Creating an environment where members of the learning community can be taken seriously as their own authentic selves requires planning. In this episode, Celeste Atkins joins us to discuss how shifts in context, like reframing an assignment, can impact the way people engage with each other and the content.
- Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
- Jot – an option for those resistant to tea.
- Atkins, Celeste. (2021). Teaching Up: Developing an Intersectional Andragogy. PhD Dissertation. University of Arizona.
- Celeste Atkins website
- Celeste Atkins – teaching samples
John: Creating an environment where members of the learning community can be taken seriously as their own authentic selves requires planning. In this episode we discuss how shifts in context like reframing an assignment can impact the way people engage with each other and the content.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Celeste Atkins. Celeste is a Sociologist, the Assistant Director of Faculty Mentoring Initiatives, and a Lecturer in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona. She is also the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor collection, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Celeste.
Celeste: Thank you.
John: Today’s teas are:… Celeste, are you drinking tea?
Celeste: I am an iced coffee person. So I actually drink Jot and I make my own vanilla lattes every day.
Rebecca: Wow, that sounds fancy.
Celeste: It’s really easy. Jot is a coffee concentrate, you use a tablespoon full of it and then I use a tablespoon full of vanilla sugar and eight ounces of milk. And it’s delicious and easy and quick.
Rebecca: and caffeinated. [LAUGHTER] I have Jasmine black tea today.
John: And I have ginger tea today.
Rebecca: The title of your chapter in Picture a Professor is “Teaching Up: Bringing my Blackness into the Classroom.” In addition to your chapter in Picture a Professor, you’ve also published other chapters that grew out of your dissertation: Teaching Up: Developing an Intersectional Andragogy. Can you tell us a bit about your dissertation research?
Celeste: Well, I have a background in sociology, but my PhD is in higher education. And so I spent close to a decade teaching at the community college level. And my dissertation grew out of my own experiences as a Black woman in a conservative Arizona town teaching about racial privilege, heterosexual privilege, and those types of things. So what I wanted to do was take an intersectional approach, because there’s literature on faculty of color, there’s literature on women, there’s literature on queer faculty, but not much takes an intersectional approach to see what we have in common and what we don’t. And so I interviewed, I believe, 18 sociology faculty from across the nation at different levels, in different types of institutions, about their experiences as part of a traditionally marginalized group teaching up, so teaching about privilege when they themselves are oppressed in some area. And so we had women, we had queer faculty, we had a couple of faculty who identified as disabled, and quite a few faculty of color.
John: On your website, you note that the chapter in Picture a Professor is based on some unexpected findings from the research in your dissertation. Could you tell us a little bit about the unexpected findings that you talked about in this chapter?
Celeste: Sure. So actually, this chapter is about the part of my dissertation that spoke the most to me, but surprised me the most, which is, when I started to look at differences intersectionally, I found that Black women, in particular, focused on bringing their authentic selves to the classroom. And for some of them it was after they got tenure, for some of them, it was after they felt they had sort of sold their soul in a way. And for me, what I found in my teaching, and why this resonated with me was: I started teaching, I got a lot of feedback, “you’re too aggressive,” “you’re too assertive,” “you’re too scary,” blah, blah, blah. And so then I tried to be like a Disney princess and be really, you know, flowers and butterflies, and very welcoming and soft, and it was fake. And my students didn’t like it, because it wasn’t me. And they could tell it wasn’t authentically me. So after a year or two of that not going well, I decided to just be me. I found a different book that was more intersectional and I started talking about what it’s like being a fluffy Black woman and how it affects how I live in the world. And I would make jokes about it, and I would address it. And then students really responded to it because it was who I am, and my authentic self. And so what these other sociology faculty were doing that’s so important, is modeling different ways of being professional. Because one of the things that’s so hard about hegemonic academia is it’s very heteronormative, it’s very white, it’s very male, it’s very middle class. And so a lot of us do a lot of code switching. And I used to joke about my best friend in college, she worked for a talent agency and I worked in HR and so we would call each other and like, “Good afternoon, may I speak with Michelle, please?” And she’d go, “Who’s calling?” And I’d go, “This is Celeste. What’s up girl? Hey, what are we gonna do this weekend?” As soon as we knew it was each other on the phone, then we would be our authentic self. And a lot of us spend time code switching. But what that does is reinforce the idea that our authentic selves is not okay in academia. And so this chapter about bringing our Blackness to the classroom is about when we show our true selves not only do we find different ways to connect to our students, but we also expand for many their ideas about what faculty are, about what professional is, about what an academic does. I can be an academic and not talk in $5 words, I can be an academic and be very gesture-y and very outspoken and out there and still do quality academic work, and in some ways, reach students that a lot of others who are so concerned at fitting in this rigid box of what is considered proper academia miss.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of classes that you teach that we can start talking about what that looks like for you and how your chapter addresses being in those classes?
