal feeling for students so that they could look at that and say, “Wow, I actually feel like I could do that. And I could see myself in that role.” Whereas when you have that documentary, shininess, it’s harder to imagine that it’s not this esoteric thing that you could never aspire to be as I wanted to show like, “Yes, we’re up at 4:30 in the morning and we’re tired.” Yeah. I like that.

Rebecca: I think you’re right, that that polish sometimes makes it seem really not approachable to students, or that they don’t belong in the field, or they don’t belong in the discipline. But, if you’re showing that realness in that authentic moment through your own lens, it’s really beneficial to students… and I can imagine this working in just about any context, actually, to help students understand the day in the life that they might be pursuing.

Trish: Yeah, absolutely. It would be so helpful too for K through 12 students, because a lot of times they have no idea. Geology is an interesting discipline in that we’re kind of a found discipline. Students usually come to college thinking, “Oh, I’m going to go do chemistry or I’m going to do physics or engineering…” and geology is not really on students radar, but then they start to see how they can apply chemistry, physics, engineering, and math, all in one discipline, and they sort of gravitate towards us. But, we don’t get a lot of freshmen into our major but maybe if K through 12 students saw what geologists do on a daily basis and what a career looks like, they might say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a major I could be interested in.”

Rebecca: There’s a lot of disciplines and careers that students have no idea exists. The lens in which they see the world is largely through whatever classes they’ve been taking. So, it’s like, world is math, English, science, these really broad categories of things.

John: And they see it from the textbook perspective, as a well defined body of knowledge that they just have to learn or memorize, and not as an active, ongoing endeavor. And those videos you created, and these types of connections that you’re making for students help open up that possibility to them. As part of the OASIS project, you used a variety of social media including Twitter, Reddit, and I believe you did a Reddit Ask Me Anything. Could you tell us a little bit about your use of social media for this project?

Trish: One thing that we learned very quickly is that the internet on the ship was not great. So, the day we did the Reddit Ask Me Anything, it was a day that the Alvin submarine was on the sea floor collecting samples so we knew the ship could stay in one spot. So, it’s sort of like having an aerial antenna on your old TV and you’re trying to like bend it in just the right way so you have a good connection. So, we were able to set the ship in one location and then rotate it [LAUGHTER] so that the satellite was in the right spot so we could get on Reddit, and then we had to like shut down everything using the internet and we all crowded around one computer [LAUGHTER] and did the Ask Me Anything. And I think it was a really good experience. One of the things that cracks me up is that there was a scientist on a sister ship in the northern Pacific that responded to one of our questions and said, “Hey, we’re up here on the RV Armstrong. Hello.” [LAUGHTER] Yeah, I think that they’re Reddit Ask Me Anything was a great experience. It was mostly done by the graduate students on the ship. I was sort of running around doing other things. But, it was a great way, again, to provide outreach. It gives you a demographic that otherwise you may not have interacted with, which I think is important.

Rebecca: Sounds like another sneaky method, like not telling students that your volcano class has math in it. [LAUGHTER]

Trish: Yes. Exactly…[LAUGHTER] Exactly.

John: We always end the podcast by asking, what are you doing next?

Trish: One of the things that we’re working on right now, as I mentioned, we’ve collected a lot of video at sea and on the last expedition, we collected a lot of virtual reality 3D video with GoPro fusion. So, we use GoPro fusions to collect really nice 3D videos on the ship. So, things like how the scientists were cleaning tube worms that were collected from hydrothermal vents and how they’re processing rocks and just the day-to-day life on the ship. So, we collected all this virtual reality video and now we’re working with colleagues and the CITL, the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning on campus to develop VR modules for introductory classes. And this is been a really crazy learning experience for me because one of our goals is to give these experiences to students that would not necessarily ever have a chance to go to sea or to do this type of work. But, building and structuring the learning goals for these VR experiences is really difficult and I didn’t realize how big of a leap it would be from just the video content and lectures to creating a VR structured activity for students. And there’s some really cool things they’re doing here on campus. The medical school’s been doing a lot with VR techniques for med students and different procedures in VR. And there’s an Archaeology Professor on campus who’s been using it to like simulate an archaeological dig using VR. So, we’re working with some really amazing educators. And hopefully, that will come out with some fascinating modules for our students and upcoming offerings of our oceanography class. But, that’s sort of the big thing that we’re doing right now. I’m kind of excited to see how that will turn out.

John: We talked a little bit by email about you and your husband coming back on later to talk about some of that work. So, for our listeners, we will be revisiting this sometime in the next couple months, I think.

Trish: Yeah, hopefully we have a paper in review right now, where we look at asynchronous linkages to field expeditions and ways that you can collect videos and content while you’re in the field, sort of non-disciplinary-specific, of course we’re looking at marine sciences. But, again, you could use it in other fields and how you can bring that back to produce learning modules for your classrooms.

Rebecca: …sounds really exciting.

John: We’re looking forward to hearing more about that as well.

Trish: Thanks.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been really interesting.

Trish: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you guys. And I really appreciated your podcast, it’s been so inspirational to me and my work. I really appreciate it. ‘

John: It’s been a lot of fun for us too. We get to talk to people in depth. Normally, when we gave workshops, we’d hear little bits and snippets of what people on campus were doing, but being able to explore things like this is so much more valuable for us.

Rebecca: And we get to learn about all kinds of different disciplines too which is really exciting. to

Trish: I think what’s so cool is exactly what you said in your hundredth podcast that a lot of times faculty can’t go to those workshops. So, giving them a way to listen to the podcast while they’re commuting or traveling is just awesome. It’s very, very cool. Before going to sea, I always load up my phone and computer with all the podcasts I can get my hands on, because once you’re there, you’re there. That’s pretty much it. [LAUGHTER] Just download the entire catalog.

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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.

105. Globalizing Classes

Improvements in communication and information technology have resulted in an increasingly interconnected global economy. In this episode, Dr. Blase Scarnati joins us to discuss ways in which our classes can be modified to help prepare our students to productively participate in this global environment. Blase is a Professor of Musicology and the Director of Global Learning in the Center for International Education at Northern Arizona University.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Improvements in communication and information technology have resulted in an increasingly interconnected global economy. In this episode, we discuss ways in which our classes can be modified to help prepare our students to productively participate in this global environment.

[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]

Rebecca: Today our guest is Dr. Blase Scarnati. Blase is a Professor of Musicology and the Director of Global Learning in the Center for International Education at Northern Arizona University. Welcome back, Blase.

Blase: Thank you. Really glad to be back with you both.

John: We’re glad to have you here again.

Our teas today are:

Blase: I’m drinking my everyday green tea. Chinesegreen tea Dragonwell Long Jing.

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: I have English Breakfast tea.

John: I have a pure peppermint tea. So, something plain.

We’ve invited you back to talk about your work with global learning. Could you tell us first a little bit about your role as a Director of Global Learning at the Center for International Education at NAU.

Blase: Primarily I work with faculty and departments, especially through our Global Learning Initiative, and the Global Learning Initiative (or GLI) is an across-the-curriculum global education initiative sited in all undergraduate programs and our liberal education program…also explicitly uses co-curricular experiences such as residence hall programming, department activities, community engagement, and so forth. And GLI established three interconnected and interdependent ideas that were all based and drawn upon long-standing campus values that were articulated as university-level thematic student learning outcomes around diversity education, global engagement, and sustainability. And so we kind of approached what global education can be in a very innovative way rather than just, like many institutions, privileging study-abroad-based experiences. We really broadened it out, and really defined it as diversity education, global engagement, and sustainability. And through that, when we were working to implement them at the department level, we really were asking departments not just to kind of hook up, to reach up, to those University outcomes, but rather recast them through the discourse in the discipline, so that departments truly would own those outcomes rather than just attend to them. We went about this after a lot of campus conversation for several years and it was adopted in 2010 by our faculty senate. Then we began to work with departments to implement and develop ways for them to think through…to create department- and program-level outcomes around those three thematic university level ones. And we used a backward design process: developing the outcomes, developing assessment strategies, and then determining sort of scaffolded learning experiences across the major curriculum. And especially with emphasis on reimagining courses; not just tossing courses out or adding courses, specifically. So how can you really get to the nub of modifying and internationalizing your particular courses. In 2012, GLI contributed significantly towards NAU earning the prestigious Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization awarded by NAFSA. And more recently, we’ve been shifting away from working with departments and program curricula and focusing on individual faculty and their courses. And we do everything from individual consultations and dialogues about individual courses. But, most excitingly, we’ve organized a lot of large-scale frameworks that we’re calling collaboratives that bring together faculty, undergraduate, graduate students, particular programs, community members, all to kind of begin to think through how different courses different programs can really more deeply internationalize their efforts. Jean Paul Lederach, the great peace organizer and theorist has talked about large, flat, flexible, democratic platforms. And that’s what we’re really trying to pursue because, if you have a chance to listen to my other podcast with you all, we’re really focused on a lot of strategies that are based in community organizing theory and practice and that’s been my driving approach.

Rebecca: I have a question, Blase, based on some of the things that you’ve already mentioned. Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of learning outcomes that you were using for backwards design related to individual faculty. I think sometimes we have an image of what that might mean, but might have difficulty applying it to different kinds of disciplines.

Blase: Sure, the university level outcomes are really quite broad based. And they were rather intersectional in the sense that sustainability was also leaning into diverse spaces. We’re talking about sustainable communities and so forth and cultures with an idea that it can accommodate…if we built these really large boxes that lean almost into one another like Venn diagrams, then that would offer kind of the maximal amount of space for programs and departments to dialogue and think through them. And really, the individual departments…It was quite quite diverse. Some were very, very specific and targeted about really hard skills that they might need that would help them establish careers…be hired out in post baccalaureate efforts…and others were a lot broader. In the humanities, for example, they were much more expansive, and it was really quite diverse. So all ultimately address skills and competencies, but they were framed very, very differently. And the key point for us was that they were really rooted in disciplinary discourse. So, they were truly real and meaningful for faculty in the department so they could use them as tools to help their program move and prepare their students to succeed in the world that their discipline works with students to place them successfully in.

Rebecca: You do Musicology, right? So are you in the music department at your school?

