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.


209. Military-Affiliated Students

One student population that is often overlooked in campus DEI initiatives is the population of military-affiliated students. In this episode Kenneth James Marfilius joins us to discuss ways to support and include this segment of our student population in the classroom and on our campuses.

Ken is the Director of the Falk College Office of Online and Distance Education and is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Syracuse University. While on active duty, Ken served in the U.S. Air Force Biomedical Science Corps in multiple roles: as an active duty clinical social worker, mental health therapist, family advocacy officer in charge, and as manager of the alcohol and drug prevention and treatment program. He has taught courses on topics such as social work intervention, military culture, and social work practice, psychopathology, and others.



John: One student population that is often overlooked in DEI initiatives are military-affiliated students. In this episode we discuss ways to support and include this segment of our student population in the classroom and on our campuses.


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 Kenneth James Marfilius. Ken is the Director of the Falk College Office of Online and Distance Education and is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Syracuse University. While on active duty, Ken served in the U.S. Air Force Biomedical Science Corps in multiple roles: as an active duty clinical social worker, mental health therapist, family advocacy officer in charge, and as manager of the alcohol and drug prevention and treatment program. He has taught courses on topics such as social work intervention, military culture, and social work practice, psychopathology, and others. Welcome, Ken.

Ken: Thank you, John.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…Ken are you drinking any tea?

Ken: I have a chai tea in this September fall day here in Syracuse, New York.

Rebecca: Sounds like a perfect flavor for the season.

John: And I am going off season with a spring cherry black tea.

Rebecca: Don’t wish the best seasons away, John. Fall is the best.

John: I really like this flavor.

Rebecca: I have an East Frisian tea, which is a black mix from my new favorite tea spot.

John: Could you start by telling us a little bit about your background in the U.S. Air Force?

Ken: Sure. So I received what’s called a Health Professional Scholarship Program direct commission during my graduate studies. And during my graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, I did some work with veterans, specifically working on the inpatient psychiatric unit, at the VA Medical Center. Upon graduating, about two weeks after graduation, I was shipped off to commissioned officer training in the Nashville Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. In post-training, I would go to my first duty station, and almost instantly begin seeing active duty service members. We served, almost 100% of the time, just folks in uniform at this particular installation. And within the mental health clinic, there’s three areas. So traditional mental health, seeing anywhere between six to eight clients a day, and again, in this situation, both uniform. And there’s the family advocacy program, and I served as director of that program for some time. And that’s really both prevention, but also treatment. And so you can look at it as sort of a stood up DCFS or CPS on the installation. So we would get referrals for child and adult maltreatment cases, and that would range from anything from physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, etc. And then there’s the ADAPT program, which is the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program. I also served as director forf that program for some time. And similarly, we would get referrals. It could be a command-directed referral, it could be a self-referral, it could be a medical referral, etc. Anything from low-level treatment to inpatient treatment, we would get referrals from issues that might have occurred off the installation, ranging from public intoxication to DUI, etc. So that’s sort of the three arms specifically in Air Force mental health that I operated in, in addition to other roles. I transitioned out of the Air Force in 2016, moved back to the northeast and worked as director of the HUD-VASH program, which is the Housing Urban Development VA Supportive Housing, under the Healthcare for Homeless Veterans Program at the Syracuse VA Medical Center. And during that time I also designed, and still do teach, a course on military culture and mental health practice. That’s a bit about my background in the Air Force, the VA, and also now at the institution.

John: A few weeks ago, when the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, there was a lot of political discussions about this, where each party was blaming the other for how that came about. And one of our colleagues, who has a son at West Point, was concerned about how this might be addressed in classes since we do have many veterans in our classes. The concern was basically that the impact of those discussions might be hurtful to those people who had risked their lives serving in Afghanistan. What might be a good way of addressing these topics that would be sensitive to those people who have served?

Ken: Yeah, thank you John. Yeah, so you mentioned, sort of, politics and let’s stay away from that and focus more on wanting to express support and empathy for all of our military members and their families who have invested and sacrificed so much for and with our allies and our partners in Afghanistan. I would be remiss if I didn’t first acknowledge the Gold Star families. A Gold Star family is an immediate family member of a fallen service member who died while serving in a time of conflict. And unfortunately, we now have a new cohort of Gold Star families with the most recent attack at the airport in Kabul. So they’ve been at the forefront of my mind. And it’s very normal for family members, and also veterans, and those actively serving right now, to have a sense of sort of loss, grief, suffering, that can feel overwhelming. It’s also normal for them to be experiencing all different types of difficult and unexpected emotions. They range from shock to anger, even potential denial, guilt, or disbelief. With the current situation that has unfolded in Afghanistan now, it is in the living rooms of all Americans. For a long period there it has almost been the forgotten war, because it has gone on for so long. And I’ve heard from active duty and veteran populations, that there’s really this sort of feeling of the need to do something in this moment, rather than feeling helpless. And so, it’s important to note that these feelings about the current situation are normal reactions to abnormal and complex and ongoing situations. They don’t make veterans weak, but actually make them strong. So acknowledging that it’s acceptable to experience them. And paying attention to those feelings, while talking with fellow veterans, active members, family members, and friends, is actually a sign of strength. So what can we do as instructors, faculty members, or even staff members, working at institutions of higher education? When you’re in the classroom, there’s really no way to pinpoint or acknowledge who’s the veteran in the classroom, right? You might be able to sort of run a report on the back end, if you’re so inclined, or perhaps it’s self-reporting, it comes out during initial introductions. I still think it’s important to not just assume, and particularly not just assume that it’s going to be a man, right? Because there’s a significant increase in females raising their right hand and serving in our military, which is a phenomenal thing. And that ultimately increases the amount of female veterans who will also be attending our classes. Given the nature of the recent long-duration wars in Operation Enduring Freedom, OEF, and OIF, Operation Iraqi Freedom, we have folks who are going back to study in institutions of higher education across the country, who have either witnessed combat operations or know of someone who’s gone to combat operations. And so, to your initial question, it’s important for we, as instructors, as professors, as staff, to be aware of those situations. And so how do we do that? Well, there are services. I know here at Syracuse we have a wealth of services on our installation. We’re the number one private institution in the country for veterans, and there’s the Office of Veteran Success, there’s the Office of Veteran Military Affairs, there’s different types of certificate trainings, the Institute for Veteran Military Families. We also have what’s called an “Orange Door” program. So in different colleges and departments across the institution, you have an orange sticker, if you will, or door hanger, to let veterans know who may be passing by your office, that there’s an advocate there that can help talk to you. Again, it’s not an academic advisor, but it could be sort of a life situation, or career decision, or something that’s just going on culturally. So I think it’s important to have these advocates, in any way or fashion, at different institutions so veterans do feel welcome and accepted. Now, actually in the classroom… So we have to understand that there is a divide between military life and civilian life. And what does that mean? Well, in the military, it is hierarchical, it is paternalistic, at times, in nature, it is very structured, it is collectivist and not necessarily individualistic, it is mission-focused. So there’s a shift there. When we come back, and we transition from active duty to veteran life, it is potentially a sense of loss, or “What is my identity? How do I find my way?” Often, you know, if we’re speaking specifically about undergraduate study, you might have an individual who just got out of high school, an 18-year-old, with a veteran who might have been through combat operations and might be 27 years old. So I think we have to acknowledge that there are differences. They’re not necessarily peers in that sense, because there’s different life experiences. It’s very positive for both the 18-year-old and the 27-year-old to interact and discuss those different experiences and not to alienate. And so, that level of understanding, that level of training, that level of conversation… in faculty meetings, in staff meetings, needs to be occurring because veteran populations fall under the umbrella of diversity, and they represent this sense of diversity, and we must honor that. There’s some times I’ve heard anything from a veteran hijacking a conversation, if you will, sort of talking about their experiences, to veterans feeling as if they’re not quite sure how to enter the conversation from what they’ve witnessed or experienced. So you mentioned, at the top of the hour here, that you talked about this idea, that sort of politics and blaming this way or blaming that way, and then the veteran’s sitting back and like, “I wasn’t involved in that, I was out there to do the mission. I raised my right arm to sacrifice myself with my brothers- and sisters-in-arms, and my experience is fundamentally different.” Because the mission is not what’s being talked about at that time. So understanding that there is a range. You and I, Rebecca, can be at the same place at the same time and witness the same exact traumatic event. You may come out feeling okay. Yes, was it traumatic? For sure. I may come out feeling as if there’s an impact on functioning. That functioning could be occupational functioning, it could be in the classroom, it could be social functioning, familial functioning, that could potentially lead to something like post-traumatic stress, and what we call post-traumatic stress disorder in the DSM-5. And it’s important to not just conflate and/or categorize like, “Oh, you’ve been in combat operations or you’ve been in the military so what about PTSD?” Mental health, and we can get into this a bit more, but mental health is much broader than just talking about PTSD as it pertains to veterans.

Rebecca: A lot of things that I’m hearing you talk about, Ken, that are making me think about my own experience in the classroom, but just also the conversations I’ve had with colleagues, is that I was looking up statistics just to see, like, I wonder how many students in higher ed are military or veteran populations. And the number I was finding was somewhere between 5 and 6, depending on the report, and in graduate studies about 7%. But I also think that often, when we’re talking about our student populations, this is a population that doesn’t come up in conversation. It’s completely invisible, similar to students with disabilities. It’s a population that sits there and may not be visible, necessarily. It’s an identity that’s existing in our classes, that we almost don’t recognize is present. Can you talk about ways in our classrooms where we can honor an identity that maybe isn’t seen without pointing out a specific person?

Ken: Yeah, that’s a good question. And I think it is sort of this overarching respect, human dignity. Understanding that we all come from different walks of life, whether it’s an individual that has a disability, or veterans alike who are both veterans with a disability, right? So there’s a couple of factors there.

Rebecca: Indeed.