Celeste: Well, I’ve gone through a lot of changes during my dissertation journey. And I actually have another chapter coming out about how I felt like I was kind of pushed out of teaching. It is very challenging to be a woman of color, the only Black woman faculty at my institution for part of my tenure, and teaching about these topics in a place that not everyone agrees with. And so I have actually transitioned out of full-time teaching, but I spent my career teaching intro to sociology, human sexuality (which is very fun), race, and gender. And now for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, I teach a diversity class. It’s fully online, but what I’ve done, based on what I’ve learned from my teaching experiences, is I’ve created it in a totally different way. So there’s no book, and it is the closest I could get to a series of guest lectures. So it’s based completely on YouTube videos and I give a little introductory video explaining the concepts. And then I find people who are either experts in the field, or who are personally oppressed in that way to share their stories. Because what I learned is, it’s one thing to hear about the concept, it’s another thing to humanize the people who are going through it. And so we’re actually doing some research on that to see if that approach is more effective. And so that’s currently what I’m working on.
John: And there’s a lot of research that shows the power of narrative. And when they’re personal stories, it has much more resonance with people than when they read about something in a book that seems a bit more distant. So, that sounds like a wonderful approach.
Celeste: I really found that especially when I was teaching human sexuality, I would bring in queer folks, I would bring in trans* folks, I would bring in polyamorous folks. And it went from “Ooh, that weird stuff”or “all those ‘those’ people” to “Wow, they remind me of…” and “They’re just like…,” and that I found was so important in breaking down stereotypes and really making a change.
Rebecca: You talked a little bit about negotiating your identity in the classroom at the beginning and making adjustments and not feeling authentic. How do you feel like you’ve been able to really be your authentic self [LAUGHTER] now? How are you able to arrive at that moment? And what does that look like?
Celeste: Well, when I was teaching face to face, what I would do is literally address the elephant in the room, we would do those, you know, the things that students love so much: come up and talk about yourself. But I would say “Look, I’m a big Black lady. And we’re gonna talk about stereotypes and those types of things”. But people say that I’m intimidating and people say these things, but my students who know me know that I’m here to help you. I’m not here for the money. If you knew what I made, you’d know that. And so I use a lot of humor. I make a point to break stereotypes, especially with my images. And then I make a point to be humorous about the images. So we’ll be talking about deviance, and I’ll say “So not holding a knife to a white lady’s throat is that… what kind of deviance [LAUGHTER] is that?” But I’m also very careful to never show single mothers that are Black. I’m also very careful when I do gangs. I have memes that I use and one is this white guy with a really long beard, riding a pink bike talking about biker gangs, or I have one meme of Sesame Street when I talk about gangs. And so I’m really, really careful to break stereotypes. And I also make sure that when I’m choosing my test questions, I’m choosing the ones that, again, reinforce breaking those stereotypes.
John: So you’ve talked a little bit about bringing your own identity into the classroom and how that evolved over time. How do you help students express their identities in class?
Celeste: I’m really, really careful about how I do examples. I very deliberately find diversity for my images. And again, I try to find things that people don’t think about. So when I’m doing, let’s say, relationships, I’ll show like an older lesbian couple, nobody thinks about old people still being in love [LAUGHTER] oftentimes, when you’re talking to young students. And another thing that I do is I bring in stories of my friends who are very diverse, and the people that I’ve known. And I feel like if you create a safe learning environment, and I do a lot of steps to do that in the beginning, that then students will feel safe sharing. One time, we were talking about border patrol, and we were talking about racial profiling. And I was trying to get across to one student who was either in border patrol or headed to be in border patrol that if you only focus on Latinos, then yes, you will only find drugs on Latinos. If you’re not stopping white people. If you’re not stopping Black people, then you’re not going to find drugs on them. And the argument was, “Well, it’s the cartels. And it’s this, and it’s that.” And finally, another student of mine, who is Latino, and whose father is Latino, but a border patrol officer, talked about being stopped, talked about being afraid, talked about this dynamic of “Yes, there are good officers who aren’t, and yet still, this happened to me, even though my dad is.” And so I tried to create that kind of space where students can shift each other’s ideas by sharing their own narratives.