Blase: Yeah, I’m a professor of musicology…music history. I do work with critical improvisation studies, popular traditions. I teach courses in reggae and country music, and jazz…and yeah, and in music. we’ve approached them in sort of interesting ways: sustainability comes about through…for example, my wife is an oboist and between global learning and lots of pressures with urban expansion in Africa, the wood that they source for that particular instrument has become quite scarce and rare. And there’s also lots of issues about appropriating other cultures’ resources and so forth. So, that’s really driven a lot of internal dialogue about what are we doing, how can we do it and what other alternatives might be available? Initially, of course, they went to oil-based solutions, you know, looking at polymers, but then they’ve been exploring other kind of sustainable woods and just ways to go about and reimagining and still achieving really high levels of performance and expressiveness, using an instrument that will allow them to do that. But again, with alternatives and there’s been real efflorescence in the oboe world around having lots of different woods being used and explored. And our theater colleagues were looking also at green ways to save energy: reusing, using non-toxic paints in their flats and their staging. So there’s been a lot of different ways. And some of its quite strategic and often overlaps with other ways in terms of economic efficiency, given tight budgets and so forth. But at the end of the day, that’s the reality. For example, we make and create and help to enable students to be effective performers and music educators, they’re dealing with audiences and the world and they have to come to terms with that. Within that is what I can contribute about uncovering lots of issues about how does music function in and as culture? And what are the resonance around whose music is being played? How’s that identified? How is it commodified? Who owns that music? Who can speak for it? And it’s a quite fraught history in the US and and European traditions vis a vis world music. But this can help unpack a lot of social justice focused issues within disciplines. Many pursue them overtly. Some that’s kind of bubbling a bit more in the background. So in music it’s been, in spite of popular culture’s music, quite forward art traditions and so forth. It’s more akin to museum systems in the visual plastic arts. So it’s a little bit quite contested in some ways, a bit behind some other areas. So it’s been useful to help disciplines turn over the field a bit and help to move themselves in productive directions.

John: What other types of experiences have been used on other departments to try to reach this goal?

Blase: Well, when the department itself has embraced the institutional imperatives of the wind filling the sail as one where one has to complete it, it’s baked into the program reviews that occur every six years internally, and so forth. And, at the same time, what’s also driven a lot of it is student demand. Just one example… our Department of Philosophy went through this process…and all dear friends, but it was a bit pro forma. And, you know, it wasn’t necessarily the deepest engagement compared to some other departments. But a couple years later, they came back in and wanted to re-examine and reestablish new outcomes for their program to really deepen their practice and their thinking. The discipline had changed, and there was a huge student demand. Once they started opening opportunities in courses and uncovering these issues, like linking it more close to the bone of what’s gone on in philosophy courses, then students were really driving that change. So, really, to kind of get to the nub of the matter when you start talking with a colleague, and they’re saying, “Well, how can I do this in my class?” And that’s always a very, very interesting conversation because in some ways, it can be challenging because they may be frustrated, they see where things are…the state of the world. They’re driven by their own passions and values, their disciplines also, and sometimes bringing that to bear within a curriculum that they may have inherited from someone else in the department over the years, or a particular course, then how do they go about working their way through that? And that can be a very, very rich conversation.

Rebecca: It sounds like that’s the conversation we should have. So, Blase, how can I globalize my classes? [LAUGHTER]

Blase: From my perspective, there are two ways to go about globalizing your course. First off, there’s no need to scrap it, throw it away and start over. No one’s talking about doing that. There are two approaches. One is to work within the existing outcomes for the course. And the second is designing additional outcomes for your course that specifically address why your students should be globalizing their work. That might be a formal outcome that you place if you have the latitude to add that to your course or an informal one that can help you frame your thinking. So in the first one…working within the existing outcomes. We would have a conversation and frequently would just…first off, get off campus…go someplace and have coffee. You kind of break down the routine of this is me in my role, you as a faculty member in your role…I mean, I’m a faculty member too, but I come to them within this other frame…and get someplace where you can begin to think and imagine and begin to talk about what have they always really wanted to do in the course around some of these issues. So, how can you take those outcomes and find ways of moving the learning and moving and modifying learning experiences…projects…what you do…what you read…what you think about…what you discuss in the class… so that it has a more global dimension. And some of that can be shifting readings, shifting the locus of activity or thinking through a problem and where it’s sited, and then helping your students that may not have a lot of experience in that discipline, thinking about those things. So, helping them understand how you really think and work within that discipline with these issues. So the first one is the easy one: where can you substitute? Where can you supplement? Where can you modify? What can you change? The second one, it kind of gets at things at a deeper level and probably something that’s more impactful. So, if you design your own courses’ outcomes, you’re really going to have to think through: Why are you doing this? What will it enable your students to do? To what purpose? …and, given the restrictions you might have, that might be just lurking in the background, helping you make decisions about what you want to alter. What new sorts of ways of doing and knowing that you want to explore with your students, up to you just add it as another outcome and discuss it with your students as you walk through the learning outcomes in the first day when you go through the syllabus quickly and begin to consider what are we going to be doing in this class and why?

John: When faculty have bought into this, how have they responded?

Blase: Most are really, really enthusiastic and people tend to seek this out if they are aligned to the overall goals of the project. In the early days, sometimes we had reluctant departments or departments that there wasn’t a working consensus to move forward in any particular direction. And those were more difficult conversations. These days generally working with individuals or departments that they’re highly aligned with this. So it’s a matter of what more can we do? How can we do that? And the restrictions aren’t about globalizing the course or trying to internationalize different activities or projects. But, often it’s how can we do this with little to no additional economic support? So we can’t buy resources…we can’t send our students necessarily independently out. And then how can we expand where our curriculum is, and I can introduce them to colleagues in the Center for International Education and we operate not by using a service where our students pay and go abroad using a services infrastructure. Like many places anymore, we have individual departments…have reciprocal agreements with other universities that our students would go and take a range of courses in the study abroad experience and they would come back. They would transfer right in. Students are not going to be missing any time in their progression towards a degree. They pay our own internal tuition. So their scholarships and financial aid cover those expenses. We also have a very generous level of support for travel for those students in need, especially in economically challenged groups. So, there’s a lot of infrastructure that the department or the individual faculty member may not have. But we can begin to put people together in a broader network to help them as an individual faculty member achieve aspirations or collectively as a program, or our whole department. Oftentimes, it’s frequently very, very exciting because, if you kind of are talking at that level of what have you all wanted to do, then let’s figure out a way to make that happen. That’s a very catalytic encounter and a catalytic discussion because it’s full of possibilities. I always try to shift the conversation to what else is possible? What have you never had a chance to do? Don’t worry about the 1001 reasons not to do it, they’re always there. But let’s figure out what that is, then we’ll go and figure out ways to remove the barriers or to provide the resources if we can. So, it’s usually a very satisfying work. And it’s usually a very uplifting conversation, because people take that energy inside and really begin to spin it. So, they’re lit up, and how excited they are infects others in their networks and groups and it can kind of feed off of one another. And much like we were talking about earlier conversation, if you get enough activity going, and you begin to saturate the airspace as much as you have the latitude to do, you can create a locus of gravity that starts to pull others in. And that’s just based upon your active network of folks that are collaborating together.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some specific examples that you think are really powerful implementations of globalization of a class or a curriculum?

Blase: Sure. One early example that I use to open up conversation with departments because I usually would go in into a department meeting and here’s what this project GLI is all about. And then “How do you do it?” That’s the next question. One really great example was out of our civil engineering department, we have a big school of engineering of civil, electrical, and so forth. And they often have core courses that all of the different threads within civil engineering would take together and one of those courses had a bridge building project. So, it had two major components. One was you need to design the bridge. So, you need to do the mathematics…the engineering of a bridge that will span a particular distance…that will carry a particular load…and then the materials and construction management side of that. So, then how do you actually actually create that bridge. So, it was actually a semester-long project, and it was quite complex. On the surface, that sounds fairly easy, but it is very real world, because that’s what these students would do when they leave. And they would join a construction corporation and they would be building bridges and other types of projects. So, engineering wanted to globalize that project. They thought this was one place where they could really make an impact. The faculty sited the bridge building project in Kenya. And that’s a country where we have a lot of reciprocal programs and our engineering students are working and taking courses and working in programs there. So, it still addressed the very technical side of what was needed in the course. So they still design and engineer a bridge that carries load…that spans a particular distance. But now that it moved the construction and the materials management into an international frame, and in a particular country, where there are infrastructure issues. How do you ship and transport or source locally materials. And again, that actually aligns absolutely with what their students need because their graduates are getting hired by major international corporations that build projects all over the world. So, that actually gave them a richer set of tools that came out of that learning experience. So, they accomplished everything they needed. Plus, they were able to internationalize it in a way that helps students develop tools that were even more necessary, and actually more salient to their success in the future. I think that’s a very, very quick, powerful little story that gets a “How can you take something and make some changes to it, that actually brings more to it?” So it doesn’t just globalize, but it actually opens up a set of possibilities and experiences that are multiplied. So, it’s not just here’s one way that we can do this to globalize this learning experience. But then, how can we, at the level of outcomes truly, how can we develop a richer set of tools that our students can use to succeed as they go out and seek to build a richer life?

Oftentimes inertia and perhaps a department, for example, or group of faculty, they may think it’s a good idea, but they don’t see a ready quick access point. Civil Engineering, they saw it almost immediately. And they said, “Well, we can do this.” And then it led to “Well, what if we do more of this? How about if we went here, as opposed to there…just so they move down the road pretty rapidly. For example, with Physics and Astronomy, we had a chair that was actually part of our planning group that helped design the whole Global Learning Initiative. And she was very, very interested in wanting to help move the department in this direction. And they were quite split. And it wasn’t just the astronomers versus the physicists, but it was actually a more generational split and that was just peculiar to their department at the time. So, there were a lot of very senior gray lions that really didn’t want to go in this direction. They thought it was counterproductive. They thought it was beside the point. And so that opened a lot in a very long conversation. And over five years or so, there was some change, retirements and so forth. And younger faculty and then the rising senior faculty began to have conversations about what it can be within their context between physics and astronomy. And we’re lucky we’re adjacent to a number of indigenous nations, the Navajo Nation, which is as large as all of New England for goodness sake. Within that’s the Hopi reservation downstate, various Apache groups, and it’s a very rich international space that way. So colleagues in Physics and Astronomy started working with colleagues in the community college system on the Navajo reservation. And so they started bringing in traditional knowledge holders. So, within astronomy, they started offering courses around indigenous cosmologies. So, they were actually helping their students to think in very different international ways using different frames for how do you conceive the founding of the cosmos, and the workings of all that is out there. Even the most rigorous, focused astronomer that is working in radio astronomy, or some other variation of across their wide range of disciplinary practices, then they’re beginning to open up what’s possible, how and what does it mean to be talking about these things? And when I know that I’m talking about it through my contemporary U.S. international sort of frame, that’s one frame. And there are other ways that might be useful to think about the facts, the activities that we do, and what the information we receive. And then what does it mean to put it together in an argument and an explanation. And by thinking through other cultural dimensions that expands their abilities to do that imaginatively, creatively. I come out of the arts, so I’m kind of hard wired to want to do things very improvisatory creative ways. And from my perspective, the more we can all think about, how can we be catalytic and creative in our own disciplinary work? I think that’s the exciting place because it shifts you, not from the core to the periphery, but oftentimes to willfully and intentionally walk to that edge, where your discipline is interacting with all these other disciplines. And that’s a very fruitful and very exciting place to be, because that’s where new knowledge can come about really quickly, as you begin to fuse and think differently and expanding what’s assumed. For me, that’s personally and intellectually this very, very exciting work. And believe me, I can’t follow the details of my colleagues in physics and astronomy when they start unpacking things, but I can get and be really lit up by the direction that they’re going, and their excitement and what they’re seeing as possibilities. Because once colleagues find that this is a fruitful path, then that leads much like we found with physics and astronomy, and certainly the example from engineering, that leads to “what else is possible?” So, you just keep opening and opening and opening. And that’s where we all want to be, especially in a time when most or institutions are getting squeezed in terms of economics. That’s a very empowering place to be.