Ken: But also to include cultural backgrounds, right? And race, and gender, all these are sort of present and need to be acknowledged. And so how I operate as a professor is, I’m not going to, first day of class, be like, “All right, all veterans in the classroom raise your hand!” or go through it like that. I’d say, “Let’s set some ground rules and expectations for a welcoming environment, and that, ultimately, I’m not here to tell you what to do. We’re here to interact with one another and learn from one another.” I tell them that I expect to learn as much from you as you do from me and maybe even more. So every class that I have every semester, I’m learning something new. And the way to do that and cultivate that is to provide that sort of sense of safety, regardless of subject. Provide that sense of safety so we allow these individuals to feel comfortable engaging in that process, both direct and indirect levels of communication. That one individual, like I mentioned, who might not talk too much in class, is potentially constantly observing, actively listening, taking in this information, and has sort of a byproduct of that entire process. I also want to talk about trauma. So, I’ll sort of go back and forth from talking about, in my specific research and teaching, it’s obviously military and veteran focused, but what we’re seeing is trauma affects children. There’s this notion of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, that’s in the research. And so if it’s affecting children, well, they’re basically children and then before you know it, they’re graduating from high school, and they’re 18 years old, and now they’re considered an adult. But those traumatic experiences don’t leave them. Just like with a veteran, those traumatic experiences don’t necessarily leave them. So, the effects of trauma on children are far more pervasive than often us adults can even imagine. What does that mean and why am I talking about that, how that can impact the classroom? So following a child’s exposure to a traumatic event, or a veteran’s exposure to a traumatic event, there are a range of symptoms that may occur. Anything from a sense of arousal, being on edge, or constantly being worried, or the sense of rumination. There’s negative mood and cognition, so blaming oneself, or diminished interest in pleasurable activities or even school. Avoiding, consciously trying to avoid some level of engagement, not thinking about that specific event. And even re-experiencing, that can play out in potential nightmares or constantly replaying it over in one’s mind. So the symptoms resulting from this trauma can directly impact the student veteran, or the student’s ability to learn in the classroom, because they may be distracted by this level of intrusive thought about that particular event, preventing them from really paying attention in class, studying, or doing well. We also know exposure to violence has an effect on IQ and one’s ability to ultimately read. So as a result, some students may avoid going to class altogether. And so I think it’s important to have this sense of…what is trauma, who it affects, and not just looking at trauma as PTSD.

John: And certainly there have been a lot of additional sources of trauma. Now trauma has always affected a large share of our students but I think the number of students who have been affected has gone up quite a bit with the pandemic. And it’s also become much more obvious to faculty who are more directly observing trauma that might have appeared to be hidden to them in the past. What can faculty do to address the trauma that has affected so many of our students for any reason?

Ken: Yeah that’s a great question, John. I always come from the idea that we can’t address something that we don’t know about. So I think the first step is to educate, and it’s really on us as individuals and ultimately as a collective, is taking this seriously, right? And so how do we educate? Well, there’s sort of this idea of formal education, going to seek it out, reading about it, researching about it, going to events, but it also is talking with our colleagues about it, and actually experiencing it. So first and foremost, what is trauma-informed care? It sort of now has become a buzzword and I don’t look at trauma-informed care just for a mental health provider. If you really want to effectively implement trauma-informed care, it needs to be the frontline staff, the administrative assistant that might be interacting with these students first, it needs to be additional staff, it needs to be the janitor or the custodial, it needs to be the professor in the classroom. So it has to be a collective effort, and really sort of a cultural shift within the entire organization. Trauma-informed programs and services are really based on that understanding of some of the vulnerabilities that I mentioned or triggers a trauma survivor may experience and how they may impact the way that the individual accepts and responds to services.

John: You mentioned how one symptom of trauma is disengagement and lack of feeling of connection with classes. What are some symptoms that faculty might observe that might provide a clue that there’s an issue there that needs to be addressed?

Ken: Sure. There could be disengagement, but there can also be a level of confusion, difficulty concentrating. Let’s say that you’re noticing that there’s a shift in behavior, whether it’s through a written assignment, or maybe that individual was engaged and is no longer engaged. And I think there’s a balance there too, right? Because you want to be careful, and this happens quite a bit, is not to just call that individual out in the classroom because that would only make the problem worse, alienating and isolating that individual. So what I like to do is potentially talk to the student after class, just do a general check-in or maybe it’s an email and say, “Can we hop on a Zoom? I noticed a shift in the behavior, I just want to know that you feel supported by me as the instructor.” And that lends to an additional conversation where, okay, I am supporting this individual, this individual understands that they’re being supported, but they may need another service. And so we can’t just sort of be the end-all-be-all, the nexus of our students’ lives, we have to be able to be knowledgeable of the resources at our disposal and leverage those resources. And if we’re talking about veterans, specifically, what type of resource? Are we talking about academic resources, we’re talking about counseling? We have, at Syracuse University, right across the street is the Department of Veteran Affairs. We have, like I mentioned, peer-to-peer programs, which are often very successful in having veterans talk… specifically with the most recent incident in Afghanistan, having that sort of peer dialogues about, “Hey, what are you feeling? Are you feeling this too?” And just have that sense of normality, to say, “Oh, I’m not going crazy,” if you will, “This is normal.” And then situations may resolve on their own, or there might be sort of a level of psychological distress, acute distress, that needs to be tended to. And so, if it needs to be elevated to potentially having to see a mental health expert or provider, making sure that we’re training to get them to the resources that they need.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve been experiencing this semester is certainly an observation of students who are actually more open to talking about mental health generally. And that, when students are experiencing some distress in that area, actually being a little bit open about it, which makes it easier to refer them to resources. But also sometimes it becomes an impairment in being able to learn in the classroom, and that some additional accommodations might need to be had. And so some of those students may never have thought about reaching out to an office like Accessibility Resources or a disability office for supports. But these are students who are now getting support because we had a conversation, and it’s something that they never, ever would have thought of doing on their own and maybe wouldn’t have done on their own. I just thought it was something that was a definite shift from what I’ve seen previously.

Ken: Yeah, this is such a great point. Again, you don’t know what you don’t know. So the asset is you, Rebecca, right, that you’re aware of these services. And I even talked to my students about this, who will be clinicians in the field of mental health providers is, we have to acknowledge that we’re not going to know at all, but we need to know where to connect them to. And so, with that being said, you hear a lot about the increase in younger individuals, and specifically students at the undergraduate and graduate level, seeking out these services. And I think we have to come from this notion that there is strength in seeking help, right, there is a purpose in caring for one another. Reaching out for social support ultimately protects all of us. It protects you, it protects your family, the ones who care about you, your communities. I say that a stronger veteran community is a stronger American society. Same goes for other students. I like to talk less about stigma, and more about the inherent strengths of the human condition. We all have them. We must continue to find them, use them to help one another. And the beauty of technology today is that this could be done via text message. It can be done over a phone call. It can be done in a virtual Zoom session. Again, there’s so many options at our disposal, and it’s a unique opportunity in our society to actually leverage them to benefit all of society. And so I want to look at the increase in individuals seeking services as not necessarily a negative, but actually a net positive, and I think this gets conflated in saying we have a mental health crisis. It’s like, well where the same individual is saying, “Now we actually have these services.” And so it moves from, in which we are, a very much a reactive society to a prevention-based society. And so if we can get folks into services sooner, then there’s better outcomes. We know this in research, there’s better outcomes across the lifespan.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve been doing this semester, and really probably has been promoted by the pandemic, but something I will definitely continue doing beyond the pandemic is actually just bringing up mental health as a thing that we should be concerned about as individuals. And students have responded really positively to just even having that on the agenda for a moment, just acknowledge that that’s a thing that we should be thinking about. So that’s really definitely, I think, shifted the conversations we’re having in class and the desire for community. So I’m feeling a lot of the things that you’re talking about as it being a real positive that people are being a little more willing to talk about these issues. One of the things that I struggle with sometimes is thinking about how sometimes we talk past each other when we have really different experiences. And one of those can be military and civilian talking past each other because they have such different life experiences often. I mentioned before we were recording that I had listened to season six of NPR’s Rough Translation podcast called Home/Front: Conversations Across the Civilian-Military Divide. And there’s a series of episodes that talk about how people see different circumstances differently or experience the same thing differently, as you were mentioning before, Ken. Can you talk about strategies that we can use in the classroom to help us not talk past each other, but help us explain and listen?

Ken: So I think I’m going to talk here, from my sort of veteran experience, but it has a lot to do with civilians, if you will, also. So I’ve seen firsthand that serving in the military, in and of itself, is often not the sole reason that a veteran may experience mental health challenges. Actually, sometimes, it’s quite the opposite. So it certainly can be, and often is, a contributing factor. However, what I’ve seen in my work as both an active duty mental health provider and my work in the VA, is that mental health challenges—that may be anything from trauma, or depression, anxiety, suicide—is a very complicated and complex topic, and it does not discriminate. So we do know that prior trauma is a significant risk factor for the development of PTSD and mental health disorders… complex trauma. What we see in the research again, ACEs. So, let’s break that down, what is that? So traumatic experiences that occurred during childhood and adolescence. We have evidence to support that does have an effect on one’s health across the entire lifespan. Multiple ACEs pose a significant risk for numerous health conditions: PTSD, substance use disorder, depression, suicidal ideation. Research points out individuals with military service have higher ACEs scores, but why? Well, individuals who experienced traumatic experiences during childhood may seek sanctuary in the military. This can be very positive. We should also be exploring the associations between childhood trauma and mental health problems, both in veteran populations and our overall student population, and how this impacts the rise in depression and PTSD. For prevention, we really need to hone in on these predisposing factors and have an awareness of the vulnerabilities. Because nearly half, nearly half of the suicides in recent wars have been from individuals who never deployed. You also need to be psychiatrically evaluated before you go on a deployment, so you’re looking at physical and mental fitnesses. So I believe that to really sustain improvement in the veteran health, we must first understand the critical need to sustain the improvement in the overall public health, because these veterans are civilians before they enter the military. And when they transition out, they’re often integrated right back into the communities that they came from before service… they’re part of the social fabric of our society. So with that being said, the military mirrors society, which makes this a societal issue, and a community-wide effort in response. And so we need to create awareness, to have these conversations that you’re talking about, Rebecca, about the complexities of experiencing mental health challenges, and its impact not just on the veteran but their loved ones, not just on the student but their loved ones. It’s imperative that we work together as a society and work together on sustaining the improvement in the overall public health. Because again, a strong nation leads to an even stronger military and veteran population, both physically but also mentally. You’ve heard me say now “community-level” a couple of times and so it’s like, what can we do at the community level? We need the right services in place, communities that have the means to allow these individuals to not just survive, but ultimately to really thrive. So if we attack this head on from a prevention standpoint, we need to be providing our children and adolescents with parent-support programs, job trainings, mentors, access to education, not just access to education, but actually access to quality education. Family-centered schools, including embedded mental health services, or embedded trauma-informed care conversations. And survival services like access to medical, dental, mental health care, safe stable affordable housing, access to food, and breaking down barriers. Because if they don’t have access to these basic survival services, how do you expect them to have a critical conversation with a trained mental health provider when they’re worrying about where their next meal may come from? And the single most important factor in developing resilience in children who become young adults, this can also be said for adults, is to have a stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult. And that needs to be done on the local, county, and national level, and across our institutions.

Rebecca: A lot of this seems like it needs to happen way before they get to us in higher ed.

Ken: Correct. Before they get to us in higher ed, and as they continue on their journey in higher ed.

Rebecca: Are there things that we can do in the meantime, while we’re helping to advocate for these things in higher ed? I’ve heard you talk about certain services, and of course we would want to advocate for those on our campuses. I know we have many of these things on our campus, for sure. But what about within this classroom space? Is there something we can do at a classroom level?

