212. Faculty Mindset

Research on the impact of mindset has often centered on the mindset of the student. In this episode, Elizabeth Canning joins us to discuss the impact that faculty mindset has on student achievement. Elizabeth is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Washington State University. Her research focuses on how to create equitable and inclusive instructional environments.



John: Research on the impact of mindset has often centered on the mindset of the student. In this episode, we discuss the impact faculty mindset has on student achievement.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Elizabeth Canning. Elizabeth is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Washington State University. Her research focuses on how to create equitable and inclusive instructional environments. Welcome, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Thank you.

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

Elizabeth: I’m drinking water today.

Rebecca: Alright, still a good choice. The base of tea, of course.

Elizabeth: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have a restricted set of tea because I brought most of my tea back up to the office, but I’ve been sent home with COVID. So I do have a ginger peach black tea still here though.

Rebecca: That sounds like a pretty standard fare.

John: It is.

Rebecca: I made it out to that tea shop I’ve discovered. And so I have a new one called Yunnan Jig…

Elizabeth: Ooh!

Rebecca: …and it’s a golden-tipped black tea.

Elizabeth: That sounds delicious.

Rebecca: It is very delicious.

Elizabeth: Exotic teas.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about your 2019 study that examined the effect of instructor mindset on racial achievement gaps in STEM disciplines. Could you tell us a little bit about this study?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So this study was a study that we did while I was a postdoc at Indiana. It was in collaboration with Dr. Mary Murphy, Katie Muenks, and Dorraine Green. We were really interested in instructor beliefs about intelligence… so whether they believe that intelligence is something that is innate, something that you’re just born with, you can’t change it very much, we call that a fixed mindset. And what we also call a growth mindset is this belief that intelligence can grow over time and change with effort, strategies, help-seeking, things like that. And we were interested in whether instructors’ beliefs about intelligence then predicted the experiences that students have in their classes, and then how well they do in their classes. So we sent a survey out to the whole university, and we didn’t expect a whole lot of responses because faculty are busy and all of that. But we actually got a lot of responses. We had 150 STEM faculty respond to our survey. And so with that, we were able to link their survey responses to the grades in their courses over a two-year period. And we ended up with this fantastic rich data set that we were able to look at students’ grades in their courses.

Rebecca: How prevalent was the fixed mindset amongst the faculty that you surveyed?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So it was pretty normally distributed, shockingly so I think. A lot of people think that fixed mindsets might be more rare. Other people think fixed mindset might be extremely prevalent, but it was pretty normally distributed. It’s a continuous scale so if you graph it, it’s a pretty normal curve. So we’ve got the most people in the middle. And then we’ve got some people at each extreme. But what’s interesting when you look at it, though, is especially on this scale, most people, they won’t go extreme, like the very, very tip of the fixed mindset scale. But they’ll do the next level over. It’s like, “I’m not gonna be that person, but I’ll be right next to it.” So it’s interesting to think about that when you think about the profession of being an instructor, and part of your job is to educate people. But yet we’re finding a significant amount of people have this mindset that intelligence or abilities can’t change.

Rebecca: So you talked about it being a normal distribution, was there any variation amongst race or gender, ethnicity, age, or STEM discipline?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So we get that question a lot. Like, can we predict who it is that has the fixed mindset? Well, this is the only table I’ve ever published that had every single line in it non-significant. [LAUGHTER] So we tested pretty much everything in our data set—whether mindset differed by gender, by faculty race, by age, by teaching experience, tenure status, anything that we had in our data set—and we found no differences by mindset. So it seems like having a fixed mindset or having a growth mindset is prevalent among all faculty regardless of these characteristics. We also looked within departments because a lot of people want to think that it’s, “Oh, it’s those economists or…” [LAUGHTER] looking at you, John. Or, “It’s those computer scientists, or the physicists, or the mathematicians.” But we didn’t find any differences by discipline. So faculty in any kind of discipline can endorse a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. And this suggests that these mindsets are not going to resolve itself on its own. Like if this was a generational thing, then we would expect it to resolve over time, or we could go into a specific discipline and educate faculty, but it seems to be pretty widespread, regardless of these characteristics.

John: That was one of the most surprising things in your study, to me. I was expecting that this would vary, particularly with age, but also perhaps with gender as well. And I was thinking that maybe this would be better over time. One of my favorite quotes from Paul Samuelson, an economist who died a while back, was, “funeral by funeral, the science makes progress,” and I was kind of hoping that that might occur with growth mindsets here, too. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

Rebecca: So we’re left with saying, “Great…” [LAUGHTER]

John: When you were looking at the effect of instructor mindset on student grades, were you also controlling for the characteristics of the students as well?

Elizabeth: Yes. So we controlled for a number of things in our analyses, we wanted to put anything in the model that might predict student performance. So we controlled for whether the student was the first in their family to go to college, their first-generation status. We controlled for their prior achievement level, so their prior GPA before they enrolled in that class. We also controlled for a number of course characteristics. So whether the course was, at this university, a 100 level, 200, 300. So, like, an entry-level class versus more of an upper-division class or upper-level class. We controlled for a number of faculty characteristics as well, like whether they were tenured, their age, how long they had been teaching. And so all of that was in the model to control for those variations in terms of what predicts their grades. Because a number of things we know predict grades, like class size. If it’s a bigger class versus a smaller class, we know that’s a pretty robust finding. And so we controlled for that in all of the analyses.

John: What was the overall effect, controlling for all the other student and instructor characteristics, of instructor mindset on student grades?

Elizabeth: So students, on average, received a higher grade in faculty’s classes where they endorsed more of a growth mindset. And this was, again, controlling for all of those things, regardless of student characteristics, class characteristics, and faculty characteristics. We also looked at this by student race, so we found an interaction with student race. So it’s not just that everybody on average is receiving or earning higher grades in the growth-mindset courses. This is particularly true for students with racial- ethnic minority status. So Black, Hispanic, Native American students performed better in the courses that had faculty who endorsed more of a growth mindset. When we look at the achievement gap between White and Asian students compared to Black, Hispanic, and Native American students, we see that this racial achievement gap is twice as large when the faculty endorsed more of a fixed mindset, compared to when they endorsed more of a growth mindset.

Rebecca: Can we talk a little bit about differences in assessments or the way that courses are structured between the fixed-mindset faculty courses versus the growth-mindset courses, because I think your paper talked a little bit about that as well, right, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth: We couldn’t dig into the specifics of it just because of the scale of this project, but we’ve done a lot of follow-up to see: What is it that faculty are doing in these classes? Because students are obviously picking up on it. It’s not just the belief that you hold near and dear to your heart, this is something that is being communicated to students in some way. And what we know from our other research is that it’s communicated in a lot of ways depending on the instructor, depending on the class. So it can be communicated in your course policies, like how you design your syllabus, how many assessments you give in your class. So, fixed-mindset professors are more likely to have a midterm and a final, and that’s your only opportunity to display your abilities in that class. Whereas the growth-mindset professors are more likely to have weekly quizzes where you can improve over time and see that improvement over time. And mistakes are less deadly in those classes, so to speak. So it’s in the way they design their courses, but it’s also in subtle ways. So what they say in class, how they talk to students who are struggling in their office hours, it’s in their attitude, it’s in a lot of different behavior. And students are pretty perceptive, they can pick up on it pretty quickly.

John: So we can significantly reduce racial achievement gaps if instructors have growth mindsets. Is instructor mindset something that’s changeable?

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think so. We know a lot from trying to change students’ mindset beliefs, it’s actually pretty malleable. You can teach people the science behind how our abilities grow over time, the changes that occur in your brain in terms of neuroplasticity, and faculty are pretty receptive to that. Most faculty want to do things that are going to benefit their students, most faculty want to be good instructors. And so it might just be finding ways to communicate that. In some of our research, we’ve found a disconnect between what faculty think their mindset is and how they’re communicating that, to what students are actually perceiving. And so it might just be communication, making sure that you’re very explicit about what you believe in your class, standing up on the first day and saying, “Here’s what I believe about abilities and intelligence, you don’t have to be, quote-unquote, ‘smart’ to do well in this class. Here are other ways to do well in this class, like learning and improving and using different strategies and things like that.” We also know that there are very critical times where these messages matter more. So there are times during the semester where students are searching for information about their abilities. So when you hand back that first exam grade, or that first assessment that you give in your class, that’s the perfect time to communicate your mindset beliefs, particularly if they’re a growth mindset. Because students are searching, “What does this mean? Does this mean that I’m good at this? Does this mean that I’m not good at this? Am I going to do well, should I drop this course?” It’s a time of uncertainty for students. And so, for faculty to communicate those beliefs during that critical time, it can set forth sort of the snowball effect for how they should view their learning and improvement throughout the semester. There’s a number of ways that faculty can do this in their classes. But back to your original question about, “Can we change faculties’ mindset?” I think so. I think there’s a lot of literature suggesting that we can do that.

Rebecca: And there’s been a lot of money pumped into making these STEM pipelines in the first place. We want them to be effective. So investing in this education around mindset and learning might be a really good use of funds.

Elizabeth: Yeah, one of the things that I think was really shocking about this paper is the faculty that reported their mindset beliefs, there were 150 of them. But when you look at all of the students that they touch, over a two-year period, how many people they teach, it becomes a really big number pretty quickly. So in this sample it was around 15,000 students that these 150 faculty taught over a two-year period. And so, instead of intervening with 15,000 students, you might intervene with 150 people and see similar or maybe even greater effect.

Rebecca: I know from our experience, John, with working with faculty around mindset and around helping students learn how they learn, that faculty who demonstrate a growth mindset are often very willing to share what they’ve learned about learning with their students. And so having an intervention with 150 people then reaches many of those students, because that information ends up being communicated out in a more distributed way.

John: One thing I’m wondering is whether you can separate out, in these results, the impacts of the way in which people teach from the messaging that’s coming up indirectly in other ways? It strikes me that that may not be possible, in that the instructors with a growth mindset provide lots of opportunities for students to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, while those who have a fixed mindset are more likely just, as you said, to use a small number of exams as high-stakes assessments. Is it possible that some of the effect is just from better teaching practices and using more evidence-based teaching approaches that give students these opportunities for more retrieval practice, more spaced practice, and so forth?

Elizabeth: I think that’s very possible. However, we’ve done some follow-up research where we randomized faculty messages within one course. So it’s the same professor, it’s the same structure, some students are getting growth-mindset messages from that instructor, some students are just getting control messages, and we’re seeing really great effects at that level. And so it has to be more than just the way their course is structured. It’s more about the messages that they’re giving students and how to frame mistakes, how to frame ability. We’re providing it at a specific time like I mentioned earlier, and so it’s probably a combination of both. But with this new experimental evidence at the student level, or at the classroom level, we’re seeing that it’s more than just their teaching ability, or the way that their course is structured.

John: What you just described reminds me of a podcast we had done a while back with Angela Bauer at High Point University in Episode 49. In that episode, she talked about trying to reduce some of the achievement gap in their introductory biology classes. And they first introduced some active-learning activities, but there was still a non-trivial achievement gap remaining. So they introduced some growth mindset messaging, and that seemed to remove the remaining racial achievement gaps. So that provides a little bit further evidence that growth mindset messaging can play a significant role in helping to reduce these achievement gaps.

Rebecca: One thing that’s really powerful about that idea, though, is that it may not really take a lot to make a change.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Rebecca: It doesn’t really seem like that much of a financial investment, or even a time investment to make a difference, or at least chip away at the problem a little.

Elizabeth: I think that’s what makes this so appealing to people is because it’s subtle, and it’s also something that can be done pretty easily. So you’re not changing the curriculum, you’re not flipping your classroom that requires extra work and time. Faculty are already overloaded with the expectations of what they’re supposed to be doing with teaching in terms of all their other responsibilities. We have implemented mindset messages at a pretty really basic level. So putting messages in a syllabus, putting messages in an email, maybe a couple videos in the class, for instance. And that’s really it. As long as it’s done in a way where it’s at a critical time, it’s more meaningful for students, and it’s done sincerely, then it’s not a whole lot of extra work.

John: From a faculty member’s side though, for those who may have a fixed mindset who believe that students’ ability is fixed, a conversion to a growth mindset may very well, and that’s consistent with your results, change the way in which they structure their courses. Because if you believe that students can learn by making mistakes and practice, you’re probably going to redesign your courses to build more of that in and that’s, again, very consistent with what you found. And it will be a bit more work typically for instructors unless they can do it in a way in which there’s some degree of automation.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of discussion around rigor, and if you have a growth mindset that it means you’re too soft, and you’re not having a difficult class. So it brings up all these questions about course difficulty and rigor. And I think our perspective and some of the follow-up work that we’ve done in this paper, and in other papers, that the perspective of what is difficult or what is rigorous really depends on who you ask. So if you ask a faculty member how difficult their class is, or what it means to have a difficult class, that’s going to vary quite dramatically from the students’ perspective. So what we’ve seen is that students actually find the growth-mindset professors to be a little bit more difficult or challenging than the fixed-mindset professors, and it’s for that very reason that they have more work to do in the class. [LAUGHTER] They have to make improvements, and they have to redo assignments, and the workload is maybe even a little bit higher, versus a fixed mindset class that might have a midterm or a final, there’s less, quote-unquote, “work” to do in that class. And so it really is in the eye of the beholder what class is difficult and what that means in terms of student achievement.

Rebecca: There’s a difference in regular accountability…

Elizabeth: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: …and therefore feels like a lot more work when you’re being held accountable on a regular basis. [LAUGHTER]

Elizabeth: Yeah, I’ve done some follow-up work, because a lot of people will also think that it just comes down to being nice. If you’re nice and warm and friendly, then people are going to do well in your class, and if you’re not, then people will not do well in your class. And so I’ve done an experiment where we have manipulated that. There’s a laboratory study that we’ve done, where we manipulate whether the message is a fixed-mindset or a growth-mindset message. And then we manipulate whether that message is delivered in a way that’s warm and friendly and positive, versus cold and unfriendly. So this results in four different ways of messaging. The best is always going to be sort of this warm, friendly growth mindset, and the worst is always going to be the cold, unfriendly fixed-mindset. But what’s really interesting is what happens to the two in the middle. If you have the growth mindset but you’re cold and unapproachable, versus a fixed mindset and warm and approachable, How do those two shake out? And what we’re finding is that, very consistently, it’s the mindset message that matters more than the warmth or approachability. So they do interact, of course, it’s good to be warm and friendly. But the message itself also matters. So we can tease these things apart. They are different things, and they have different effects.

John: Since we’ve got you here, we were looking through some of your other research, and you’ve done a number of studies that have looked at the impact of utility-value interventions. Could you talk about what those are, and what you’ve found involving those?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So a lot of the research I’ve done on utility-value interventions was conducted in collaboration with Dr. Judy Harackiewicz at Wisconsin, Madison. And so, utility-value intervention is an intervention that’s directed at students. The way that we implement it is we have students write a short essay. They pick a topic that they’ve covered in class, and they write about how that topic is useful or relevant to them personally. And the way that we’ve done this, we’ve had them do it a couple different times throughout the semester. So they’re reflecting on what they’re learning and they’re connecting it to their own personal goals, their life, and it makes the material that they’re learning more relevant to them. And what we’ve found is that this intervention is particularly beneficial for underrepresented racial minority students who are also the first in their family to go to college. So this group is doubly disadvantaged, they’re disadvantaged due to race, they’re also disadvantaged due to social class. These students have the largest achievement gap in most STEM courses, and they really connect with this intervention. What we found in this research, these students have a particular motivation for going into science. They want to give back to their communities, they want to help their friends and family out after they’re done with college. They have specific goals that may not be met in science courses, or may not have this direct connection to what they’re learning in science. And so, by providing them with this opportunity to reflect on that and connect the material to those goals, we’re seeing that they make marked improvement in terms of their grades in the class. Whenever you do an intervention where you have students write something, and you get really rich data because you can look at what they’re writing about. So we analyzed over 1,000 different essays that these students wrote and we said, “What are they writing about?” We ran them through the linguistic analysis, and they’re really connecting it to those goals. These students are more engaged in the assignment, they’re writing longer essays, they’re more specific in their writing. And that then contributes to learning more in the class, which results in higher grades.

Rebecca: Sounds like, again, a very easy intervention to make or to build into classes. I know that I’ve been doing more of that in the classes that I’m teaching and seeing really good results and having really great conversations as a result with students as well.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think there’s a difference between simplicity and ease of this type of intervention, because it does require the students to put in some effort, they have to write an essay. It also requires some grading on the part of the instructor if that’s not already in your class. So it is a little bit extra, quote-unquote, “work”. But I think it can be done in automated ways to benefit students.

John: And in these studies, you’ve also looked at the effect of student-identified value versus when it’s communicated from the instructor instead. Could you talk a little bit about the relative impact of directly-communicated utility-value interventions from the instructor or those that come from the students?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So from a really practical perspective, we wanted to know, “Do students have to write the essay? [LAUGHTER] Do we have to grade all these essays? Or can we just stand up in front of the students and sort of give them this information, kind of summarize how what they’re learning is relevant to a number of domains?” Because that would ultimately, in a practical sense, take less time. So we did an experiment where we manipulated this, and what we found is that students benefit the most when they get both. So they have a little bit of scaffolding from the faculty member, where they’re given some ideas of how the information might be relevant or useful to them. And then they write about it in their own words and get really into specifics. So a professor can stand up there and say a bunch of ways that it might be relevant, but every student is unique, every student has different goals, every student has different interests. And so, it really needs to be personalized to them. And the process of putting it in your own words and reflecting on it is also useful, right? That’s part of the learning process. You get into the specifics of it and write about it. So, we ended up concluding that it’s both. There’s some scaffolding involved from the faculty member, but then the students really need to generate something for themselves too.

John: I think you also looked at this in terms of the differential effect in two-year and four-year institutions, and you found somewhat different results between a community college and a four-year institution. Could you talk a little bit about that difference?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So a lot of this research has been done, or the data have been collected from four-year institutions, particularly four-year research-intensive institutions. And so, I wanted to see how this could translate to other types of colleges, particularly in the two-year context, because a lot of first-generation students go to two-year colleges. That’s a gateway to a lot of different career paths. And so what we did is we went around to a whole bunch of different two-year colleges, we connected with the instructors there, we tried to tailor it for their students and their context. But ultimately, what we found is that there needed to be a lot more scaffolding in terms of the writing process. So because the intervention was done with students at four-year colleges, we kind of made assumptions about how ready students were to think about utility and think about relevance. And a writing intervention in those contexts just wasn’t appropriate. So we didn’t find the same findings, we actually found that the control essays were more beneficial than the utility-value condition, in these interventions that control is summarizing course material. And that was actually really beneficial for students in this context because they weren’t already doing that in these courses. Whereas in the four-year college, that was sort of the status quo, and they were able to take that next step to make that course material relevant to them. So in working with their instructors, what we concluded is that you can do this intervention in a different way. It doesn’t necessarily have to be writing. It could be done in small group discussions, it can be done in presentations, it can be done in a lot of different formats that might not present a barrier of writing ability or writing practice. A lot of students in two-year colleges take concurrent writing courses in addition to their science courses. And so removing that barrier of writing, I think, would have been necessary in that context.

Rebecca: It’s a nice helpful reminder, I think, for faculty to be thinking about ways to have reflective practice that doesn’t always involve a lot of reading too. [LAUGHTER] Like, if we’re doing presentations, or if we’re reflecting in a video, or reflecting in conversation. These are all other places that provide some variety, too, so that we’re not always grading the same things or having to intake the same kinds of information. That can also be overwhelming to faculty too. So mixing it up is helpful I think. [LAUGHTER]

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think it also speaks to, you know, one-size-fits-all interventions just are not appropriate. So we publish these papers and we say, “Wait, we found these really amazing findings.” But that’s in one context, maybe with one instructor, maybe at one institution, and every student body is different, every class is different. And so, you really need to figure out the needs of your students and meet them where they are, and also take a step back and look at the purpose of the intervention. Maybe it can be implemented differently. Maybe if you take the philosophy of it and customize it for your context, that’s going to be the more appropriate approach.

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

Elizabeth: Well, right now I’m still working on mindset messages. We just got word that we might potentially be getting a nice grant to look at this. And so what we’re going to be looking at is growth-mindset interventions directed at students crossed with growth mindset messages from faculty. The idea is that when you try to get students to believe in a growth mindset, it’s going to be most effective when the environment is supportive of that message so that it’s supported by the faculty member in that class. So we’re going to be looking at that over the next few years in a bunch of different contexts, in a bunch of different institutions.

Rebecca: Sounds like more beneficial, useful, and exciting information.

John: And again, as Rebecca had said earlier, these are really relatively simple and easy-to-use interventions that I think could be much more widely adopted. Well, thank you.

Elizabeth: Yes, thank you for having me. It was great to talk with you.


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

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


211. What Inclusive Instructors Do

Our students bring a rich diversity in their life experiences, skills, and prior knowledge to our classrooms. In this episode, Tracie Marcella Addy, Derek Dube, Khadijah A. Mitchell, and Mallory E. SoRelle join us to discuss how we can create inclusive classroom communities in which student diversity is treated as an asset and where all students feel a sense of belonging. Tracie, Derek, Khadijah, and Mallory are the authors of What Inclusive Do: Principles and Practices for Excellence in College Teaching.



John: Our students bring a rich diversity in their life experiences, skills, and prior knowledge to our classrooms. In this episode, we discuss how we can create inclusive classroom communities in which student diversity is treated as an asset and where all students feel a sense of belonging.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guests today are the authors of What Inclusive Instructors Do: Principles and Practices for Excellence in College Teaching. Could you each introduce yourselves to our listeners?

Tracie: Absolutely, my name is Tracie Addy and I’m the Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Derek: Hello, I’m Derek Dube. I’m an Associate Professor of Biology and the Director for the Center for Student Research and Creative Activity at the University of St. Joseph in Connecticut.

Mallory: I’m Mallory SoRelle, and I’m an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

Khadijah: Hello, my name is Khadijah Mitchell. I am the Peter d’Aubermont Scholar of Health and Life Sciences and Assistant Professor of Biology at Lafayette College.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Tracie, are you drinking any tea today?

Tracie: Yes, I’m actually drinking Twinings peppermint tea. I like peppermint.

Rebecca: Yum!

Derek: Today I am just drinking your standard run-of-the-mill tap water.

Rebecca: Always a good option.

Mallory: I’ve got some green tea with lemongrass and mint today because I needed a little kick of caffeine

Rebecca: A mint team around here.

Khadijah: Well, I really don’t need to be drinking caffeine. [LAUGHTER] So I am drinking AHA sparkling water. It’s orange and grapefruit.

John: And I am drinking Twinings mixed berry black tea, because I need a bigger kick of caffeine.

Rebecca: I got here late and didn’t have time to make tea, and it’s really hot, and so I have a glass of water. And this is the first time I’ve ever not had tea for Tea for Teaching. But this is a very inclusive crowd, so I know it’s going to be okay.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of this book project?

Tracie: Yes, I can share about that. So, we were very interested in a lot of different research questions around inclusive teaching, for example: What predicts whether instructors adopt inclusive teaching? What are the barriers that they face? As well as, what can we do to kind of move this forward at institutions? So initially, we were very kind of research-minded, and we noticed that there were other questions that we could explore. Also, in our study, that I know later one of my co-authors will talk about in more depth. And those questions were, “What do inclusive instructors do?” So we ended up collecting a lot of really interesting information about the practices of inclusive instructors. And so that led us to think… Wow, wouldn’t it be wonderful to put this all together into a beautiful story that included the voices of instructors, that included instructors across disciplines, across institution types, across ranks, etc., and put it together in a guide that would really be practical, that would help instructors really think about inclusive teaching in a very practical way? So that essentially initiated this project. And I invited my co-authors who are joining today to partake with me in this project to write the book, and I thought of each of them for very specific reasons. And I value, very much so, their contributions and what they did around inclusion. And we kind of put it all together, and we worked together on this great work. Now, this is also coupled with more studies, some of which have been published as well, that kind of get into this big picture, thinking about inclusive teaching, thinking about… What do we do? How do we do it? And then even further, How do we actually enact it? What are the barriers we face? And how do we overcome or address those barriers?

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what inclusive teaching is, and why it’s important, to kick off our conversation today?

Tracie: Yes and I think it’s so important to define our terms here so that everybody starts off on the same page. So when we talk about inclusive teaching, and especially in the book What Inclusive Instructors Do, we’re talking about teaching that is creating a classroom environment that’s welcoming, so students feel a sense of belonging to the actual classroom setting. And we’re also talking about, that it’s equitable, and it’s thinking about the diversity of learners, and it’s very responsive to that diversity in the classroom. So we’re kind of joining here, this idea of belonging, as well as this idea of equity together, and all the practices, which are many, that we can actually use in our classrooms to be inclusive. And with regards to, “Why is it important?”… inclusive teaching has always been important. Inclusive teaching is excellence in teaching. We publish this book now, but this has historically always been a critical area to think about in teaching and learning. And some of the reasons why… well first, there’s a history of exclusion at institutions of higher education, some are able to be educated and have these experiences, and some are not. And there’s also a lot of good research around thinking about that and belonging. There’s clear research that ties belonging to academic achievement, it ties it to wellbeing for students, and many other important things that we know are really important for students’ success in college. Also, we teach diverse students in many of our institutions. So it really behooves us to really think about that and that diversity. And so it’s important now, it’s always been important. I know, with all of the things happening in our nation, there have been more calls and more attention towards inclusion and equity. But I will say, as I’ve said already, that it’s always been important to actually have environments in our classrooms that students feel as if they belong. We know that that’s a place where students can feel excluded.

John: You also conducted a survey of faculty about inclusive teaching practices. Could you tell us a little bit about the survey that you used?

Derek: Sure. So I’m happy to share a bit about that. Now, as Tracie had mentioned, there’s four of us that worked as co-authors on this book, and we all have different experiences, and backgrounds, and expertises, and roles at our institution. But we didn’t want this book to be just our voices and our four experiences, we wanted it to be much more than that. So with that in mind, we dove into the literature around inclusive teaching—what’s published, what’s the research out there—but really to figure out what’s going on right now and what are inclusive instructors doing, we wanted to have as broad a swath as possible. So working together we created a national survey on inclusive teaching, an inclusive teaching questionnaire, and we shared this both directly to various institutions of various different rank and style, master’s institutions, doctoral institutions, community college liberal arts institutions. We also connected with listservs, and social media, and directly with instructors as ways to share this out. This survey was given for about a month to two months in early 2019. And in the end, we ended up having about 566 participants that had started the survey, over 300 of which reached the end of the survey, and over 200 of which responded to all of the questions that we asked. And it was really interesting, because when we looked at the demographics and the backgrounds of those who responded, we saw a wide range of individuals from different types of institutions, male and female, various backgrounds, various disciplines, whether they were tenure track or not, and also the fields that they worked in. So we really felt like we got a good feel of a variety of different instructors being able to speak to what inclusive teaching means to them, what they’re doing, and how they see it at their institution. Also, geographically, we had respondents from the northeast, from the southeast, from the northwest, from the southwest, and everywhere in between, which was really nice to see as well. So when we did this survey, as Tracie mentioned, we had a few different things that we wanted to know some of them were… What are instructive pedagogies? What are inclusive instructors doing right now? But also, What are barriers they’re facing? What experiences for training have they had? How confident do they feel in their own ability to teach in equitable and inclusive ways? So all of these things were pieces of information that we were able to get from this broader swath and bring in and really pull in and really allow, in a lot of ways, those voices to be the voice of the book.

John: So a very inclusive approach to developing a book on inclusive teaching.

Derek: That was the idea, yeah.

Rebecca: In your first chapter of the book, you suggest that faculty should treat student diversity as an asset rather than employing deficit models that we definitely have experienced in our own educations and perhaps in our institutions. Can you describe ways that faculty can convey this message to students through their instructional practices and actually take advantage of these assets?

Mallory: Sure thing, that’s a great question. So, the idea that we should approach differences in background, experience, personality, skill sets, as an asset to the learning environment, something that improves the learning environment instead of a challenge to be overcome or an obstacle we have to deal with, was one of the most, I think, significant themes that comes out both in the scholarship around inclusive teaching, but also in the words of the folks in our survey. And a lot of examples came out in people’s responses about how they go about doing this in practice. And that begins with course design and syllabus with things like incorporating diverse perspectives in the material you’re assigning in class to demonstrate the value of these different perspectives. It comes from incorporating welcoming statements in a syllabus that explicitly state the value of multiple perspectives in the classroom and devising participatory strategies that are designed to bring those out. It also includes trying to build assignments that take an asset-based approach. I’ll give you an example of one, in a group project where you ask students to identify some of their different strengths: Are you good at researching? Are you good at writing? Are you good at editing? Are you good at presenting? And putting groups together that assemble students who identified different strengths and having them talk about those. The idea that not all students have to be good at every one thing, that we all bring these different strengths to the table. And one of the things that I think is really important for this asset-based approach is knowing something about what those assets are in your classroom. And that requires knowing something about who is in your classroom. So one of the things we also talk about in the book that I think is a good tool for helping to treat diversity as an asset set in the classroom is what we call a “Who’s in Class?” form, which is a form that can be given anonymously to students at the beginning of the semester, to just help and identify what are some of the social identities in the classroom, some of the skills people bring to the classroom, some of the different perspectives that students are bringing to the classroom, to give instructors more of a sense of what that diversity is, and how that can be used over the course of the semester to really improve the learning experience for everyone.

Rebecca: So I’m curious, with a survey like that to learn who’s in the classroom, are those results something that we should be sharing out to students and having a conversation about?

Mallory: Yeah, so I’ll take that and also open it up to Tracie, because she’s done a lot of work in the development of this form. I think the goal is to distribute this, allow anyone who wants to participate anonymously to participate, and then, yes, to share back the aggregate takeaways to the class, because it lets other students know who else is in this class with them. And particularly, I think, for students who might feel like there’s something they’re bringing to the table that maybe they don’t know other students are also bringing to the table. It’s a way of saying, like, “Look, there are lots of folks who are both like you and lots of folks who are not like you. And that’s going to be something that’s going to help us throughout the class this semester.”

Tracie: And I guess I’ll piggyback on that a bit. And I will say, you definitely can share it with your class. I think the important thing is letting your students also know that in aggregate, we will be sharing this. And also, if there’s certain things on there that really does it make sense to share with everybody? …having that discretion too. Because students will share lots of different things on that form, and some of it can be used to introduce this conversation, like Mallory said, and to really think about the diversity of the class. And I know also Khadijah has done things of that nature, she’s actually used the form in her class and done things like that, and has had a lot of positive feedback from students, with that regard. Derek might have done too, I’m not sure, but… [LAUGHTER] I know Khadijah has voiced that to me as well. So I think it’s a good opportunity to really think about who’s in class and a safer way for students… students will often feel more comfortable sharing in that type of format than just asking them without that kind of anonymity tied to it.

Derek: And I can actually just chime in a little bit here too. One of the ideas that Mallory brought up, and then Tracie added to, was getting to know your students. It’s really hard to teach your students in a meaningful and inclusive way if you don’t know who your students are. So finding ways to do that, especially early on in a course—really early, the earlier the better—was really important to us. And that’s where the “Who’s in Class?” form was born. It was born as a way to instead of waiting for, “Okay, I’m going to meet and learn my students throughout the semester, maybe get to know them more at the end with evaluations and things like that,” …what can we do right away? And because the students may not necessarily know us right away, or what our intentions are, we thought that the “Who’s in Class?” form could be most powerful as an anonymous and aggregated way of collecting data. Where students could feel safe, that their privacy was protected, that they could share that information that they wanted the instructor to know, but maybe didn’t want them to know about them in specific. So that’s why we moved that way. Now, in thinking about getting to know your students and being able to really, in a directed way, be inclusive and equitable and support different students with different needs, we do believe that moving from anonymous to a more non-anonymous way of getting that information can be important in a lot of situations. But we think that it’s best when it’s student-directed, when the students decide that they’re comfortable to share that information with the instructor, that’s the time when it’s most likely most appropriate. The “Who’s in Class?” form can be a way to ease into sharing information in a safe way. And then you come, you talk to your class about, “Why did we do the ‘Who’s in Class?’ form? What did we learn in aggregate?” And then you open up and say, “I’m here to extend these conversations, to continue these discussions. I have office hours that are open that you’re welcome to come to and talk to me if there’s any specific thing here that you want me to know that directly relates to you.” I know that Khadijah, at least, has, in some of her courses, used situations where there’s essentially mandatory office hours, I think right in the beginning, like little meet-and-greets where it’s only 5 minutes or 10 minutes, but you’re going to come in and you’re going to meet and you’re going to have an opportunity to talk. And you can share what you want to during that time, but you’re going to get that face-to-face time. And maybe she can talk about that more in a moment or two. But other things that I’ve done, if you have large classes where maybe there’s not a ton of time to have individual meetings with every student, in a lot of my classes, one of the first assignments is an online discussion board using our learning management system, which in my case is Blackboard, where students make a post about themselves and some information about not only them academically, but also their hobbies or interests. They post a picture either of themselves or something that represents themselves. And then there’s an opportunity and encouragement for students to reply in meaningful ways to each other, to get to know each other, because it’s not just about the instructor knowing who’s in the class, but it’s about the class knowing who’s in the class too, for it to be the most positive experience. So that’s been really beneficial. And I as an instructor then take time, and I can do it at nine o’clock after my kids are in bed, to make sure that I respond to each student in a meaningful way and try and make connections where I can, “Oh, you like science fiction, well I’m currently reading this series, we should talk about that sometime,” or things along that line. So I think that starting in a safe, anonymous way like the “Who’s in Class?” form can be a great way to get that ball rolling and, if the students feel comfortable and feel like it would be meaningful, allow them to break that anonymity border by offering opportunity.

John: We’ve been running a reading group along with SUNY Plattsburgh, and this was a topic that was discussed really extensively in one of our meetings, where there was pretty much a consensus that there’s a purpose for both an anonymous form to let people express things that they might not be comfortable revealing, but then also giving students the opportunity to share either with just the instructor, perhaps through meetings, or if it’s a larger class, a discussion forum, or Flipgrid, or VoiceThread, or some other way where they can share their identities with other people. And I think the consensus was, there’s a good purpose for each of these, and some combination might be really helpful.

Khadijah: One thing I just want to add on to what everyone is saying is that the “Who’s in Class?” form has been transformative for my classroom spaces. And I know Derek brought up something about large class size and thinking about large classes, it even can help with that. But I think we also need to think about the other end of the bell curve, very small classes, because even though someone may be not identified, there’s some aspects of their identity that could then disclose who they are. So I think that we also need to be mindful of that. For example, clearly there are visible aspects of our identity that would be able to disclose what a particular student was in a small setting, that would not be as much of an issue with a large setting. But I do think that there is so much power in that. And speaking to what Derek mentioned about the essential office hours, so for every class that I teach, I do use the “Who’s in Class?” form and these essential office hours. And even though the “Who’s in Class?” form is anonymous, people do share with me during these essential office hours, and it really fosters a greater classroom environment in that way.

Rebecca: I love the name essential office hours, I love the emphasis on the “essential.”

Tracie: Absolutely. And I was going to share that the development of the “Who’s in Class?” form was with collaboration with students too. So I asked a number of students about this form, as we were going through the process of creating it, from questions like, “Are these questions that we should ask? How should we implement it or administer this? Would they answer these questions?” And so that was also very helpful. But I will say that working with a number of instructors on the “Who’s in Class?” form in my center, there are a number that actually do have a separate form as well that’s course specific, that’s not anonymous, they add additional questions on that. And then we have all these wonderful variations that, like Khadijah said, the essential office hours and other ways to get to know students, which I think, John, well you mentioned, I think is obviously fabulous. There’s all these different avenues for students to be able to share aspects of themselves with not only the instructor, but as Derek mentioned, with the class. What a wonderful thing that is for building a more inclusive classroom.

John: Once you have this data on who’s in your class, how can you use that to convince students that the diversity of the class is actually an asset to the class? What sort of methods could you use to help convey that message? In particular, how can you avoid issues such as stereotype threat?

Khadijah: Well, I can speak to the first part of your question, John, I think about: what can you do with this data? So I actually summarize the data, and we have a little PowerPoint presentation, and I share that back out to the class so that we appreciate this diversity. I also then go tweak and tailor my classroom to the students that are in the room. So if there are particular issues that may be salient to that group and that population, then we address that as a learning community together. Thinking about stereotype threat, so this is really important, particularly in the discipline that I’m in, in STEM disciplines. So when we think about stereotype threat, we normally think about negative stereotype threat. And that’s the perceived risk of confirming negative stereotypes about a particular social group that a student may be assigned. And what it leads to is this imbalance of how the student’s sense of self, which is typically positive, versus this inconsistent expectation of whatever group that they fall into. And so this is really, really pronounced when we think about various academic disciplines, and notably people who’ve done work in STEM. And what happens is this leads to worse academic performance or a threatened or less of a sense of belonging. So things like the “Who’s in Class?” form that can help with that sense of belonging. I think that there are several evidence-based approaches that we use to mitigate this impact in effect. And the first is really thinking about self-affirmation. So there are a lot of the instructors in our study, and we see the voices in the book. We talk about reinforcing the students’ feelings of integrity and self-worth and that this self-affirmation dramatically reduces the effects of negative stereotype threat. And we know that this can change achievement gaps and bolster this sense of belonging along with initiatives like using this “Who’s in Class?” form. I think one thing to keep in mind is, although we often talk about negative stereotype threat, there also is positive stereotype threat. And so, one way, as instructors, we can combat that, is thinking about the stereotype content model, because this allows for both types of stereotypes. And what happens is this model is a psychological model that’s based on perceptions of warmth and competence. And thinking about particular stereotypes as high or low warmth and competence. And, in particular, we know that inclusive instructors realize that harm can arise from either one of these and depending on visible and invisible identities. So what happens is you can use this stereotype content model across different types of courses, levels, times to acknowledge and reflect on the individual’s own stereotypes, to offer apologies for students that may have resulted in harm, and to carry out actions that would re-establish welcoming spaces. So we like to think about the stereotype content model can be coupled with these three As: acknowledge, apologize, and act. And so that would just be examining your own background and experiences, and apologizing if there’s been any type of misspoken or things that weren’t addressed, and thinking about how to act and take action in the face of some of these stereotypes.