Rebecca: You’ve mentioned this is a fruitful place for new knowledge. That seems like a good transition to thinking through the lens of students and seeing the world in a different way.

Blase: Yeah.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the student impact that you’ve seen, or maybe even a specific student or a specific story that might help us envision how this plays out?

Blase: I work with faculty who work with the students, but I just get that energy and how they’re able to create new things. And then especially as I see colleagues being able to morph and continually transform what their course is, so that it’s not just, we take something static, we’re going to do some window dressing, and job done, and that’s good for another 20 years. But, once you start moving the pieces, that energy, that motion, that kinetic sense just keeps going and flowing, and students are really excited about it. And what I hear are those more collective pressures to do more. And we have some assessment too: that we had over 80% of our undergraduate programs in just three years out of 91 of the programs at the time, complete the program level GLI process that comes with outcomes assessments and a curricular map of learning experiences. Study abroad, because what we did was we talked to study abroad and asked the departments to position a semester in the program in their sequence of courses where students could go abroad, take courses at institutions that they have confidence in courses that they’re taking, and come back so they’re not losing any time towards the degree. And we saw 136% increase in the number of students going abroad over eight years between 2011 and 2018. And also those students that went abroad, I owe this all from my colleague, Angelina Palumbo, the Director of Education Abroad here in the center. But students that go abroad also have a 87% graduation rate, which is about more than 10% higher than our average graduation rate, which is not bad, but still, that’s quite impactful. Everything from the example when I was talking about colleagues in philosophy, where once they started opening up some of these issues and giving voice to them, their students were asking for more. That’s sort of the level that I encounter.

John: Was the expansion in study abroad programs due to the global initiative.

Blase: Well, I mean, you know, it’s kind of a chicken and the egg thing. We had a new senior international officer (using the jargon, SIOs), Harvey Charles, who was a really, really innovative colleague. He was our SIO. I was working with him. We brought a whole bunch of people together. Basically, he established a presidential task force to help to internationalize the campus. The President was behind that. And working with Harvey, we brought from two or three of us that were focused on curriculum. Out of that task force, we invited 40 colleagues to come together to draft this Global Learning Initiative. And part of that was a concerted effort to expand study abroad. But what had been holding it back was the very things that we were able to address through the curricular side of GLI, that there was many programs didn’t have a targeted semester where their students could study abroad without falling behind. They didn’t have any particular countries or institutions that they had reciprocal relationships and confidence in their curricula. So, it was all at the same time, everything coming together. But the details of how many positions were added it actually tripled the number of positions working in education abroad. But again, that was in response to the huge increase of number of students that were going from our campus. And then also they were busy recruiting international students. We have a couple of thousand international students on campus. And that’s other parts of the infrastructure within the center that GLI wasn’t directly related to or focused upon.

Rebecca: You talked a little bit about economic barriers being a barrier for faculty and making change. Did you come across any other barriers other than maybe you talked about generational differences too?

Blase: Yeah.

Rebecca: Were those main barriers or did you see faculty coming up against some other barriers that they had overcome?

Blase: Some disciplines are just really deep…their disciplinary ways of thinking and knowing they’re highly aligned, right? They’re there…sociology, politics, and international affairs. There really wasn’t much of a discussion in terms of, they’re already doing a great deal of it, then let’s maybe see what else is possible. For a lot of other individual faculty, when we talk to them, or programs that are thinking about picking it back up…it’s kind of a reluctance either, like we’ve talked about before, I’m not sure how to go about moving and making further change, and/or this is a time when everybody is really stressed. On our campus, we’ve lost 60% of state funding in a decade, which is a radical truncation of our support. We’ve shifted to pretty much tuition-based funding, and that’s created enormous pressures…that level of tenure density has plummeted. So, there are a lot of lecturers and a plurality that’s a one-year non-tenured position here on our campus. It’s created a lot of internal pressures and schisms and issues and many faculty don’t have the additional emotional capacity to want to willfully step forward and say I want to create more change and uncertainty and chaos in what I do. When I was referring a little bit earlier to inertia, it’s not just intellectual laziness, it’s often just exhaustion. What’s happening nationally, I think has been exhausting many in the academy, and our politics, the level of incivility that’s increasing and rising on campus. Arizona… you just have to have one person agree in a public forum so that you can videotape and that could be the person behind the iPhone, if they’re agreeing to do it. And that’s all this needed. And of course, these courses and classrooms are public spaces. So, we’ve had lots of faculties classes being put up and being pilloried by different websites, various political perspectives, and some of its been in the Chronicle over the last couple of years. So, it’s been a challenging environment. There are many things going on that are tapping people out. But, for me, what has been the thing that always allows us to continue to succeed? If you’re talking about very mechanical things, or this is an obligation…we need to achieve these program outcomes, that doesn’t stir many people’s souls. But, if you actually have, in advance, thought about how can you position your initiative so that it’s focused and grounded in the values of your community, your literal community or your institution, then people can connect in ways that aren’t just focused on disciplinary interest or compliance. You know, you’re tapping into their heart and what they care about as a person and what motivates them. Again, sustainability in my own discipline of music, there’s a discourse there, and there are ways that one can think through it. But those colleagues (and I count myself) that are very passionate about the future of the planet, we’re motivated to do much, much more, and we’ll seek that out. So amid all the turmoil and depletion of energy and the exhaustion, if you can find ways to shift that conversation into this catalytic space that talks about possibilities, that taps into what people believe and what they value and what they care about deeply, then you’re feeding that conversation from a place that will enrich and nourish rather than just take away, exhaust, and grind you down into submission.

John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next?

Blase: Well, what I’m doing next is continuing on and more and more explicitly going back to the well of community organizing methods, strategies, and theory to help us come together collaboratively. For me, faculty on our campus, and I know a lot of places, feel increasingly radically disempowered either by state legislatures, distant boards, priorities that may be economically driven or politically motivated that are not aligned with where many faculty are themselves. And we tend to wait until we grow quite gray for change to come from the top. So, I’m a firm believer of coming together with colleagues to focus on what’s possible, what can we do together, and actively doing that. And good administrators will be happy to jump in front of that train and take all the credit they want. God bless them. But, just what can we do together to make this a better place, a richer educational space for our communities and for our students? That’s largely pretty much everything I’m doing. Of course…presenting, publishing, writing and more writing, but like everybody else, that’s the thing that really kind of keeps me lit up.

Rebecca: Thanks for joining us.

John: Yes, thank you for joining us. That was a very good discussion.

Blase: Very much appreciate it. Thanks so much.

[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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Kiara Montero.

103. Commitment Devices

Students, and faculty, generally have good intentions when planning to work toward long-run objectives. It’s always easier, though, to start those projects tomorrow instead of today. In this episode, Dr. Dean Karlan joins us to discuss how commitment devices may be used to align our short-term incentives with our long-run goals.

Dean is a Professor of Economics and Finance at Northwestern University, Co-Director of the Global Poverty Research Lab at the Kellogg School of Management, President and Founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, co-founder of Stickk.com and Impact Matters, and a member of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dean is the author of many scholarly articles and several books related to economics, including my favorite introductory economics textbook.

Show Notes

  • Dean Karlan
  • Innovations for Poverty Action
  • Stickk.com
  • Impact Matters
  • Global Policy Research Lab – at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern
  • University
  • Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab
  • Karlan, Dean and Jonathan Morduch (2018). Economics. McGraw-Hill.
  • Giné, X., Karlan, D., & Zinman, J. (2010). Put your money where your butt is: a commitment contract for smoking cessation. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2(4), 213-35.
  • McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Momentum – the app for targeted giving that Dean mentioned
  • The following study, referenced in the podcast, examines the problem of suboptimal fertilizer use of fertilizer in Kenya. Both were just cited in the Nobel statement on the 2019 award to Abhijit Bannerjee, Esther Dulfo, and Michael Kremer. Bannerjee, Duflo, and Kremer were Dean’s professors at MIT. Bannerjee and Duflo were on this thesis committee. (The Nobel announcement came after the podcast was recorded but two days before its release.)
    • Duflo, E., Kremer, M., & Robinson, J. (2011). Nudging farmers to use fertilizer: Theory and experimental evidence from Kenya. American Economic Review, 101(6), 2350-90.
  • Artz, Benjamin and Johnson, Marianne and Robson, Denise and Taengnoi, Sarinda, Note-Taking in the Digital Age: Evidence from Classroom Random Control Trials (September 13, 2017) – the study about note-taking that John mentioned.

Transcript

John: Students, and faculty, generally have good intentions when planning to work
toward long-run objectives. It’s always easier, though, to start those projects tomorrow instead of today. In
this episode, we examine how commitment devices may be used to align our short-term incentives with our long-run
goals.

[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: Today’s guest is Dr. Dean Karlan. Dean is a Professor of Economics and Finance
at Northwestern University, Co-Director of the Global Poverty Research Lab at the Kellogg School of Management,
President and Founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, co-founder of Stickk.com and Impact Matters, and a
member of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dean is the author of many scholarly articles and several books related
to economics, including my favorite introductory economics textbook. Welcome, Dean.