Ken: Sure, this question also comes up. It’s like, folks in the community often ask, like, “How can we help?” It’s like “oh, the magic eight ball…” this is what you can do. I don’t think there’s one single answer. I do think though, number one is through actively listening, expressing empathy, being willing to be part of what I call an integrated network of support, building folks up, not tearing them down. One mental health provider can be a huge help. However, they cannot be the nexus of one’s life, there must be linkages to support in place.,,,for veteran populations to replicate that camaraderie that they experienced in the military, which is a significant protective factor. Perhaps most notably, Rebecca, is expressing to these individuals that they’re not alone in this process that we call life. And it’s important to engage in the language, so they don’t feel othered, begin to isolate themselves, which only perpetuates the cycle and the risk involved with developing depression, or anxiety, or even post traumatic stress disorder.

John: Going back to Rebecca’s point about people talking past each other, and your earlier discussion of the diverse array of students we have in our classrooms with very different backgrounds. We’re having a reading group on inclusive teaching on our campus, and a major theme from that is encouraging faculty to treat diversity as an asset. Are there any ways that you use to encourage people to express their different identities and to bring that as an asset into the class discussions?

Ken: So a specific exercise and assignment that I try and do in all of my classes, you might be familiar with it, Rebecca and John, is there’s one sheet of paper, and it’s called an identity wheel. And you break it off, and you begin to critically evaluate and do some deep thought about: “Where do you come from? And why do you identify this way?” And how identities change over time, and that is a positive thing. And so I have to talk about one’s core belief system. Before the age of seven, we believe everything that we’re told. And so, often, like-minded people in our communities around the country gather together, that even goes for race. And so, in some ways, that’s close-minded, because you haven’t been exposed. And so, beginning there, at what point did you start to critically challenge yourself, that, “Hmm, what I was actually told, I’m not quite sure if that’s true, or that’s factual? Where did that start?” And then ultimately, “Why did it change? What were you exposed to? Was it a teacher? Was it a peer? Was it a sporting event? Did you go off to some type of camp?” Often the first time that this happens is when they leave their high school and go to college. They’re exposed to individuals of different cultural backgrounds, different religions. It’s like, “Oh, I never even met someone who was from that particular religion.” And so, I think the best way to continue to first, have an understanding of where it comes from, what is our core belief system. Being willing to challenge our core belief system. This is the diversity conversation on how we treat others, but it’s also how we treat ourselves and ultimately, the impact that it has on our mental health. So if we do not have a firm awareness of our core belief system, it really affects the way that we think. Ultimately, it affects the way that we behave, it has an ultimate effect on how we feel. So it’s always a really good starting point to say, “Okay, what do I identify with? How do I identify myself?” Someone says, “Hey Ken, introduce yourself.” Is it, “Hey I’m a veteran, I’m a professor…” Like, that’s a starting point, but I want to get a little bit deeper into that, and to the students, I say, “You don’t necessarily have to share that in the collective, but I have to get you thinking from that frame.” So, that will help you in your academic journey, that will help you in your interpersonal relationships, but it will also help you in your, sort of, professional and your career trajectory in life.

Rebecca: Yeah I love those wheels, a great way to open doors into many conversations and a great thing to do early on in the semester, for sure. We can provide a link to an example of that in the show notes.

John: That was one of the topics in Cornell’s inclusive teaching MOOC that we participated in a number of times and taken faculty through. And that is something that many of our faculty have introduced at the start of the class to help people recognize their identities and their perspectives, and to talk about the value that all these perspectives can bring to the discussion.

Ken: And consistently engaging in this process, talking about the education, it’s also sort of continuing self-exploration. How can I continue to engage in a dialogue with those around me, and not this sort of constant debate, right? The media is filled with debate and competition. We can get a lot further as humanity, not just here in the U.S., but across the world, if we can engage in dialogue about these differences, and how we can continue to sort of build each other up in sort of a united front.

John: Do you have any other suggestions for our listeners?

Ken: You asked the question earlier, “What can we do more of?” And another question that’s floated my way is, “Is there a need for more mental health services?” My answer to that is, I actually think that, in many ways we’ve become, in certain areas we’ve become, specifically in higher education, resource rich. So I think it’s this idea that it needs to be the right services in place. And to all the family members, caregivers, veterans, civilians, who are wondering what they can do, sometimes it’s very simple. It’s call the veteran, call the military member and ask how they’re doing, call the student and ask how they’re doing. Like I say in the veteran community, you never know that that call, it just saved someone’s life. Especially an individual who was going through, potentially, a traumatic situation or is alone by themselves for quite some time at their house and getting that phone call can really change some things around. So I think it’s we, as a collective, need to keep it very simple, and start there and have that dialogue, reach out and be supportive of one another, and then we can start to create those linkages.

Rebecca: Imagine that, just being a nice human being.

Ken: There you go.

John: Your earlier discussion of the need for support for veterans reminds me of a conversation we had a couple weeks ago, in a podcast that related to new federal regulations. Russ Poulin talked about a concern with the way in which the Department of Ed is treating veterans differentially, depending on whether they’re taking online or face-to-face classes. And that’s been a fairly significant issue in the last couple years during the pandemic, especially when more classes moved online, in that the housing allowance was available only for people who were taking at least one face-to-face class. And they could take the others online. But if they were taking all courses online, they were not eligible for the same housing allowance. And that seemed to be a little bit inequitable, especially during a pandemic, when many classes moved online, and some of the funding disappears for people from one semester to the next, depending on the modality of their courses that semester.

Ken: Yeah, this is a big question because it’s a systems issue and what that system is honoring, honoring residential instruction over online instruction. So this is one byproduct of that. Now if you want to look at, first off, COVID has accelerated the use of online, not just online education, but the way that we communicate. And we’ve found out, in some degree, it’s more effective and efficient. Also the quality, the traditional online, is very different from what online looks like today, in both the asynchronous sphere but also the synchronous sphere. And online education is an access issue, right? We’re talking about equality, we also talk about diversity. I see, now as director of online, that it’s a different student who is applying for the online course, a student who may have work experience, like veterans who have served in the military. They also have families, and so it’s very difficult for them to uproot their family, let’s say, from Texas, but they want a Syracuse University education, and financially and their kids are in school. Now we provide them with that opportunity to get the same sort of faculty expertise within the respective department. Also high-level tech and interaction through video conferencing like Zoom that we all use right now. And so when you sort of drill down to it’s like, okay, the quality of instruction is still there. We’re actually reaching a different type of student, not just veterans, but I also see more people of color who are applying for online education. And why is that? And so I think we have to continue to sort of unbundle what’s going on and not create a dichotomy between residential and online education. Obviously, for some professions and what you need to perform, that may look a little different. But overall, with technology, we’ve gotten really creative on how we can deliver this content. In some spaces, online is of higher quality potentially, because of all the tools that you can use at your disposal. So, I think from your question, the BAH, the Basic Allowance for Housing, for folks who are potentially in service, but folks who are using the GI Bill based on geographic location of what they get their BAH from. And we have to look at honoring online education as the same quality as going to get a residential education. It’s a social justice issue.

Rebecca: Indeed, and something we all need to advocate for.

John: One of the things I’ve noticed in my online classes, and I’ve been doing this for 20-some years now, is that a relatively large proportion of the students in my online classes are active duty personnel. I had one student who, during the Iraq War, apologized for not being able to participate because they were on radio silence. He was on a ship there, and he was not able to communicate because there was an attack that was about to take place. And many of these students were among the best students I’ve ever had, they were really focused, they were really disciplined. They always got their work done on time, and it was always really enjoyable having active duty service people in class because they set a great example for other students. And online education has opened up many more possibilities for people in the military to build a foundation that often continues after their service ends. Could you talk a little bit about that role?

Ken: I’ll backtrack a bit. So I served as an Air Force officer with individuals on the enlisted side who served with me, who did not have a college degree, who might have joined right out of high school where the traditional high school student goes off to college, right, at 17, 18 years old. And what I’ve found is, they are my right and left hand. And they’ve been doing, you know, mental health intake assessments, free screenings, briefing me on the particular case, whether it was an alcohol and drug case, or a family-advocacy case, or a military case where I would get the file and I met with him for 45 minutes prior. And done incredible work in prevention and outreach—whether it pertains to PTSD awareness, mental health, suicide—and then I realized that these folks have real-world, real-life experience. But when they get discharged, or when they transition out of the military, they don’t have a piece of paper to show for it. So they have to go back and then get a whole four-year degree. In addition, in some cases, 10, 15, 20 years of this military experience. And so what online education provides, is an opportunity for, if they’re in uniform, they can begin, potentially part time, taking courses at a reputable institution, because they’re qualified to do so, not alienating them from doing that. And so I’ll use Syracuse as an example. I’m down in Louisiana and I really want to attend and get a Syracuse University education. I can have the opportunity to take online courses while I’m in the military. So when that transition does occur, I’m not only prepared with my real-world experience, but I also have the system backing of what that degree provides for a particular profession. And that’s a significant asset for our military and veteran population and their family members, because their family members are also residing with them, whether it’s on the installation, or on post, or off post in that geographic location, which may even be overseas. So thank you for bringing that up, John. I think that we have to continue to have conversations about access to education, and what that truly means for our military veteran populations, but even our everyday civilians.

Rebecca: I can imagine, too, the ability to have that consistency. Being able to take classes from the same institution when you might be moving around, or changing location, could be really helpful, because that helps have something be consistent.

Ken: Absolutely. And they can start online part time at an institution. And I’ve seen this situation occur, and they can even go residential, if they so choose, on campus when they do transition out of the military. So it gives them a sort of foundation or a head start, so they’re not starting from the first day of college once they get out of the military.

Rebecca: After a really different amount of experience, right, like someone coming straight from high school into a college situation. That goes back to your earlier point about having a first-year student in a college setting being in really two different moments in their life.

Ken: Absolutely. And the experiences are different, but I’ll tell you the symptoms are the same. So when that 18-year-old goes off to college and leaves his or her home for the first time and goes into the dorm room, there’s anxiety involved. There might be some level of depressed mood or lack of concentration, adjustment-related issues, mixed features in some way. Same thing goes for that 18-year-old I saw in my office in uniform. There is anxiety that goes along. There’s depression, right, there’s adjustment-related, there’s phase-of-life circumstances, which is completely appropriate. It’s good that they’re coming to seek these services, to sort of work through them, for longer-term success in one’s life.

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

Ken: What’s next for me is that I have a book called Diary of a Disposable Soldier. I’m close to getting it published. And on a weekly basis, I would go over to the Syracuse VA Medical Center in the cafeteria and meet with a veteran who was disabled, unable to type for oneself but could ultimately speak. He had found a diary that he had when he served in combat operations in Vietnam. And so he had, after 50 years, had come to grips that he wanted to tell his story. And so I’ve helped him along with several other individuals, get this work completed. Unfortunately, he passed in December. And so it’s my mission, in the coming weeks and months, to get this published and get it out there for friends, for family, folks that he’s served with in Vietnam, and other individuals who are curious about one’s experience during the Vietnam War.