Rebecca: You mentioned just a moment ago about setting yourself up to be able to have that space for students. Can you talk about some of the steps that you do take to create that environment?
Celeste: Yes, when I was teaching face to face, it was basically the first week, and usually these were two day a week classes, were centered upon creating a safe learning environment. So we would talk about community agreements, and then I would take it further. And I use some things that I learned at WRITCHE and don’t ask me what that acronym is for, but it was something about teaching about sexuality. And so what we did when we went to that workshop was we anonymously answered all of these questions on a survey. And so what I did was I create a survey about: Have you ever had or helped create an unwanted pregnancy? Have you ever used a food bank? Have you or anyone you know ever been to prison? Or Is anyone you know, undocumented? We lived on the border. And so what I would do is I would have my students take this, and I would go to great pains to make it truly anonymous. So I made everybody do a checkmark and not a big X and not a square, and everybody used pencil, and then we would go outside, and we would shuffle all the papers and pass them out. And then we would step in, step out to show who did it. So how many people have been part of an unwanted pregnancy? And we’d have… so I’d say then when we’re talking about reproductive rights, remember, it’s not those people, it’s people in this class. How many people have a family member who’s undocumented? Okay, when we’re talking about this, you need to keep it in mind. So it makes it really personal without outing people that, in this classroom, there are queer people. In this classroom, there are parents. In this classroom, there are people who have been to prison. And so we do that. And then I did a version of the opportunity walk. I know that there are mixed responses to the opportunity walk, but the version that I use starts with basically what we call ascribed statuses in sociology, so the things you can’t control. And so when they get to a certain point, I say “Now stop, look around, these are the things you had no control over.” And I talk about, as a Black woman, I’d be kind of back there in the back as well. And then we talk about the things that they have control over: education, those types of things, speaking up, being an ally, that’s an important one, because that starts to push you back again. And so we look at that. And we end that, and I say, “I want you to think about, again, where you were, it has nothing to do with you. So therefore, when we’re talking about privilege, it’s not about you, you didn’t tell the stork, ‘please bring me down to a rich white family,’ we have no control over any of these social categories that we’re born into. And so when we’re talking about that, then we’re trying to understand.” And then later on in class, I do another exercise called the “oops exercise,” again, talking about intersectionality. And pointing out that even if you’ve got privilege, if you’re white, male, heterosexual, well educated, at some point you were young, and therefore you were oppressed by age, and we like you enough that we want you to live long enough to be oppressed again by age, right? So even the most privileged people experience oppression in at least one category. And so those are the ways that I tried to make it a space where both we can share our own stories, and where we understand that privilege. While it’s challenging, and while we want to think the world is fair, it really isn’t. And we have to look at how we have privilege without it being a personal failing.
John: What other suggestions do you have for creating a more inclusive classroom environment where everyone is part of the class and where everyone’s voice is taken seriously and is heard by the class?
Celeste: I think it’s a balancing act. And I think it depends a lot on the identities or the perceptions of the faculty person themselves. So as a Black person, as a big Black woman, I find it necessary (and luckily, it’s part of my typical approach anyway) to use a lot of humor to make myself seem approachable. And it’s very frustrating because I used to co-teach with a guy who called himself my token old white guy, and he was an English professor. And I would say something about sociologically sound principles that are from my discipline that are scientifically proven, and students would go “well, I don’t …:.” and then he would say the same thing as a frickin English professor, and they would go “Yes, you’re right.” And it’s frustrating. But [LAUGHTER] the reality is, that’s the way it works. So sometimes I do that, sometimes I use my colleagues that way. And sometimes I’m that way, as a cisgender, straight woman, then I provide that added, “It’s not the chip on my shoulder” when I’m talking about issues affecting the queer community. So I think that’s important. I also think it’s really important to listen to your students. I have yet to find a school that has student surveys that address what I want to learn. So I create my own. And then I have students give them back, I have them give them back on the last day of school where I like to be done. So their grades are done on the last day of school. And so this won’t affect your grades. I’m going to give you your grades in a minute. And you can be completely honest, and what would make this class more comfortable for you? And I change my classes based on that feedback. And when you work for a while in one institution, then students tell them and so the feedback at my former institution, students either loved me or hated me. And the ones that loved me were like, “She’s awesome. She’s funny. She does really cool stuff. But she don’t take no crap. So don’t go in there and try to BS her and don’t be late, because she won’t take it.” And then the other ones are like, “Oh, she’s so hard.” Yeah, because I don’t take late work, because I’m trying to also prepare you for real life.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways that you design assignments to make them more personally relevant to students?