Dean: Thank you. Thanks for having me here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Dean: A vanilla expresso. I’ve said it as “expresso” for the sake of our mutual
friend Matthew. [LAUGHTER] So we can show this to him and he will be very upset. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and I am drinking Bing Cherry black tea.

Rebecca: …and I have the Sally Lunn… Disclaimer: I’m not sure if that’s how you
say it… house blend tea from the UK. [LAUGHTER]

John: We invited here primarily to talk about some of the work you’ve done related
to behavioral economics. We know that students learn more when they engage in spaced practice, yet students tend
to procrastinate, as do most faculty. So we want to talk to you a little bit about why people tend to focus on
immediate gratification at the expense of long-run goals.

Dean: So, you know, the heart of it is human nature to some extent. And I think the
thing to realize, though, is that it’s not a universal truth, right? There’s many situations, and many people
who are more patient than others… that are patient in one domain, not in another. There’s a general sense, of
course, that we value things more today than we do tomorrow. This is kind of at the heart of economics, but a
lot of the issues that we’re doing research on, and some of the active policies that we’re working on, aren’t so
much about whether people are patient or not. It’s about whether they succumb to temptation, and there is a
difference. And the difference is this. When we talk about succumbing to temptation, what we’re saying is, if
you ask me what I want to do in a month, I tell you, I want to eat healthfully. I want to exercise. I want to
train for a marathon. And then when a month comes, and now a month from now is now today, and you say, what are
you doing today? And I go, “Oh, yeah, that chocolate cake looks really good. [LAUGHTER] And I ran out of time,
I’m not going to go to the gym today.” And I go, “I’m too tired. I prefer to go to the movies. And that
marathon? Yeah, kind of cold. I guess I kind of knew that a month ago. But I was out of mind. And so I’ll train
for that later.” And so the point is, my preferences change. And that’s something that economists historically
did not handle very well, this idea of preferences changing. And yet that is what behavioral economics has
done… is basically trying to build better models that take into account that reality of preferences
changing… and whether we call it preference and changing or not, is kind of a technical jargon thing. But the
basic idea that you can say you want A over B in a month, and then when a month comes, you say actually I prefer
B over A. And that’s a fundamental change in a lot of the ways that economists were thinking about things and
this applies in many domains. And the reality is, I might be really well disciplined when it comes to spending
money on one thing, for instance, like clothing, I have like almost zero temptations on clothing. But yet for
peanut M&Ms, I have a real big problem. [LAUGHTER] And I know there’s lots of people that are exactly the other
way around, right? And so it’s not something that we can attribute to someone as an individual characteristic
and saying, “You succumb to temptations, and you don’t.” Everybody has their different areas where they’re
strong, and they’re weak.

Rebecca: So when we want to accomplish something in our academic field, or we want
our students to accomplish something in what they’re studying, how do we get them to not succumb to that
temptation of doing the thing that seems immediately desirable.

Dean: So I think the absolute single most important thing is to help someone become
self aware. Once you do that, then there’s a few different paths that might work. And people are different. So
that path might be different. But the first step, that in most situations, is important for that kind of
weakness is to help people become self aware. And by self aware, I mean aware of the fact that if they don’t
change something about their environment, that they’re on a certain path, and they’re likely to engage in that
temptation behavior, and even though they say now they don’t want to do it, if they don’t change something or do
something different, they’re more likely to do it. And so what is that path that they could go down? Well, one
example, which is what you mentioned earlier, Stickk.com, which is a website that I started, that allows people
to write commitment contracts. So if I want to, let’s put it in the school work or the work context, suppose I
have a partnership with a co-author, and I am being derelict in my duty to write the introduction, we agreed I’m
supposed to take first stab at, and every week there’s something else comes up and I don’t get to it. So I go on
Stickk and I write a contract to my friend, my co-author, and I say if I don’t deliver it to you by next Friday,
I owe you $500. It’s still not a perfect contract, right? I mean, I could hand them a piece of crap that’s not a
very well written document, and he could say, “This isn’t good.” So there’s lots of wiggle room there, but there
has to be some level of trust with my collaborator… it’s a contract that the collaborator can call me out on
and say, “Look, we both know this is not what you said you would do,” so you still need some element of trust in
that agreement to make that work. But that’s the kind of thing you can do. And by making that concrete plan and
actually making it even more costly, beyond just continued shame, and scathing emails from your friends, it
makes you more likely to engage in the behavior you say you want to engage in. The punch line we use is it
increases the price of vice. Whatever your vice is, it’s a way of increasing that price.

John: So the goal is basically to align the short-term incentives with the long-run
goals.

Dean: That’s exactly right, to make it so that the prices you’re facing now are
aligned, are going to drive you to the behavior that you say in the long run you want to engage in.

John: So you’re changing the costs or benefits of the activity immediately through
some mechanisms such as Stickk.com.

Dean: Exactly. And of course, you know, I could write a contract with you just on
the side… just by emails and say, “Hey, if I don’t do X, I owe you Y. So, Stickk is a vehicle for making it
easy for people to do this. One of the popular options on Stickk is actually where I don’t give money to you,
but I give money to a charity that I hate. This might work really well if we disagreed on some political issue,
which I doubt we do. But I suspect over the years, we’ve talked about things we would have identified some
disagreement if we had one [LAUGHTER] that was stark enough on the extremes. But if we did, it would work out
really well. Because I could say, “Hey, I’ll send money to the charity on the other side of the political
spectrum, which you like, and I hate, and then you’re happy to enforce that. [LAUGHTER]

John: So anti-charities seem to be really effective.

Dean: Yes.

John: For example, I think you recommend for liberals, I haven’t checked recently,
but for liberals, you recommend the NRA or a Republican super PAC. And for Republicans. I think you recommended
the ACLU or a Democrat super PAC.

Dean: That’s exactly right. And we also have gun control, abortion, gay rights, and
super PACs on the two sides… and for the religious people in England, we offer up different football teams
[LAUGHTER] so you can support Arsenal or Chelsea or Fulham, and the money goes off to the team that you hate in
England.

John: What types of commitments do people make on Stickk.com.?

Dean: The single most common, it shouldn’t be a surprise, which is weight loss. I
mean, that is the biggest issue where this is highly relevant where everybody can think of someone who says they
want to lose weight, and somehow doesn’t do it. And every day, it’s like “Tomorrow I’ll do it.” Smoking
cessation is another very common one. And we have seen several randomized trials done not via the Stickk
website, but outside, but with the same exact contract structure that show that it became very effective for
helping people stop smoking if they agree to sign up for this contract. So smoking cessation is common…
exercise is common. There’s also a very large set of interesting contracts that people come up with on their
own, that are everything from dating… to marital relations… to work… to getting work done… So, flossing
your teeth…. Speaking more slowly to foreigners in New York City was one of my favorites. Another one of
my favorites just said “I will not date any more losers.” And the punch line that I really liked in particular
was that this person named a friend as the referee. The website allows you to name a friend who gets to
adjudicate whether you succeed or fail. So this person said that I will not date anymore losers, and Susie gets
to decide if any of my dates are losers or not. That was awesome. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Have you seen good success with people using Stickk.com?

Dean: Yes. But as a social scientist, I want to caution my “Yes.” So it’s very
pleasing to get emails… and I do get them fairly periodically from people telling me some story about
Stickk or I meet someone and they told me about how they used it to achieve a goal and wasn’t this great. And
that makes me very happy. In the back of my mind, as a social scientist, I’m always like, “Well, that’s great.
But did we cause that to happen? Or were you just the kind of person who was going to achieve that goal anyhow
and you used Stickk as your vehicle, but had Stickk not existed, you would have found some other way? Because
you were just a really driven person dedicated to overcoming your temptation problem. Now, that’s the whole
reason why we do run randomized trials, because we want to know, did we cause that to happen or are we just the
stepping stone along the path that was going to be taken anyhow. And there have been randomized trials done on
commitment contracts. And we do find very strong consistent evidence that for those who signed up, it is a very
strong tool that does lead to behavior change that would not otherwise happen. Having said that, take an example
of a study I did in the Philippines on smoking cessation doing a contract that was almost exactly like Stickk.
The difference was the money, if they failed, went to a local orphanage. It didn’t go to a charity they hate.
And there, we had a very large effect on likelihood of stopping smoking… about a 30 percentage point shift in
the likelihood they stopped. That’s a big, big treatment effect. But only one out of nine people said “Yes” to
opening the contract. Eight out of nine said, “Huh? Yeah, I know I told you I want to stop smoking. But I guess
I don’t really want to stop that badly… or I don’t think I can and so I’m not going to sign this contract
because I think that’ll just end up costing me money. And I’ll still spend money on cigarettes. And so I won’t
sign the contract.” So, eight of nine did not… but one out of nine did. And the idea was that they were taking
money they were spending on their cigarettes, and instead they’re putting in an account. So even if they kind of
stopped smoking some and went back, we don’t think of that as a bad thing even if they lose the money, because
they did smoke fewer cigarettes in the meanwhile… failed to stop… So it didn’t work. But they did smoke less
and the charity got some money. So one of the things that this makes me realize that goes back to the question
you asked earlier, which is helping people be self aware. How do you move the needle on that one out of nine?
Why is it only one out of nine? Is it that people don’t realize that if they don’t do something like this,
they’re going to probably just continue smoking, and they need to engage in some sort of change in their
environment? Change in the prices they face? Change in some peer influence? Change in something to help them
stop smoking… That it’s not going to just happen because they wake up one day and decide to do it.

John: You mentioned randomized controlled experiments. And I know that’s one of the
things you’ve done extensively with IPA (Innovations for Poverty Action). One of the things I’ve noticed in much
of the research in teaching and learning is often people do an intervention and they look at how it works for
the students who actually use that intervention, but they don’t get evidence on the counterfactual. So, you
don’t know how it would have worked in the absence of that intervention. So how might, perhaps, we think about
doing more randomized controlled experiments in educational research.