Rebecca: Sounds like a really important and powerful work we can all look forward to reading soon. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It was really great hearing your perspective and thinking through so many important issues related to veterans but also just to our wider community.

Ken: Thank you, Rebecca. Thank you, John, so much. Wish you both a wonderful weekend.

John: Thank you for joining us.


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.


208. Efficient Mentoring and Communication

Most successful academics have been influenced by mentors who provided support, encouragement, and guidance. Maintaining effective mentoring relationships can be difficult, though, for academics facing increasing demands on their time. In this episode, Adaira Landry and Resa Lewiss join us to examine strategies that we can adopt to use our time more efficiently when mentoring students and colleagues. We also discuss strategies that we can use to help foster a more compassionate email culture in our workplaces.

Adaira is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, Harvard Medical School student advisor, and an emergency physician, and co-chair of the Diversity Inclusion Committee within the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Resa is a professor of emergency medicine and radiology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. She is also the creator and host of the Visible Voices podcast which covers topics on healthcare equity and a variety of interesting topics.



John: Most successful academics have been influenced by mentors who provided support, encouragement, and guidance. Maintaining effective mentoring relationships can be difficult, though, for academics facing increasing demands on their time. In this episode, we examine strategies that we can adopt to use our time more efficiently when mentoring and communicating with students and colleagues.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Adaira Landry and Resa Lewiss. Adaira is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, Harvard Medical School student advisor, and an emergency physician, and co-chair of the Diversity Inclusion Committee within the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Resa is a professor of emergency medicine and radiology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. She is also the creator and host of the Visible Voices podcast which covers topics on healthcare equity and a variety of interesting topics. Welcome Adaira and Resa.

Adaira: Thank you!

Resa: So great to be here.

John: Our teas today are…

Adaira: Black cherry by Jenwey Tea.

Rebecca: That sounds good.

Adaira: It’s really good.

Resa: I’m drinking herbal black licorice by Stash.

Rebecca: Wow, we got fancy-time teas today.

Adaira: These are fancy teas. [LAUGHTER]

Resa: We’re very serious people, including regarding our tea.

Rebecca: That’s very important. So you are in welcome company here. I have a HarSha, which is a black blend from a local privately owned Tea Company in the Finger Lakes in New

John: And I’m drinking a commercial blend of ginger peach black tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: A favorite.

John: It is one of my favorites.

Adaira: Yeah, I like their teas. I just bought their white peach, actually, and it’s really good.

John: The white ginger peach?

Adaira: White ginger peach. Yeah, I just bought the white one, it’s so good. Those are some really good teas.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss what you referred to as “fuel-efficient mentoring” in an article you co-authored in the Harvard Business Review last year. Pretty much all faculty members can look back and think about mentors who are really influential on their path to higher ed. And we all play important roles as mentors to our students and to our colleagues. But that role can be challenging given all the other pressures we face, especially during the pandemic, which has been going on for a while now. So could you tell us a little bit about the origin of fuel-efficient mentoring?

Adaira: So fuel-efficient mentoring, that article came about probably during the height of the pandemic when Resa and I, we’re emergency medicine physicians, we’re busy, we’re in academia, so we have students and residents we’re training, we’re educators, so we’re teaching all the time, and we felt that we had to pick and choose our priorities in a different way than we were used to. We’re putting forward the shifts, we’re putting forward the protection of our health, and probably de-prioritizing the way we used to support and train others. And we came together to discuss, basically, this concept of: How do we efficiently mentor and support people during this pandemic? Because we felt that it was being pushed to the backseat. And I will say I was a little bit inspired by something that I was doing via Twitter, which was bringing together students who were asking me to mentor them individually and putting them all together onto one Zoom. Just because I was stretched thin, and I was stressed out from the pandemic, I thought, well, wouldn’t it be more efficient to mentor eight or nine students within one hour, than each of them as one-hour meetings separately? And that was probably the start of it. Resa branded the idea as fuel efficient, that’s one of her many talents, because, really, the idea is to preserve ourselves. I think all of us love to educate, all of us love to mentor. But we only have so much time in the day, and we only have so much energy. And so, by being protective of ourselves, we’re able to really mentor people and spread our knowledge in a much more efficient way.

Rebecca: It also seems like then you’re also modeling good ways of finding balance and protecting yourself and things to your mentees as well.

Adaira: Yeah, I mean, I think what I would say about mentorship is that it’s historically been undervalued, under-recognized, but something that is really, really expected of a lot of educators to do. And we wanted to write about it, we wanted to make this a scholarly mission for ourselves to help normalize like, hey, this is something that we can be strategic with, this is something that we can be recognized for, this is something that we can scale. And really bring it up to the standards of, let’s say, someone who does research or gets large grants. Mentorship is a really important part of career development but we have found, personally, that it’s not necessarily recognized in the same way as others.

Resa: And I’ll add that I think people think mentoring is almost binary, this or that. Whereas one of the aspects of mentoring that we worked on is redefining and broadening the definition. Mentoring can take all different shapes and forms, all different styles, all different ages and stages. I think one of the biggest mistakes regarding mentoring is that you’re trying to mentor people like you or look for someone as a mentor who’s like yourself. And, I mean, we think that that’s very limiting, and it may not work out well for you or the mentee. And in fact, those people who seek to do that are usually looking for solely self-fulfilling prophecy. And I’ll say that’s what I saw. When I was finishing my residency training, I had attendings, teachers, pull me aside, and their advice to me was very much self-fulfilling prophecies: follow their path, do what I’ve done. And it almost seemed more to serve them than it did to serve me. And Adaira and I, when we start riffing on mentoring, she knows I really love the concept of peer mentoring. And some of my first peer mentors were my college classmates. They’re not physicians, they’re not in academics, but, wow, can they provide me some of the most useful pearls and pieces of guidance. And one of the highlights of the mentoring process that Adaira just described is those students, those mentees, get to know each other. And so, a psychological safety is created, they get comfortable asking questions in front of each other. And then when Adaira leaves the Zoom room, they have now developed a relationship with each other, and can take some of their own skills, their own questions, their own processes, and their own paths, they can walk on those together.

Rebecca: Such a great point. I know from my own experience that some of my best mentors have been people who are incredibly different from me, and are even in different fields that I am. [LAUGHTER]

Resa: Yep, 100%.

Adaira: Totally, mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s really important to think about who can offer you a different perspective that you hadn’t yet considered. And so I definitely think stretching yourself beyond the field you practice and beyond the institution in which you work is a great start.

John: On our campus we have a formal mentoring program for faculty where everyone is assigned a mentor. And often that will evolve and people will develop their own mentoring networks. But during the pandemic, a lot of those mentoring relationships were perhaps a little bit less strong than they might normally have been, and there was a lack of those hallway conversations in the drop-in to chat about problems. So we put together a group mentoring process where we had a mix of relatively recent younger faculty and some older faculty who met with all the new faculty in a group. And that peer mentoring component of that worked really well because people are going through the same experience and sharing their experiences among themselves can be really helpful. And doing that with students as well strikes me as being a really good idea that, probably, is underused.

Resa: If I could dovetail off of what you just shared, the concept of the structured mentoring programs. I think sometimes those work, and sometimes they don’t work, and we’ve all had those experiences. And when people ask us, “How do you create these relationships and what works, what doesn’t work?” What we found is a few things. So, number one, you try it out, if it’s not working, you don’t have to stay in that mentor-mentee relationship, it’s okay. And in fact, by clearing out a relationship that isn’t really organically growing and going, you’re opening yourself to other new relationships. Adaira has a really good recipe and formula. It’s not 100% foolproof, but it’s a really good recipe for a mentor- mentee relationship to work.

Adaira: Yes, I like it when a pairing has three different things that synergize nicely. And the first is that there are similar energies between the two people, meaning their personalities are complementary of each other. And there’s a similarity, there’s a familiarity that allows people to feel comfortable, naturally, around that other person. The second is when their schedules align, meaning if someone is very, very busy, and the other person is super open and wide, and expects their mentor, for instance, to be just as available, that can sometimes cause a collision. The third is that there’s an overlap or a nice complement to the knowledge gap that one person has and the knowledge that the other person can provide. And so, to me, I think a successful relationship can align along the energies between the parties, the schedule, and the knowledge. And it’s nice when you have all three there. I don’t think it’s absolutely critical, but that’s the ideal.

John: And you also suggest when there’s a formal mentoring relationship, that you share a document in which you talk about the expectations. Could you talk a little bit about that, and why that might be important?

Adaira: I think it’s important to just be clear and direct upfront. And the document doesn’t have to be a formal document that gets notarized, we’re not sort of saying those sorts of things. [LAUGHTER] But we’re saying to write it out, to say it, to make it concrete, as far as what are your expectations. And when I talked a little bit earlier about the three things that are there—energy, scheduling, and knowledge—honestly, the scheduling part, the time, is probably one of the biggest reasons why a relationship could fall apart. Is that someone’s expecting, perhaps, to extract more time from the other or less, or there could be some sort of a malalignment there. And so it’s really important to express upfront, “These are things I can help you with, so I can help you with finance, but only about maybe a few hours over the course of the year, I’m happy to contribute that.” And it seems uncomfortable to express that, but we’re used to, sort of, doing this in other relationships in the world. Let’s say I’m working with a real estate agent. I know offhand how much time he’s willing to devote to that relationship because he’s expressed that from the beginning. And I think in the world of mentorship we feel uncomfortable making it feel like a transaction or giving it that formal nature. But I will tell you, it feels good to just set that expectation up because it feels really bad saying no to someone, it feels really bad saying no. And so if you tell someone, “I’m happy to meet with you once a quarter,” and you say that from the beginning, then it’s out there, it’s out there. And they know that that’s the rules of the relationship. But it’s really tough when you’re expecting that once-a-quarter meeting, and then they start emailing you every month, or every other week, and now you have to say no, now you have to add them into your calendar. And now you start to resent, maybe not the person, but you might resent signing up for the relationship or signing up for the opportunity, or resent the fact that you didn’t say something earlier. You just start to have these negative feelings, and I think that’s not great. So, to me, expressing things upfront: How you’re going to meet, how often you’re going to meet, what are you meeting about? Who’s setting up the emails? All these sorts of things, I think it’s really important to say that upfront.

Rebecca: Are there other strategies or other key pieces of information that we should make sure are in documents or agreements in these relationships to help make sure that they’re nice and healthy?