Celeste: Oh, yes. One of the things that was really interesting when I started graduate school was I started a minor in a certificate for college teaching. And I was like, “Oh, this will be an easy minor. I’ve been teaching college for quite a while now, so I’m good.” But part that really helped me was designing effective writing assignments. And I saw such a difference when I stopped having students write a paper and started having them do things like write a letter. So in my race class, I would have students, instead of writing a paper explaining to me privilege and intersectionality, I would have them write a letter explaining to someone in their lives, privilege and intersectionality. And if you looked at my website, some of my students did some amazing, amazing letters. And they were students that I wasn’t, in some cases, expecting that type of understanding. But when they’re explaining it, using their experiences is very different than how I explained it. But not only are they showing their understanding, they are teaching me other ways to reach other students. And so I found that very, very helpful. And part of what I do is I build reflection into all of my written assignments. So, what did you learn? How will it help you? Because my argument to students is that sociology is something that they can use no matter what their end goal is in life, you can always interact with people better. And so how will this help you in your civic life? So those are some of the ways that I try to make it more relevant to students.
Rebecca: It’s amazing how a small shift in the frame of a writing assignment can make all the difference, that content is really not any different. It’s just framed in a different way.
Celeste: Yeah. Because when you say it’s not a paper, and you say it’s a letter, then they start to write from their own, instead of trying to regurgitate what I said. When I say it’s a paper, they think I want to hear me, and I hear me talk enough. [LAUGHTER] So I really want them to show me their perception. So, to me, that was the most powerful change I’ve ever made.
Rebecca: Audience matters, for sure.
Celeste: Oh, yes.
John: Much of your work now is in faculty mentoring and faculty development. Could you tell us a little bit about your roles there?
Celeste: Sure. So once I started to feel that I was losing my empathy for students [LAUGHTER] and getting very frustrated in teaching… especially, it’s hard to teach online about race and hot topics, because they don’t really see you as a human being. And they feel really empowered to say things that they wouldn’t say, especially to my face, but they wouldn’t say in a class. And in a classroom setting, first of all, students will call each other out. So I don’t always have to be that person. And second of all, I can revert to: “Hello, we’re going to treat each other with respect, we agreed to this, we wrote a contract about it, we have community agreement.” It’s much more challenging to do that online. And so I began to feel like it was taking too much out of me to try to teach about these in a fully remote setting as I was during the pandemic. At the same time, I was working as a graduate assistant, paying for my tuition, and I happened to land a job in the Office of Instruction and Assessment. And I started to learn about faculty development as a career, which I really didn’t even know existed. And I began to think that is something that I can do. I’d been department chair, I’d been mentoring new faculty, I had done a lot of workshops on time management and classroom management. And so I began to shift my ideas into that was what I wanted to do. At the same time, I was working full time, working at least two jobs, because I was also a graduate assistant, sometimes three or four, and a single mom to a four year old when I started graduate school, and having some challenges with a cohort of students that were half my age who had very different ideas about social justice than I did, like we both wanted the same end result, but had very different ideas about how to go about it and was feeling very isolated and made a friend. And after a couple of years, where both of us sort of mentored each other, we both ended up in assistant director positions. And we started to think about the power of our relationship and how we could help people find that in a less organic way. Because it just happened to be magic. It just happened to be she worked in the office, she had really cool artwork, I walked in and asked about it. And when you see us together, you see this big Black lady and this little… she looks 12, but she’s not… and she’s got blue hair, and people are like, “How are y’all friends?” But at the core, we’re both about helping people. We’re both about social justice. We’re both about making the systems better. And so we bonded in a lot of ways, and we help each other in a lot of ways. And we actually complement each other in a lot of ways. For example, I hate rewriting and I would have not published all those chapters if it weren’t for the fact that she loves editing. So I would write it, she would edit it, and then I would fix it. And that’s how I got through. And we collaborated on a lot of things. And so we had been sort of building out this framework around peer mentoring, and how can we create, systemically, an environment where people could find their sort of match. And during that time, they were also, in the Office of the Provost, hearing that mentoring needed to be focused on and talking about creating a mentoring Institute. So she encouraged me to apply for this position, it’s a brand new position. And so I, in November, received this position, which is Assistant Director of Faculty Mentoring initiatives. And my main goal is to facilitate the creation of the MENTOR Institute. And I like acronyms. So MENTOR is actually an acronym for Mentorship through Effective Networks, Transformational Opportunities, and Research. And that’s really what we want to create. We want to create a place where we share social justice minded inclusive best practices about mentoring, and where both faculty and students and hopefully, eventually staff, will be able to do training and expand their knowledge and do research about mentoring best practices.