Rebecca: So as we start thinking about some of these ideas, how do we start building these inclusive principles into our course designs? We’ve talked a little bit about the openers, considering some of these ways of acknowledging and recognizing who’s in our spaces, and who’s in our classes, and who’s in our community. But how do we make sure that we continue that thread of inclusivity throughout the entire semester?

Mallory: So I think course design is a really critical tool for inclusive teaching, and particularly the way that manifests in a syllabus. So I’m a political scientist by training, I like to think of a syllabus as a little bit of a constitution. It’s kind of the founding document of your class. It tells us what our common purpose is, it tells us who’s part of this community, it tells us how we act within that community, what we owe to one another, how we participate in that community, and really what we’re doing. And all of those are really integral questions if we’re thinking about inclusive teaching. So in the survey, I would say there are three really broad themes that came out of people’s responses to how they try and enact inclusive practices in syllabus design. And so the first one was really trying to demonstrate that everyone has a place in the field. We think back to what Tracie was saying earlier about belonging, being important, this is an obvious tie-in to that. And so perhaps the most frequent comment that got made in the survey was, probably unsurprisingly, “We should incorporate diverse perspectives on the syllabus,” and also in other course artifacts throughout the semester, but particularly on the syllabus. So that’s one way to demonstrate that everyone has a place in the field. The next big theme that came out was encouraging everyone to play a role in the learning process. And so we could think about that as another form of fostering belonging, but I would also say that’s part of the equity piece as well, providing space for everyone to be an active part of this particular learning community. And so there were a few different ways that came out in people’s responses. So one idea was encouraging everyone to play a role in the learning process by essentially just setting a tone that this will be an inclusive classroom in the syllabus language. So that could incorporate something like having a welcoming or a diversity statement directly in your syllabus. It could also just be the tone of the language you use. Is the language hierarchical? “The professor will do this and the student will do this,” or is it more inclusive? Is it, “Hey, we are doing this, [LAUGHTER] we will talk about these things, we will tackle these assignments.” Another piece of that puzzle was about setting citizenship expectations. If we want everyone to play a role in the learning process, we want to set some expectations for how we’re going to treat one another while we’re doing that. And I think a lot of syllabi are good at setting expectations for what students owe to their faculty. But, one of the things that we talked about a little bit in the chapter that addresses this is also that a syllabus is a good place to set expectations for how students treat one another, but also what faculty owe to students. And so, again, sort of leveling that playing field and establishing we are all in this community, we all play a really important role, we will all have give and take and here’s the responsibilities we have to one another. And then the third theme that came out, in thinking about inclusive course design, was essentially promoting the conditions for everyone to be successful in the course. So that really nails that equity piece. And so, one of the one of the big-picture ways that people implement this is to think about a syllabus as an opportunity to explain to students, not only what you’re doing, which I think most syllabi do a pretty good job of, but also how you can go about doing that successfully, and critically why we’re doing this. So the “what” is sort of setting clear expectations, so that everyone is on the same page about what we’re all trying to accomplish. The “how” is potentially providing resources to help students accomplish those goals. So directing them to the library, directing them to a writing center, if such a center exists. That could also include things like mental health resources to help students navigate the semester, particularly in the past two years that we’ve been having, those can be especially critical. And then also that last one, the “why,” giving a rationale. We all have reasons, hopefully we have reasons, for designing courses in the way that we do. But we often don’t explain those to students. And I think we often forget that students aren’t inside our heads and don’t really know why we’re asking them to do things in a particular way. And so part of setting the conditions for people to be successful is to explain why we’re doing the things we’re doing to students so that they can make strategic choices when they’re in our courses and are trying to be successful in those courses. And then the other really important theme that came out when thinking about promoting conditions for everyone to succeed is, perhaps unsurprisingly, trying to make sure your course design and syllabus are accessible to as many groups as possible. That’s another way that the “Who’s in Class?” form can come in really handy because there are a lot of ways in which we might try to make something accessible to one group that inadvertently becomes less accessible to another. So knowing something about who is in your class, and what some of the accommodations they might need are, can really help you make strategic choices about how to be as accessible as possible. So those were really the big-picture things that came out about how to make your course more inclusive through the design of a syllabus.

Rebecca: Mallory talked a bit about syllabus design and setting a good tone up front, and the survey does that as well. So what are some things that we can do at key touchpoints throughout the course of the semester to keep this feeling of inclusion continuing and that sense of belonging continuing throughout the semester?

Khadijah: So that’s a great question. I would say that welcoming students begins even before the course starts, even before they lay eyes on the syllabus. So I think that you can set this positive tone, you want to think about it like a greeting card, to promote belonging from the beginning. And so we talked about the “Who’s in Class?” form, but even having a video that would welcome them to the course, kind of like a trailer for your class at the beginning. There are things like the physical environment, thinking about that if you’re in person, but if you’re online, think about what are the first images that someone sees when they log on to your learning management course or the course website. Thinking about what type of activities would emphasize diversity and equity and inclusion. And that would be at the beginning, such as the “Who’s in Class?” form, but throughout the semester. And so I think that those things are carried out. Building the relationships with the students are also important throughout the semester. But at the end, I think we never think about how the students, even at the end of a course, feel welcome. It’s never too late. So even on the last day of class, you can highlight as an inclusive instructor, and we saw this throughout our work, how much you’ve learned from the students themselves and thanking them for how much that they taught the instructor. And thinking about, by having this equitable participation that Mallory brought up, that acknowledging that at the end of a course, actually affirms them in their abilities. It encourages them to see themselves as members of that community of practice, and we know this is critical for various disciplines. And wrapping up with giving students a way to reflect and give feedback on how welcome they felt in that environment. And that is really critical, that feedback that they give, for helping make future classrooms more inviting.

John: And you also advocate not just doing that at the end, but also getting feedback from students regularly throughout the semester, I believe. Could you talk a little bit about how you might do that efficiently?

Khadijah: Exactly. So, I think when we think about content, we think about formative and summative assessment. It’s the same thing with the sense of belonging. So you can do a mid-semester check-in. That could be a formal survey, or it could be something as simple as, “What’s working?” I typically take a piece of paper and say, “What’s going great so far?” and “What would we like to work on as a community?” And so that gives equal onus in the shared space in the classroom. But it lets the students know that I’m hearing them and that they belong and what they’re saying is important.

Rebecca: That mid-semester check-in often times well with thinking about advisement and registration for next semester too. So I could imagine really reinforcing a sense of belonging before the continuity of the next semester, or thinking or planning for the future can actually be really useful. And it’s not something I had thought about before, but when you were talking about the end-of-the-semester sense of belonging, our advisement time is coming up right now and registration. So I’m thinking that right now is a really good time to just reinforce and underscore these ideas to make students feel like they really do belong in the spaces that they want to occupy.

John: One of the things we really appreciated in your book was the use of reflection questions. This is something that is really rare in books directed at professional development for faculty. And it probably shouldn’t be, because we all know the benefits of reflection. Could you talk a little bit about the importance of reflection in learning, both for students and for faculty?

Tracie: Yeah, I think that’s a great question and I’m very happy that you appreciated that. We were thinking very intentionally as we were thinking about designing the book in that phase. And you can kind of see there’s like a part one, a part two, a part three, and then these reflection questions embedded throughout, and then also in aggregate at the end of the book too. And so, in general, as you mentioned, reflection is so critical. We know in the science of learning that we need to take these points in time and moments to really think about our learning, to really make sense of it, and see that meaning that we’re making of it, and that we have or are growing. And so, in our book, we thought, it’s so important, this material, that we want you to think about it further. And, as an educational developer myself, I was thinking about all the people also reading the book, and I was like, “Oh, if we were in a setting, like a workshop or something like that, I could ask these questions. Like what would I ask for application or reflection?” And I’d want to have that. And thinking about the book, and talking with my co-authors about thinking about these reflection questions, it was kind of similar where it’s like “Let’s add these in, so that there are these opportunities to actually engage in that process.” With inclusive teaching in general, there’s so many things to think about, to think about how we do it, what we do. And we gave so much information that it was so important, I think, to process it and to allow time points for stopping to actually start to think about it further. The other thing that we thought about in terms of the reflection questions is that we know that, in our bigger study, we found that there are lots of barriers that instructors described to inclusive teaching. One of them was resources, another was discussions, and whatnot. And so, by embedding these reflection questions, it also has easier access if there is a discussion—or a book club, or reading, or opportunities—to actually take this book information and bring it back and talk about it in a community at their institution, whatever that might look like. And so that’s another reason we did include them too. And I think we later decided to include the aggregate too, but I think that was also helpful. And then also just being able to pick through those which you probably want to emphasize more and have that option to do so. Some might resonate more with some than others. So all of that to say that, that’s why we put it in there and I agree that I think it’s a really good thing in books to include that. Especially these types of books we’re really reflecting and we’re really thinking about intentional teaching, in this case inclusive and equitable teaching.

John: So you started writing this before the pandemic and then while you were writing this there was this global pandemic that popped up and it was a period in which there was also a great deal of social stress. How do you think this might influence the willingness of faculty to focus more on the importance of inclusive teaching?

Tracie: So for me, inclusive teaching has always been important as I’ve mentioned earlier. So the fact that all these things happened were just that they were made more public and people became more aware. And now people are trying to change these things a little bit more than the past. So I will say what it did do was really made me think what a timely book… [LAUGHTER] to actually be at this point in time. I think it was a great opportunity. And I think it’s really useful, and we hear that, that it’s been really helpful for many institutions during this time, especially with this increased focus on it, on thinking about these issues as well. I will say that we wrote most of the book, I think a big majority of it, before it happened and then there’s a whole process that happens in making a book so there’s some time. So we did later try to tie in more of the recent things that had occurred a little bit later. But the beauty of it is, it all kind of fit naturally in there anyway. It’s not like we had to majorly revise the book, we just had to address the issues that were facing our nations. So I think, overall, it’s just a timely book. And this has always been important, and we really do need to talk about it, and this increased that ability for us to do that.

Derek: Yeah and I’ll just add, along with increased appetite for tools to help around these ideas of inclusion and equity, there still weren’t so many of those tools out there. So it worked well that we felt that we could provide one of these tools, that we had been working on it, that it was really ready to go out there as this appetite increased. And, specifically related to the pandemic, so one of the the effects of the pandemic on higher education was it forced a lot of institutions and a lot of courses to move to either hybrid or online pedagogies. And interestingly, this was something that we had been considering all along in terms of some of the chapters we were writing and thinking about welcoming classrooms, but also pedagogical means and ways to work, both in and on the ground and in online settings. So as we saw this starting to happen, we did go through and make sure… Are we talking about things and making sure that it’s understood that many of these are applicable, whether you’re in-person or online? And if you are in an online setting, how can they be used in that way as well?

Mallory: Yeah, I would echo, I think Tracie’s exactly right: structural inequalities in academia and society are not new. And I think for a group of four people who are writing a book on inclusive teaching, they’re already thinking about a lot of these. So what was new was maybe the attention of universities, who maybe were not paying attention, were forced to start paying attention, which I think is a good thing. But one of the other things that I think made me reflect a lot on the value of this book, that came out of the pandemic was, in the shift to online learning—as an instructor who was frantically trying to move all of their classes online with a week’s notice over spring break—was how much I valued being able to learn from my colleagues, and troubleshoot things, and benefit from other people’s expertise. And that’s a lot of what we’re doing in this book by drawing on this survey and not just saying, “Well, here’s what the scholarship tells us inclusive teaching looks like.” But saying, “This is what inclusive teaching looks like by people who are in the classroom doing this work, whether they’re formally trained to do it or not.” I think the value of that became even clearer to me, as I was trying to do the same thing with my colleagues on a daily basis. Learn from other people’s expertise as we were trying to navigate this really challenging situation.

Khadijah: So for me, a lot of what my co-authors have said really resonates. I think that I always thought about inclusive teaching before we had such social challenges that have been more pronounced in the media. I think two things stuck out to me as we wrote this book. One of the parts of the book, we talk about what happens when your classroom is disrupted. And I think it’s interesting, we tend to think about internal things that disrupt, so the students or the instructor, but a part of it was what happens with things outside, so these social conditions disrupt our learning. And so, the fact that the book addressed that when so many things were going on, it kind of was a how-to and it gave practical tools, of models and activities that you can do to navigate that. And I think what’s really resonated is that these things that we talked about in the book transcend transient social things. So like Tracie mentioned, something can happen in the future and this book would still be relevant in the way that we think about inclusive teaching, and what would come further down the pipe. So I think that it helped me reflect on current situations, but also kind of forecasting how having these new tools, from people that we’ve learned around the country, how that would help with future application.

Rebecca: I agree, that’s one of the powerful pieces of the book, is that we know it’s going to keep being useful for folks moving forward. And I know that we’re really grateful that we were able to share that with our faculty in our reading groups this year.

John: It does seem from our discussions with faculty that people are much more open to inclusive teaching than they’ve ever been in the past because while the problems and issues have always been there, they were often hidden on campus because you didn’t see the inequity. But when we were teaching students in their own homes, we saw differences in their access to technology, to their living quarters, and other inequities. It was much harder for people to ignore that. And I think everyone came to appreciate the benefits of community and building a strong community as a result of working through the pandemic. I think everyone realized that having a productive community is an important part of our lives. And the importance of that in a classroom, I think, is much more visible to faculty than it had been for many faculty before.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking, the big huge question, “What’s next?”

Derek: Well so one of the things that I’ll say, I’ll keep it short and simple. What’s next? Around the book, it’s spreading the word. It’s spreading the word of why inclusive teaching matters, why equitable teaching matters, and what tools are out there. Whether it’s our book or whether it’s some other tool, some other way to get yourself into that realm, and get some understanding and work with your colleagues and learn from the experts. However that happens, that’s great. And for me personally, it’s doing the exact same thing: constantly learning, knowing that I have room to grow, knowing that I can improve in my teaching personally and all of that, and looking externally and reflecting internally for ways to do that.

Mallory: I think, “What’s next?” is such a great question to end on. Because one of the things we focus on in the book is that inclusive teaching is an iterative process. You never reach the end of it, you never get the perfectly inclusive course. And so, “What’s next?” is always revisiting what you’re doing and trying to, both in your own courses, revise and work towards fixing the things you didn’t get right the last time and at the institutional level, trying to build more capacity for inclusive teaching and buy-in. And I think the big “What’s next?” question is: What happens as we move away from the immediacy of the pandemic? What happens when racial injustice is not the main topic of the news? Do we still have the support for inclusive teaching efforts, or does that fade into the background? So I think the “What’s next?” is making sure that the momentum that has been gained is not lost.

Tracie: Yeah, and I would agree with all of my co-authors so far. I think the institutionalization of inclusive teaching would be so wonderful as a next step. So whether it’s, like, not treating it as a fad, [LAUGHTER] but creating it as part of our cultures in our institutions. So I know, like at my institution, we’re working hard towards that in a variety of ways. For me also personally, I do a lot of work around this, and thinking about the research and whatnot. So one of my steps right now that I’m taking is really thinking about the tools that we can really think about and capture practices around inclusive teaching to have that feedback. So we have all these great strategies, but let’s talk about more tools to really get feedback on our actual teaching practices. So I am doing some research around that right now, and I do work with students, student partners, to help us really think about this thing called “inclusion” and this equity as well. And so that’s where I sit in this space. So I’m going to continue to think about tools like Who’s in Class? and then these new tools, and go from there as well.

Khadijah: So, I echo a lot of what Tracie, Derek, and Mallory said. I think for me, of personal interest, when we do a lot of the inclusive classroom teaching, it makes me think about my laboratory. It makes me think about my teaching laboratory and my research laboratories. And I think teaching and mentoring go hand-in-hand in this space. Particularly when we think about DEI and STEM. And so for me, I’m interested in: What does inclusive mentoring look like in these spaces? And what are some of those principles and practices that are translatable from what we think about in the classroom, but then also what may be distinct in the laboratory and mentoring?

John: Well we very much appreciate you joining us, it feels like we’ve been in a dialogue with you all through our semester so far through the reading group. And we very much enjoyed your book, and I hope many other people will join in reading through it and working with it. Thank you.

Tracie: Thank you.

Mallory: Yeah, thanks.

Derek: Thank you so much.

Rebecca: We look forward to seeing all your new work.

Khadijah: Thank you.


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

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


210. A Pedagogy of Kindness

The informal culture of some academic departments can facilitate an atmosphere of mutual mistrust between faculty and students. In this episode, Cate Denial joins us to discuss how a culture of suspicion can be replaced by a pedagogy of kindness. Cate is the Bright Distinguished Professor of the History Department and the Director of the Bright Institute at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Cate is the 2018 to 2021 Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and the recipient of the American Historical Association’s 2018 Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award. She is the author of A Pedagogy of Kindness, which will be released as part of the West Virginia University Press’ superb series of books on teaching and learning.



John: The informal culture of some academic departments can facilitate an atmosphere of mutual mistrust between faculty and students. In this episode, we discuss how a culture of suspicion can be replaced by a pedagogy of kindness.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Cate Denial. Cate is the Bright Distinguished Professor of the History Department and the Director of the Bright Institute at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Cate is the 2018 to 2021 Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and the recipient of the American Historical Association’s 2018 Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award. She is the author of A Pedagogy of Kindness, which will be released as part of the West Virginia University Press’ superb series of books on teaching and learning. Welcome, Cate.

Cate: Thanks for having me.

John: We’re really pleased to have you here. Many of our guests have referenced you on past podcasts. And you’ve long been on our list of people to invite so we finally got around to that. I’m sorry it’s taken this long.

Cate: Oh, I’m glad to be here now.

John: Our teas today are… Cate, are you drinking tea?

Cate: I am drinking tea. I am drinking Yorkshire Gold black tea with just a hint of milk in it.

Rebecca: The true British way.

Cate: Exactly, it’s the way of my people. [LAUGHTER]

John: We long have had some of that stocked in our office for our British faculty members because that tends to be pretty much universally their preference.

Rebecca: I have that East Frisian, that’s my new favorite.

Cate: Ooh.

Rebecca: It’s a black blend, of what I don’t know.

John: And I have a pineapple ginger green tea.

John: We invited you here to discuss “A Pedagogy of Kindness.” You’re working on a book version of this now, which grew out of a document you posted on Hybrid Pedagogy in August 2019, and it’s been well referenced by many people. It’s been a useful resource, especially during this pandemic. In this blog post, you talk about your evolution as an instructor. Could you give us an overview of how your teaching approach changed after you attended that Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute at the University of Mary Washington that helped prompt some of these changes?

Cate: Yeah. The Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute in 2017 was kind of the “aha” moment for me. And events had been building up to that for a while. So when I was a graduate student, I was not taught how to teach very well. And I was sort of taught to think of students as my antagonists, to anticipate that they would try and get away with all kinds of things, they would plagiarize, they would cheat, they wouldn’t show up to class, or do the reading. And that my teaching career has been the process of unlearning all of those things. I have been helped along the way by colleagues in K-12 education when I worked with the Teaching American History grant in Iowa for 10 years, by some of my colleagues from Knox College, particularly Gabrielel Raley-Karlin, who is my friend and associate in sociology. And then I also was a participant in some intergroup dialogue workshops at the University of Michigan. And all of those things kind of came together to sort of make fertile ground for the stuff at DPL to sort of land. The Digital Pedagogy Lab is a profoundly kind place, everybody is so well taken care of, there are pronoun buttons, there’s great food, all of your creature comforts are taken care of. And this track that I was in, which was the introductory track, was very focused on how to really care about our students and to interrogate the way that we taught to ask if we were sort of thinking about their needs fully. While I was there that weekend, I came to the conclusion, I had this moment of going, “Why not just be kind?” and that really set me off on this new trajectory.

John: What were some of the practices that you had been using that you moved away from as a result of this Institute?

Cate: I took a long, hard look at my syllabus, and really noticed that the language in which I was speaking to students was very much from a place of authority, sort of on a pedestal, instead of thinking of them as my collaborators. So, I changed the way that I talked about all the policies on that syllabus. I changed the way that I talked about the honor code from being very sort of finger-waggy and sort of insinuating that everyone was going to screw up at some point, to a statement that said, “Hey, I take responsibility for teaching you how to do these things. And I believe that everyone in this class is fundamentally honest,” which is completely 180 from the language I was using before. I stopped taking attendance, I stopped having hard deadlines for assignments of any kind, I became infinitely more flexible with my students. I changed the “I” statements in my syllabus to “we” statements and really emphasized that I thought of students as my collaborators. Everything changed. Everything changed because I looked at it from a completely different vantage point after that moment.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that comes up when we say “kindness” is that people confuse that with “being nice,” or just being a pushover, having no standards.

Cate: [LAUGHTER] Yes.

Rebecca: …a laundry list of things that are associated. Can you talk about what you mean by “being kind”?

Cate: Kindness is definitely not niceness. I like to say that niceness is okay with lying, and kindness is not, it is unkind to lie to someone. And kindness often means telling very hard truths. But kindness is about three things in teaching, I believe. The first is justice, the second is believing people, and the third is believing in people. So justice means knowing who is in a classroom and who isn’t at any given time. Being super attentive to our positionality, and thinking about our social identities, and those of our students. Thinking about student needs in all their complexity. So having a basic needs statement in my syllabus, making sure I have fidget toys for students, I bring a huge bag of snacks to class, those kinds of things. So really thinking carefully and honestly about where I’m standing and where they’re standing. Believing people means that when people tell me that their printer died, their dog ate their homework, they had the flu, that I believe that on every score. I always feel that it is better to risk the idea that someone might pull one over on me, than to inflict more hurt on a student who’s already in crisis. So I always err on the side of belief. And then believing in people means believing that students can be our collaborators. So, changing the way that I grade so that my students and I do that together, changing the way that I think about our conversations as a class when we’re doing class discussion, and structuring those to make sure that everybody feels heard. Making sure that students get a say in what we read and what direction the course goes. And all of those things, I think, are integral to showing compassion and making the classroom a compassionate space.

Rebecca: I’d like to pick up on one of the ideas that you just presented, which was this idea of grading with students, not something we often hear. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like?

Cate: Yeah. So, I’m a big proponent of ungrading, and ungrading is basically a big umbrella term for any action that gets us away from having numbers and letters on assignments, at any point. So there’s a big spectrum, you can do very small things that contribute to an ungrading atmosphere, and you can get rid of grades altogether if your college supports you in that. So, at my institution, what I’ve done is my students and I put together a list of grading standards, things that we think constitute each of the grades on the grade spectrum. And then when they turn in their first paper, they also turn in a self-evaluation of their work. And some of the questions are very mechanical: Did you turn it in on time? Did you ask to turn it in late? Did you do what the assignment prompt said? And some are much more open-ended: In what ways was this assignment an act of exploring new intellectual territory? I always end the self-evaluation with: “Is there anything else I should know?” …which is a great space for students to be able to tell me all the myriad things that are going on as they’re trying to focus on this assignment. And then the students and I either sit down together or Zoom together to have a conversation about what they think their grades should be. And sometimes we reference those standards that we talked about already in class, and then what I think perhaps their grades should be, and we discuss it. We talk about what are the two big things they could do that would make their assignment even better. And we focus on what you can do next. So we come to an agreement about what a grade should be. And my role in that is, really, to make sure that people don’t undersell themselves, and to make sure that people are accurately summing up the work that they did, rather than, some students have said to me before, “I don’t want to seem conceited by saying I get an A.” So there’s all kinds of little hiccups that I have to take into account.

John: I think a lot of faculty resistance to ungrading deals with those two extremes with students who may undervalue their work and students who overvalue it. Do these discussions with students help correct their perceptions and help give them a better understanding of what they’ve actually learned?

Cate: I think so. And I think that having the conversation about grading standards before we even get to awarding a grade is a really integral part of the process. So we co-create those standards, and they get to say if they want to edit a line, take something out, put something in. So we’ve already had a really great conversation about what grading is, and why I approach grading this way, before we ever get to the point where we’re going to grade an assignment together. In the four years that I’ve been doing this…a little over four years now… I have never had someone overestimate their abilities. But I have had many students who have underestimated their abilities for a variety of reasons. And so, it’s great to be able to say, like, “I think you’re underestimating yourself, let’s bump that up.” And to explain why, also, so that they have a better sense going forward of what they’ve achieved, and what they can continue to achieve.

Rebecca: One of the things that you also highlighted, Cate, is the idea of flexibility. And I think the phrase you used was “infinite flexibility.” [LAUGHTER]

Cate: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I can imagine many faculty really running away from the idea. [LAUGHTER] Can you talk a little bit about why you shifted to flexibility and what you mean by flexibility?

Cate: Yeah. When I say “infinite flexibility,” I don’t mean you have no boundaries and you do whatever. What I mean is more, there are so many ways in which I’ve been called upon to be flexible, that I couldn’t possibly enumerate them. There are different kinds of ways every time. So, what do I mean by flexibility? I mean, I plan my courses so that I have the time to be able to have softer deadlines, for example. So I set aside some time for these grading conversations in the week that a paper is due, but also in the week after because I know there will be students who need extensions. And so I make sure that I have plenty of time to be able to have those conversations with them, no matter when they’re going to turn in that paper. It means fostering an atmosphere where students feel okay saying, “Something’s come up, I really need that extra couple of days.” And I don’t force disclosure, so no student needs to tell me exactly what is going on in their life in order to get that extension. It’s really just a question of saying, “Hey, I need this thing,” and then it’s theirs. Flexibility in readings, being able to change things on the fly as things are revealed to be too easy, too hard, finding exactly the right mix for a particular community of students. Flexibility about time off. When do we all just need a break and a mental health day? Those kinds of things. Flexibility in terms of the kinds of assignments that I make, and the things that I asked students to do for a grade. That’s really important too, I think.

John: You mentioned giving students more ownership of the course and that flexibility certainly would be part of that. But you also, I believe, talked about using UDL principles in your class. Could you talk about some of the ways in which you’ve implemented UDL strategies?

Cate: Yeah. So the design of my syllabus is something that I thought a lot about on that score, in terms of making sure there’s always alt text where I have images, making sure that there are images that help guide people to certain pieces of information so that it’s not a wall of text that faces a student at any one time. Making sure that there’s lots of resources in the syllabus for students who might need extra help, whether that’s tutoring or talking to me, or connecting with our office for disabilities. In the classroom it has meant things like bringing in a large basket of fidget toys and encouraging people to use them. Making sure that, wherever possible, I have both a text version of something, and an audio version of something if it’s available. Making sure that if there is an audio version of something, there’s a transcript. Making sure if I’m uploading videos, that those are transcribed also and have subtitles. So all of these things adjust with me, trying to keep in mind: How can I reach the maximum number of students as possible at all times knowing that many of my students may have things like learning disabilities, but they’ve never been diagnosed? Or, they can’t afford to have them diagnosed. So planning things so that I try and catch as many things as possible that I can anticipate, and then being flexible with other requests as students make them of me.

John: Do you give students multiple ways of demonstrating their learning?

Cate: Yes, I do. So, one of my favorite assignments is the unessay. So that is an assignment where I ask students to show me what they have learned in any way that does not involve a major paper. I used to give them the option of a paper or something else. But I found that people often chose the paper because they thought it was the safer route. And what I was interested in was getting them sort of outside of that thinking and trying something experimental. So I’ve had students make food and diaries, and do embroidery, and make quilts and dioramas and maps and street plans, and just an amazing variety of ways to show me what they’ve learned in a given term. That also means that they can tailor that to what they are best at, right? So there are other assignments in the term that are written papers. So this assignment, if you’re someone who doesn’t write papers well or really struggles to write them well, this is a moment for you to show me that you can rap, or you can sing, or you can play guitar, or you can make something. And for the students who really find papers easy, this is a moment to refine another skill, to get really good at making a presentation, for example, or to think about how to visually communicate their knowledge. So I think it has something for everybody.

John: And for you, I imagine, it’s much more fun to listen to these different forms of assignments.

Cate: It’s super fun. And their creativity just astounds me every time that I do the unessay and I do the unessay in almost all my classes. I would not have thought, for example, to make a star quilt in a course about native history. But one of my students decided to research the kind of sewing that students were asked to do at some of the boarding schools, and found the long history of star quilts in native culture, and then decided to make a very simple one for themselves. That was a tremendous project where they learned so much about native history in the 20th century, and I would never have predicted that in a million years. Their vision of what they can do is so much bigger than what I can imagine on my own. And that’s one of the real delights of the unessay, is getting to find out all the other things that they’re good at, and all the ways they can draw connections to places around campus, other things they’re doing, other disciplines that they’re really interested in.

Rebecca: Cate, when you have students complete an assignment like an unessay, is there some sort of companion to go with that to explain the learning that occurred while they were doing that activity?

Cate: Yes. So there are a couple of other pieces that go with it. The first is that when the students make a proposal to me for what their unessay will be, they also have to turn in our grading standards modified for that project. So that’s another place where the grading standards come in really useful. That means that when I’m going to grade everything, I have an individualized grading sheet for every single project and can sort of just go through them one by one. Students also turn in a reflective paper where they reflect on what they learned by making or doing their project. And those are some of the best pieces of writing that I get to read. They’re much more informal than a paper would be. But they are these wonderful spaces where students are incredibly honest about where they struggled, and how they overcame those struggles, and what the projects have meant to them, which is really exciting.

Rebecca: For those reflective assignments, do you have specific prompts that you encourage students to respond to, or is it more open than that?

Cate: It’s much more open. I just say, “You know, I want you to reflect on what you learned during this process.” And they can take that in any direction that they want.

Rebecca: One of the other things that you brought up, in terms of flexibility, were less rigid deadlines. But a lot of faculty are often very concerned about workload or other things that could occur if the deadlines were relaxed. Can you talk a little bit about how you manage your time with this flexibility? You’ve talked a little bit about the conferencing and making sure you have conference time, but when you’re getting many things in over the course of the semester, how do you manage that?

Cate: I have reduced the number of assignments that I ask students to complete. I used to have many, many more. And I realized that some of that work was busy work, and that I would rather have fewer assignments that took longer, and where students were more engaged than lots of little bitty assignments throughout the term. Some of it is planning, some of it is planning to give myself a different kind of time to grade these things. So, in the grading conversations, like I said earlier, being able to have sort of time spread over two weeks, instead of just one, to get everything graded. It’s also about talking to students about exactly how much time they need to get the assignment done. So you raised the question of workload like, “Aren’t we going to add to students workload and their stress if they’re just putting these things off?” But what I found is that I can’t predict when their workload is highest. And sometimes my assignments really make for a crunch for them, because everybody’s expecting everything at the same time, such as around midterms. So saying to a student who asked for an extension, “How much time do you need?” Then perhaps a conversation where we can say, “I just need a day,” or “I need two.” And it never becomes a situation where I’m like, “Turn it in whenever you want.” [LAUGHTER] It’s much more about, like, “Let’s realistically think about what extra time would be useful to you, without it becoming an open-ended thing that can drag on forever, and really become a problem.”

Rebecca: That’s a really important point because having infinite deadlines is not helpful for anyone. It’s not helpful for us as instructors, and it’s not helpful for students.

Cate: Absolutely.

Rebecca: We all get motivated by deadlines, even if they are a little flexible. And as professionals, we know that our deadlines are a bit flexible, often.

Cate: Exactly, yeah.

John: So, do you think that pandemic has made people more open to consider a pedagogy of kindness as they’ve observed some of the struggles more directly of our students?

Cate: I think that has been the case, yes. I think there is tremendous momentum towards pedagogies of care. I think that we’ve also experienced the pandemic for ourselves. And we have been overworked and stressed out and worried about our families and friends and communities. And we have needed kindness, we have needed the breathing room that this can provide. So, I think that it is both seeing the real challenges our students face often because for the first time we were inside their homes, and seeing some of the material circumstances that they were living in, hearing from them about the challenges they were facing mentally and physically, but also reflecting on our own experiences and knowing what would help us. And we didn’t always get that help ourselves. And so being able to provide it for others, I think, has been a really good thing.

John: What is the anticipated publication date for your book?

Cate: I don’t know. And that is because I needed a little kindness myself this summer, and for my deadline to be a little bit flexible. My original due date was September 1st for delivering the manuscript but I had some major health challenges this summer. And so I wrote and asked if I could have some more time, and I was very glad to be working with an editorial team that was great, and that gave me that extra time. So, the book manuscript will be delivered this Fall, but I’m not sure where that will put things in terms of a publication schedule.

John: In the meanwhile, your “Pedagogy of Kindness” blog post is available to anyone who would like to read it, and it’s a very useful resource. And you’re joining a great collection of books there, we’ve had many of the authors on and we’ve referred to these books very often. And we’ve used many of them for our reading groups, and we share many of them with our faculty.

Cate: Yeah, I was once given the advice by one of my advisors that, when you’re thinking of publishing somewhere, look on your bookshelf and see where all the rest of the books come from. And when I looked at my bookshelf on pedagogy, everything was coming out of West Virginia University Press, and so I knew that that was exactly where I needed to pitch my book.

Rebecca: I know you have many people waiting for it, and we’re all excited to read it.

Cate: I’m very excited to finish it, so…[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m sure. The best part about having things on a to-do list is crossing them off. [LAUGHTER]

Cate: Exactly, yes.

John: You’ve been running the Bright Institute for a while, could you tell us a little bit about this?

Cate: So the Bright Institute was something I came up with five or so years ago. We got a very generous donation at Knox College, from the family of Edwin and Elizabeth Bright. And it was to facilitate the teaching of history before 1848… American history before 1848. So my idea was to bring together other liberal arts professors from across the country who also focused on that time period, so that we could try and help people with some of the challenges that liberal arts professors face. So we generally have less time to devote to our scholarship and to keeping up with readings in the field. We tend to not get grants or fellowships at quite the same rate as our colleagues at big research institutions. And we are people who have a lot of responsibility for teaching. So the format of the Bright Institute is that every summer there is a two-week seminar. The first seven days of that seminar are about reading scholarship in some particular field within early American history. We’ve had some just incredible conversations in those parts of the seminar. And then the last three days of the seminar are devoted to pedagogy. So taking the content knowledge that we now have, and thinking about, “How do we apply that to the classroom situation?” And then to help with research, we give everybody who’s a part of the Institute $3,000 every year to fund their research or to take them to conferences, there’s lots of ways that people have used that money to support them in this scholarship.

Rebecca: That looks like something to look forward to every summer.

Cate: Yes, one of the highlights of my career [LAUGHTER] is to be able to support so many people in doing such incredible work. And it’s such a delight to bring everybody to Galesburg every summer and have 14 other people who all do the kind of history I do. We tend to be kind of isolated on our campuses, we’re very often the only person who does early American history. And so to have this wonderful team of people with whom you can talk about scholarship and teaching is just so filling.

John: I wish we had more of that in all disciplines.

Cate: Me too. And I wish that I could replicate this… like I personally had the funding to replicate this for say, community college people, for precarious academics. It seems to be working very well, and I would love to see that model replicated in other ways.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for all this information and things to think about as we’re moving into next semesters, next classes, next academic years. We always wrap up by asking, “What’s next?”

Cate: What’s next, most immediately, is finishing the manuscript and getting that off to my press. And then after that, my college just won an NEH grant. So next summer, I will be leading a team of students in researching the dispossession of native nations from what is currently called West Central Illinois, building out on a website that some students and I have already built, and going to visit the communities that were dispossessed, to build relationships between the college and those communities. So that’s a really exciting thing to have on the horizon for next summer.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Cate: Yeah, it is. And we just found out about it, so it’s brand new information. [LAUGHTER]

John: That’s wonderful news, congratulations.

Cate: Thank you.

John: We’ve really enjoyed talking to you. We’ve been looking forward to doing that for a while and thank you for joining us.

Cate: Thanks so much for having me.


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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle.


207. Leveraging Disney Magic

It is easy for students to see academic inquiry as something separate from their daily lives. Learning is enhanced, though, when students can connect what they are learning in their classes to their existing knowledge structures. In this episode, Jill Peterfeso joins us to discuss several classes in which students examine the products of the Disney entertainment empire using a variety of disciplinary lenses. Jill is the Eli Franklin Craven and Minnie Phipps Craven Associate Professor of Religious Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Guilford College. Scott Furlong also joins as a guest host. Scott is the Provost and the Vice President for Academic Affairs here at SUNY Oswego.



John: It is easy for students to see academic inquiry as something separate from their daily lives. Learning is enhanced, though, when students can connect what they are learning in their classes to their existing knowledge structures. In this episode, we discuss several classes in which students examine the products of the Disney entertainment empire using a variety of disciplinary lenses.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Jill Peterfeso. Jill is the Eli Franklin Craven and Minnie Phipps Craven Associate Professor of Religious Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Guilford College. Scott Furlong is also joining as a guest host today. Scott is the Provost and the Vice President for Academic Affairs here at SUNY Oswego. Both Jill and Scott have been on previous podcasts, so many of you are already familiar with them. Welcome back, Jill, and thank you, Scott.

Scott: My pleasure, John, and I’ll try to fill in admirably for Rebecca. So let’s go around and see what everyone’s drinking. What’s today’s teas?

John: Jill?

Jill: I’ve got water and Coke Zero.

John: Last time you had a really nice peppermint tea.

Jill: I did, and I thought about making that just for the unison of that, but it didn’t happen.

John: It’s a bit warmer there, too.

Jill: It is, it’s too warm for that.

John: And I am drinking pineapple ginger green tea.

Scott: My tea, and I think John knows I’m not a big tea drinker, but for the purposes of our show, I’m drinking a Ginger Snappish tea that I found. It’s very good.