Resa: One of the points that we emphasize, that I think is an “aha” for mentees, is that they have to play a role in this relationship. It’s not one sided, it’s a back and forth. And, in general, once you state roles, responsibilities, and expectations, people can either deliver and rise or they don’t. What I’ve seen when people have spoken with Adaira, spoken with myself, and read this article, they’re like, “Oh!” like there’s a light bulb that goes off on the mentee side that, “I have a role in this.” And I’ve been surprised, gladly so, that I have mentees say, “You know, I know I’m responsible for reaching out to you, I will follow up with you, I will offer dates.” I’ve recently been reading a book about habits of highly successful people, the classic, and proactivity is rule number one. And so this proactivity, that people need to be the ones to play the role, to outreach to the mentor, it’s been nice to see and it works.

Adaira: And the other thing is really normalizing that not every meeting has to be an hour long or even 30 minutes long. Some meetings can be 20, 10 minutes, 40 minutes long, I mean, you can change it and you can sort of titrate to their needs and what the topic is. But this idea of just because you’re going to meet with the person, you have to block off an hour of your calendar, I think can cause people who are already very, very, very busy to say, “I don’t have time, I don’t have time to do this.” And so what helps us to figure out the purpose of the meeting, the content that will be discussed, and think about: What are the venues? Or what are the media that I can use to meet with this person? And what is the necessary timeframe for us to meet? Every once in a while someone will send me a calendar invite, and that’s speaking to what Resa said earlier, the mentee, I have them send me the calendar invite with the Zoom link or the location in which we’re going to meet. And they’ll put it for an hour and I’ll say, “I don’t think we actually need an hour to discuss your schedule for the next two weeks and how to prioritize your schedule for two weeks. We can do that much faster.” And so, it might require you to sort of train them to be efficient with how they present themselves for a meeting and come up with an agenda. But the goal is to really try to titrate the length of the meetings so that it’s appropriate for the content to be discussed.

Rebecca: Seems like a good rule in many contexts, not just mentorship. [LAUGHTER]

Adaira: Correct, that’s true.

John: Does all the mentoring have to take place in meetings, either in person or remotely?

Resa: Absolutely not, and I really am glad you posed that question. I was thinking as Adaira was sharing, that we have fallen into this virtual Zoom world. A lot can get accomplished back and forth via email, and what I was thinking as you’re setting up the meeting and saying, “Hey, we probably can meet in 20 minutes rather than 60 minutes,” there are a few items that you can actually clarify. And I have a meeting upcoming today and it’s with four people, we’re talking about authoring a paper. And the goal of the meeting is for it to be a working meeting on the document, but we were able to clarify ahead of time, by email, authorship and sort of goal publication location. So there’s certain things that you can do quick, the quick back and forth, or the quick items that you can accomplish in one email, then allows you to clear it off, so when you actually have the meeting, you can focus on what you need to focus on. And one of the things that we like a lot is walking meetings, like, everybody reads about walking meetings, but not a lot of people actually do them. And the beauty of a walking meeting is you’re walking side by side, and there’s a comfort and a psychological safety that develops. And what I found after having a walking meeting is there’s almost a connection with a colleague, a connection with a mentee that wasn’t there before. Because you’re in nature, you’re walking, you’re breathing, and you’re sort of bringing in good energy and allowing yourself and your mind to open in creative ways.

Adaira: Even if you’re not side by side, like, sometimes I just have my meetings while I’m walking by myself outside. And it’s just good to be out there breathing clean air and outside of the computer region of my life and just separating myself. I will do that even if I’m meeting with someone over the phone.

John: You also suggest in that article that it may be useful sometimes to invite the people you’re mentoring to professional development activities or professional activities that you would have been attending anyway so that you can use the time a little bit more efficiently for the purpose of mentoring, as well as for whatever purposes you were using that time for anyway.

Resa: I really like that one. So it’s so much fun, as we’re slowly returning to in-person or other professional events, and even virtual professional events, to invite someone in. Number one, yes, you’re accomplishing the mentor-mentee meeting. Number two, you’re modeling, you’re modeling conversations, you’re modeling behaviors, you’re also networking and helping your mentee network and meet other potential mentors, sponsors, coaches. So it’s very efficient, very effective, and I think I’ve been on the receiving end of such invitations when I’m the mentee. It opens up your world, and it allows you to sort of watch how someone else is doing it, someone who you admire and respect. And you can pick up a lot of information in those ways.

John: And one other thing you discussed in that article is using email when possible, which actually ties into another article you wrote in March 2021, on what a compassionate email culture looks like. Could you tell us a little bit about how a compassionate email culture works and how it can play a useful role in mentoring?

Resa: So the concept of compassionate email, I think, is really important now. Bob Walker, who’s the Chair of Internal Medicine at UCSF, has been placing messages on Twitter about burnout and physician burnout, and actually how much email and the email culture is contributing to that. So we all know we’ve been home, we’ve been virtual, and people are much more in front of their computers or laptops. So you could argue that the inbox has exploded. And Adaira is the one that came up with this idea of writing an article about compassionate email. And the concept is, we don’t have to email as often and as much as we have been, and in fact, we can be pretty efficient about it. And the emphasis in the articles we read were always about protecting yourself, protecting your own inbox. And in this article, we flipped the switch. We said, “No, we want to protect other people’s inboxes.” And I’ll let Adaira start elaborating a bit.

Adaira: You know, I think it comes from our perspective as physicians. So physicians love to care for patients, that’s what we do for a living, but we’re really bad at caring for ourselves. And so, I think for many of us, that’s where we fail when it comes to our in-basket, our inbox, is that it’s hard for us to protect our own inbox, because we would write things and get all sorts of newsletters and emails that just come in, you just feel so overwhelmed. We thought, well, maybe we should think about how we can protect other people. So that was sort of the impetus for that article, was thinking more about creating a culture and being responsible for creating a culture or helping to create that culture, where email isn’t something that you just do whenever you want, you’re thinking about the other person. And so there are different ways in which you can do that, we discuss many of those in the article. I will say one thing that I think is really the secret sauce, is considering the BCC. The BCC has a bad rap, it’s a “blind carbon copy,” it has a bad rap of being something that can be used maliciously, and if you read a lot of articles about it, you will see that. But the BCC is actually a really nice strategy, especially when you’re sending out an email to 100 people, or 200 people, or even, honestly, anything greater than, like, 15, 10 people, you can BCC them. And, in your subject line you write, “Attention: teachers,” “Attention: principals,” whoever it is that you’re addressing, you make it very clear in that subject line who’s all included into that email. But everyone’s BCC’d so that you can avoid that reply all and I’m sure you’ve all been on those threads where everyone’s replying to the potluck, “Oh, I’m bringing macaroni and cheese. Oh, I’m bringing…” Not everyone needs to know that. And so, it’s important to sort of minimize the back and forth, and by having a BCC, if someone needs to reply, they reply directly to you. If you need to send out a summary statement, you can send out a summary statement of all of the replies you got. And that’s it, now you have two emails that were sent out to the large group, the initial one, and maybe the follow up, but that’s it. And so, that’s a small step of considering someone. The other thing is the time of the email. I would say even a year ago, I wasn’t great at this. This is something I’m working on myself where I would reply to someone at, like, midnight, because I was awake, I would send an email at midnight, I would send an email on Saturday that would have a task for that person to do, such as, “Oh, I’m sending you this. Do you mind just when you get a chance editing this?” And someone will say, “Oh, I have a chance. I mean, I can do it now instead of spending time with my kids, I’ll just quickly do this.” And so, by protecting other people by being conscientious of the time of the day, the time of the week, you can, again, just sort of respect the fact that everyone deserves to distance themselves from work. And if we think about how every time we send an email, we bring them back into work, we bring them back into the workplace and all the tasks that they have to do. Then again, we can start to move more towards being compassionate and respecting others’ time. And the goal of that article is really to try to encourage a better culture. And obviously this needs to be a conversation that occurs between some of the key stakeholders, but to really try to understand that we can all contribute to the problem by sending out a ton of emails, by emailing people at any hour, but it’s important to think about ways to mitigate someone else’s burden.

John: And you also suggest that if you’re going to send out those emails, you could use either features of your email program or some type of a plug-in in email, so that you schedule it to arrive during work hours. Could you just suggest some tools that might work for that?

Resa: Thanks so much for that highlight. That’s one of my faves, is the schedule option. Sometimes you don’t even know where these plug-ins and where these preferences are in your email software, but they’re there. And our hospital uses Outlook. And I found in Microsoft Outlook, that I can send my email, I can schedule them to be sent. So we’re not arguing that you need to put off things so that then it’s going to weigh on you and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I need to add that to my to-do list”, you can write the response or you can write the content of the email. However, you don’t have to press send, and in fact, you can schedule that send. And one of the things I also have been working on is my send days and times. Many messages can wait till after the weekend or they can certainly wait until eight o’clock the next morning. And it not only is thoughtful and intentional for the receivers, it also actually has helped me structure when I’m doing my emails, and when I even seek to receive emails. And there are formulas, and there are ways of decreasing your email inbox. As section leader for my group, what I’ve seen is, as I’ve decreased the quantity and increased the quality of my emails, I think it’s been brought back to me. In other words, I’m not receiving any quick, superfluous emails, what I’m receiving is much more intentional and much more quality and much more necessary. Because we’re not saying don’t communicate, in fact, we’re all about communication. Moreover, in the article we talk about speaking with your group, speaking with your sections, speaking with your team, how do they want to structure communication surrounding email? Because, actually, not everybody wants this type of communication. So it’s important to get your group to agree upon the kind of culture they want surrounding email.

Rebecca: Really appreciate that a lot of the work that both of you have been doing is really about protecting self and others through communication, relationships, etc. And I know that you have another article that came out too, about requesting compensation when you’ve been asked to speak. So I was wondering if you could give us a little glimpse of that article as well? I know that often people in academia are asked to give talks, but often just as a favor. [LAUGHTER] So can you provide some tips on how to protect yourself in that space as well?

Resa: I want to start by just saying that, Rebecca, you totally called us out. Adaira and I have felt that there is a playbook. There’s a playbook about how to navigate the workplace. And no one gave us a copy of that book to read. So one of our intentions, one of our missions, is to write articles and to share information that is going to help people. Help people take care of themselves, take care of their team, take care of their work, and take care of their overall culture. So Adaira and I talk about a lot of things in academic medicine. And a lot of what we talk about is not pure academics, and certainly not pure medicine, which is why we found an audience at Harvard Business Review. And the concept of moving from speaking for free, to speaking for a fee, which of course is very catchy, it’s a coming of age, and it’s a rite of passage. And part of how we came to this, what to do, when to do it, is by having a lot of conversations, actually, with mentors and with sponsors. And quite honestly, going back to the playbook and the sports reference, sometimes men seem to get some of the tips and tricks that we didn’t get. So, a lot of my mentors and a lot of people with whom I speak are men. Men friends, men colleagues, men that can tell me how they did it, or how they do it. So in terms of if there are 10 specific things that we recommend, when you’re in a situation that you’re asked to speak and there’s no monetary compensation, there’s no honorarium. And Adaira, do you want to start with some of them?