Rebecca: Sounds like a really great opportunity to start something new, but something that’s so needed in so many institutions. The mentorship piece is crucial for people, but also it’s so not facilitated. [LAUGHTER]
Celeste: Well, what we found is it’s just very different. In a huge R1 Institution, each college does things their own way. And so what we want to do is synergize and illuminate the great work that’s already been done. We have pockets of really excellent mentoring, and then to help facilitate for those who are going: “Yes, we need to institutionalize this, but we don’t know where to start.” And so it’s been really interesting. It’s been fun. It’s been a lot of work. [LAUGHTER] I’m currently working on our first workshop that’s going to premiere in fall, when everyone comes back, on mentoring practices. And I’m also conducting focus groups with graduate students to sort of understand what’s going well, and where we can fill in those gaps.
Rebecca: Sounds like really important and exciting work, but definitely work nonetheless. [LAUGHTER]
John: Do you have any other reflections on your work on the Picture a Professor project,
Celeste: I just want to say a couple of things. One is that I really hope that people will take the time to look at this book, because I think that part of what’s needed for the culture shift in academia is a shift in how we picture a professor, what a professor is. I spend a lot of time with people going, “where’s the professor?” It’s me. Hello, I’m the professor. And I also want to encourage people who are in graduate school to look for these types of publishing opportunities. I’m still working on my first sort of solo first-author publication in a peer-reviewed journal. I was part of the task force for the American Sociological Association, where we focused on contingent faculty. And as that I earned a first-author credit just because my last name starts with “A,” but I found it really challenging in any other ways to publish in peer-reviewed articles. However, I published three or four chapters of my dissertation by looking for edited anthologies that were coming out in the area that I was publishing. It’s still peer reviewed. It may not carry as much weight, but for me, it was a little bit more of a user friendly way to learn how to publish, to learn how to do rewrites, to learn how to do those multiple versions of wait a minute I thought I was done with this… [LAUGHTER] until it gets accepted, and it builds your CV. So I wish someone had told me that. I just happened to luck into it. And once I got my first chapter, then I started looking for other chapters. So that’s some advice that I wish someone had given me.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for all that you’ve shared with us. We always wrap up by asking, what is next?
Celeste: Well, I’m gonna be 100% honest, because I found bringing my authentic self was the only way to do it. And literally what is next for me is an epic road trip with my daughter.
Rebecca: That sounds awesome.
Celeste: She’s been a trooper for four years while I was in graduate school. She’s been a trooper for two years of a pandemic. And my little extrovert [LAUGHTER], who was stuck at home with just me and her. And I’m pretty much an introvert. So we are going to go on a road trip for two and a half weeks across seven states. And we are going to work on my bucket list, which is I want her to see all 50 states with me before she goes to college. So we’re working on breaking that down. And then professionally, it’s our first workshop. And we also facilitate faculty development communities for promotion. And we are looking into creating some sort of grad student communities in the fall as well. So, that’s what’s next for me.
Rebecca: That sounds like lots on the horizon. Have a wonderful road trip. That sounds wonderful.
John: It does. And thank you for joining us. It’s been great talking to you and we’re looking forward to sharing this episode with our listeners.
Celeste: Thank you
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.