John: So welcome back, Jill. I saw that you had posted on Facebook, that you had just returned from a trip to Disney with your class. And you mentioned at the end of that post on Facebook, that if anyone wanted to talk to you about being able to teach a rigorous class involving Disney to please contact you. And so I did. I think as soon as I saw that post, I asked you if you’d like to come back. I think all three of us are fans of Disney, and both you and Scott have taught classes involving Disney. So, could you tell us a little bit about the class that you just finished and also a little bit about the earlier classes that you’ve offered that have focused on Disney?

Jill: Sure. I will start by admitting, as I admit to my students, that I am a fan of Disney, but I’m also able to be critical of Disney, that’s by necessity. And so it’s a great role modelling for students to love something while critiquing it, whether it’s Disney or American history, or gender politics, things that we care a lot about, but may not 100% agree with. So I am a fan, but I’m also a critic, a critical thinker and critical feeler around Disney. So, yeah, I have taught classes on Disney for about five years now, and my most recent one was called “Fantastic Journeys.” And this was a class… we have this three-week intensive semester at the beginning of the year before a 12-week more traditional semester… and this course was part of that three week and it involved a five-day trip to Walt Disney World, which I was involved in planning. “Fantastic Journeys” is part of the Honors Program curriculum. And the idea is to have an educational experience that focuses on intellectual inquiry, also community building, and the process of becoming a full person in personal and professional ways. And ideally, a group of Honors sophomores would travel together somewhere, either in the US or abroad. And they would be able to focus on bonding and also self-discovery. The directors of the Honors Program asked me to do this about two years ago, because I’ve been teaching classes on Disney, and she believed that an Honors Program “Fantastic Journeys” course to Disney would work beautifully, and I definitely agree. I can talk more about that later. But I will say we were supposed to do this in August/September 2020, and that got cancelled because of COVID. So they did let us go this year, which is really great, but this has been in the works for about 22 months. I started in late October 2020 preparing this trip for this class. Before this previously, I taught an FYS (first-year seminar) on Disney, that one was a multidisciplinary course that uses Disney as a springboard to critical thinking and how college works. And the other course I’ve taught was a joint English-religion course on Disney in narrative and storytelling, and how those narratives and those stories feed into our culture and our own self-understanding as Americans. So that’s a broad overview of my courses in Disney so far.

John: How does Disney fit into religious studies?

Jill: This is something I discovered along with my students while teaching that first-year seminar on Disney, which I did in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Those courses, those first-year seminars, we’re not supposed to make them discipline specific. And so I’m in Religious Studies, I also teach in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. But this course was supposed to be multidisciplinary, again, in introducing students to college and college-level thinking. So I wasn’t focused on religion. But as I went through the class with students, and we’re talking about things like Disney and pedagogy, Disney and messaging, like moral messaging, Disney and Disney-fying a past fairy tale and making it something that’s palatable to the American psyche, Disney’s take on American history, all of these things. It really started to emerge for me that, “Oh, Disney is functioning in the way that religion functions.” Disney is doing a lot of the same things in American culture that, Christianity for instance, the mainstream Christian culture does. So these became questions I started to play with with students. And that has led to my current research project which is on Disney, and American religion, and the intersection of those things. I think, if I had to boil it down, the ways that Disney resembles religion or Disney fits into a class in Religious Studies would really be something as simple as culture and narrative. Those stories that Disney tells, tells us about who we are, becomes part of our culture, becomes part of the pedagogical upbringing that we have as children in the United States. There’s also a creation of, sort of, an ethical system. It’s not just, “When you wish upon a star”, it’s “When you wish upon a star, something good happens to you if you’re a good person.” So, there’s something slightly transactional where you need to be inhabiting ethical and moral ways of being before you can get that reward. So yeah, that’s sort of my starting point with Disney and religion, and it’s been really interesting and fun to have those conversations with students, because initially, they’ll be like, “Disney’s not a religion. Disney is like movies and fun and magic.” And, by midway through the semester, they’re like, “Oh wow, I kind of think about this in the way I kind of think about Christianity, my Christian tradition,” if they’re Christian. It’s just a lot more fun. It’s a lot more effective, it’s more magical. And, just a side note, my research has revealed that there are organizations in this country, and churches, that look to Disney models for customer service to make their product more appealing. So both churches and other institutions, I have a student right now who works for the Boy Scouts, and his boy scout troop has used lessons from “The Mouse,” which is a book on using Disney culture and strategies to really great success to make their scouting camp even more appealing.

Scott: Well, there’s always the simplicity of bowing down to the altar of the castle as well, and for many people, it’s like going to Mecca, right?

Jill: Mm-hm.

Scott: You know, in terms of going to Disney World, or Disneyland.

Jill: The pilgrimage idea is huge. Yeah, that comes up a lot.

Scott: Yeah. And for many, it’s a 15-month planning activity to get there.

Jill: Like the American middle class ultimate pilgrimage.

Scott: Yep.

Jill: Mm-hm.

John: And you also note, in one of your syllabi, that Disney is something that affects not just U.S. culture, but it has a lot of global reach too?

Jill: Yeah, that’s something that I feel less confident speaking about, like, other people’s experience of Disney until I’ve been able to have conversations with those individuals. But when you look at how Disney has taken life on other continents. Like, basically, when they were building Tokyo Disneyland, the Oriental Land Company was like, “We want, we want what you have, and we want it to look exactly like what you have.” There was no conversation about “Let’s make this a Japanese version of Disney.” It’s like, “We want the American version, we want that.” Now, things were a little different in the building of Shanghai. Disney had to do some more, sort of, navigating between Chinese culture and Disney culture. That’s just really fascinating. There are a lot of stories, one of these just came up in my class, like three weeks ago, immigrants to the United States have that drive for that pilgrimage, that Scott was just talking about, to arrive in America as American by going through that rite of passage of going to Disney, there’s just something about that. And so the woman who came to speak to us is one of my colleagues at Guilford, and a great author. And she was saying is an immigrant to the United States going to Disneyland with that moment where they knew they’d made it, like they were American now. And that’s just a very powerful story. So Disney does have this global outreach, I do notice, it sort of always stands out to me when there are international crises, and you can skim and look at clothing, like the immigration crisis, the border and other crises, how often you just sort of skim and you see kids wearing Disney clothing, it just really jumps out. It’s this marker of some sort of, I think aspiring to be part of what is currently a dominant culture, which is American culture.

John: Surely the Disney entertainment industry has global reach?

Jill: Yes.

John: Which I think does help make it become a symbol of our culture.

Jill: Exactly.

Scott: Oh, and the fact that most of their movies are coming out of global stories and fairy tales that are, in some cases, hundreds or thousands of years old.

Jill: Yeah, for sure. One of the assignments we do in my courses is to juxtapose a Disney version of a story and the original. I’ve long used “The Little Mermaid” because Hans Christian Andersen’s version of that story is really, very dark and that is something that’s very surprising to students. “The Little Mermaid” does not have a happy ending per se, but it’s a really great assignment for students to take something that they know well. I mean they’ve all seen “The Little Mermaid,” so we rewatch “The Little Mermaid”, and then we read Hans Christian Andersen’s original version, and it’s a totally different message. But the takeaway from that is not, “Look how Disney has changed the story that’s bad, or that’s good.” Disney is recreating this familiar story, in an idiom that is familiar to Americans, and that sort of checks all the boxes of American culture, but also Disney’s version of American culture. And this assignment comes early in the semester and it allows students to start to think about Disney-fying as an activity that can be done. In one of my classes I asked them to take a story from their own lives and Disney-fy it. What does that then look like? What magical elements are added? What songs are sung? Who gets fun names that didn’t get named before? [LAUGHTER] Who is your sidekick? What is the message? There’s going to be some sort of tidy takeaway. And our desire for those tidy takeaway stories is very human, but Disney’s perpetuated enough that I think it’s also very American, and thus global as those things are spread around the globe, as you guys were just talking about.

John: You’ve each taught first-year courses that were tied to Disney, could you talk a little bit about these courses and why you chose Disney as a focus of your first-year seminar courses?

Jill: Scott, you should go first.

Scott: Okay, sure. For me, we were in the process of creating a first-year seminar program at my previous institution. And we had started that process by using pre-existing general education courses, and trying to first-year-seminar them, if I can use that as a verb. And frankly, it wasn’t working. People felt very strongly tied to their content, and almost a need to cover all 26 chapters of a psychology textbook. So we really navigated toward an interdisciplinary passion course type model. And my, it would be too strong to say academic interests, but our intellectual interest in Disney. But I was literally at Disney one year, I was at one of the water parks, and I was just really taken by the logistics involved in moving their lifeguards around. There’s a whole process there that they go through, and how long they stay at one place and move on to a next place in order to keep them fresh. And it really got me thinking about the different academic career dynamics that are within the Disney Corporation, and really thinking about, if anything is interdisciplinary, it’s the Disney Company in terms of how they create, how they’re using science, engineering, art, creativity, clearly business, religious, storytelling. It’s a very interdisciplinary organization. And so when we had an opportunity to develop a first-year seminar course, a colleague of mine, we are both again, self-professed Disney lovers, but also critics as Jill said earlier, decided to team-teach a course around Disney, and we co-opted the interdisciplinary and called it “inter-Disney-plinary” was the name of our course, and we basically went at it looking at an interdisciplinary view of Disney. I’m a political scientist. We looked at, sort of, the governed structure of Walt Disney World, which is very interesting. My colleague is an environmental psychologist, so she really looked at the use of space and architecture, and really brought in some of the older ideas around land use and planning that Disney has incorporated. We obviously used and looked hard at how gender identity has been shifting, how racial identity is portrayed within Disney, that really gets into some, not at the time I’m sure, but darker elements of how Disney portrayed many characters. We thought, and I still believe, it was a great entree into college-level critical thinking, written communication, opening up the mind to something different, and using the content that students recognized to really get them to think like college students. And that was really the purpose of all of our seminar classes, and this one as well. And we disappointed the students when we told them, “Yeah, we’re not going to sit there watching movies for 15 weeks. That’s not the purpose of this class.” In fact, I think we only showed one movie fully in the class, we showed a lot of clips, but we very rarely went through an entire film. And it was a great way of engaging students in academic content. It was a way of retaining our students, getting them interested in the college, we had other typical elements of first-year seminars in terms of engaging with the larger campus community and things like that. But I think the content was very accessible to the students because, as Jill said earlier, they know this stuff, or at least they think they know this stuff. They haven’t really delved into it. They haven’t thought deeply about it. They haven’t thought about, for example, how Disney’s portrayal of race has really changed in 50 years. It’s still not there yet, but it’s a lot different. They haven’t thought about: Why is the Magic Kingdom laid out the way it is laid out? What is it that they’re trying to do with that? And again, very few students know the governance structure, the idea that Walt Disney World in Orlando is a lot like the Vatican in terms of its governing structure. So for me, it just provided a great opportunity and I really wish we looked into it. I really wish we had the ability to take our students to Disney World for a few days and really experience it as a class environment as well. But that wasn’t in the cards for us, at least initially.

Jill: I’ll just piggyback on some of what Scott was saying. I agree with everything Scott just said. One quick thing, I would encourage all listeners who have any sort of interest in Disney or maybe even a hatred, but some sort of emotional reaction. Think about it as an adult, and not just like your kid self or your, like, early adult self because, what I heard Scott say, like, watching how the lifeguards move, you would never think of that if you’re 10 years old. But, as an adult, when I go now to the parks, I’m in awe of how it’s competent and how it functions. Because I feel like we’re in a world where so often things just don’t work, and things work in Disney, and it’s kind of magical. But I do agree with what Scott was talking about. It’s a great introduction to college, because students come in thinking they know something, so they’ve got that confidence, like, “Yeah, it’s Disney. I mean, I’ve watched ‘The Lion King’ so I’m gonna do okay in this class.” What they don’t know is they’re about to be taken on an adventure, an intellectual adventure, that’s going to be challenging for them because, thinking critically about that which you love can be really hard. So you tend to get the students signing up, at least I have, the students who have signed up for my Disney class are the ones who love Disney. And there comes a moment we’re asking them to think critically, and maybe even to think negatively about some things Disney has done around racial depictions, for instance. They don’t want to do that, it becomes uncomfortable. Moving through that discomfort is one of the gifts of teaching Disney to first-semester students, I think, because you’re really helping them understand what it’s like to do college. So there was a moment in my three first-year seminars on Disney, where at some point, I’d come into the class, and students would be looking just really sad and I’m like, “What’s going on you all? What is it?” And they’re like, “You’re ruining our childhood.” [LAUGHTER] And so we have a conversation about that. What does that mean? And what does it mean to think about something through college-level eyes? What does it mean to love something while you criticize it? How does that apply to other things outside of Disney in this class, in this moment? So the class really becomes sort of like a playground for so many different types of conversations, and you’re able to touch on everything, gender studies, the problems of excessive heteronormativity in Disney stories. You’re able to talk about how Disney depicts Pocahontas and why that’s really problematic. You’re able to talk about Disney’s distorting of American history, and how that feels really good, but it’s also not completely honest. Disney and capitalism and how those things are intertwined. So you can have so many conversations, and it also lays out various maps for students much in the way the Magic Kingdom is laid out with some sort of center with the spokes. This course, I thought of my course as being, sort of the center was Disney inquiry, but it could go off in so many different directions, like students were really given a map to explore that would help them maybe find a path in the future. So yeah, it’s a highly effective first-semester course and I wish I could keep teaching it. Things have changed schedule-wise, the way we do things at Guilford which is too bad for this course, because I think it was very effective.

Scott: I think as we get older, there is an evolution of how one might engage in Disney. As a small child, Mickey Mouse is real. He’s hugging you, he’s signing, at some point, you realize, “Well, maybe not,” right? There’s just different ways of pulling back that curtain. And again, for me, like Jill, I think a lot of it became again, as an adult, even as I’m bringing my own kids, or have brought my own kids to Disney. It’s really interesting how they do this, right? Or how they’re creating the magic. You still like the magic, let’s be clear about that, but the creation, the understanding, and I think Disney’s realizing this themselves. There’s reasons why they do backstage tours, there’s reasons why those of you who have Disney+, they’re doing shows about their attractions and how the attractions were built and why they were built. So Disney understands, going back to capitalism a little bit, they understand their market also that there are different ways of engaging their market. And they’re working that, as a company, to do that.

John: One of the things you did in your first-year class, Jill, was you had students complete an assignment in which they were asked to apply something that they’ve learned to an issue at Guilford College. Could you tell us just a little bit about that? And maybe provide an example of that?

Jill: Yeah, sure. I think Scott was just touching on this so nicely with the way that Disney is very effective, and is always ready to send its messages to a range of audiences using a range of media. So very creative in its problem solving and its creative approaches to pretty much anything. So one of the many things I really admire about how Disney operates and Imagineering especially. So like Guilford, we have this Center for Principle Problem Solving, which, really, as the title suggests, invites students or faculty and staff who are participating in the center, maybe as fellows, to think about how they can creatively address problems that they see in the world. So I tried to make this just a very narrowly focused on-campus assignment that drew on the kinds of innovative problem solving, the Imagineering types of techniques that we were studying in the course. So what I asked students to do was to basically imagine themselves as Imagineers and innovators who’ve identified a problem and want to get past the problem to a solution. And what I asked them to focus on was something they saw on campus. So first-year students don’t often, and first-semester students, don’t often think that they have the power or the voice to make a change. But I wanted them to realize that they, in fact, did. If they could identify something that they wanted to see changed and made better at Guilford that they could make that happen, or they could at least try and fail and see why they failed. So this is the culminating project, it’s a group project. Like I said, I invited them to think about: What’s bothering you at Guilford right now? You’ve been here a couple months, what do you want to see that’s different? How can you make it better? How can you be part of the positive change? I’ve seen a lot of topics over the years, every time I’ve taught it, so it was three times, some groups of athletes would try to increase school spirit. Building campus spirit was a big one: How can you get students who aren’t athletes to want to come to the games and cheer on the student athletes? So that was always a topic that they tackled. Another one that I found really moving, students were observing how hard housekeepers were working, especially in first-year dorms, where, allegedly, students were very prone to trash the dorm. So they had a series of conversations with their housekeepers and tried to strategize ways to encourage their classmates and dorm mates to be more respectful of common spaces. Part of this involved them taking up a collection and buying nice gifts for the housekeepers. This was sort of a more band aid solution than a big picture solution. But they also came up with a series of signs to post around bathrooms and in hallways to invite people to think about how their way of living might impact other people like the housekeepers. So that was heartwarming. Another group had a great proposal, they did so much research, they wanted to see those water fountains placed around campus where you can just put your water bottle in, and it automatically fills. Because we don’t really have a lot of those on campus and they wanted to get them installed in more buildings and dorms. They did a bunch of research about cost, about good location, they asked around about plumbing, and they took their proposal to the Dean of Students, and they saw bureaucracy in action. And they did not get their water fountains, but they did learn a lot about how you can try to be convincing and how decisions are made. I think it’s a really good project for getting students to feel ownership of the school. And how does Disney fit into this? Well, again, we spend the semester talking about innovation, whether it’s technological innovation, storytelling innovation, other problem-solving techniques that are done in the service of creating an experience, that’s what I think of Imagineers as doing. Imagineers want us to feel something and respond to something that they’re doing, and they find the best ways to do that. So inviting students to think of themselves as “Guilford Imagineers” in a way. And yeah, I think it’s an effective way to get them engaged on campus.

John: Especially in a first-year seminar class where you’d like to build that sort of community and bring the students into the college community.

Jill: Exactly.

John: One of the things that I thought of when I heard of each of your classes, and I think you both talked about this a bit is, was how it provided nice connection between students’ prior knowledge, and the types of techniques and skills they need to develop in college, which is a nice sort of bridge to later coursework.

Scott: Well, I think that’s got to be one of the most important roles for first year seminars, particularly depending on the institution you’re at, and the types of students you’re dealing with. But so many of our students here, as John knows, at SUNY Oswego are first generation college students, and we have to start setting those expectations early and getting them ready for the level of work we’re doing. And again, that doesn’t mean that the content is rigorous, right? I know my students, as I mentioned earlier, thought they were going to watch movies for 15 weeks. And there is a perception sometimes everybody gets an A and for sure seminars, but the level of writing the oral presentations, the amount of critical thinking, if these courses are done correctly, I would argue they’re more rigorous than sitting in a again, I taught a large lecture, American government class for years, much more rigorous than that course, because you just can’t do the level of engagement. And the students can’t hide, frankly, in the back of the room, they have to engage with the material, they have to engage with their peers around the material. And again, that’s part of learning what college level work is, as well.

Jill: I often had to tell my students, early on, even in the course description, because students would choose the Disney class beforehand, before they would even arrive on campus. And I tried to make clear, this is not just watching movies, we will watch some movies, but we’ll also read a lot of things and we will unpack a lot of things and it will not just be popcorn and movie night every day. I don’t know that they believed me until they were in class. [LAUGHTER] I think a lot of them were like, “Eh, whatev-s, Disney, what’s this going to be?” But I stand by that as a pedagogical move that works really nicely. Because they have that foundation together and in an ideal seminar, everybody reads what I’ve assigned them and we come together, and that’s our common starting point. And then we have a robust discussion about some readings. Well, you can’t always count on students to do the reading as we know, first-year students especially, but you could always count on first-year students to have some sort of basic knowledge of, again, “The Lion King” or “Aladdin.” They just knew these movies, they know Disney culture. One of the things that came up in my class recently was how few of us have actually seen Mickey Mouse cartoons. The newest Mickey Mouse cartoon is actually awesome. They’re on Disney+ and I couldn’t recommend them more. But in my life, how many Mickey Mouse cartoons have I actually seen? Not that many. But I know Mickey Mouse inside and out because he’s just everywhere. So there’s a shared starting point for discussion. And students can then get involved, even if they haven’t “done the reading.” They can be participants in the intellectual community that I’m trying to build. So the word empowering comes out again, which is something I really aim for in those first semester courses.

John: I think you also do some work on making the workload requirements fairly explicit. Could you talk a little bit about how you convey that to students in your syllabi, for example?

Jill: I can tell you that SACS makes us do this, or did at one point, that’s our accrediting body at Guilford. But yeah, it’s actually become a helpful tool for communicating with students, though it was annoying initially to figure out, “Okay, how many hours actually am I asking students to spend?” But what I do on my syllabi is I break down for them like, “Okay, we’re going to spend this many hours in class over the next 15 to 12 weeks. You should expect to spend six to eight hours a week reading. You should expect to spend 30 minutes on every quiz. You should expect to spend one to two hours on every reading note, you should expect to spend eight to 10 hours preparing your midterm.” I really tried to break it down for them. This is not Disney specific, this is more Jill-at-Guilford specific, but I like this because if a student is struggling, I can say, “Can we, like, spend the next couple of weeks taking note of how much time you’re spending on assignments? Because the fact may be you’re not spending as much time as you need to.” And that might be how we first address issues of performance. Or, I mean, I’ve never had this happen but I always tell students, “If you’re not getting the grades you want, and yet you’re spending this amount of time, please come meet with me because there might be a way to be more efficient. Or maybe I’m giving too much work, and then we can talk about that too.” But I do think being really explicit is helpful in establishing expectations. I find as a female professor, I think students have, for a long time, thought, “Well, she’s not going to be that hard, because she’s a woman” which is far from true. When you’re teaching things like Disney, you also have to just add a little heft. So I tried to communicate my expectations clearly and laying out workload expectations down to the hour, like, “Okay, this might take you five to six hours to do. If it takes you five to six hours, you’re probably doing it correctly. If it takes you 30 minutes, you’re not doing what I want you to do. So let that be a way that you have knowledge that will let you gauge your own work output.”

Scott: As somebody who, for years, ran our orientation program at my previous institution, we would often talk about: how much work can you expect to put into a class? And there’s always that guideline, two to three hours out of class for every one hour in class. And whenever I would say that both, and frankly, this was even for many of the parents that I would talk to about this, I’d get this sort of dumbfounded look of, ‘What can I possibly do for two or three hours outside of class? It just seems so much.’ For many of these students, they’ve flown through high school with barely doing any out of class work at all. But I think breaking it down, Jill, like you’re doing, is a great idea, where they can actually see that expectation. I mean, when I started laying out what I count in those two to three hours, the light bulb goes off. But to think about it even on an assignment-by-assignment basis, and as we know, the level of reading, the amount of reading, that we expect our students to do in college is not just more but at a much higher level. It’s not pulling out a novel and just letting yourself lose yourself in the novel. It’s critically reading, it’s really thinking through that reading and applying it to what you’re hearing in the classroom, bringing it back into that classroom environment. I think that’s a great idea. That and we started also, for our writing assignments, being very clear with our rubrics around grading as well, which helped a lot in terms of students knowing and perhaps accepting the grades that they were getting as a result of those papers.

Jill: And to tie this back to Disney even more. Disney produces so many cultural artifacts, from films to the merchandising, video games, social media, I mean, it’s all over the place. And so this critical thinking piece that we know is so important, we can also help them hone those tools of the critical “reading” that we were just talking about, can also be about critically viewing a film, critically thinking about how social media posts communicate messages, how it builds communities, and also keeps people out of certain communities. You can look at Disney merchandising. One thing that we do in my Disney class is, early on, we go on a little field trip, we walk across the street to the Walmart that’s in walking distance from school. I give them 15 minutes to find Disney on as many things as you can in a Walmart. And, invariably, there are hundreds of items. Disney on waffles, on diapers, on cheese, on soup, on cereal, little toys in aisles, balloons, greeting cards, I mean, it just goes on and on and on. Stopping and thinking, “Okay, what does this actually mean? What is this communicating?” We don’t notice this until we notice it, but it’s probably having an impact. So yeah, the critical thinking, as Scott was saying, which is so important to school, with Disney you can also critically think about so many other, I use the term cultural artifacts, there are so many ways Disney’s imprinting the culture and helping students to find social media literacy, visual media literacy, products-in-stores literacy, that’s really valuable.

John: That’s such a great example of an activity to let students see the impact very directly and very quickly. I want to go back, though, just to that point about the workload, because it does connect to a couple of things we’ve talked about in past podcasts, and I’ll include a link to these in the show notes. When we talked to Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan, who both were speakers at our academic affairs retreat at the beginning of the semester, one of the things they’ve researched is the importance of providing structure for students, and that it has a really large impact on reducing achievement gaps or equity gaps in educational outcomes, that first-gen students, in particular, really benefit from those extra directions. Just giving that guidance, telling students they’re expected to work two or three hours for every hour in the class is good, but as Scott said, it doesn’t really tell you what you need to do. But telling students how much time they should expect to spend on each of the activities, provides just that little bit of structure that can do a lot to reduce some of the achievement differentials that we observe, especially between first- and continuing-generation students. The other thing I wanted to point out is that we’ve had Betsy Barre from Wake Forest University on a couple times, and she’s talked about the two versions of the course workload estimator, which is a good place, as a starting point to go, to help formulate some of those expectations to share with your students. It’s a great practice that I think many of us should do much more of. And it’s nice to hear that that’s being, I was going to say encouraged, but I suppose mandated by the accrediting agency there.

Jill: Yes. I think it is helpful, ultimately. It was a frustrating thing to have to do, but now that I’ve done it, I’m glad it’s there.

Scott: Yeah, I’m not going to be pushing our Middle States accreditors to do that.

John: I know in workshops, we do encourage faculty to do that, and we really emphasized that when we made that transition to remote instruction, because it was new for faculty and students, and just giving students some expectations of what they’d be doing when they moved to what, for many students, was a more unfamiliar environment, was really helpful, especially for those people who actually followed through and did that. So that’s a really great practice. Now, when you couldn’t go to Disney last year with that class, you had students do an ethnographic analysis. Could you talk just a little bit about that?

Jill: Yes, so as John just indicated, I was supposed to do this trip in September 2020, and that got canceled. So it’s sort of a late shift to an on-campus version of this course. And my two versions of this class that’s not an FYS class, are vastly different, whether we’re going to Disney parks or not. So the Disney park experience changes everything, I’m happy to talk about that later on. But if we weren’t going to the parks, there was so much that I needed to do differently. But one of the things we were going to do in the parks wa, what we did do… is ethnographic research just on the ground, ways of seeing, ways of observing people, having conversations with people when you feel safe doing so given that there’s a pandemic. What we ended up doing in my non-Disney trip version of my 200 level English Religious Studies course was bringing in, I brought in a great friend of mine, who’s a huge Disney fan, and also just has background in higher ed, so very able to talk to college students. We sort of did a mock ethnographic interview with him, talking to him about his love for Disney, and then step back from that interview, talking about themes, talking about ways to unpack what somebody said beyond the words they used, but the tone and how they looked and maybe what was going on in the background. Like he’s a big fan who has Disney stuff going on behind him. So you can also let that fuel your ethnographic analysis. And from there students would, using that as sort of a model, they all had their own interviews with Disney fans, which was something that they did and then wrote papers on. And it was really, really wonderful to see them bring course themes and questions to bear on conversations with real people who want to talk about things that they love. I will also say it’s really hard… this is another thing that I think Disney classes have invited me to think about with students… why we like what we like, why do we love what we love? Like, if we’re Disney fans, can we pinpoint why? And I think that’s actually really hard because I’ve been conducting my own ethnographic interviews with Disney fans as part of my own research. And people have a hard time articulating why they love what they love. And so it takes a special kind of prodding and patience and sometimes you’re not going to get the answer that’s the most honest, you have to read between the lines. So helping students to think about how to look at the multiple levels of what you’ve been given in a conversation or an interview, and they really liked it. I’ll remind you all that this was done in early Fall 2020, and people were stuck on Zoom. We weren’t really in the classroom. It was a really bleak time, we were still many months away from a vaccine, we were coming up on a big election. It was a stressful time. So, one: immersing ourselves in Disney was really a really great way to spend our time, like, I was very happy to have Disney stories and messages, the colors and the characters and the music just sort of buoying me every single day for that semester… that was a three-week intensive. And also then talking to other people about something that makes them happy in a time where it was hard to find stability and certainty. So, I think it had a multi-fold purpose, where it was one: teaching students ethnographic methods that was helping them bring to bear their reading discoveries and critical discoveries onto conversations with others, but also just sort of a respite. There’s a great article by John Hench, who was an Imagineer and then a Disney executive. It’s an interview with John Hench from the late 70s. And he pushes back in that interview against the idea that Disney is an escape. He says, “We aren’t an escape, what we do is we offer reassurance.” And that’s just been something that’s resonated with my students. And I have felt that as an instructor who uses Disney. This is a place I can hang out safely during times that feel really hard, like the past year and a half with the pandemic.

John: So you mentioned this year, you did get to go to Disney this year…

Jill: We did.

John: How did you prepare the students in advance of the trip?

Jill: There were multiple levels of preparation, some of it involved COVID preparation and some of it involved just trip preparation. I have to address COVID first. It was very stressful to think about going to Florida, which was a hotspot, I think still is a hotspot.

Scott: Still is, yep [LAUGHTER]

Jill: …still is a hotspot, for a class with 20 people. Also, the school’s plan for dealing with it if somebody did get COVID, was incredibly scary, it was basically, to mean like, “Okay, you’ve got to quarantine a student in Florida for seven to 10 days.” So they would just sort of be stuck there on their own, and that was something they did not want. So we spent a lot of time talking about how we’re going to not get COVID on this trip. And yeah, we didn’t. We did not get COVID, nobody got COVID. We got tested right before we left and right after we came back and I went with a box of rapid tests and used about half of that box while on the trip. So not getting COVID was our goal, and we did not get COVID, and I’m very happy to say that. I gave them a pizza party as thanks [LAUGHTER] when we got back. We all had negative tests. I’m like, “Alright, you earned pizza and Mickey ice cream bars. In terms of preparing them for the trip, we’ve been talking so much about these other classes I’ve taught on Disney, and being able to go to the park and have that experience changes everything. It’s transformative. There’s no laboratory… I called Disney our laboratory for this course… there’s no laboratory like Disney in every possible interdisciplinary way. You want to study X? You’re going to be able to see it in operation somewhere at Walt Disney World and have conversations about it. Our focus of this class was magic, it really was magical in what we were able to do and accomplish. Getting students ready for Disney, I’ll put aside the logistics, just in terms of pedagogy, was a lot about inviting them to plan what they might want to do there. In no way is the content Disney for my course, like, that’s just the stuff we hang out in, like the real takeaways are elsewhere. So in this class, the way it’s designed, these “Fantastic Journeys,” it’s about building community, and it’s about figuring out who you are… What are my purposes? How do I make plans for my future? How do I navigate challenges when things arise that I’m not ready for? So we spent a lot of time talking about plans, like what do you want to do at the park? And to do that, for instance, I brought in a whole bunch of Disney magazines that I have, and just said “Look through this, find something that looks really cool that you’re going to want to do, some food you’re going to want to eat, some animal you’re going to want to see at Animal Kingdom, some nook and cranny in one of the countries in Epcot that you’re gonna want to visit.” And that just allowed them to start dreaming and planning. And in the parks, they had to keep journals of their own discoveries and also their own ethnographic observations. So we had to do some prep in terms of ethnography beforehand. We did the Walmart trip, for instance, and it wasn’t then just about, “Okay, count the number of items,” but “What do we make of this? What else did you see? What did you see people engaging with these products, for instance, at Walmart? What kinds of conclusions can you draw?” Preparing them for the trip also involved preparing them to be roommates and traveling companions of one another. So there was a lot of bonding going into those first few days before we went on the trip. The way the course was set up, we basically were in class for a week, went to Disney for a week, went back to class. So Disney was like the sandwich between two weeks of class. So just getting them to trust each other, because some of them were going to be traveling on a plane for the first time, and some of them were going to be traveling to Disney World for the first time. So there was a lot of nerves, there was a lot of excitement. A lot of students didn’t know other students, so they didn’t want to be going without friends. So building that community was an important thing. And academically, the foundation that I laid for them before we went was very simple. It was hard for me to simplify this because I tend to make everything more complicated. I think that’s just what we do as academics. But, we talked about story, and we talked about magic, and what those are, and how those very simple concepts can, in fact, be very complicated. And we talked about cast members, and how they’ve been treated during the pandemic, and how cast members are cultivated to create the magic. And we talked about the keys to the kingdom, which are Disney’s philosophy for how it does everything. So there are four keys… now five… and the Disney Keys are: safety, efficiency, courtesy, show, and now inclusion. And we looked in advance at how those five things permeate different aspects of Disney. And then when we were in the park, we were able to see those implemented. There’s a, there’s a lot of foundation laying, but then there was also just a lot of risk, like what’s going to happen when we get there? What are they going to take from this? How are they going to get along? And they did a wonderful job. I feel like I planted a bunch of seeds and I didn’t know what would sprout. But pretty much everything I planted sprouted plus a lot of things I didn’t know would and it was really cool to see them go from kind of nervous to take this trip to being on the trip and exhilarated to, “Wow, this is what happened, this is what I’m taking away from this!” Which is both about Disney and just about my own life, “Who do I want to be? What does it mean to make magic for other people? What does it mean to work for an organization that allows me to be part of something magical? How can I use my voice to make the world a better place?” Like the sorts of conclusions they drew were really very profound, considering we were together for three weeks.

Scott: I’m fascinated by going into a park with sort of an academic mindset and sort of separating out, you know, “I’m going to go on on as many things as possible,” versus trying to be part of something larger and analyzing and writing and journaling, and so on. And I’m just wondering if the students kind of recognize that as they were going through the sort of new way of experiencing, for those who have been there before, let’s say, the park?

Jill: Yeah. I had to take advice from my friend and travel agent, my friend David Zanolla, who’s Out the Door Travel, he basically made this whole trip possible, because he was our travel agent. But he’s also a professor who takes students to Disney every, like every spring break. And he just kept saying to me, “They want more free time than you want to give them.” And so I’m like, “Well, so what, like I should spend like five hours with them a day?” And he’s like, [LAUGHTER] “No, don’t don’t do that.” So I really had to pare it down for myself. And he was absolutely right, I think three hours, structured time, was about what they could handle, because Disney is the ultimate distraction environment. What I learned coming out of it… my fear was: “I’m not giving them the full educational experience, because I’m giving them so much free time…” No, they were learning a ton. And some of the most important stuff they learned was not with me, but when they were on their own having to deal with a problem with their credit card. Or some ride broke down and they had to deal with that or trying to figure out, “Okay, I have X number of dollars to spend on a meal, where are we going to go?” So much learning happened outside of the structured learning. The structured learning was an invaluable anchor, and I had help with that. There’s a great guy who used to work for Disney, now he basically does consulting in education. His name is Jeff Kober, and he lives in Orlando and he joined us in the park on three different days, for like, three to four hours working with different groups of students and helping them with their ethnographic projects. Each student went on the trip with some idea of something they wanted to explore while there, and he sort of helped direct them, like, “You need to go on this ride if you’re going to see this!” or “You need to pay attention to this thing that’s happening on Main Street.” So he was a great guide, sort of like turning their heads to certain things. So the timing spent between time with me structured, or time with me and Jeff structured, and freedom felt wrong to me as a teacher, but in hindsight, it was perfect… about three, four hours a day. And then yeah, go out and be distracted, students, because you’re gonna learn a lot if you have good ethnographic questions and reflection questions, which I think they did. So every day, they had to write certain things in a journal, and so they were constantly just having to take it all in and then reflect. And that was very effective pedagogically, I think.

John: From a logistic standpoint, you mentioned about three to four hours a day, did you do that in one block? Or was it broken up into different time blocks over the day?

Jill: Yeah, it was all in one block, it’s hard to get them back together if they’ve gone [LAUGHTER], so it was mostly all together. On two of the days it was in the morning, like, “Okay, we’re going to get to Animal Kingdom at 7:30, because they open at 8. So we’re going to get moving quickly.” So it’s like, you know, getting everybody up and together on a bus, for instance, and then spending a few hours before saying, “Okay, now you’re free.” But, they were good and they stayed safe, and they listened. So that was really important. I had some great TA’s (teaching assistants) who helped do a lot of those logistics. But, you got to just navigate what works for you and what you’re trying to do in the course. We also did some evenings, some evenings, we were like, “Okay, at five o’clock, we’re gonna all be together for the next few hours and end our day together watching the fireworks,” for instance. But Disney, there’s just so much you can do… anybody who’s been to Disney knows it’s really hard to make decisions, because there’s so many. So having to make decisions for the group was exhilarating for me, but also, like, “Am I making the best choice?”

John: Was cost a barrier to participation for students?

Jill: This is such an important point. So, the college, as part of their agreement with the Honors Program, pays for this trip. So the students did not pay for their own trip, the college paid for the trip… which is huge. I don’t know but, I’d have to guess most of these students would not have been on this trip or in this class if that had not been the case. So it was not a barrier, in fact. The college’s fronting of the bill for this made it possible for many of these students to go to Disney for the first time, on a plane for the first time, etc. I wonder if students in the future would take a trip that they had to pay for? I also know that Disney gets more and more expensive, more rapidly every single year. So already, I feel like the trip we just did would cost more than my budget would have allowed. And that’s from booking it in March, to looking at, if I were to teach this a year from now…there’s no sign that I’m teaching this a year from now, the college has not said we’re giving you this much money to do this again… but if I did, I mean things are changing so quickly at Disney, their prices go up, they’ve introduced new planning systems, like they’ve got, instead of FastPass which used to be free now they have Genie and Genie+ and Lightning Lane, two of which cost… like, I wouldn’t be able to spend $15 for every person on a 20-person trip to jump the line to go on Flight of Passage, for instance. So yeah, I think it would be a really different trip already. That makes me sad, because something like this was so valuable. So yeah, the cost is real, and this is the only trip that Guilford did this fall because it’s sort of like “let’s put our toes back in the water after COVID and see if we can make ‘Study Away’ and ‘Study Abroad’ happen.” And Disney seemed to the college to be close enough and safe enough. Disney had a lot of safety precautions around COVID from like July 2020 till about March/April of this year, and then they backtracked some when people started getting vaccinated. So at the time we booked it, it seemed Disney was a really safe place. So, it was not cost prohibitive, but I worry it would be in the future. But I will say my colleague David, who is also my travel agent from Out The Door travel, he says, when he takes students, they pay for it themselves, and he’s able to bring like 10 a year. So, I know it happens in some places.