Adaira: Yeah, and it gets more comfortable asking over time. In the beginning you feel like you might be putting yourself at risk by asking, like, maybe they’ll take back the opportunity or maybe you’ll be judged. But to just be clear, many other people are doing this in various arenas of the professional world. It’s commonplace to get compensated for your time, it’s common to get compensated for your expertise. So as a teacher, or as an educator, or a mentor who’s speaking about your perspective, about your area of expertise, why wouldn’t that apply to you? And so you do have to gain that confidence. And in the beginning, it can be a little bit uncomfortable, so asking upfront is very key. So you wouldn’t want to ask for any sort of compensation at the end of your presentation or after it’s done. This is something, like the terms and conditions, that you’d ask upfront. And it can be very polite, like, “Is there any way that you would be able to provide a professional photograph of me as I’m speaking, that can go onto my website, that can go into a flyer for my next talk?” But that’s a form of compensation, because a nice high-quality photo or a headshot can be used by you later. Or even reduced or completely covered membership fees if you’re speaking for large national organizations, and they can’t offer you money, but perhaps they can reduce your membership fee for the next year, or give you a free trial, right? You can negotiate with them, and this is all in the practice of negotiation and developing comfort with negotiation. So in the article, we go through all 10 of these topics, and some of them, I feel like, I have used very, very, very successfully and now they’re just sort of standard practice. And some of them have taken some time to get used to. And it’s just a personal choice that you would make, but I don’t think you should feel obligated to walk away from any talk without any form of compensation.

Resa: I can add a few more. So a good one is a letter, a letter to your boss, a letter to your supervisor, a letter to your CEO, where the intention is that you get a positive letter, but either with, perhaps, quotes from audience members about how your talk was received, what it did for the group. Another is, say it’s an invitation to speak at a local group, you can ask that if it’s a positive reception, and it’s well received, and they liked you and the content you provided, could they recommend you for a national conference or an international conference? It could be the stepping stone for something that’s larger, that’s more impactful. A final one I’ll share, and this one I thought was obvious, but I think it only becomes obvious once you’ve done a lot of these, is sometimes there’s just no money and they cannot pay you an honorarium. However, they can pay your travel, your airline flight, your hotel, meals, and transfers. And, if it’s a place you’ve never visited, if it happens to be where your college best friend lives, like, why not? There are many ways to think about this, and it should not be an absolute yes-no.

Rebecca: Lots of great tips today. All kinds of ways to be better communicators, advocate for ourselves, and advocate for others. We always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Adaira: For me, as we write, we start to realize what else we can learn about the craft. And so, for me, I’m going to be taking more writing classes, reading more writing books, trying to just learn how to become a better communicator on paper. And that will be my goal for the next six months to a year. I mean, it’s a lifelong goal, but, like, I really want to dive into it.

Resa: And for me, I would characterize it as working on my storytelling. Writing and a lot of what we write comes from personal and professional stories. So working on storytelling through the podcast. I launched the podcast during COVID for the reasons of sharing and amplifying people that are doing things that are subject matter experts, perhaps they’re not being heard, perhaps they’re not being seen. So working on the creativity and the growth of the podcast.

Rebecca: Sounds like some really exciting adventures.

John: We really appreciate you sharing your time with us and we’re very much looking forward to sharing this with our listeners. Thank you.

Adaira: Thank you for having us.

Resa: Thank you so much.


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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle.


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.


203. Critical Race Theory

Multiple states have introduced legislation banning the discussion of critical race theory at all levels of public education. In this episode Cyndi Kernahan and Moira Lynch join us to explore what these bills actually say, the motivations behind them, and the impact this has on teaching in higher education. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor. Moira is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics, Geography, and International Studies, also at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls.



John: Multiple states have introduced legislation banning the discussion of critical race theory at all levels of public education. In this episode we explore what these bills actually say, the motivations behind them, and the impact that this has on teaching in higher education.


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 guests today are Cyndi Kernahan, and Moira Lynch. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor. Moira is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics, Geography, and International Studies, also at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. Welcome Moira, and welcome back, Cyndi.

Cyndi: Thank you.

Moira: Thanks for having us.

John: Our teas today are…

Cyndi: I’m drinking blueberry green tea.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds good!

Moira: I had English breakfast and I left it downstairs.

Rebecca: Oops. [LAUGHTER] I have Earl Grey although Moira, don’t worry, I came initially with just a cup of hot water and I was like, oops, that’s not tea.

John: And I have ginger peach green tea. Is your blueberry green tea the Tea Republic one?

Cyndi: It is, I love them so much.

John: I do too. It’s really good.

Cyndi: And I took a page from you guys. I have to say we’re opening our CTL space officially next Tuesday. We were supposed to open last year but pandemic, and I took a page from y’all: I bought a kettle and tea because you guys inspired me. {LAUGHTER] So we will have a tea maker at the UW River Falls CTL space.

Rebecca: Representing, awesome!

John: Nice! We actually, I should note, have three. We have two tea kettles and we have a Breville tea maker, which will set the temperature and the strength of the tea for each of the major types of tea.

Cyndi: Of course you do.

John: We’ve been doing this for a while now.

Rebecca: Yeah, hashtag tea nerds.

John: We’ve invited you here, to talk about a column you wrote for the Cap Times on a bill that would ban the discussion of critical race theory in K-12 and higher education in the state of Wisconsin. What has happened with this bill? Has it passed or is it still under discussion?

Moira: This is a bill that… there’s actually two parts to it… There’s a Bill 409, which is targeting universities and colleges in Wisconsin. And then there’s a Bill 411, which is targeting K through 12 schools. And it hasn’t passed. It was proposed in June, just this past June… 2021. And then they only recently had a public hearing, a pretty divisive and rancorous public hearing, on August 11th on the bill, but no, it hasn’t gone to a vote yet. So the bill, basically, is banning particular concepts from the classroom. That’s its intent, including ideas like that one race or sex is superior to another, a person is inherently racist by virtue of his or her race or sex, a person should feel guilty for past acts committed by people of his or her race or sex. And there’s a few other pieces of language, but also it includes language that schools that would engage in instruction, that aligns with these ideas, would lose 10% of their annual state funding. There’s a couple other pieces to the bills, too, that are important to mention about ideas around educators publishing their curriculum, making it public and that being monitored in some form if this bill should pass. And that would be at the college and university level, but also at the K through 12 level. It also has some language on training. So institutions that are training on diversity and inclusion, for example, would be subject to some of these same ideas about what they can and cannot talk about in their training.

Cyndi: EDUCAUSE is keeping up with this, a lot of places are keeping up with this, I think the Chronicle of Higher Ed has a map as well. And there are 12 states that have passed something like this. And they all look a little different. So, Wisconsin’s looks very similar, I should say, because there’s a strategy here, but there are 12 states who have passed things like this, and there are variations on them. There’s more that seemed to be focused on the K-12 system, but many of them are focused on higher ed as well, like Florida really stands out as being very focused on their higher education system. So you can go and look, I think the EDUCAUSE article is really good, I can send that to y’all, but it sort of shows you like the map and where each state is in terms of where these bans are at. So this is a pretty serious issue going into the Fall semester.

John: We can share a link to that in the show notes. This has been a phenomenon we’ve been seeing a lot recently. We saw it over the previous four years in the White House with many federal agencies and we’re seeing it again in lots of red states, it appears. Why is this happening?

Cyndi: Yeah, I can start. I don’t think it’s any accident that a year ago, we were still talking about… I mean we still are talking about… the protests around George Floyd and the summer that we had that was so remarkable in terms of how many people went out and protested. So I think this is a response to that. That’s what it feels like to me. And it’s an ongoing response. We see this when you look at the history of race and racism, where there’s movement and backlash, movement and backlash. Carol Anderson writes about this really well. Many people write about it well, but that book in particular, White Rage, is a great source where she talks about that sort of movement forward and the backlash, and so I think it’s part of that. I think it’s always been part of a larger political strategy too, which I know Moira can speak better to than I can around using this in terms of gaining votes. I know you can speak to that better than me.

Moira: Yeah, I would agree with Cindy, that I think there’s a lot of backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. And a lot of times the legislation even brings that in to the conversation or you hear that at school board meetings a lot in terms of what people perceive that movement to be, and whether they see it as a threat or not. And that often goes along with what people are speaking about at school board meetings and in college university settings around this type of legislation. But it is definitely stemming from a political strategy, in the sense that a Conservative activist, Christopher Rufo, spoke on Fox News last summer, talking about critical race theory in particular and how it was kind of this insidious element or form of indoctrination that was really moving through the education system. And that got the attention of President Trump. And he wrote a new Executive Order in which you can see much of the language in the legislation across the states, as Cindy described, taking their language directly from the Trump executive order, making sure that this was prohibited as much as possible in the educational setting. Biden has since rescinded that Executive Order since coming into office. But this is definitely a strategy that Conservative activists acknowledge and others also acknowledge ahead of the 2022 elections and beyond. And so there are different folks who are… you’ll see in conservative political party members… that are making statements, people who are interested in running for president eventually, that are definitely taking a stand on this and making sure that their voice is heard on this legislation in their own state or in other spaces. And so it’s definitely kind of part and parcel of how cultural wars have played out in the past in politics in which parties use a particular cultural hot point hot button issue to rally voters and constituents toward them on a particular cause.

Rebecca: In the past year, we’ve seen many campuses really pushed towards diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, whatever those are, and whatever those look like on a particular campus, they’re different, but there’s definitely a movement in that direction throughout higher ed. how is this impacting that movement? What are the long-term implications of this kind of legislation happening across multiple states in these moves to really have equity in higher education, and really, in K-12, too?

Cyndi: I think it complicates it, and anybody who reads the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed on a regular basis knows that there’s always been backlash against higher ed, the idea that what we’re teaching is indoctrination or somehow wrong and brainwashing students, liberalizing students, that that idea is not new. I think what this does is it just sort of raises the stakes even more. As someone who teaches about this and works on initiatives like that on my campus level, I’m very involved in all of that work. And so it feels like we’re under even more scrutiny. So there have been incidents on this campus. For example, over the summer, there was a website that was inadvertently linked to our website, and it generated a lot of controversy on the right. And there was a lot of pushback. And so there were people calling the campus and saying, why are you linking to this website? We shouldn’t have necessarily been linking to that website, and again, it was an inadvertent mistake. But it was so clear to me over the summer, when this happened, like “Wow, people are really watching closely.” And so I think that’s part of what complicates that work is that there’s just going to be a lot of scrutiny, a lot of watching what we’re doing. And we already know, and this happens on a lot of campuses, that campus web pages are looked at closely, what instructors are teaching are looked at really closely. I thought the situation at Boise State was really instructive. If you all followed tha, where the Idaho State Legislature took funding away from Boise State and gave it to another Idaho college because allegedly there was this incident where a white student was shamed in an online class around racism. But when you actually dug into it, that student was not shamed by the instructor. There was some back and forth between the student and other students in the chat. It was a synchronous session, but the instructor actually handled it beautifully. The instructor checked in on the student to make sure they were okay. She saw that there was some conflict between students and handled it really, really well, I thought, from my read of the reporting of that. But that incident of allegedly a student being shamed was sent to a legislator who then, just based on that hearsay, said, “Okay, we’re taking $400,000 [I think it was] away from the school.” So I think the scrutiny is part of what really complicates this and makes it harder to do that work.