Dean: So I think there’s a lot of settings in which one can do them in education.
They do need large classrooms, or multiple classrooms or collaboration across universities in order to have a
sufficient sample size, but there’s lots of ways that one could do it. I’ll give you an example. We have a
Principles of Economics textbook that you mentioned earlier. And our theme very much in this book is kind of two
prong: one is it’s a very much a theme about economics is a good thing… that if you use it can help you
actually improve your own life and also help improve public policies. We’re trying to get away from this bad
image of being a dismal science and instead point out that economics really can be a path towards better lives.
But the other part is trying to be very grounded in empirical analysis and examples that are real, that provide
data and a crisp understanding of how these economic theories actually play out in real life. And one of the
things that we wanted to do in this is trying to understand, “Well, does reading the book help learning?” Kind
of a dangerous question for us to ask… a little scared… We haven’t done this yet, but we started a pilot of
it, where we wanted to get professors at different universities who are using the book to basically offer
students a little bit of like a raffle, where there’s a quiz that’s online that we can organize at the end of
the chapter. That’s where students have a bit of an incentive to read those chapters. And we can randomize which
students in which week get that incentive and they’re told, read chapter four, and go online, and there’s going
to be 10 questions on this website that the authors of the book set up and you just answer those 10 questions.
And if you answer them correctly, or eight out of 10 or something like this, then you get entered into a raffle
for an Amazon gift card. And what this allows us to do, because of all the electronic homework and problem sets
and things of this nature, is actually run a test of whether, assuming that that prize leads to an increase in
reading of the actual textbook, we can actually see the impact of reading the textbook on test outcomes. And so
this is an example of the kind of research that one can do. Why might we do this? Because imagine instead within
the alternative, which is just to take a final exam, and ask people ahead of the final exam, “Hey, by the way,
we just want to know who really read the book and who didn’t.” Suppose we got a list.. …we got, you know,
two-thirds of the class read it, one-third did not… and then we looked at the grades, and we said “Ah,
the two thirds of the class that read the book did better on the final exams and one-third did not…” That
would be a really bad analysis, that would be a really horrible thing to conclude and say, “Aha, that’s our
book, causing that change to happen, and improve test scores…” because anybody who was reasonable would look
at us and say, “Well, wait a second, the two-thirds that read the book, they sound like better students. They’re
more diligent, they’re more disciplined, they do their assignments, and so they probably just studied harder in
general and invested more time in the course. They maybe even went to the lectures when the other third didn’t
even bother going to lectures, all sorts of things are different.” And so you cannot just look at the difference
in test scores and say that’s caused by reading the book. And so that’s why we set up randomized trials in that
way, is to try to get at the causality question, not the correlation question.

Rebecca: So do you have any research or advice about motivating the students who
wouldn’t be those one of nine to sign a contract in the first place… to actually get them to commit to doing
better? Have you done any research in that area to think about that?

Dean: For it’s worth, we’re actually in the middle of setting up studies on this and
part of the idea is a little bit of a two stage process: let it play out a little bit without and see whether
they succeed or fail, ask people to make predictions upfront: “Will you succeed or fail?” Ask them upfront
say, “You know what? If you don’t succeed, how about in the future writing and commitment contract?” Because a
lot of people might say, “I don’t need to do a commitment contract, I’ll do it.” And then you say, “Okay, but
just in case, though… just in case. How about in a month, if you haven’t done it, then do a contract?”
They’ll go “Yeah, fine…. that’s fine, because I’ll do it. So it’s okay.” And then a month comes, and they
haven’t done it ad then you go: “You remember that thing you said… a month ago… you said you’d do it. You
didn’t. But you said If you didn’t do it, you’d write a contract. So here we are. [LAUGHTER] You want to do the
contract?” So we’re actually testing that out in a couple different domains to see if that’s a good way of
helping people become self aware. And it might be actually a really nice way of doing it. Because some people
will actually succeed in that first month. That’s good, that’s great. We want that. But we want to be there to
kind of clean up afterwards and pick up and help the people that are not able to achieve that goal.

John: One of the things we’re doing on our campus this semester is we have a reading
group of Saundra McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn. And one of the things she suggests is that very sort of
intervention, that the best time to encourage students to commit to trying new strategies is after they’ve tried
their existing strategies, and they’ve been unsuccessful. So they’re primed to at least consider it.

Dean: That sounds great. I agree.

John: You talked a little bit about stick calm. Are there other types of commitment
devices that students might use to encourage behavior consistent with their long-run objectives.

Dean: So I think there are some in the social side. As an example, there’s studying
is the obvious… that we talked about, but there’s a lot of things that are the kinds of things that we all say
we want to do. But when the time comes, maybe is time consuming, or costly, like donating money to charity.
Right? There might be some cause… call it climate change… call it poverty in developing
countries… call it poverty in America, whatever the case is, and it’s something that is troubling to us.
Something that we feel like even if we contribute a little bit… it’s important, we can contribute a
little bit. That little bit can make a difference. And we want to be a part of that. But yet, when it comes time
at the end of the month, or worse yet, at the end of the year, when a lot of people do think about writing
checks and providing support to charities, they’re left with whatever is in their bank account. And why is less
in than their bank account than they expected? Well, let’s go back to the earlier conversation. Because they
were in a mall, and that shirt looked interesting, and they went out to one more dinner than they had planned to
in their budget, or they were at dinner and they had one more Margarita than they had planned to. These things
slip through, and they’re never thought about when you’re thinking about your overall budget and the end of the
month comes and you don’t have the money… or the end of the year comes and the money’s not there… And the
idea is, again, thinking about well, “What proportion of income do you want to be spending on charitable goods
and supporting other people and helping align those things you say you care about with your actual behavior of
what you’re actually doing with your money after paying for the things you really, really need, like rent and
electricity. So there are various tools for trying to do that… locking in automatic payments every month,
for instance, so that it just happens automatically. There’s a new app that I’m helping to do research with them
to help figure out how to promote called Momentum, which tags giving towards behaviors in your life or behaviors
in other people’s lives. So you can say everything I go to Starbucks, I want to donate 10% of my spending at
Starbucks to clean water in developing countries. Or you can say every time I buy clothing, I want to send money
to a homeless shelter in America. Or you can tack things to other people’s behavior. Every time Trump tweets, I
want to send money to the ACLU… [LAUGHTER]

John: That could get really expensive.

Dean: Well, you control how much. [LAUGHTER] …and It can do things on both sides
of the political spectrum. That’s just one example.

John: That discussion reminds me of a study I think you were involved… a
study on fertilizer and Sub-Saharan Africa?

Dean: Yes, this is research that was conducted under the umbrella of Innovations for
Poverty Action, but it’s not my personal research. And it was a striking example of how these issues of
temptation in financial management and planning for the future versus dealing with things today. This is germane
to people, whether they’re rich or poor. And in the case of using fertilizer, this is one of those cases where
if you go to most for farmers low income farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, most farmers do know that using more
fertilizer is better for them in the long run in terms of them earning more money. But if you go at planting
season when they need the fertilizer and you say, “Well, why aren’t using fertilizer?” The most common answer is
not that I don’t know to do it, but just that “Well, I ran out of money, cuz I just had three or four months of
the hungry season where I used up all my money.” And so what the researchers did is went to them at harvest when
they’re flush with cash and said, “Would you like to buy a voucher now, that is good for some fertilizer, and
you just come back in three months, and you use the voucher to get you fertilizer? And by the way, if you change
your mind, you feel free, you can cash this voucher back in for cash.” So it’s not actually a very strong
commitment. And farmers said, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.” …and sol they did that. And then
fertilizer use went way up.

John: So the notion is pre-committing to things and locking that in somehow becomes
the new status quo, and then it forces that change in behavior, it makes it more likely that you’ll persist with
that change in behavior.

Dean: Exactly right. And one of the other lessons we learned is that soft
commitments are usually probably better at than hard ones. If it’s too binding, it goes back to we talked about
earlier… if it’s too hard of a commitment, then people might be reluctant to agree to the commitment in the
first place. So you need for to be a little bit of wiggle room and some trust with whoever’s on the other side
of that commitment to say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear you. The circumstances are a bit tough. That’s okay. Don’t
worry about it.” Depending on who you’re doing this contract with and what the context is, you do need that kind
of wiggle room usually, for reasonable exceptions to apply.

John: And you mentioned the social aspect of it. One thing I was thinking when you
mentioned that was that I know some people who made commitments to go to a gym regularly. And then if one of
them didn’t show up, say Rebecca, the others would post a picture on Facebook saying “We’re all here. Where are
you?”

Dean: That’s awesome.

John: Can students perhaps sometimes leverage peer pressure to encourage behavior
consistent with their long-run goals?

Rebecca: Let’s note that when they backed off on that, I stopped going to the gym.
[LAUGHTER]

Dean: That is absolutely a hundred percent consistent and actually, thank you for
bringing this up. Because I should have said this earlier. When I say “increase the price of vice,” that doesn’t
necessarily mean cash price. That’s a good example of increasing the social price, the social cost of failing to
go to the gym. It’s a different form of payment, so to speak, is reputation and peer influence. But it’s very
much exactly in the heart of what we mean. And a lot of people in the Stickk website actually do not put money
at stake. They do put their reputation, they name a referee, and supporters who get informed whether they
succeed or fail. And that’s it, there’s no money. And we still get thank you emails from people about how it
helped them. You’ve got to know your type, and maybe that’s going to drive you more than 100 bucks. And so do
that instead of 100 bucks… .or both.

Rebecca: Just going back to the fertilizer example and I’m wondering if you could
set up something very similar in a classroom where students commit to something early on that has a little bit
of wiggle room to it, but might actually get them to follow through by the end of the semester.

Dean: There have been studies on things of this nature, getting students to give
them flexibility for when to do assignments versus getting them to commit to when their assignments are… and
when students are committed to when the assignments are rather than giving them flexibility,. performance tends
to be better.

John: And it doesn’t matter whether the commitments are imposed by the instructor or
whether they were self imposed. As long as there are deadlines with a penalty, students tend to do things. And I
think that’s true for us too… that if we have an abstract that needs to be submitted for a conference, I
suspect there’s a lot of them submitted right before that midnight deadline. So deadlines can be helpful, I
think, too.

Rebecca: I know I don’t do anything unless it has a deadline. [LAUGHTER]

John: I have deadlines every day.