John: As I saw your post, one of the first things I did was look up what the costs were for student groups, and it is lower than it is for everybody else…

Jill: Wait, you found a student group rate? I didn’t even know there was a student group rate! [LAUGHTER]

John: There is one, yes [LAUGHTER], for the tickets, they do have group rates that are significantly reduced. It’s still not going to be an inexpensive trip.

Jill: I don’t know if we got that because we were booking a package of hotel and tickets. But we did get some deals because Disney has deals and we were able to take advantage of them. We did not go at a crowded time: late August, early September is a great time to go to the park if you want to be really hot and not around as many people as will be there at Christmas, for instance.

John: Which is probably good during COVID.

Jill: Exactly. That’s what I kept telling the administration, like on a 1 to 10 scale, we’re going at 1-2 time, we’re not going at like 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 time.

Scott: When I was looking at taking a group of students, I actually contacted Disney and they gave me some price that I was like, “Yeah, there’s no way….”

Jill: Right… right.

Scott: …that I can afford it. I think a good travel agent, and/or your own planning… you’ll end up being cheaper than trying to go through a sort of a centralized Disney.

Jill: Yeah, and the travel agen, when we booked the trip for the previous year, what happened was we booked the trip, and then they used to have a dining plan, I think dining’s coming back soon, but it’s not happening right now. So we were going to get a dining plan. But between when we booked in October 2019, and like, January 2020, dining became free on the dates that we went. And our travel agent knew that because he was paying attention. So he caught the window like two or three days when suddenly dining was gonna be free for our dates. So he was able to jump on that and save us, God, four, five, six thousand dollars on dining. But again, that’s the trip that did not happen. Yeah, and Disney’s also paused all behind-the-scenes tours right now. We were supposed to do a “Keys to the Kingdom” tour in the Magic Kingdom, and so you know, it’s not back to what it was, but it still was an incredible trip. It was incredibly fun, and it was a great educational experience, I think I can say. Having spent time reading the students’ final projects and journals, they learned a ton about themselves and what they want to do in the world, and that was really the goal.

John: It sounds wonderful. I’m really envious. We always end by asking: “What’s next?”

Jill:Yeah, I would love to think that I can keep teaching Disney classes. Again, it’s a really happy place to hang out. So, I could see developing either a 100-level or an upper-level course on Disney and Religion. I think that would draw students and, definitely, there’s plenty of material there. Having taught five Disney classes and one that resulted in an actual trip, I have to say I’m completely in love with the idea of taking [LAUGHTER] students to Disney World now. Like, this is cost prohibitive and not logistically possible for me to do on a regular basis, but, it became the best classroom-laboratory space that I could have imagined because there’s just so much going on. And if your students are ready to see and experience, and you’ve got to prepare them for that, but if they’re ready to see and experience, there’s really no better place for that richness. And yeah, in the meantime, when I’m not doing my academic duties, I’m doing my own research on Disney and Religion and hoping to get out to the archives in San Francisco at some point, the Disney Family Archives. That was a trip that was supposed to happen a couple years ago and got cancelled because of COVID. So yeah, I’m really eager to keep thinking about Disney and the role that it’s currently playing in American religious culture.

John: I love Disney too. I first went when I was 10, I believe, then I waited until later and I brought my kids down there. And I took them there every year until they insisted that they were getting tired of going to Disney every year. [LAUGHTER].

Jill: Aw…

John: Then there was a stretch of five years recently, when I went to the Online Learning Consortium there, which was right at the Swan and Dolphin hotels.

Jill: Really?

John: They moved this year. I’m hoping they go back next year. I’m not sure.

Jill: That’s wonderful. I actually have an Honors Program conference in October at the Swan and Dolphin. So it’ll be my first-ever Disney conference, and I’m pretty stoked.

John: It’s a short walk to Epcot or to Hollywood Studios, or…, take the water taxis.

Jill: Yes, or the Skyliner now. They have the Skyliner which I love.

John: I’ve only been on it a couple of times. It was amazing, it was so efficient. And going back to the accessibility you mentioned, one of the things that really struck me is how accessible Disney is and how it’s been doing that for a long time. The Skyliner, in particular, has this nice design where they can move cars in and out of the queue to allow people who need more time to get in or out, people in wheelchairs and so forth, to do that without any pressure or having to slow down the ride.

Jill: Yeah. One of the students who came on the trip uses a wheelchair and she needs the wheelchair. And so watching her experience and how Disney handles that… mostly very positive… there were some things where we would get frustrated with Disney. But watching how that is implemented and integrated into systems so that things still continue to move so smoothly. Yeah, it works! Disney works, and I marvel at that.

John: Well, thank you, Jill. This has been wonderful.

Jill: Thank you so much.

Scott: Jill, glad to meet you.

Jill: Thank you, Scott.

Scott: This has been fun, thanks.

Jill: I hope you get to teach your Disney class again at some point.

Scott: Yeah, me too. I’ve told people I miss the classroom. I don’t miss grading, but I do miss the classroom.

Jill: I will hope. Nice to meet you, thank you.


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

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


206. U.S. Regulations for Online Classes

To be eligible for U.S. federal financial aid funding, colleges and universities offering distance learning programs must satisfy new federal regulations that went into effect in July 2020 and July 2021.  In this episode, Russell Poulin joins us to discuss how these requirements have changed and what these changes mean for faculty and institutions offering online classes.

Russ is the Executive Director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), and the Vice President for Technology Enhanced Education at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.



John: To be eligible for U.S. federal financial aid funding, colleges and universities offering distance learning programs must satisfy new federal regulations that went into effect in July 2020 and July 2021. In this episode, we examine how these requirements have changed and what these changes mean for faculty and institutions offering online classes.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Judie Littlejohn is joining us as a guest host for this episode. Judie is the instructional designer for Genesee Community College, and has been a guest on several of our past episodes.

Judie: And our guest today is Russ Poulin. Russ is the Executive Director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), and the Vice President for Technology Enhanced Education at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which, of course is WICHE. Welcome, Russ.

Russell: Oh, it’s so great to be here. Thanks for asking me.

John: Our teas today are:… Russ, are you drinking tea?

Russell: Oh, yes, I’m drinking tea and I live in Longmont, Colorado, which is near Boulder and we have Celestial Seasonings here, and so, I’m drinking Earl Grey that has probiotics in it. That’s a new product for them.

Judie: So you have Earl Grey, but I’ve got Lady Grey black tea from Twinings.

Russell: Oh, very nice!

John: And I have pineapple ginger green tea from the Republic of Tea. We’ve invited you here to discuss the new federal regulations concerning regular and substantive interaction in distance-learning courses. These regulations went into effect in July 2021. We also would like to talk a little bit about the requirements for identity verification that went into effect a year earlier, but before we discuss this, could you tell us a little bit about WCET?

Russell: Oh, I’d love to, and thank you for asking. And so WCET is part of WICHE, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which is a regional higher education compact focused on the west, but back in 1989, they started WCET to focus on educational technologies, distance ed, online learning – which wasn’t a thing yet then – and, even from the start, we had other states that came in, and now we’ve grown and now we have, members through all 50 states and Canada and even Australia. And our members, are institutions and organizations and corporations interested in the use of distance ed.

Judie: How did WCET become the go-to source for information on regular and substantive interaction?

Russell: Well, we were hearing from members that there was some confusion about exactly what they were supposed to do with this, and that there wasn’t complete clear guidance from the US Department of Education and so Van Davis, who worked at Blackboard at that time, and now works for us here at WCET. And what we did was that we went through all of the guidance, there were some guidance that had been given, and also the findings against several institutions and then tried to put together what is it that they were looking for? What is it that is expected? And then we put together a blog post of our findings, and put that out there, and for like, four or five years, no matter what else we published, that ended up being the top blog post for the year because people were seeing that that was the only place where somebody had compiled this all together and knew what to do. And then in 2019, I was named to the Department of Education’s negotiated rulemaking subcommittee that worked on new rules, and there are people who actually get together and write these rules – you can imagine how exciting that is – and I was part of that and worked on it. And one of the issues that we worked on was this distance education issue and updating this regular and substantive interaction part of it and so you could say I was in the room where it happened! [LAUGHTER]

John: So basically, there was a gap out there that needed to be filled, and there was a lot of concern because of the sanctions that were placed against Western Governors University?

Russell: Yeah, it’d been unclear, and then also yeah, there was these findings against Western Governors University that their courses were all correspondence courses, and that they were expected to pay back – really, when you got to the end of it – it was a billion dollars which they didn’t have in their pockets at the time, and so it really caught the attention of a lot of people and this was a rule that was first written in 1992, had incomplete guidance. It was being administered in different ways and so it was time for a real update and more details about what is it exactly that they’re expecting? And so we worked on that, and we also were able to put in that there’s greater reliance in terms of the relationship between the accrediting agency and the institution, because there were times where it seemed like the auditors were sort of overruling that, and that doesn’t make sense because if you’re meeting what the accreditors want, why is this out of balance?

Judie: So what is needed, then, to differentiate a correspondence course from a credit-bearing online course?

Russell: So, it’s really good to go back and make that distinction and remind people that this is all about federal financial aid and what qualifies for federal financial aid. And they always want to get into, “Well… interaction, the academics, and the pedagogy of it.” Well, okay, put that aside [LAUGHTER] for the moment, we’re talking about, for federal purposes, what qualifies for federal aid and what does not? And the idea was that distance education is something that qualifies for full federal aid, whereas correspondence response education… that you might not get full aid for those courses or if you have enough correspondence students or enough correspondence courses… if over 50% of your students or courses are labeled as correspondence… then your institution is now ineligible for aid, and that’s what happened with Western Governors University. And so, it’s good to be clear, especially as we’re seeing more and more distance ed, hyflex, hybrid sorts of courses about what fits and what does not, and what activities work. We need to know what happens, so that we know that we’re in line, so that we keep our federal financial aid for students.

John: The technology for offering online courses has changed quite a bit since the initial regulations were developed. Under the current revisions, what is meant by interaction in that definition of regular and substantive interaction?

Russell: Yeah, that’s a good point that this rule was written in 1992, prior to online learning [LAUGHTER]. There’s been a lot of changes. But you really do need to parse out the parts of it, and so thanks for asking about the interaction part of it because back in the old definition, prior to July 1, that there’s this really odd thing that, the only thing that counted for interaction was something that was done by the instructor. So, providing a lecture, providing a video, providing an assessment or providing an assignment, any of those sorts of things. Those are the only things that counted, so our interaction here… “Yeah, you said something and I’m the instructor that didn’t count what you said” That’s weird. So, now, there are parts of it (freshly hidden in the regular part of the definition) that if you go down there, that you’ll see that there’s the expectation that you respond to students and student requests. So, at least we’ve made that move that the student being part of the interaction is now a part of what counts, and that’s the great move forward.

Judie: And what is expected for substantive interaction, like how do you define the substantive part?

Russell: So going back again to the old one, that it was all just about content, that if you’re teaching a history course, as one might, that you’re talking about what happened in a particular battle, or what happened in 1792, or those sorts of things, particular things about the course, and interactions about basketball or other extraneous things didn’t count. But under the new rule, we’ve gone to an activity-based notion of it, and I’m going to read these, so stay with me on this, and they’re very short. So one, one of the activities is providing direct instruction. Two, is assessing or providing feedback on coursework. Three is providing information or responding to questions about the content or competencies. Four is facilitating a group discussion. Five is other instructional activities, as approved by the accreditor, that’s a really wide open one. But for these that, if you have any type of online course, I sure hope that you’re assessing what the students are doing, I sure hope that you’re responding to them when they ask questions, and so, you’ve already got two of those right there. The one that’s really in question is the one about direct instruction, and…everyplace else they talk about synchronous or asynchronous, but I know through some things that we learned about the Department of Ed’s thinking of that, and we asked this question directly of them during a webinar about direct instruction. At that time, they said that it was only synchronous education, and sometimes people freak out when I say that, and we are asking for clarification on that in writing, but remember that it’s two of the five, so even if they define it as just synchronous instruction, you’re probably meeting at least three of those five already if you have any type of quality course.

John: One of the issues, I think, that you’re also seeking to resolve is whether synchronous online office hours would count. Has there been any feedback on that yet?

Russell: Yeah, it seemed to us quite clear about the office hours, that that is something that would count and it’s something that did not count in the past. And so, it’s an interesting change for that and one of the reasons that they did that was one of the groups I was representing was competency-based education, and so, we’re going to get into notion of regular here in a moment, you know, how do you define regular for something that, by definition, is irregular in terms of competency based? And it’s based upon student pacing over the faculty pacing, and so, there’s a nod to that in terms of if you have regular office hours and have that posted on the syllabus or somewhere that that would count. And we’ve had some pushback from our financial aid friends, because that’s new to them. They said, “Well, that’s never counted before.” And so again, this is something where we’ve asked the question of the department and hope to get that in writing yet again so that that’s reaffirmed and everybody’s under the same understanding for that one.

Judie: You started to talk about regular, so how do you define “regular” interaction?

Russell: So regular? Yeah, as I was alluding to, that was the hardest one to do, because remember, we’re writing these for, depending on how you count, four to six thousand institutions. Some have short courses, some have competency-based, you think of every variation that you have out there. So saying “meeting once a week,” or doing something once a week just didn’t work because it didn’t fit all those different ones, and once a week would not be enough in a five- or six-week course, that’d be too little. So, we tried a formula and that was a disaster. So anyway, so we have these words, and then there’s a lot more, again, back to the relationship with the accreditor on this and what works. So, these are a little bit vague, but you need to work with your accreditor and how they’re defining these. So there’s really two parts to this. The first is going to be predictable and scheduled, and so this is something where either you have it in your syllabus, and then you have the syllabus at the start and here’s when things are going to happen, and then with that, that you may actually have a two- or three-week break where an instructor is not putting things out or you don’t have interactions, because it makes academic sense that you have the people out doing a paper or group work for two to three weeks and doing that. So that once a week would actually not work there, right? Or the predictable part of it was that maybe it’s not exactly in the syllabus, but what you do is you say, “Every Wednesday, we’re gonna meet or have office hours, or we’ll do something at webinar times.” So something predictable. So, that’s the first part of it. The second part of it was about monitoring the students’ academic engagement. And that was something we really brought in with competency-based education in mind, where what you’re doing is that you are actively following the student and making sure that they’re not out there on their own, and that you’re making sure that the student’s not floating and that you’re seeing that, “Okay, do they need interaction? Do they need some intervention?” Or the second part of that is what I alluded to before, or that the student says, “Okay, I need help with this,” or “I’m ready to move on to the next part of my competencies.” So that’s the other part of it is the bringing that together in terms of monitoring the engagement, so something that’s predictable, scheduled, and then also, outside of that, that you’re actually monitoring and interacting with the student.

John: Are there any requirements concerning the extent to which there should be interactions with individual students as compared to interactions with the class as a whole?

Russell: Well, both of them count. So if you’re giving a lecture, or if you’re doing a group discussion and doing that, that that’s a group thing, and so that counts. And also, remember, the second part of the regular was that you are responding to student requests, and so that’s on an individual basis. And when there is a federal financial aid review, or ”audit” as it’s called, of your institution, what they’ll do is they’ll go and take a sample of classes, and that they’ll look to see what happened in that course? Were there group interactions? Were there individual interactions? That they’ll look to see what happened and then they’ll look to see, does it meet the regulations? And have you developed faculty? Have you let them know that these are the expectations of them? That they’re looking for those sorts of things, and did it actually have an effect in the courses?

Judie: So what would be some examples of regular and substantive interaction that we could build into a course?

Russell: Yeah, that’s a really good question. You’re an instructional designer, you plan the whole course out, right? And you’re going to get more points on the regular side for the predictable and scheduled if you have a syllabus, that… it doesn’t have to be detailed down to every last thing that you’re going to do… but at least you’re showing that what are the expectations along the way? That, when are you going to have assessments? That, if you’re – let’s say that for some courses – that you’ll send out a video with a different lesson every Monday or every Friday, what you’re doing is that you’re hitting the marks on the regular, another is that you are showing that you have some expectations, in terms of the feedback and the feedback loop. And sometimes institutions have this as a policy, sometimes they leave it to the faculty member. But the more classes that you have where you show that the faculty person… you don’t have to respond immediately… but they’re showing that they will respond in 72 hours, not counting a weekend… that they will respond to the students. And there’s that expectation that they will do that because I had a question from one, that they had a faculty member that they put the discussion out there at the start of semester and then graded it at the end of the semester [LAUGHTER]. And first of all, that’s terrible teaching practice, let’s start with that, nevermind the regulations, but that faculty person thought it was good. And the other is, that there’s this expectation that, as you go along that you’re working with the students. So those are some examples of things that you’d want to do there.

Judie: So just a couple of different things that I like to try here is, I really like to try to encourage faculty to give feedback prior to the next due date. That just makes sense, so that if a student is making an error, they’re not going to repeat the same error because they haven’t gotten their feedback yet. So I just think, pedagogically, it makes sense to give the feedback as soon as possible. But I also like to just have faculty create a communication plan when they’re developing their course. I think faculty plan in their heads, you know, “I’m going to send this announcement, I’ll do this feedback, I’ll do X, Y, and Z.” But when they sit down and really map it out in a communication plan for their course, I think that really helps get into that regular schedule. And whether it’s date driven, or day-of-the-week driven or at specific points throughout the course when students reach different milestones, I think that really helps them. My understanding is that those types of things would help people meet the regular and substantive interaction definition. What do you think of that?

Russell: I love both of those ideas, and actually that, really, if you work with the instructional designers, look at what works in terms of good pedagogy, that these are the things that you’re talking about is that having a plan ahead of time and being open with the students so that they know, and then getting back to the students in between assessments so they have the feedback in terms of, they know where they might be falling behind a little bit in some areas and so that they know, “Oh, I don’t quite get that concept. And then, I have a math background and that was so key in mathematics that, if you don’t get this one, you’re not going to do any better on the next test right? And that’s probably true in so many different fields as well. And so, I love both of those ideas in terms of doing things and where you’re informing the student, and then keeping them engaged and then constantly moving them forward.

Judie: It’s great to hear that kind of feedback from you, thanks! [LAUGHTER] I hear a lot from faculty now, especially during COVID, when many are teaching in Zoom. And so they’ll record a live lecture with their students and, assuming that FERPA rules are followed, and there’s no students caught in the video or audio, they want to just show that recording again in the next semester, and want to know if they’re meeting regular and substantive interaction that way. And I tell them that, when they’re giving their lecture, that is regular and substantive interaction when they’re engaged with their live students. But I say that once you make a recording, and put it in the course, it becomes course content, because it’s no longer a unique experience with those individuals talking about their understanding of the course content. And I see like a real fine line there and I wonder what you think of that? Or how that might be interpreted? What do you think of using old recordings versus always expecting some sort of fresh and unique interaction with the students?

Russell: Yeah, I think if that’s all that you did, I think that you’d have a hard time in terms of meeting the regular and substantive interaction, and this is the one where we get back to the direct instruction question on that one, and we did gather that question plus several others and pose them to the Department of Education, because we felt that even since they released the rule that we were hearing different things from them than from the accreditors. And so I’m a little hesitant to give you a yes, that works or not, under the new rules or not until we get a better answer from the Department. My feeling was that, under the old rules that I felt a little bit better about that that probably was problematic. It might still be, but I’m kind of curious to see what they say about the synchronous versus asynchronous going forward. I think that, if that’s all that you relied on, I think that that’d be problematic that you would need to have other sorts of interactions that might make that work.

Judie: Thanks.

John: But videos that were custom created for that week’s activities, or that provide feedback for the class would count, right?

Russell: Yeah, the ones that are custom created.

Judie: I encourage them to make like small targeted videos for clarification. Like, to address a specific topic that they know that students struggle with, as opposed to just making an hour video of you standing at the front of the classroom, talking to people that future students don’t even know.

Russell: Yeah, and I think if you just use the video over and over again, and I certainly saw this in some engineering courses where they’re using the same ones that, what happens is that you have to update your materials every once in a while, too [LAUGHTER].

Judie: Oh, sure

Russell: You need to be doing that. And so I remember witnessing a course where they were falling behind on some facts or raised a lot of questions about advances that had happened after the video had happened, or were quite clearly dated, because they were talking about things that were going on in space as a future thing, instead of a past thing. And so I think, if nothing else, that you’re going beyond whether you meet these rules or not, that you’re diminishing confidence of students in terms of the value of what they’re receiving.

Judie: Sure, that’s a good point.

Russell: One other issue that we didn’t touch on so far had to do with the definition of an instructor, and that was a difficult one for us. And that was another one that Western Governors University got hit on this one. It was a finding against them. And that it seemed like some of the definitions meant like an instructor, that there was one person that was in front, and that a lot of institutions have gone to team teaching or bundled instruction, or using GAs or TAs or there’s several people in the course and with the unbundled instruction that WGU did that they had one content expert providing the content of the course and another one doing the assessment and maybe somebody else doing some of the advising. So you broke it up and that they weren’t counting that even though it was approved by their accrediting agency. So that is one where we have worked on “instructor” and we’re very clear in this, that it is what is approved by the accrediting agency that that is what counts. T hat was sort of alluded to before, now it’s very clear. And so if you have a non-traditional sort of model for your instructors or faculties, you may want to talk to your accrediting agency about how they view that and get something in writing about that.

John: I think that is a pretty common issue where there’s often a master course developed by the content expert and then again, there are instructional teams that work on the whole course, but the division there can vary quite a bit. And I know there’s a lot of interest in institutions in trying to scale online education to make it more efficient, and this is an area that certainly needs to be addressed with the accrediting agencies.

Russell: Definitely, definitely, yeah.

Judie: So these rules that we’ve been talking about also addressed student identity verification. So is the student identity verification related to the regular and substantive interaction? Or is this another area that requires a more precise definition?

Russell: This is actually a whole other area that was in a different part of the regulations, and this is one that actually went into effect in July of 2020, and it’s part of what the accrediting rules are, and there’s a whole list of things that the accrediting agencies are supposed to be looking for when they’re doing your accrediting reviews. One of the things that they’re supposed to be doing is making sure that the institution has, really, policies and processes to make sure that the student who enrolls in the course is the same one who’s completing and submitting the assignments in there. So it really is about academic cheating, and that this is only in the distance-ed world that they have to do this. I have to tell you, in a subcommittee, we tried to expand it and got beat back. So, sorry we lost that fight for you. But it’s still in distance ed where the accreditors are expected to check for that to make sure. And then the big change that happened in that is that, previously, there were some, what were considered ‘“examples” in there. And one was that you had some sort of ID, some sort of login ID for that or that you did proctoring, and that those were meant as examples. And those were taken out, because all too often, what would happen is that an institution would say, “Well, we have an ID!” and they would do nothing else. And so that was clearly insufficient in terms of doing it, and so, they’re raising the bar. The intent is that you have a plan, and that you’re executing the plan, and that you’ve worked that out with your accreditor, and that when that financial aid review happens, that you will be able to demonstrate what you’re doing and if it’s effective. Another part of it, there’s a second section to it, that also talks about that if you have additional costs, and so, let’s say that you’re using a proctoring software, and that that costs so much per student, that you have to notify the student at time of registration, that there’s an extra cost for that. And this is something that a lot of institutions have fallen short on, because what they’ll do is that they’ll notify the student in the syllabus, and so the first day that the student starts they see the syllabus, and all of a sudden they have to pay more money. And the idea is that the student should be able to have a choice at the time they’re picking between which course that they might take or know that they’re going to have an additional cost for participating in that course. And that rule is out there, and it’s a good one, because you’re being clearer to the consumer about what’s going on.

John: So authentication with a password to a course management system is not sufficient, and some type of proctoring software is, but there’s a lot of concerns raised with proctoring. Are there any other ways to authenticate students that meet the requirements without moving to software proctoring solutions?

Russell: Yeah, and I think that over the last year that we’ve seen, the concerns about proctoring software have risen to the fore, and there’s some good ones and that they do some good things, and so you should not throw them all out. But yet, you should pay attention to the concerns about that. But there are ways that we have worked on this in terms of different ways that faculty can work in terms of their assessments. One of the things we talked about is face-to-face proctoring, As distance ed grows, though, that gets to be harder and harder to find enough proctoring sites and the ability to do that, but that is an option. Some of the other things that have been proposed have to do with how you do assessments, and that having more frequent assessments and doing things where it’s easier to take the course than it is to cheat. That if you do like one or two big assessments per term, that it’s a lot easier to get someone to do those for you or the big papers and all that, so that’s one. There’s others where getting people involved in terms of group coursework, or other sorts of authentic assessment type of things, where you get involved in different sorts of things, where you have to stay engaged more and more often through the course, and it’s harder to get somebody else to do that for you. There are people who will take the whole course for you… that’s a problem. But the more barriers that you can put up, and we really do love our instructional designers, but the more that we can do to help faculty with thinking about assessment strategies and effective assessment strategies, the better off that will be with all of this. Aso there are other areas like… oh shoot, I’m blanking on… ICAI, they have a lot of strategies as well out there, and for some reason, it’s early in the morning here and I’m blanking on their name, but there’s an institute for academic integrity that has a lot of good resources on this issue.

Judie: Yeah, I think it’s great to encourage all faculty to work with their instructional designers on authentic assessment.

Russell: Yes, yes, yes! That success will be more sure if you work with your instructional designer.

Judie: So, do you think that this authentication concern is only for assessments? Or is it for day-to-day coursework and interactions, too?

Russell: Yeah, it’s really about any type of quiz or paper or anything that you’re going to be evaluating the student on. That’s really what it’s looking at, because there’s the opportunity for cheating or something bad to happen there. So there are other things that you do in terms of papers, you know, with Turnitin or other sorts of activities that people do or trying to create papers that are more authentic or real: “Write something about your hometown or work on a project in your hometown where there’s not a lot of papers.” [LAUGHTER] So, you can do those sorts of things where it’s harder to plagiarize.

John: It’s really nice to hear that open pedagogy projects, videos that students create, where they’re actively engaged in it, group projects, and all those things can serve the same role without moving to the extreme of proctoring.

Russell: Yes.

John: It is good to note that any courses that require proctoring must list that up front so that students are aware of the cost. And the other issue with that is, as colleges enroll more first-gen students and more students from the lower income quintile, many students won’t have computers or networks that will necessarily support proctoring software. If students are working on their course through their smartphones, most proctoring solutions don’t work with smartphones. But it’s pretty easy for the student to take a video of themselves talking about something, so allowing faculty to have more options for authentication is something that allows for a more inclusive learning environment.

Russell: That was a huge lesson from the move to remote learning due to the pandemic, that you had so many students who did not plan to be in a remote course that uses online tools… that they were using, as you said, cell phones or different types of tablets that were not compatible with some of these proctoring software solutions, or that they didn’t have the adequate bandwidth for taking the test in that way with a full video… that that was a real problem, privacy issues with it. So there were all sorts of things that were problematic with that. And so, being upfront with the students is very good and we do often cite that there wasn’t a federal finding, but it was a student in Nevada, who was in a course and they were not notified that they were going to be using proctoring software. The student was pre-law, decided to flex his pre-law muscles, and got a whole bunch of students behind him and took it to the institution and ultimately went to the Board of Regents there, and all of those students had all of their fees repaid. It wasn’t a federal finding, but what was shown was that they were out of compliance with the federal rule, and the Board of Regents decided to remedy that.

Judie: So looking at regulations like this, we can see that online classes are held to a higher standard than face-to-face classes. Do you think similar requirements should also be implemented for face-to-face classes?

Russell: Well, I think what’s happening is that the vast majority of courses are now digital courses. And whether it is fully online, whether it’s hybrid, hyflex, blended, or just the old term that the OLC used to use of “web enhanced,” that you use the web a lot, even though that you meet face to face Monday-Wednesday-Friday, that we’re seeing all these digital tools going throughout. And what happened with the pandemic? It really took off, right? And so there’s even more of that is gonna happen. And some surveys that one of our organizations, Every Learner Everywhere did, that there was more interest and uptake from faculty in terms of, “Well, I’ve done this now I should do it again.” And so I think what’s happened is that we’re gonna see more and more use of digital technologies through, if not every course, the vast majority of courses. Well, the thing that happens is that these same sorts of problems are in all of these. And you and I know, keep this as our secret between us [LAUGHTER] but, all this stuff was happening even without technologies, right?

Judie: Right.

Russell: A lot of the cheating scandals in some of the service academies in the last few years had very little to do with technologies other than sharing some information. So we know that’s going on. So it’s gonna be interesting. This is one of the things that we’re looking at that I bet we’re going to see a lot of new guidance coming out of this Department of Education that recognizes that and may expand this out quite a bit more, because there are people in the department who have huge concerns about consumer protection issues and the use of online or digital learning regardless of where it’s used, and that they’re seeing that some of these rules need to be applied more broadly. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see that we get guidance that says exactly that coming out and that we have James Kvaal was just finally approved as the Undersecretary there. I think that that staff has been working on these sorts of things, and have been waiting for him to be approved. I would not be surprised that in the next three to six months that we don’t start seeing some new guidance coming out or answers to our questions. I don’t think they wanted to answer our questions until James Kvaal was in. And so I think that we’ll see clarifications and guidance about some of these things where we’ve had questions before, and how do they apply in a hyflex setting? How do they apply in a blended setting?

Judie: That’s good news.

John: And whether the rules are expanded or not, they’re just good practice… that regular and substantive interaction is good pedagogy.

RUSSEL: Yes! [LAUGHTER] Yeah, you really nailed it with that. And that was one of the things that surely the people that run the subcommittee and then the main committee were trying to look at: “What do we do that makes sense in terms of best serving the students?” And we have to remember at the end that these are consumer-protection practices that have to do that, there are also federal-financial-aid protections that aid is going to worthy activities, and so we need to remember that in all this.

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

Russell: Well, I kind of previewed thata bit, that I really do believe that we’re likely to see several more clarifications coming out, or maybe some surprises coming out in the next few months. And so I think it would be good for people to pay attention to what’s going on, and we certainly write about whatever comes out in our WCET Frontiers blogs. So, be watching for that. And on something completely different, that we’re getting together some folks to work on the issue about veterans and their housing allowance. And just quickly on that, that veterans who take all their courses online, get about half or a little bit more of the housing allowance of veterans who take just one course face to face… they could have it all online, but just one course face to face. And it really is antiquated thinking, and it’s something that we need to get fixed. Because, I could be the same student in one term, take all my courses online, and the next term take just one course face to face. I have the same housing cost, I have the same family [LAUGHTER] I still need to eat, but somehow my aid is less. And so we’re working on that one.

John: And you shared many resources with us that we’ll include in the show notes, so those will be available on the website. Well, thank you for joining us, this was really helpful, and I think it’s going to benefit a lot of institutions and a lot of faculty and instructional designers as they plan for future semesters.

Russell: Well, it was a great pleasure being here with you today, and having a little bit of tea in the morning is always good. And so thank you, Judie, thank you, John for inviting me and for having me here.

Judie: Yes, thank you. This was fun. Take care.


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 Anna Croyle.


205. Tutoring

Equity gaps in educational outcomes play a major role in perpetuating economic inequality. In this episode, Philip Oreopoulis  joins us to discuss his research examining how tutoring and computer-aided instruction can be used to reduce disparities in educational outcomes. Philip is a Distinguished Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, the Education co-chair of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and an award-winning researcher who has conducted a wide variety of studies relating to education and educational policy.



John: Equity gaps in educational outcomes play a major role in perpetuating economic inequality. In this episode, we discuss research examining how tutoring and computer-aided instruction can be used to reduce disparities in educational outcomes.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Philip Oreopoulis. Philip is a Distinguished Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, the Education co-chair of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and an award-winning researcher who has conducted a wide variety of studies relating to education and educational policy. Welcome, Philip.

Philip: Thanks so much for having me.

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

Philip: My tea is coffee. I love coffee. I once looked for a reason not to drink coffee, I couldn’t find one. I love my black coffee.

Rebecca: A true researcher at heart. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I am drinking a bing cherry black tea, a custom Tea Republic tea made for Harry & David.

Rebecca: And I have Irish breakfast tea. I really need to get some new tea [LAUGHTER]. I’m going to a tea store this weekend, so I’m looking forward to getting some new options.

John: And we have lots of tea in the office, some of which may not be as fresh as it was a year and a half ago. But this one still is good. It was purchased right before the shutdown.

Philip: You guys are inspiring me. I think I’m gonna have some tea sometime today.

Rebecca: All right, good, good.

John: In a November 2020 Scientific American article, you describe a meta analysis that you worked on with some colleagues that found that tutoring results in significant improvements in student learning. Could you describe this meta analysis a bit and what you found?

Philip: To backtrack a little bit, how it got started: my colleagues at J-PAL, Vincent Quan, Andre Nickow, and I, had heard about the potential of tutoring to be an effective form for increasing test score learning performance. For example, there’s Benjamin Bloom’s seminal article in the 80s, where he had two very small studies done by his students that both found off the charts improvement from offering tutoring in randomized control trials. In fact, that’s why he called it the ‘“2 sigma problem” that he found estimated impact from these two small studies were raising learning performances by enough to potentially solve most of our problems that we would be having in education policy. There were a number of recent studies as well, a randomized control trial coming out from the University of Chicago’s Ed lab, also finding very promising results from an RCT looking at providing in-class tutoring to grade nine students. And so we wanted to explore whether there was some consistency in these results, so we decided to try to take a more systematic look, and we gathered up all the RCTs, randomized control trials, in the last 40 years for about 96 studies, and we took a look and we found that consensus was quite remarkable. About 80% of those studies found significant effects larger than .2 of a standard deviation, and the average effect size was .38 of a standard deviation, which is like the equivalent of almost an entire extra year of school, from receiving these programs. And not only were the impacts really quite meaningful, as about as large as you get from education interventions, but they were consistent across the board. I think that this is about as much consistency as you’re ever going to get in an education policy intervention. So we were quite excited about that. We found that the effects were pretty consistent no matter which type of program that you looked at. They were larger for things like in-school delivery, three days a week, one-to-one delivery, full time tutors, but even in cases where that wasn’t the case, usually there were still significant effects.

Rebecca: Can you talk about what age the students were, what grades they were in?

Philip: It was for K-12.

John: I think it’s probably safe to assume, though, that the same effect would hold in the college environment as well. Those are some pretty dramatic effects.

Philip: Of course, to some extent, maybe it’s not that surprising. Giving instruction one-to-one leads to higher learning gains, and the biggest challenge, of course, is cost. We can’t all have our own teacher when we go to school. And so the biggest challenge, which gets back to Bloom’s point calling this the 2 sigma problem, is I think we have a powerful intervention to help education, it’s just that it costs too much to implement it on a larger scale. So the fundamental problem is to figure out a way to scale this in a way that can complement the classroom instruction.

John: And so that’s one of the things I think you’re looking at now, how this can be scaled up in a more cost effective manner. Could you tell us a little bit about your current research in terms of computer-assisted learning?

Philip: Sure. So computer-assisted learning or computer-assisted instruction is a type of educational software designed to help students progress through topics at their own pace. It has a lot of similar features as what you might receive when you’re receiving tutoring. So a typical example might be Khan Academy, MATHia, there’s lots of other types of software designed to help with different topics, math and reading, but they all have these sort of common features that allow students to progress through topics at their own pace. You receive immediate feedback from trying to work through your own problems and a chance to understand where you went wrong. If you do make a mistake, there’s data that’s generated from going through it that someone like a teacher might be able to follow and respond to. And so computer-assisted learning can, in some ways, simulate the tutoring experience, but of course, at a much lower cost. The challenge is you don’t have a real person guiding you through it. So even though a platform like Khan Academy is easily accessible, your willingness or motivation to go through it on your own is probably not as great as if you had a real person guiding you through the same material. So there has been some experimental evidence on computer-assisted learning, not as much as theories on tutoring, but of the 15 or 20 randomized control trials that have been done in this area, they have also been showing quite promising results. In cases where computer-assisted learning is provided, especially during a school setting, those receiving it also seemed to be performing at significantly higher rates than those in the comparison group. So there does seem to be some promise at using computer-assisted learning to generate the gains that we see from tutoring. But the way to introduce it, the instructions that teachers need to learn how to use it effectively, are not yet maybe as developed as we’d like them to be. So getting to, I guess jump into what I’m working on, I think that there’s a lot of potential for leveraging existing resources to combine with computer-assisted learning in a way that might come close to the tutoring experience. And so what I’m thinking of is in the classroom, that the kind of facilitated practice that might go on, say, in a math subject might be much better through a tool like Khan Academy than paper and pencil that we often give students. And so the question I’m investigating is around reshuffling the classroom in a way where the teacher is trained how to use computer-assisted learning more effectively in the classroom to generate that type of experience. So in the context of the program that I’m looking at now, which tries to integrate Khan Academy more into math classes, the teacher is still instructing and presenting topics, but now emphasizing the students following an individualized roadmap that allows the students to progress at their own pace, rather than having to keep up even if they’re missing on topics and not understanding. So the program which we’re calling “Coaching with Khan Academy,” or CWK, has students receive a roadmap of incremental topics and videos to follow at the start of school that roughly proceed in the same order that the teacher is going through. Now, the teacher has the students to try to work on this roadmap for at least an hour, an hour and a half a week, and tries to facilitate that time during the class and encourage more done at home, and the students then have the ability to hopefully get into a routine of watching a video and taking the exercises, and if they don’t score high enough on the exercises they’re asked to try to understand why they made the mistake using the hints and tips and guidance that Khan provides or gets help from the teacher, and then repeat it so that they don’t move on to the next topic until they’ve mastered that. So the students are not proceeding all in the same pace, but it is just a much better way to learn math such that the students don’t go on to the next topic until they’ve established a strong enough foundation on the first one.