Moira: I think one of the problems, to your question, Rebecca, about what kind of impact too, is the critical race theory has become this catch-all term for anything that is taught in K through 12 settings or colleges and universities that’s related to race, anti-racism, systemic racism, racial injustice. I mean, the list goes on and on. And as Cyndi has said, these courses have existed for a long time. There’s a lot of work on this in different settings and different forms. So there’s a lot of confusion about what critical race theory is, and is not. And most of the laws that have been passed and that are even being considered don’t even have that term in the law, or if they do, it’s not accurately characterized. So it’s become this vessel to control how race and racism is taught in these settings. And that’s a very powerful instrument. And I want to give you an example, there’s a website called criticalrace.org in which Conservative activists are basically keeping tabs on everything that they can find that colleges and universities teach or had programming on or training related to race, anti-racism, etc. But when you go through different colleges and you look at what they take notes on, it’s not critical race theory… Is there a course? Yes or no? They actually just list anything that has race or anti-racism in it. So it could be a speaker that spoke two years ago, it could be a program for first years on anti-racism, it could be a lecture, it could be training, you can see it’s just this catch-all list that they are collecting to identify a problem. But what’s not clear is what the problem is, in terms of collecting this list of information from a college or university. It’s not clear in this website, for example, what is problematic about any of this programming or how it fits into this larger narrative of it being indoctrination.

John: Is there any evidence that critical race theory is actually being taught anywhere in the K through 12 environment?

Cyndi: Not that I know of, this is just from listening to reports about it, but it wouldn’t make sense for it to be taught in a K-12 setting. I mean, even in undergraduate classes, I’ve never formally taught critical race theory. And part of what’s confusing about it, and I do think it’s sort of useful, I guess, as a catch-all term for the folks who want to stop any discussion of racism, because it’s like this projection screen that a lot of stuff gets thrown on. I mean, really, if you look at the definition of critical race theory, part of what’s so complicated about it is it’s not one thing, it’s really a framework. So it’s a way of looking at things like laws and policies across a variety of domains: health care, education, the justice system, etc., and saying, “Let’s look at where there are racial disparities and disadvantage and let’s try to understand that.” So it’s looking at those things with a critical lens. One example I might give from work that we do is I was thinking about a financial aid policy of verification, I’m sure you all are familiar with this, that ensnares tons of students, including lots of my students, where you have to go through and provide more documentation to be able to receive your financial aid. A critical race perspective on that would say, “How is that happening? How is that disproportionately harming students of color?” …because it is, and there’s research that shows that it is. So that’s what CRT is, is it’s looking at things from a critical framework and saying, “Let’s look at it and see the ways in which racism is operating here that we might not recognize, because that’s one of the sets of assumptions is that it’s systemic, it’s not just individual.” Race is a social construction. Depending on what source you look at, there’s like five or seven different assumptions that are made within the framework of CRT. So, it really wouldn’t make sense for it to be taught to little kids. And then even at the college level, you might not necessarily teach in that way. I mean, I know most of what I spend my time teaching are really those core assumptions, which are understanding how race is a social construction and what that means. Understanding what it means that racism is systemic, and not just individual. And I think when you drill down, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, what I think people really want to ban is feelings. They want to ban people’s feelings around this. So there’s a lot of emphasis, if you listen to the way legislators talk about this, they’re very worried about white people being embarrassed or shamed. And so the idea is, let’s not teach about this in this way in which we think about it as this large encompassing framework, because there’s the assumption that that will make white students feel uncomfortable and embarrassed and ashamed to be white, when I would argue if you’re teaching well, and most people I know who teach this teach very well, that’s not a pedagogical technique that we use. We don’t want to shame people because they don’t learn in that way. And so that’s what’s, at least for me, as one who’s taught about this for so long, is so maddening. It’s like you’re mischaracterizing the way we teach and also mischaracterizing what it is that we’re teaching. It’s not critical race theory. It’s before tha,t just trying to get on the same page of what race is what racism actually is.

Rebecca: It sounds to me like many of the objectives of people who are pursuing this legislation is to just ban discussion of racism, and particular history. And I know that even when I was a student, many perspectives weren’t taught in K-12. So is it a return to a status quo of teaching a particular perspective and only offering that perspective and pushing against other perspectives being offered? Or is it something else?

Moira: I teach international relations and international relations, as a field, was silent for decades on race. So you just didn’t see people publish about it, Textbooks didn’t cover it. It’s just this gaping hole until more recently, textbooks have chapters on race and world politics or more chapters on post-colonial theory, for example. And some of that is also very American-centric. The way Americans taught it in universities was very narrow. However, in other parts of the world race was very much part and parcel of how you would learn about International Relations at the college level. And I talk about that with my students, because when we read about recent world politics, and we look at post-colonial theory, it’s incredibly helpful for them to be able to see historical patterns and systems that have shaped foreign policy decisions, that have shaped why a country’s development has stayed at a lower level as opposed to a higher level. It gives them tools to understand and make sense of some of the outcomes we see that don’t always make sense, especially in places very far from here that are very hard to understand if you have only lived United States and don’t have a lot of context for what’s happening in other parts of the world. So even just being able to explain really diverse patterns of development, conflict, stability in the African continent, is something that the colonial lens, and the colonial period helps them to grasp and make sense of particular outcomes. And we couldn’t do that unless we talked about racial oppression. We talked about colonialization and the slave trade. We couldn’t make sense of that, without that context of institutional racism. To your point about are we going backwards, in that field of international relations, I’m only recently seeing this great movement forward. And actually, textbooks are now a lot more inclusive of these histories than they used to be and so I’m very sensitive to this, because I can see it just moving away. And this omission and this silencing could really have a huge impact on an international relations course.

Cyndi: Yeah, it definitely seems like we’re just getting started and actually including other people in a lot of our curriculum. I think about psychology and the ways in which so much has been left out. And it’s just now starting to be included. So again, I think this is kind of that backlash piece that we see where finally this kind of history and work is being included. And it’s like “No, no, no, wait, wait, wait, we don’t want that.” And, you know, we’ve seen this before. The Tucson School District, they attempted to ban ethnic studies that was ultimately overturned. But it took many, many years to get that changed. So I think that’s what we’re seeing, there’s movement forward, it’s a little bit more inclusive, there’s more focus on it. And it’s interesting, because the backlash is so swift, even to just a little bit of inclusion. We still know… the Southern Poverty Law Center put out a report… I think it’s been a couple of years ago now, looking at the K-12 system showing that really slavery is not taught well, for most American students, it’s not taught particularly well. But even just a little bit of inclusion has sparked this intense backlash. And again, I keep thinking about how so much of it is focused on feelings. It’s very interesting. We don’t want anybody to feel bad. And there’s this assumption that students will feel bad if they learn, essentially, the truth about American history and American present. They just really irks me as an instructor, because that’s not what I see. Students like learning this for the most part. I mean, I have some resistance. But for the most part, students are grateful. The number one comment I always get is, “Why did no one tell me any of this?” And so what I see is that they’re grateful to learn the truth and the flaws and the messiness of our history and who we are as people. They’re grateful for that for the most part.

Rebecca: I would think the most tricky feelings are actually the ones of being betrayed or like, lied to.

Cyndi: Often, there’s a lot of guilt. I’ve talked about that a lot. There’s a lot of guilt, there’s a lot of helplessness. “How do I deal with this?” And so, you know, there’s a lot of management of those feelings. So yeah, that’s a great point.

Moira: I think, too, one of the interesting patterns that we’re seeing with these laws, and it’s the same for Wisconsin, in terms of the proposed bills, is that there isn’t data or evidence of how any of this education that they seem to be pointing to is harmful. They say it’s harmful, and the feelings are being hurt, as Cindy was saying, but we don’t have any data or evidence of harm. And even in the hearing on August 11 in Wisconsin, some of the people testifying, the senators, but also teachers, asked about that. “What is the data? What exactly do you want us to not do? What do you think is harmful?” And it’s difficult for some of the sponsors of the bill to answer that question. They actually couldn’t answer that question on August 11. And I think that’s really telling,

Cyndi: It’s often just all anecdote. It’s just like the Boise State example. It’s like, “Well, I heard someone said that there was this” …and even the thing that kicked part of this off with Christopher Rufo that Moira was referencing earlier was, I believe it was a city worker in the city of Seattle who had seen a presentation and just took a picture of the slide and send it somewhere. So it wasn’t necessarily bad feelings, it was just like, “This could make me feel bad or something,” I think. So it’s very amorphous and there’s a lot of assumptions being made that aren’t well evidenced at all for this.

Moira: And everything out of context.

Cyndi: Yes, very much so.

John: Is this related to a concern about the decline of the white majority that had controlled the narrative for so long, and perhaps a backlash to that, which is showing up in voter suppression efforts in so many other areas?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think the backlash framing is interesting. Right now I’m reading a great book. Ashley Jardina, is a political scientist who wrote the book, White Identity Politics. I’m not all the way through it. It’s really fun to read so far. But she talks a lot about that, about how there’s this salience around white identity that’s happening now, because of this demographic shift. And so that this is part of that larger thing. So there’s this sense of threat. And this is a response to that. So I think it makes our job as teachers, when we teach about this, more tricky and more challenging in some ways, but it’s of a piece with what we’ve always had to deal with. And I think a lot of the techniques for working with it are probably going to be the same. I know at the K-12 level, it’s harder for them, because they have less academic freedom. But I think at the college level, a lot of just good teaching is the way that we’re going to have to continue to work with this backlash and threat that people feel.

Moira: I would agree. And I think that you hear whiteness and white identity and white privilege more often, I think, in a positive way, in the sense that it’s not these kind of niche areas or people. The good part is that people understand that more. And they understand that white identity is constructed just as much as black identity, just as much as any other racial category, they’re all constructed. And so I think, at least in my experience, when I talk to students about that, in that way, that social construction is this very real phenomenon, not just of identities, but many things. Sovereignty is a social construction. Norms have evolved over time about what states can or cannot do. It becomes something more within their grasp to know that this is a product of social forces that have huge impacts that we take for granted, that we internalize… myself and my peers… that we can dismantle, we can challenge, we can push against in the name of justice, in the name of more equitable outcomes. And I think it’s a tool that can be harnessed in that way. And so that’s something that I think absolutely produces the backlash, to your point, because people understand it as a movement to make people feel bad about whiteness, but actually, we all have constructed identities. And so we all are grappling with the ways in which those constructions are harmful.