Dean: I remember being told by a few different admissions panels in a few different
instances that you can definitely see, if you look at the likelihood of acceptance…. you see a strong
correlation between submitting the application early and last minute. These are two kind of difficult to get
into schools. And if you look at people who submitted a week to a month early, before the deadline… that’s not
a factor that’s used in decision making… but they do end up with a higher likelihood of getting admitted…
that these are students that have their act together… have everything in order and are stronger students
overall than students who submit at the last minute. So it’s not saying submit early and you increase your odds
of getting it. Just to be clear, this is not a causal mechanism, this is a correlation. [LAUGHTER]

John: That reminds me of another study we referred to. I don’t remember the exact
citation, but there had been all these studies (and we’ve talked about this in an earlier podcast)… there had
been a lot of studies suggesting that students who took notes by hand did better than students who took notes on
a computer or mobile device. And there was a randomized controlled experiment done maybe a year and a half or so
ago, where half the class used computers for half of the class. the other half took notes by hand, and they
found there was no significant difference depending on how any individual student took the notes. The difference
was, those students who chose to take notes by hand generally tended to be more successful, no matter what way
in which they took their notes. So it’s that self-selection issue that we see in a lot of these studies that can
be problematic in interpreting the results.

We always end our podcast by asking what’s next?

Dean: What’s next for us is coming October/November, we’re going to be releasing
over 1000 ratings of charities in America at Impact Matters, which is the other charity which I started, which
you mentioned briefly. Impact Matters is providing guidance to donors to help them choose good charities,
because there’s sadly no real good venue for doing this en masse right now. There’s way too many groups that are
focused strictly on accounting data and accounting data can be very, very misleading. But we are focused on what
matters: impact. Hence, our name: Impact Matters. And we’re going to be releasing 1000 ratings October/November.
I don’t know when the podcast comes out, but it comes up before then, great. Help us get this out there. We also
want to form student groups that help communicate and learn from what we’re doing so they can understand what do
we mean by impact. So it’s something that we want to form student groups on campuses about. So please do reach
out if you have any interest in getting involved or getting students involved

John: We’ll include a link to that in the show notes as well as contact information.

Dean: Awesome.

John: Thank you, Dean. It’s always a pleasure.

Rebecca: Thanks so much.

Dean: Thank you both. It’s great to talk to you.

[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.

101. Change in the Academy

Change in higher ed often occurs slowly. In this episode, Dr. Blase Scarnati joins us to discuss how community organizing strategies can be used to formulate changes that can be supported, or at least not resisted, by all stakeholders.

Blase is a Professor of Musicology and Director of Global Learning and the Center for International Education at Northern Arizona University.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Change in higher ed often occurs slowly. In this episode, we examine how community organizing strategies can be used to formulate changes that can be supported, or at least not resisted, by all stakeholders.

[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]

Rebecca: Today our guest is Dr. Blase Scarnati. Blase is a Professor of Musicology and Director of Global Learning and the Center for International Education at Northern Arizona University. Welcome Blase.

John:Welcome.

Blase: Yeah, thanks so much, John and Rebecca. I’m so very happy to be here with you.

John: Very pleased to have you. Our teas today are:

Blase: I’m drinking my daily Chinese green tea Dragonwell Long Jing

Rebecca: Yum, Jasmine green tea,

John: I have Tea Forte black currant tea, again.

Rebecca: So we wanted to talk a little bit with you today about using organizing strategies to make institutional change. Change in colleges and universities, as we all know, can be a very slow process. [LAUGHTER] And you’ve worked on some ways to overcome this. Can you talk a little bit about your approach?

Blase: Yeah, we found that using community organizing theory and practice can be really a very powerful way to build a collaborative consensus for change. And especially around working to bring together folks around curricular change across campus, and especially across diverse units and disciplines. We adapt the work of political theorist Harry Boyte, who’s in Minnesota and I’m lucky to work with Harry quite a bit. He’s one of the founders of the field of civic studies, and his concept of Public Work, which is really a route that the citizens are co-creators of the polity. So that’s a very, very powerful idea. So everything that we have done here to bring about change is grounded in flat democratic practices, so that everyone is an equal collaborator, and co-creator in any sort of initiative. And again, at no surprise to anyone, that often runs counter to the hierarchical organizations of the Academy. So it can create a little dissonance, but it keeps the blood flowing. So we’ve used key community organizing theories and practices, such as power mapping, to understand the formal and informal power centers in your institution. And these are the people and committees and units that you’re going to need to work with to bring about change. So, one-on-one meetings, to build public relationships and coalitions and alliances towards common goals, especially with people that you don’t know, and cultivating practices of mutual accountability, learning to strategize action, and especially working with the well known cycle of organizing which mirrors our academic practice of research: where you do research, planning, action, and critical evaluation. And they ceaselessly follow and inform one another. A really good primer for all this kind of work, if you’re interested is Ed Chambers, the longtime head of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a really powerful community organization that’s been around since the 40s, and the work of Saul Alinsky. His books, especially Roots for radicals: Organizing for power, action, and justice a continuum of books from 2004 and their multiple editions, is really particularly good.

Rebecca: I have a question. How does a faculty member of musicology come to this work?

Blase: I’ve wandered quite far afield and while I still publish and present in musicology, especially critical improvisation studies, jazz and reggae, and even country music… became involved in our liberal education program…. and in our faculty senate, been faculty senate president… was hired to be our founding director of our first-year seminar program, which I established, and started collaborating with newly hired, endowed chair, Rom Cole’s who came over from Duke University, he’d been there for 20 years. And we started collaborating around this community engagement methodology. And we kind of situated it in with working with our first-year students and community members and ultimately it proved to be quite successful.

John: Many systems have a whole lot of bureaucracies that are designed to thwart any type of change. Could you give us an example of perhaps how you work through that first- year program? What was the issue that you wanted to address? And how were you able to build that coalition and work towards that goal?

Blase: We’ve used community organizing strategies actually here on campus, I’ve worked with a number of folks around a couple of different initiatives: one’s the first-year seminar program, another with my colleague, Michelle Miller, who you’ve had on as a guest a number of times, and in our first-year Learning Initiative. And that’s more focused around kind of key gateway large-enrollment classes and changing the pedagogy to create much more interactivity. And the first-year seminar program as well, they were both really founded to help us really increase student retention. And also, I’ve done a lot of work around global learning. And we have our Global Learning Initiative, which I helped to co-create in 2010. And that’s an across-the-curriculum initiative where we established three themed student learning outcomes for all undergraduate programming in our liberal education program around diversity, sustainability, and global engagement. And they’re grounded in long standing campus values. And that also proved to be pretty successful. Just back to your question, though, around the first-year of seminar program, we were able to pull together some initial seed funding to establish a series of action research teams, which is kind of a framework we pulled up from K-12. But they were flat sort of umbrella organizations where we had students from multiple course sections coming together, and with graduate student mentor who had some background in training that we provided to them. So, work with community partners. So, we were trying to shift the boundaries of where the university was to embrace those deep centers of learning and knowledge in the community. And to create these sort of flat reciprocal learning spaces where faculty can learn from community members and students can teach. And everyone works around issues that fundamentally the community itself has identified. So back to Harry Boyte, who I mentioned, there’s kind of a spectrum of civic engagement. And a lot of what happens in the university and in the academy is labeled service, where they’re good projects that individuals, especially in the university identify and they go out in the community, and they do good, well enough, but this is kind of the other end of the spectrum, that public work corner of things where the work is at root, political… in the sense that has real impact on real people’s lives. And the only way that you can kind of move into that collaborative space is to have the community itself really determine what those issues are, that really are of concern. And so we were dealing with immigration… we’re here in Arizona… weatherization… water issues… food issues… a range of very powerful, impactful issues, and also working with elementary schools in town too, where the students would identify issues in their communities. Sunnyside neighborhood, for example, has a large undocumented population… there’s diabetes as a big issue… and also a large off-res native population as well. So it’s very, very invigorating work, it takes a lot of time, but the results can be quite, quite powerful. And it actually starts to attract and generate a lot of interest with colleagues and others.

Rebecca: You mentioned the gateway courses as well, at this first-year level and I heard something about changing the way faculty are going to teach? Sometimes that can be a challenge to get faculty to change. Can you talk a little bit about how you got the community on board… like the faculty…

Blase: Sure.

Rebecca: …to buy into the idea of changing their practices to be more effective, and how that was able to go through a systematic change throughout the institution?

Blase: Yeah, there was a lot of kind of the root method that we used in the first-year Learning Initiative with my colleague, Michelle Miller was that we had a target list of key gateway classes, I think, as I mentioned before,like Bio 101… traditionally, very, very large enrollment… they’re just the foundation courses that you need to get through… they have huge impact on a range of different majors. And traditionally, they’re taught in large lecture halls… you know, PowerPoint slides, and so forth. And the DFW rates were really quite, quite high. And also then, consequently having a really negative impact on progression to graduation and retention of students. So we started to work very, very collaboratively with those faculties. We talked to departments, we had a lot of one-on-one meetings with important colleagues, we kind of did some power mapping… and again, tried to figure out who are the people that we really need to be talking to, to ensure that when they start speaking about this issue, then their colleagues will pay attention to… or those that actually make decisions, in perhaps the hierarchy itself. And we spent a lot of coffee-shop time, so we would get off campus intentionally… you know, meet in their office or your office, you just kind of break the whole sort of standard thing, and you move yourself into a different space. And a lot of times working with these faculty, they’re kind of straitjacketed… I mean, they just have to get from point A to point B, the end of the semester… punch the ticket, and they have active research agendas. So how to really re-engage them deeply… and one of the most powerful ways that we found were to kind of work with groups of faculty around a single course, and especially with the idea of really kind of developing a syllabus of practice. So there’s kind of a common broader agreement about what this course might mean… what Bio 101 might mean over 11-16 sections, with maybe eight to 12 different faculty members. One of the key questions that we always ask when we meet people individually, or even in small groups, is “What have you always wanted to do?” There are a 1000 reasons never to do that, right. There are financial reasons, time reasons, resources, and manpower to help you do grading and so forth, and we were able to come in with some funding for peer teaching assistance, and just help to open that space up. They may be stuck in a large lecture hall. But yes, you can have students turn to the folks to the right and to the left and start to engage in a conversation. There are just thousands of different sort of pedagogies that can be really quite impactful, to kind of break down that “Just let me talk to you continually.” And the literature is really just filled with them. But I think from my perspective it all kind of grew from “What have you always wanted to do?” So you can really break through all the reasons not to, to touch the passion that is in most of us in the academy, and to really help folks connect to that and have that passion, drive that change. So they own it. It’s not my passion, it’s not my program, it’s not my funding… to try to achieve something that people will dutifully participate in. But now they own that process. And kind of another subtext to all of this… in Arizona, for example, in our institution, in about eight years, we lost 60% of state funding. So there were some radical realignments of what we are as an institution. We have 38,000 students, so we’re not a small institution, we’re one program short of Research 1, so it’s a very active community and campus. But at the same time, people felt the walls closing in. And they really felt a strong loss of agency. And they really couldn’t affect events. So one of the things again, in my vantage and perspectives gained working in the Faculty Senate helped them inform this as well. But we really decided that we’re going to focus on curriculum from the faculty side of things, there was great alignment with administration at the time, which was great. So from a faculty perspective, we own curriculum, that is our province, and our institution as part of our faculty constitution. So curriculum can be that space to really re-empower, reinvigorate and get people excited again, because fundamentally, they own it. And often, we’ve kind of deeded and passed things over either to administrators, or just let inertia take hold and carry things forward. Again, there was a confluence of interest in sort of a Venn diagram, if you will, between administrative interest around retention, the DFW rates, and a couple of these different initiatives that I was positioned in and the desire to reinvigorate faculty agency. So that also became a very powerful driver on campus.