John: During the global pandemic, most high schools moved to emergency remote instruction for an extended period, and there’s quite a bit of evidence that that led to a decline in overall learning, but also some growing achievement gaps which are tied to household wealth and the wealth of the school districts in which the students reside. What types of policies could be implemented at the K-12 level so that students are more equally prepared for entry into college

Philip: On COVID, we’ve all been exposed to online learning now, and most research suggests that it’s not a great substitute for in-person but there are certain benefits from being able to speak with a real person over a computer in regards to tutoring. So the biggest one is convenience, both for the tutor and the tutee. It’s nice to be able to jump in on a call and spend just 30 minutes on that or an hour, and not have to drive to the person’s location or do this after school. The opportunity to facilitate more tutoring, I think, is increased by having this online access. So I think there’s a lot of interesting promises from that. This one particularly interesting study that was done during COVID last summer, where a group of Italian faculty organized a volunteer tutoring experiment where they got the Deans of their respective universities to invite university students to volunteer their time, three to six hours a week to reach out and connect with students who have been struggling in the high schools and lower grades. And on the flip side, they got the school districts of several locations in Italy to ask teachers to identify students that they thought could benefit from having this one-on-one instruction. And then the response was great in both ways, there were a lot of people willing to volunteer their time for this effort, and there was also a lot of perceived need for students that needed this. And so from this large set-up, they randomized who they were able to give this offer of assistance to. And it was done all online, sometimes over the phone, but more often through Zoom, or Skype, or whatever was most convenient for the match to take place. The tutors met with tutees, for three hours a week, over six weeks. The topics were either math, Italian, or English, and then at the end, the researchers collected the survey and found similar gains to what we were finding in the online overall. Not only that, but they also collected data on mental health and found improvements in feelings of connection, more positive outlook on life. And what’s also interesting as they seem to show improvements and positive outcomes for the tutors themselves, as well. So it stands the potential for a win-win, and this was all done online. So it’s like the only online study I know, but it seems to show the potential that it might be done there. One other example I should mention is Khan Academy has also initiated another organization that facilitates free volunteer online tutoring. It’s called ‘schoolhouse.world’ and it’s been interesting to watch that trying to get up and running. Their system allows anyone in the world to volunteer their time as a tutor, and then they try to connect anyone in the world wanting to receive that tutoring. And you get some sense of some of the challenges from doing that. How do you screen for quality? And also, how do you screen for safety? So they’ve had to go away from a one to one model to more of a group model. They’ve had to have systems in place to check the quality of the tutoring, what’s being discussed. They’ve had to switch to allowing only high school students to receive the tutoring and a few other challenges. And so there’s challenges but also a lot of potential in this that wasn’t available from always having to meet your tutor in school or after school or face-to-face. So the potential scalability is enormous, and that’s where the intriguing possibilities are with that tool.

Rebecca: So if we’re looking to reduce achievement gaps, we’ve talked a little bit about COVID and the mix of instruction that students might’ve had during COVID, the quality of instruction, access to technology, to even have interactions with teachers in some cases, and historically even, differences in ability when students arrive in higher ed. What are some of the things that the higher ed community might be thinking about in terms of this research? Should we be advocating for certain kinds of policies or programs in K-12? Should we be trying to institute some of these things in higher ed? What are your thoughts on that?

Philip: So just in terms of advocacy and thinking about facilitating more equality, there’s no question that tutoring has, in general, been an unequal program. There’s the whole private sector of tutoring where a lot of households for more affluent families seem to receive it than those from less affluent households. And so one thing we can do as policy-makers is to try to facilitate more tutoring to happen in schools, especially at schools for more disadvantaged backgrounds. We can also focus on providing tutoring to those who need it most. I think that there is a growing awareness of the potential for tutoring to make a real difference in helping address the learning loss that may have occurred with the pandemic and just helping address education inequalities in general. And so a lot of resources have started going towards trying to increase the amount of tutoring happening in schools. I think that the more we understand how to implement it successfully, the more guidance that we can provide the K-12 sector in trying to introduce that. I think that there is a lot of optimism now around its potential. I think tutoring is one of the most effective programs that we can offer to make a meaningful difference at scale, such that we can get more students arriving into post-secondary ready to handle it and succeed well there. So that’s on that end. I think that there’s no reason why we also can’t consider tutoring at the post-secondary level as well, and the potential benefits that might come from that. Even if we just look at first-year calculus, or other subjects in math, computer-assisted learning is well developed even at that level, the need for tutoring at that level is there as well. And so it really does go from that importance of establishing a foundation that one might benefit from tutoring at earlier ages. But even at the post-secondary level, regardless of what level the student is, we can all benefit from one-on-one instruction compared to being in a calculus class of 500, right? I think there has been less research that’s been done in that area, but the evidence certainly points to the direction that tutoring at the post-secondary level would be also effective and important to consider.

John: And you mentioned that Italian experiment where college students were providing tutoring, and you mentioned that that was a very positive experience for the college students as well. That might be an interesting model where college students could improve their own skills and develop a bit more automaticity and more practice in basic concepts, while helping bring students up to a higher level in secondary schools. That’s a program that I think offers a lot of potential.

Philip: So I would agree, absolutely, the expression is you don’t really understand something until you teach it. I think that there’s something to be said for that. I think that there’s also a lot of skills and experience that is gained from trying to help others, from trying to connect with perhaps younger individuals that have not had the same background as you. I think that the experience is also attractive to employers looking at who to hire. I think there’s huge gains from all the things that you might volunteer or use your time for in college, spending some time to volunteer to do something like tutoring could be a very rewarding thing as well. So I’m also excited about that model. I think that there are ways to try to facilitate that kind of model at scale and more research needs to be done to explore how to do that.

Rebecca: One of the things that I heard you mentioned early on in the conversation is the idea that, historically, folks who had access to tutoring are more affluent. So the students who most need the tutoring are the ones that aren’t always getting it, because they can’t afford it. So I love the idea of having it in schools or it’s a part of our programs. But also I think sometimes tutoring has a negative connotation to it. It’s like a deficit model. Especially I’ve seen this in higher ed, students don’t want to go to a tutor because it makes them feel like they’re dumb or something.

Philip: My first reaction to that is that tutoring can be beneficial at any level. For example, in the Khoaching with Khan project that I’m looking at, the potential is to help all students in the class regardless of their level, because every student can be given their own individual roadmap. And that not only includes those that are behind grade level that benefit from establishing a stronger foundation in that earlier material so that they can catch up, it also includes those at a higher level that don’t have to be held back or wait for the instructor to cover new material can use a platform like Khan Academy or a tutor to work on more challenging material that interest them. And so how to remove that stigma that exists in general, I agree the usual perception is when someone asks, “Do you need a tutor?” it’s because you’re struggling. It doesn’t need to be that way, but at the same time, I think the more we become aware of the benefits from the tutoring, the more we realize that it’s a great resource to take advantage of. Getting back at the college level, I don’t know about your own experiences, but it always amazes me how few students take advantage of all the free tutoring that’s being offered by the universities through, like, office hours. The opportunity for receiving one-on-one discussion is often there, and yet so few students seem to take advantage of it, perhaps because of that stigma or perhaps they’re too busy. Some of us, when we went through college, were pleasantly surprised by how much you can get with office hours of graduate students and extra tutoring and how much you can learn from that process.

John: As in a lot of classes, students are treated as if one-size-fits-all education and students come in, especially in subjects such as math where there is a very rigid structure, if you don’t have a solid foundation and concepts, learning new topics is not going to be very productive, because you don’t have that foundation to connect to. And I see that in my own classes, and it’s a bit of a challenge to try to do that. Because of issues of scale I often teach large classes, I try to rely on peer instruction as much as possible with small group activities. Could small group peer interactions in working through problems and problem sets achieve something similar to the one on one attention?

Philip: In the literature, it’s called peer-to-peer, we did not look at peer-to-peer in our meta analysis on tutoring, but there is some literature and there’s some effort to consider that. It’s a little bit of a different model, because you’re relying on slightly older students or similar students to help assist other students. I think more research needs to be done on how to make that happen effectively. On one hand, the potential is there to make this a scalable, effective program that doesn’t cost very much. On the other hand, monitoring quality and the potential to train to be a tutor and to do a good job with it may not be there as much as with the regular type of tutoring program.

John: In particular, I was thinking of activities in class where students work on problems in groups, and they try to argue out solutions. They work together and they can explain to each other things they don’t understand, but the key aspect of that is they get feedback on whether they’re correct or not, some constructive feedback on where they went astray. But I was just thinking that those types of small group interactions could provide some of the benefits without that stigma of needing to go to tutoring and perhaps at a higher scale than tutoring might work.

Philip: The advice that I often give my students is to study until you feel you can explain it to someone else. And so there’s a similar, perhaps, mechanism at play when we’re thinking about that. When you try to write down a concept or explain it, even to yourself, out loud or to someone else, you quickly realize what you understand and what you don’t. There does seem to be a lot of potential there.

Rebecca: Sounds like one of the keys to reducing stigma around all of this is making the coaching or this tutoring model just something that’s normalized. Maybe it’s normalized in class, it’s normalized through the school day, and then people might be more apt to take advantage of it because they have access to it. But also, it becomes a standard way of being, that’s what other people around them are also doing.

Philip: Absolutely! I think if we can reframe tutoring as just individualized instruction or personalized instruction, then we can all understand the potential benefits of receiving more personal help than in a classroom setting, and that goes for pretty much anyone.

Rebecca: It really also matches up well with a lot of universal design for learning principles of flexibility as well, and allowing students to go at their own pace and finding ways of teaching and learning that match well for students and where they’re at.

Philip: And of course, the issue is scale. Getting children to learn in a classroom of 25 to 30 students, when these students vary enormously in academic levels, is just really difficult. And trying to figure out a way to provide that individual attention is the challenge that all teachers face and have been facing for many, many years. And if we can find a way to scale adding on or providing more and more individualized attention, it has the potential, I think, to make a real difference in education. Of all the potential policies that we can be looking at, I do think that, at the school level, leaning towards more individualized instruction is where we should be looking at, for a solution.

Rebecca: It’s so interesting to me that we’re having this conversation early on in our semester, because after teaching online for a year, which I hadn’t done previously, I’ve really worked to make my classes more flexible and actually offer some of those kinds of models that you’re describing where students are going more at their own pace, and that they can get some individualized instruction when they need it and that they need to do this mastery learning so that they build on things over time. It looks to me like maybe I need to look more into tutoring and coaching models that have worked really well to see if I can’t implement some of that more during class time.

Philip: There may be different ways to do it. Some may be more effective than others, but I do think, getting back at what John was saying, it’s harder to provide that individual support or help to students arriving in college without that foundation. I have done some other work at the college level, trying to facilitate more personal attention to students arriving, trying to help them out and encourage them to get into better habits, and it has proved quite difficult to change behavior, and so I have found myself reacting to that by focusing more on earlier grades to see if there might be more promise on trying to foster better study habits, better learning habits, earlier on with the hope that students arrive in college more prepared.

John: I think that’s one of the things a lot of behavioral economic studies have found. Interventions that result in long-term changes of behavior are challenging in general.

Philip: Absolutely.

John: And I think you’ve done some research on that.

Philip: Absolutely. So if we have to change one-time actions, like helping students through applying for college, applying for financial aid, those types of interventions are much more promising at affecting one-time goals than to change habits or routines that involve much more continuous behavior. So helping someone study more effectively, spend more time studying, these are much harder problems to solve. And maybe low-cost nudges that we’ve been looking at in the literature may not be as effective. I think that does tie back into how my perspective has changed over time. It’s hard to have significant influence without personal connection. It’s a lot more expensive, but there’s only so far you can go with sending an email or a text message or a one-time meeting in trying to change someone’s learning trajectory or life trajectory. And the more you sort of look at education policies that have been successful, the more you notice that they often come with this personal connection that’s been important for making that meaningful change.

Rebecca: It seems like we should all be really advocating then for these much more early interventions. It’s much more cost effective if we get those habits in place really early [LAUGHTER].

Philip: I will say there’s surprisingly not enough research on the long-term effects of tutoring. I’ve seen one study that has found that the benefits of receiving that tutoring continued one year past the program ended; the effects faded, but not by that much, and that’s the only study I’m aware of that actually does a long-term study. So on the question of whether we can have these life-changing impacts from targeting earlier ages, certainly, there’s a literature for the very young… like, almost helping at the household, but at the school, I think that more work could be done.

John: And that could be a really productive research area. Before we started recording, we were talking a little bit about, with the pandemic, creating our own videos. Could you talk a little bit about how you try to implement what you’ve learned in your own classes at the college level?

Philip: Yeah, I think that using the situation last year to put my lectures online has freed up space in the actual lectures to be more interactive. So I think it was a benefit both ways. The videos of the lectures themselves became more streamlined, I got a chance to break them up into smaller parts, sort of like Khan Academy videos, where instead of one video that’s two hours long, that goes all over the place, and you’re staring at me and the Blackboard, I created five- to ten-minute videos of vignettes that I could focus on with slides and have a series of these videos that students could watch at their own pace. I could edit them and make sure that the video is as succinct as possible and gets across what I really want to say. So that was good on the video side, and then on the actual lecture side, we spent that time going through problem sets and answering questions and it was much more interactive, closer to the spirit of more personalized instruction. So there was more opportunity for questions, more opportunities for the students to get more involved, and I think it did lead to more satisfaction of that approach. Obviously, the big question is, ‘Do they really watch the videos when they’re asked to do it on their own?’ I think there are ways to try to incentivize that, but just like any class, the students really perk up when they’re working on a problem that was, say, a previous exam question.

John: I’ve used a very similar approach. I’ve used videos for like 20 some years in my classes, but one thing I started doing last year is I embedded questions in the middle of the videos, and that’s a pretty effective incentive structure. It does get them all watching the videos, and at least thinking about it and trying to make some connections while they do it, and that’s worked pretty well.

Philip: Not only that, but you can make them mandatory for class participation. So you stick those questions in and they have to watch the video to find the questions when they pop up, there’s software that can do that. And then you can make it as a way to encourage them to have to watch the video.

John: Do you think that more use of computer-aided instruction is going to be helpful in allowing more students to be successful?

Philip: I’m very optimistic on this potential of leveraging computers with teachers and parents working together on trying to facilitate high-dosage practice. We’ve been talking mostly in math, but it could also be language as well, and maybe other topics. But I think this really is a good way to learn, as long as the practice time is long enough, and the student’s not stuck. I think that it takes a while to get into the habit, getting used to the software, getting used to the routine, both for the teacher providing this and for the student doing it, and so that, for me, right now, is the biggest challenge. I am optimistic that if we can facilitate a way to help teachers and students get to that higher-dose practice using computers, then very good things will happen. I think that the evidence is highly suggestive that the high dosage is a worthwhile thing to get done. I’m hoping that we can generate evidence that that’s the case, but we are finding that there are challenges because there’s a learning curve, it is changing the way that the classroom is done and changing the way the student usually learns, but I’m optimistic that if we can get past that, the students and the teachers will come to like this approach, and that we can do more of it at scale.

John: And I think a lot of people began experimenting with some sort of a flipped approach where they created videos and then use the classroom for more interactive activities, ast least at the college level, I don’t think that’s happened quite as much at the secondary school level. But I think that has helped provide at least some professional development for faculty. But it is an adjustment that students are not adjusting to perhaps as easily as I would like, I know I always have trouble getting across to students that there is some benefit of working through problems in class and watching videos and learning some of the basic concepts outside of class. Students would rather be lectured to, there was that big study that was done at Harvard not too long ago, where students were asked about active learning classes versus lecture classes, and the research certainly showed that active learning in the classroom led to significant learning gains, but students perceived a higher learning gain from lecture classes, and that’s where I think that issue of students’ adjustment is a challenge, and until we get to see a large amount of this occurring, it’s going to be a while convincing students of this, because it’s really easy to sit there in a lecture and nod and smile and have it all make sense and it seems to fit together very logically, but then when you try to apply it, there’s a bit of a problem, and then the questions are somehow unfair. But when students are faced with problems and interactive work in class, they’re confronted by not knowing things as well as perhaps they thought they did, and it’s not as pleasant of an experience. And I think that’s the source of that metacognition, that students perceive that lectures are more effective, because it’s easy to sit there and listen in, and it all seems reasonable. But the problem is when they try to work through problems and realize they don’t quite have those connections fully there yet.

Philip: The lecture seems to make so much sense until you sit down when you get home and try to go over it again, but I do think there’s the potential for this middle ground that even in the experiment we’re looking at, we’re not entirely flipping the class, in fact, we want to work with the teacher to understand what their own preferences are, while still trying to hit this high dosage of practice, which may occur in class, but also could occur at home as well. And I think that there is something to be said by having a lecture of a new topic being done in class, in person, with the real person. It gets back to that importance of personal connection that the computer is not able to provide. And so maybe there is a sweet spot around providing real instruction, real empathy, but also enough time to be working through these problems at your own pace. My vision for the Khan project is that students say, in grade four, getting 90 minutes of math a day, maybe half an hour of that would be the teacher’s own instruction of a new topic, but then a lot of the other time would be students working on their own devices, while the teacher takes the time… instead of just sitting up at their desk… walks around and spends a lot of time looking over the student’s shoulder, using the data that they’re seeing to understand who’s struggling and where, and spends a lot of time working individually while the student is using the computer. So there’s still that interaction going on and taking advantage of the personalization. I think they too can go really well together.

Rebecca: That’s definitely something I’ve been experimenting with. I went all the way flipped before, and right now I think I’m right in the middle. There’s some flipped, there’s some demos that are live so that people can interact and ask questions, and then there’s lots of practice with individualized attention. And it does take a little time to get everyone on board, to get everyone trained to do things in a new way. So in a 15-week semester, it might take two full weeks to develop new habits and workflows for everyone, but really after we get over that two- week hurdle at the beginning of the semester, my classes tend to settle into a routine that seems really productive and that students have been pretty positive about.

Philip: A key feature of the coaching with Khan program, is that every teacher gets their own coach that we spell with a “kh,” and our coaches meet with the teacher prior to school to go over our suggested recipe to follow, but then they don’t just leave it at that, they keep working with the teachers to check in and try to troubleshoot or brainstorm or reassure and remind the teacher until things are going smoothly. But it can take longer than two weeks to figure out how things are going, and then on the student side, it can take a while for them to adapt and understand that there’s some independence on their own for wanting to do it. The hope is that the students start to gain confidence when they see their own progress, when they see that maybe they didn’t consider themselves a strong math student, but if you start them at the right spot on this roadmap, and then they proceed incrementally, and they can see that they are advancing, then they start to understand the potential benefits and internalize the desire to keep going on their own.

Rebecca: Yeah, that autonomy and that empowerment, I think, is really key to the whole puzzle. And I think something that probably tutoring historically helps students achieve is that they can do this. They might have a little extra guidance initially, but then they achieve it and can do it, and that’s really empowering.

John: That’s our hope

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

Philip: What’s next? I think I made some notes on that. [LAUGHTER] So I think the issue around tutoring and individualized learning is all about, now, scale. I don’t think we need another study to demonstrate that one-on-one instruction, or one-on-two is an effective additional tool for learning, that more should be done if it were possible. A lot of resources are now going into trying to provide individualized instruction. I think a lot of policymakers and governments are looking to tutoring as a way to address some of the learning loss that may have gone on during the pandemic, and I think, in that space, there’s some optimism by researchers and policymakers to try to understand what types of scale up are better than others in a way that we can make a meaningful difference at the aggregate level.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much. I’m really excited to hear more as your research develops and more information becomes available!

Philip: It was a pleasure to get a chance to chat with you guys. It’s a topic I’ve been spending a lot of time on and losing a bit of sleep on trying to get things to work. The experiment that we have going on, this is going on in Texas, and one of the challenges of doing a field experiment is that so many things go wrong while you’re trying to deal with real people, real students, and provide evidence that this is a good idea. And it’s always a bit frustrating to face these challenges, like just account issues, students have trouble getting on to Khan Academy and the teachers getting frustrated, and it would be a shame to have those issues that can be worked out actually create this wedge from the program going smoothly and making the difference between having these great impacts or not. So it is stressful, but I think it’s worth it to try to keep at it, and I hope to be able to do so. With funding and policy support we’ll just keep trying. I think there’s a lot of interest in it, I think that it hasn’t been difficult to motivate these ideas and wanting to do more on it. So thanks a lot for giving me the chance to share these thoughts.

John: Your work is incredibly important. And so much income inequality is associated with differences in educational attainment, that understanding these achievement gaps and what we can do to narrow them can have a really dramatic impact on society.

Philip: Fingers crossed!


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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle.


202. Returning to the classroom

As we move into the fall semester, most institutions had planned on return to primarily face-to-face classroom instruction. However, the growth of the delta variant has cast some doubt on that and it’s likely that we’re going to be seeing some disruptions as infections spread on our campuses. In this episode, we discuss some things that faculty may want to keep in mind as we move into the fall semester.


  • Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2020). “Structured for Inclusion.Tea for Teaching podcast. September 16.
  • Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2019). Want to reach all of your students? Here’s how to make your teaching more inclusive. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2017). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work?. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453-468.
  • Hogan, K.A. and Sathy, V. (forthcoming, 2022). Embracing Diversity: A Guide to Teaching Inclusively. WVU Press.
  • Hogan, Kelly A, and Sathy, Viji (2020). “Optimizing Student Learning and Inclusion in Quantitative Courses.” in Rodgers, Joseph Lee, ed. (2020). Teaching Statistics and Quantitative Methods in the 21st Century. Routledge.
  • Panter, A.T.,; Sathy, Viji; and Hogan, Kelly A (2020). “8 Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching.” Chronicle of Higher Education. April 7.


John: As we move into the fall semester, most institutions had planned on a return to primarily face-to-face classroom instruction. However, the growth of the Delta variant has cast some doubt on that and it’s likely that we’re going to be seeing some disruptions as infections spread on our campuses. We may have students going into quarantine, we may have temporary closures, and faculty themselves may end up in quarantine because of their own or family exposure to COVID. So we thought it would be helpful if we talked a little bit about some things that faculty may want to keep in mind as we move into the fall semester.


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.


Rebecca: One of the things that I think many faculty were looking forward to over the summer was maybe a fall that looked a lot more like the ways that they had teached previously, unmasked, perhaps because of vaccination mandates. And there’s still a lot of uncertainty on many campuses around that and vaccination rates of students. So many faculty are finding themselves in situations where they’re going to be masked and their students are masked as well. Although we had some faculty certainly teach that way in the spring, it’s new to many faculty across the country. And so we thought today, we could do some tips about things to think about in the classroom or other face-to-face situations where masks are involved. Our teas today are…John, what are you drinking?

John: Ginger peach green tea. And Rebecca?

Rebecca: I have a decaf Irish breakfast today. And why is it decaf? Because I ran out of the caffeinated tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: I know in office where there is a lot of tea, although I did throw some of the older tea out that had been sitting there for a while. Because our campus has moved at least mostly back to face-to-face instruction. We just had an academic affairs retreat with quite a few faculty present in person, but also quite a few faculty present remotely. And I suspect we’ll be seeing many such events as we move through the fall semester. So you mentioned the issue of masks. And for those of us who set out last year because of health conditions or other concerns. We were not used to teaching with mass. So maybe we could talk a little bit about something that faculty who are teaching with masks for the first time should take into account.

Rebecca: I know that John and I have recently done some campus events. And the first thing I noticed being masked all day was that I couldn’t breathe. I ran out of air, you might get more winded than you’re used to, which might slow you down. But you want to think about how to pace yourself and maybe even making sure you have water. And then it’s also awkward to take your mask off and get a drink of water. So you may want to think about that maybe even practice ahead of time so that you don’t feel like an idiot, trying to figure out how to get a drink.

John: I had to give a really short presentation to our new faculty in person. And I very quickly ran out of breath because I was in a room where it was a very big room and there were no microphones, which was probably not ideal. Which brings us to one of the first things we’d recommend, which is that in the classroom, you should use a microphone. That’s always a good idea because there may be distractions and having clear audio would always be helpful, but it’s especially important if your voice is going to be muffled behind a mask.

Rebecca: And we may think typically of this being something only for a big lecture hall. But I would argue that even in smaller classrooms, it could be incredibly helpful. Another thing to consider too is students in the class not only need to be able to hear you but each other. So if there’s not a microphone to pass around to students, for example, then you want to make sure that you’re repeating questions or comments that students are making so that everyone has the benefit of conversation. This can also be true if you happen to have students who are Zooming in because they’re in quarantine or something else to make sure that they can hear what’s going on in the class as well.

John: Because it’s going to be harder for everyone to hear each other you should be prepared to speak a little more slowly than you might normally to make it easier for students. And also you may want to minimize the amount of time you spend talking in class. If you have not already cut back on lecturing, this would probably be a great time to replace a lecture-based class with the use of more active learning activities where there’s more small local discussions taking place, rather than one person having a voice at trying to fill the whole classroom.

Rebecca: I think those more intimate settings can be helpful to deal with volume and things, you may need more space between groups because they may actually be louder than you’re accustomed to, because of the masks and people needing to try to speak up. So you might want to plan with that and be flexible and ready to adjust. And making sure you’re supplementing with videos and other things for clarifications. You’re noticing a lot of issues that are arising, you know, just-in-time teaching techniques, maybe those need to be a little bit of video follow up too, just to make sure that everyone got that information. You may also want to think about using slides or other digital materials to supplement what’s happening in the classroom to reinforce terms, concepts, ideas, etc., just to make sure that everyone can get that information, especially if anyone’s having trouble hearing.

John: And in general, the use of videos is something that many of us have been recommending anyway, because students can listen to them at their own pace. When you record them, you’re recording them typically at a computer without a mask on, so your voice will be much clearer. And it will make it much easier for students to understand what you’re trying to say. And they can listen to it at their own pace and as often as they need to. So there’s a lot of good reasons to do that, in general. And once you’ve created them, many of them can be used multiple times in multiple years. So if you haven’t done it, that can be helpful.

Rebecca: What we hope that you’re hearing is this idea of multimodal ways of engagement. We mentioned having slides or text-based materials, video materials and activities that might all address some of the same concepts and ideas so that there’s many ways that students can dip in and engage with the material and the content of the class.

John: And when you have students engage in activities in the classroom, don’t just give them instructions early, provide the instructions in writing with a shared document, perhaps a Google Drive document, or put them up on a slide on the screen, if that works better in your environment. But because students may have trouble understanding instructions because of the mask and your muffled voice, giving them other ways to see the instructions and refer back to them is going to reduce uncertainty. And it tends to be a very effective tool in any case, as Viji Sathi and Kelly Hogan have noted, giving students more structure tends to be really effective in reducing achievement gaps for students as well.

Rebecca: This is a really great time to mention the use of polling, as well, to collect information from students. Usually when we’re doing polls, you might present something both in text and orally, so there’s a couple of different ways to get that information. But one of the things you could poll on is how well students are able to hear and the general happenings in the class and what people need. So I would highly encourage doing some polling around those kinds of needs early on in the semester, because we’re all learning and adapting and trying to figure it out together. And the more you can collaboratively do that with students to meet the needs that they’re identifying, the better.

John: With polling, you’ve got a variety of questions you can use. But you can also use things like Jamboard and other whiteboard activities, or even Google Forms where students are submitting things in text rather than verbally. The more communications that take place in a nonverbal format, the more clear that communications will tend to be while we still have mass requirements in effect.

Rebecca: So you’ll notice these digital things that you started adopting, maybe when you were teaching online, can still have a really important place in a physical classroom, we can have those small group conversations and really enjoy the presence of other humans, but also supplement with some of this technology that can help fill in some gaps that we might still have. One of those gaps that we might have is the expressions we’re used to seeing. Even if you were using Zoom, for example, you got to see at least some expressions from students who might have had cameras on, but things can be lost in translation behind a mask, facial expressions might be hidden. So you may need to feel like you’re overexplaining. If you have a lot of emotion embedded in what you’re saying, you might need to actually say what that emotion is: “I’m really excited about this,” or, “I’m really happy to see this.” Rather than just expecting students to hear that change and inflection in your voice because it may be a lot harder to detect than it would be otherwise. One of the things that we mentioned at the top of this episode is really thinking about the many different circumstances that can arise and being prepared this semester. That means backup plans and probably backup plans for your backup plans. We can’t be too prepared. So some things that I know that I faced as a faculty member is, I have a daughter who’s four who’s been quarantined three times from daycare because of exposure to COVID-19. So you may be exposed, your family members might be exposed, so you may not be able to be in person. But the same thing can be true of your students and your students’ families, they might have kids too. So there’s a big complex web of people that may be not able to be or may not be able to participate in person and figuring out a way to make things go on or continue in their absence or in your absence is important. So maybe that means switching to Zoom. If you have to go into quarantine, maybe that means recording your classes and providing that to students who are out. It could be a lot of different things. How will I accommodate this circumstance? is a key question to ask without getting too overwhelmed with trying to do too many things.

John: I already had a situation where I’m teaching a relatively small intro class this time, I only have 189 students in person. And I already received an email from one of those students saying that they will be in quarantine for the first week or so of the term. It’s an international student who just arrived and has to go into quarantine for two weeks before they’re allowed to participate in classes. So you should expect that there’s a good chance that some of your students, even in small classes like mine, might end up having to go into quarantine. And you do want to provide ways for those students to be successful in the class. So I will be live streaming my class in Zoom for those who can’t participate in person.

Rebecca: And like John is mentioning, you probably won’t have a big heads up. Things are going to happen rapidly, and we need to be able to respond rapidly. So think about what works for you and your workflow and the kind of classes you teach. Maybe that means live streaming with Zoom. But if that’s not going to work for you, for whatever reason, then maybe that means recording a class session, or providing an asynchronous equivalent that you’ve developed in previous semesters that can just be made available to students if they need to be out, for example.

John: And we should remember that the last year has been extremely difficult for everybody and some people have been much more heavily affected. And we will be dealing with lots of cases of trauma for both faculty and for students. And we should be prepared for that by, at the very least, having mental health resources available to share with your students could be really helpful. And I suspect many faculty may benefit from that as well.

Rebecca: I think one of the key things is demonstrating care. We talked a lot about this on the podcast over the past year, demonstrating care, caring for students, what does it mean to be in a community of care and acknowledging that the people in your classes, including yourself, are humans who have emotions, can be really helpful. And affirming that people may be experiencing all kinds of trauma from a wide variety of things, not just COVID-19 related, but they might have family members in Afghanistan, they may be a student of color, they may be a student who survived sexual assault, there’s a wide variety of things. And people have been faced or traumatized by that we need to just be aware of and sensitive to. And doing those occasional check ins with students over the course of the semester just saying like, “Hey, how’s it going? Remember, these resources are available,” can go a long way. I remember that last semester, I had students say that no one else had asked them. And it’s not, I think, because our faculty don’t care, because I actually think we have a really deeply caring faculty. So just making sure you’re actually asking the question and making a little space for that is really important.

John: And also consider being more flexible, if possible, with some of your assignments, perhaps not being as rigid with deadlines as you might normally be. Because when students are dealing with issues that may involve life and death of family members, or with family members losing jobs because of economic disruptions, just being more flexible, in general, can be helpful.

Rebecca: Some of that flexibility comes in just providing some grace, like low stakes assignments, or the ability to drop low quiz grades, the ability to make mistakes and learn from it. These are things that aren’t just COVID related or kind of a transitioning back to the classroom related these are really good practices, so that students can develop a growth mindset and really improve over time and we give them the space to improve and the space to learn from mistakes, the space to have life happen, and just let it go and move on.

John: There are so many sources of trauma, we don’t need to make our classes an additional source for our students. We want to provide an environment that’s supportive and nurturing so that students can be successful in our classes. Many faculty have traditionally been very rigid about their deadlines and about the course requirements. But now is an especially good time to reconsider some of those policies.

Rebecca: Along those same lines, we want to be making sure that our students have access in all kinds of ways. So digital materials should meet digital accessibility standards. But we also want to think about cost of books, equipment, etc. and making sure that students have access to what they need no matter where they are. So keeping equipment needs down, software down, book costs down so that students can have access using OERs are all things that we can be thinking about. Digital resources might be particularly helpful at this time, especially if students have to rapidly move into quarantine, it might give them more possibility to have access to things.

John: We’re talking about the need perhaps to keep costs as low as possible in the context of COVID. But in general, we’re seeing a much more diverse mix of students entering our colleges with a much larger proportion of first generation students than at any time before, and many of those students are coming from very low-income households. And in general, I think we need to focus more heavily on the needs of those students, because students who come in with fewer resources tend to be much less successful. And we want to increase the chances of success by keeping costs as low as possible.

Rebecca: As we’re thinking about these same students, many of them are working at part time or even full time or have families that they’re caring for. So doing things like continuing to offer office hours virtually through Zoom or other techniques can be really helpful in meeting students at times that would have been more inconvenient for you, but now are more convenient if you can Zoom in quickly, because you don’t have to be in your office. The same is true for students. So maybe consider continuing that option if it was something that you were offering before in order to accommodate students more.

John: And we’re also in a somewhat unique circumstance this time in that many students have not been in a classroom regularly for over a year. That varies geographically quite a bit but many students have been taking classes from home and the quality of that instruction has varied dramatically across school districts and across households. Given the way we fund schools, primarily through local school property taxes, wealthy school districts have lots of resources for professional development for their teachers. And the students tend to have much better internet connections and have more resources to allow them to be successful in school remotely. In low-income school districts, though, students will often have very poor internet connections, they’ll be using shared devices. And in general, the quality of instruction in those schools and the preparation of the teachers is often quite a bit less. And it’s very likely that we’re going to see a much greater variability in the prior learning of students entering our colleges.

Rebecca: And part of that was our own as a teaching universe],like either higher ed or K12, shifting to modalities that many of us were unfamiliar with. The quality of instruction may just not have been as good and certainly not any of our intentions as instructors. But there’s a learning curve. And some of us took some time to figure out how to do things. And we’re still learning, we’re still trying to get it right. And so students may really need additional structure, more structure than you’re used to providing to help guide them through the materials, to guide them through the semester, to guide them through in person experiences, because they haven’t really interacted with peers that they don’t know, in quite a long time. So the more we can provide guidance, structure, specific roles, even saying, “Hey, we’re going to get into small groups, the first thing you want to do is introduce yourself to one another.” We might need to provide those little extra prompts just to make sure that everyone has equal footing when they start an activity.

John: We’ve mentioned this a little bit before but providing more support or resources, providing videos, practice tests, online tutorials, links to YouTube videos. In almost any discipline, you’ll find someone out there has created some resources that could be helpful for your students. Finding and sharing those with students can take a little bit of time, but it can yield some really dramatic benefits for students who are coming in with very diverse backgrounds.

Rebecca: You can also encourage students to share those materials with each other by providing a platform to do that, you can use discussion boards in your learning management system, you could use tools like Slack or chat capabilities. There’s many ways that we could do this. But the workload doesn’t need to be all on you because there are students who are going to find and be willing to share materials as well.

John: And it’s also really important that we give students early and frequent feedback so that they don’t get to a high-stakes exam and discover that they weren’t quite as ready as they thought they would be. Giving students a chance to practice, to try things, and to see how they’re doing when there’s time to improve can be really useful. So give students feedback as quickly as you can and as often as you can.

Rebecca: And for some of us, that might really mean putting some time in your calendar the first couple of weeks of school to make sure that you grade some things and actually putting it in like it’s an appointment, to make sure it gets done so that students are getting what they need.

John: And you can also, though in a learning management system, create some self-graded quizzes. So it doesn’t have to be something that requires more grading work, but it gives students that immediate feedback. Giving personalized feedback would generally be better, but in larger classes using some automated self-grading quizzes can at least help with that process.

Rebecca: One of the things that I had been thinking about over the summer is how many students that I had that were transfer students or first-year students who never actually stepped foot on campus yet. So we have sophomores and juniors and seniors who may really be unfamiliar with the campus but are physically there. So one of the things that we want to do is think about orienting our students to physical resources that are available. Like, where is the health center? Where are the computer labs? Where are there really nice spaces to sit outside where you have an internet connection? Right? Where are some nice places to socialize? All of these things we might just expect students to know. But in many cases, students have been away or remote for periods of time and they really need to be oriented to these spaces. So I know that I had brainstormed ideas of things that we could do in class that might actually take us to some of those physical spaces, either outside of class or during class. And so I’d encourage you all to think about ways to incorporate some of the physicality of in-person experiences if you’re teaching in person. One of the things that I’ve been really excited about, having taught synchronously online over the past semester, are some of these really great collaborative virtual tools that allow for all kinds of participation. I’m sure you’ve heard me mention things about virtual whiteboards, I think I’m a fanatic or something now. I should be, like, an advertisement for all of them. But I really enjoy the ability to collaborate with students, have them provide their opinions, get their questions, get their brainstorms, whatever it might be that we’re doing in class through sticky notes or whiteboard activities, which can be set up to be anonymous, or with names attached, depending on what platform you’re using. And there are some real benefits to having some opportunities for some anonymous participation so that you can get a real pulse on what’s going on in the class without people being concerned about being judged or being afraid to speak up.

John: In general, students who are first-generation students often don’t have the same level of confidence in their success. They haven’t seen as many of their peers going to college and being successful. And the more we can do to help students build confidence that they belong there, and simply telling them that “You belong here,” could be a good starting point. But working towards building a growth mindset, let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes, we want to make sure that they don’t see struggle as being a sign of failure. To make sure that they understand and to reinforce that struggling to learn things is an essential part of learning.

Rebecca: And I think along those same lines, I know, I see this a lot with students, is that they’re afraid to ask for help. Because asking for help is a sign of failure or a sign of weakness or lack of expertise. So making it comfortable and having them have the ability to ask for help and get help is really important and encouraging that early is incredibly important for student success. So if someone’s really struggling with an early concept in that class where the concepts build on one another, and they don’t understand a really foundational idea early on in the semester, and they don’t get the help they need early on, then they’re not going to do any better over the course of the semester. So we need to find ways to welcome those kinds of questions and make it safe to ask those questions and also to get the extra help that some students might actually need.

John: And also to help students feel more comfortable using more small group discussions more think-pair-share type of activities that do not put the same implicit pressure on students to take a stand in front of the whole class, and that anonymous participation that you mentioned, can also be helpful through polls or virtual whiteboards to help students become a little bit more confident and be willing to share their voices more frequently.