Cyndi: And I think that actually gives us part of the way through this as teachers, I would say, because I’ve always thought about these two, sort of broad categories for thinking about teaching about race and racism. But even more so in the face of this, like I’m thinking about them more. So, one is the focusing on that institutional layer of things. We have so much focus on: “Are you a good or a bad person? Are you racist or not?” Particularly for white students. And if we can get beyond that, and really think about, “Yes, there is this individual layer, like the attitudes you hold, the behaviors that you display, but there’s also this bigger institutional part, where, as Moira said, all of our identities are constructed, and all of us are part of these larger systems, that we didn’t really ask to be a part of.” And so in many ways, that’s very freeing and liberating for students to see that, “Oh, yeah, I’m part of this harmful system, but it’s harmful to me, too.” It’s not as harmful to white people as it is to people of color, but there’s harm for everyone. It’s not just about me, it’s about this larger system. And that helps to, I think, get students away from just sort of the feelings of it, feeling bad, feeling guilty. It’s like, “No, let’s look at this in its entirety.” So I think that’s a really important thing when we think about how to teach in the face of this larger layer of scrutiny, is that, actually, that focus on the institutional level is helpful. That’s ironic, because that’s the thing that they want to ban. But I would argue that that’s actually a useful thing if you don’t want people to feel as bad. There’s some level of feeling that’s going to be there. But getting away from that, I think, is really helpful. That, and just creating as much belonging and community in your classes… you need to, that’s the second thing. And one more, I’ll just add, I’m a white instructor, and I’m tenured and all of that… it’s much easier. I think it’s really incumbent upon all of us in higher ed to recognize that this is a lot harder for instructors of color. It always has been and this makes it even harder. And for people who are adjunct instructors, graduate students, people who are not tenured yet, this is a really important issue that I hope that colleagues and administrators are paying attention to, I really do.

Moira: I just want to add one thing about the focus on the individual. The legislation ,even an opinion from an Attorney General in Arkansas recently just lists all these things that she sees as potentially violating anti-discrimination laws. But she only uses the language of the individual, the individual will feel this, the individual will be made to… So I think that, if we just step back for a minute and think about how social studies courses are taught in the K through 12 level, and we talk about how history courses… just very broadly for a minute… history courses are taught at the college and university level, they are never about who in this room is responsible for what happened. “This historical event that we’re talking about today, are you responsible? Are your ancestors responsible?” History has always talked about painful events. History courses, or social studies courses, have always talked about painful events, painful events in our history or others’ histories. And it isn’t about your ancestors’ responsibility or individual’s responsibility in the room. We talk about different forms of oppression. Even if you just think about workers’ rights at the beginning of the 20th century, when we think about who is oppressing or who was not giving a fair treatment to people in coal mines or in factories, we don’t talk about people’s ancestors in the room when we’re talking about those oppressions. We’re talking about that as a historical event that we learn from and that we then think about systems going forward from those events, our workers rights movements, child labor laws, etc. And so I think that’s something that is worth reflecting on, that that is the norm. What Cindy is describing is the norm. And many teachers in Wisconsin also said, this is the norm in terms of how we teach history, but it’s not about individual fault or blame.

John: We’re lucky in New York state that we don’t face this issue. But what can we do as individual faculty members to help push back against this type of thing?

Cyndi: Maybe I’m naive, but I really think teaching well is really important. And a lot of what we all know, in terms of good pedagogy, being inclusive, creating as much community as possible, creating a strong sense of belonging, I think all of that is going to be useful to fight back against the sort of stereotyped ideas of what we do as college faculty, and that we’re not brainwashing, we’re not doing that, what we’re doing is trying to bring students along and help them learn, I think about that Boise State instructor who really did what you should do in a situation like that. And so doing as much of that as possible and being focused on each other and being protective, like what I said before about really thinking about who are the more marginalized instructors on my campus that are doing this work? And do people really understand how hard that is? In my department, we take it for granted that the folks who teach statistics and methods, that’s harder, and their evaluations might not look as good as the folks who are teaching other stuff, like what I teach, social psychology, or things like that, that are more “fun.” I think, as colleagues, being aware how difficult this is and how hard it is, I heard a colleague this morning, say… she teaches about racism as part of a communications course… and she said, “I’m going to be taping my lectures, and not just so students have more access, but also because I am concerned that what I say could be mischaracterized, and so I want to make sure that I have it on the record.” And that’s the thing, that if you don’t teach about this, you might not understand that people are really afraid and feeling paranoid, for good reason. Because there is, like I said, that heightened scrutiny. So I think understanding that heightened scrutiny, pushing back against as much as possible, pushing our legislators to truly understand what it is we actually do instead of what it is that they sort of think that we do, and also being involved in our local communities like the school boards and things like that, because this is, as Moira said earlier, this is strategy, and it’s happening everywhere. So my guess is even in New York State, there’s probably some school districts where this is coming up, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be. it’s a nice big state, so I’m sure that that’s happening there. So that’s what comes to my mind.

John: Even though there hasn’t been any state legislative motions on this, we certainly have students who will share those views and who will push back. And while I don’t believe it’s happening in our institution, certainly in many institutions in New York, students have recorded portions of videos and posted them and so forth. I think that point you made about an instructor recording their classes to protect themselves is a suggestion I’ve often made to faculty, because people will sometimes say, well, what if I say something that I shouldn’t? I said, “Well, first, you probably shouldn’t be saying things that you shouldn’t.” But they’re concerned that students may take something out of context. And I said, “But if you have the video, you have the context, you’re much less likely to be protected if a student’s there with a smartphone, taking bits and pieces of what you’re saying and then perhaps editing parts of that out of context. It’s much better to have it within the setting.” I’ve actually encouraged people to record their classes to provide that sort of protection, if they’re not discussing really sensitive issues.

Rebecca: One thing that I wanted to ask a little bit about is you mentioned before about how many fields are just starting to be more inclusive in their classes. For example, in our design classes, we actually are providing more examples from different types of designers from around the world. Do you see some of this legislation and this pushback, starting to push back on some of that inclusivity or giving some instructors who are just starting to introduce some of these ideas… where maybe the topic isn’t about race and racism – that’s not the subject matter of the class – but you’re trying to be more inclusive, you’re moving in this direction. What should we be thinking about as instructors who are doing this work for the first time, or we’re just doing it more than we ever had before?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think it’s a real concern. I always make a distinction between inclusive teaching generally, which isn’t necessarily talking about racism, or systems of oppression. And there’s a lot of good work on that, I would just shout out Viji Sathi, and Kelly Hogan who I know you all have had on and they have a book coming out next year about inclusive pedagogy that I think is gonna be awesome. And so in working on those techniques, and I find a lot working with instructors that you hear a lot like, “I don’t want to talk about that, I don’t know how to talk about that, that’s going to be too controversial and I won’t be able to cover it.” So maybe don’t start there. Instead, just start with some of these inclusive teaching practices as much as possible. And then working into adding that content as much as possible. And just using as many outside resources as possible to make you feel comfortable. So, I always say, “Go look at your professional association, because they’ve thought about this, there’s going to be a diversity committee in the American Chemical Society, I think, is what it’s called, I’m probably getting that wrong. My chemistry friends will correct me, I’m sure. But there’s a diversity committee who has thought about this, like how do you increase representation. So use that and don’t try to recreate the wheel. And also make sure you just start again with those good inclusive teaching practices, which don’t necessarily require you to be talking about really controversial stuff, but allow you to still create as much equity and access. So I know the new center at Uni of River Falls, we’re going to be running some inclusive teaching workshops this year. And that’s part of why is because we want to make sure that we’re giving people the tools to be able to do that as much as possible.

Rebecca: But certainly a strategy we’re using here as well. We had Viji Saffy and Kelly Hogan here right at the start of our semester to kick off some inclusive pedagogy workshops.

Moira: Yeah, I would just add that this is in the frame of mind for inclusive teaching, but also this idea of pay attention to the different experiences in your classrooms, and also look at what kinds of voices are in your readings, who is not being heard, what perspective is not necessarily being heard here. That’s obviously an element of inclusive teaching. But I think it’s something that is easily overlooked. I’m going to speak for political science, because that’s mine, and they are terrible at this. And I’ve just been at institutions where you get a diversity assignment with your course, if you have a certain level of multiple voices and perspectives being taught on your particular international relations topic, for example. And that’s an odd system that many of us universities have, it’s this extra thing that some courses will do to include a variety of voices on the subject of foreign policy, for example, when the norm is to not do that. But if you do that, you will get a designation. And that’s my own experience in political science, I’ll only speak to that. But I think that that’s something to reflect on as a department, whatever the discipline you’re in, in terms of “What do these designations tell us if you have a system like that? What does it mean for what we’re teaching and what we’re bringing to our students in our department? And how could we do better?”

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

Cyndi: Well, the semester is next [LAUGHTER]… the semester starting next, I’ll just say two other quick things: we’re opening our official CTL space next week, which I’m very excited about, because we have not, at UW River Falls, had a center. Well, we started in March of 2020, which is not a time you should start a center, but we did. [LAUGHTER] So we were virtual for the whole first year. And also I’m working on a research project with a colleague in our sociology department, where we’re looking at how do students learn about structural racism most effectively? And how do they learn it across different sorts of classes? So, intro level sociology versus an upper-level course like mine. So that’s what’s next for me is looking at that data and following up on that to better understand that process for students.

Moira: I’ll also say, no matter what discipline you’re in, what’s happening, this pattern and this movement that we’ve been talking about is something that is worth talking about, with young people at the college level, no matter what discipline you’re in, to kind of pose it as “What do you know? What do you understand about this? What have you heard? What questions do you have?” kind of topic, it could be an icebreaker, it could be further into the term, but just in terms of even just hearing from them about what they think about their own learning at their campus, and how this may or may not affect what they do, and put it in their hands to hear a little bit about what they think you don’t hear a lot from the students in these debates. Obviously, young people, people of elementary school age are not necessarily going to testify at a hearing. But I think that’s an important absence here is that we don’t hear from young college students necessarily all the time about what their interests are, what they understand of their experience on campus.

Rebecca: Imagine that.. asking students.

Moira: Ask the students! [LAUGHTER] That’s a great point.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for your insights, and food for thought as we move into the fall semester.

Moira: Yeah. Thanks for having us.

John: Thank you for joining us.

Cyndi: Thanks so much for having us!


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.


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.