John: If someone wanted to do this type of approach to make some type of change on their campus, how would you go about starting to develop that power mapping?

Blase: That’s really key and fundamental, because you have to really understand who and what you’re going to be confronted with, once you start to talk to colleagues about things that are of mutual interest. And there are a lot of different ways to power map and the Industrial Areas Foundation way, that I mentioned in Chambers’ book earlier, it’s really particularly useful. So, power mapping can help you determine where are the centers of power on campus and within that where is our support for any particular issue? And where’s the the opposition? And who do we need to engage in critical conversations, to move an agenda forward? So within all that, who are the key decision makers? And the formal decision makers, they’re easy to find… they’re on the org chart… they are in the committee structure. But the informal decision makers are much more difficult to determine. And that takes a lot more time and it’s actually a bit more nuanced. And a lot of conversations, especially outside of your usual circles are going to have to be pursued to help get a sense of who are those folks that when we’ve mentioned before, when they say something, or when they offer an opinion or offer their support will bring others along? How will the decision to adopt a particular issue be made? And again, the formal and informal decision making processes… and to build a coalition you need to determine who are potential allies? What motivates our allies and friends? And what risks are they willing to take? So, where are the lines? So that you can really always be positioned in the most powerful way to help move the agenda forward? Another part of that coalition is really who owns this issue on your campus? The Global Learning Initiative, like I mentioned, tapped into very long standing campus and are actually community and regional values around diversity and sustainability, and global engagement. Diversity on campus have Ethnic Studies Program, or Women and Gender Studies program, we have a set of commissions on campus that are very interested in promoting these… Commission on Ethnic Diversity, the Commission on the Status of Women, the Commission on Diversity, Access and Design and so forth. They’re all interest groups that have a strong say, and rightly so, have deep, deep expertise around these issues and want to be involved in any conversations. So, who do you need to talk to before you start? What kind of support do you need to bring this all about? Who will our action upset and at what costs? And then finally, the opposition… who will oppose us and why? And it’s really important to understand why because at some point, you need to try to get the opposition to a point where they’re not actively opposing you. They may they never be a supporter, they may never be leading the parade, but getting to a point where they’re just not going to just block and lock things up completely. So, what are their interests? What motivates them? What’s their relative strength? And who are their supporters? And once you have this map of supporters, potential members of the coalition, those an opposition in your institution, then you start reaching out, and building those public relationships. You go out and have coffee, you spend a lot of one-on-one time with folks, not to become their friend, but to establish those common interests that you have around these issues, even those in opposition. Where’s the common ground that you can build upon? Ultimately, at the end, end of the day, that’ll help lay out the pathway forward. But I want to talk about one-on-ones just briefly… Classic community organizing is that you just don’t meet with every possible person, especially with time being short, and you’re wanting to move an issue forward. The critical people are the ones in your power map, those that have actual decision-making powers and have influence. So, classical community organizing methodology is you’ll only usually meet with leaders of groups, because those leaders can bring the group along. Always keep that in mind. Sure, you meet with anybody that wants to meet with you. But, strategically, really make sure your time has maximum impact on things by always talking with people that can bring others along and can persuade, and ideally, they embrace… they own the set of issues. And they’ll be the champions. From my experience, that’s where a lot of the power comes from.

Rebecca: Blase, can you talk a little bit about how you identify those informal decision makers or those informal influencers?

Blase: Yeah, that can be rather difficult. At the same time, if you’re not already out, and a member of your broader faculty polity, if you will, where you’ve been able to come to know a lot of different people from across various colleges and units and programs, then you need to start talking with those people that have done that. So that can be part of your power mapping too. They can help say, “Well, you know, you really need to talk to this person, because when they speak people up and down the hallway will listen; when they get up in the faculty meeting, everybody will give them the benefit of the doubt.” Those are the kind of folks that you want to start talking with, and try to see Is there a resonance between your issue and the group that you’re working with and their priorities, and ideally, move that conversation as quickly as possible, up to 30,000 feet. Talk about common values that you have collectively, as faculty, as an institution, as community, because once you start getting into disciplinary ways of doing, then you can easily get mired in a turf battle. But if we talk about what’s common among all of us, it’s a lot easier to help pull and to submerge a lot of that trench warfare that we often discover miring us in the academy when we try to do anything.

John: At the start of our discussion, one of the things you mentioned was reaching out to students and to the broader community. That’s not something that always happens in curricular change.

Blase: Yeah.

John: How have you gone about doing that? And how has that added to the effectiveness of the change?

Blase: These days, I mostly work around global learning and with colleagues around those diversity, sustainable and global engagement values and issues, especially through the curricular frame. When this all started our Global Learning Initiative in 2010, it was based in programs and departments. So, it was a very formalized process where there were department teams that came together and worked on outcomes, and we used backward design and doing curricular maps to achieve the outcomes, and so forth, and assessment. But these days, as we continue to turn the wheel, we’ve begun to organize broad collaboratives around diversity, sustainability, and global engagement. Within them, we invite community members and invite graduate students, undergraduates, to come and begin to dialogue across departments, across disciplines. Just fundamentally, the strongest way to have something change in a hurry is have students and moms and dads begin to push that issue. That’s what ultimately will really move things and, to a lesser degree, the broader community. But just from my perspective, community members and students bring all sorts of pools in knowledge and abilities. For many of us, it’s a difficult issue. faculty were often caught in our frame of being credential. So we need to allow and basically cede control to this larger flat, democratic space where consensus can be built and really wonderful ideas can bubble up, it seems for administrators that can even be more of a challenge, to let go and trust your colleagues, that they’ll really do the right thing, without trying to put your hand in the back of the mannequin, and help to steer where things are going without being seen to do so. So from my perspective, the broader the group coming together to dialogue around curriculum, I mean, community members will really be talking about real world impacts and real lives, students will be talking about their aspirations: what do they need to really, from their vantage to be successful in life. And then faculty, we have our strong and deep disciplinary ways of knowing and doing, that we can help to shape and bring that together into a curriculum that can begin to capture really all of that.

Rebecca: So you talked a lot about bringing people together to form a coalition around some common ideas and values. Once you have that group of folks together, what do you do next, actually make the change happen. So you got people on board…

John: …to move it down from that 30,000 foot level to the nuts and bolts of actually moving forward.

Rebecca: Yeah… and be practical.

Blase: From my perspective, it isn’t you establish a group, then you go about working. It’s actually a continuum of work and practice. So you’re always recruiting new people, you’re always bringing more folks into the coalition. And that’s the big open set of doors, right? That’s the value. That’s the excitement. That’s the energy for change… the new thinking… and then concurrently, you keep working through how are we going to bring this to pass? At a certain point, you can tip everything, and you’ve recruited the key decision makers in the formal power structure, you’ve co-opted the curricular system, if you will, in a positive way. Because it’s our curricula system. But you build enough consensus that things begin to happen easily. So in my experience, it’s a dynamic continuum. Oftentimes, in the academy, many faculty like to put together maybe one course, or we do one initiative, and we work on it, and we do it really well. In my experience, what’s really succeeded, working with colleagues, is establishing almost a vortex of initiatives. A colleague of mine, who I’ve done a lot of collaborating with, Romand Coles, who came from Duke, he’s now most recently from the Social Justice Institute at Australian Catholic University in Sydney, we’ve written a lot about how to do a lot of this sort of stuff. And that’s all based on kind of civic engagement and agency programming for first-year students and others. And if anyone’s interested, they go on my academia.edu site. And you can find all of those articles. But he’s really fascinated by, coming out of biological sciences, the concept of eco tones were two sort of different biological systems, where they cross and where they meet. And that’s a very fructiferous and rich zone full of potentiality. And it’s a very exciting place to be… much like in the academy, oftentimes, the cracks between disciplines… exciting work and happen there. We tried to always sit and find that kind of eco tonal spaces, if you will, and really push and, instead of doing one project, for example, in our first-year seminar Action Team project, we set up 16 different umbrella organizations. Within each, they had multiple different working groups. Some of them lasted multiple years. Students took ownership, they developed their own leadership structure, working with community around very powerful issues I was discussing earlier: immigration, water issues, the undocumented and so forth, and others would last the semester. From my perspective, you want to saturate the airspace with activity. So back to what we’re talking about, as you’re organizing around an issue, you want to generate as much activity as you can… you kind of get a swirl of activity going, it becomes a locus… a center of gravity, that starts to pull others in, because “Hey, something’s happening, this is exciting.” What’s going on? There’s change, my gosh.” In the academy change is the rare animal, right? We don’t engage in it very much, and especially change that can touch people’s passion, beyond just disciplinary work and practice. So that can be a special pocket to try to position yourself in.

John: You talked a little bit about the first-year seminar program. Could you talk about one of the other things you’ve mentioned in terms of local issues, such as immigration, or the undocumented? What types of programs were put in, and how have they been working?