Rebecca: I know one tip that I’ve taken away from Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan is the idea of when you’re doing small group work, having an assigned reporter to just speak on behalf of the group. And so it’s not an individual’s response but it’s the response on behalf of the group. So there’s not so much pressure to be right, because it’s reflective of a collaborative effort and that allows more voices to be heard. And maybe opportunities for others to speak out that might not normally be comfortable speaking out, or seen as experts, or seen as people who are able to speak out or allowed to speak out.

John: So we’d like to wish you all a happy and successful semester and we hope everything goes smoothly but we also hope that you’re prepared for times that may not go as smoothly as you’d like.

Rebecca: I know one thing that I’m wishing for everyone is the collegiality that I’ve seen across our institution and across institutions of sharing resources supporting one another. And I hope that we’ll keep up this spirit collectively to improve the student experience for all students moving forward.


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.


201. Beyond Trigger Warnings

Many of us have been told to provide trigger warnings to protect students who have been harassed, sexually assaulted, or abused. In this episode, Nicole Bedera joins us to discuss a survivor-centered approach that includes and supports rather than excludes those who have been traumatized. Nicole is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality with an emphasis on college sexual violence.



John: Many of us have been told to provide trigger warnings to protect students who have been harassed, sexually assaulted, or abused. In this episode, we’ll discuss a survivor-centered approach that includes and supports rather than excludes those who have been traumatized.


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.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Nicole Bedera. Nicole is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality with an emphasis on college sexual violence. Welcome, Nicole.

Nicole: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

John: We’re really happy to have you here. Our teas today are…

Nicole: I’m not drinking tea. I just have water.

Rebecca: Right, being hydrated is good.

Nicole: Yeah, boring but useful, right?

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely. Speaking of boring, I have English afternoon.

John: Well, we’re back to a new normal, at least. [LAUGHTER] ??Normal. In this way, at least everything else may be different, but that’s still the same. And I have T forte blackcurrant tea today.

Rebecca: Ah, an old favorite.

John: It is. It’s a wonderful tea.

Rebecca: We invited you here today to discuss “Beyond Trigger Warnings: A Survivor-Centered Approach to Teaching on Sexual Violence and Avoiding Institutional Betrayal,“ an article you published in Teaching Sociology. In this article, you voiced concerns about the use of trigger warnings. Could you describe these concerns to our listeners?

Nicole: Yes. So my critique of trigger warnings is pretty different from the one that you hear most of the time because it’s very survivor focused. So instead of saying things like we often hear, “Well, trigger warnings are making people weak. If you’re strong enough or tough enough, the world is hard and we shouldn’t be sheltering our students so much.” If anything, I’m probably pro sheltering them a little bit more. A very different way, a very different way. My biggest concern about trigger warnings is they treat survivors like they’re the problem in a classroom. And the biggest problem about that is that it actually undermines the very spirit of Title IX. So what Title IX is about, it doesn’t actually say anything about sexual assault, it’s an issue of gender equity, it’s a sentence long, and the law says that regardless of sex, you should be able to have an equal education. And the reason that sexual assault and harassment comes into it is because it so commonly impacts women specifically, that was what they were arguing at the time. Now we know more, that it also affects a lot of trans, gender nonbinary folks, basically people who are not cisgender men are disadvantaged in their educations, because trauma makes it more difficult to interact. So trauma does things, like it affects the way that you form memories. And that’s why we see on college campuses that it’s so important for survivors to have access to stuff like academic accommodations, to be able to take that midterm a little later, because they actually just might need more time to study because of how trauma brain works. So the whole point of the way that we enact Title IX on college campuses is to make sure that having a history of trauma doesn’t get in the way of your ability to get good grades to get into graduate school, whatever else might be happening, to just pay attention to materials that are important to know. When we use trigger warnings in conversations about sexual assault, the way that usually happens is we tell survivors, “Hey, we’re going to be talking about sexual assault today, if that makes you uncomfortable, you are welcome to leave, you don’t have to come to class today.” Which means we’re asking them to forfeit their education for the comfort of all the other students in class. And so the centerpiece of this argument, that I’m making, is just we shouldn’t do that anymore. It doesn’t make any sense to tell survivors, “Hey, this issue that really affects you, and it’s really important, we don’t think you should be part of the conversation.” That’s not fair from an educational standpoint, or just an equity standpoint.

Rebecca: So what are some of the strategies we can use to include survivors and make them a central part of the conversation and dialogues that are happening in class rather than skirting them or brushing them away?

Nicole: Well, one of the most important things to recognize is that a lot of the things that make survivors upset in our classrooms have nothing to do with triggers. They’re better described as something called institutional betrayal. Institutional betrayal is when you go to someone who works for an institution for help. And instead of helping you they hurt you more. So often these things that are so upsetting for survivors are actually new traumas caused by their professors or other students in class. So when we’re talking about what to do to make survivors more comfortable, rather than saying, “Hey, leave the room, because I’m going to say things that upset you,” we could just stop saying things that will be upsetting, and instead take an approach to talking about sexual violence that is more inclusive of what survivors need to know, where we’re not saying things like, for example, rape myths, or other damaging stereotypes about sexual assault. And I’m a social scientist, I’m a sociologist, and a lot of this stuff just means telling the truth about sexual assault instead of propagating myths and lies that are throughout our society about sexual violence. And so for instructors, step one is knowing your stuff, is knowing what’s really true in these cases,

John: What specific things should instructors know to be prepared to address such issues?

Nicole: Oh, one of the things that a lot of instructors don’t seem to know, and I don’t even get into this in the article, so people listening to the podcast are really getting something special here. But, one of the things that instructors don’t seem to know is that false allegations are pretty rare. And so something that I’ve seen repeatedly happening in classrooms that can be really harmful is for example, setting up a debate where one person is going to take a pro-victim side and another person is going to take a pro-accused side. And these debates often turn into people saying, “But, I was falsely accused, or, “What if I was falsely accused? Don’t I deserve more protections? Don’t I deserve to be…” I don’t know, whatever it is that people are saying the accused students deserve in these cases. And that can be really traumatizing for survivors, because they’re not lying, false allegations are not common. And the entire classroom is being taught that you shouldn’t believe survivors when they come forward, that you should question them. And that instead of saying, our ideal response to sexual assault would be when a survivor comes forward and says, “Hey, something isn’t working for me in this classroom, something isn’t working for me on campus, I can’t sleep in my dorm because my perpetrator lives down the hall,” whatever it is, instead of everybody saying, “Hmm, but what if that’s a lie?” it would be better to just say, “Do you need to move dorms? Do you need help in your classes?” And so when survivors have to sit through things like the damaging myth of false allegations that’s going to inherently be harmful, especially coming from professors. Because professors are supposed to be the ones that are holding knowledge and sharing knowledge with other groups, we’re in quite a position of power in our classrooms, we’re often the one standing in front of maybe hundreds of students at a large university, telling them what the truth is. And so the ripple effect is not only on that victim, who’s saying, “Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that maybe a lot of people lie. And maybe I should feel guilty or ashamed and I shouldn’t tell people and they’re right to question me.” That’s something a survivor might feel. But also all of the other students in class are thinking, like, wow, victims lie, or these people call themselves victims lie, maybe I should be more suspicious. So it has a really big ripple effect across society. And this is something that I think is really central to college sexual assault in particular, because it’s not just that what happens in our classroom stays in our classrooms. We’re teaching young people, and sometimes not so young people, what to expect in the workplace, what is normal, and we can sort of see that ripple effect across society.

John: So the focus should be on providing support for the victims, and listening to them, and trying to make them more comfortable in the classroom.

Nicole: Yeah, that’s exactly it. And there are a lot of things that you can do to make survivors feel more comfortable. The first recommendation in the article is just, know your stuff. Stop telling lies about sexual violence in your classroom, it’s a really straightforward one. But survivors also have some other needs that can make them feel more comfortable when talking about difficult topics. And so things like letting everyone know in advance that it’s okay to have an emotional response to the material, and that people who are not survivors may also have an emotional response to the material. That can make survivors feel a lot more comfortable staying in the classroom. Because if you don’t set something like that up, survivors are going to feel like, if I cry, or if I get upset, everyone’s going to know that I’m a victim. And I don’t want everyone to know, I’m a victim. So maybe I should skip class today to keep that secret, especially if, say, the perpetrator is in their friend group, the perpetrator is in the class, which happens as much as we don’t like to think about. It’s better if they can just say, “You know what, it’s okay, if I’m emotional, and I can just fit in. And it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.” That can also help too, I mean, other students who aren’t survivors do feel uncomfortable if they get emotional about this stuff, as well. And one of the ways that they can sometimes, unintentionally, create a kind of difficult dynamic in the classroom is by them wanting to process their feelings as being, “Oh, it’s so hard for me, my friend was sexually assaulted.” And people who don’t have those experiences are often a lot more open with those stories than people who are victims themselves. And so they might, for example, tell the story of another student sitting in class and tell their story of sexual assault that maybe that student didn’t want to hear. And so when instead of saying, “All right, we’re not going to address the emotional component, we’re not going to set standards around how people feel in this classroom, anything can happen,” as opposed to saying, “It’s okay if you get upset, and we can talk about some of the things that made you upset. Also, while we’re on it, let’s be really cautious about not sharing people’s personal stories, because we want to make sure everybody gets to choose whether or not we know their stories and whether or not we talk about them as an educational exercise.” So things like that can just be really helpful, really, really helpful.

John: In the article, you also noted that just talking about the issue is not always a trigger, that there are many things that could serve as triggers, you mentioned, it could be the smell of certain gum that the perpetrator had been chewing or a song that was playing at the time of the attack. So it sounds as if triggers could happen at any time and we should be prepared for that possibility.

Nicole: Right. A lot of the way we talk about triggers is, again, using this pretty conservative logic that victims are so sensitive and so fragile. And so if you even mention sexual assault around them, they can’t handle it. So first of all, that’s not true. Lots of victims talk a lot about sexual assault, there’s a reason that therapy, for example, is healing instead of necessarily hurtful. If just the mention of sexual assault, the reminder it exists was hurtful, therapy would not be helpful, right? But on the other hand, there are lots of things that trigger a traumatic response that have nothing to do with sexual assault. And some of them are really unpredictable. I trained as a victim advocate and worked as a victim advocate before I came to graduate school. And in my training, one of the things that they told us was about the story of a survivor who thought she was making a lot of progress and healing from her trauma but then had this setback and she couldn’t identify why she was so upset all the time. And the reason was really simple: something had changed in her life. I don’t remember if she’d gotten a new apartment or a new job, what it was doesn’t matter. But she now had to walk by a KFC every day. And she’d been sexually assaulted behind a KFC. And so that smell of fried chicken was triggering a panicked response in her. And ironically enough, the rape crisis center I worked at was also next to a KFC. So coming into her sessions, she was also getting triggered. And that’s something that nobody ever could have guessed. So when choosing where the rape crisis center should be, they probably weren’t thinking, oh, but what if KFC moves in next door that can be triggering for victims, right? It’s not something you think about. And so instructors really should be prepared for if a survivor gets triggered in the classroom, if they get really upset, you don’t need to know why, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to make a huge adjustment. If it’s something that random, right, if it’s not your fault, if it’s something totally random, then that makes sense. But you do need to have ways to help survivors know what to do in that situation to say, “Hey, you know, if you do need to step out for a minute, that’s okay, you don’t owe me any information, you don’t have to apologize, you don’t have to explain your behavior if you are in a place where you are reliving your trauma, and you cannot pay attention, but it is fine to step away for a moment. And you can also rejoin class five minutes later, if you feel better,” which I think is something a lot of survivors don’t hear enough from their professors. They hear a lot of how to leave but not how to come back, or they worry that it’s too disruptive to come back. I want to add, too, that some of these triggers are a little bit more predictable. So for example, if the perpetrator is in the classroom, and the perpetrator is engaging in ways that are scary, or they’re even maybe whispering while the victim is trying to make a comment in class. That isn’t posing a direct threat in the moment, but it’s going to be a trigger of the assault. Or if the perpetrator’s friends are present or anything that’s going to be a constant reminder of the assault. And these are things that, again, to the instructor look totally random. Because you have no idea what the relationship is between your students, you have no idea why one student is uncomfortable or afraid in the presence of another. And so we do have to think about triggers. Instead of trying to say we’re going to control it and make sure they never happen in our classroom saying okay, we actually do need to know what to do when they happen to make sure that victims can still continue to learn in this classroom space.

Rebecca: In your article, you talk a lot about ways to set the tone at the beginning of class and in the syllabus. Can you talk a little bit about how to set that tone for the class so that students do know what to do if they are triggered, if there’s something that they want to reveal to you, ways that we can continue to support them and know that we’ll support them throughout the semester?

Nicole: Yeah, I have a couple of different things that I do at the beginning of the semester, depending on what the class is. I am a sexual violence researcher. I teach classes that are just on sexual violence every day, we talk about sexual violence in class. So in a class like that, I set the tone in a pretty different way, in a pretty intentional way where we start from the very beginning. I have them read a chapter about how difficult it is to do sexual violence research and hear these stories all the time. And it’s their first day’s homework, just in case they don’t have time to read it, I set aside some time in class to at least skim it and to talk through, not so much this is going to be a terrible experience, even though the chapter is a little hard to read, but just say: What makes you anxious? What are you nervous about? Let’s talk about it from the very beginning of the term. And then that turns into a class of, “Okay, so what do you need? When you feel those things, you’re afraid that you’re going to get overwhelmingly emotional in class, what would make you feel like you could stay in the classroom? What can we do as a community to make you feel comfortable?” Because if you don’t have a conversation, most people when someone starts crying next to them just feel awkward, especially if they don’t know them that well. And I will say that one of the things that happens in my classes, the students tend to get to know each other a lot better than they do in other classes, because these are really vulnerable conversations. And that can be nice for even just basic things like working on group projects, or studying for exams, so it’s kind of an unintended and positive consequence of this kind of conversation. We also watch a video where we talk about the importance of vulnerability and how to be able to address these feelings. We need to talk about vulnerability, it’s a Brené Brown video, many of the listeners have probably already seen it, it’s gone very, very viral very, very many times. But after that we talk about this idea of communal vulnerability. So instead of saying, “Okay, like, I need to think about what I do for myself,” which is something that I think we all tend to do when we think about some things can be overwhelming, we think about, okay, what about when it’s hard for me? And I try to turn the conversation to say, “What about when it’s hard for the person next to you?” So what do you need and what can you give? And that’s the conversation on day one in the classes where we’re talking about violence all the time. In classes like, intro to sociology, where we’re talking about sexual assault maybe one week out of the term, I still, on the first day of class, I don’t necessarily talk about sexual assault very much I do point it out on the syllabus to let people know, “Hey, there’s some stuff coming up in the class.” But I don’t just bring that up in sexual violence. We talk about a lot of different kinds of violence in my classes in general. So I’ll have the same conversation about something like police brutality to be like, “Hey, heads up, it’s coming.” And then, knowing that these tough topics are coming up, I will ask students, “All right, this stuff can be pretty controversial,” which is sort of a weird way of putting it, but, “this stuff can be controversial or hurtful or personal. And so what do you want to happen when conflict arises?” And I use that question to open the same conversation about, what do we do when we need someone to step in, because something bad happens? That’s really what it’s code for. And so even though we’re not explicitly talking about violence on the first day, which I try to avoid a little bit, because the students weren’t prepared, they didn’t know that was going to happen. So that can be pretty shocking. Instead, we still get to flesh out some of those norms around, what do we do if someone gets upset? When do you want me to intervene, as an instructor and say, “All right, actually, that wasn’t okay. And we’re not going to tolerate that kind of statement, or whatever it is in the classroom.” And yeah, it’s worked pretty well. Even distance learning, during the pandemic, I was surprised by how well it worked in some of my classes.

Rebecca: One of the questions that I think often comes up where we’re talking about any sorts of inclusive pedagogy or trauma informed pedagogy are kind of two things. One is, I don’t teach a class where these are topics. So how do I set the stage in a class like that? And then the other thing that comes up is, I’m not a counselor. So how am I supposed to deal with this? So can you address those two common concerns that people have?

Nicole: Yeah, so one thing we know about sexual violence and trauma is it doesn’t turn off just because you’re in math class, like, it doesn’t just go away. And so regardless of what topic you’re teaching, a lot of professors are going to hear this stuff. And a lot of the stuff that I cover in the article about things like students coming to you and telling you they’re a survivor in office hours. That happens, especially to women faculty, regardless of discipline, and so you do need to still be prepared for it. And that’s going to be the same case for like graduate student instructors, they come to you, they find you more comfortable than their professors a lot of the time. And so some things that you can do is just include some syllabus statements that have resources covered. A lot of schools do require a syllabus statement already talking about what Title IX is and your Title IX rights. And I remember being a student when this stuff was introduced on college campuses. The first year it was in my alma mater’s syllabus statement requirement, I was in my senior year. And so many of the professors complained about it, or they dismissed it and they said, “We’re not going to cover this because it’s not important to the class.” And for a survivor sitting there, that sends a pretty clear message that they can’t come to you when they need help, that you don’t know what to do, that maybe what happened to them isn’t important. And so one thing you can do is just actually talk about the syllabus statements. And you know, you don’t have to like them, either, I’ll say that. And I’m going to say specifically, you don’t have to like them and think that they’re sufficient. I don’t. And so when I talk to students about them, I actually explicitly say, “So this statement is here. And I’m not going to read it, because I don’t think that it covers everything that you need to know. But I’ve included these other resources that I think are important. So we’re going to talk about when you need this stuff, if anyone in this class needs the stuff, here’s what’s in the syllabus. And do you have any questions?” And that’s something I ask a lot. Has anybody ever actually read the Title IX statement? And if they did, do you know what Title IX is? Do you know what the office offers? Do you know where the victim advocacy office is? So anybody, regardless of discipline, can have that conversation on the first day. The other thing you can do, again, you don’t have to couch all of this in discussing sexual violence, like you can just do this to be a compassionate instructor, but to tell students how you can handle whatever concerns might come up. Whether it’s something like a family member getting sick, or you needing to be hospitalized for a period of time, or, yeah, sexual assault to set a standard of this is how you can come to me with these questions, this is how you can talk to me if you need something, if there’s a problem. And to set some expectations around, you don’t have to tell me what happened to you. This is just how you can get help if you need it. You don’t owe me your traumatic story to get help. And so that’s one thing I would recommend, as well as just being aware that if you’re seeing a dynamic between students that seems disruptive or uncomfortable, being prepared to check in, say, “Hey, what’s going on,” and knowing that, for example, if you have a victim and perpetrator in the same class, the perpetrator is going to lie to you. And they’re going to make it sound like the victim is the one who has the problem. So being prepared to sort of parse out some of those difficulties, which might mean bringing in someone more qualified than you. Which brings me to the second half of your question: If I’m not a counselor, I don’t want to talk about this stuff. So what do I do? I actually think that’s perfectly fine. I think it’s perfectly fine when a student comes to you, and they’re looking for help to say, “Hey, I support you. And I want you to get everything you need. And also the things that you’re asking for do require the help of someone who knows what they’re doing. And that’s not me.” And there’s absolutely nothing wrong in saying, “I will help you find the resources available on campus.” And this is a conversation that I just don’t think you should have to have with a professor. And a lot of the victims, so in my research, I interview victims about their experiences seeking help on campus. And one of the things they bring up the most is they’re just really, really nervous that their professors will think differently of them and they’re nervous they’re going to have to tell the story of their sexual assault. A lot of them do not want to tell you, they’re telling you because they feel like they have to to get you to give them help. And so if you make really clear, I don’t need to hear the story, I do want to help you. And you can even say things like, “I’m not a counselor, but here is what I can offer.” Because it’s really dismissive, if you just say, “I’m not a counselor, I’m not helping you.” But if instead you say, “I am not a counselor, but I can connect you to a counselor, I can tell you where they are on campus, or in the community, or wherever. And also, if you need anything in my class, here’s a template, for example, for how you can email me. You can be like, hey, Professor Bedera, I really need an extension, I’m having a hard time with this assignment. And we can set up in advance how much information you need to share, or whatever it is.” So make sure when you’re saying, “I’m not a counselor, and I can’t help you with the emotional help that you need,” to make sure you offer something too.

Rebecca: One of the things that you also mentioned, Nicole, is that that labor is a little more heavy on female faculty. Can you talk a little bit about managing that labor and the emotional toll that might take on faculty and maybe what faculty members who are experiencing hearing a lot of these stories can do?

Nicole: Yeah, you need to take care of yourselves, especially because we know that a lot of faculty are survivors themselves of campus sexual assault, or perhaps are being sexually harassed right now. They have survivors coming to them for help and they are experiencing the betrayals of the institution themselves as faculty. That’s a really difficult position to be in. So it’s really important to take care of yourself. And so one of the things that’s actually came from an R&R, so thank you reviewers for pushing me to include this in the article. But one of the things that I talk about is my own sort of ritual for self care, because I share these stories all the time. I also, because I cover these issues of violence pretty explicitly, hear about lots of other types of violence my students are experiencing all the time. And it does, it takes a toll you get exhausted and just sad. It just feels heavy. And then it does start to get into your head of like, okay, so how do I come back to class and pile on? Especially in a discipline like sociology, where we’re not really known for bringing good news to our students. And so some of the things that I do, is just in general I sort of have some supports in place, I have other faculty, graduate students, friends, who I can chat with about these things. I think it’s a good idea to keep these conversations pretty power neutral. So if you’re a faculty, go to other faculty, don’t go to your graduate students, if you’re a graduate student, maybe your advisor can help you but also, you’ll probably be able to speak more openly to other graduate students. So make sure that you’re thinking about the power dynamics involved there, too. And so for me, studying sexual violence, I mostly hang out with other sexual violence researchers when talking about this kind of stuff, because it’s really easy to talk to each other. You don’t have to back up and explain something, which is another thing to think about when you’re choosing who you’re using as your support system. Maybe somebody who is a good friend doesn’t know very much about this stuff. And so you find yourself having to educate them the whole way and that’s pretty tiring. So if your support system isn’t working for you, and it’s more tiring than it is useful, find someone else. But that support is really, really helpful for me, just as a regular thing that exists. And then I also have some stuff where when I’m sort of in an emergency, when something particularly bad happened, I have my short term measures to see if it’ll fix it, which are a lot of traditional self care, kind of things. Like I eat mac and cheese after a bad day, just always, that goes back to my victim advocacy days. But I also do things like, dating back to my victim advocacy days, they talked about the importance of having a ritual, especially when one of the things that victim advocates will do is they’ll manage crisis lines. So if you’ve ever seen those numbers, maybe you put them on your syllabus to say, “This is who you call, if you need to talk to someone.” That’s something that I did as a victim advocate, and you’re doing that often in your home. And so just like we’re teaching in our homes, a lot of us still are right now, it can be hard to get that separation at the end of the day. So they taught us about the importance of a ritual. And it sounded so hokey to me, because the person who I was talking to said, “Oh, I wash my hands after every call to tell myself it’s over and I can relax.” Oh my God, that would not work. I’m not doing that. But then I started working in the hospitals where, yeah, I washed my hands after every time I left the hospital because of germs. And the one night that I forgot to wash my hands was the one night I couldn’t sleep, it makes such a huge difference. So my research assistants, the people I talk about this the most with and they’ve come up with a bunch of different things that they do, as just sort of that, wow, that was kind of heavy. And I need to give myself a mental break. So some of them will get a cup of tea, is actually on the list.

Rebecca: It’s a good choice.

Nicole: Yeah, exactly. It’s a good choice, or a glass of water, or take a walk around the block, or text a specific friend, or pet an animal, whatever it might be. Just something that will tell you, “Okay, this is fine.” But sometimes that won’t be enough. Sometimes these little rituals that we have these things that we do for self care will not be adequate. And so in those cases, it’s important to do the harder hitting stuff, like speaking to a therapist, maybe calling one of these crisis lines and asking for some assistance, getting some validation, and they’ll have some ideas of people who you can talk to. And then the stuff that’s really boring about self care too, like, maybe there’s just a lot on your plate right now and that’s why you don’t have time or emotional energy to think about this stuff. And so, that to-do list of things that we all don’t get through like making a doctor’s appointment, or paying your bills, or whatever, like doing some of that stuff so that you have mental space to think through those things. That stuff is really, really important. And then also just to be honest with yourself and check in with yourself. If you are a survivor, about: How do I feel about this? Am I projecting onto the student? Am I doing a good job caring for them? Or am I actually making it a little bit worse? And so that’s actually where the boundary setting becomes important again, because as much as you might want to be there for your students, if you yourself are triggered, you can’t be, you’re going to end up hurting them instead. And so instead of just forcing yourself to get through that meeting, saying, “Hey,” you don’t have to tell them why, but just, “I don’t think I’m the best person for this conversation, and I want to support you, but can I help you find someone who will be able to support you better?” And it’s so important to take care of yourself as much as you’re taking care of your students.

John: One of the things that comes up in your article is the issue of institutional betrayal. Could you talk a little bit about some of the ways in which that shows up in practice, and perhaps what faculty could do to encourage the institution to move in a better direction on these issues?

Nicole: Yeah, that’s a really good question to ask right now. Because actually, the Biden administration is making huge changes to the way Title IX and campus sexual assault are managed. So far, it’s been kind of a quiet process, there have been some survivor listening sessions, but not a whole lot else is happening, at least that the public can see. So they’re doing a lot of things behind closed doors, making conversations about what to do next. But it’s something you should keep an ear to the ground for. Because if there are things you really care about, policy is being made. And so, for example, a lot of sexual assault researchers, including myself, have signed on to petitions to try to get rid of the mandatory reporting requirement, because it doesn’t serve survivors, it hurts them. Survivors need to be in control of what happens when they tell their stories, not be forced into an investigation or talking to the police or whatever else is happening on college campuses. They need the right to choose. And so this is a really good moment to think about things like contacting your legislators, sending a little email to the Department of Education, as well as the Title IX staff at your school because a lot of them are involved in these conversations. And they have the connections to people who are really involved in these conversations. So if you care about this stuff, speak up. So that’s thing number one, to address institutional betrayal, but I mentioned at the beginning that institutional betrayals are new traumas, they are similar in severity to a sexual assault itself. So if you’re wondering how important or bad this is, it’s really bad, it’s really, really bad. Before we had the term institutional betrayal, a lot of people got at the same idea by calling it the second rape. And there they were talking specifically about the criminal justice system, and the way that it defiled survivors and institutional betrayals a little bit broader. But yeah, the idea is that a university, which is where this comes from, but really any institution’s action, or inaction, can be just as traumatizing as the assault itself. And so some of the things that come up are things, like, survivors being punished for telling their stories. So if we put this in the context of a classroom, if a survivor discloses to you, say in an essay, that they were sexually assaulted, and then you call the police, which they didn’t want, that can feel like a punishment. Or if you get awkward around them, and you don’t call on them in class anymore, you treat them like they’re super fragile, and they can’t handle anything, that’s going to feel like a punishment for disclosing. Some survivors, also, I can think of cases from my research, where if a survivor was accusing another faculty member of sexual assault, the faculty in that department would retaliate against them and treat them poorly. So that’s a form of punishment, too. And so there are a lot of things that we are doing as faculty that are hurting survivors in a new way. And so a really important thing is to think about things from the perspective of that student, think about what they need, put yourself back in the shoes of being a student. And about maybe you look at them, and you say, “Well, they’re not handling my policies right. My syllabus says that they need to contact me in this way. And the way that they ask for accommodations was wrong.” Instead of thinking that way, remember how overwhelming it is to be a college student, remember that the norms of academia are foreign to you and might be a little bit harder to learn if you were dealing with trauma at the same time, and to be gentle about it. But yeah, when I think about institutional betrayals that happened in classrooms, a lot of them really are around mandatory reporting, which is part of why I bring it up. And it’s one of the questions that I get most often is: I want to help survivors, but I’m a mandatory reporter. So what can I do aside from just report them? And in these cases, in the article I do not pull any punches here, I just say: don’t do it, defy your campus policies. Sometimes the policies are unjust, and you shouldn’t follow them just because it’s the rules. If you know that it’s hurting someone, use your better judgment. But this is also again, a really important time to think about these things that your survivor activists on campus, every campus has them, every single one across the country, including some of the more conservative religious schools, you wouldn’t expect. I went to undergrad in Utah and I’m going to tell you that BYU has survivor activists making a lot of noise on their campus, and they can tell you what they need. And so listen to them and support them, especially in these moments. It’s so weird to talk about this stuff right now, from a federal policy standpoint, because campus sexual violence is in this strange gray area where the Biden administration hasn’t completely repealed what the Trump administration did, but they’re not enforcing all of it, but they kind of are. And the Trump administration’s rules were really, really vague. And so there were a lot of things that schools could do, but they could also choose not to. So right now universities have a huge amount of latitude in how they want to handle this stuff, they don’t really have the excuse of saying, “Oh, the federal government says that we can’t do X, Y, or Z for survivors.” In most cases, they can probably give survivors exactly what they’re looking for. And so as faculty, we can really support survivor activists in doing things. One of my favorite ways that survivors can get help from faculty, is we understand the complex web of bureaucracy on college campuses. So if you have a student in your class, who is really excited about survivor advocacy, they’ve been doing activism on campus, and they just can’t seem to find the right person to direct their concerns at, you can probably identify, “Actually, it’s this person in the dean of students office that needs to hear what you’re saying,” or, “This is the email for the Title IX coordinator,” or whatever it is, really small things. But one thing we all need to be doing right now is just holding our universities accountable. Because as much as they say that they take sexual violence seriously, I think anyone who spent time on a campus for very long knows that they would really prefer to not have to deal with these cases, to not have to discuss these things, to just be able to go back to ignoring sexual violence like they did 15 years ago. And the best thing we can do is just make that hard on them and say, “No, we’re not, we’re not going to ignore survivors, we’re going to do the right thing and support them.” Especially because a lot of the survivors never would have met their assailants unless we looked the other way at fraternity parties, unless we looked the other way for whatever the football team decides to do, we’re all sort of complicit in this. And that’s why the institutional betrayals run so deep. And that’s the other thing about institutional betrayal is whether or not it’s fair, survivors don’t understand these bureaucracies. They don’t know who is responsible for these decisions. And I can’t tell you how many survivors I’ve interviewed who said that they distrusted their professors because of decisions made by Title IX, or the Dean of students office, or whatever other organization on campus. And so a lot of your students are coming to your classroom already from a place of distrust, not knowing who will take care of them and who will not. And so making really clear that if you’re going to make those promises to be there for survivors, you really do need to get up for them, even when it can be difficult. And you have to earn that trust from the very beginning.

Rebecca: One thing that we haven’t covered, but seems very important to cover is how common sexual assault is on campuses.

Nicole: It is very, very common. There are so many different types of numbers that I can throw your way. But I’m going to give you three statistics that I just think everybody should know. One, everybody on a college campus should know at least, and one of them is just the number you’ve probably heard before, which is that one in five women on college campuses will be sexually assaulted. And one in five is actually one of the more conservative estimates coming from the research world. It uses, we’re going to get a little technical, and so we’re going to go for it, it uses cross sectional data. So for anybody who’s not a social scientist, that is when researcher comes in, and they give a survey out to every student, it doesn’t matter if they’ve been on campus for four years or one week, and they ask them about their sexual assault experiences. So it would stand to reason that those students who’ve been on campus for a year or less still might be sexually assaulted if we were to follow them all the way through. In the most harrowing studies, they do follow students all the way through their sexual assault experiences all the way through college. And that captures not only students who otherwise, they would have gotten that questionnaire before they were assaulted maybe a year later, but also students who at the end might have downplayed or minimized something that happened to them because people on campus suggested they should. And so that wasn’t captured in the data either. So when we look at this type of data, when we look at asking students across all of their time in college about sexual assault, and asking them every year, we find that the number might be closer to one in three. So it’s a lot more common than even your campus sexual assault prevention trainings are probably telling you. The other number that I think is really important to know, and I guess as an addition, on to that number, we don’t have a ton of great data about the experiences of people who are not cisgender women. But we do know that sexual assault is more common among trans students. It is more common among queer women in particular. And even among cisgender men, estimates say that it’s happening pretty often not as often as the other groups, but it’s still happening pretty often. There’s some difficulties in defining it, the studies are a little messy. But yeah, it’s happening across campus. If you look across a lecture hall, a lot of students and you picture, on average, about a third of your students have been sexually assaulted while in school. This does not include childhood sexual abuse, this does not happen to them in high school before they got to college. You’re talking about a lot of survivors in your classroom. It’s not one challenging student, it’s not one difficult student. And so if you really are telling students, “Hey, if you’re a sexual assault survivor, and you can’t handle it, leave,” it’s surprising we don’t often see a third of students getting up and walking out. But the other number that I want to comment on and again, I keep bringing this up, because it’s something we don’t like to think about is the perpetration rate. And the best study that we have so far finds that 1 in 10 men on college campuses committed sexual assault before they graduate. So the perpetrators are very much in the midst as well. Everybody involved in sexual assaults will be in your classroom at one point or another. Statistically speaking, you can’t avoid it. And I’ll add one more thing too, which is that all of this research is on undergraduates, and the little bit of research we have now about graduate students finds that graduate students are the most likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted on campus.

Rebecca: With those disturbing facts in mind, what is the psychological and academic consequences of victims being triggered again and again, or being victims of institutional betrayal throughout their college education?

Nicole: Anybody who’s really interested in this question should go to Know Your IX’s website and read their new report that came out just a month ago, maybe two months ago, called “The Cost of Reporting.” And it gets into the experience of institutional betrayal specifically. And what we find is that survivors who have been betrayed in comparison to other survivors are more likely to drop out, they are more likely to have a lower GPA. I actually read a paper that if the findings, we’ll see if they’re replicated, but if they hold would suggests that a woman experiencing sexual assault is the best predictor of her college GPA. Because whether or not she experienced sexual assault, that’s a better predictor than the SAT, it’s a better predictor than high school GPA. So we know that the impact on education is really, really significant. And that’s a big part of why professors should care about it. Survivors are having a really hard time in all of our classes. I’m really glad you asked this question because everybody sort of assumes, oh, sexual assault is bad. We know rape is bad. But if you ask people why they often can’t put a finger on it. And so I’m going to do that for you. I’m going to tell you exactly why sexual assault is wrong. And so I’m going to start with the stuff you know, which is, it is psychologically distressing, survivors are more likely to have difficulties with things like sleep, they’re more likely to have anxiety, depression, PTSD symptoms, like flashbacks, uncontrollable sort of psychological reactions and distress, and they have a hard time with things like feeling comfortable with sex as well. But there are also a lot of other impacts of sexual violence we don’t talk about as much. One is chronic health problems. Survivors are a lot more likely to have chronic headaches and chronic back aches than other populations. I also know of survivors, some of these things are a little bit more difficult to tease out, but who they know individually, that their sexual assault led them to have other chronic health problems. I knew one survivor, one of the ways that she managed the trauma for sexual assault was through controlling her eating, which is pretty common is for survivors to develop eating disorders. But hers was so severe that she had created lesions on her throat that were precancerous. And so she’s having conversations with oncologists about how likely she is to develop cancer in her early 20s. And this is directly related to the way that she was managing the stress of her sexual assault and the trauma of her sexual assault. So chronic health conditions play a really big role as well. There is a huge financial impact for being sexually assaulted. It’s going to affect your career trajectory, especially if you are on a college campus. This is research I want to do but have not done yet, is to describe a little more about how that happens. We know that it affects things like lifetime earnings, but we don’t know for example, if sexual assault makes survivors want to change their majors to get away from their perpetrators or to get to places that are more friendly to survivors, which will probably, if you’re a woman, going to end up to be more feminine majors on campus, the ones where they’re a lot more women in the room might feel more comfortable. And so anecdotally, I’ve heard a lot of that kind of stuff in my research, but jury’s still out on whether or not it’s a really huge issue, but even if it’s one survivor that matters. And then the other thing I’ll say is that sexual assault, once you’ve been victimized, you’re at a higher risk of being victimized again, especially if you are hearing blaming comments, especially if you come to think that it is your responsibility to prevent sexual assault. In my research I’ve heard so many stories of survivors who when they were in a dangerous situation recognized it but thought it was their responsibility to change their perpetrators behavior, felt like they kind of had to freeze and just sit through it because of those blaming comments. And this is a really important thing to pull out too, is that this is a scary list. But access to supportive resources, to a supportive community can make it less likely that survivors have to experience all of these impacts, they are not a given, they’re not part of the trauma, they’re part of the institutional betrayal, they’re part of the response to trauma. And then the last one that we talk a lot, interestingly enough, about how being accused of sexual assault, anecdotally has led to suicidal ideation. There’s no research to support that, necessarily, the two are connected, but it’s the phrase that we hear a lot in our society, is accusing someone of sexual assault could end their life. But in reality, we do know that survivors are at a very high risk of suicide in the aftermath of sexual assault. And that intensifies after institutional betrayal. This feeling of not only did my perpetrator hurt me, but other people are going to continue to hurt me and no one cares, and if this happens again no one will do anything about it. That’s a really heavy burden to be on survivors. And that kind of thinking, that kind of nobody cares, nobody at my university is going to do anything to support me, that is something that professors contribute to so it’s a really important one for us to think about. It’s a heavy list.

John: It is.

Rebecca: I’m feeling the weight of it.

Nicole: Yeah, it’s sort of worse than we even usually hear about. And it does come up in really small ways too. So I used to work with a program that taught fraternity men around campus sexual violence and it was intended to prevent campus sexual violence. And I was having the hardest time getting through to them, as you can imagine, and I was working with a really challenging fraternity. This fraternity was the reason the prevention program was implemented because they used to use gang rape as a hazing ritual. And it had been long enough, since that was happening, that the current brothers and the fraternity wasn’t that long ago, it was less than10 years, but none of them were students at the time. And so they were really angry that they still had to sit through these prevention trainings, and they just didn’t get why this stuff mattered. And in one particularly tense encounter, one of them said to me, “Nobody even cares about this anymore. Everyone has moved on.” And I was just thinking, the victims of your fraternity have not moved on. They’re not done feeling this, they probably will never fully escape what this fraternity did to them. And I went home, and I got on Facebook, and I wrote, just to my friends, “Hey, I’m working with this fraternity,” sort of explained the situation, said they’re not getting it, “Would any of you record a message for them if you were sexually assaulted at least five years ago?” which is how long it had been since the last gang rape, “If you were sexually assaulted five years ago, will you record a message saying how it still affects you today.” So a few of my friends sent in recordings for them, I actually still use these in classes with the consent of the survivors. Some of them, some have withdrawn consent, I don’t use those anymore. But they listened to the first one and they felt really uncomfortable, but nobody’s really saying anything, like one guy was kind of pushing back and being, like, “Well that’s just one story.” And they listened to the second one. And it was the third one that kind of broke them. And one of the men who was getting really emotional, the detail that stood out to him was that the victim had described how in the aftermath of her sexual assault, one of the ways that she coped, I forgot to mention this one, was through alcohol and drug abuse. And that had really impacted her grades. We kind of know this, that our students are going to parties on a regular basis, some of them are going to be good students, and some of them you know, if you’re hungover in class, you’re not getting the material. And so that’s sort of how she framed it. She was like, I was not a great student, because I was abusing substances, not the language she would use. But she said that she wanted to go to law school, and that studying for the LSAT was so stressful, because to be able to get in now, because her grades were so bad, she needed a near perfect score. And this man who was getting emotional said, “I’m studying for the LSAT. And I used to go to class hungover because I was partying in this fraternity and people like my brothers from a few years ago, were the ones who put her in the situation. And I know how stressful it is. I know how hard this is. And it is so unfair that I made the decision to blow off my academics and she didn’t.” Those little details, I think, really helped us understand what exactly the stakes are for survivors. Usually we talk about this stuff sort of in the abstract because it’s more comfortable, it’s so personal, it’s so scary. But hearing the weight of all of this is really important. I’m glad you asked.

Rebecca: I think those personal stories are what really helps people connect to the data, the data is really easy to ignore, if it feels really abstract.

Nicole: Yeah, I mean, it’s one of the reasons the Me Too movement has been so powerful, because when you hear about sexual assault survivors, maybe watch a True Crime documentary here and there. These are not people you know. It’s not the same experience as getting onto your own social media profile and seeing someone who you thought you were really close to, and realizing that they had the secret that they were holding to themselves, and that they were sexually assaulted and realizing, oh, wow, maybe I actually said some things in front of them that were not supportive because I didn’t realize there was a survivor in the room. And that’s something that I really just think we should all be thinking about more often is most of the time there is a survivor in the room. The problem is so widespread, it is so everywhere, that even when we’re talking about just campus sexual assault, if that was the only time sexual assault happened in anyone’s lifetimes, chances are, if there are 10 people in a room, there’re going to be some survivors, multiple, present. And yeah, we don’t really think about the personal stories very much. And we don’t really think about how, the other thing, maybe the gem that comes out of all of my classes, my students say this thing that resonates with them the most, is that we’re all really comfortable supporting survivors in the abstract. Maybe we don’t do it because we don’t realize how important it is but we’re willing to do it. The messiness, and it’s why I keep bringing it up, is when there’s a perpetrator, who you also know. That’s when people start to turn because the uncomfortable reality is that we all do know and love a rapist. They are in our inner circle just as much. Again, assuming all sexual violence happens on college campuses, which it does not, it’s 1 in 10 men. And so the idea that we only have survivors around and we don’t have any perpetrators, and that what they want will not come into conflict is the difficult part. And this is something that I’ve seen play out in the classroom over and over and over again, is this idea of, well, I have both students in my class. And I want to be fair equally to both students. And that’s not really a fair position to take, because there’s such a big power disparity between the two of them. What a rapist wants, which may be also to use your class to control and humiliate and harm their victim, that does happen, if that’s what they want you can’t really put that in comparison to a victim who just wants to get their degree and get out of there, which is what most of them really do want to do. And so yeah, it’s messy. It’s messy, and it’s personal, and parsing out all of the difficulties of, really the hard stuff that you have to do when a survivor comes to you and says, “I need something.” It’s not always an easy decision, especially if you haven’t thought in advance about what you’re going to do in a situation like that one.

Rebecca: That’s a lot of things for us to be thinking about as we prepare for the fall and get ready for this semester, what resources we might want to have bookmarked on our computers, things that we want to put in our syllabus how we might want to handle setting the stage the first day.

Nicole: Yeah, definitely. I’m glad that this podcast is dropping when it is, because thinking about this stuff from the beginning of the semester is a lot easier than if something comes up in the middle and you’ve never thought about it. It can be so stressful and overwhelming, I get lots of panicked emails from people that are, like, “Oh my God, I’ve never thought about this, what do I do?” And it’s in those moments that we don’t know what to do that we sort of fall back on what’s culturally normative. And in our society, that’s usually the side of the perpetrator. We don’t like to think about it but that’s true, that’s the way our society operates. Or, to just say, “This is too difficult and I’m not going to do anything.” Inaction is what we’ve all been trained to do in these cases. And so thinking through in advance some of the things that you can do, resources you can draw upon. And even just the way that if you need a minute, what sentence you’re going to say, to tell someone that you need some time to think this through, and that you’re going to go explore some options. And to know in advance, who am I going to ask? It should not be your school Title IX coordinator, it should not be the people who you’ve been taught on your campus are the ones that can answer these questions. And the reason for that is because they have conflicting roles, it’s a conflict of interest. All of these organizations on campus are also trying to protect the university. And so they’re going to be thinking about things, like, what causes liability in the classroom? which isn’t necessarily what’s best for survivors. And so if you’re thinking about who you should ask on campus, the people you should ask are the victim advocates. It really is, if you have campus victim advocates, or even community victim advocates that you can reach out to, that is where I would start because they’re the true experts on sexual violence, as are the survivors themselves. When you’re sort of in a lurch you can turn to your students and say, “You don’t have to have an answer to this question. But in case you do, do you know what you need? Do you know what exactly what you’re looking for? And again, if you don’t know, we can figure it out together. And I can come to you with a lot of options.” One thing that campus victim advocates do all the time is they create options where survivors didn’t think there were any and so it’s normal for survivors to not know what they want, and to not know what’s available, especially if most of the time when they’ve been asking for help, they haven’t been getting it, that lowers their expectations over and over. This is the subject of my dissertation. But to be able to say, “I know where I’m going to go. And I’m going to take your input because I recognize who the true experts on sexual violence are on this campus,” is a really good place to start. Most professors are not experts on issues of sexual violence. And it can be really uncomfortable for us when we’re supposed to be the keepers of knowledge to say to our students, “I don’t know something,” or, “I’ve made a mistake.” But those are things you should get really, really comfortable with. Because to do anything else, to try to maintain your power in the classroom, to try to make yourself look like the all-knower or whatever it is, can be really damaging. And so practice, get comfortable in your head with how you’re going to say to a survivor, “I really messed up,” and “I am so sorry.” Or if something happens in your classroom, we haven’t talked about this very much, but sometimes the problem is not you. The problem is other students were making victim-blaming comments or something like that in a class discussion. And professors often say, “I didn’t know how to handle that situation.” That’s an okay response. It is okay, when that’s happening, to interrupt and say, “I don’t know how to handle this. I do not know how to handle this. And I’m worried that if this conversation continues, it could be really harmful. We’re going to take a break. I’m going to take a few minutes to collect my thoughts.” And maybe in some cases, even ending class early and then addressing it when you come back. You do have to address it if you do that, you can’t just move on and pretend it never happened that is so awkward, and it does send the message that you’re not comfortable talking about sexual violence, you’re not comfortable supporting survivors. But if you don’t know what to do, instead of just sort of making it up as you go, sometimes it is better to just say, “Actually, I’m going to seek an expert here.” And that’s really, really important. We are pretty lucky as professors, because on a lot of campuses, there are experts who are available and trained to help you again, it’s not going to be your Title IX coordinator, they are going to give you the basic legalistic spiel about the mandatory reporting policy and what is available. But if you reach out to the campus victim advocate and say, “This happened in my classroom, what do I do,” a lot of victim advocates will come to your next class, they will facilitate that discussion, you can have the expert in the room, you don’t have to be the one to do it if it’s making you uncomfortable. Victim advocates often can be requested to come into some of these spaces, if you’re holding an event or something that’s on campus sexual violence. They’re very busy, and they’re very under-resourced across the board, across the university. So you might not want to make a habit of bringing them into every discussion because that’s taking something away from survivors on the other end, but even to say, “Hey, for the last five minutes of class, we’re going to have a victim advocate come by and pass out some flyers and they’ll be here if you need to talk.” That’s something that a lot of them are very happy to do. And so we’re very, very lucky. We don’t have to do this on our own.

Rebecca: That’s a really good reminder, Nicole, for sure.

Nicole: It’s funny, right before this, I was working on my book manuscript and I was writing about how under-resourced victim advocates are. And one thing that was striking me is that they get kind of hidden away, that as much as faculty on a regular basis saying, “Hey, we want information about what to do,” very rarely do the victim advocates, especially without somebody there to, like, keep them in line, very rarely do we get to talk to them as faculty. We might get an email from them saying, “Hey, a student needs something,” and you’re very polite and professional back, one would hope. But we don’t actually think of them as experts on sexual violence who could come into our classroom or answer our questions, and they really are. And that actually is another thing you can do that every single one of us listening can do to support survivors on our campuses, every victim advocacy office in the country is under-resourced. And it’s not because universities lack the resources, but because there isn’t enough pressure to allocate them to victim advocacy. So something you could do now is say, “Hey, we really want another victim advocate, doesn’t matter how many you have, let’s add one more.” Or, “Let’s make sure that they have a space that works for them. Let’s make sure they’re in a place that’s comfortable that students can go to.” But think about ways that you can support the people who support victims.

Rebecca: So that’s a lot to think about.

Nicole: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: There’s a lot here. But we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Nicole: I hope that everybody goes and makes some changes to their syllabus, looks up some crisis lines and things like that in your local area to add. That’s a really simple thing you can do today and it does not take a lot of energy or effort. So at least do that. I also hope that everybody thinks about, okay, as I was listening to the podcast, some things were a little close to home, or maybe that could be useful and think about integrating it into your classes. So that’s obvious, thinking about, how can I change my first day activities? How can I prepare for discussions that go awry? things like that. If you’re looking for some more specific examples, there are a lot more in the article that I wrote too, so you can go take a look at that as the thing that’s next. And actually, the entire issue of Teaching Sociology that it came out in, is about teaching issues of sex and sexuality. So the whole thing is great, and you can read the whole thing. But in terms of supporting survivors themselves, I’m going to harp again, on that now is a really politically important moment to change the federal policy, to change the rules about how survivors are supported. And under the Trump administration, a lot of support for survivors were rolled back. And a lot of things happened that made it more difficult for people to support survivors in the way that they need. And so this is a really, really great time to, again, contact your representatives. Title IX is great. It’s what we have. And so it’s better than nothing to have the federal government coming in and saying, “We want you to take care of sexual assault survivors in this way.” But it’s not very specific. It’s a federal regulation so the guidance is more of recommendations rather than laws, it all gets adjudicated in the courts, it’s not a very strong piece of legislation, the way that it’s being enacted. So something that a lot of advocates are pushing for right now is to get Congress to pass a more comprehensive set of rules and regulations about how to protect survivors on campus. And that would be really nice because it can also sidestep some of these uncomfortable conversations that have come up in the past year, some things that the Trump administration did that were huge steps backward and are moving us in the wrong direction. So for example, you probably haven’t heard of this one, but under the Trump administration, there is a way for perpetrators of sexual assault to remove their confessions from evidence and Title IX cases. That is currently the regulation, even if a perpetrator has confessed to what they have done, there are ways for them to take that confession back. And so stuff like that is really difficult to walk around to some degree, the Biden administration could just say, “We’re not going to keep it,” but then the next president could put it right back in place. It’s very unstable and survivors are really depending on elections for support. So one thing you can do is go to your legislators and say, “It’s really past time to pass reforms for campus sexual assault, and here’s some organizations you should look to, like End Rape on Campus and Know Your IX.” Make some noise on your campus, go to your campus offices and say that you care. If you talk about this with other faculty, the more names that are on the petition saying that you want a space at the table that you want to change something specific, the better. And, yeah, it’s a reminder, a lot of the things that your school is doing and saying is the law, like mandatory reporting, is not the law. You don’t have to be on a campus that does mandatory reporting. It’s not required. And so if stuff like that bothers you, let your campus know.

Rebecca: Well, thank you, Nicole, for a really informative conversation. And I hope that many faculty start thinking about these things in a different way than they have in the past.

Nicole: Yeah, thank you for having me and I hope this was useful.


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.


198. Active Learning Initiative Revisited

In episode 12 of this podcast, Doug McKee joined us to discuss the Active Learning Initiative at Cornell. In this episode, Doug returns to give us an update on this initiative and some initial findings on how this initiative has affected student learning. Doug is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics and an Active Learning Initiative Project Lead at Cornell University.



John: In episode 12 of this podcast, we discussed the Active Learning Initiative at Cornell. In this episode, we get an update on this initiative and some initial findings on how this initiative has affected student learning.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Doug McKee. Doug is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics and an Active Learning Initiative project lead at Cornell University. Welcome back, Doug.

Doug: Thank you, Rebecca. So glad to be here.

John: We’re happy to have you back. It’s been a while. I was looking back to see when our last episode was and it was in 2018. It seemed like it was just yesterday in the before times, or at least in that sense of how time seems to have been compressed the last year or so.

Doug: It also seems like it’s been like 20 years.

John: It does.

Rebecca: Yeah, at least those couple decades for sure.

Doug: But I’m glad to be back.

John: Our teas today are… the last time we asked you I think you said “I hate tea.”

Doug: I did. I remember that.

Rebecca: What kind of comment do you have about tea today?

Doug: Well, I can’t say I’ve acquired a taste for tea. I don’t mind Lipton tea out of a can. But I’m not drinking that today. Today, it’s ice water.

Rebecca: That’s a good healthy choice.

Doug: Yeah.

Rebecca: And the basis of tea.

Doug: Right. I’ve been listening to this other podcast. And they always start with “What are you drinking?” And it’s four hosts. And three of them are always talking about what kind of craft beer or liquor they’re drinking. And it’s the healthy one that drinks the tea.

Rebecca: See, this is a very healthy episode,

Doug: Right. It is.

Rebecca: I’ve got my English afternoon today, John.

John: And I have ginger peach green tea.

Doug: Ooh, nice. It sounds nice. Are you really drinking hot tea in the summer? Is that really a thing?

John: I do. All day I’ve been drinking iced tea, though. And so I switched over for the podcast, just because it’s what we do.

Doug: Got it.

John: When you will last on the podcast, we talked about the Active Learning Initiative at Cornell. And we thought this would be a good time to get an update on how things are going. And for those people who are not listening to our podcast back in 2018, could you just provide some information on that project and how it came about?

Doug: Sure, I think even the people that were listening back in 2018 might need a refresher. The Active Learning Initiative is a university wide project at Cornell, it was inspired by a similar project that Carl Wieman started at University of Colorado, and then brought to the University of British Columbia called the Science Education Initiative. And the idea was that if you want to improve teaching, instead of trying and getting individuals to improve their teaching, and instead of trying to do it at the university level, the right level was the department. And so departments would write proposals and compete for money, and they would promise to incorporate active learning methods, different evidence-based methods to improve courses. And they would use the money to hire outside people, usually postdocs in that discipline that really knew the material, but also knew about modern pedagogy to do the heavy lifting. My experience is when you tell faculty to make changes and use active learning, you get three kinds of pushback. You get, “I don’t know how to do it.” Well, this postdoc is the person that knows how to do it, and they can help with that. You get, “I don’t have time.” Well the postdoc is going to do the heavy lifting. And you get “It won’t work in my classroom. It only works in other people’s classrooms.” And a big part of the Active Learning Initiative, certainly as we’ve implemented it in the economics department is concurrent evaluation. So at the end of the process, you really have hard measures of the impact of the program. Now the program started, I think, in 2017, at Cornell with three departments, then in 19, they added six departments, and that was when I joined Cornell, and so one of those was economics. And then more recently, they added nine more departments. And they’re getting proposals together for phase four right now. Now, in economics, we said we’re going to transform our eight core classes, the details are always a little messier than the theory. But we’ve transformed six classes so far, and we just started working on the last two. The big stated goal is to change how we teach these big classes. And seven of these eight classes are required for the major. So we’re really completely changing the experience that students have going through the program. The second goal, which is not as explicit, but really important, was to train faculty. And we’ve worked with eight different instructors during the process so far. And over the next two years, we’re going to add five more. The two classes that we still have to work on have three different people teaching one and two teaching the other one. And that’s been, I think, a pretty good success. So the faculty we worked with have been pretty happy and learned a lot from the process and continue to use those methods. The third goal, that was fairly unstated, is changing the culture. So what we want is a much more teaching focus and quality of teaching focus in the departments. And I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job on that and instilling this kind of continuous improvement idea. And then the fourth major impact that we’ve had, I think, was not something we really saw coming. And that is that, in the process of doing all this work, we’ve developed these assessments of learning and gathered all this data about what’s happening in the classroom and who these students are that are coming in. We’ve collected a huge amount of data. At the same time, we’ve spent a lot of time reading the literature and learning all about how much we don’t know. And it’s managed to enable all this research. And so I was talking to Rebecca, before we started recording, saying that a big part of my job is now actually like doing research using this data. And it’s been super exciting and fulfilling. And John, you asked me earlier, again, before we started recording about the Teach Better podcast, which is a podcast that Edward O’Neill and I hosted for a long time, and we haven’t had any new episodes posted for a couple of years. And it’s not because the band is broken up. But we’ve just been busy with other things. And I would say that the time I would spend writing blog posts and recording podcasts is now writing papers, and presenting research at conferences. So that’s been pretty exciting.

Rebecca: One of the things that you mentioned, right at the start of talking about this program, are the different push backs we get from faculty, and so you addressed two in how the postdoc helps with the two. The last was, “I can’t do this in my class, you can do it in other classes.”

Doug: You show them research from physics, and they say “This is economics.” You show them research from economics, and they say, “That’s from a very different kind of an institution.” You show them research from economics in a very similar institution, and they say, “Well, I teach my class very differently.” And that’s hard.

John: There’s always some explanation that people can come up on why their class is somehow different than everyone else’s. What have you done to try to reach some of those faculty to help keep the initiative spreading?

Doug: I have the answer that I find really compelling that never work. And that is, there’s this really wonderful meta analysis by Freeman and a whole bunch of other co-authors about the impact of active learning in STEM. They go and they collect lots of really serious research, high- quality empirical methods, that shows our big learning gains from transitioning from a pure lecture environment, to an environment where students are active in the classroom. And they find that there are large, statistically significant effects in eight different disciplines. And when they test the hypothesis that the effect is exactly the same in all eight disciplines, they can’t reject the null hypothesis. In other words, the size of the effect in physics and chemistry and biology and math and engineering… they’re all pretty much the same. And so if they’re the same in all those disciplines, shouldn’t they be the same in economics, too, because surely economics is closer to some of these than physics is to biology. And I find that really compelling, but no one else does.

Rebecca: Alright, so what does work then?

Doug: Well, what does work is being really nice and saying, “Can we just try it? And surely there are things that you’ve wanted to change in your class for a while and haven’t had the resources. And my job is to help you improve your class. And I’ve got some ideas too, and I’m going to lay them out, and we’re going to try.” And they’re like, “Okay.” I mean, so much of it is just plain old social skills. And like, “trust me” and building that level of trust. And they go and they talk to their colleagues that have worked with me in the Active Learning Initiative. And “Yeah, he’s not so bad. Like “he seems at first like an arrogant jerk, [LAUGHTER] but he’s okay, he’s pretty reasonable to work with.”

John: And the chance to make some of those changes they might have been considering, with some support to help move that along, could be a useful incentive, too.

Rebecca: You never know when that option is going to come along again, right? [LAUGHTER]

Doug: Well, that’s true too. So if Carl Wieman was here (he’s kind of the godfather of teaching in physics), what he would say is “Don’t even try to convince them that these methods work better for student learning, because a lot of the faculty, they say they care, but they don’t actually care that much. Tell them it’s fun, and that it’s much more fulfilling to have students doing things and interacting with them during the class than just standing up there and giving the same old lecture every year.” And he says that’s really effective. I have not had great success with that. [LAUGHTER]

John: One thing that actually worked better than anything we’ve ever tried here in the teaching center was this pandemic.

Doug: Right. That’s totally true.

John: People learned they needed to try doing things in different ways and we gave them lots of workshops and talked about the importance of active learning and gave them lots of things that work in a variety of modalities that they would never have considered otherwise because they were comfortable with what they were doing. But when people didn’t have a choice in terms of restructuring their classes in some way, they were much more open to trying evidence-based approaches than we’ve ever seen before and we had many more people attend a workshop during a pandemic than we ever did and many of them have said, “I’m never going back to the way I was teaching this class before.” Did some of that happen at Cornell?

Doug: It for sure happened. And I’ve talked to colleagues all over the world that have said exactly the same thing. That is absolutely 100% true. Just the other day I was talking with an instructor, we’re going to be doing a bunch of things with them to their class, and the conversation started with, “I tried these three new things in my online class, and I really want to bring them to my in-person class.” But you two, in the teaching center, interact with lots of faculty every day, for a brief period of time. But with me, I interact with a very small number of faculty for a very long time. We did not suspend the Active Learning Initiative for the last year, but we were originally a five-year project. And we decided to stretch it to six years and go into like a lower energy mode, while we focused on staying above water

Rebecca: …as was necessary for just about everybody.

Doug: Yeah.

Rebecca: You have all these new departments joining the initiative. Do these departments interact and support one another? Are these like completely separate pockets?

Doug: Yeah, so that’s interesting. The postdocs for all the departments meet regularly and do training together. There’s not a huge amount of interaction between the instructors across departments, or even the instructors that run the department initiatives. That’s something I think fell by the wayside during the pandemic. But we’ll probably pick up again, as things hopefully normalize, because there’s huge benefits from it. We’ve certainly run into lots of things that these newer departments are running into now and they can benefit from our experience. And then they come in with really fresh ideas that we haven’t thought of.

Rebecca: The other thing you mentioned, too, is all this data you’ve collected. Can you talk a little bit about what that data has started to tell you?

Doug: Yeah, so the process that we follow when we transform a course starts with documenting the learning goals for the course. Learning goals are not topic. How we define learning goals… because I understand in the ed world, people get very militant about their definitions and differentiations between learning goals and learning objectives and other kinds of things. But what we call learning goals are things that we want students to be able to do by the end of the semester, and we can break it down such that it’s probably two to three pages long. And then we develop an assessment of those learning goals. We also write down, in the same way, these are the skills we expect students to have going into the class. Now when we have a sequence, the skills that they have at the end of intro are prerequisite skills for the intermediate level course a lot of the time. And so we’ve developed, I think, 10 assessments so far. We have two math assessments, one at the intro level, and one at the intermediate level, because we add calculus. We have our intro micro assessment, we have stats, we have a whole bunch. So we have test scores on these things at the beginning of the semester, and at the end of the semester. So we have all these assessments. At the same time, we ask students about attitudes at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester. So do you think about economics every day? Do you feel like you belong in this economics course? We have like four pretty standard questions that we asked at the beginning and the end of the semester. Often when we give exams, we have exam wrappers. So how much did you study for this exam? How much of the material have you seen before? That sort of thing. And then at the end of the semester, we have our standard course evaluations, then we also ask students there: Did you feel like you were part of a community? Do you feel comfortable asking questions? Do you like the other students in the class? …those sorts of things. And so with the assessments at the end of the semester, we can tell how the distribution of learning outcomes changes. And we always have a control semester where we don’t do anything we just measure. And then we make all the changes after that, in a different semester, so we can compare. And what we found is that it often takes more than one semester for you to see learning gains. So you do all this stuff and you look at the results. And sometimes there aren’t very strong results. But you note what worked and what didn’t work. And you can look at outcomes by learning goal. So you can say like, “Oh, this learning goal we did a lot better on but not this one.” And so you can refine and then that refinement process, we’ve been able to actually see improvements in learning. We can use those same tests to see if there are gaps between kind of mainstream students and students from underrepresented groups. So we compare outcomes of males and females, we compare outcomes by race. And what we found is those gaps declined as we incorporate more active learning methods. We found that… this is a kind of a big one that I did not see coming when we started this project… so, we knew clickers were going to be a big part of this and like having activities that students work on in class, that’s like the bread and butter, and we have all different kinds of activities we do and I could talk for hours about that, but the thing didn’t see coming was how useful assigning students to small groups at the beginning of the term and having them work together in those groups inside and outside the classroom. And it actually was even more helpful during the pandemic with the online classes. So that’s been pretty cool. And just that treatment has radically increased the sense of community among our students. So we’ve been really happy about that. So those, I think, are the big results.

John: So, have all those core classes switched to the use of persistent groups.

Doug: Yes, but the extent to which the groups are used differs across courses. In my courses, it’s incredibly intensive. I have them sit in those groups in the classroom, I encourage them to work together on problem sets outside class, we do two-stage exams where they take the exam individually and then they take it again, in their same small groups. And they have a semester long project that they work on in those same groups. Probably the least intensive, we have is our big intro micro class, students are assigned to groups, they work together in those groups in discussion section, but not in the lecture. Because with 200 students, and a 350-seat lecture hall, it’s not too bad. But if you’ve got 440 students in a 450 seat lecture hall, it’s a little harder to manage that.

John: Yes, it is. I often teach classes that size. And I’ve generally just done ad hoc groups rather than persistent groups, but it is something I’ve considered switching to.

Doug: Well, in the pandemic, I had lots of colleagues that tried the ad hoc groups, ‘cause in Zoom, you can just press a button, and boom, everybody’s in a randomly assigned group. And you don’t build any social capital with other students in the class, you’re like suddenly in a room, and everyone’s got their camera off. But if you know everybody in your group, then you turn your cameras on, and you’re like “Yay, another person, Hello.” It’s pretty different. And in the classroom, I think there’s a similar element. There’s this other piece, which is in the classroom, people tend to sit in the same place. There’s a lot of inertia there. But I also think the random assignment gets people talking to people they wouldn’t otherwise talk to. And it assures that nobody’s kind of left out. So I think that works pretty well.

Rebecca: That was one of the things that I wanted to follow up on with the persistent groups is that sometimes you have the one student who feels left out or doesn’t feel included or doesn’t participate or doesn’t contribute. And so how do you handle that if that same team is doing everything together from tests to projects.

Doug: So in my classes, when they do everything together, in the two-stage exams, there’s a pretty big payoff to getting everybody’s input. And so I’ve never seen students as engaged in a classroom as they are, when we do these two-stage exams, it’s about as high stakes as you can get. On the projects, there’s a peer rating component, where at three points in the semester, they have to rate their teammates and say, on a one to three scale, are they contributing a lot? Are they not contributing very much? Are they contributing nothing? …and they rate them on effort level and dependability. And then the first one is just informative. You learn what the average rating you got from your team is, and you can do something about it. And then the next two, it’s actually a pretty big part of your grade. And what happens is, the students either improve, they get the message that they have to contribute, which is great, or they don’t, but then the other students are like, “Well, at least they’re getting what they deserve.” And so they’re pretty happy, because so much of it is about fairness and justice, that they’re like I’m willing to do the work, I just think it’s not fair if they get the same grade as me because they didn’t do the work. I mean, every once in a while you get a group that just doesn’t work very well. And these are always different. Like, it’ll be like, you’ll just somehow have like the three guys that happen to know each other. And they’re like, let’s all just give each other great ratings and not do any work. And then there’s the fourth person who ends up doing all the work. And then you talk to the person, you’re like, “Look, don’t worry, I’ll take that into account when I make your grade for the class.” Now, we actually had an instructor this semester, who had a really creative solution to this, which is at the halfway point in the semester, they surveyed the class and allowed people to bail out of their group and go into a new pool and get reassigned to a new group. And I think like 20% of the class decided to do this. And it was pretty interesting. I haven’t looked closely to see if our community measures were higher in that class. But I’m intrigued. I might try that in my class.

John: I had something similar in my econometrics class this spring, I tried using persistent group, some were working really productively, and others just were not working. And I was getting some pretty regular complaints from people. I talked to them and said, “Well, often you’ll be working at some point in your life with people where you need to forge a good productive relationship,” but eventually it got to the point where I said “Okay, anyone who wants to switch out of their group is welcome to and we’ll just re-form some new groups after this and anyone who wants to stay could.” And the shifting helped the people who were really productive and were frustrated that some of their colleagues were not quite as productive were really happy to start working with other people who were in a similar position, and I think there was some really positive complementarities from those people. The remaining people in those groups may have sunk down a little bit in terms of their performance in the class, but they had the option of becoming a bit more active and working harder, and they just chose not to take it.

Doug: And some students will do that. And look, as important as I believe econometrics is, some students, they’re like, you know, I have other ideas about what’s important in college, and maybe it’s different classes. Maybe it’s the social aspect, and like, “Who am I to judge?” But, don’t expect an “A” if the social part of college is more important to you.

Rebecca: There’s also always the group too that when you start talking to all of them, they all think they’re doing something different. It’s really hard to get a read on who’s doing what, and this person thinks this person is not doing anything, and this other person thinks they’re not. Those conversations happened together, but a little intervention and clarity and communication can go a long way. And I’ve had some really dysfunctional teams become functional, just with a little intervention early on, when you realize that they’re all talking past each other and are all quite unhappy.

Doug: Do you have them identify their role and write down like, when they submit a group project, say who did what? And would you recommend it? Because I don’t do that. I’ve always wondered if I should do that.

Rebecca: I’ve gone back and forth. Sometimes I have projects where they have defined their roles. I do it in sprints, or break it into pieces. And so they might switch roles in each round or whatever.

Doug: Which they should.

Rebecca: Yeah, I do also, I tend to ask a question on the team evaluations, which I do multiple times throughout the semester that ask who contributed the most to the group? And why or what did you learn from each colleague, and those tend to be really informative, and reflection papers.

Doug: One more thing I want to add to this part of the discussion is, this is really important, but we always make sure not to isolate women or underrepresented minorities in groups, because when you do that, they, in general have a pretty bad experience. And we’re not going for that /we’re going for good.

John: In Episode 182, we had Olga Stoddard on the podcast, who talked about a study where she and some colleagues had done in an MBA program where they had persistent groups. And the groups that had only a single female ended up evaluating the contributions of a female participant much lower. And in fact, they rated themselves lower as well. And there was some really substantial gains in their perceived participation, when they represented a larger share of the group, when it was a majority female group. They’ll be following it up with some research on individuals from other underrepresented groups.

Doug: So when I first started doing these peer ratings, I had three categories. So in addition to effort and dependability, I had collegiality, because I was trying to capture like, is this person… they’re putting in effort to show up on time… but they’re just a jerk, and like you should get penalized for that. And what I found is that the male students all gave the female students low collegiality ratings, and the female students all gave the male students low collegiality ratings, so it was just like incorporating sexism into the grade, and I didn’t want to do that. So, I just removed it altogether. It didn’t help.

John: One of the things that I’ve been doing based on, actually something our Dean suggested when she gave a workshop on group activities, was having groups put together some type of a group agreement on how they would resolve conflicts and so forth at the very start of the semester. And that seems to have really significantly reduced many of these issues, and providing some time during the semester for them to talk over any group processing issues they may be having. So that if they are facing challenges with people contributing, they have a chance to work that out amongst themselves and just talk about that a little bit before the problem becomes more ingrained. And it seems to have been helpful.

Doug: That’s super interesting, I do something not as good, which is at the beginning of the semester, I do this exercise in class where they have to write down what they think are like the five behaviors that are consistent with a well functioning group. And then I’ve got mine. And then we do the big word cloud. And we talk about it like listening to what everyone in the group has to say, being nice, giving people the benefit of the doubt, things like that. I guess it’s more proactive rather than reactive. But I think there’s probably a role for both.

Rebecca: I’ve mentioned before in the podcast, too, that I’ve been doing an activity called a retrospective at regular intervals throughout the semester, which is like a group reflection. I’ve been using virtual whiteboards and sticky notes, to do it with some basic questions like “What should the group keep doing? What should the group stop doing?”

Doug: Oh, interesting.

Rebecca: “And what should the group start to do?” And that was, I found, really productive and the amount of team issues that I’ve had since I started doing that has been greatly reduced.

Doug: I’m writing this down, sot I can do it too. I like that idea a lot.

Rebecca: It’s worked surprisingly well. I’ve been using Miro, which is a virtual whiteboard. And they actually have a number of templates for different retrospectives that you could use as a starting point.

Doug: You like that better than Jamboard?

Rebecca: Yeah, it has way more features but I also teach design, so we need fancier things, and it needs to look nice and you can make it nice in there. [LAUGHTER]

Doug: I used Jamboard last semester and it was great. The breakout rooms actually were able to communicate a lot better with each other when they could all write on a Jamboard.

Rebecca: Yeah, my use of whiteboards virtually has greatly improved collaboration.

Doug: Right. I’m not sure what to do in the classroom now.

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: I used Jamboard in all my classes and I was thinking, should I ask students to do this while they’re in a big classroom? And I’m kind of thinking, yes.

Rebecca: Yes.

Doug: Maybe, yeah, maybe… because the alternative is like one person writing on a piece of paper, and everyone else leaning over their shoulder. And it’s not as good.

Rebecca: Oor wasting a lot of paper by using a lot of sticky notes.

Doug: Right.

Rebecca: Because you can do the physical version of it, but…

Doug: But it’s got to be big enough. In a class where you’ve got 200 students, you don’t really have enough whiteboard.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about the impact of these changes on student learning.

Doug: We see improvements in student learning, but it often takes more than one semester of refinement to get there. And I think that’s a really important lesson: that you have to be patient when you make these changes.

Rebecca: Hey, we’re new at something and you have to have practice. Is that what you’re saying, Doug?

Doug: Right, but how many times have you run into someone who said, “I tried clickers and it didn’t work in my class?” Like, of course, it didn’t work. When you got on the bike, did it work the first time you tried to ride it? No, of course not. We’ve managed to reduce achievement gaps in some classes and we’ve really increased the sense of community among people. I think, actually, those two are pretty strongly related. We’ve moved from a real laser focus on increasing average learning to a wider range of outcomes: more attitudes, more gaps, we spent a lot of time thinking about how to lift the bottom of the distribution, like, “Who are these people that are scoring in the bottom quarter of the class? And why?” So yeah, I would say those are the main results we’ve had.

John: And by building an environment which creates more of a sense of community, it’s more likely I think that persistence towards graduation and degree will increase. Have you looked at any data on that yet, in terms of student persistence as a result of some of these changes?

Doug: Well, at Cornell, most people end up getting their degree. So that’s a way in which I think like an Ivy League college is pretty different from a lot of other colleges. Does active learning work in the classroom? Yes, and that’s true no matter where you are. But issues of retention, we actually spend a lot of time thinking about retention. But when we say retention, what we’re talking about is how much do you remember of what you learned in the class after the class is over? How much do you retain in terms of the knowledge, and we’ve actually been analyzing a fair amount of data and collecting a lot of data on this. And in some cases, students forget a lot. In other cases, there are for sure cases where they retain a lot. And so we do a lot of following up students after the course is over, and then giving them the test, the same end of semester assessment again, and we’re in the midst of an NSF funded research project right now, to see how much active learning matters. So we’re following up with students in our kind of baseline courses, like one, two, and three years later, and following up with the students who’ve taken the same course but with active learning, and we’re seeing if the retention is different, I’m really excited about that. What we’ve seen so far, with different work, is that if you apply what you’ve learned in another course, or in an internship, your retention is far higher. So that’s a really great result, and we’re really happy about that and it’s intuitive. We have another result, which is that if you take a class where you learn a different set of methods for answering the same questions. So we see this, if you take a stats class, and then you take a machine learning class, where you learn a different set of methods for doing similar kinds of things, you actually perform much worse. Those methods that you learned, they just get substituted out of your brain and then new methods are plugged in. And it’s not good. There’s evidence for this in psychology, and even a name for it. It’s called adaptive forgetting. And I think there’s like real, pretty serious implications here for our teaching, that we need to do a better job kind of connecting these things together, so that this doesn’t happen. And then the third thing that we’re looking at is, are there systematic differences by gender and by race in retention. And the data is too preliminary now, but it looks like there might be. And that’s pretty scary and we don’t know why. And we really need to get to the bottom of that. But the first step is to identify the problem. And then the next step is to kind of hypothesize ways to fix the problem. I think we were identifying a pretty serious problem there.

John: And you do have some control measures there in the more traditional classes that you can compare that to to see what types of interventions may be best in reducing some of those gaps.

Doug: Yeah, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

John: We always end with a question, what’s next? And it sounds like you’ve got lots of plans for that.

Doug: So I feel like the Active Learning Initiative is chugging along and we have a process and we’re applying it and we’ve saved our macroeconomics courses for the end because there’s less consensus about what macro is then the other courses, and so that’s fine, but I’m not a macroeconomist, but it’s important and it needs to be done. So I’m pretty excited about collecting and analyzing this retention data that I was just talking about. I’ll give one more project that I’m excited about that we have going right now. We came up with this math assessment and we learned that the math assessment, if you give it at the beginning of the semester, in both our intro classes and our intermediate classes, it’s strongly predictive of how well the students do in the class. And so in particular, if you do badly on the math assessment, you’re much more likely to perform poorly in the class itself. And so some students, they just come in, and they’re behind on day one. And this semester, we are working jointly with colleagues at George Washington University and at the Copenhagen Business School. And in all three sites, we are trying something different to try to help these students, we’re all going to give the same math assessment at the beginning of the term. And we’re going to try different things to actually help these students succeed. And it’s going to be a little bit of a let… well, I was gonna say, let a 1000 flowers bloom, but it’s really like three flowers bloom… We’re gonna hope we can actually find a solution to a problem we identified. So that’s what’s next. That’s what’s on the agenda for the fall.