Blase: Yeah, I’m not working with our first-year seminar program any longer. It’s deeply political work. And as we changed presidents and wind s shifted, and the legislature became much more activist, sadly, our funding was cut. I mean, at the high point, we had 600 students working with more than 40 community partners each year, and we were showcased at the Obama White House in 2012. So it can be very strong, very, very powerful. There are a lot of really powerful pedagogies that you can help students… usually you never do this with first-year students, this is usually a senior project. Because first-year students are thought to be undirected, not to have that many skills, but they really can develop these skills quickly and develop voice, which is often what we were trying for. So developing agency… sets of tools to how to bring people together, and a voice in a sense of where as their particular passion, just key pedagogies or just democratic decision making in the classroom. While you may come in and have a framework around a set of issues, you might have the relationships with community members, and you might have a sense of the types of activities you want to do. There’s enormous latitude for having the class make decisions in common and the literature is replete with all sorts of ways to go about this. But just establishing that kind of democratic decision making on day one is really, really critical. We also use public narrative, which is created by Marshall Ganz at Kennedy Center in Harvard. And it really helps students begin to find their voice and agency through a couple of different steps where they start out with their individual story of themselves. They connect with others and what motivates us together as a group, the “us” collectively in the class and the community and provides an opportunity to strategize common action and going forward in the now. So there are a lot of different ways to go about this. But there’s some really good frameworks that help you do this. We’ve talked a lot about that collective way of bringing faculty and others together. But again, it’s the same set of democratic flat principles at work, even in the classroom. But you’re talking about specifics, and maybe just to kind of do a little quick validation. So the Global Learning Initiative that we mentioned, in three years, we were able to get 80% of undergraduate programs out of 91 programs in total at that time completed in our process of developing outcomes assessments and curricular map of learning experiences in study abroad because one of the parts of the Global Learning Initiative was to provide an optional semester that students could study abroad and not have them fall behind. So they would work with our Center for International Education and the center would develop reciprocal exchange relationships, and especially placing students in courses that our faculty had confidence of the experience, and data from Angelina Palumbo, or Director of Education Abroad here at NAU, we saw 136% increase in the number of students going abroad in over eight years from the beginning of that initiative until almost a decade later. Basically, those students that were involved in study abroad had an 87% graduation rate, which was 30 points higher, I think, than our average. The first-year Learning Initiative, my colleague, Michelle Miller, and I have written about FILI and how to do it and some of the impacts and you can find an article that she and I published on my academia.edu site.

John: Could you give us an example or two of how one of these programs was structured in practice?

Blase: Well, for example, in our first-year seminar program, we established an arts through all mediums action research team. Again, I’m Professor of musicology, so this was all very performative. We have a number of different courses, talking about public art, political art, visual sound art, poetry, then so the early days of slam poetry. so we had students organizing slam poetry events, and had hundreds of students attending it. We had the curriculum created for the first-year seminars, they were all topics courses, so we could easily populate a range of different topics. We were able to pull in allied faculty to teach them. The faculty often had community partners they are working with, or we had others who were working with and have established relationships with community… and others were able to kind of join in and piggyback on them. And key to all of this was embedding assignments that deeply foregrounded working with community as part of a class. That this kind of work, doing research with public and through publics was equal to any lab type research activity, or archival research activity that are done more traditionally. So, at least there’s a parallel sort of relationship. So faculty, were doing research with students. Students were doing research with community members and knowledge holders, creating multi generational experiences. So everything from K-6th graders all the way up through Navajo elders, and so forth. So it was a very, very rich learning environment within any one of our particular arts. And it was designed that way. So, that it was a very broad range of people, activities, positions, and knowledges, focused around trying to bring about change on a particular set of issues. One of our weatherization and sustainability groups was able to work with the community and basically with Arizona’s Electrical Corporation, to fund a $1.5 million dollar revolving loan grant program where people in our poorest parts of the city could apply to do weatherization upgrades, because we’re actually, even though we’re in Arizona, we’re at 7000 feet. So we have a full four seasons, and it gets quite cold and a lot of snow in the winter and quite warm in the summers. And not as much as down in the valley, but still helping the people put in more insulation to help tighten up windows and replace things and working on the same sort of weatherization projects on community centers and buildings. It was really quite exciting. So a number of our students then kind of spun off and some that were focused more on businesses. There was a Composting Action Team, where using bicycles to go around and collect compost from businesses and places on campus. And ultimately, the movers and shakers, the students behind that as they graduated, they started their own business, which was quite successful in town. So one of the important things that we were able to do with all this, because we’re in Arizona, and we’re talking about immigration issues, right? There’s no more lightning set of issues in our state than that perhaps. And the way that we have been successful is trying to build a very large table so that you can get very progressive, very left, folks sitting down with very right leaning. They’re Mormon farmers talking about water issues, having strong alliances with progressive urban gardeners in the city, and just finding those common spaces. So when we’re talking about immigration, we’re really trying to get away from people cartooning one another’s positions, and get to the point. So, what are the impacts of immigration, there’s huge impacts on policing and crime. And if undocumented residents don’t feel safe to talk to the police, then you lose all of the community members that can help break crime cycles, and help bring those that are creating havoc in our community at bay. So it proved quite successful. We adapted and pulled the methodology and the underlying sets of issues and a broad range of directions over about 15 years here to fairly good effect. There’s just a couple of things too that I do want to say that developed writing with my colleague Rom Coles. If you want to pursue some of this business, with your colleagues, with students, with community members, you need to be really pretty capacious with respect to human differences, to be able to work really with any and all who come. Some folks you may disagree with violently. Yet, if you can create common cause around an issue that’s greater than all of us, that’s the place to be. So we’re not just talking with people who think and act like we do. And sadly, that’s becoming increasingly the norm as we’re caught in our own bubbles. You need to exhibit radical receptivity. That’s my colleague’s phrase where we stretch ourselves to listen, attentively, really to open up and be altered in the relationship you develop with others who are different from us. And we also need to develop a musicality, really emphasizing the improvisational and the experimental. So that specifically we sought to really decentralize initiative and decision making in any of these projects, as much as possible. Make the space for those engaged in pursuing distinctive projects, processes and partnerships. Give them space, just to empower people to try to fail to succeed, to spin off on other topics and projects… to proliferate. Again, if we’re in that eco tonal space, it’s always so fructiferous and just overflowing with possibilities. So the proliferation, acceleration, increasing momentum that I talked about a little bit earlier, that does create this momentum that actually maintains itself through activity that’s constantly bringing others in, constantly feeding and generating additional interest to bring others along… Patience, accountability, commitment, those sorts of things, standard community organizing values, and a strong strategic sense that you’re able to look at a situation and realize you can’t generally go from here to there, you often will have to go through multiple steps to achieve those ends. And part of that is also something that collectively we’re losing… a sense of compromise, that just inherent and community organizing is you often will need to settle for half a loaf. And in a sense that can be viewed as a failure because you didn’t achieve what you wanted, but you achieved half of what you wanted, which is fine, because then tomorrow, you start in on the other half. So nothing is static, nothing is fixed. But you do have to be able to build and achieve to keep people together and to help move things forward. It could be evolutionary, and the leaps can be quite dramatic and fast and cover a lot of ground or perhaps not. Every community’s culture is different. And the issues will be resolved variously.

John: In the academy, one of the things we started with is that change often moves slowly. And partly, that’s because individuals have this bias toward doing things the same way.

Blase: Right.

John: It reduces a cognitive load and so forth. But one of the things that seems to be common with a lot of the things you’re talking about, is the sense of purpose that people gain from this. A few episodes back, we talked to Sarah Rose Cavanagh, who talked about how we can increase students’ motivation, using control value theory… that when there’s something that they value, and when they have a sense of control, they become much more engaged in their learning, and they tend to be much more effective. And their performance improves in classes. It seems like all these projects have that in common. Both when you have students working together, or working with the community, they have a sense of purpose, and they see the value of what they’re doing. And the faculty working in these initiatives see that they do have some autonomy in a way that they may not always feel that way in other environments or in other programs. I think there’s a lot of value in what you’ve been discussing.

Blase: Yeah, I agree 100%. And oftentimes, just how do you get people out of that inertia? And we kind of opened the conversation, that question that I found powerful was “What have you always wanted to do?” and allied to that is, if you are talking about those values that people care about… whether they’re faculty, community, members, students… that just pulls you right out of your day-to-day circumstance. I’m a musicologist, an historical musicologist by training, but I care deeply about sustainability issues and the planet. And that has little formal role in my research, as a musicologist. But that’s something that I care about as a person, as someone who is part of this country in the world. And so again, that just pulls me out of where I am. If I’m taking one step and then the next step, that’s the inertia. So how do you move people beyond that, to start thinking and imagining those new spaces… uniting the head, the hand, and the heart? How do you start to move people into different places, different experiences, and assembling things in different ways so that, that energy and excitement peeks through and informs everything you do, and others can catch that excitement. And hopefully, they can feed off of that, too.

Rebecca: We often talked about student motivation, and how faculty can motivate students. But we don’t always think about how we can motivate each other, and how we can work together. Those same strategies that work on students work on your colleagues too. [LAUGHTER]

Blase: Yeah, it’s so simple. You’re talking about community organizing, and a university, by definition, is a big community… there are sub-communities… you can use power mapping, in your department all the way up through working with folks across your state. It’s just they’re very supple, and as long as you are sound and what you’re trying to achieve, then you have a lot of tools to start to build a coalition to bring them about.

Rebecca: I like what you just said, because I think some folks might have thought initially, like, “Wow, you’re at a big school, does this scale, does this scope to a smaller institution or a smaller scale problem?” But I think you just defined exactly how to do that. You can try something really small, that’s more concrete, maybe in your department, and then move up to something much bigger.

Blase: Sure. I mean, you can start at wherever you are. And especially Honestly, I think the institution that I’m in now a big state research institution, that’s a harder nut than if you’re in a smaller space, or a smaller institution where you actually physically may know more people and have a better sense of the currency and where people, orientations, and motivations are. So yeah, I think it’s scales just variously. And you’re right, it can be applied in whatever frame that you decide to begin to tackle.

Rebecca: So Blase, we usually wrap up by talking about what’s next, even though you’ve already indicated, like a million things that you’re working on. [LAUGHTER]

Blase: Yeah, well, I’m really increasingly working with colleagues from other institutions to help them kind of acquire these skills and to understand community organizing theory and methods and how they might apply them on their campus in their situation to work with faculty, students, community… and especially around global education, but I’ve done a lot of work around civic engagement and agency, and in the past, first-year programs. And that lights me up… working with people that work with people, because that can be just helping to energize and get things going. I also have a couple of articles underway, one with JY Zhou of Stockton University, a colleague of mine that we’re writing about the community organizing theory and another framework that has a lot of resonance with that. And so hopefully, that’ll be coming out… and continuing our collaboratives here on campus faculty, student, community, collaboratives, and disciplinary articles. I’ve got a book chapter coming on Willie Nelson, and lots of presentations at conferences… the standard fare. But fundamentally this kind of work. It’s just so, so exciting. Thank you for the chance to talk about it with you.

Rebecca: Thank you so much, Blase

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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.