Rebecca: Maybe you’ll even find more than one solution.

Doug: That would be great. They’re pretty different in terms of how intensive they are. They go from: here are some online resources that you can work with, all the way to, why don’t you hold off on taking your intro class and take this full semester math for economics course, and then take intro, and then the Cornell treatment is actually an intermediate level treatment, the expensive treatment should work. But we’re gonna formally show that, but these other two… we don’t know. And so we’re looking forward to finding out. And we’re looking forward to helping a whole ton of students that would otherwise have a really bad experience in an economics course, and then never take another one.

John: And that was actually one of the things I was thinking about in terms of retention, that the retention isn’t only at the institution, it’s also persistence to that degree in that major, and we lose a lot of people in economics, and a lot of it is related to math ability.

Doug: Yeah, that’s right. I think it’s obscured by the fact that we get a lot of students that fall out of the hard sciences. So it seems like we’re getting a lot of students that are continuing, but they’re not really. we’re losing a whole bunch of we’re gaining some.

John: Thanks, Doug. It’s great talking to you. And I’m looking forward to seeing you at some economic conferences as they start to pick up more in person again.

Doug: I know, wouldn’t that be nice? I’m looking forward to it. The virtual conferences have been really good, but they for sure missed out on the social part.

Rebecca: And the travel part.

Doug: I don’t miss the travel that much.

John: I’ve been able to attend many more conferences, but it just doesn’t feel the same.

Doug: No.

Rebecca: There is something to be said about moving yourself to a different space, so that you can focus on what’s at hand, whether or not the travel and all the logistics associated with that are pleasant or not. There’s something about just moving yourself from the normal everyday to some other way that can be helpful in focusing.

Doug: …where the cats and the dogs and the kids can’t walk in on your session.

Rebecca: Indeed. Well, thanks so much, Doug. It’s always great to hear how things are going. And I hope we’ll get a future update as the project continues to move along.

Doug: Oh, yeah, I would love to.

John: Well, thank you. And I hope we do see a return of the band of the Teach Better podcast once things settle down.

Doug: Well, the crazy thing is, you always hear about these bands and their last tracks? And I’ve never really understood like, why didn’t they just put it on the album? What is this with the lost tracks that get released much later? We have two episodes that have never been published, and they’re really good.

John: That’s the easy way to bring it back.

Doug: So someday, we’ll release like the… [LAUGHTER] like the hidden tapes.

John: …the basement tapes. This been super fun you guys. It’s so nice to catch up.


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.


197. Humanized Teaching

Looking to the future as an instructor in higher education can seem daunting, especially as we plan for a more equitable future.  In this episode, Jesse Stommel joins us to discuss some of those challenges, search for hope, and discuss ways forward that are ethical, humane and flexible. Jesse is the Executive Director of the Hybrid Pedagogy nonprofit organization, and organization he founded in 2011. He is also the founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. Jesse recently served as the Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. He is the co-author,  with Sean Michael Morris, of An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, and, with Dorothy Kim, co-editor of Disrupting the Digital Humanities.



John: Looking to the future as an instructor in higher education can seem daunting, especially as we plan for a more equitable future. In this episode, we discuss some of those challenges, search for hope, and discuss ways forward that are ethical, humane and flexible.


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.


John: Our guest today is Jesse Stommel. Jesse is the Executive Director of the Hybrid Pedagogy nonprofit organization, an organization he founded in 2011. He is also the founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. Jesse recently served as the Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. He is a co-author, with Sean Michael Morris of An Urgency of Teachers: the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, and with Dorothy Kim, the co-editor of Disrupting the Digital Humanities. Welcome, Jesse.

Jesse: Hi, it’s good to be with you all. Looking forward to our chat.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Jesse: I’m actually drinking peach honey sparkling water. It’s sort of tea infused.

Rebecca: Okay, that’s good. That counts. Also, it sounds really good. [LAUGHTER]

John: I have ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: …and I have a decaf Assam.

Jesse: I feel jealous of both of your teas.

Rebecca: It’s sad that we don’t have you in person in our office where we have a giant selection that you could choose from, we’ll send you a picture so you know what you missed out on. [LAUGHTER]

Jesse: Well, we’ll have to do that in the future.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

John: They’re slightly aged teas compared to when we last saw them about a year and a few months back, but they are there and some of them we’ll probably have to dispose of. [LAUGHTER] You’ve been a really important voice on behalf of inclusive teaching and very vocal on topics like trauma-infused pedagogy, designing with care in mind, ungrading, and equity more generally. What does it mean to be an ethical instructor as we approach the fall, still amidst the last stages of a pandemic?

Jesse: I wrote a piece with Sara Goldrick-Rab a few years ago, and for folks who don’t know, Sara Goldrick-Rab is an expert in higher education policy, particularly focusing on food and housing insecurity. And she and I wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Teaching the Students We Have, Not the Students We Wish We Had.” And ultimately, the thing that that piece charged me to do, and I’ve been working with Sara for, I think, close to eight years now and her work and the research that she’s done has really put a kind of specificity to my work on inclusive pedagogies and critical pedagogies that has charged me to think really carefully about how the material circumstances of our students affect their learning experience, and also how the material circumstances of teachers affect their teaching experience. And so if I think about how we begin to move back into classrooms, to find our way back to our institutions, to find our way back to the collaborations and colleagues we may have worked really closely with, I think that the key is for us to do really deep work thinking about who are our students? What do they need to be successful? How have they been affected by the last 18 months? And to do that same work with ourselves and our colleagues. Ask ourselves: who are we as teachers? What do we need to be successful? And I think institutions have a charge that they have to be really careful about how they quote unquote, pivot back to business as usual. I don’t think there’s a neat and tidy pivot back. And I don’t think business as usual is the appropriate place for us to turn to at this moment. So for institutions to ask hard questions of themselves, interrogate the things that they may have done to exclude many of the people who found themselves struggling during the pandemic, the things they did to exclude those students and faculty members well before the pandemic, to assure that they don’t continue the kind of exclusive practices that I’ve seen so many institutions coming to grips with in the last 18 months.

Rebecca: I really appreciate the focus that you’ve put on both students and also caring about colleagues and making sure that we’re being reciprocal in thinking about each other as humans and not just robots that we work with or something. In this conversation of getting back to campuses in the fall, what can we do to continue to humanize this practice with our colleagues too, that you just kind of focused a little bit on students, but what does this mean when we’re thinking about our colleagues and our relationships with our colleagues,

Jesse: I’ve been at several institutions that were struggling. So many of the people listening have found themselves at institutions that were struggling, I feel like the whole of public education is struggling at the current moment, but I’ve had some very specific circumstances at the last few institutions where I worked. About 10 years ago, I worked at Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon, and Marylhurst University ended up closing down because of financial insecurity. And I was there a few years before they closed down and sort of dealing with the environment and watching the writing on the wall get darker and darker. After that, I went to University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the Governor, Scott Walker, obliterated tenure across the system, taking one of the best public education state systems in our country and making it a mockery. And his decision had a rippling impact across the entire institution. And what I found in both of those situations was that in situations of precarity, situations of financial austerity… and in many cases, those are manufactured, and they’re manufactured, especially in the case of Scott Walker, for very particular political reasons. In situations of austerity and precarity, people start to turn on each other, the sort of fabric of the community that existed prior to those moments that I found myself in at those institutions, I watched it erode and it eroded very quickly. And so the importance of being kind to one another, the importance of supporting each other, supporting our students, certainly, but also supporting our colleagues, and the importance of administrations focusing their efforts not on finding a new contract to a remote proctoring solution, which will do harm to all of the students and all of the teachers at the institution, but to focus their investment and their energy on finding ways to support the community that beats at the heart of the institution. That’s ultimately what we have to do. And it’s so important right now, because I saw over the last 18 months, the same thing starting to happen at a lot of institutions. I saw institutions beginning to create cultures that were inhospitable to the kinds of work that we really want to do in education.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that comes up in addition to food insecurity and housing insecurity with our students is that during the pandemic it became visible, I think, for some folks, that part-time faculty, adjunct faculty, also have some of those insecurities that we often just don’t address or think about. How do you see us, as a larger higher education community starting to support those faculty more and really addressing those insecurities? What can we do?

Jesse: I think there’s an easy answer… that we should all commit to having a permanent full-time academic workforce at all of our institutions. And the truth is that when you look at what the expenses are of our institutions, there are ways to cut costs. Imagine an institution that has just spent $500,000, or if you’re the State of Illinois, just spent $23 million on a multi-year contract with a remote proctoring solution. Think about all of that money, and how many adjunct or precarious faculty that money could support. If you think about the pedagogical benefits of making faculty full-time non-precarious, versus the pedagogical deficit that gets created by creating a culture of suspicion at our institutions, there is money being spent on things doing harm to students that could be easily re channeled towards something like certainly student support, supporting students basic needs, or supporting the basic needs of faculty who are struggling. I think that there is a need right now for us to be really honest about how money is getting spent at institutions and how that money signals what our institutions value and what our institutions don’t value. It is quite clear, across the entirety of higher education, that the vast majority of our institutions do not support teachers or the work of teaching. And that is quite clear via the mass adjunctification across our institutions, as well as the failure to properly invest in the preparation of teachers or pedagogical support for teachers. And that didn’t change in the pandemic. I have not seen a huge amount of money suddenly getting funneled into faculty development and support… at most institutions, anyway.

Rebecca: I think many of the things that we’re talking about right now are all things that were happening before the pandemic, they just became more visible to some people during the pandemic.

Jesse: Yeah, and you mentioned food and housing insecurity, and then alluded to other struggles that people were having… mental health issues… certainly, we are all experiencing acute mental health issues because of the last 18 months. But there are so many people who were experiencing acute and chronic mental health issues prior to the pandemic that weren’t getting properly addressed. And if you also think about disabled students and faculty, and the ways that their needs were not being met prior to the pandemic. We figured out how to do remote work and remote teaching in the midst of the pandemic, or we figured out how to do it as best as each individual institution might have done, which is… your mileage may vary, I guess. [LAUGHTER] But, the truth is that there are so many faculty and students who are disabled in various ways who needed that kind of support well before the pandemic.

John: On a positive note, though, didn’t the pandemic help make some of these issues much more clear to faculty and administrators, when they saw the problems that students had in continuing and when they recognize the need to provide support for faculty who didn’t have computer access at home to even connect with their students remotely? Might that perhaps help lead to a change in mindset?

Jesse: On my Twitter bio, I am called an irascible optimist. That was a moniker given to me by Sean Michael Morris. And when he said that I thought: “That is indeed me.” And I’ve worn that moniker ever since he gave it to me, irascible optimist. I’ll be honest that I have been less optimistic in the last 18 years. And I recognize I’m being less optimistic in this initial start to this conversation than I would have been if we had talked two years ago. And part of that is because of what I have seen over the last 18 months, and the deep, deep struggles that I’ve seen so many of my students having, and so many of my colleagues having, and also the failures of so many state governments, the federal government, and institutions to really figure out what to do and how to handle this particular moment. So if I think about what we’ve learned, is that we’ve learned to listen to our gut, we’ve learned to acknowledge the things that we were already seeing. It’s not like suddenly we saw new things over the last 18 months, we were already seeing them. And so we learned that we actually have to take action. One of the sad things and this is going to keep us maybe on the pessimistic place for just a few more minutes, is that I worry that so many institutions came to grips with these things, because these things started to hit them in their pocketbook. And I hate that that was the reason that many institutions started to solve these issues. On the other hand, what I will say is that the kinds of conversations that I’ve had with fellow teachers over the last 18 months have felt incredible. I have felt more connected, even if my work has been harder than it ever has been. I have felt more connected to that work and more deeply connected to the colleagues that I work with. And I have found new connections, because I have seen so many individual teachers struggling and working so hard to help meet the needs of our present moment.

John: And I’m still fairly optimistic because of that. A lot of faculty were able to avoid some of those issues, even though they may have been generally aware of some of the challenges our students face. When they interacted with them in the classroom it wasn’t quite as clear as when they were hearing from students who were dealing with problems of just being at their class because they had work commitments or because they had other responsibilities. And they had network issues because they didn’t have stable network connections, or they were using a laptop that was 10 years old, and it wouldn’t work consistently. And I think faculty in general have become much more aware of the challenges of our students. I’m hopeful, at least, that that’s not going to disappear. And that that could help lead to more consistent support of students once we do return to whatever the new normal happens to be as we move back to more campus instruction.

Rebecca: I’m really hoping that faculty, given this kind of acknowledgement of a wide variety of struggles, will really work together and push administrators and push universities and push systems to change. Because if we don’t speak up together in a unified way, it’s not gonna happen.

Jesse: Yeah, Paulo Freire and bell hooks both talk about what they describe as critical hope… that hope is an action that we take not a passive state, that hope is a work… that hope is struggle. And just that idea that hope isn’t passive, we don’t sit back and wait and hope. Instead, we take the action of hope. And Maxine Greene, also a critical pedagogue, talks about imagining the world as though it could be otherwise. And so her word there is “imagination.” Again, something active, imagining the world as though it could be otherwise requires us to recognize our agency and how we can have a positive impact and a positive effect. And so pushing back where we can, drawing students into these conversations where we are able, insisting that student voices be centered in these conversations, these are things that we can do and that will have a necessarily good impact, even when we’re precarious and where we feel like our job might be at risk, there are still actions that we can take, and it’s a matter of figuring out how do I engage in the work of hope or the work of imagination.

Rebecca: See, we got to a more positive place. [LAUGHTER]

Jesse: Just give us a few minutes. [LAUGHTER]

John: One of the things you’re really known for is your work on ungrading and creating an environment that’s more conducive to learning. Could you just talk a little bit about that?

Jesse: So I’ll just say that I have been quote, unquote, ungrading for 21 years, it’s a practice that I started my first semester of teaching. And it’s a practice that has grown and changed over time. But, I often say that I have never put a grade on a piece of student work in my career. The truth is that that’s not exactly true, because I love co-teaching and when you co-teach you negotiate a pedagogy with your co-teacher, and so I have put grades on individual students’ work but it was always a discussion and a sort of process that I came to with another teacher. The interesting thing is that I’ve been doing this work as part of my practice for 21 years, but I didn’t start talking about it publicly. I mean, beyond just having conversations about it publicly. I didn’t start publicly writing about it, giving keynotes about it, etc., until 2017. So four years ago that I really started writing publicly about this. Ungrading was a word that I had used, but it wasn’t something that an entire way of my pedagogical thought was centered around. So it has been interesting to watch the transition in me as I’ve moved towards talking about this more publicly. And I’ll tell you the reasons I didn’t talk about it publicly. I was a road warrior adjunct for about nine years of my teaching, teaching at up to four institutions, nine classes a term, dealing with the rules and restrictions at four different institutions. And I also felt like my pedagogical approach to grading felt like something between me and the students I was working with. It was no one else’s business. It was a conversation I had with them. And I felt like I wanted to protect that space for students and me to work through that together. The reason that I changed my thinking and started writing more publicly is because, over the last 20 years, I’ve watched education become increasingly quantitative and watched the reliance on learning management systems, which turn students into rows in a spreadsheet and their work into columns in a spreadsheet. I’ve watched institutions grade and evaluate their teachers in increasingly quantifiable ways. And then I’ve watched, obviously, the turn towards algorithms and the Internet of Things and weird tools like plagiarism detection software that again, feels like it reduces us to cogs, and reduces our work to bits, ones and zeros. And so I felt the need to create a larger conversation and dialogue on this because increasingly, I recognize that grades were the biggest thorn in the side of critical pedagogy and the biggest thorn in the side of my pedagogy. And so many people felt like we’re increasingly struggling with grades as the thing that got in the way of them creating productive relationships with students. And ultimately, when I started writing about it, I was amazed at the response. And to some degree, I feel like there were so many people that had hit that wall, and that we’re feeling that increased quantification over many, many years, almost like frogs boiling in a pot of water. And the other amazing thing was how much conversations with the larger community of teachers, a larger community of students, helped continue to evolve and change my practice. I guess one of the other reasons I started writing and talking about it more publicly was because I needed a push. I needed students and colleagues to ask me to work even harder to ask even harder questions of myself. And the last thing I’ll say is that ungrading is just a word. The one thing I can’t stand about the word ungrading is it tries to take a huge variety of practices that push back on traditional grading, and tries to lump them into one word as though there is upgrading tm, you know, the thing Jesse invented and that you can buy from him for $19.99, [LAUGHTER] three payments, and that he’ll deliver it to you and it will be a stack of 20 best practices that if you implement will change your life and make your relationships with students better. And that’s just not the way pedagogy works. That’s not the way teaching works. And that’s certainly not the way something as complex as assessment works. And so ultimately, this has to be an ongoing dialogue, conversation between teachers, between teachers and students. And what works for one teacher in one context with one group of students won’t necessarily work neat and tidily for another.

John: You mentioned that your practice has evolved in some way. Could you talk a little bit about how your practices involving… I don’t want to say ungrading again… [LAUGHTER]

Jesse: No, I did help coin the term.

John: Ok.

Jesse: So I’m all right with us using the word “ungrading.” I think it is good for us to have a word for us to rally these conversations around because we need the energy and the catalyzing force that that term has caused, and so it’s useful and productive in that way. So I’ve done self evaluation, asking students to write process letters, to analyze their own learning, to reflect on their own learning. I’ve asked them to reflect on group and peer learning. And I’ve asked them to grade themselves. And over the course of my career, I almost always give students the grade they give themselves. For the most part, when I change a grade, it’s to raise the grade, especially in situations where I feel like bias has influenced the grades. The thing is bias, even self-internalized bias, affects how we review and evaluate our performance. And the thing that I’ve changed most about is I’ve started to get this nagging feeling that when I have students self evaluate and self grading that I’m taking everything that I don’t like about grades, everything that the research shows is ineffective about grades, everything that is emotionally harmful about grades and giving grades, and taking that and kind of passing the buck on to students. And so my project in ungrading, or my project in my own assessment practice, has always been to turn grades over on their back and inspect them and ask hard questions of them and wonder at them and raise our eyebrows at them so that we feel like we have more agents within a quantified system like we work in. And I don’t think I can necessarily do that by just taking all the problems of grades and passing that over to students. So I’ve started to rethink how I ask students to do that work of grading themselves. One of the things that I found is, over so many years, giving A, A-, B, B+, B, B- is that when students went to grade themselves, they would give themselves something like, “Oh, it’s either an A plus, or an A minus, or it’s a B plus.” And they would quibble these tiny details, which that kind of evidence suggests to me that I had passed the anxiety of grades and quantification on to them. And so recently, in the last two years, I’ve removed A minuses and pluses from the approach that I use, I tell students just round up. And it’s interesting, because the second that I did, that students stopped quibbling the tiny details, and this is really drawn from some writing by Peter Elbow, where he writes specifically about minimal grading, which taking 100 point scale or 1000 point scale and reducing it to a 10 point scale, or a five point scale, or a three, two, one point scale. And the more we reduce it, the more clear it becomes, and the more it communicates, and the more effective it is as an assessment tool. And so giving students less gradations to quibble about. But on the other hand, I also recognize that these are decisions that I’m making, that I still have power in the classroom and trying to think about an inspect my own power and privilege in the classroom and how I can begin to at least dismantle that, not to remove it, because I think classrooms need strong leaders, but at least to dismantle it enough that I’m leaving space for students to sort of carve out their own space within their educations.

Rebecca: Seems to me that a lot of the ungrading work is really tied to this idea of flexibility that you’ve talked about pretty frequently: being flexible as a teacher and offering options, but it’s also in popular in frameworks, like UDL. But I also know that the idea of providing flexibility can cause a lot of anxiety to a faculty member in trying to figure out how to do that and make it manageable and make it sustainable. Can you share some ideas about making that a sustainable practice and also what you mean by flexible options for students.

Jesse: So the interesting thing is flexible does become more complicated. If we are engaging in the work of teaching as a form of policing student learning, or even not policing, just monitoring, even, monitoring student learning, or collecting or gathering student learning or gathering evidence for student learning. The second that we as teachers move away from that role of feeling like we are the evaluators, we are meant to rank students, we’re there to police their learning, we’re there to ensure compliance…. which honestly, even good teachers, so much of that is baked into just how our system is structured, that we do it without even realizing that we’re doing it… even the structure and shape of a syllabus has so much of that baked into it. I think that flexibility becomes a lot easier when you hand that over to the students. So people often say, “Oh, well, you let your students do five different things for an assignment or you let them just pick something… anything?” And I say, “Well, I don’t let them I invite them to do that, first of all.” Second of al, “Well, then how do you manage all the different things you get at different times?” I say, “Well, I don’t consider myself the primary audience for student work, I create a space in my course where they can share this work with one another. And they can give one another feedback.” And then, “Well gosh, how do you deal with all of the requests that you might get?” I don’t ask my students to ask permission. I invite them to modify, remix, to take advantage of flexibility. So in other words, the more that I remove my bureaucratic burden, the more flexibility becomes super easy because if a student says to me, “Well, can I” I can say, “of course you can. I invite you to change, remix,” in some ways, I don’t even have to do the work of considering the request. Because the request isn’t necessary to the relationship. I’m sort of there to offer feedback to students, and to be surprised and to marvel at whatever it is that they end up doing for the course. The other thing that we often do is we think that our role is to rank students against one another. That’s one of the reasons why I can’t stand rubrics, because I feel like the entire structure of a rubric is set up to put student work into neat and tidy boxes. And when we do that, we essentially are ranking students against one another. And so if one student does something that is just in a completely different universe from another, how do you assure that they both earned the A ? Well, ultimately, if you just remove the idea that our work is to compare students to one another. One student does a traditional academic paper and the other gives you a piece of installation art that moves around campus and that you can’t even quite make sense of it. You don’t have to hold them up and say, “Well, how do I really justify giving that piece of performance art an A?” You take it on its own merit, and you recognize what it is, and you marvel at it. And you allow yourself to be surprised by it. The more flexible I am, the more fun teaching ends up being, people often when I say things like that think, “Oh, your classes, just chaos.” And actually, no, I’m a pretty type A person. I’m pretty OCD, I actually structure a really neat and tidy syllabus, the structure of my course, is very organized, partly because I sort of subscribe to improvisation within a frame, which I take from jazz music, but I don’t know much about jazz. So feel free to tell me if I’ve interpreted that completely wrongly. But this idea that we need a frame and a structure in order to improvise within it. And so you set up the sort of guardrails for students, to some extent their boundaries, but it’s more like their guardrails, you set them up so that students feel like they can experiment within the space of the classroom. And then, to some extent, it allows you and gives you the freedom to play without worrying if you’re just going to go completely off the deep end,

John: You mentioned being surprised by some of the things your students have come up with as ways of demonstrating their learning. Could you give us just a few examples of some of the more interesting projects your students have selected?

Jesse: I kind of alluded to it in our last conversation. But this was at University of Mary Washington, and the assignment was to reinvent, rebuild the internet. And the assignment had a very short prompt that gave space for students to interpret the instructions in so many different ways. And the answer to this assignment for a group of students was to create a pile of trash. And that pile of trash had multicolored bits of crumpled paper in it. And it was a piece of installation art that migrated around campus. And they took pictures of it in different locations around campus. And then at one point it showed up in our classroom, and they wrote an artist statement that talked about the detritus of the web, the deep and dark web and all the bits you can see and the bits you can’t see. And that was marvelous. The sort of meat of the project was how captivating and how just seeing this thing, and wondering at how this fit as an interpretation of the assignment. I often come into class, and when I’ve just picked something like a reading or designed an assignment, and I’ve kind of done it instinctually maybe it’s because I’m doing that reading for the first time, I’ll often go into class, and I’ll say, “Why did I choose this reading?” And I mean that honestly, it’s not a rhetorical question. It’s like, this is the first time I’ve taught this and I’m trying to figure out whether it fits and how it fits. And so ultimately, that’s what this group of students’ project did for me, is it forced me to ask myself, “Well, gosh, what is this course even about?” And to me, that project managed to get at the biggest question of the course, which is, what are we even doing here? Why are we talking about the internet, and for me, that was marvelous. On the other hand, another teacher might look at this pile of trash and say, “Hey, that’s just a pile of trash.” And so there’s something idiosyncratic about how we engage with student work. I’ve also read really, really good academic papers. And so even some of those have surprised me, in part because sometimes it’s that punctum in an academic paper where the academic paper is just going along, going through the motions of a traditional academic paper, and then it just veers. And then you have this moment like Roland Barthe’s punctum where all you can see, you almost have it burned into your retina, this sort of moment of friction within the work. And truthfully, those are the most interesting parts of education in general, is the parts where we do something that we weren’t expecting, or where students turn something in that we never would have imagined for a particular assignment.

Rebecca: One of the things that sometimes comes up with flexibilities not just the trepidation of a faculty member, but also of students. When there’s a lot of options available, students sometimes can freeze and not know what to do. You mentioned the guardrails. So how do those function? Or how do you make sure that those students that are overwhelmed by choice feel included?

Jesse: One thing is to have very clear parameters, and I tend to have really short provocations for students… let’s call them provocations instead of assignments, because even the idea of assignment suggests a transactional relationship between a teacher and students, I still haven’t found quite the right word, invitation doesn’t feel strong enough, but maybe provocation is what it is. So I try and be very, very clear to have very explicit instructions. And also to have them very short. I find that so often, we create assignment sheets that end up being longer than the papers themselves. I’ve seen two-page responses that have an assignment sheet that’s three or four pages describing what students should do and their two page response paper. And I think partly we do that because we’re anxious about the questions that we’ll get, and we’re anxious about students falling through the cracks. When what happens is the more words that we put in our assignments, or provocations, whatever you want to call them…. I think I’ll, for the purposes here, I’ll keep calling them assignments. I think that’s fine. We fill our assignments up with language that’s all there, in some ways defensively, but every single word we put in there is a pothole that a student might fall into. It’s a rabbit hole a student might fall down. And I find that the shorter my assignment descriptions are, the less questions I get, the longer they are, the more questions they get. And people just think, well, if I just answer all the questions in advance that I won’t get any questions. And that isn’t how it ends up working out, because students are really worried about what our expectations are. And I think we have to break that down. And the reason that a student feels overwhelmed by choice is because they’re worried about meeting our expectations. And so we have to make sure that, in our language, we make clear, this isn’t about my expectations, it’s about what you expect of yourself. And here’s the thing I don’t necessarily know that works if we’re using traditional grading systems, because ultimately, if you’re putting a grade on a thing, your expectations are what matters. But if you’re giving over some, or even all of that work to students, it starts to break down this idea. They recognize, “Oh, he’s not grading this anyway. So this really is about my expectations.” And if, when I engage with the work rather than approving of it or disapproving of it, instead, I encounter it the way a reader would, by having a reaction to it and telling students what my reaction is. And then I encourage students to do that for each other. Peter Elbow talks about ranking, evaluating and liking… ranking being the thing that we shouldn’t do, we shouldn’t rank students against one another, evaluating being a thing that still has a place because certainly there are times when students do need some amount of evaluation from an external mentor, I think those moments are much fewer than we end up doing. And then he talks about liking, which is just giving ourselves space to appreciate student work, to not have to evaluate it, to just enjoy it, and to respond to it and to be an expert reader for students.

John: Could you elaborate on that notion of being an expert reader for students? What sort of feedback do you provide them as an expert reader?

Jesse: Well, I think one of the things is that so much of our so many of our traditional grading systems call for us to be objective. And we can probably have a whole other podcast around objectivity versus subjectivity and whether they’re even possible. There’s a lot of research that shows the idea of objective grading is just a fallacy to begin with. But I think that it’s about allowing ourselves to have a subjective response, allowing ourselves to bring our full humanity to that moment of engaging with student work, to laugh at it, to wonder at it, to marvel at it, to be silent, to be struck silent, to raise our eyebrows at it, to ask hard questions of it. And so what that might actually look like with a group of students is letting them see me puzzling over it, letting them see me just work through my thinking about what I’m seeing. And so oftentimes, I have students do sort of expos in class where they bring all of their work and they just lay it out, whether it’s a paper, whether it’s a pile of trash, whether it’s a video, whether it’s a documentary, they lay their work out, and we just hang out together and go around and look at each other’s work. And what I sort of see my role there is just to model what it looks like to appreciate the efforts that they’ve made and to encounter their work and talk about my experience of it, as opposed to saying, “Oh, you did this? Well, this needs improvement.” …to sort of hold back that this needs improvement, because there are moments when that’s really important, but then other moments where it isn’t. For example, I taught first-year writing for a long time, and in first-year college writing, it’s not getting to success, it’s about just getting comfortable writing, just getting comfortable in your skin as a writer. And that means not a lot of that kind of evaluative feedback, it means more just here’s what happens to me when I encounter your words.

Rebecca: Some of what we’ve been talking about with this flexibility and ungrading is really starting to get a sense that individual students and members of a learning community really being members and belonging to that community. Can you elaborate on ways in addition to this flexibility idea that might help students from a wide variety of backgrounds feel like they belong, especially those that we saw during the pandemic and we know they existed before that, really struggling or having barriers and helping them really feel like “You really do belong here. You really should be here. We want you here.”

Jesse: I think that we do that from the very beginning and how we structure education at so many of our institutions, the reliance on the idea of seat time. classes that meet two days a week, Tuesday and Thursday for a set amount of hours, classes that meet Monday, Wednesday, Friday, really bizarre ways of thinking about hybrid learning or online learning where there’s too much of a reliance on synchronous engagement. Ultimately, when we make those kinds of decisions with how we structure education at our institutions, we’re telling whole swaths of students: “This isn’t built for you, this isn’t made for you.” And increasingly people talk about adult learners. Well, at the college level, all of our students are adult learners. And increasingly, the vast majority of them are working adult learners. And we’re not doing enough to structure education so that it acknowledges their experience. I had a student who was disabled, he had chronic migraines. And, luckily, at the time I worked at an institution where I was developing a new hybrid degree program. And I had in a sense developed the program not just for him, but for all of the students I was working with, who were like him in various ways, who had no access to education, without serious rethinking about how we build our curriculum. So thinking about when we move online, relying increasingly on asynchronous ways for students to engage asynchronously, because most of the students who turn to online need more flexibility, their time is not their own in many cases. And when we’re designing degree programs, rethinking things like the 15-week semester, rethinking things like seat time, rethinking things like classes that meet Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 50 minutes over the course of a 15-week period. Honestly, I increasingly think that’s absurd. What a weird structure…50 minutes three times a week, how is where a student is at on Monday any different than where they’re at on Wednesday, is 15 minutes really enough time for us to develop the kinds of thinking that we’re trying to get at in our courses. Ultimately, I think, just asking ourselves, are we continuing to teach students in the way that we are just because this is the way we have always done it? Or is this actually what will help students learn and give space for students to learn? Also, if we go back to those adjuncts, when I was a road warrior adjunct trying to teach a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class that met for 50 minutes, that was 45 minutes from my house, trying to fit that into my schedule with my other eight classes, was nearly impossible. What I needed more than anything was not just one approach, I needed to be able to teach one course asynchronously, one course on a tuesday, thursday schedule. So I needed a variety of different things in my schedule. And that’s what a lot of students are needing. The students at my institution, where I’m currently teaching still at University of Mary Washington, so many of them are quote unquote, traditional students who want face-to-face interaction. And so the institution says we are on ground residential institution, we will be back full time, everyone will be back at their desks in the fall. But that’s not what the students actually want. The students want most of their educational experience to be face to face, but they’re struggling to fill a schedule, because they’re also working. And so they need to be able to take some courses online, some courses hybrid, some courses face to face. And they really want to be able to build a much more thoughtful approach to education. And also, when we think about specific classes, some disciplines, some courses, lend themselves to one format, some lend themselves to another. So I think that that’s the way we invite students in is, from the start, actually building with the students. And not just for the students building for those students would be great, but also finding ways to build with them, and to design curriculum alongside of them. So it really meets their needs and challenges them appropriately.

John: One of the things that’s going to be a bit different this fall is that we’re going to have some students who are sophomores, even, who’ve never been on campus. And most students have not been interacting in person in classrooms for the last year and a half or so. What can we do to help create a sense of community when we bring these people together for the first time after this long break from face-to-face interaction?

Jesse: The first thing I’m thinking about is something that I started saying, from the very, very start of the quote unquote pivot to online, right around the beginning of the lockdown last year, I started to say, we need to make sure that it isn’t continuity of instruction that we’re trying to maintain, but continuity of the communities at the heart of our institutions. I don’t know if many institutions figured out how to support those communities online. I think they figured out how to keep the lights on and to keep people taking classes. But, I don’t necessarily know that the communities were maintained. What I worry about as we return to campus is that we will try and pick up right where we left with that continuity of instruction. Rather than realizing that where we need to most place our efforts is not just starting up the wheel of delivering content to students, what we need to do is figure out how to revitalize those communities. And that needs to be a huge part of our efforts. So if every teacher is imagining that they’re going to go back to teaching the same amount of content that they taught before the pandemic… one, they were probably trying to teach too much. They were probably teaching too much at the expense of developing community even two years ago, but recognizing that we need to put a lot more breathing room into our courses. And also a lot more conversation between courses, because communities don’t just exist in a vacuum, you don’t just have a community in your first-period class, and then a community in your second-period class community is living, breathing, and it’s sort of echoes between those spaces. So thinking about what happens between period one and period two. How are those two courses connected? What are students doing on campus? Where is the life of the institution? And how can we invest as much as possible into supporting that, and I don’t think it’s with algorithmic retention software. That is the worst possible thing that I see institutions turning to to try and support community. Algorithms are not going to help us build and maintain community, human beings are the ones who are good at that. So any dollar you’re spending on an algorithmic retention software, please give that to adjunct and contingent instructors.

John: In terms of reducing the amount of content in classes, I think a lot of faculty realized that when they switch to remote or online instruction. Is that something you think people will automatically recognize or do you think people are going to try to go back to how things were before and forget the lessons that they’ve learned about this during the pandemic?

Jesse: I think a lot of individual faculty, individual teachers, individual students will take so many of these lessons back to their work this fall and beyond. I think institutions are much harder to shift. And so the problem is, I don’t know that institutional culture will change in the way that it needs to in order to support the efforts of those students and faculty. And so this is really a charge to institutions and administrators to put that breathing room also in the institutional culture and important ways.

Rebecca: And maybe even really, to push it within a department because that might be a place where faculty can start to expand it out. And think about it. When you were talking, I was imagining a time that seems so long ago now. It may have been 10 years ago, and seems like a really long time now.

Jesse: Yeah, it feels like it’s either a week ago, or like 10 years ago, to me,

Rebecca: I had colleagues that we would, if we had classes at the same time, we would actually schedule activities together. We would cross pollinate to have some of that community. We’d have design challenges and investigate and do different things with each other. We’ve lost some of that play, just over time with assessment requirements and this and that. It has fizzled. So I’m hoping that this fall will bring back the play, bring back the fun for that community that to marinate a little bit.

Jesse: And if I can think of some really practical things institutions can do in order to seed that community that you’re describing. If your institution is not paying adjuncts and contingent staff for faculty development, it needs to. Even Walmart and Subway and Starbucks pays their employees for required job training. But then the other benefit is that those are the spaces where community germinates. Another example is there are so many barriers to collaborative teaching at our institutions, “Oh, well, who’s going to get the credit for it? Whose load is it going to count towards?” If that’s your answer to collaborative teaching, you need to stop right there and ask yourself, “What kind of environment are we trying to create?” And if we want a collaborative environment, if we want a community amongst our faculty, then right then and there, decide and commit yourself to figuring out the obstacles to collaborative teaching, which I’ve watched get worse and worse and worse over the last 21 years that I’ve been teaching. And those are just two small things. And the truth is, they’re relatively easy. There are bureaucratic systems that feel like “You can’t possibly… how are we going to deal with that within our institutional database?” Like get over it, figure it out. [LAUGHTER] The truth is that those are things that we all know we want. I’ve never talked to someone who says “no, no, we don’t want people collaborative teaching” then why don’t institutions charge themselves to figure that out?

Rebecca: So many good questions raised in this conversation, Jesse. As always, I wouldn’t expect anything different with a conversation with you. We always wrap up by asking, “What’s next?”

Jesse: Oh, wow, that’s a really, really large question. What’s next? Okay, well, I’m gonna say that, as some folks listening to this may not know, my husband and I and my four-year old daughter just opened a game and toy store which has a classroom and a makerspace in it. And I am really thinking about how helping my husband with this endeavor is going to push me to think about my teaching in new ways. So, it’s a small retail space, 1600 square feet on the main street of Littleton with a retail section and a classroom and a maker space. We’re going to offer classes for kids and adults, so that it isn’t just about selling people toys and games, but teaching them how to design and make and manufacture their own toys and games. And it feels like a respite for me in some ways… one, to have my own project that I’m focusing on, but also to have a space where nobody’s telling me I have to grade. I just get to decide how I approach the work inside this space. So I’m excited to see how helping my husband with this project informs the rest of my practice and thinking about education.

Rebecca: That sounds so fun. Can I come? [LAUGHTER]

Jesse: Yeah. yeah, yeah, ou can. Do you want to be a teacher? We haven’t hired our first teacher. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That sounds really fun. Actually. I’ve taught makerspace things before with kids. That sounds totally fun.

Jesse: And I guess that what’s next is to find joy in this work, because the last 18 months have been so hard. And I think that joy… bell hooks also writes a lot about joy. Joy is also a practice, joy is also struggle… but figuring out how to find the kernel of the work of teaching that has kept me doing this work for 21 years. That’s really something I feel charged to do.

Rebecca: Perhaps a charge we should all have moving into the fall.

Jesse: Yeah, I’m determined to become an irascible optimist again. We’ll see. Check back with me in a year maybe I would have gotten there. [LAUGHTER]

John: And perhaps shifting some of our focus away from grading can help restore some of that joy.

Jesse: Absolutely,

Rebecca: Indeed, indeed. Thanks so much, Jesse.


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.